Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 12
Old Bernard, tired from talking so long, had promised to resume his story on the morrow. At the appointed hour we called upon him to keep his word; and he continued thus:
This visit marked a new phase in my life. At Sainte-Sévère I had been absorbed in my love and my work. I had concentrated all my energies upon these two points. No sooner had I arrived at Paris than a thick curtain seemed to fall before my eyes, and, for several days, as I could not understand anything, I felt astonished at nothing. I formed a very exaggerated estimate of the passing actors who appeared upon the scene; but I formed no less exaggerated an estimate of the ease with which I should soon rival these imaginary powers. My enterprising and presumptuous nature saw challenges everywhere and obstacles nowhere.
Though I was in the same house as my uncle and cousin, my room was on a separate floor, and henceforth I spent the greater part of my time with the abbé. I was far from being dazed by the material advantages of my position; but in proportion as I realized how precarious or painful were the positions of many others, the more conscious I became of the comfort of my own. I appreciated the excellent character of my tutor, and the respect my lackey showed me no longer seemed objectionable. With the freedom that I enjoyed, and the unlimited money at my command, and the restless energy of youth, it is astonishing that I did not fall into some excess, were it only gambling, which might well have appealed to my combative instincts. It was my own ignorance of everything that prevented this; it made me extremely suspicious, and the abbé, who was very observant, and held himself responsible for my actions, managed most cleverly to work upon my haughty reserve. He increased it in regard to such things as might have done me harm, and dispelled it in contrary cases. Moreover, he was careful to provide me with sufficient reasonable distractions, which while they could not take the place of the joys of love, served at least to lessen the smart of its wounds. As to temptations to debauchery, I felt none. I had too much pride to yearn for any woman in which I had not seen, as in Edmée, the first of her sex.
We used all to meet at dinner, and as a rule we paid visits in the evening. By observing the world from a corner of a drawing-room, I learnt more of it in a few days than I should have done in a whole year from guesses and inquiries. I doubt whether I should ever have understood society, if I had always been obliged to view it from a certain distance. My brain refused to form a clear image of the ideas which occupied the brains of others. But as soon as I found myself in the midst of this chaos, the confused mass was compelled to fall into some sort of order and reveal a large part of its elements. This path which led me into life was not without charms for me, I remember, at its beginning. Amid all the conflicting interests of the surrounding world I had nothing to ask for, aim at, or argue about. Fortune had taken me by the hand. One fine morning she had lifted me out of an abyss and put me down on a bed of roses and made me a young gentleman. The eagerness of others was for me but an amusing spectacle. My heart was interested in the future only on one mysterious point, the love which I felt for Edmée.
My illness, far from robbing me of my physical vigour, had but increased it. I was no longer the heavy, sleepy animal, fatigued by digestion and stupefied by weariness. I felt the vibrations of all my fibres filling my soul with unknown harmonies; and I was astonished to discover within myself faculties of which I had never suspected the use. My good kinsfolk were delighted at this, though apparently not surprised. They had allowed themselves to augur so well of me from the beginning that it seemed as if they had been accustomed all their lives to the trade of civilizing barbarians.
The nervous system which had just been developed in me, and which made me pay for the pleasures and advantages it brought by keen and constant sufferings during the rest of my life, had rendered me specially sensitive to impressions from without; and this quickness to feel the effect of external things was helped by an organic vigour such as is only found among animals or savages. I was astounded at the decay of the faculties in other people. These men in spectacles, these women with their sense of smell deadened by snuff, these premature graybeards, deaf and gouty before their time, were painful to behold. To me society seemed like a vast hospital; and when with my robust constitution I found myself in the midst of these weaklings, it seemed to me that with a puff of my breath I could have blown them into the air as if they had been so much thistle-down.
This unfortunately led me into the error of yielding to that rather stupid kind of pride which makes a man presume upon his natural gifts. For a long time it induced me to neglect their real improvement, as if this were a work of supererogation. The idea that gradually grew up in me of the worthlessness of my fellows prevented me from rising above those whom I henceforth looked upon as my inferiors. I did not realize that society is made up of many elements of little value in themselves, but so skilfully and solidly put together that before adding the least extraneous particle a man must be a qualified artificer. I did not know that in this society there is no resting-place between the rôle of the great artist and that of the good workman. Now, I was neither one nor the other, and, if the truth must be told, all my ideas have never succeeded in lifting me out of the ordinary ruck; all my strength has only enabled me with much difficulty to do as others do.
In a few weeks, then, I passed from an excess of admiration to an excess of contempt for society. As soon as I understood the workings of its springs they seemed to me so miserably regulated by a feeble generation that the hopes of my mentors, unknown to themselves, were doomed to disappointment. Instead of realizing my own inferiority and endeavouring to efface myself in the crowd, I imagined that I could give proof of my superiority whenever I wished; and I fed on fancies which I blush to recall. If I did not show myself egregiously ridiculous, it was thanks to the very excess of this vanity which feared to stultify itself before others.
At that time Paris presented a spectacle which I shall not attempt to set before you, because no doubt you have often eagerly studied it in the excellent pictures which have been painted by eye-witnesses in the form of general history or private memoirs. Besides, such a picture would exceed the limits of my story, for I promised to tell you only the cardinal events in my moral and philosophical development. In order to give you some idea of the workings of my mind at this period it will suffice to mention that the War of Independence was breaking out in America; that Voltaire was receiving his apotheosis in Paris; that Franklin, the prophet of a new political religion, was sowing the seed of liberty in the very heart of the Court of France; while Lafayette was secretly preparing his romantic expedition. The majority of young patricians were being carried away either by fashion, or the love of change, or the pleasure inherent in all opposition which is not dangerous.
Opposition took a graver form and called for more serious work in the case of the old nobles, and among the members of the parliaments. The spirit of the League was alive again in the ranks of these ancient patricians and these haughty magistrates, who for form's sake were still supporting the tottering monarchy with one arm, while with the other they gave considerable help to the invasions of philosophy. The privileged classes of society were zealously lending a hand to the imminent destruction of their privileges by complaining that these had been curtailed by the kings. They were bringing up their children in constitutional principles, because they imagined they were going to found a new monarchy in which the people would help them to regain their old position above the throne; and it is for this reason that the greatest admiration for Voltaire and the most ardent sympathies with Franklin were openly expressed in the most famous salons in Paris.
So unusual and, if it must be said, so unnatural a movement of the human mind had infused fresh life into the vestiges of the Court of Louis XIV, and replaced the customary coldness and stiffness by a sort of quarrelsome vivacity. It had also introduced certain serious forms into the frivolous manners of the regency, and lent them an appearance of depth. The pure but colourless life of Louis XVI counted for nothing, and influenced nobody. Never had there been such serious chatter, so many flimsy maxims, such an affectation of wisdom, so much inconsistency between words and deeds as might have been found at this period among the so-called enlightened classes.
It was necessary to remind you of this in order that you might understand the admiration which I had at first for a world apparently so disinterested, so courageous, so eager in the pursuit of truth, and likewise the disgust which I was soon to feel for so much affectation and levity, for such an abuse of the most hallowed words and the most sacred convictions. For my own part, I was perfectly sincere; and I founded my philosophic fervour (that recently discovered sentiment of liberty which was then called the cult of reason) on the broad base of an inflexible logic. I was young and of a good constitution, the first condition perhaps of a healthy mind; my reading, though not extensive, was solid, for I had been fed on food easy of digestion. The little I knew served to show me, therefore, that others either knew nothing at all, or were giving themselves the lie.
At the commencement of our stay in Paris the chevalier had but few visitors. The friend and contemporary of Turgot and several other distinguished men, he had not mixed with the gilded youth of his day, but had lived soberly in the country after loyally serving in the wars. His circle of friends, therefore, was composed of a few grave gentlemen of the long robe, several old soldiers, and a few nobles from his own province, both old and young, who, thanks to a respectable fortune, were able, like himself, to come and spend the winter in Paris. He had, moreover, kept up a slight intercourse with a more brilliant set, among whom Edmée's beauty and refined manners were noticed as soon as she appeared. Being an only daughter, and passably rich, she was sought after by various important matrons, those procuresses of quality who have always a few young protégés whom they wish to clear from debt at the expense of some family in the provinces. And then, when it became known that she was engaged to M. de la Marche, the almost ruined scion of a very illustrious family, she was still more kindly received, until by degrees the little salon which she had chosen for her father's old friends became too small for the wits by quality and profession, and the grand ladies with a turn for philosophy who wished to know the young Quakeress, the Rose of Berry (such were the names given her by a certain fashionable woman).
This rapid success in a world in which she had hitherto been unknown by no means dazzled Edmée; and the control which she possessed over herself was so great that, in spite of all the anxiety with which I watched her slightest movement, I could never discover if she felt flattered at causing such a stir. But what I could perceive was the admirable good sense manifested in everything she did and everything she said. Her manner, at once ingenuous and reserved, and a certain blending of unconstraint with modest pride, made her shine even among the women who were the most admired and the most skilled in attracting attention. And this is the place to mention that at first I was extremely shocked at the tone and bearing of these women, whom everybody extolled; to me they seemed ridiculous in their studied posings, and their grand society manners looked very much like insufferable effrontery. Yes, I, so intrepid at heart, and but lately so coarse in my manners, felt ill at ease and abashed in their presence; and it needed all Edmée's reproaches and remonstrances to prevent me from displaying a profound contempt for this meretriciousness of glances, of toilets, and allurements which was known in society as allowable coquetry, as the charming desire to please, as amiability, and as grace. The abbé was of my opinion. When the guests had gone we members of the family used to gather round the fireside for a short while before separating. It is at such a time that one feels an impulse to bring together one's scattered impressions and communicate them to some sympathetic being. The abbé, then, would break the same lances as myself with my uncle and cousin. The chevalier, who was an ardent admirer of the fair sex, of which he had had but little experience, used to take upon himself, like a true French knight, to defend all the beauties that we were attacking so unmercifully. He would laughingly accuse the abbé of arguing about women as the fox in the fable argued about the grapes. For myself, I used to improve upon the abbé's criticisms; this was an emphatic way of letting Edmée know how much I preferred her to all others. She, however, appeared to be more scandalized than flattered, and seriously reproved me for the tendency to malevolence which had its origin, she said, in my inordinate pride.
It is true that after generously undertaking the defence of the persons in question, she would come over to our opinion as soon as, Rousseau in hand, we told her that the women in Paris society had cavalier manners and a way of looking a man in the face which must needs be intolerable in the eyes of a sage. When once Rousseau had delivered judgment, Edmée would object no further; she was ready to admit with him that the greatest charm of a woman is the intelligent and modest attention she gives to serious discussions, and I always used to remind her of the comparison of a superior woman to a beautiful child with its great eyes full of feeling and sweetness and delicacy, with its shy questionings and its objections full of sense. I hoped that she would recognise herself in this portrait which seemed to have been drawn from her. I improved upon the text, and, enlarging the portrait:
"A really superior woman," I said, looking at her earnestly, "is one who knows enough to prevent her from asking a ridiculous or unseasonable question, or from ever measuring swords with men of merit. Such a woman knows when to be silent, especially with the fools whom she could laugh at, or the ignorant whom she could humiliate. She is indulgent towards absurdities because she does not yearn to display her knowledge, and she is observant of whatsoever is good, because she desires to improve herself. Her great object is to understand, not to instruct. The great art (since it is recognised that art is required even in the commerce of words) is not to pit against one another two arrogant opponents, eager to parade their learning and to amuse the company by discussing questions the solution of which no one troubles about, but to illumine every unprofitable disputation by bringing in the help of all who can throw a little light on the points at issue. This is a talent of which I can see no signs among the hostesses who are so cried up. In their houses I always find two fashionable barristers, and a thunderstruck audience, in which no one dares to be judge. The only art these ladies have is to make the man of genius ridiculous, and the ordinary man dumb and inert. One comes away from such houses saying, 'Those were fine speeches,' and nothing more."
I really think that I was in the right here; but I cannot forget that my chief cause of anger against these women arose from the fact that they paid no attention to people, however able they might think themselves, unless they happened to be famous—the people being myself, as you may easily imagine. On the other hand, now that I look back on those days without prejudice and without any sense of wounded vanity, I am certain that these women had a way of fawning on public favourites which was much more like childish conceit than sincere admiration or candid sympathy. They became editors, as it were, of the conversation, listening with all their might and making peremptory signals to the audience to listen to every triviality issuing from an illustrious mouth; while they would suppress a yawn and drum with their fans at all remarks, however excellent, as soon as they were unsigned by a fashionable name. I am ignorant of the airs of the intellectual women of the nineteenth century; nay, I do not know if the race still exists. Thirty years have passed since I mixed in society; but, as to the past, you may believe what I tell you. There were five or six of these women who were absolutely odious to me. One of them had some wit, and scattered her epigrams right and left. These were at once hawked about in all drawing-rooms, and I had to listen to them twenty times in a single day. Another had read Montesquieu, and gave lessons in law to the oldest magistrates. A third used to play the harp execrably, but it was agreed that her arms were the most beautiful in France, and we had to endure the harsh scraping of her nails over the strings so that she might have an opportunity of removing her gloves like a coy little girl. What can I say of the others, except that they vied with one another in those affectations and fatuous insincerities, by which all the men childishly allowed themselves to be duped. One alone was really pretty, said nothing, and gave pleasure by her very lack of artificiality. To her I might have been favourably inclined because of her ignorance, had not she gloried in this, and tried to emphasize her difference from the others by a piquant ingenuousness. One day I discovered that she had plenty of wit, and straightway I abhorred her.
Edmée alone preserved all the freshness of sincerity and all the distinction of natural grace. Sitting on a sofa by the side of M. de Malesherbes, she was for me the same being that I had gazed on so many times in the light of the setting sun, as she sat on the stone seat at the door of Patience's cottage.