The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 20

The Anonymous Letters

Do not give dalliance

  Too much the rein; the strongest oaths are straw

  To the fire i’the blood.

The Tempest

As they left the drawing-room about midnight, Julien found time to say to his mistress: ‘Do not let us meet tonight, your husband has suspicions; I would swear that that long letter he was reading with such displeasure is an anonymous one.’

Fortunately, Julien locked himself into his room. Madame de Renal conceived the mad idea that this warning was simply a pretext for not coming to see her. She lost her head absolutely, and at the usual hour came to his door. Julien, hearing a sound in the corridor, instantly blew out his lamp. Someone was attempting to open his door; was it Madame de Renal, was it a jealous husband?

Early the next morning, the cook, who took an interest in Julien, brought him a book on the cover of which he read these words written in Italian: Guardate alia pagina 130.

Julien shuddered at the imprudence, turned to page one hundred and thirty and found fastened to it with a pin the following letter written in haste, bedewed with tears, and without the least attempt at spelling. Ordinarily Madame de Renal spelt quite well; he was moved by this detail and began to forget the frightful imprudence.

‘So you would not let me in tonight? There are moments when I feel that I have never seen into the depths of your heart. Your look frightens me. I am afraid of you. Great God! Can it be, you have never loved me? In that case, my husband can discover our love, and shut me up in lifelong imprisonment, in the country, apart from my children. Perhaps God wills it so. I shall soon die; but you will be a monster.

‘Do you not love me? Are you tired of my follies, of my remorse, impious one? Do you wish to ruin me? I give you an easy method. Go, show this letter to all Verrieres, or rather show it to M. Valenod alone. Tell him that I love you; but no, utter no such blasphemy; tell him that I adore you, that life only began for me on the day when I first saw you; that in the wildest moments of my girlhood, I had never even dreamed of the happiness that I owe to you; that I have sacrificed my life to you, that I am sacrificing my soul to you. You know that I am sacrificing far more.

‘But what does he know of sacrifices, that man? Tell him, tell him, to make him angry, that I defy all evil-speakers, and that there is but one misfortune in the world for me, that of beholding a change in the one man who holds me to life. What a blessing for me to lose it, to offer it in sacrifice, and to fear no longer for my children!

‘Doubt not, dear friend, if there be an anonymous letter, it comes from that odious being who, for the last six years, has pursued me with his loud voice, with a list of the jumps his horse has taken, with his fatuity and with the endless enumeration of all his advantages.

‘Is there an anonymous letter? Wicked one, that is what I wished to discuss with you; but no, you were right. Clasping you in my arms, for the last time perhaps, I could never have discussed the matter calmly, as I do when I am alone. From this moment our happiness will not be so easily secured. Will that be an annoyance to you? Yes, on the days when you have not received some amusing book from M. Fouque. The sacrifice is made; tomorrow, whether there be an anonymous letter or not, I shall tell my husband that I have received an anonymous letter, that he must instantly offer you a large sum to accept another post, find some decent pretext, and send you back without delay to your family.

‘Alas, dear friend, we are going to be parted for a fortnight, perhaps a month! But there, I do you justice, you will suffer as much as I. Still, this is the only way to counteract the effect of this anonymous letter; it is not the first that my husband has received, and on my account too. Alas! How I have laughed at them!

‘The whole purpose of my scheme is to make my husband think that the letter comes from M. Valenod; I have no doubt that he is its author. If you leave the house, do not fail to go and establish yourself at Verrieres. I shall contrive that my husband conceives the idea of spending a fortnight there, to prove to the fools that there is no coolness between him and myself. Once you are at Verrieres, make friends with everyone, even the Liberals. I know that all the ladies will run after you.

‘Do not go and quarrel with M. Valenod, nor crop his ears, as you once threatened; on the contrary, show him every politeness. The essential thing is that it should be known throughout Verrieres that you are going to Valenod’s, or to some other house, for the children’s education.

‘That is what my husband will never stand. Should he resign himself to it, well, at least you will be living in Verrieres, and I shall see you sometimes. My children, who are so fond of you, will go to see you. Great God! I feel that I love my children more, because they love you. What remorse! How is all this going to end? I am wandering . . . Well, you understand what you must do; be gentle, polite, never contemptuous with these vulgar personages, I implore you on my knees: they are to be the arbiters of our destiny. Doubt not for a moment that my husband in dealing with you will conform to whatever public opinion may prescribe.

‘It is you that are going to provide me with this anonymous letter; arm yourself with patience and a pair of scissors. Cut out of a book the words you will see below; paste them together, with water-glue, on the sheet of blue paper that I send you; it came to me from M. Valenod. Be prepared for a search of your room; burn the pages of the book you mutilate. If you do not find the words ready made, have the patience to compose them letter by letter. To spare you trouble, I have cut the anonymous letter short. Alas! If you no longer love me, as I fear, how long mine must seem to you!

ANONYMOUS LETTER

“MADAME,

All your little goings on are known; but the persons to whose interest it is to check them have been warned. From a lingering affection for yourself, I beg you to detach yourself entirely from the little peasant. If you have the wisdom to do this, your husband will believe that the warning he has received was misleading, and he will be left in his error. Bear in mind that I know your secret; tremble, unhappy woman; henceforward you must tread a straight path, driven by me.”

‘As soon as you have finished pasting together the words that make up this letter (do you recognise the Governor’s style in it?) come out of your room, I shall meet you about the house.

‘I shall go to the village, and return with a troubled countenance; I shall indeed be greatly troubled. Great God! What a risk I am running, and all because you thought you detected an anonymous letter. Finally, with a woebegone face, I shall give my husband this letter, which will have been handed to me by a stranger. As for you, go for a walk in the direction of the woods with the children, and do not return until dinner time.

‘From the rocks above, you can see the tower of the dovecote. If all goes well, I shall place a white handkerchief there; if not, you will see nothing.

‘Ungrateful wretch, will not your heart find out some way of telling me that you love me, before starting on this walk? Whatever may befall me, be certain of one thing: I should not survive for a day a final parting. Ah! bad mother! These are two idle words that I have written, dear Julien. I do not feel them; I can think only of you at this moment, I have written them only so as not to be blamed by you. Now that I find myself brought to the point of losing you, what use is there in pretence? Yes, let my heart seem black as night to you, but let me not lie to the man whom I adore! I have been all too deceitful already in my life. Go to, I forgive you if you love me no longer. I have not time to read my letter through. It is a small thing in my eyes to pay with my life for the happy days which I have spent in your arms. You know that they will cost me more than life.’

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