The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 14

The English Scissors

A girl of sixteen had a rosy complexion, and put on rouge.

POLIDORI

As for Julien, Fouque’s offer had indeed destroyed all his happiness; he could not decide upon any course.

‘Alas! Perhaps I am wanting in character, I should have made Napoleon a bad soldier. Anyhow,’ he went on, ‘my little intrigue with the lady of the house is going to distract me for the moment.’

Fortunately for him, even in this minor incident, his inward feelings bore no relation to his cavalier language. He was afraid of Madame de Renal because of her pretty gown. This gown was in his eyes the advance guard of Paris. His pride was determined to leave nothing to chance and to the inspiration of the moment. Drawing upon Fouque’s confessions and the little he had read about love in the Bible, he prepared a plan of campaign in great detail. Since, though he did not admit it to himself, he was extremely anxious, he committed this plan to writing.

The following morning, in the drawing-room, Madame de Renal was alone with him for a moment.

‘Have you no other name besides Julien?’ she asked him.

Our hero did not know what answer to give to so flattering a question. No provision had been made in his plan for such an event. But for the stupid mistake of making a plan, Julien’s quick mind would soon have come to his rescue, his surprise would only have added to the keenness of his perceptions.

He was awkward and exaggerated his own awkwardness. Madame de Renal soon forgave him that. She saw in it the effect of a charming candour. And the one thing lacking, to her mind, in this man, who was considered so brilliant, was an air of candour.

‘I don’t at all trust your little tutor,’ Madame Derville said to her on several occasions. ‘He seems to me to be always thinking and to act only from motives of policy. He’s crafty.’

Julien remained deeply humiliated by the disaster of not having known what answer to make to Madame de Renal.

‘A man of my sort owes it to himself to make up for this check’; and, seizing the moment at which she passed from one room to another, he did what he considered his duty by giving Madame de Renal a kiss.

Nothing could have been less appropriate, less agreeable either to himself or to her, nor could anything have been more imprudent. They barely escaped being caught. Madame de Renal thought him mad. She was frightened and even more shocked. This stupidity reminded her of M. Valenod.

‘What would happen to me,’ she asked herself, ‘if I were left alone with him?’ All her virtue returned, for her love was in eclipse.

She arranged matters so that there should always be one of her children with her.

The day passed slowly for Julien, he spent the whole of it in clumsily carrying out his plan of seduction. He never once looked at Madame de Renal without embodying a question in his look; he was not, however, such a fool as not to see that he was failing completely to be agreeable, let alone seductive.

Madame de Renal could not get over her astonishment at finding him so awkward and at the same time so bold. ‘It is the timidity of love in a man of parts!’ she said to herself at length, with an inexpressible joy. ‘Can it be possible that he has never been loved by my rival!’

After luncheon, Madame de Renal returned to the drawing-room to entertain M. Charcot de Maugiron, the Sub–Prefect of Bray. She was working at a little tapestry frame on a tall stand. Madame Derville was by her side. It was in this position, and in the full light of day, that our hero thought fit to thrust forward his boot and press the pretty foot of Madame de Renal, whose open-work stocking and smart Parisian shoe were evidently attracting the gaze of the gallant Sub–Prefect.

Madame de Renal was extremely alarmed; she let fall her scissors, her ball of wool, her needles, and Julien’s movement could thus pass for a clumsy attempt to prevent the fall of the scissors, which he had seen slipping down. Fortunately these little scissors of English steel broke, and Madame de Renal could not sufficiently express her regret that Julien had not been nearer at hand.

‘You saw them falling before I did, you might have caught them; your zeal has only succeeded in giving me a violent kick.’

All this play-acting took in the Sub–Prefect, but not Madame Derville. ‘This pretty youth has very bad manners!’ she thought; the worldly-wisdom of a provincial capital can never pardon mistakes of this sort. Madame de Renal found an opportunity of saying to Julien:

‘Be careful, I order you.’

Julien realised his own clumsiness, and was annoyed. For a long time he debated within himself whether he ought to take offence at the words: ‘I order you.’ He was foolish enough to think: ‘She might say to me “I order you” if it was something to do with the children’s education; but in responding to my love, she assumes equality. One cannot love without equality’; and he lost himself in composing commonplaces on the subject of equality. He repeated angrily to himself the verse of Corneille which Madame Derville had taught him a few days earlier:

Love creates equalities, it does not seek them.

Julien, insisting upon playing the part of a Don Juan, he who had never had a mistress in his life, was deadly dull for the rest of the day. He had only one sensible idea; bored with himself and with Madame de Renal, he saw with alarm the evening approach when he would be seated in the garden, by her side and in the dark. He told M. de Renal that he was going to Verrieres to see the cure; he set off after dinner, and did not return until late at night.

At Verrieres, Julien found M. Chelan engaged in packing up; he had at last been deprived of his benefice; the vicar Maslon was to succeed him. Julien helped the good cure, and it occurred to him to write to Fouque that the irresistible vocation which he felt for the sacred ministry had prevented him at first from accepting his friend’s obliging offer, but that he had just witnessed such an example of injustice, that perhaps it would be more advantageous to his welfare were he not to take holy orders.

Julien applauded his own deftness in making use of the deprivation of the cure of Verrieres to leave a door open for himself and so return to commerce, should the sad voice of prudence prevail, in his mind, over heroism.

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