The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 18

A King at Verrieres

Are you fit only to be flung down like the corpse of a nation, its soul gone and its veins emptied of blood?

(From the Bishop’s address,

delivered in the Chapel of Saint Clement)

On the third of September, at ten o’clock in the evening, a mounted constable aroused the whole of Verrieres by galloping up the main street; he brought the news that His Majesty the King of — was coming the following Sunday, and it was now Tuesday. The Prefect authorised, that is to say ordered, the formation of a Guard of Honour; he must be received with all the pomp possible. A courier was sent to Vergy. M. de Renal arrived during the night and found the whole town in a ferment. Everybody was claiming a right to something; those who had no other duty were engaging balconies to see the King enter the town.

Who was to command the Guard of Honour? M. de Renal saw at once how important it was, in the interest of the houses that would have to be moved back, that M. de Moirod should fill this post. It might be held to constitute a claim to the place of Principal Deputy. There was nothing to be said against M. de Moirod’s devotion; it went beyond all comparison, but he had never ridden a horse in his life. He was a man of six and thirty, timid in every way, and equally afraid of falls and of being laughed at.

The Mayor sent for him at five o’clock in the morning.

‘You see, Sir, that I am asking your advice, as though you already occupied the post in which all right-minded people would gladly see you. In this unfortunate town the manufacturers prosper, the Liberal Party are becoming millionaires, they aspire to power, they will forge themselves weapons out of everything. We must consider the King’s interests, those of the Monarchy, and above all those of our holy religion. To whom do you think, Sir, that we ought to entrust the command of the Guard of Honour?’

In spite of the horrible fear that a horse inspired in him, M. de Moirod ended by accepting this honour like a martyr. ‘I shall manage to adopt the right manner,’ he told the Mayor. There was barely time to overhaul the uniforms which had been used seven years before on the passage of a Prince of the Blood.

At seven, Madame de Renal arrived from Vergy with Julien and the children. She found her drawing-room full of Liberal ladies who were preaching the union of parties, and had come to implore her to make her husband find room in the Guard of Honour for theirs. One of them asserted that if her husband were not chosen he would go bankrupt from grief. Madame de Renal sent them all packing at once. She seemed greatly occupied.

Julien was surprised and even more annoyed by her making a mystery to him of what was disturbing her. ‘I thought as much,’ he told himself bitterly, ‘her love is eclipsed by the joy of receiving a King in her house. All this excitement dazzles her. She will begin to love me again when her brain is no longer troubled by ideas of caste.’

The surprising thing was that he loved her all the more for this.

The upholsterers began to invade the whole house, he long watched in vain for an opportunity of saying a word to her. At length he found her coming out of his own room, carrying one of his coats. They were alone. He tried to speak to her. She made off, declining to listen to him. ‘What a fool I am to be in love with a woman like that, ambition makes her just as stupid as her husband.’

She was even more so: one of her great wishes, which she had never confessed to Julien, for fear of shocking him, was to see him discard, if only for a day, his gloomy black coat. With an ingenuity truly admirable in so natural a woman, she secured, first from M. de Moirod, and then from the Sub–Prefect M. de Maugiron, that Julien should be appointed to the Guard of Honour in preference to five or six young men, sons of manufacturers in easy circumstances, at least two of whom were of an exemplary piety. M. Valenod, who was reckoning on lending his carriage to the prettiest women of the town, in order to have his fine Norman horses admired, agreed to let Julien, the person he hated most, have one of them. But each of the members of the Guard of Honour possessed or had borrowed one of those sky-blue coats with a pair of colonel’s epaulettes in silver, which had shone in public seven years before. Madame de Renal wanted a new coat, and she had but four days in which to send to Besancon, and to procure from there the uniform, the weapons, the hat, and all the other requisites for a Guard of Honour. What is rather amusing is that she thought it imprudent to have Julien’s coat made at Verrieres. She wished to take him by surprise, him and the town.

The work of organising the Guard of Honour and popular feeling finished, the Mayor had next to deal with a great religious ceremony; the King of —— refused to pass through Verrieres without paying a visit to the famous relic of Saint Clement which is preserved at Bray-le-Haut, a short league from the town. The clergy must be present in full force, and this was the most difficult thing to arrange; M. Maslon, the new cure, was determined, at any price, to keep M. Chelan out. In vain did M. de Renal point out to him the imprudence of this action. The Marquis de La Mole, whose ancestors for so long were Governors of the Province, had been chosen to accompany the King of ——. He had known the abbe Chelan for thirty years. He would be certain to inquire for him on arriving at Verrieres, and, if he found that he was in disgrace, was quite capable of going in search of him, to the little house to which he had retired, accompanied by such of the procession as were under his orders. What a rebuff that would be!

‘I am dishonoured here and at Besancon,’ replied the abbe Maslon, ‘if he appears among my clergy. A Jansenist, great heavens!’

‘Whatever you may say, my dear abbe,’ M. de Renal assured him, ‘I shall not expose the municipal government of Verrieres to the risk of an insult from M. de La Mole. You don’t know the man, he is sound enough at court; but here, in the country, he has a satirical, mocking spirit, and likes nothing so much as to embarrass people. He is capable, simply for his own amusement, of covering us with ridicule in the eyes of the Liberals.’

It was not until the night between Saturday and Sunday, after three days of discussion, that the abbe Maslon’s pride gave way before the Mayor’s fear, which had turned to courage. The next thing was to write a honeyed note to the abbe Chelan, inviting him to be present at the veneration of the relic at Bray-le-Haut, his great age and infirmities permitting. M. Chelan asked for and obtained a letter of invitation for Julien, who was to accompany him in the capacity of sub-deacon.

Early on Sunday morning, thousands of peasants, arriving from the neighbouring mountains, flooded the streets of Verrieres. It was a day of brilliant sunshine. At length, about three o’clock, a tremor ran through the crowd; they had caught sight of a beacon blazing on a rock two leagues from Verrieres. This signal announced that the King had just entered the territory of the Department. Immediately the sound of all the bells and the repeated discharge of an old Spanish cannon belonging to the town proclaimed its joy at this great event. Half the population climbed up on the roofs. All the women were on the balconies. The Guard of Honour began to move. The brilliant uniforms were greatly admired, each of the onlookers recognised a relative or friend. There was general laughter at the alarm of M. de Moirod, whose cautious hand lay ready at any moment to clutch hold of his saddle. But one thing made them forget all the others: the left-hand man in the ninth section was a handsome lad, very slender, who at first was not identified. Presently a cry of indignation from some, the astonished silence of others announced a general sensation. The onlookers recognised in this young man, riding one of M. Valenod’s Norman horses, young Sorel, the carpenter’s son. There was one unanimous outcry against the Mayor, especially among the Liberals. What, because this young labourer dressed up as a priest was tutor to his brats, he had the audacity to appoint him to the Guard of Honour, to the exclusion of M. This and M. That, wealthy manufacturers! ‘Those gentlemen,’ said a banker’s wife, ‘ought really to offer an affront to the little upstart, born in the gutter.’

‘He has a wicked temper and he is wearing a sabre,’ replied her companion; ‘he would be quite treacherous enough to slash them across the face.’

The comments made by the aristocratic element were more dangerous. The ladies asked themselves whether the Mayor alone was responsible for this grave breach of etiquette. On the whole justice was done to his contempt for humble birth.

While he was giving rise to so much comment, Julien was the happiest man alive. Bold by nature, he had a better seat on a horse than most of the young men of this mountain town. He saw in the eyes of the women that they were talking about him.

His epaulettes were more brilliant because they were new. At every moment his horse threatened to rear; he was in the seventh heaven of joy.

His happiness knew no bounds when, as they passed near the old rampart, the sound of the small cannon made his horse swerve out of the ranks. By the greatest accident, he did not fall off; from that moment he felt himself a hero. He was Napoleon’s orderly officer and was charging a battery.

There was one person happier than he. First of all she had watched him pass from one of the windows of the town hall; then, getting into her carriage, and rapidly making a wide detour, she was in time to tremble when his horse carried him out of the ranks. Finally, her carriage passing out at a gallop through another of the gates of the town, she made her way back to the road along which the King was to pass, and was able to follow the Guard of Honour at a distance of twenty paces, in a noble cloud of dust. Ten thousand peasants shouted: ‘Long live the King’ when the Mayor had the honour of addressing His Majesty. An hour later, when, having listened to all the speeches, the King was about to enter the town, the small cannon began to fire again with frenzied haste. But an accident occurred, not to the gunners who had learned their trade at Leipsic and Montmirail, but to the future Principal Deputy, M. de Moirod. His horse dropped him gently into the one puddle to be found along the whole road, which created a scandal, because he had to be pulled out of the way to enable the King’s carriage to pass.

His Majesty alighted at the fine new church, which was decked out for the occasion with all its crimson hangings. The King was to halt for dinner, immediately after which he would take the road again to go and venerate the famous relic of Saint Clement. No sooner was the King inside the church than Julien went off at a gallop to M. de Renal’s. There he discarded with a sigh his fine sky-blue coat, his sabre, his epaulettes, to resume the little threadbare black coat. He mounted his horse again, and in a few minutes was at Bray-le-Haut, which stands on the summit of an imposing hill. ‘Enthusiasm is multiplying these peasants,’ thought Julien. ‘One cannot move at Verrieres, and here there are more than ten thousand of them round this old abbey.’ Half ruined by the vandalism of the Revolution, it had been magnificently restored since the Restoration, and there was already some talk of miracles. Julien joined the abbe Chelan, who scolded him severely, and gave him a cassock and surplice. He vested himself hurriedly in these and followed M. Chelan, who was going in search of the youthful Bishop of Agde. This was a nephew of M. de La Mole, recently appointed to the See, who had been selected to exhibit the relic to the King. But the Bishop was not to be found.

The clergy were growing impatient. They awaited their leader in the sombre, gothic cloister of the ancient abbey. Four and twenty parish priests had been collected to represent the original chapter of Bray-le-Haut which prior to 1789 had consisted of four and twenty canons. Having spent three quarters of an hour in deploring the youthfulness of the Bishop, the priests decided that it would be a good thing if their Dean were to go and inform His Lordship that the King was on his way, and that it was time they were in the choir. M. Chelan’s great age had made him Dean; despite the anger he showed with Julien, he made a sign to him to follow him. Julien carried his surplice admirably. By some secret process of the ecclesiastical toilet-table, he had made his fine curly hair lie quite flat; but, by an oversight which intensified the anger of M. Chelan, beneath the long folds of his cassock one could see the spurs of the Guard of Honour.

When they reached the Bishop’s apartment, the tall lackeys smothered in gold lace barely condescended to inform the old cure that His Lordship could not be seen. They laughed at him when he tried to explain that in his capacity as Dean of the Noble Chapter of Bray-le-Haut, it was his privilege to be admitted at all times to the presence of the officiating Bishop.

Julien’s proud spirit was offended by the insolence of the lackeys. He set off on a tour of the dormitories of the old abbey, trying every door that he came to. One quite small door yielded to his efforts and he found himself in a cell in the midst of His Lordship’s body-servants, dressed in black with chains round their necks. Seeing his air of haste, these gentlemen supposed that the Bishop had sent for him and allowed him to pass. He went a little way and found himself in an immense gothic chamber, very dark and panelled throughout in black oak; with a single exception, its pointed windows had been walled up with bricks. There was nothing to conceal the coarse surface of this masonry, which formed a sorry contrast to the venerable splendour of the woodwork. Both sides of this room, famous among the antiquarians of Burgundy, which the Duke Charles the Bold built about the year 1470 in expiation of some offence, were lined with wooden stalls, richly carved. These displayed, inlaid in wood of different colours, all the mysteries of the Apocalypse.

This melancholy splendour, degraded by the intrusion of the bare bricks and white plaster, impressed Julien. He stood there in silence. At the other end of the room, near the only window through which any light came, he saw a portable mirror framed in mahogany. A young man, robed in violet with a lace surplice, but bare-headed, was standing three paces away from the mirror. This article appeared out of place in such a room, and had doubtless been brought there from the town. Julien thought that the young man seemed irritated; with his right hand he was gravely giving benedictions in the direction of the mirror.

‘What can this mean?’ he wondered. ‘Is it a preliminary ceremony that this young priest is performing? He is perhaps the Bishop’s secretary . . . he will be rude like the lackeys . . . but what of that, let us try him.’

He went forward and passed slowly down the length of the room, keeping his eyes fixed on that solitary window and watching the young man who continued to give benedictions, with a slow motion but in endless profusion, and without pausing for a moment.

As he drew nearer he was better able to see the other’s look of annoyance. The costliness of his lace-bordered surplice brought Julien to a standstill some distance away from the magnificent mirror.

‘It is my duty to speak,’ he reminded himself at length; but the beauty of the room had touched his feelings and he was chilled in anticipation by the harsh words that would be addressed to him.

The young man caught sight of him in the glass, turned round, and suddenly discarding his look of irritation said to him in the pleasantest tone:

‘Well, Sir, is it ready yet?’

Julien remained speechless. As this young man turned towards him, Julien saw the pectoral cross on his breast: it was the Bishop of Agde. ‘So young,’ thought Julien; ‘at the most, only six or eight years older than myself!’

And he felt ashamed of his spurs.

‘Monseigneur,’ he replied timidly. ‘I am sent by the Dean of the Chapter, M. Chelan.’

‘Ah! I have an excellent account of him,’ said the bishop in a courteous tone which left Julien more fascinated than ever. ‘But I beg your pardon, Sir, I took you for the person who is to bring me back my mitre. It was carelessly packed in Paris; the silver tissue has been dreadfully frayed at the top. It will create a shocking effect,’ the young Bishop went on with a sorrowful air, ‘and they are keeping me waiting too.’

‘Monseigneur, I shall go and find the mitre, with Your Lordship’s permission.’

Julien’s fine eyes had their effect.

‘Go, Sir,’ the Bishop answered with exquisite courtesy; ‘I must have it at once. I am sorry to keep the gentlemen of the Chapter waiting.’

When Julien was halfway down the room, he turned to look at the Bishop and saw that he was once more engaged in giving benedictions. ‘What can that be?’ Julien asked himself; ‘no doubt, it is a religious preparation necessary to the ceremony that is to follow.’ When he came to the cell in which the servants were waiting, he saw the mitre in their hands. These gentlemen, yielding in spite of themselves to Julien’s imperious glance, surrendered it to him.

He felt proud to be carrying it: as he crossed the room, he walked slowly; he held it with respect. He found the Bishop seated before the glass; but, from time to time, his right hand, tired as it was, still gave the benediction. Julien helped him to put on the mitre. The Bishop shook his head.

‘Ah! It will keep on,’ he said to Julien with a satisfied air. ‘Will you go a little way off?’

Whereupon the Bishop walked at a smart pace to the middle of the room, then returning towards the mirror with a slow step, he resumed his air of irritation and went on solemnly giving benedictions.

Julien was spellbound with astonishment; he was tempted to guess what this meant, but did not dare. The Bishop stopped, and looking at him with an air from which the solemnity rapidly vanished:

‘What do you say to my mitre, Sir, does it look right?’

‘Quite right, Monseigneur.’

‘It is not too far back? That would look rather silly; but it does not do, either, to wear them pulled down over one’s eyes like an officer’s shako.’

‘It seems to me to be quite right.’

‘The King of —— is accustomed to venerable clergy who are doubtless very solemn. I should not like, especially in view of my age, to appear too frivolous.’

And the Bishop once more began to walk about the room scattering benedictions.

‘It is quite clear,’ said Julien, at last venturing to understand, ‘he is practising the benediction.’

A few moments later:

‘I am ready,’ said the Bishop. ‘Go, Sir, and inform the Dean and the gentlemen of the Chapter.’

Presently M. Chelan, followed by the two oldest of the cures, entered by an immense door, magnificently carved, which Julien had not noticed. But this time he remained in his place in the extreme rear, and could see the Bishop only over the shoulders of the ecclesiastics who crowded towards this door.

The Bishop crossed the room slowly; when he came to the threshold the cures formed in processional order. After a momentary confusion the procession began to move, intoning a psalm. The Bishop came last, between M. Chelan and another cure of great age. Julien found a place for himself quite close to His Lordship, as being attached to the abbe Chelan. They moved down the long corridors of the abbey of Bray-le-Haut; in spite of the brilliant sunshine, these were dark and damp. At length they arrived at the door of the cloister. Julien was speechless with admiration of so fine a ceremony. His heart was divided between the ambition aroused by the Bishop’s youthfulness, and the sensibility and exquisite manners of this prelate. His courtesy was of a very different kind from M. de Renal’s, even on his good days. ‘The more one rises towards the highest rank of society,’ thought Julien, ‘the more one finds these charming manners.’

They entered the church by a side door; suddenly an appalling crash made its ancient vaults resound; Julien thought that the walls were collapsing. It was again the small cannon; drawn by eight horses at a gallop, it had just arrived; and immediately on its arrival, brought into action by the gunners of Leipsic, it was firing five rounds a minute, as though the Prussians had been in front of it.

But this stirring sound no longer had any effect upon Julien, he dreamed no more of Napoleon and martial glory. ‘So young,’ he was thinking, ‘to be Bishop of Agde! But where is Agde? And how much is it worth? Two or three hundred thousand francs, perhaps.’

His Lordship’s servants appeared, carrying a magnificent dais; M. Chelan took one of the poles, but actually it was Julien that bore it. The Bishop took his place beneath it. He had really succeeded in giving himself the air of an old man; our hero’s admiration knew no bounds. ‘What cannot one do if one is clever!’ he thought.

The King made his entry. Julien was so fortunate as to see him at close range. The Bishop addressed him with unction, and did not forget to include a slight touch of confusion, extremely flattering to His Majesty. We shall not repeat the account of the ceremonies at Bray-le-Haut; for a fortnight they filled the columns of all the newspapers of the Department. Julien learned, from the Bishop’s speech, that the King was descended from Charles the Bold.

Later on it was one of Julien’s duties to check the accounts of what this ceremony had cost. M. de La Mole, who had secured a bishopric for his nephew, had chosen to pay him the compliment of bearing the whole of the expense himself. The ceremony at Bray-le-Haut alone cost three thousand eight hundred francs.

After the Bishop’s address and the King’s reply, His Majesty took his place beneath the dais; he then knelt down most devoutly upon a cushion close to the altar. The choir was enclosed with stalls, and these stalls were raised two steps above the pavement. It was on the second of these steps that Julien sat at the feet of M. Chelan, not unlike a train-bearer at the feet of his Cardinal, in the Sistine Chapel, in Rome. There were a Te Deum, clouds of incense, endless volleys of musketry and artillery; the peasants were frantic with joy and piety. Such a day undoes the work of a hundred numbers of the Jacobin papers.

Julien was within six paces of the King, who was praying with genuine fervour. He noticed for the first time a small man of intelligent appearance, whose coat was almost bare of embroidery. But he wore a sky-blue riband over this extremely simple coat. He was nearer to the King than many other gentlemen, whose coats were so covered with gold lace that, to use Julien’s expression, one could not see the cloth. He learned a minute later that this was M. de La Mole. He decided that he wore a haughty, indeed an insolent air.

‘This Marquis would not be polite like my dear Bishop,’ he thought. ‘Ah! The career of a churchman makes one gentle and wise. But the King has come to venerate the relic, and I see no relic. Where can Saint Clement be?’

A little clerk, who was next to him, informed him that the venerable relic was in the upper part of the building, in a chapelle ardente.

‘What is a chapelle ardente?’ Julien asked himself.

But he would not ask for an explanation of the words. He followed the proceedings with even closer attention.

On the occasion of a visit from a sovereign prince, etiquette requires that the canons shall not accompany the Bishop. But as he started for the chapelle ardente His Lordship of Agde summoned the abbe Chelan; Julien ventured to follow him.

After climbing a long stair, they came to a very small door, the frame of which was sumptuously gilded. This work had a look of having just been completed.

Outside the door were gathered on their knees four and twenty girls, belonging to the most distinguished families of Verrieres. Before opening the door, the Bishop sank on his knees in the midst of these girls, who were all pretty. While he was praying aloud, it seemed as though they could not sufficiently admire his fine lace, his charm, his young and pleasant face. This spectacle made our hero lose all that remained of his reason. At that moment, he would have fought for the Inquisition, and in earnest. Suddenly the door flew open. The little chapel seemed to be ablaze with light. One saw upon the altar more than a thousand candles arranged in eight rows, separated from one another by clusters of flowers. The sweet odour of the purest incense rose in clouds from the gate of the sanctuary. The newly gilded chapel was quite small, but very lofty. Julien noticed that there were on the altar candles more than fifteen feet long. The girls could not restrain a cry of admiration. No one had been admitted to the tiny ante-chapel save the twenty-four girls, the two priests and Julien.

Presently the King arrived, followed only by M. de La Mole and his Great Chamberlain. The guards themselves remained outside, on their knees, presenting their arms.

His Majesty flung himself rather than knelt down on the faldstool. It was then only that Julien, pressed against the gilded door, caught sight, beneath a girl’s bare arm, of the charming statue of Saint Clement. It was hidden beneath the altar, in the garb of a young Roman soldier. He had in his throat a large wound from which the blood seemed to be flowing. The artist had surpassed himself; the eyes, dying but full of grace, were half closed. A budding moustache adorned the charming mouth, which being slightly open had the effect of being still engaged in prayer. At the sight of this statue, the girl nearest to Julien wept hot tears; one of her tears fell upon Julien’s hand.

After an interval of prayer in the most profound silence, disturbed only by the distant sound of the bells of all the villages within a radius of ten leagues, the Bishop of Agde asked the King’s permission to speak. He concluded a brief but highly edifying discourse with these words, simple in themselves, but thereby all the better assured of their effect.

‘Never forget, young Christian women, that you have seen one of the great Kings of the earth upon his knees before the servants of this all-powerful and terrible God. These servants, frail, persecuted, martyred upon earth, as you can see from the still bleeding wound of Saint Clement, are triumphant in heaven. All your lives, I think, young Christians, you will remember this day. You will detest impiety. Always you will remain faithful to this God who is so great, so terrible, but so good.’

At these words, the Bishop rose with authority.

‘You promise me?’ he said, extending his arm with an air of inspiration.

‘We promise,’ said the girls, bursting into tears.

‘I receive your promise, in the name of our terrible God!’ the Bishop concluded in a voice of thunder. And the ceremony was at an end.

The King himself was in tears. It was not until long afterwards that Julien was calm enough to inquire where were the bones of the Saint, sent from Rome to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He was told that they were embodied in the charming wax figure.

His Majesty deigned to permit the girls who had accompanied him into the chapel to wear a red riband upon which were embroidered the words: ‘HATRED OF IMPIETY, PERPETUAL ADORATION.’

M. de La Mole ordered ten thousand bottles of wine to be distributed among the peasants. That evening, at Verrieres, the Liberals found an excuse for illuminating their houses a hundred times more brilliantly than the Royalists. Before leaving the town, the King paid a visit to M. de Moirod.

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