The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 15

Cock-crow

Amour en latin faict amor; Or done provient d’amour la mort, Et, par avant, soulcy qui mord, Deuil, plours, pieges, forfaitz, remord . ..

Blason d’amour

If Julien had had a little of that discernment which he so gratuitously supposed himself to possess, he might have congratulated himself next day on the effect produced by his visit to Verrieres. His absence had caused his clumsiness to be forgotten. All that day too, he was inclined to sulk; towards nightfall a preposterous idea occurred to him, and he imparted it to Madame de Renal with a rare intrepidity.

No sooner had they sat down in the garden than, without waiting for a sufficient cloak of darkness, Julien put his lips to Madame de Renal’s ear, and, at the risk of compromising her horribly, said to her:

‘Tonight, Ma’am, at two o’clock, I am coming to your room, I have something to say to you.’

Julien was trembling lest his request should be granted; the part of a seducer was so horrible a burden that if he had been free to follow his own inclination, he would have retired to his room for some days, and not set eyes on the ladies again. He realised that, by his clever tactics of yesterday, he had squandered all the promise of the day before, and really he did not know where to turn.

Madame de Renal replied with a genuine and by no means exaggerated indignation to the impertinent announcement which Julien had had the audacity to make. He thought he could read scorn in her brief answer. It was certain that in this answer, uttered in the lowest of tones, the word ‘Fie!’ had figured. Making the excuse that he had something to say to the children, Julien went up to their room, and on his return placed himself by the side of Madame Derville and at a distance from Madame de Renal. He thus removed from himself all possibility of taking her hand. The conversation took a serious turn, and Julien held his own admirably, apart from a few intervals of silence during which he cudgelled his brains. ‘Why cannot I think of some fine plan,’ he asked himself, ‘to force Madame de Renal to show me those unmistakable marks of affection which made me imagine, three days ago, that she was mine!’

Julien was extremely disconcerted by the almost desperate situation into which he had been led. And yet nothing could have embarrassed him so much as success.

When the party broke up at midnight, his pessimism led him to believe that Madame Derville looked upon him with contempt, and that probably he stood no higher in the favour of Madame de Renal.

Being in an extremely bad temper and deeply humiliated, Julien could not sleep. He was a thousand leagues from any thought of abandoning all pretence, all his plans, and of living from day to day with Madame de Renal, contenting himself like a child with the happiness that each day would bring.

He wearied his brain in devising clever stratagems; a moment later, he felt them to be absurd; he was in short extremely wretched, when two struck from the clock tower.

This sound aroused him as the crow of the cock aroused Saint Peter. He saw himself arrived at the moment of the most distressing event. He had not thought once again of his impertinent suggestion, from the moment in which he had made it. It had met with so hostile a reception!

‘I told her that I should come to her at two o’clock,’ he said to himself as he rose; ‘I may be inexperienced and coarse, as is natural in the son of a peasant, Madame Derville has let me see that plainly enough; but at any rate I will not be weak.’

Julien had every right to praise his own courage, never had he set himself a more painful task. As he opened the door of his room, he trembled so much that his knees gave way beneath him, and he was obliged to lean against the wall.

He was in his stockinged feet. He went to listen at M. de Renal’s door, through which he could hear him snoring. This dismayed him. He had no longer any excuse for not going to her. But, great God! What should he do when he got there? He had no plan, and even if he had had one, he was in such distress of mind that he would not have been in a fit state to put it into practice.

Finally, with an anguish a thousand times keener than if he had been going to the scaffold, he entered the little corridor that led to Madame de Renal’s room. He opened the door with a trembling hand, making a fearful noise as he did so.

There was a light in the room, a night light was burning in the fireplace; he had not expected this fresh calamity. Seeing him enter, Madame de Renal sprang quickly out of bed. ‘Wretch!’ she cried. There was some confusion. Julien forgot his futile plans and returned to his own natural character. Not to please so charming a woman seemed to him the greatest disaster possible. His only answer to her reproaches was to fling himself at her feet, clasping her round the knees. As she spoke to him with extreme harshness, he burst into tears.

Some hours later, when Julien emerged from Madame de Renal’s room, one might have said, in the language of romance, that there was nothing more left for him to wish. And indeed, he was indebted to the love he had inspired and to the unforeseen impression made on him by her seductive charms for a victory to which not all his misplaced ingenuity would ever have led him.

But, in the most delicious moments, the victim of a freakish pride, he still attempted to play the part of a man in the habit of captivating women: he made incredible efforts to destroy his natural amiability. Instead of his paying attention to the transports which he excited, and to the remorse that increased their vivacity, the idea of duty was continually before his eyes. He feared a terrible remorse, and undying ridicule, should he depart from the ideal plan that he had set himself to follow. In a word, what made Julien a superior being was precisely what prevented him from enjoying the happiness that sprang up at his feet. He was like a girl of sixteen who has a charming complexion and, before going to a ball, is foolish enough to put on rouge.

In mortal terror at the apparition of Julien, Madame de Renal was soon a prey to the cruellest alarms. Julien’s tears and despair distressed her greatly.

Indeed, when she had no longer anything to refuse him, she thrust him from her, with genuine indignation, and then flung herself into his arms. No purpose was apparent in all this behaviour. She thought herself damned without remission, and sought to shut out the vision of hell by showering the most passionate caresses on Julien. In a word, nothing would have been wanting to complete our hero’s happiness, not even a burning sensibility in the woman he had just vanquished, had he been capable of enjoying it. Julien’s departure brought no cessation of the transports which were shaking her in spite of herself, nor of her struggle with the remorse that was tearing her.

‘Heavens! Is to be happy, to be loved, no more than that?’ Such was Julien’s first thought on his return to his own room. He was in that state of astonishment and uneasy misgivings into which a heart falls when it has just obtained what it has long desired. It has grown used to desiring, finds nothing left to desire, and has not yet acquired any memories. Like a soldier returning from a parade, Julien was busily engaged in reviewing all the details of his conduct. ‘Have I failed in one of the duties I owe to myself? Have I really played my part?’

And what a part! The part of a man accustomed to shine before women.

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