The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 21

Conversation with a Lord and Master

Alas! our frailty is the cause, not we! For such as we are made of, such we be.

Twelfth Night

It was with a childish pleasure that Julien spent an hour in pasting words together. As he left his room he came upon his pupils and their mother; she took the letter with a simplicity and courage, the calmness of which terrified him.

‘Is the gum quite dry?’ she asked him.

‘Can this be the woman who was being driven mad by remorse?’ he thought. ‘What are her plans at this moment?’ He was too proud to ask her; but never, perhaps, had she appealed to him more strongly.

‘If things go amiss,’ she went on with the same coolness, ‘I shall be stripped of everything. Bury this store somewhere in the mountains; it may some day be my last resource.’

She handed him a glass-topped case, in red morocco, filled with gold and a few diamonds.

‘Go now,’ she said to him.

She embraced her children, the youngest of them twice over. Julien stood spellbound. She left him at a rapid pace and without looking at him again.

>From the moment of his opening the anonymous letter, M. de Renal’s life had been a burden to him. He had not been so agitated since a duel that he had nearly had to fight in 1816, and, to do him justice, the prospect of receiving a bullet in his person would now have distressed him less. He examined the letter from every angle. ‘Is not this a woman’s hand?’ he asked himself. ‘In that case, what woman can have written it?’ He considered in turn all the women he knew at Verrieres, without finding a definite object for his suspicions. Could a man have dictated the letter? If so, what man? Here again, a similar uncertainty; he had earned the jealousy and no doubt the hatred of the majority of the men he knew. ‘I must consult my wife,’ he said to himself, from force of habit, as he rose from the armchair in which he had collapsed.

No sooner had he risen than ‘Good God!’ he exclaimed, clapping his hand to his head, ‘she is the one person whom I cannot trust; from this moment she is my enemy.’ And tears of anger welled into his eyes.

It was a fitting reward for that barrenness of heart in which practical wisdom in the provinces is rooted, that the two men whom, at that moment, M. de Renal most dreaded were his two most intimate friends.

‘Apart from them, I have ten friends perhaps,’ and he turned them over in his mind, calculating the exact amount of comfort that he would be able to derive from each. ‘To all of them, to all of them,’ he cried in his rage, ‘my appalling misfortune will give the most intense pleasure.’ Happily for him, he supposed himself to be greatly envied, and not without reason. Apart from his superb house in town on which the King of —— had just conferred everlasting honour by sleeping beneath its roof, he had made an admirable piece of work of his country house at Vergy. The front was painted white, and the windows adorned with handsome green shutters. He was comforted for a moment by the thought of this magnificence. The fact of the matter was that this mansion was visible from a distance of three or four leagues, to the great detriment of all the country houses or so-called chateaux of the neighbourhood, which had been allowed to retain the humble grey tones imparted to them by time.

M. de Renal could reckon upon the tears and pity of one of his friends, the churchwarden of the parish; but he was an imbecile who shed tears at everything. This man was nevertheless his sole resource.

‘What misfortune is comparable to mine?’ he exclaimed angrily. ‘What isolation!

‘Is it possible,’ this truly pitiable man asked himself, ‘is it possible that, in my distress, I have not a single friend of whom to ask advice? For my mind is becoming unhinged, I can feel it! Ah, Falcoz! Ah, Ducros!’ he cried bitterly. These were the names of two of his boyhood’s friends whom he had alienated by his arrogance in 1814. They were not noble, and he had tried to alter the terms of equality on which they had been living all their lives.

One of them, Falcoz, a man of spirit and heart, a paper merchant at Verrieres, had purchased a printing press in the chief town of the Department and had started a newspaper. The Congregation had determined to ruin him: his paper had been condemned, his printer’s licence had been taken from him. In these unfortunate circumstances he ventured to write to M. de Renal for the first time in ten years. The Mayor of Verrieres felt it incumbent on him to reply in the Ancient Roman style: ‘If the King’s Minister did me the honour to consult me, I should say to him: “Ruin without compunction all provincial printers, and make printing a monopoly like the sale of tobacco.”’ This letter to an intimate friend which had set the whole of Verrieres marvelling at the time, M. de Renal now recalled, word for word, with horror. ‘Who would have said that with my rank, my fortune, my Crosses, I should one day regret it?’ It was in such transports of anger, now against himself, now against all around him, that he passed a night of anguish; but, fortunately, it did not occur to him to spy upon his wife.

‘I am used to Louise,’ he said to himself, ‘she knows all my affairs; were I free to marry again tomorrow I could find no one fit to take her place.’ Next, he sought relief in the idea that his wife was innocent; this point of view made it unnecessary for him to show his strength of character, and was far more convenient; how many slandered wives have we not all seen!

‘But what!’ he suddenly exclaimed, pacing the floor with a convulsive step, ‘am I to allow her, as though I were a man of straw, a mere ragamuffin, to make a mock of me with her lover? Is the whole of Verrieres to be allowed to sneer at my complacency? What have they not said about Charmier?’ (a notorious local cuckold). ‘When he is mentioned, is there not a smile on every face? He is a good pleader, who is there that ever mentions his talent for public speaking? “Ah! Charmier!” is what they say; “Bernard’s Charmier.” They actually give him the name of the man that has disgraced him.

‘Thank heaven,’ said M. de Renal at other moments, ‘I have no daughter, and the manner in which I am going to punish their mother will not damage the careers of my children; I can surprise that young peasant with my wife, and kill the pair of them; in that event, the tragic outcome of my misfortune may perhaps make it less absurd.’ This idea appealed to him: he worked it out in the fullest detail. ‘The Penal Code is on my side, and, whatever happens, our Congregation and my friends on the jury will save me.’ He examined his hunting knife, which had a keen blade; but the thought of bloodshed frightened him.

‘I might thrash this insolent tutor black and blue and turn him from the house; but what a stir in Verrieres and, indeed, throughout the Department! After the suppression of Falcoz’s paper, when his editor came out of prison, I was instrumental in making him lose a place worth six hundred francs. They say that the scribbler has dared to show his face again in Besancon, he may easily attack me, and so cunningly that it will be impossible to bring him to justice! That insolent fellow will insinuate in a thousand ways that he has been speaking the truth. A man of family, who respects his rank as I do, is always hated by plebeians. I shall see myself in those frightful Paris papers; my God! what degradation! To see the ancient name of Renal plunged in the mire of ridicule . . . If I ever travel, I shall have to change my name; what! give up this name which is my pride and my strength. What a crowning infamy!

‘If I do not kill my wife, if I drive her from the house with ignominy, she has her aunt at Besancon, who will hand over the whole of her fortune to her on the quiet. My wife will go and live in Paris with Julien; Verrieres will hear of it, and I shall again be regarded as a dupe.’ This unhappy man then perceived, from the failing light of his lamp, that day was beginning to break. He went to seek a breath of air in the garden. At that moment, he had almost made up his mind to create no scene, chiefly because a scene of that sort would fill his good friends at Verrieres with joy.

His stroll in the garden calmed him somewhat. ‘No,’ he cried, ‘I shall certainly not part with my wife, she is too useful to me.’ He pictured to himself with horror what his house would be like without his wife; his sole female relative was the Marquise de R—— who was old, idiotic and evil-minded.

An idea of the greatest good sense occurred to him, but to put it into practice required a strength of character far exceeding the little that the poor man possessed. ‘If I keep my wife,’ he said to himself; ‘I know my own nature; one day, when she taxes my patience, I shall reproach her with her offence. She is proud, we are bound to quarrel, and all this will happen before she has inherited her aunt’s estate. And then, how they will all laugh at me! My wife loves her children, it will all come to them in the end. But I, I shall be the talk of Verrieres. What, they will say, he couldn’t even punish his wife! Would it not be better to stick to my suspicions and to verify nothing? Then I tie my own hands, I cannot afterwards reproach her with anything.’

A moment later M. de Renal, his wounded vanity once more gaining the mastery, was laboriously recalling all the stories told in the billiard-room of the Casino or Noble Club of Verrieres, when some fluent talker interrupted the pool to make merry at the expense of some cuckolded husband. How cruel, at that moment, those pleasantries seemed.

‘God! Why is not my wife dead! Then I should be immune from ridicule. Why am I not a widower! I should go and spend six months in Paris in the best society.’ After this momentary happiness caused by the idea of widowhood, his imagination returned to the methods of ascertaining the truth. Should he at midnight, after the whole household had gone to bed, sprinkle a few handfuls of bran outside the door of Julien’s room? Next morning, at daybreak, he would see the footprints on it.

‘But that would be no good,’ he broke out angrily, ‘that wretched Elisa would notice it, and it would be all over the house at once that I am jealous.’

In another story that circulated at the Casino, a husband had made certain of his plight by fastening a hair with a little wax so as to seal up the doors of his wife’s room and her lover’s.

After so many hours of vacillation, this method of obtaining enlightenment seemed to him decidedly the best, and he was thinking of adopting it, when at a bend in the path he came upon that wife whom he would have liked to see dead.

She was returning from the village. She had gone to hear mass in the church of Vergy. A tradition of extremely doubtful value in the eyes of the cold philosopher, but one in which she believed, made out that the little church now in use had been the chapel of the castle of the Lord of Vergy. This thought obsessed Madame de Renal throughout the time which she had meant to pass in prayer in this church. She kept on picturing to herself her husband killing Julien during the chase, as though by accident, and afterwards, that evening, making her eat his heart.

‘My fate,’ she said to herself, ‘depends on what he will think when he hears me. After these terrible moments, perhaps I shall not find another opportunity to speak to him. He is not a wise creature, swayed by reason. I might, if he were, with the aid of my own feeble wits, forecast what he would do or say. But my fate lies in my cunning, in the art of directing the thoughts of this whimsical creature, who becomes blind with anger and incapable of seeing things. Great God! I require talent, coolness, where am I to find them?’

She recovered her calm as though by magic on entering the garden and seeing her husband in the distance. The disorder of his hair and clothes showed that he had not slept. She handed him a letter which, though the seal was broken, was still folded. He, without opening it, gazed at his wife with madness in his eyes.

‘Here is an abomination,’ she said to him, ‘which an evil-looking man who claims to know you and that you owe him a debt of gratitude, handed to me as I came past the back of the lawyer’s garden. One thing I must ask of you, and that is that you send back to his own people, and without delay, that Monsieur Julien.’ Madame de Renal made haste to utter this name, even beginning a little too soon perhaps, in order to rid herself of the fearful prospect of having to utter it.

She was filled with joy on beholding the joy that it gave her husband. >From the fixed stare which he directed at her she realised that Julien had guessed aright. Instead of worrying about a very present trouble, ‘what intelligence,’ she thought to herself. ‘What perfect tact! And in a young man still quite devoid of experience! To what heights will he not rise in time? Alas! Then his success will make him forget me.’

This little act of admiration of the man she adored completely restored her composure.

She congratulated herself on the step she had taken. ‘I have proved myself not unworthy of Julien,’ she said to herself, with a sweet and secret relish.

Without saying a word, for fear of committing himself, M. de Renal examined this second anonymous letter composed, as the reader may remember, of printed words gummed upon a sheet of paper of a bluish tinge. ‘They are making a fool of me in every way,’ M. de Renal said to himself, utterly worn out.

‘Fresh insults to be looked into, and all owing to my wife!’ He was on the point of deluging her with a stream of the coarsest invective; the thought of the fortune awaiting her at Besancon just stopped him. Overpowered by the necessity of venting his anger on something, he tore up the sheet on which this second anonymous letter was gummed, and strode rapidly away, feeling that he could not endure his wife’s company. A minute later, he returned to her, already more calm.

‘We must take action at once and dismiss Julien,’ she immediately began; ‘after all he is only the son of a working man. You can compensate him with a few crowns, besides, he is clever and can easily find another place, with M. Valenod, for instance, or the Sub–Prefect Maugiron; they both have families. And so you will not be doing him any harm . . . ’

‘You speak like the fool that you are,’ cried M. de Renal in a voice of thunder. ‘How can one expect common sense of a woman? You never pay attention to what is reasonable; how should you have any knowledge? Your carelessness, your laziness leave you just enough activity to chase butterflies, feeble creatures which we are so unfortunate as to have in our households . . . ’

Madame de Renal let him speak, and he spoke at length; he passed his anger, as they say in those parts.

‘Sir,’ she answered him finally, ‘I speak as a woman whose honour, that is to say her most priceless possession, has been outraged.’

Madame de Renal preserved an unalterable calm throughout the whole of this trying conversation, upon which depended the possibility of her continuing to live beneath the same roof as Julien. She sought out the ideas that seemed to her best fitted to guide her husband’s blind anger. She had remained unmoved by all the insulting remarks that he had addressed to her, she did not hear them, she was thinking all the time of Julien. ‘Will he be pleased with me?’

‘This little peasant upon whom we have lavished every attention, including presents, may be innocent,’ she said at length, ‘but he is none the less the occasion of the first insult I have ever received . . . Sir, when I read that abominable document, I vowed that either he or I should leave your roof.’

‘Do you wish to create a scandal that will dishonour me and yourself as well? You’ll be giving a fine treat to many people in Verrieres.’

‘That is true; they are all jealous of the state of prosperity to which your wise management has brought you, your family and the town . . . Very well, I shall go and bid Julien ask you for leave to spend a month with that timber merchant in the mountain, a fit companion for that little workman.’

‘Take care what you do,’ put in M. de Renal, calmly enough. ‘The one thing I must insist on is that you do not speak to him. You would show temper and make him cross with me; you know how touchy the little gentleman is.’

‘That young man has no tact,’ went on Madame de Renal; ‘he may be learned, you know about that, but at bottom he is nothing but a peasant. For my own part, I have never had any opinion of him since he refused to marry Elisa, it was a fortune ready made; and all because now and again she pays a secret visit to M. Valenod.’

‘Ah!’ said M. de Renal, raising his eyebrows as far as they would go, ‘what, did Julien tell you that?’

‘No, not exactly; he has always spoken to me of the vocation that is calling him to the sacred ministry; but believe me, the first vocation for the lower orders is to find their daily bread. He made it fairly clear to me that he was not unaware of these secret visits.’

‘And I, I, knew nothing about them!’ cried M. de Renal, all his fury returning, emphasising every word. ‘There are things going on in my house of which I know nothing . . . What! There has been something between Elisa and Valenod?’

‘Oh, that’s an old story, my dear friend,’ Madame de Renal said laughing, ‘and I daresay no harm was done. It was in the days when your good friend Valenod would not have been sorry to have it thought in Verrieres that there was a little love — of a purely platonic sort — exchanged between him and me.’

‘I had that idea at one time,’ cried M. de Renal striking his head in his fury as he advanced from one discovery to another, ‘and you never said a word to me about it?’

‘Was I to make trouble between two friends all for a little outburst of vanity on the part of our dear Governor? What woman is there in society to whom he has not addressed one or more letters, extremely witty and even a trifle gallant?’

‘Has he written to you?’

‘He writes frequently.’

‘Show me his letters this instant, I order you’; and M. de Renal added six feet to his stature.

‘I shall do nothing of the sort,’ the answer came in a tone so gentle as to be almost indifferent, ‘I shall let you see them some other day, when you are more yourself.’

‘This very instant, damn it!’ cried M. de Renal, blind with rage, and yet happier than he had been at any time in the last twelve hours.

‘Will you swear to me,’ said Madame de Renal solemnly, ‘never to quarrel with the Governor of the Poorhouse over these letters?’

‘Quarrel or no quarrel, I can take the foundlings away from him; but,’ he continued, furiously, ‘I want those letters this instant; where are they?’

‘In a drawer in my desk; but you may be certain, I shall not give you the key of it.’

‘I shall be able to force it,’ he cried as he made off in the direction of his wife’s room.

He did indeed break open with an iron bar a valuable mahogany writing desk, imported from Paris, which he used often to polish with the tail of his coat when he thought he detected a spot on its surface.

Madame de Renal meanwhile had run up the hundred and twenty steps of the dovecote; she knotted the corner of a white handkerchief to one of the iron bars of the little window. She was the happiest of women. With tears in her eyes she gazed out at the wooded slopes of the mountain. ‘Doubtless,’ she said to herself, ‘beneath one of those spreading beeches, Julien is watching for this glad signal.’ For long she strained her ears, then cursed the monotonous drone of the grasshoppers and the twitter of the birds. But for those tiresome sounds, a cry of joy, issuing from among the rocks, might have reached her in her tower. Her ravening gaze devoured that immense slope of dusky verdure, unbroken as the surface of a meadow, that was formed by the treetops. ‘How is it he has not the sense,’ she asked herself with deep emotion, ‘to think of some signal to tell me that his happiness is no less than mine?’ She came down from the dovecote only when she began to be afraid that her husband might come up in search of her.

She found him foaming with rage. He was running through M. Valenod’s anodyne sentences, that were little used to being read with such emotion.

Seizing a moment in which a lull in her husband’s exclamations gave her a chance to make herself heard:

‘I cannot get away from my original idea,’ said Madame de Renal, ‘Julien ought to go for a holiday. Whatever talent he may have for Latin, he is nothing more, after all, than a peasant who is often coarse and wanting in tact; every day, thinking he is being polite, he plies me with extravagant compliments in the worst of taste, which he learns by heart from some novel . . . ’

‘He never reads any,’ cried M. de Renal; ‘I am positive as to that. Do you suppose that I am a blind master who knows nothing of what goes on under his roof?’

‘Very well, if he doesn’t read those absurd compliments anywhere, he invents them, which is even worse. He will have spoken of me in that tone in Verrieres; and, without going so far,’ said Madame de Renal, with the air of one making a discovery, ‘he will have spoken like that before Elisa, which is just as though he had spoken to M. Valenod.’

‘Ah!’ cried M. de Renal, making the table and the whole room shake with one of the stoutest blows that human fist ever gave, ‘the anonymous letter in print and Valenod’s letters were all on the same paper.’

‘At last!’ thought Madame de Renal; she appeared thunderstruck by this discovery, and without having the courage to add a single word went and sat down on the divan, at the farther end of the room.

The battle was now won; she had her work cut out to prevent M. de Renal from going and talking to the supposed author of the anonymous letter.

‘How is it you do not feel that to make a scene, without sufficient proof, with M. Valenod would be the most deplorable error? If you are envied, Sir, who is to blame? Your own talents: your wise administration, the buildings you have erected with such good taste, the dowry I brought you, and above all the considerable fortune we may expect to inherit from my worthy aunt, a fortune the extent of which is vastly exaggerated, have made you the principal person in Verrieres.’

‘You forget my birth,’ said M. de Renal, with a faint smile.

‘You are one of the most distinguished gentlemen in the province,’ Madame de Renal hastily added; ‘if the King were free and could do justice to birth, you would doubtless be figuring in the House of Peers,’ and so forth. ‘And in this magnificent position do you seek to provide jealousy with food for comment?

‘To speak to M. Valenod of his anonymous letter is to proclaim throughout Verrieres, or rather in Besancon, throughout the Province, that this petty cit, admitted perhaps imprudently to the friendship of a Renal, has found out a way to insult him. Did these letters which you have just discovered prove that I had responded to M. Valenod’s overtures, then it would be for you to kill me, I should have deserved it a hundred times, but not to show anger with him. Think that all your neighbours only await a pretext to be avenged for your superiority; think that in 1816 you were instrumental in securing certain arrests. That man who took refuge on your roof . . . ’

‘What I think is that you have neither respect nor affection for me,’ shouted M. de Renal with all the bitterness that such a memory aroused, ‘and I have not been made a Peer!’

‘I think, my friend,’ put in Madame de Renal with a smile, ‘that I shall one day be richer than you, that I have been your companion for twelve years, and that on all these counts I ought to have a voice in your councils, especially in this business today. If you prefer Monsieur Julien to me,’ she added with ill-concealed scorn, ‘I am prepared to go and spend the winter with my aunt.’

This threat was uttered with gladness. It contained the firmness which seeks to cloak itself in courtesy; it determined M. de Renal. But, obeying the provincial custom, he continued to speak for a long time, harked back to every argument in turn; his wife allowed him to speak, there was still anger in his tone. At length, two hours of futile discourse wore out the strength of a man who had been helpless with rage all night. He determined upon the line of conduct which he was going to adopt towards M. Valenod, Julien, and even Elisa.

Once or twice, during this great scene, Madame de Renal came within an ace of feeling a certain sympathy for the very real distress of this man who for ten years had been her friend. But our true passions are selfish. Moreover she was expecting every moment an avowal of the anonymous letter which he had received overnight, and this avowal never came. To gain complete confidence, Madame de Renal required to know what ideas might have been suggested to the man upon whom her fate depended. For, in the country, husbands control public opinion. A husband who denounces his wife covers himself with ridicule, a thing that every day is becoming less dangerous in France; but his wife, if he does not supply her with money, declines to the position of a working woman at fifteen sous daily, and even then the virtuous souls have scruples about employing her.

An odalisque in the seraglio may love the Sultan with all her heart; he is all powerful, she has no hope of evading his authority by a succession of clever little tricks. The master’s vengeance is terrible, bloody, but martial and noble: a dagger blow ends everything. It is with blows dealt by public contempt that a husband kills his wife in the nineteenth century; it is by shutting the doors of all the drawing-rooms in her face.

The sense of danger was keenly aroused in Madame de Renal on her return to her own room; she was horrified by the disorder in which she found it. The locks of all her pretty little boxes had been broken; several planks in the floor had been torn up. ‘He would have been without pity for me!’ she told herself. ‘To spoil so this floor of coloured parquet, of which he is so proud; when one of his children comes in with muddy shoes, he flushes with rage. And now it is ruined for ever!’ The sight of this violence rapidly silenced the last reproaches with which she had been blaming herself for her too rapid victory.

Shortly before the dinner bell sounded, Julien returned with the children. At dessert, when the servants had left the room, Madame de Renal said to him very drily:

‘You expressed the desire to me to go and spend a fortnight at Verrieres; M. de Renal is kind enough to grant you leave. You can go as soon as you please. But, so that the children shall not waste any time, their lessons will be sent to you every day, for you to correct.’

‘Certainly,’ M. de Renal added in a most bitter tone, ‘I shall not allow you more than a week.’

Julien read in his features the uneasiness of a man in cruel torment.

‘He has not yet come to a decision,’ he said to his mistress, during a moment of solitude in the drawing-room.

Madame de Renal informed him rapidly of all that she had done since the morning.

‘The details tonight,’ she added laughing.

‘The perversity of woman!’ thought Julien. ‘What pleasure, what instinct leads them to betray us?

‘I find you at once enlightened and blinded by your love,’ he said to her with a certain coldness; ‘your behaviour today has been admirable; but is there any prudence in our attempting to see each other tonight? This house is paved with enemies; think of the passionate hatred that Elisa has for me.’

‘That hatred greatly resembles the passionate indifference that you must have for me.’

‘Indifferent or not, I am bound to save you from a peril into which I have plunged you. If chance decrees that M. de Renal speaks to Elisa, by a single word she may disclose everything to him. What is to prevent him from hiding outside my room, well armed . . . ’

‘What! Lacking in courage even!’ said Madame de Renal, with all the pride of a woman of noble birth.

‘I shall never sink so low as to speak of my courage,’ said Julien coldly, ‘that is mean. Let the world judge by my actions. But,’ he went on, taking her hand, ‘you cannot conceive how attached I am to you, and what a joy it is to me to be able to take leave of you before this cruel parting.’

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