Priest, and a sagacious political heir of the incomparable，
This visit marked a new phase in my life. At Sainte-Severe I had been absorbed in my love and my work. I had concentrated all my energies upon these two points. No sooner had I arrived at Paris than a thick curtain seemed to fall before my eyes, and, for several days, as I could not understand anything, I felt astonished at nothing. I formed a very exaggerated estimate of the passing actors who appeared upon the scene; but I formed no less exaggerated an estimate of the ease with which I should soon rival these imaginary powers. My enterprising and presumptuous nature saw challenges everywhere and obstacles nowhere.
Though I was in the same house as my uncle and cousin, my room was on a separate floor, and henceforth I spent the greater part of my time with the abbe. I was far from being dazed by the material advantages of my position; but in proportion as I realized how precarious or painful were the positions of many others, the more conscious I became of the comfort of my own. I appreciated the excellent character of my tutor, and the respect my lackey showed me no longer seemed objectionable. With the freedom that I enjoyed, and the unlimited money at my command, and the restless energy of youth, it is astonishing that I did not fall into some excess, were it only gambling, which might well have appealed to my combative instincts. It was my own ignorance of everything that prevented this; it made me extremely suspicious, and the abbe, who was very observant, and held himself responsible for my actions, managed most cleverly to work upon my haughty reserve. He increased it in regard to such things as might have done me harm, and dispelled it in contrary cases. Moreover, he was careful to provide me with sufficient reasonable distractions, which while they could not take the place of the joys of love, served at least to lessen the smart of its wounds. As to temptations to debauchery, I felt none. I had too much pride to yearn for any woman in which I had not seen, as in Edmee, the first of her sex.
We used all to meet at dinner, and as a rule we paid visits in the evening. By observing the world from a corner of a drawing-room, I learnt more of it in a few days than I should have done in a whole year from guesses and inquiries. I doubt whether I should ever have understood society, if I had always been obliged to view it from a certain distance. My brain refused to form a clear image of the ideas which occupied the brains of others. But as soon as I found myself in the midst of this chaos, the confused mass was compelled to fall into some sort of order and reveal a large part of its elements. This path which led me into life was not without charms for me, I remember, at its beginning. Amid all the conflicting interests of the surrounding world I had nothing to ask for, aim at, or argue about. Fortune had taken me by the hand. One fine morning she had lifted me out of an abyss and put me down on a bed of roses and made me a young gentleman. The eagerness of others was for me but an amusing spectacle. My heart was interested in the future only on one mysterious point, the love which I felt for Edmee.
My illness, far from robbing me of my physical vigour, had but increased it. I was no longer the heavy, sleepy animal, fatigued by digestion and stupefied by weariness. I felt the vibrations of all my fibres filling my soul with unknown harmonies; and I was astonished to discover within myself faculties of which I had never suspected the use. My good kinfolk were delighted at this, though apparently not surprised. They had allowed themselves to augur so well of me from the beginning that it seemed as if they had been accustomed all their lives to the trade of civilizing barbarians.
The nervous system which had just been developed in me, and which made me pay for the pleasures and advantages it brought by keen and constant sufferings during the rest of my life, had rendered me specially sensitive to impressions from without; and this quickness to feel the effect of external things was helped by an organic vigour such as is only found among animals or savages. I was astounded at the decay of the faculties in other people. These men in spectacles, these women with their sense of smell deadened by snuff, these premature graybeards, deaf and gouty before their time, were painful to behold. To me society seemed like a vast hospital; and when with my robust constitution I found myself in the midst of these weaklings, it seemed to me that with a puff of my breath I could have blown them into the air as if they had been so much thistle-down.
This unfortunately led me into the error of yielding to that rather stupid kind of pride which makes a man presume upon his natural gifts. For a long time it induced me to neglect their real improvement, as if this were a work of supererogation. The idea that gradually grew up in me of the worthlessness of my fellows prevented me from rising above those whom I henceforth looked upon as my inferiors. I did not realize that society is made up of so many elements of little value in themselves, but so skilfully and solidly put together that before adding the least extraneous particle a man must be a qualified artificer. I did not know that in this society there is no resting- place between the role of the great artist and that of the good workman. Now, I was neither one nor the other, and, if the truth must be told, all my ideas have never succeeded in lifting me out of the ordinary ruck; all my strength has only enabled me with much difficulty to do as others do.
In a few weeks, then, I passed from an excess of admiration to an excess of contempt for society. As soon as I understood the workings of its springs they seemed to me so miserably regulated by a feeble generation that the hopes of my mentors, unknown to themselves, were doomed to disappointment. Instead of realizing my own inferiority and endeavouring to efface myself in the crowd, I imagined that I could give proof of my superiority whenever I wished; and I fed on fancies which I blush to recall. If I did not show myself egregiously ridiculous, it was thanks to the very excess of this vanity which feared to stultify itself before others.
At that time Paris presented a spectacle which I shall not attempt to set before you, because no doubt you have often eagerly studied it in the excellent pictures which have been painted by eye-witnesses in the form of general history or private memoirs. Besides, such a picture would exceed the limits of my story, for I promised to tell you only the cardinal events in my moral and philosophical development. In order to give you some idea of the workings of my mind at this period it will suffice to mention that the War of Independence was breaking out in America; that Voltaire was receiving his apotheosis in Paris; that Franklin, the prophet of a new political religion, was sowing the seed of liberty in the very heart of the Court of France; while Lafayette was secretly preparing his romantic expedition. The majority of young patricians were being carried away either by fashion, or the love of change, or the pleasure inherent in all opposition which is not dangerous.
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