The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 17

The Principal Deputy

O! how this spring of love resembleth The uncertain glory of an April day, Which now shows all the beauty of the sun, And by and by a cloud takes all away!

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

One evening as the sun set, sitting by his mistress, at the end of the orchard, safe from disturbance, he was deep in thought. ‘Will such delicious moments,’ he was wondering, ‘last for ever?’ His thoughts were absorbed in the difficulty of adopting a profession, he was deploring this great and distressing problem which puts an end to boyhood and spoils the opening years of manhood when one has no money.

‘Ah!’ he cried, ‘Napoleon was indeed the man sent by God to help the youth of France! Who is to take his place? What will the poor wretches do without him, even those who are richer than I, who have just the few crowns needed to procure them a good education, and not enough money to purchase a man at twenty and launch themselves in a career! Whatever happens,’ he added with deep sigh, ‘that fatal memory will for ever prevent us from being happy!’

He saw Madame de Renal frown suddenly; she assumed a cold, disdainful air; this line of thought seemed to her worthy of a servant. Brought up in the idea that she was extremely rich, it seemed to her a thing to be taken for granted that Julien was also. She loved him a thousand times more than life itself, and money to her meant nothing.

Julien was far from guessing what was in her mind. This frown brought him back to earth. He had presence of mind enough to arrange his sentence and to make it plain to the noble lady, seated so close beside him on the bank of verdure, that the words he had just uttered were some that he had heard during his expedition to his friend the timber merchant. This was the reasoning of the impious.

‘Very well! Don’t mix any more with such people,’ said Madame de Renal, still preserving a trace of that glacial air which had suddenly taken the place of an expression of the tenderest affection.

This frown, or rather his remorse for his imprudence, was the first check administered to the illusion that was bearing Julien away. He said to himself: ‘She is good and kind, her feeling for me is strong, but she has been brought up in the enemy’s camp. They are bound to be specially afraid of that class of men of spirit who, after a good education, have not enough money to enter upon a career. What would become of these nobles, if it were granted us to fight them with equal weapons? Myself, for instance, as Mayor of Verrieres, well intentioned, honest as M. de Renal is at heart, how I should deal with the vicar, M. Valenod and all their rascalities! How justice should triumph in Verrieres. It is not their talents that would prove an obstacle. They are endlessly feeling their way.’

Julien’s happiness was, that day, on the point of becoming permanent. What our hero lacked was the courage to be sincere. He needed the courage to give battle, but on the spot; Madame de Renal had been surprised by his speech, because the men whom she was in the habit of meeting were always saying that the return of Robespierre was made possible especially by these young men of the lower orders, who had been too well educated. Madame de Renal’s cold manner persisted for some time, and seemed to Julien to be marked. This was because the fear of having said to him indirectly something unpleasant followed her repugnance at his unfortunate speech. This distress was clearly shown on her pure countenance; so simple when she was happy and away from bores.

Julien no longer dared give himself up freely to his dreams. More calm and less amorous, he decided that it was imprudent in him to go to Madame de Renal in her room. It would be better if she came to him; if a servant saw her moving about the house, there would be a score of possible reasons to account for her action.

But this arrangement also had its drawbacks. Julien had received from Fouque certain books for which he, as a student of divinity, could never have asked a bookseller. He ventured to open them only at night. Often he would have been just as well pleased not to be interrupted by an assignation, the tension of waiting for which, even before the little scene in the orchard, would have left him incapable of reading.

He was indebted to Madame de Renal for an entirely new understanding of the books he read. He had ventured to ply her with questions as to all sorts of little things ignorance of which seriously handicaps the intelligence of a young man born outside the ranks of society, whatever natural genius one may choose to attribute to him.

This education in love, given by an extremely ignorant woman, was a blessing. Julien was at once enabled to see society as it is today. His mind was not perplexed by accounts of what it was in the past, two thousand years ago, or sixty years ago merely, in the days of Voltaire and Louis XV. To his unspeakable joy a cloud passed from before his eyes; he understood at last the things that were happening at Verrieres.

In the foreground appeared the highly complicated intrigues woven, for the last two years, round the Prefect at Besancon. They were supported by letters that came from Paris, and bore all the most illustrious signatures. It was a question of making M. de Moirod, the most bigoted man in the place, the Principal instead of the Second Deputy to the Mayor of Verrieres.

His rival was an extremely rich manufacturer, whom it was absolutely essential to confine to the post of Second Deputy.

Julien at last understood the hints that he had overheard, when the cream of local society came to dine with M. de Renal. This privileged class was greatly taken up with this selection of a Principal Deputy, of which the rest of the town and especially the Liberals did not even suspect the possibility. What gave it its importance was that, as everybody knew, the eastern side of the main street of Verrieres must be moved back more than nine feet, for this street was now a royal highway.

Well, if M. de Moirod, who owned three houses that would have to be moved back, succeeded in becoming Principal Deputy, and so Mayor in the event of M. de Renal’s being returned to Parliament, he would shut his eyes, and it would be possible to make little, imperceptible repairs to the houses that encroached on the public thoroughfare, as a result of which they would be good for a hundred years. Despite the great piety and admitted probity of M. de Moirod, it was certain that he could be managed, for he had a large family. Among the houses that would have to be moved back, nine belonged to the very best people in Verrieres.

In Julien’s eyes, this intrigue was far more important than the history of the battle of Fontenoy, a name which he saw for the first time in one of the books that Fouque had sent him. Many things had astonished Julien during the five years since he had begun to spend his evenings with the cure. But discretion and a humble spirit being the chief qualities required in a divinity student, it had always been impossible for him to ask any questions.

One day, Madame de Renal had given an order to her husband’s valet, Julien’s enemy.

‘But, Ma’am, today is the last Friday of the month,’ the man answered her with a curious expression.

‘Go,’ said Madame de Renal.

‘Well,’ said Julien, ‘he is going to that hay store, which used to be a church, and was recently restored to the faith; but why? That is one of the mysteries which I have never been able to penetrate.’

‘It is a most beneficial, but a very strange institution,’ replied Madame de Renal. ‘Women are not admitted; all that I know of it is that they all address one another as tu. For instance, this servant will find M. Valenod there, and that conceited fool will not be in the least annoyed at hearing himself called tu by Saint–Jean, and will answer him in the same tone. If you really want to know what they do there, I can ask M. de Maugiron and M. Valenod for details. We pay twenty francs for each servant so that they do not cut our throats.’

The time flew. The memory of his mistress’s charms distracted Julien from his black ambition. The necessity to refrain from speaking to her of serious, reasonable matters, since they were on opposite sides, added, without his suspecting it, to the happiness that he owed to her and to the power which she was acquiring over him.

At those moments when the presence of quick-eared children confined them to the language of cold reason, it was with a perfect docility that Julien, gazing at her with eyes that burned with love, listened to her explanations of the world as it really was. Often, in the middle of an account of some clever piece of roguery, in connection with the laying out of a road, or of some astounding contract, Madame de Renal’s mind would suddenly wander to the point of delirium; Julien was obliged to scold her, she allowed herself to caress him in the same way as she caressed her children. This was because there were days on which she imagined that she loved him like a child of her own. Had she not to reply incessantly to his artless questions about a thousand simple matters of which a child of good family is not ignorant at fifteen? A moment later, she was admiring him as her master. His intelligence positively frightened her; she thought she could perceive more clearly every day the future great man in this young cleric. She saw him as Pope, she saw him as First Minister, like Richelieu.

‘Shall I live long enough to see you in your glory?’ she said to Julien; ‘there is a place waiting for a great man; the Monarchy, the Church need one; these gentlemen say so every day. If some Richelieu does not stem the torrent of private judgment, all is lost.’

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