The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 19

To Think Is To Be Full of Sorrow

The grotesque character of everyday occurrences conceals from one the real misery of passions.

BARNAVE

While he was replacing its ordinary furniture in the room that M. de La Mole had occupied, Julien found a piece of stout paper, folded twice across. He read at the foot of the first page:

To H. E., M. le Marquis de La Mole, Peer of France, Knight of the Royal Orders, etc., etc.

It was a petition in the rude handwriting of a cook.

Monsieur le Marquis,

All my life I have held religious principles. I was in Lyons, exposed to the bombs, at the time of the siege, in ‘93, of execrable memory. I am a communicant, I go every Sunday to mass in my parish church. I have never failed in my Easter duty, not even in ‘93, of execrable memory. My cook, for before the revolution I kept servants, my cook observes Friday. I enjoy in Verrieres a general and I venture to say merited respect. I walk beneath the dais in processions, beside the cure and the mayor. I carry, on solemn occasions, a big candle bought at my own cost. The certificates of all of which are in Paris at the Ministry of Finance. I ask Monsieur le Marquis for the Verrieres lottery office, which cannot fail to be vacant soon in one way or another, the present holder being seriously ill, and besides voting the wrong way at the elections; etc.

DE CHOLIN

On the margin of this petition was an endorsement signed de Moirod, which began with the words:

‘I had the honour yesterday to mention the respectable person who makes this request,’ and so forth.

‘And so even that imbecile Cholin shows me the way that I must follow,’ Julien said to himself.

A week after the visit of the King of —— to Verrieres, the chief thing to emerge from the innumerable falsehoods, foolish interpretations, absurd discussions, etc., etc., to which the King, the Bishop of Agde, the Marquis de La Mole, the ten thousand bottles of wine, the unseated Moirod (who, in the hope of a Cross, did not set foot outside his own door for a whole month after his fall) were in turn subjected, was the utter indelicacy of having jockeyed into the Guard of Honour, Julien Sorel, the son of a carpenter. You ought to have heard, on this topic, the wealthy calico printers, who, morning, noon and night, used to talk themselves hoarse in preaching equality. That proud woman, Madame de Renal, was the author of this abomination. Her reason? The flashing eyes and pink cheeks of that young abbe Sorel were reason enough and to spare.

Shortly after their return to Vergy, Stanislas Xavier, the youngest of the children, took fever; at once Madame de Renal was seized by the most fearful remorse. For the first time she blamed herself for falling in love in a coherent fashion. She seemed to understand, as though by a miracle, the appalling sin into which she had let herself be drawn. Although deeply religious by nature, until this moment she had never thought of the magnitude of her crime in the eyes of God.

Long ago, at the convent of the Sacred Heart, she had loved God with a passionate love; she feared Him in the same way in this predicament. The struggles that rent her heart asunder were all the more terrible in that there was nothing reasonable in her fear. Julien discovered that any recourse to argument irritated instead of calming her; she saw in it the language of hell. However, as Julien himself was greatly attached to little Stanislas, he was more welcome to speak to her of the child’s illness: presently it assumed a grave character. Then her incessant remorse deprived Madame de Renal even of the power to sleep; she never emerged from a grim silence: had she opened her mouth, it would have been to confess her crime to God and before men.

‘I beg of you,’ Julien said to her, as soon as they were alone, ‘say nothing to anyone; let me be the sole confidant of your griefs. If you still love me, do not speak! your words cannot cure our Stanislas of his fever.’

But his attempts at consolation produced no effect; he did not know that Madame de Renal had taken it into her head that, to appease the anger of a jealous God, she must either hate Julien or see her son die. It was because she felt that she could not hate her lover that she was so unhappy.

‘Avoid my presence,’ she said to Julien one day; ‘in the name of God, leave this house: it is your presence here that is killing my son.

‘God is punishing me,’ she added in a whisper; ‘He is just; I adore His equity; my crime is shocking, and I was living without remorse! It was the first sign of departure from God: I ought to be doubly punished.’

Julien was deeply touched. He was unable to see in this attitude either hypocrisy or exaggeration. ‘She believes that she is killing her son by loving me, and yet the unhappy woman loves me more than her son. That, how can I doubt it, is the remorse that is killing her; there is true nobility of feeling. But how can I have inspired such love, I, so poor, so ill-bred, so ignorant, often so rude in my manners?’

One night the child’s condition was critical. About two o’clock in the morning, M. de Renal came to see him. The boy, burning with fever, was extremely flushed and did not recognise his father. Suddenly Madame de Renal threw herself at her husband’s feet: Julien saw that she was going to reveal everything and to ruin herself for ever.

Fortunately, this strange exhibition annoyed M. de Renal.

‘Good night! Good night!’ he said and prepared to leave the room.

‘No, listen to me,’ cried his wife on her knees before him, seeking to hold him back. ‘Learn the whole truth. It is I that am killing my son. I gave him his life, and I am taking it from him. Heaven is punishing me; in the eyes of God, I am guilty of murder. I must destroy and humble myself; it may be that such a sacrifice will appease the Lord.’

If M. de Renal had been a man of imagination, he would have guessed everything.

‘Romantic stuff,’ he exclaimed, thrusting away his wife who sought to embrace his knees. ‘Romantic stuff, all that! Julien, tell them to fetch the doctor at daybreak.’

And he went back to bed. Madame de Renal sank on her knees, half unconscious, with a convulsive movement thrusting away Julien, who was coming to her assistance.

Julien stood watching her with amazement.

‘So this is adultery!’ he said to himself . . . ‘Can it be possible that those rascally priests are right after all? That they, who commit so many sins, have the privilege of knowing the true theory of sin? How very odd!’

For twenty minutes since M. de Renal had left the room, Julien had seen the woman he loved, her head sunk on the child’s little bed, motionless and almost unconscious. ‘Here we have a woman of superior intelligence reduced to the last extremes of misery, because she has known me,’ he said to himself.

The hours passed rapidly. ‘What can I do for her? I must make up my mind. I have ceased to count here. What do I care for men, and their silly affectations? What can I do for her? . . . Go from her? But I shall be leaving her alone, torn by the most frightful grief. That automaton of a husband does her more harm than good. He will say something offensive to her, in his natural coarseness; she may go mad, throw herself from the window.

‘If I leave her, if I cease to watch over her, she will tell him everything. And then, for all one knows, in spite of the fortune he is to inherit through her, he will make a scandal. She may tell everything, great God, to that — abbe Maslon, who makes the illness of a child of six an excuse for never stirring out of this house, and not without purpose. In her grief and her fear of God, she forgets all that she knows of the man; she sees only the priest.’

‘Leave me,’ came suddenly from Madame de Renal as she opened her eyes.

‘I would give my life a thousand times to know how I can be of most use to you,’ replied Julien; ‘never have I so loved you, my dear angel, or rather, from this instant only, I begin to adore you as you deserve to be adored. What is to become of me apart from you, and with the knowledge that you are wretched by my fault! But I must not speak of my own sufferings. I shall go, yes, my love. But, if I leave you, if I cease to watch over you, to be constantly interposing myself between you and your husband, you will tell him everything, you will be ruined. Think of the ignominy with which he will drive you from the house; all Verrieres, all Besancon will ring with the scandal. All the blame will be cast on you; you will never be able to lift up your head again.’

‘That is all that I ask,’ she cried, rising to her feet. ‘I shall suffer, all the better.’

‘But, by this appalling scandal, you will be harming him as well!’

‘But I humble myself, I throw myself down in the mud; and in that way perhaps I save my son. This humiliation, in the sight of all, is perhaps a public penance. So far as my frailty can judge, is it not the greatest sacrifice that I can make to God? Perhaps he will deign to accept my humiliation and to spare me my son! Show me a harder sacrifice and I will hasten to perform it.’

‘Let me punish myself. I too am guilty. Would you have me retire to La Trappe? The austerity of the life there may appease your God . . . Oh, heaven! Why can I not take upon myself Stanislas’s illness?’

‘Ah! You love him,’ said Madame de Renal, rising and flinging herself into his arms.

Immediately she thrust him from her with horror.

‘I believe you! I believe you!’ she went on, having fallen once more on her knees; ‘O my only friend, why are not you Stanislas’s father? Then it would not be a horrible sin to love you more than your son.’

‘Will you permit me to stay, and henceforward only to love you as a brother? It is the only reasonable expiation; it may appease the wrath of the Most High.’

‘And I,’ she exclaimed, rising, and taking Julien’s head in her hands, and holding it at arm’s length before her eyes, ‘and I, shall I love you like a brother? Is it in my power to love you like a brother?’

Julien burst into tears.

‘I will obey you,’ he said as he fell at her feet. ‘I will obey you, whatever you may bid me do; it is the one thing left for me. My brain is smitten with blindness; I can see no course to take. If I leave you, you tell your husband all; you ruin yourself, and him at the same time. After such a disgrace he will never be elected Deputy. If I stay, you regard me as the cause of your son’s death, and you yourself die of grief. Would you like to test the effect of my going? If you like, I will punish myself for our sin by leaving you for a week. I shall pass the time in retreat wherever you choose. At the abbey of Bray-le-Haut, for instance; but swear to me that during my absence you will reveal nothing to your husband. Remember that I can never return if you speak.’

She promised; he departed, but was recalled after two days.

‘It is impossible for me to keep my oath without you. I shall speak to my husband, if you are not constantly there to order me with your eyes to be silent. Each hour of this abominable life seems to me to last a day.’

In the end, heaven took pity on this unhappy mother. Gradually Stanislas passed out of danger. But the ice was broken, her reason had learned the magnitude of her sin, she could no more recover her equilibrium. Remorse still remained, and took the form that it was bound to take in so sincere a heart. Her life was heaven and hell; hell when she did not see Julien, heaven when she was at his feet.

‘I am no longer under any illusion,’ she told him, even at the moments when she ventured to give absolute rein to her love: ‘I am damned, irremediably damned. You are young, you have yielded to my seduction, heaven may pardon you; but as for me, I am damned. I know it by an infallible sign. I am afraid: who would not be afraid at the sight of hell? But at heart, I am not in the least repentant. I would commit my sin again, were it to be committed. Let heaven only refrain from punishing me in this world and in my children, and I shall have more than I deserve. But you, at least, my Julien,’ she cried at other moments, ‘are you happy? Do you feel that I love you enough?’

Julien’s distrust and suffering pride, which needed above all a love that made sacrifices, could not stand out against the sight of so great, so indubitable a sacrifice, and one that was made afresh every moment. He adored Madame de Renal. ‘She may well be noble, and I the son of a working man; she loves me . . . I am not to her a footman employed in the part of lover.’ Once rid of this fear, Julien fell into all the follies of love, into its mortal uncertainties.

‘At least.’ she cried when she saw that he doubted her love, ‘let me make you happy during the few days we still have to spend together! Let us make haste; tomorrow perhaps I shall be no longer yours. If heaven strikes me through my children, in vain shall I seek to live only for love of you, not to see that it is my crime that is killing them. I shall not be able to survive that blow. Even if I would, I could not; I should go mad.’

‘Ah! If I could take your sin upon my conscience, as you so generously wished that you might take Stanislas’s fever!’

This great moral crisis changed the nature of the sentiment that united Julien to his mistress. His love was no longer merely admiration of her beauty, pride in the possession of her.

Their joy was thenceforward of a far higher nature, the flame that devoured them was more intense. They underwent transports of utter madness. Their happiness would have seemed great in the eyes of other people. But they never recaptured the delicious serenity, the unclouded happiness, the spontaneous joy of the first days of their love, when Madame de Renal’s one fear was that of not being loved enough by Julien. Their happiness assumed at times the aspect of crime.

In what were their happiest, and apparently their calmest moments: ‘Oh! Great God! I see hell before me,’ Madame de Renal would suddenly exclaim, gripping Julien’s hand with a convulsive movement. ‘What fearful torments! I have well deserved them.’ She clutched him, clinging to him like the ivy to the wall.

Julien tried in vain to calm this agitated soul. She took his hand, which she covered with kisses. Then, relapsing into a sombre meditation; ‘Hell,’ she said, ‘hell would be a blessing to me; I should still have some days in this world to spend with him, but hell here on earth, the death of my children . . . Yet, at that price, perhaps my crime would be forgiven me . . . Oh! Great God! Grant me not my pardon at that price. These poor children have done nothing to offend thee; ’tis I, I, the guilt is mine alone! I love a man who is not my husband.’

Julien next saw Madame de Renal reach a state that was outwardly tranquil. She sought to take the burden upon herself, she wished not to poison the existence of him whom she loved.

In the midst of these alternations of love, remorse and pleasure, the days passed for them with lightning rapidity. Julien lost the habit of reflection.

Miss Elisa went to conduct a little lawsuit which she had at Verrieres. She found M. Valenod greatly annoyed with Julien. She hated the tutor and often spoke about him to M. Valenod.

‘You would ruin me, Sir, if I told you the truth!’ she said to him one day. ‘Employers all hang together in important things. They never forgive us poor servants for certain revelations . . . ’

After these conventional phrases, which the impatient curiosity of M. Valenod found a way of cutting short, he learned the most mortifying things in the world for his own self-esteem.

This woman, the most distinguished in the place, whom for six years he had surrounded with every attention, and, unluckily, before the eyes of all the world; this proudest of women, whose disdain had so often made him blush, had taken as her lover a little journeyman dressed up as a tutor. And that nothing might be wanting to the discomfiture of the governor of the poorhouse, Madame de Renal adored this lover.

‘And,’ the maid added with a sigh, ‘M. Julien went to no pains to make this conquest, he has never departed from his habitual coldness with Madame.’

It was only in the country that Elisa had become certain of her facts, but she thought that this intrigue dated from far earlier.

‘That, no doubt, is why,’ she continued bitterly, ‘he refused at the time to marry me. And I, like a fool, going to consult Madame de Renal, begging her to speak to the tutor!’

That same evening M. de Renal received from the town, with his newspaper, a long anonymous letter which informed him in the fullest detail of all that was going on under his roof. Julien saw him turn pale as he read this letter, which was written on blue paper, and cast angry glances at himself. For the rest of the evening the Mayor never recovered his peace of mind; it was in vain that Julien tried to flatter him by asking him to explain obscure points in the pedigrees of the best families of Burgundy.

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