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A History of the French Novel, Vol. 1

De Chartres to aid in guarding me


Its central scene.]

Probably, though it is the best known part of the book, it may be well to give the central scene, where M. de Nemours plays the eavesdropper to M. and Mme. de Cleves, and overhears the conversation which, with equal want of manners and of sense, he afterwards (it is true, without names) retails to the Vidame de Chartres, a relation of Mme. de Cleves herself, and a well-known gossip, with a strong additional effect on the fatal consequences above described. It is pretty long, and some "cutting" will be necessary.

He[273] heard M. de Cleves say to his wife, "But why do you wish not to return to Paris? What can keep you in the country? For some time past you have shown a taste for solitude which surprises me and pains me, because it keeps us apart. In fact, I find you sadder than usual, and I am afraid that something is annoying you." "I have no mind-trouble," she answered with an embarrassed air; "but the tumult of the Court is so great, and there is always so much company at home, that both body and mind must needs grow weary, and one wants only rest." "Rest," replied he, "is not the proper thing for a person of your age. Your position is not, either at home or at Court, a fatiguing one, and I am rather afraid that you do not like to be with me." "You would do me a great injustice if you thought so," said she with ever-increasing

embarrassment, "but I entreat you to leave me here. If you would stay too, I should be delighted--if you would stay here alone and be good enough to do without the endless number of people who never leave you." "Oh! Madam," cried M. de Cleves, "your looks and your words show me that you have reasons for wishing to be alone which I do not know, and which I beg you to tell me." He pressed her a long time to do so without being able to induce her, and after excusing herself in a manner which increased the curiosity of her husband, she remained in deep silence with downcast eyes. Then suddenly recovering her speech, and looking at him, "Do not force me," said she, "to a confession which I am not strong enough to make, though I have several times intended to do so. Think only that prudence forbids a woman of my age, who is her own mistress,[274] to remain exposed to the trials[275] of a Court." "What do you suggest, Madame?" cried M. de Cleves. "I dare not put it in words for fear of offence." She made no answer, and her silence confirming her husband in his thought, he went on: "You tell me nothing, and that tells me that I do not deceive myself." "Well then, Sir!" she answered, throwing herself at his feet, "I will confess to you what never wife has confessed to her husband; but the innocence of my conduct and my intentions gives me strength to do it. It is the truth that I have reasons for quitting the Court, and that I would fain shun the perils in which people of my age sometimes find themselves. I have never shown any sign of weakness, and I am not afraid of allowing any to appear if you will allow me to retire from the Court, or if I still had Mme. de Chartres to aid in guarding me. However risky may be the step I am taking, I take it joyfully, as a way to keep myself worthy of being yours. I ask your pardon a thousand times if my sentiments are disagreeable to you; at least my actions shall never displease you. Think how--to do as I am doing--I must have more friendship and more esteem for you than any wife has ever had for any husband. Guide me, pity me, and, if you can, love me still." M. de Cleves had remained, all the time she was speaking, with his head buried in his hands, almost beside himself; and it had not occurred to him to raise his wife from her position. When she finished, he cast his eyes upon her and saw her at his knees, her face bathed in tears, and so admirably lovely that he was ready to die of grief. But he kissed her as he raised her up, and said:

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