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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Husband and Wife
By Madame de La Fayette (1634–1693)
 
From ‘The Princess of Clèves’: Translation of Thomas Sergeant Perry

MONSIEUR felt very bad at not seeing Madame de Clèves again after the pleasant afternoon he had spent with her, which had so fired his hopes. His impatience to meet her once more left him no peace; so that when the King returned to Paris he determined to make a visit to his sister, the Duchess of Mercœur, who lived in the country not far from Coulommiers. He proposed to the Vidame to go with him; the latter gladly consented, to the delight of Monsieur de Nemours, who hoped to make sure of seeing Madame de Clèves by calling in company with the Vidame.  1
  Madame de Mercœur was delighted to see them, and at once began to devise plans for their amusement. While they were deer-hunting, Monsieur de Nemours lost his way in the forest; and when he asked what road he should take, he was told that he was near Coulommiers. When he heard this word, “Coulommiers,” he at once, without thinking, without forming any plan, dashed off in that direction. He got once more into the forest, and followed such paths as seemed to him to lead to the castle. These paths led to a summer-house, which consisted of a large room with two closets: one opening on a flower-garden separated from the forest by a fence, and the other opening on one of the walks of the park. He entered the summer-house, and was about to stop and admire it, when he saw Monsieur and Madame de Clèves coming along the path, followed by a number of servants. Surprised at seeing Monsieur de Clèves, whom he had left with the King, his first impulse was to hide. He entered the closet near the flower-garden, with the intention of escaping by a door opening into the forest; but when he saw Madame de Clèves and her husband sitting in the summer-house, while their servants stayed in the park, whence they could not reach him without coming by Monsieur and Madame de Clèves, he could not resist the temptation to watch her, or overcome his curiosity to listen to her conversation with her husband, of whom he was more jealous than of any of his rivals.  2
  He heard Monsieur de Clèves say to his wife: “But why don’t you wish to return to Paris? What can keep you in the country? For some time you have had a taste for solitude which surprises me and pains me, because it keeps us apart. I find you in even lower spirits than usual, and I am afraid something distresses you.”  3
  “I have nothing on my mind,” she answered with some embarrassment; “but the bustle of a court is so great, and our house is always so thronged, that it is impossible for mind and body not to be tired and to need rest.”  4
  “Rest,” he answered, “is not needed by persons of your age. Neither at home nor at court do you get tired; and I should be rather inclined to fear that you are glad to get away from me.”  5
  “If you thought that, you would do me great injustice,” she replied with ever growing embarrassment; “but I beg of you to leave me here. If you could stay too I should be very glad; provided you would stay alone, and did not care for the throng of people who almost never leave you.”  6
  “Ah, madame,” exclaimed Monsieur de Clèves, “your air and your words show me that you have reasons for wishing to be alone which I don’t know, and which I beg of you to tell me.”  7
  For a long time the prince besought her to tell him the reason, but in vain: and after she had refused in a way that only doubled his curiosity, she stood for some time silent with eyes cast down; then raising her eyes to his she said suddenly:—  8
  “Don’t compel me to confess something which I have often meant to tell you, but had not the strength. Only remember that prudence does not require that a woman of my age, who is mistress of her actions, should remain exposed to the temptations of the court.”  9
  “What is it you suggest, madame?” exclaimed Monsieur de Clèves. “I should not dare to say, for fear of offending you.”  10
  Madame de Clèves did not answer, and her silence confirming her husband’s suspicions, he went on:—  11
  “You are silent, and your silence tells me I am not mistaken.”  12
  “Well, sir,” she answered, falling on her knees, “I am going to make you a confession such as no woman has ever made to her husband; the innocence of my actions and of my intentions gives me strength to do so. It is true that I have reasons for keeping aloof from the court, and I wish to avoid the perils that sometimes beset women of my age. I have never given the slightest sign of weakness; and I should never fear displaying any, if you would leave me free to withdraw from court, or if Madame de Chartres still lived to guide my actions. Whatever the dangers of the course I take, I pursue it with pleasure, in order to keep myself worthy of you. I beg your pardon a thousand times if my feelings offend you; at any rate I shall never offend you by my actions. Remember that to do what I am now doing requires more friendship and esteem for a husband than any one has ever had. Guide me, take pity on me, love me if you can.”  13
  All the time she was speaking, Monsieur de Clèves sat with his head in his hands; he was really beside himself, and did not once think of lifting his wife up. But when she had finished, and he looked down and saw her, her face wet with tears, and yet so beautiful, he thought he should die of grief. He kissed her, and helped her to her feet.  14
  “Do you, madame, take pity on me,” he said, “for I deserve it; and excuse me if in the first moments of a grief so poignant as mine I do not respond as I should to your appeal. You seem to me worthier of esteem and admiration than any woman that ever lived; but I also regard myself as the unhappiest of men. The first moment that I saw you, I was filled with love of you; neither your indifference to me nor the fact that you are my wife has cooled it: it still lives. I have never been able to make you love me, and I see that you fear you love another. And who, madame, is the happy man that inspires this fear? Since when has he charmed you? What has he done to please you? What was the road he took to your heart? I found some consolation for not having touched it, in the thought that it was beyond any one’s reach; but another has succeeded where I have failed. I have all the jealousy of a husband and of a lover; but it is impossible to suffer as a husband after what you have told me. Your noble conduct makes me feel perfectly secure, and even consoles me as a lover. Your confidence and your sincerity are infinitely dear to me; you think well enough of me not to suppose that I shall take any unfair advantage of this confession. You are right, madame,—I shall not; and I shall not love you less. You make me happy by the greatest proof of fidelity that a woman ever gave her husband; but madame, go on and tell me who it is you are trying to avoid.”  15
  “I entreat you, do not ask me,” she replied: “I have determined not to tell you, and I think that the more prudent course.”  16
  “Have no fear, madame,” said Monsieur de Clèves: “I know the world too well to suppose that respect for a husband ever prevents men falling in love with his wife. He ought to hate those who do so, but without complaining; so once more, madame, I beg of you to tell me what I want to know.”  17
  “You would urge me in vain,” she answered: “I have strength enough to keep back what I think I ought not to say. My avowal is not the result of weakness, and it requires more courage to confess this truth than to undertake to hide it.”  18
  Monsieur de Nemours lost not a single word of this conversation, and Madame de Clèves’s last remark made him quite as jealous as it made her husband. He was himself so desperately in love with her that he supposed every one else was just as much so. It was true in fact that he had many rivals, but he imagined even more than there were; and he began to wonder whom Madame de Clèves could mean. He had often believed that she did not dislike him, and he had formed his opinion from things which seemed so slight that he could not imagine he had kindled a love so intense that it called for this desperate remedy. He was almost beside himself with excitement, and could not forgive Monsieur de Clèves for not insisting on knowing the name his wife was hiding.  19
  Monsieur de Clèves, however, was doing his best to find it out; and after he had entreated her in vain, she said:—“It seems to me that you ought to be satisfied with my sincerity; do not ask me anything more, and do not give me reason to repent what I have just done. Content yourself with the assurance I give you that no one of my actions has betrayed my feelings, and that not a word has ever been said to me at which I could take offense.”  20
  “Ah, madame,” Monsieur de Clèves suddenly exclaimed, “I cannot believe you! I remember your embarrassment the day your portrait was lost. You gave it away,—you gave away that portrait which was so dear to me, and belonged to me so legitimately. You could not hide your feelings: it is known that you are in love; your virtue has so far preserved you from the rest.”  21
  “Is it possible,” the princess burst forth, “that you could suspect any misrepresentation in a confession like mine, which there was no ground for my making? Believe what I say: I purchase at a high price the confidence that I ask of you. I beg of you, believe that I did not give away the portrait; it is true that I saw it taken, but I did not wish to show that I saw it, lest I should be exposed to hearing things which no one had yet dared to say.”  22
  “How then did you see his love?” asked Monsieur de Clèves. “What marks of love were given to you?”  23
  “Spare me the mortification,” was her answer, “of repeating all the details which I am ashamed to have noticed, and have only convinced me of my weakness.”  24
  “You are right, madame,” he said: “I am unjust. Deny me when I shall ask such things, but do not be angry if I ask them.”  25
  At this moment some of the servants who were without came to tell Monsieur de Clèves that a gentleman had come with a command from the King that he should be in Paris that evening. Monsieur de Clèves was obliged to leave at once; and he could say to his wife nothing except that he begged her to return the next day, and besought her to believe that though he was sorely distressed, he felt for her an affection and esteem which ought to satisfy her.  26
  When he had gone, and Madame de Clèves was alone and began to think of what she had done, she was so amazed that she could scarcely believe it true. She thought that she had wholly alienated her husband’s love and esteem, and had thrown herself into an abyss from which escape was impossible. She asked herself why she had done this perilous thing, and she saw that she had stumbled into it without intention. The strangeness of such a confession, for which she knew no precedent, showed her all her danger.  27
  But when she began to think that this remedy, violent as it was, was the only one that could protect her from Monsieur de Nemours, she felt that she could not regret it, and that she had not gone too far. She spent the whole night in uncertainty, anxiety, and fear; but at last she grew calm. She felt a vague satisfaction in having given this proof of fidelity to a husband who so well deserved it, who had such affection and esteem for her, and who had just shown these by the way in which he had received her avowal.  28
  Meanwhile Monsieur de Nemours had left the place where he had overheard a conversation which touched him keenly, and had hastened into the forest. What Madame de Clèves had said about the portrait gave him new life, by showing him that it was he whom she did not hate. He first gave himself up to this joy; but it was not of long duration, for he reflected that the same thing which showed him that he had touched the heart of Madame de Clèves ought to convince him that he would never receive any token of it, and that it was impossible to gain any influence over a woman who resorted to so strange a remedy. He felt, nevertheless, great pleasure in having brought her to this extremity. He felt a certain pride in making himself loved by a woman so different from all others of her sex,—in a word, he felt a hundred times happier and unhappier. Night came upon him in the forest, and he had great difficulty in finding the way back to Madame de Mercœur’s. He reached there at daybreak. He found it very hard to explain what had delayed him; but he made the best excuses he could, and returned to Paris that same day with the Vidame.  29
  Monsieur de Nemours was so full of his passion, and so surprised by what he had heard, that he committed a very common imprudence,—that of speaking in general terms of his own feelings, and of describing his own adventures under borrowed names. On his way back he turned the conversation to love: he spoke of the pleasure of being in love with a worthy woman; he mentioned the singular effects of this passion; and finally, not being able to keep to himself his astonishment at what Madame de Clèves had done, he told the whole story to the Vidame, without naming her and without saying that he had any part in it. But he manifested such warmth and admiration that the Vidame at once suspected that the story concerned the prince himself. He urged him strongly to acknowledge this; he said that he had long known that he nourished a violent passion, and that it was wrong not to trust in a man who had confided to him the secret of his life. Monsieur de Nemours was too much in love to acknowledge his love; he had always hidden it from the Vidame, though he loved him better than any man at court. He answered that one of his friends had told him this adventure, and had made him promise not to speak of it, and he besought him to keep his secret. The Vidame promised not to speak of it; nevertheless Monsieur de Nemours repented having told him.  30
  Meanwhile, Monsieur de Clèves had gone to the King, his heart sick with a mortal wound. Never had a husband felt warmer love or higher respect for his wife. What he had heard had not lessened his respect, but this had assumed a new form. His most earnest desire was to know who had succeeded in pleasing her. Monsieur de Nemours was the first to occur to him, as the most fascinating man at court, and the Chevalier de Guise and the Marshal of Saint-André as two men who had tried to please her and had paid her much attention; so that he decided it must be one of these three. He reached the Louvre, and the King took him into his study to tell him that he had chosen him to carry Madame to Spain; that he had thought that the prince would discharge this duty better than any one; and that no one would do so much credit to France as Madame de Clèves. Monsieur de Clèves accepted this appointment with due respect, and even looked upon it as something that would remove his wife from court without attracting any attention; but the date of their departure was still too remote to relieve his present embarrassment. He wrote at once to Madame de Clèves to tell her what the King had said, and added that he was very anxious that she should come to Paris. She returned in obedience to his request; and when they met, each found the other in the deepest gloom.  31
  Monsieur de Clèves addressed her in the most honorable terms, and seemed well worthy of the confidence she had placed in him.  32
  “I have no uneasiness about your conduct,” he said: “you have more strength and virtue than you think. It is not dread of the future that distresses me; I am only distressed at seeing that you have for another feelings that I have not been able to inspire in you.”  33
  “I do not know how to answer you,” she said; “I am ready to die with shame when I speak to you. Spare me, I beg of you, these painful conversations. Regulate my conduct; let me see no one,—that is all I ask: but permit me never to speak of a thing which makes me seem so little worthy of you, and which I regard as so unworthy of me.”  34
  “You are right, madame,” he answered: “I abuse your gentleness and your confidence. But do you too take some pity on the state into which you have cast me, and remember that whatever you have told me, you conceal from me a name which excites an unendurable curiosity. Still, I do not ask you to gratify it; but I must say that I believe the man I must envy to be the Marshal of Saint-André, the Duke of Nemours, or the Chevalier de Guise.”  35
  “I shall not answer,” she said blushing, “and I shall give you no occasion for lessening or strengthening your suspicions; but if you try to find out by watching me, you will surely make me so embarrassed that every one will notice it. In Heaven’s name,” she went on, “invent some illness, that I may see no one!”  36
  “No, madame,” he replied: “it would soon be found that it was not real: and moreover, I want to place my confidence in you alone; that is the course my heart recommends, and my reason too. In your present mood, by leaving you free, I protect you by a closer guard than I could persuade myself to set about you.”  37
  Monsieur de Clèves was right: the confidence he showed in his wife proved a stronger protection against Monsieur de Nemours, and inspired her to make austerer resolutions, than any form of constraint could have done. She went to the Louvre and visited the dauphiness as usual; but she avoided Monsieur de Nemours with so much care that she took away nearly all his happiness at thinking that she loved him. He saw nothing in her actions which did not prove the contrary. He was almost ready to believe that what he had heard was a dream, so unlikely did it appear. The only thing that assured him that he was not mistaken was the extreme sadness of Madame de Clèves, in spite of all her efforts to conceal it. Possibly kind words and glances would not have fanned Monsieur de Nemours’s love as did this austere conduct.  38
  One evening when Monsieur and Madame de Clèves were with the Queen, some one said that it was reported that the King was going to name another nobleman of the court to accompany Madame to Spain. Monsieur de Clèves fixed his eyes on his wife when the speaker added that it would be either the Chevalier de Guise or the Marshal of Saint-André. He noticed that she showed no agitation at either of these names, or at the mention of their joining the party. This led him to think that it was neither of these that she dreaded to see; and wishing to determine the matter, he went to the room where the King was. After a short absence, he returned to his wife and whispered to her that he had just learned that it would be Monsieur de Nemours who would go with them to Spain.  39
  The name of Monsieur de Nemours, and the thought of seeing him every day during a long journey in her husband’s presence, so agitated Madame de Clèves that she could not conceal it; and wishing to assign other reasons, she answered:—  40
  “The choice of that gentleman will be very disagreeable for you: he will divide all the honors, and I think you ought to try to have some one else appointed.”  41
  “It is not love of glory, madame,” said Monsieur de Clèves, “that makes you dread that Monsieur de Nemours should come with me. Your regret tells me what another woman would have told by her delight. But do not be alarmed; what I have just told you is not true: I made it up to make sure of a thing which I had only too long inclined to believe.” With these words he went away, not wishing by his presence to add to his wife’s evident embarrassment.  42
  At that moment Monsieur de Nemours entered, and at once noticed Madame de Clèves’s condition. He went up to her, and said in a low voice that he respected her too much to ask what made her so thoughtful. His voice aroused her from her revery; and looking at him, without hearing what he said, full of her own thoughts and fearful that her husband would see him by her side, she said, “In Heaven’s name leave me alone!”  43
  “Alas! madame,” he replied, “I leave you only too much alone. Of what can you complain? I do not dare to speak to you, or even to look at you; I never come near you without trembling. How have I brought such remark on myself, and why do you make me seem to have something to do with the depression in which I find you?”  44
  Madame de Clèves deeply regretted that she had given Monsieur de Nemours an opportunity to speak to her more frankly than he had ever done. She left him without giving him any answer, and went home in a state of agitation such as she had never known. Her husband soon noticed this; he perceived that she was afraid lest he should speak to her about what had just happened. He followed her into her room and said to her:—  45
  “Do not try to avoid me, madame; I shall say nothing that could displease you. I beg your pardon for surprising you as I did; I am sufficiently punished by what I learned. Monsieur de Nemours was the man whom I most feared. I see your danger: control yourself for your own sake, and if possible for mine. I do not ask this as your husband, but as a man all of whose happiness you make, and who feels for you a tenderer and stronger love than he whom your heart prefers.”  46
  Monsieur de Clèves nearly broke down at these last words, which he could hardly utter. His wife was much moved; and bursting into tears, she embraced him with a gentleness and a sorrow that almost brought him to the same condition. They remained for some time perfectly silent, and separated without having strength to utter a word.  47
 
 
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