Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost
Alack! it is not when we sleep soft and wake merrily that we think on other people's sufferings; but when the hour of trouble comes, said Jeanie Deans.—WALTER SCOTT.
"Never did apoplexy produce on mortal a more sudden or terrific effect than did the announcement of Manon's sentence upon me. I fell prostrate, with so intense a palpitation of the heart, that as I swooned I thought that death itself was come upon me. This idea continued even after I had been restored to my senses. I gazed around me upon every part of the room, then upon my own paralysed limbs, doubting, in my delirium, whether I still bore about me the attributes of a living man. It is quite certain that, in obedience to the desire I felt of terminating my sufferings, even by my own hand, nothing could have been to me more welcome than death at that moment of anguish and despair. Religion itself could depict nothing more insupportable after death than the racking agony with which I was then convulsed. Yet, by a miracle, only within the power of omnipotent love, I soon regained strength enough to express my gratitude to Heaven for restoring me to sense and reason. My death could have only been a relief and blessing to myself; whereas Manon had occasion for my prolonged existence, in order to deliver her—to succour her—to avenge her wrongs: I swore to devote that existence unremittingly to these objects.
"The porter gave me every assistance that I could have expected at the hands of my oldest friend: I accepted his services with the liveliest gratitude. 'Alas!' said I to him, 'you then are affected by my sufferings! The whole world abandons me; my own father proves one of the very cruellest of my persecutors; no person feels pity for me! You alone, in this abode of suffering and shame—you alone exhibit compassion for the most wretched of mankind!' He advised me not to appear in the street until I had recovered a little from my affliction. 'Do not stop me,' said I, as I went out; 'we shall meet again sooner than you imagine: get ready your darkest dungeon, for I shall shortly become its tenant.'
"In fact, my first idea was nothing less than to make away with the two G—— M——s, and the lieutenant-general of police; and then to attack the Hospital, sword in hand, assisted by all whom I could enlist in my cause. Even my father's life was hardly respected, so just appeared my feelings of vengeance; for the porter had informed me that he and G—— M—— were jointly the authors of my ruin.
"But when I had advanced some paces into the street, and the fresh air had cooled my excitement, I gradually viewed matters in a more rational mood. The death of our enemies could be of little use to Manon; and the obvious effect of such violence would be to deprive me of all other chance of serving her. Besides, could I ever bring myself to be a cowardly assassin? By what other means could I accomplish my revenge? I set all my ingenuity and all my efforts at work to procure the deliverance of Manon, leaving everything else to be considered hereafter when I had succeeded in this first and paramount object.
"I had very little money left; money, however, was an indispensable basis for all my operations. I only knew three persons from whom I had any right to ask pecuniary assistance—M. de T——, Tiberge, and my father. There appeared little chance of obtaining any from the two latter, and I was really ashamed again to importune M. de T——. But it is not in desperate emergencies that one stands upon points of ceremony. I went first to the seminary of St. Sulpice, without considering whether I should be recognised. I asked for Tiberge. His first words showed me that he knew nothing of my latest adventure: this made me change the design I had originally formed of appealing at once to his compassion. I spoke generally of the pleasure it had given me to see my father again; and I then begged of him to lend me some money, under the pretext of being anxious before I left Paris to pay a few little debts, which I wished to keep secret. He handed me his purse, without a single remark. I took twenty or twenty-five pounds, which it contained. I offered him my note of hand, but he was too generous to accept it.
"I then went to M. de T——: I had no reserve with him. I plainly told him my misfortunes and distress: he already knew everything, and had informed himself even of the most trifling circumstance, on account of the interest he naturally took in young G—— M——'s adventure. He, however, listened to me, and seemed sincerely to lament what had occurred. When I consulted him as to the best means of rescuing Manon, he answered that he saw such little ground for hope, that, without some extraordinary interposition of Providence, it would be folly to expect relief; that he had paid a visit expressly to the Hospital since Manon had been transferred from the Chatelet, but that he could not even obtain permission to see her, as the lieutenant-general of police had given the strictest orders to the contrary; and that, to complete the catastrophe, the unfortunate train of convicts, in which she was to be included, was to take its departure from Paris the day but one after.
"I was so confounded by what he said, that if he had gone on speaking for another hour, I should not have interrupted him. He continued to tell me, that the reason of his not calling to see me at the Chatelet was, that he hoped to be of more use by appearing to be unknown to me; that for the last few hours, since I had been set at liberty, he had in vain looked for me, in order to suggest the only plan through which he could see a hope of averting Manon's fate. He told me it was dangerous counsel to give, and implored me never to mention the part he took in it; it was to find some enterprising fellows gallant enough to attack Manon's guard on getting outside the barriere. Nor did he wait for me to urge a plea of poverty. 'Here is fifty pounds,' he said, presenting me his purse; 'it may be of use to you; you can repay me when you are in better circumstances.' He added, that if the fear of losing his character did not prevent him from embarking in such an enterprise, he would have willingly put his sword and his life at my service.
"This unlooked-for generosity affected me to tears. I expressed my gratitude with as much warmth as my depressed spirits left at my command. I asked him if there were nothing to be expected from interceding with the lieutenant-general of police: he said that he had considered that point; but that he looked upon it as a hopeless attempt, because a favour of that nature was never accorded without some strong motive, and he did not see what inducement could be held out for engaging the intercession of any person of power on her behalf; that if any hope could possibly be entertained upon the point, it must be by working a change in the feelings of old G—— M—— and my father, and by prevailing on them to solicit from the lieutenant-general of police the revocation of Manon's sentence. He offered to do everything in his power to gain over the younger G—— M——, although he fancied a coldness in that gentleman's manner towards him, probably from some suspicions he might entertain of his being concerned in the late affair; and he entreated me to lose no opportunity of effecting the desired change in my father's mind.
"This was no easy undertaking for me; not only on account of the difficulty I should naturally meet in overcoming his opinion, but for another reason which made me fear even to approach him; I had quitted his lodgings contrary to his express orders, and was resolved, since I had learned the sad fate of my poor Manon, never again to return thither. I was not without apprehensions indeed of his now retaining me against my will, and perhaps taking me at once back with him into the country. My elder brother had formerly had recourse to this violent measure. True, I was now somewhat older; but age is a feeble argument against force. I hit upon a mode, however, of avoiding this danger, which was to get him by contrivance to some public place, and there announce myself to him under an assumed name: I immediately resolved on this method. M. de T—— went to G—— M——'s, and I to the Luxembourg, whence I sent my father word, that a gentleman waited there to speak with him. I hardly thought he would come, as the night was advancing. He, however, soon made his appearance, followed by a servant: I begged of him to choose a walk where we could be alone. We walked at least a hundred paces without speaking. He doubtless imagined that so much precaution could not be taken without some important object. He waited for my opening speech, and I was meditating how to commence it.
"At length I began.
"'Sir,' said I, trembling, 'you are a good and affectionate parent; you have loaded me with favours, and have forgiven me an infinite number of faults; I also, in my turn, call Heaven to witness the sincere, and tender, and respectful sentiments I entertain towards you. But it does seem to me, that your inexorable severity——'
"'Well, sir, my severity!' interrupted my father, who no doubt found my hesitation little suited to his impatience.
"'Ah, sir,' I replied, 'it does seem to me that your severity is excessive in the penalty you inflict upon the unfortunate Manon. You have taken only M. G—— M——'s report of her. His hatred has made him represent her to you in the most odious colours: you have formed a frightful idea of her. She is, on the contrary, the mildest and most amiable of living creatures; would that Heaven had but inspired you at any one moment with the desire of seeing her! I am convinced that you would be not less sensible of her perfections than your unhappy son. You would then have been her advocate; you would have abhorred the foul artifices of G—— M——; you would have had pity on both her and me. Alas! I am persuaded of it; your heart is not insensible; it must ere now have melted with compassion.'
"He interrupted me again, perceiving that I spoke with a warmth which would not allow me to finish very briefly. He begged to know with what request I intended to wind up so fervent an harangue.
"'To ask my life at your hands,' said I, 'which I never can retain if Manon once embark for America.'
"'No! no!' replied he, in the severest tone; 'I would rather see you lifeless, than infamous and depraved.'
"'We have gone far enough, then,' said I, catching hold of his arm; 'take from me, in common mercy, my life! weary and odious and insupportable as it henceforward must be; for in the state of despair into which you now plunge me, death would be the greatest favour you could bestow—a favour worthy of a father's hand.'
"'I should only give you what you deserve,' replied he; 'I know fathers who would not have shown as much patience as I have, but would themselves have executed speedy justice; but it is my foolish and excessive forbearance that has been your ruin.'
"I threw myself at his feet: 'Ah!' exclaimed I, 'if you have still any remains of mercy, do not harden your heart against my distress and sorrow. Remember that I am your child! Alas! think of my poor mother! you loved her tenderly! would you have suffered her to be torn from your arms? You would have defended her to the death! May not the same feeling then be pardoned in others? Can persons become barbarous and cruel, after having themselves experienced the softening influence of tenderness and grief?'
"'Breathe not again the sacred name of your mother,' he exclaimed, in a voice of thunder; 'the very allusion to her memory rouses my indignation. Had she lived to witness the unredeemed profligacy of your life, it would have brought her in pain and sorrow to her grave.—Let us put an end to this discussion' he added; 'it distresses me, and makes not the slightest change in my determination: I am going back to my lodgings, and I desire you to follow me.'
"The cool and resolute tone in which he uttered this command, convinced me that he was inexorable. I stepped some paces aside, for fear he should think fit to lay hands upon me.
"'Do not increase my misery and despair,' said I to him, 'by forcing me to disobey you. It is impossible for me to follow you; and equally so that I should continue to live, after the unkind treatment I have experienced from you. I, therefore, bid you an eternal adieu. When you know that I am dead, as I shall soon be, the paternal affection which you once entertained for me may be perhaps revived.'
"As I was about to turn away from him: 'You refuse then to follow me,' cried he, in a tone of excessive anger. 'Go! go on to your ruin. Adieu! ungrateful and disobedient boy.'
"'Adieu!' exclaimed I to him, in a burst of grief, 'adieu, cruel and unnatural father!'
"I left the Luxembourg, and rushed like a madman through the streets to M. de T——'s house. I raised my hands and eyes as I went along, invoking the Almighty Powers: 'O Heaven,' cried I, 'will you not prove more merciful than man! The only hope that remains to me is from above!'
"M. de T—— had not yet returned home; but he arrived before many minutes had elapsed. His negotiation had been as unsuccessful as my own. He told me so with the most sorrowful countenance. Young G—— M——, although less irritated than his father against Manon and me, would not undertake to petition in our favour. He was, in great measure, deterred by the fear which he himself had of the vindictive old lecher, who had already vented his anger against him for his design of forming a connection with Manon.
"There only remained to me, therefore, the violent measures which M. T—— had suggested. I now confined all my hopes to them. They were questionless most uncertain; but they held out to me, at least, a substantial consolation, in the certainty of meeting death in the attempt, if unsuccessful. I left him, begging that he would offer up his best wishes for my triumph; and I thought only of finding some companions, to whom I might communicate a portion of my own courage and determination.
"The first that occurred to me was the same guardsman whom I had employed to arrest G—— M——. I had intended indeed to pass the night at his rooms, not having had a moment of leisure during the afternoon to procure myself a lodging. I found him alone. He was glad to see me out of the Chatelet. He made me an offer of his services. I explained to him in what way he might now do me the greatest kindness. He had good sense enough to perceive all the difficulties; but he was also generous enough to undertake to surmount them.
"We spent part of the night in considering how the plot was to be executed. He spoke of the three soldiers whom he had made use of on the last occasion, as men whose courage had been proved. M. de T—— had told me the exact number of archers that would escort Manon; they were but six. Five strong and determined men could not fail to strike terror into these fellows, who would never think of defending themselves bravely, when they were to be allowed the alternative of avoiding danger by surrendering; and of that they would no doubt avail themselves. As I was not without money, the guardsman advised me to spare no pains or expense to ensure success. 'We must be mounted,' he said, 'and each man must have his carbine and pistols; I will take care to prepare everything requisite by tomorrow. We shall also want three new suits of regimentals for the soldiers, who dare not appear in an affray of this kind in the uniform of their regiment. I handed him the hundred pistoles which I had got from M. de T——; it was all expended the next morning, to the very last sou. I inspected the three soldiers; I animated them with the most liberal promises; and to confirm their confidence in me, I began by making each man a present of ten pistoles.
"The momentous day having arrived, I sent one of them at an early hour to the Hospital, to ascertain the exact time when the police were to start with their prisoners. Although I merely took this precaution from my excessive anxiety, it turned out to have been a prudent step. I had formed my plans upon false information, which I had received as to their destination; and believing that it was at Rochelle this unhappy group was to embark, all my trouble would have been thrown away in waiting for them on the Orleans road. However, I learned, by the soldier's report, that they would go out towards Rouen, and that it was from Havre-de-Grace they were to sail for America.
"We at once went to the gate of St. Honore, taking care to go by different streets. We assembled at the end of the faubourg. Our horses were fresh. In a little time we observed before us the six archers and the two wretched caravans, which you saw at Passy two years ago. The sight alone almost deprived me of my strength and senses. 'Oh fate!' said I to myself, 'cruel fate! grant me now either death or victory.'
"We hastily consulted as to the mode of making the attack. The cavalcade was only four hundred paces in advance, and we might intercept them by cutting across a small field, round which the high road led. The guardsman was for this course, in order to fall suddenly upon them while unprepared. I approved of the plan, and was the first to spur my horse forward—but fate once again relentlessly blasted all my hopes.
"The escort, seeing five horsemen riding towards them, inferred that it was for the purpose of attacking them. They put themselves in a position of defence, preparing their bayonets and guns with an air of resolution.
"This demonstration, which in the guardsman and myself only inspired fresh courage, had a very different effect upon our three cowardly companions. They stopped simultaneously, and having muttered to each other some words which I could not hear, they turned their horses' heads, threw the bridles on their necks, and galloped back towards Paris.
"'Good heavens!' said the guardsman, who appeared as much annoyed as I was by this infamous desertion, 'what is to be done? we are but two now.'
"From rage and consternation I had lost all power of speech. I doubted whether my first revenge should not be in pursuing the cowards who had abandoned me. I saw them flying, and looked in the other direction at the escort: if it had been possible to divide myself, I should at once have fallen upon both these objects of my fury; I should have destroyed all at the same moment.
"The guardsman, who saw my irresolution by my wandering gaze, begged of me to hear his advice. 'Being but two,' he said, 'it would be madness to attack six men as well armed as ourselves, and who seem determined to receive us firmly. Let us return to Paris, and endeavour to succeed better in the choice of our comrades. The police cannot make very rapid progress with two heavy vans; we may overtake them tomorrow without difficulty.'
"I reflected a moment on this suggestion; but seeing nothing around me but despair, I took a final and indeed desperate resolution: this was to thank my companion for his services, and, far from attacking the police, to go up with submission and implore them to receive me among them, that I might accompany Manon to Havre-de-Grace, and afterwards, if possible, cross the Atlantic with her. 'The whole world is either persecuting or betraying me,' said I to the guardsman; 'I have no longer the power of interesting anyone in my favour; I expect nothing more either from fortune or the friendship of man; my misery is at its height; it only remains for me to submit, so that I close my eyes henceforward against every gleam of hope. May Heaven,' I continued, 'reward you for your generosity! Adieu! I shall go and aid my wretched destiny in filling up the full measure of my ruin!' He, in vain, endeavoured to persuade me to return with him to Paris. I entreated him to leave me at once, lest the police should still suspect us of an intention to attack them."