Volume 1, Chapter 07
Volume 1, Chapter 07
I was in Paris, and I did as people of fashion in Paris were accustomed to do. I consoled myself for the infidelity of one mistress, by devoting my attentions to another. The qualities of the countess de B. were exceedingly unlike those of the marchioness; perhaps, led by a sentiment to which I was unconscious, I selected her for that very reason. The marchioness I have compared to the sleek and glossy-coated eel: forever restless, never contented with the thing, or the circumstances under which she was, you could never hold her to one certain mode of proceeding. the only way in which for her lover to become satisfied with her, was to persuade himself that her external demeanor was merely a guise put on, which belied her heart, and that, when she seemed most impatient, capricious and fantastical, her soul confessed none of these follies, but assumed them to veil the too great sensibility of her nature. The countess on the contrary appeared to be wholly destitute of art. Tho' passed the first season of youthful inexperience, she appeared to have acquired none of the lessons of prudery and factitious decorum. Her heart shone in her visage; the very tones of her voice were modulated to the expression of tenderness. hers was "the sleepy eye, that spoke the melting soul." Her cheek was full; her skin transparent; the least thought of pleasure or of passion suffused her countenance with a blush. The countess had no atom of the restlessness of her rival; a sort of voluptuous indolence continually attended her; and the busy nothings of ordinary life seemed to be an insupportable burthen to her. She appeared born only to feel; to reflect, to consider, to anticipate, to receive and concoct the elements of instruction, were offices in which she seemed incapable to exist. It was her habit therefore to resign herself wholly to her feelings, and to be in them undivided and entire. To judge from every exterior indication, it was impossible for a tenderer mistress to exist; she gave herself up to her lover, and treated him as if he were her father, mother, fortune, reputation and life to her, in one. She placed no restraint on herself, but appeared all anxiety, terror, apprehension, gratitude, enjoyment, as the occasions most obviously led to one or another of these emotions.
Yet this woman was capable of the more stormy impulses of resentment and jealousy, but only in such a way as best accorded with the sensibility and voluptuousness of her character. Her resentment was passive, and desponding; when wounded, it appeared incompatible with the purpose of wounding again; in the person against whom it was directed it excited not sentiments of hostility, but of pity; and her tender bosom seemed to wait only the moment of passionate reconciliation. when her lover returned to her, or persuaded her of the sincerity of his affection, gratitude and delight possessed her wholly, and reproach died away upon her lips. the countess by her manners reminded her admirer, of the most delicate flower of the parterre, which the first attack of a rude and chilling blast immediately withers, but which, by the luster of its tints, and the softness of its texture, seems to advance an irresistible claim to gentle protection and western breezes. Tears from her sparkling eyes broke forth almost at will; by a tear she expressed her sufferings, and by a tear her joy. This might perhaps have been grievous to her lover, had she had the smallest bias towards a querulous temper. But her character was a perpetual summer; her storms were only like the soft droppings of a sultry evening, and easily gave place to a fair sky and a radiant heaven.
The intellect of the countess de B. was of narrow dimensions. Her mind had never been turmoiled with the infusions of science; she scarcely knew that there were antipodes, or that there had been ancients. She lived like those insects which the naturalists describe, generated on the surface of certain lakes, that are born only to hover along the superficies of the pellucid element, to enjoy, and to die.
What pity that the sentiments of such a person as the countess de B. were so little entitled to be depended upon! According to the ideas many men entertain of the fair sex, it was impossible for any one in the particulars above described to be more exactly qualified for a mistress or a wife than this fascinating woman. There was no danger that she should become the rival of her lover in any manlike pursuits, or that with troublesome curiosity she should intrude herself into his occupations of learning, of gain, or of ambition. She had all the attributes that belong exclusively to the female sex, and as few as possible of those which are possessed by the whole species, male and female, in common. She was rather an Asiatic sultana in her turn of mind, than a native of our western world. And her habits would have been equally accommodated to the man who, having serious pursuits for his graver hours, wished either not to impart, or not to remember them in his hours of pleasure; and to the man who, being in the hey-day of his youth, and favored by nature and by fortune, desired to thrust the world aside, and take his swing of indulgence uninterrupted and unchecked. I belonged to this latter description.
Unfortunately however the countess, though she seemed to feel with her soul, had the spring of her sentiments and actions in her eyes. Where she attached herself, it was with such a show of ardor, that the lover must have been captious and difficult indeed, who was not satisfied with the sincerity of passion she displayed toward him. Yet the passion of the countess was rather an abstract propensity, than the preference of an individual. A given quantity of personal merit and accomplished manners was sure to charm her. A fresh and agreeable complexion, a sparkling eye, a well-turned leg, a grace in dancing or in performing the maneuvres of gallantry, were claims that the countess de B. was never known to resist. She appeared to administer her decision upon these different pretensions with the most rigid equity; and they were sometimes very minute distinctions, scarcely discernible by the naked eye, that decided her hair-breadth preferences. Upon this rigid equity there was only one limitation; and this also was sufficiently in correspondence with the theory of the subject. Among the various sources of what are called the pleasures of the imagination, one, as learned doctors tell us, is novelty. To this the countess de B. paid the strictest attention; and, where there was any uncertainty in the comparison of her personal advantages or polite accomplishments, the latest pretender was sure to carry the day. Amiable countess! Like the wanton bee, which flits from flower to flower, equally enamored with each in turn, and retaining no painful recollections of that which was last quitted, to render the qualities of the next offerer less agreeable and exquisite. I remember her even at this time with kindness. She seemed to skim the surface of life, and to taste of a continual succession of pleasures. It was perhaps unreasonable ever to be angry with her. She had almost too little reflection and concatenation of ideas, to make her a competent subject of moral jurisdiction. It was not however always thus with her; her career was short, and she expiated by long and severe calamities for her brief period of unchecked enjoyment. Whatever may be thought of her demerits, few persons ever drank more deeply of the cup of retribution. But this does not belong to my history.
It will easily be concluded from what I have stated, that the termination of my amour with the countess de B. was very similar to that with the marchioness. I trusted; I was deceived; my eyes were opened; I suffered all the torments of disappointment and despair. A quick and living sensitiveness was one of the most obvious characteristics of my mind; and few men felt disappointment of almost every kind more deeply. When the breach took place between me and the marchioness, I had been for some days like a man distracted. The countess de B. presented herself to my observation just at that critical moment; the more than feminine gentleness and softness of her nature were exactly adapted to allure my attention in this period of anguish; and it was owing to this fortuitous concurrence, that I recovered my equilibrium, in a certain degree, much sooner than could reasonably have been expected. It has often been a matter of jest in the world, when a widower, who seemed to be inconsolable for the partner of his heart, suddenly marries again; and the inference usually drawn is, that his grief was pure mummery and representation. I grant that the man who thus conducts himself is guilty of a breach of decorum, and that his behavior is rather calculated to excite our disesteem than our respect; but I affirm that it is sufficiently natural, and that there is no need of having recourse to the imputation of hypocrisy to account for it. There is a principle in man, impelling him to seek his own preservation, and pursue his own happiness; and this principle will frequently urge him, in proportion to the dreadful vacuity produced by the loss of that which no possibility can restore to him , to seek to replace it by somewhat of the same species, and to endeavor to relieve his disconsolate state by a companion, who may in like manner share his thoughts, and engage his tenderness.
The loss of the countess was much more terrible to me than that of her predecessor. The marchioness had kept me in a state of perpetual agitation, a temper of mind not unallied to fortitude. The countess de B. had softened and relaxed my mind, and left me in a temper ill-suited to the struggling with misfortune. The marchioness was a woman that I loved and hated by turns; she was often too masculine and peremptory to be an object of tenderness; her character, adapted continually to produce wonder and astonishment, lost by just so much of the faculty to please. But the countess was all sweetness. In the eyes of her lover she appeared like an angel. She rose upon him like the evening star, mild, radiant, tranquil and soothing. In periods of the most entire communication and accord, she seemed to leave him nothing to wish, but appeared in his eyes the exact model of perfection. From the marchioness you continually expected something extraordinary; her ambition was to shine; and that which is extraordinary, must of course be sometimes good, and sometimes ill. but the countess de B. was so simple, so intelligible; it seemed as if nothing could happen with her that might not exactly be foreseen; she was wholly engaged in the object of her selection, and appeared to live for that alone.
The distress I suffered from the inconstancy of the countess de B. was inexpressibly acute. It taught me to abhor and revile her sex. It inspired me with a contempt of human pleasures. I felt like the personage of a fairy-tale I have somewhere read, who, after being delightful with the magnificence of a seeming palace, and the beauty of its fair inhabitants, suddenly sees the delusion vanish, the palace is converted into a charnel-house, and what he thought its beautiful tenants are seen to be the most withered and loathsome hags that ever shocked the eyes of a mortal. My soul was in tumults. I loathed existence and the sight of day; and my self-love was inexpressibly shocked to think that I could have suffered so gross a delusion. I fled from Paris, and sought the craggy and inhospitable Alps; the most frightful scenes alone had power to please, and produced in me a kind of malicious and desperate sentiment of satisfaction.
Most earnestly do I entreat the reader to pardon me, for having thus much interspersed these pages with a tale of debaucheries. It is not, I solemnly assure him, that I have any pleasure in recollection, or that I glory in my shame. Some men, I know, would palliate this narrative to themselves, by saying that the things here related belong to the country where my scene is placed, and that morals have no certain standard, but change their laws according to the climate in which they exist. From my soul do I abjure this apology. Without entering abstrusely into the general merits of the question, I intimately feel in myself, that I carry about me, wherever I go, the same criterion of approbation, which bends to no customs, and asks no support from the suffrage of others to make it what it is. At the time of which I have been speaking, I was young and wild; I had been much injured by the sort of company I frequented for some years before I left England; and I gave easily and without compunction into the dissipations of the metropolis of France. But I do not look back upon them without aversion. I have written the narrative of this period under impressions of deep pain, and every line has cost me a twinge of the sharpest remorse. There are some kinds of writing in which the mind willingly engages, in which, while we hold the pen in our hand, we seem to unburthen the sentiments of our soul, and our habitual feelings cause us to pour out on the paper a prompt and unstudied eloquence. Here on the contrary, I have held myself to my task with difficulty, and often with my utmost effort I have fearcely wrote down a page a day on the ungrateful subject.
Why have I introduced it then? Because it was necessary, to make my subsequent history understood. I have a train of follies, less loathsome, but more tragic, to unfold, which could not have been accounted for, unless it had been previously shown, by what causes I, the author, and in some respects the principal sufferer, was rendered what I was. I was a misanthrope. Not a misanthrope of the sterner and more rugged class, who, while they condemn and despise every thing around them, have a perverted sort of pleasure in the office; whose brow for ever frowns, whose voice has the true cynical snarl, and who never feel so triumphant a complacency, as when they detect the worthlessness and baseness of whoever comes into contact with them. This sort of man, even in my unhappiest state of desolation, I could always look down upon with pity. My misanthropy was a conclusion, however erroneous, that I unwillingly entertained. I felt what I was, and I pined for the society of my like. It was with inexpressible sorrow that I believed I was alone in the world. My sensibility was not one atom diminished by my perpetual disappointments. I felt what man ought to be, and I could not prevent the model of what he ought to be from being for ever present to my mind.
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