The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 11

Night Thoughts

Yet Julia’s very coldness still was kind,

And tremulously gentle her small hand

  Withdrew itself from his, but left behind

A little pressure, thrilling, and so bland

  And slight, so very slight, that to the mind

Twas but a doubt.

  Don Juan, I. 71

He must, however, let himself be seen at Verrieres. As he left the Presbytery the first person he met was, by a happy chance, M. Valenod, whom he hastened to inform of the increase in his salary.

On his return to Vergy, Julien did not go down to the garden until night had set in. His heart was worn out by the multitude of powerful emotions that had assailed it in the course of the day. ‘What shall I say to them?’ he asked himself anxiously, thinking of the ladies. It never occurred to him that his spirits were precisely at the level of the trivial happenings that as a rule occupy the whole interest of women. Often Julien was unintelligible to Madame Derville, and even to her friend, while he in turn only half understood all that they were saying to him. Such was the effect of the force, and, if I may use the word, of the magnitude of the waves of passion on which the heart of this ambitious youth was being tossed. In this strange creature almost every day was one of storm.

When he went into the garden that evening, Julien was ready to listen with interest to the thoughts of the fair cousins. They awaited his coming with impatience. He took his accustomed seat, by Madame de Renal’s side. The darkness soon became intense. He attempted to clasp a white hand which for some time he had seen close beside him, resting on the back of a chair. There was some hesitation shown, but finally the hand was withdrawn from him in a manner which betokened displeasure. Julien was prepared to regard this as final, and to continue the conversation in a light tone, when he heard M. de Renal approach.

The rude words of the morning still rang in Julien’s ears. ‘Would it not,’ he said to himself, ‘be a good way of scoring off this creature, so lavishly endowed with every material advantage, to take possession of his wife’s hand under his very eyes? Yes, I will do it, I, for whom he has shown such contempt.’

>From that moment peace of mind, so ill assorted to Julien’s character, speedily vanished; he desired most anxiously, and without being able to fix his mind on anything else, that Madame de Renal might consent to let him hold her hand.

M. de Renal talked politics in an angry tone: two or three manufacturers at Verrieres were becoming decidedly richer than himself, and wished to oppose him at the elections. Madame Derville listened to him. Julien, irritated by this talk, moved his chair nearer to Madame de Renal’s. The darkness hid every movement. He ventured to place his hand close to the pretty arm which her gown left bare. Troubled, no longer conscious of what he was doing, he moved his cheek in the direction of this pretty arm, and made bold to press his lips to it.

Madame de Renal shuddered. Her husband was a few feet away, she hastened to give Julien her hand, at the same time thrusting him slightly from her. While M. de Renal continued his abuse of the good-for-nothings and Jacobins who were making fortunes, Julien covered the hand which had been left in his with passionate kisses, or so at least they seemed to Madame de Renal. And yet the poor woman had been furnished with proof, on this fatal day, that the heart of the man whom she adored without confessing it was pledged elsewhere! Throughout the hours of Julien’s absence, she had been a prey to the most abject misery, which had made her think.

‘What,’ she said to herself, ‘am I to love, to have love offered to me? Am I, a married woman, to fall in love? But,’ she reminded herself, ‘I have never felt that dark passion for my husband, and so I cannot tear my mind from Julien. At heart he is only a boy filled with respect for me! This folly will pass. How can it concern my husband what feelings I may entertain for this young man? M. de Renal would be bored by the talks I have with Julien, about things of the imagination. He himself thinks only about his business. I am taking nothing from him to give to Julien.’

No trace of hypocrisy came to sully the purity of this simple soul, carried away by a passion such as she had never felt. She was deceived, but quite unawares, and at the same time a virtuous instinct had taken alarm. Such were the conflicts that were agitating her when Julien appeared in the garden. She heard his voice, almost at the same moment she saw him sit down by her side. Her heart was so to speak carried away by this charming happiness which for the last fortnight had astonished even more than it had bewitched her. Everything was unexpected to her. And yet after a few moments: ‘So Julien’s presence is enough,’ she said to herself, ‘to wipe out all memory of his misconduct?’ She took fright; then it was that she withdrew her hand from his.

His kisses, filled with passion and such as she had never yet received, made her at once forget the possibility of his loving another woman. Soon he was no longer guilty in her eyes. The cessation of her poignant grief, born of suspicion, the presence of a happiness of which she had never even dreamed, plunged her in transports of affection and wild gaiety. That evening was delightful for them all, except for the Mayor of Verrieres, who could not forget the growing wealth of his competitors. Julien no longer thought of his dark ambition, nor of his plans that would be so difficult of execution. For the first time in his life, he was carried away by the power of beauty. Lost in a vague and pleasant dream, so foreign to his nature, gently pressing that hand which pleased him as an example of perfect beauty, he gave a divided attention to the rustle of the leaves of the lime, stirred by the gentle night breeze, and to the dogs at the mill by the Doubs, barking in the distance.

But this emotion was a pleasure and not a passion. On returning to his room he thought of one happiness only, that of going on with his favourite book; at twenty, the thought of the world and of the impression one is going to make on it, prevails over everything else.

Presently, however, he put down the book. By dint of dreaming of Napoleon’s victories, he had discerned a new element in his own. ‘Yes, I have won a battle,’ he told himself, ‘but I must follow it up, I must crush the arrogance of this proud gentleman while he is still retreating. That is Napoleon out and out. I must ask him for three days’ holiday, to go and see my friend Fouque. If he refuses, I again offer to break the agreement; but he will give way.’

Madame de Renal could not close an eye. She felt that she had never lived until that moment. She could not tear her mind from the happiness of feeling Julien cover her hand with burning kisses.

Suddenly the horrid word adultery occurred to her. All the most disgusting implications that the vilest debauchery can impart to the idea of sensual love came crowding into her imagination. These ideas sought to tarnish the tender and godlike image that she had made for herself of Julien and of the pleasure of loving him. The future portrayed itself in terrible colours. She saw herself an object of scorn.

It was a frightful moment; her soul journeyed into strange lands. That evening she had tasted an unknown happiness; now she suddenly found herself plunged in appalling misery. She had no conception of such sufferings; they began to affect her reason. The thought occurred to her for a moment of confessing to her husband that she was afraid of falling in love with Julien. It would have allowed her to speak of him. Fortunately she recalled a piece of advice given her long ago by her aunt, on the eve of her marriage. It warned her of the danger of confiding in a husband, who is after all a master. In the intensity of her grief she wrung her hands.

She was carried away indiscriminately by conflicting and painful imaginings. At one moment she was afraid of not being loved in return, at another the fearful thought of the crime tortured her as though on the morrow she would have to be exposed in the pillory, on the public square of Verrieres, with a placard proclaiming her adultery to the populace.

Madame de Renal was without any experience of life; even when wide awake and in the full exercise of her reason, she would have seen no distinction between being guilty in the sight of God and finding herself publicly greeted with all the most flagrant marks of general opprobrium.

When the frightful idea of adultery and of all the ignominy which (she supposed) that crime brings in its train gave her at length a respite, and she began to dream of the delight of living with Julien innocently, as in the past, she found herself swept away by the horrible thought that Julien was in love with another woman. She saw once again his pallor when he was afraid of losing her portrait, or of compromising her by letting it be seen. For the first time, she had surprised signs of fear on that calm and noble countenance. Never had he shown himself in such a state for her or for her children. This additional grief carried her to the utmost intensity of anguish which the human soul is able to endure. Unconsciously, Madame de Renal uttered cries which roused her maid. Suddenly she saw appear by her bedside the light of a lamp, and recognised Elisa.

‘Is it you that he loves?’ she cried in her frenzy.

The maid, amazed at the fearful distress in which she found her mistress, paid no attention fortunately to this singular utterance. Madame de Renal realised her own imprudence: ‘I am feverish,’ she told her, ‘and I think, a little light-headed; stay beside me.’

Thoroughly awakened by the necessity of controlling herself, she felt less wretched; reason resumed the sway of which her state of drowsiness had deprived it. To escape from the fixed stare of her maid, she ordered her to read the newspaper aloud, and it was to the monotonous sound of the girl’s voice, reading a long article from the Quotidienne, that Madame de Renal formed the virtuous resolution to treat Julien with absolute coldness when next she saw him.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30