The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 12

A Journey

In Paris you find elegant people, there may be people with character in the provinces.

SIEYES

Next morning, at five o’clock, before Madame de Renal was visible, Julien had obtained from her husband three days’ leave of absence. Contrary to his expectation, Julien found himself longing to see her again, and could think of nothing but that shapely hand. He went down to the garden, Madame de Renal was long in coming. But if Julien had been in love with her he would have seen her, behind her half-closed shutters on the first floor, her face pressed to the glass. She was watching him. At length, in spite of her resolutions, she decided to show herself in the garden. Her customary pallor had given place to the most glowing colour. This simple-minded woman was evidently agitated: a feeling of constraint and even of resentment marred that expression of profound serenity, as though raised above all the common interests of life, which gave such charm to that heavenly face.

Julien lost no time in joining her; he admired those fine arms which a shawl flung in haste across her shoulders left visible. The coolness of the morning air seemed to increase the brilliance of a complexion which the agitation of the past night made all the more sensible to every impression. This beauty, modest and touching, and yet full of thoughts which are nowhere to be found among the lower orders, seemed to reveal to Julien an aspect of her nature of which he had never yet been aware. Wholly absorbed in admiration of the charms which his greedy eye surprised, Julien was not thinking of the friendly greeting which he might expect to receive. He was all the more astonished by the icy coldness that was shown him, beneath which he even thought he could make out a deliberate intention to put him in his place.

The smile of pleasure faded from his lips; he remembered the rank that he occupied in society, especially in the eyes of a noble and wealthy heiress. In a moment, his features showed nothing but pride and anger with himself. He felt a violent disgust at having been so foolish as to postpone his departure by more than an hour, only to receive so humiliating a greeting.

‘Only a fool,’ he told himself, ‘loses his temper with other people: a stone falls because it is heavy. Am I always to remain a boy? When am I going to form the good habit of giving these people their exact money’s worth and no more of my heart and soul? If I wish to be esteemed by them and by myself, I must show them that it is my poverty that deals with their wealth, but that my heart is a thousand leagues away from their insolence, and is placed in too exalted a sphere to be reached by their petty marks of contempt or favour.’

While these sentiments came crowding into the young tutor’s mind, his features assumed an expression of injured pride and ferocity. Madame de Renal was greatly distressed by this. The virtuous coldness which she had meant to impart to her greeting gave way to an expression of interest, and of an interest animated by the surprise of the sudden change which she had just beheld in him. The flow of idle words that people exchange in the morning with regard to one another’s health, to the beauty of the day, and so forth, dried up at once in them both. Julien, whose judgment was not disturbed by any passion, soon found a way of letting Madame de Renal see how little he regarded himself as being on terms of friendship with her; he said nothing to her of the little expedition on which he was starting, bowed to her, and set off.

As she watched him go, overwhelmed by the sombre pride which she read in that glance, so friendly the evening before, her eldest son, who came running up from the other end of the garden, said to her as he embraced her:

‘We have a holiday, M. Julien is going on a journey.’

At these words Madame de Renal felt herself frozen by a deadly chill; she was unhappy in her virtue, and more unhappy still in her weakness.

This latest development now occupied the whole of her imagination; she was carried far beyond the wise resolutions which were the fruit of the terrible night she had passed. It was a question no longer of resisting this charming lover, but of losing him for ever.

She was obliged to take her place at table. To add to her misery, M. de Renal and Madame Derville spoke of nothing but Julien’s departure. The Mayor of Verrieres had remarked something, unusual in the firm tone with which he had demanded a holiday.

‘The young peasant has doubtless an offer from someone in his pocket. But that someone, even if it should be M. Valenod, must be a little discouraged by the sum of 600 francs, which he must now be prepared to spend annually. Yesterday, at Verrieres, he will have asked for three days in which to think things over; and this morning, so as not to be obliged to give me an answer, the young gentleman goes off to the mountains. To have to reckon with a wretched workman who puts on airs, that’s what we’ve come to!’

‘Since my husband, who does not know how deeply he has wounded Julien, thinks he is going to leave us, what am I to suppose?’ Madame de Renal asked herself. ‘Ah! It is all settled!’

So as to be able at least to weep in freedom, and without having to answer Madame Derville’s questions, she pleaded a splitting headache, and retired to bed.

‘There you have a woman all over,’ M. de Renal repeated; ‘there’s always something wrong with those complicated machines.’ And he went on his way jeering.

While Madame de Renal was at the mercy of the most cruel inflictions of the terrible passion into which accident had led her, Julien was making his way light-heartedly amid the loveliest views that mountain scenery has to offer. He was obliged to pass over the high range to the north of Vergy. The path which he followed, rising gradually amid great beechwoods, forms an endless series of zigzags on the side of the high mountain which bounds the valley of the Doubs on the north. Presently the traveller’s gaze, passing over the lower ridges which confine the course of the Doubs on the south, was able to sweep the fertile plains of Burgundy and Beaujolais. Irresponsive as the heart of this ambitious youth might be to this kind of beauty, he could not refrain from stopping now and again to gaze at so vast and so imposing a prospect.

At length he came to the summit of the high mountain, beneath which he must pass in order to arrive, by this diagonal route, at the lonely valley in which his friend Fouque, the young timber merchant, lived. Julien was in no hurry to see him, or any other human being for that matter. Concealed like a bird of prey, amid the bare rocks which crowned the high mountain, he could see a long way off anyone that might be coming his way. He discovered a small cave in the almost perpendicular face of one of the rocks. He set his course for it, and presently was ensconced in this retreat. ‘Here,’ he said, his eyes sparkling with joy, ‘men can do me no harm.’ It occurred to him to indulge in the pleasure of writing down his thoughts, so dangerous to him in any other place. A smooth block of stone served as his table. His pen flew: he saw nothing of the scene round about him. At length he noticed that the sun was setting behind the distant mountains of Beaujolais.

‘Why should I not spend the night here?’ he asked himself; ‘I have bread, and I am free!’ At the sound of that great word his heart leaped, his hypocrisy meant that he was not free even with Fouque. His head supported on both his hands, Julien stayed in this cave happier than he had ever been in his life, engrossed in his dreams and in the joy of freedom. Without heeding it he saw fade and die, one after another, the last rays of evening light. In the midst of that vast darkness, his soul wandered in contemplation of what he imagined that he would one day find in Paris. This was first and foremost a woman far more beautiful and of a far higher intelligence than any it had been his lot to see in the country. He loved with passion, he was loved in return. If he tore himself from her for a few moments, it was to cover himself with glory and earn the right to be loved more warmly still.

Even if we allow him Julien’s imagination, a young man brought up among the melancholy truths of Paris would have been aroused at this stage in his romance by the cold touch of irony; the mighty deeds would have vanished with the hope of performing them, to give place to the well-known maxim: ‘When a man leaves his mistress, he runs the risk of being betrayed two or three times daily.’ The young peasant saw no obstacle between himself and the most heroic actions, save want of opportunity.

But black night had succeeded the day, and he had still two leagues to cover before coming down to the hamlet in which Fouque lived. Before leaving the little cave, Julien struck a light and carefully destroyed all that he had written.

He greatly astonished his friend by knocking at his door at one o’clock in the morning. He found Fouque engaged in making up his accounts. He was a young man of tall stature, none too well made, with large, hard features, a huge nose, and plenty of good nature concealed beneath this repellent aspect.

‘You’ve quarrelled with your M. de Renal, then, that you come here of a sudden like this?’

Julien related to him, with suitable omissions, the events of the previous evening.

‘Stay with me,’ Fouque said to him; ‘I see that you know M. de Renal, M. Valenod, the Sub–Prefect Maugiron, the cure Chelan; you have grasped all the subtle points of their natures; you’re ripe now to put yourself up for auction. You know arithmetic better than I do, you shall keep my books; I am making a big profit from my business. The impossibility of doing everything by myself and the fear of hitting upon a rogue in the man I might take as my partner prevent me every day from doing the most profitable deals. Not a month ago I put six thousand francs in the pocket of Michaud of Saint–Amand, whom I had not seen for six years, and met quite by chance at the Pontarlier sale. Why should not you have made those six thousand francs yourself, or three thousand at least? For if I had had you with me that day, I should have gone on bidding for that lot of timber, and the other would soon have left me with it. Be my partner.’

This offer annoyed Julien; it unsettled his erratic mind; throughout supper, which the friends cooked for themselves, like Homeric heroes, for Fouque lived by himself, he showed Julien his books, and proved to him what advantages his trade in timber offered. Fouque had the highest opinion of Julien’s intelligence and character.

When at length the latter found himself alone in his little room walled with planks of firwood, ‘It is true,’ he said to himself, ‘I can make a few thousand francs here, then return with advantage to the calling of soldier or priest, according to the fashion prevailing in France at the time. The little hoard that I shall have amassed will remove all difficulties of detail. Alone on this mountainside, I can do something to dispel my present appalling ignorance of so many of the things that occupy the minds of all these fashionable gentlemen. But Fouque is giving up the thought of marriage, he has told me again and again that solitude is making him melancholy. It is obvious that if he is taking a partner who has no money to put into his business, it is in the hope of providing himself with a companion who will never leave him.

‘Shall I prove false to my friend?’ exclaimed Julien angrily. This creature, for whom hypocrisy and the absence of all fellow feeling were the ordinary line of conduct, could not on this occasion bear the thought of the slightest want of delicacy towards a man who loved him.

But all at once Julien became happy, he had a reason for refusing. ‘What, I should be idly wasting seven or eight years! I should thus arrive at eight and twenty; but, at that age, Napoleon had already done his greatest deeds! After I have obscurely scraped together a little money by going round all these timber sales, and winning the favour of various minor rascals, who can say whether I shall still preserve the sacred fire with which one makes oneself a name?’

The following morning, Julien replied with great coolness to the worthy Fouque, who looked upon the matter of their partnership as settled, that his vocation to the sacred ministry of the altar did not allow him to accept. Fouque could not believe his ears.

‘But do you realise,’ he kept on saying, ‘that I make you my partner, or, if you prefer, give you four thousand francs a year? And you want to go back to your M. de Renal, who despises you like the mud on his shoes! When you have two hundred louis in hand, what is to prevent you from entering the Seminary? I will say more, I undertake to procure for you the best parish in the district. For,’ Fouque went on, lowering his voice, ‘I supply firewood to the — — and the — — and M. ——. I give them the best quality of oak, for which they pay me the price of white wood, but never was money better invested.’

Nothing could prevail against Julien’s vocation. In the end Fouque decided that he must be slightly mad. On the third day, at dawn, Julien left his friend to pass the day among the rocks of the big mountain. He found his little cave again, but he no longer enjoyed peace of mind, his friend’s offers had destroyed it. Like Hercules he found himself called upon to choose not between vice and virtue, but between mediocrity ending in an assured comfort and all the heroic dreams of his youth. ‘So I have no real firmness of character,’ he told himself; and this was the doubt that pained him most. ‘I am not of the stuff of which great men are made, since I am afraid that eight years spent in providing myself with bread may rob me of that sublime energy which makes men do extraordinary things.’

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