The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 16

The Day After

He turn’d his lips to hers, and with his hand Call’d back the tangles of her wandering hair.

Don Juan, I. 170

Fortunately for Julien’s pride, Madame de Renal had been too greatly agitated and surprised to notice the fatuity of the man who in a moment had become everything in the world to her.

As she was imploring him to withdraw, seeing the day begin to break:

‘Oh, Heavens!’ she said, ‘if my husband has heard any sound, I am lost.’

Julien, who had leisure for composing phrases, remembered one to the point:

‘Should you regret your life?’

‘Ah! Very much at this moment, but I should not regret having known you.’

Julien found that his dignity required him to return to his room in broad daylight and with deliberate want of precaution.

The continuous attention with which he watched his own slightest actions, in the insane idea of being taken for a man of experience, had this one advantage; when he saw Madame de Renal again, at luncheon, his behaviour was a miracle of prudence.

As for her, she could not look at him without blushing to the whites of her eyes, and could not live for an instant without looking at him; she noticed her own confusion, and her efforts to conceal it increased. Julien raised his eyes to hers once only. At first, Madame de Renal admired his prudence. Presently, seeing that this solitary glance was not repeated, she took alarm: ‘Can it be that he does not love me any more,’ she asked herself; ‘alas, I am far too old for him; I am ten years his senior.’

On the way from the dining-room to the garden, she pressed Julien’s hand. In the surprise that he felt at so extraordinary a token of affection, he gazed at her with passion; for she had struck him as looking very pretty at luncheon, and, without raising his eyes, he had spent his time making a detailed catalogue of her charms. This look consoled Madame de Renal; it did not remove all her uneasiness; but her uneasiness removed, almost entirely, the remorse she felt when she thought of her husband.

At luncheon, the said husband had noticed nothing; not so with Madame Derville; she feared Madame de Renal to be on the point of succumbing. All through the day, her bold, incisive friendship did not spare the other those hinted suggestions intended to portray in hideous colours the danger that she was running.

Madame de Renal was burning to be left alone with Julien; she wanted to ask him whether he still loved her. Despite the unalterable gentleness of her nature, she was more than once on the point of letting her friend know what a nuisance she was making of herself.

That evening, in the garden, Madame Derville arranged things so skilfully that she found herself placed between Madame de Renal and Julien. Madame de Renal, who had formed a delicious image of the pleasure of pressing Julien’s hand and carrying it to her lips, could not so much as address a word to him.

This catastrophe increased her agitation. Remorse for one thing was gnawing her. She had so scolded Julien for the imprudence he had shown in coming to her room the night before, that she trembled lest he might not come that night. She left the garden early, and went up to wait in her room. But, beside herself with impatience, she rose and went to glue her ear to Julien’s door. Despite the uncertainty and passion that were devouring her, she did not dare enter. This action seemed to her the last word in lowness, for it serves as text to a country maxim.

The servants were not all in bed. Prudence obliged her finally to return to her own room. Two hours of waiting were two centuries of torment.

But Julien was too loyal to what he called his duty, to fail in the execution, detail by detail, of what he had laid down for himself.

As one o’clock struck, he slipped quietly from his room, made sure that the master of the house was sound asleep, and appeared before Madame de Renal. On this occasion he found greater happiness with his mistress, for he was less continually thinking of the part he had to play. He had eyes to see and ears to hear. What Madame de Renal said to him about his age contributed to give him some degree of self-assurance.

‘Alas! I am ten years older than you! How can you love me?’ she repeated without any object, simply because the idea oppressed her.

Julien could not conceive such a thing, but he saw that her distress was genuine, and almost entirely forgot his fear of being ridiculous.

The foolish idea of his being regarded as a servile lover, at his mistress’s beck and call, on account of his humble birth, vanished likewise. In proportion as Julien’s transports reassured his coy mistress, she recovered some degree of happiness and the faculty of criticising her lover. Fortunately, he showed almost nothing, on this occasion, of that borrowed air which had made their meeting the night before a victory, but not a pleasure. Had she noticed his intentness upon playing a part, the painful discovery would have robbed her of all happiness for ever. She could have seen in it nothing else than a painful consequence of their disparity of age.

Albeit Madame de Renal had never thought about theories of love, difference of age is, next to difference of fortune, one of the great commonplaces of provincial humour, whenever there is any talk of love.

In a few days, Julien, all the ardour of his youth restored, was madly in love.

‘One must admit,’ he said to himself, ‘that her kindness of heart is angelic, and that no one could be prettier.’

He had almost entirely lost the idea of a part to be played. In a moment of unrestrained impulse, he even confessed to her all his anxieties. This confidence raised to its climax the passion that he inspired. ‘So I have not had any fortunate rival,’ Madame de Renal said to herself with ecstasy. She ventured to question him as to the portrait in which he took such an interest; Julien swore to her that it was that of a man.

When Madame de Renal was calm enough to reflect, she could not get over her astonishment that such happiness could exist and that she had never had the slightest idea of it.

‘Ah!’ she said to herself, ‘if I had known Julien ten years ago, when I might still be considered pretty!’

Julien’s thoughts were worlds apart from these. His love was still founded in ambition: it was the joy of possessing — he, a poor creature so unfortunate and so despised — so noble and beautiful a woman. His acts of adoration, his transports at the sight of his mistress’s charms, ended by reassuring her somewhat as to the difference in age. Had she possessed a little of that worldly wisdom a woman of thirty has long enjoyed in more civilised lands, she would have shuddered for the continuance of a love which seemed to exist only upon surprise and the titillation of self-esteem.

In the moments when he forgot his ambition, Julien went into transports over everything that Madame de Renal possessed, including her hats and gowns. He could not tire of the pleasure of inhaling their perfume. He opened her wardrobe and stood for hours on end marvelling at the beauty and neat arrangement of everything inside. His mistress, leaning upon his shoulder, gazed at him; he himself gazed at those ornaments and fripperies which on a wedding day are displayed among the presents.

‘I might have married a man like this!’ Madame de Renal sometimes thought; ‘What a fiery spirit! What a rapturous life with him!’

As for Julien, never had he found himself so close to those terrible weapons of feminine artillery. ‘It is impossible,’ he told himself, ‘that in Paris there can be anything finer!’ After which he could find no objection to his happiness. Often his mistress’s sincere admiration, and her transports of passion made him forget the fatuous theory that had kept him so restrained and almost ridiculous in the first moments of their intimacy. There were moments when, despite his hypocritical habits, he found an intense pleasure in confessing to this great lady who admired him his ignorance of any number of little usages. His mistress’s rank seemed to raise him above himself. Madame de Renal, for her part, found the most exquisite moral satisfaction in thus instructing in a heap of little things this young man endowed with genius whom everyone regarded as bound one day to go so far. Even the Sub–Prefect and M. Valenod could not help admiring him: she thought the better of them accordingly. As for Madame Derville, these were by no means her sentiments. In despair at what she thought she could discern, and seeing that her wise counsel was becoming hateful to a woman who had positively lost her head, she left Vergy without offering an explanation for which she was not asked. Madame de Renal shed a few tears at her departure, and soon it seemed to her that her happiness was doubled. By the withdrawal of her guest she found herself left alone with her lover almost all day long.

Julien gave himself all the more readily to the pleasant society of his mistress inasmuch as, whenever he was left too long by himself, Fouque’s fatal offer recurred to his mind to worry him. In the first days of this new life, there were moments when he, who had never loved, who had never been loved by anyone, found so exquisite a pleasure in being sincere, that he was on the point of confessing to Madame de Renal the ambition which until then had been the very essence of his existence. He would have liked to be able to consult her as to the strange temptation which he felt in Fouque’s offer, but a trifling occurrence put a stop to all frankness.

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