Manon Lescaut, page 1
Why did he love her? Curious fool, be still! Is human love the fruit of human will? BYRON.
Just about six months before my departure for Spain, I first met theChevalier des Grieux. Though I rarely quitted my retreat, still theinterest I felt in my child's welfare induced me occasionally toundertake short journeys, which, however, I took good care to abridgeas much as possible.
I was one day returning from Rouen, where I had been, at her request,to attend a cause then pending before the Parliament of Normandy,respecting an inheritance to which I had claims derived from mymaternal grandfather. Having taken the road by Evreux, where I sleptthe first night, I on the following day, about dinner-time, reachedPassy, a distance of five or six leagues. I was amazed, on enteringthis quiet town, to see all the inhabitants in commotion. They werepouring from their houses in crowds, towards the gate of a small inn,immediately before which two covered vans were drawn up. Their horsesstill in harness, and reeking from fatigue and heat, showed that thecortege had only just arrived. I stopped for a moment to learn thecause of the tumult, but could gain little information from the curiousmob as they rushed by, heedless of my enquiries, and hasteningimpatiently towards the inn in the utmost confusion. At length anarcher of the civic guard, wearing his bandolier, and carrying acarbine on his shoulder, appeared at the gate; so, beckoning himtowards me, I begged to know the cause of the uproar. "Nothing, sir,"said he, "but a dozen of the frail sisterhood, that I and my comradesare conducting to Havre-de-Grace, whence we are to ship them forAmerica. There are one or two of them pretty enough; and it is that,apparently, which attracts the curiosity of these good people."
I should have passed on, satisfied with this explanation, if myattention had not been arrested by the cries of an old woman, who wascoming out of the inn with her hands clasped, and exclaiming:
"A downright barbarity!--A scene to excite horror and compassion!""What may this mean?" I enquired. "Oh! sir; go into the houseyourself," said the woman, "and see if it is not a sight to rend yourheart!" Curiosity made me dismount; and leaving my horse to the careof the ostler, I made my way with some difficulty through the crowd,and did indeed behold a scene sufficiently touching.
Among the twelve girls, who were chained together by the waist in tworows, there was one, whose whole air and figure seemed so ill-suited toher present condition, that under other circumstances I should not havehesitated to pronounce her a person of high birth. Her excessivegrief, and even the wretchedness of her attire, detracted so littlefrom her surpassing beauty, that at first sight of her I was inspiredwith a mingled feeling of respect and pity.
She tried, as well as the chain would permit her, to turn herself away,and hide her face from the rude gaze of the spectators. There wassomething so unaffected in the effort she made to escape observation,that it could but have sprung from natural and innate modesty alone.
As the six men who escorted the unhappy train were together in theroom, I took the chief one aside and asked for information respectingthis beautiful girl. All that he could supply was of the most vaguekind. "We brought her," he said, "from the Hospital, by order of thelieutenant-general of police. There is no reason to suppose that shewas shut up there for good conduct.
"I have questioned her often upon the road; but she persists inrefusing even to answer me. Yet, although I received no orders to makeany distinction between her and the others, I cannot help treating herdifferently, for she seems to me somewhat superior to her companions.Yonder is a young man," continued the archer, "who can tell you, betterthan I can, the cause of her misfortunes. He has followed her fromParis, and has scarcely dried his tears for a single moment. He mustbe either her brother or her lover."
I turned towards the corner of the room, where this young man wasseated. He seemed buried in a profound reverie. Never did I behold amore affecting picture of grief. He was plainly dressed; but one maydiscover at the first glance a man of birth and education. As Iapproached him he rose, and there was so refined and noble anexpression in his eyes, in his whole countenance, in his everymovement, that I felt an involuntary impulse to render him any servicein my power. "I am unwilling to intrude upon your sorrows," said I,taking a seat beside him, "but you will, perhaps, gratify the desire Ifeel to learn something about that beautiful girl, who seems littleformed by nature for the miserable condition in which she is placed."
He answered me candidly, that he could not communicate her historywithout making himself known, and that he had urgent reasons forpreserving his own incognito. "I may, however, tell you this much, forit is no longer a secret to these wretches," he continued, pointing tothe guards,--"that I adore her with a passion so ardent and absorbingas to render me the most unhappy of human beings. I tried every meansat Paris to effect her liberty. Petitions, artifice, force--allfailed. Go where she may, I have resolved to follow her--to theextremity of the world. I shall embark with her and cross to America.
"But think of the brutal inhumanity of these cowardly ruffians," headded, speaking of the guards; "they will not allow me to approach her!I had planned an open attack upon them some leagues from Paris; havingsecured, as I thought, the aid of four men, who for a considerable sumhired me their services. The traitors, however, left me to execute myscheme single-handed, and decamped with my money. The impossibility ofsuccess made me of course abandon the attempt, I then implored of theguards permission to follow in their train, promising them arecompense. The love of money procured their consent; but as theyrequired payment every time I was allowed to speak to her, my purse wasspeedily emptied; and now that I am utterly penniless, they arebarbarous enough to repulse me brutally, whenever I make the slightestattempt to approach her. It is but a moment since, that venturing todo so, in spite of their threats, one of the fellows raised thebutt-end of his musket. I am now driven by their exactions to disposeof the miserable horse that has brought me hither, and am preparing tocontinue the journey on foot."
Although he seemed to recite this story tranquilly enough, I observedthe tears start to his eyes as he concluded. This adventure struck meas being not less singular than it was affecting. "I do not pressyou," said I to him, "to make me the confidant of your secrets; but ifI can be of use to you in any way, I gladly tender you my services.""Alas!" replied he, "I see not the slightest ray of hope. I mustreconcile myself to my destiny in all its rigour. I shall go toAmerica: there, at least, I may be free to live with her I love. Ihave written to a friend, who will send me money to Havre-de-Grace. Myonly difficulty is to get so far, and to supply that poor creature,"added he, as he cast a look of sorrow at his mistress, "with some fewcomforts upon the way." "Well!" said I to him, "I shall relieve youfrom that difficulty. Here is some money, of which I entreat youracceptance: I am only sorry that I can be of no greater service to you."
I gave him four louis-d'ors without being perceived by the guards; forI thought that if they knew he had this money, they might have raisedthe price of their concessions. It occurred to me, even, to come to anunderstanding with them, in order to secure for the young man theprivilege of conversing with his mistress, during the rest of thejourney to Havre, without hindrance. I beckoned the chief to approach,and made the proposition to him. It seemed to abash the ruffian, inspite of his habitual effrontery. "It is not, sir," said he, in anembarrassed tone, "that we refuse to let him speak to the girl, but hewishes to be always near her, which puts us to inconvenience; and it isjust that we should be paid for the trouble he occasions." "Let ussee!" said I to him, "what would suffice to prevent you from feelingthe inconvenience?" He had the audacity to demand two louis. I gavethem to him on the spot. "But have a care," said I to him,
The graceful manner and heartfelt gratitude with which the youngunknown thanked me, confirmed my notion that he was of good birth andmerited my kindness. I addressed a few words to his mistress before Ileft the room. She replied to me with a modesty so gentle and socharming that I could not help making, as I went out, a thousandreflections upon the incomprehensible character of women.
Returned to my retreat, I remained in ignorance of the result of thisadventure; and ere two years had passed, it was completely blotted frommy recollection, when chance brought me an opportunity of learning allthe circumstances from beginning to end.
I arrived at Calais, from London, with my pupil, the Marquis of ----.We lodged, if I remember rightly, at the "Golden Lion," where, for somereason, we were obliged to spend the following day and night. Walkingalong the streets in the afternoon, I fancied I saw the same young manwhom I had formerly met at Passy. He was miserably dressed, and muchpaler than when I first saw him. He carried on his arm an oldportmanteau, having only just arrived in the town. However, there wasan expression in his countenance too amiable not to be easilyrecognised, and which immediately brought his features to myrecollection. "Observe that young man," said I to the Marquis; "we mustaccost him."
His joy was beyond expression when, in his turn, he recognised me.
"Ah, sir!" he cried, kissing my hand, "I have then once again anopportunity of testifying my eternal gratitude to you!" I enquired ofhim whence he came. He replied, that he had just arrived, by sea, fromHavre, where he had lately landed from America. "You do not seem to betoo well off for money," said I to him; "go on to the 'Golden Lion,'where I am lodging; I will join you in a moment."
I returned, in fact, full of impatience to learn the details of hismisfortunes, and the circumstances of his voyage to America. I gave hima thousand welcomes, and ordered that they should supply him witheverything he wanted. He did not wait to be solicited for the historyof his life. "Sir," said he to me, "your conduct is so generous, thatI should consider it base ingratitude to maintain any reserve towardsyou. You shall learn not only my misfortunes and sufferings, but myfaults and most culpable weaknesses. I am sure that, even while youblame me, you will not refuse me your sympathy."
I should here inform the reader that I wrote down the story almostimmediately after hearing it; and he may, therefore, be assured of thecorrectness and fidelity of the narrative. I use the word fidelitywith reference to the substance of reflections and sentiments, whichthe young man conveyed in the most graceful language. Here, then, ishis story, which in its progress I shall not encumber with a singleobservation that was not his own.