The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 22

Manners and Customs in 1830

Speech was given to man to enable him to conceal his thoughts.

MALAGRIDA, S.J.

The first thing that Julien did on arriving in Verrieres was to reproach himself for his unfairness to Madame de Renal. ‘I should have despised her as a foolish woman if from weakness she had failed to bring off the scene with M. de Renal! She carried it through like a diplomat, and my sympathies are with the loser, who is my enemy. There is a streak of middle-class pettiness in my nature; my vanity is hurt, because M. de Renal is a man! That vast and illustrous corporation to which I have the honour to belong; I am a perfect fool.’

M. Chelan had refused the offers of hospitality which the most respected Liberals of the place had vied with one another in making him, when his deprivation drove him from the presbytery. The pair of rooms which he had taken were littered with his books. Julien, wishing to show Verrieres what it meant to be a priest, went and fetched from his father’s store a dozen planks of firwood, which he carried on his back the whole length of the main street. He borrowed some tools from an old friend and had soon constructed a sort of bookcase in which he arranged M. Chelan’s library.

‘I supposed you to have been corrupted by the vanity of the world,’ said the old man, shedding tears of joy; ‘this quite redeems the childishness of that dazzling guard of honour uniform which made you so many enemies.’

M. de Renal had told Julien to put up in his house. No one had any suspicion of what had happened. On the third day after his arrival, there came up to his room no less a personage than the Sub–Prefect, M. de Maugiron. It was only after two solid hours of insipid tittle-tattle, and long jeremiads on the wickedness of men, on the lack of honesty in the people entrusted with the administration of public funds, on the dangers besetting poor France, etc., etc., that Julien saw him come at length to the purpose of his visit. They were already on the landing, and the poor tutor, on the verge of disgrace, was ushering out with all due respect the future Prefect of some fortunate Department, when it pleased the latter gentleman to occupy himself with Julien’s career, to praise his moderation where his own interests were concerned, etc., etc. Finally M. de Maugiron, taking him in his arms in the most fatherly manner, suggested to him that he should leave M. de Renal and enter the household of an official who had children to educate, and who, like King Philip, would thank heaven, not so much for having given him them as for having caused them to be born in the neighbourhood of M. Julien. Their tutor would receive a salary of eight hundred francs, payable not month by month, ‘which is not noble,’ said M. de Maugiron, but quarterly, and in advance to boot.

It was now the turn of Julien who, for an hour and a half, had been waiting impatiently for an opportunity to speak. His reply was perfect, and as long as a pastoral charge; it let everything be understood, and at the same time said nothing definite. A listener would have found in it at once respect for M. de Renal, veneration for the people of Verrieres and gratitude towards the illustrious Sub–Prefect. The said Sub–Prefect, astonished at finding a bigger Jesuit than himself, tried in vain to obtain something positive. Julien, overjoyed, seized the opportunity to try his skill and began his answer over again in different terms. Never did the most eloquent Minister, seeking to monopolise the last hours of a sitting when the Chamber seems inclined to wake up, say less in more words. As soon as M. de Maugiron had left him, Julien broke out in helpless laughter. To make the most of his Jesuitical bent, he wrote a letter of nine pages to M. de Renal, in which he informed him of everything that had been said to him, and humbly asked his advice. ‘Why, that rascal never even told me the name of the person who is making the offer! It will be M. Valenod, who sees in my banishment to Verrieres the effect of his anonymous letter.’

His missive dispatched, Julien, as happy as a hunter who at six in the morning on a fine autumn day emerges upon a plain teeming with game, went out to seek the advice of M. Chelan. But before he arrived at the good cure’s house, heaven, which was anxious to shower its blessings on him, threw him into the arms of M. Valenod, from whom he did not conceal the fact that his heart was torn; a penniless youth like himself was bound to devote himself entirely to the vocation which heaven had placed in his heart, but a vocation was not everything in this vile world. To be a worthy labourer in the Lord’s vineyard, and not to be altogether unworthy of all one’s learned fellow-labourers, one required education; one required to spend in the seminary at Besancon two very expensive years; it became indispensable, therefore, to save money, which was considerably easier with a salary of eight hundred francs paid quarterly, than with six hundred francs which melted away month by month. On the other hand, did not heaven, by placing him with the Renal boys, and above all by inspiring in him a particular attachment to them, seem to indicate to him that it would be a mistake to abandon this form of education for another? . . .

Julien arrived at such a pitch of perfection in this kind of eloquence, which has taken the place of the swiftness of action of the Empire, that he ended by growing tired of the sound of his own voice.

Returning to the house he found one of M. Valenod’s servants in full livery, who had been looking for him all over the town, with a note inviting him to dinner that very day.

Never had Julien set foot in the man’s house; only a few days earlier, his chief thought was how he might give him a thorough good thrashing without subsequent action by the police. Although dinner was not to be until one o’clock, Julien thought it more respectful to present himself at half past twelve in the study of the Governor of the Poorhouse. He found him displaying his importance amid a mass of papers. His huge black whiskers, his enormous quantity of hair, his night-cap poised askew on the top of his head, his immense pipe, his embroidered slippers, the heavy gold chains slung across his chest in every direction, and all the equipment of a provincial financier, who imagines himself to be a ladies’ man, made not the slightest impression upon Julien; he only thought all the more of the thrashing that he owed him.

He craved the honour of being presented to Madame Valenod; she was making her toilet and could not see him. To make up for this, he had the privilege of witnessing that of the Governor of the Poorhouse. They then proceeded to join Madame Valenod, who presented her children to him with tears in her eyes. This woman, one of the most important people in Verrieres, had a huge masculine face, which she had plastered with rouge for this great ceremony. She displayed all the pathos of maternal feelings.

Julien thought of Madame de Renal. His distrustful nature made him scarcely susceptible to any memories save those that are evoked by contrast, but such memories moved him to tears. This tendency was increased by the sight of the Governor’s house. He was taken through it. Everything in it was sumptuous and new, and he was told the price of each article. But Julien felt that there was something mean about it, a taint of stolen money. Everyone, even the servants, wore a bold air that seemed to be fortifying them against contempt.

The collector of taxes, the receiver of customs, the chief constable and two or three other public officials arrived with their wives. They were followed by several wealthy Liberals. Dinner was announced. Julien, already in the worst of humours, suddenly reflected that on the other side of the dining-room wall there were wretched prisoners, whose rations of meat had perhaps been squeezed to purchase all this tasteless splendour with which his hosts sought to dazzle him.

‘They are hungry perhaps at this moment,’ he said to himself; his throat contracted, he found it impossible to eat and almost to speak. It was much worse a quarter of an hour later; they could hear in the distance a few snatches of a popular and, it must be admitted, not too refined song which one of the inmates was singing. M. Valenod glanced at one of his men in full livery, who left the room, and presently the sound of singing ceased. At that moment, a footman offered Julien some Rhine wine in a green glass, and Madame Valenod took care to inform him that this wine cost nine francs the bottle, direct from the grower. Julien, the green glass in his hand, said to M. Valenod:

‘I don’t hear that horrid song any more.’

‘Gad! I should think not, indeed,’ replied the Governor triumphantly. ‘I’ve made the rascal shut up.’

This was too much for Julien; he had acquired the manners but had not yet the heart appropriate to his station. Despite all his hypocrisy, which he kept in such constant practice, he felt a large tear trickle down his cheek.

He tried to hide it with the green glass, but it was simply impossible for him to do honour to the Rhine wine. ‘Stop the man singing!’ he murmured to himself, ‘O my God, and Thou permittest it!’

Fortunately for him, no one noticed his ill-bred emotion. The collector of taxes had struck up a royalist ditty. During the clamour of the refrain, sung in chorus: ‘There,’ Julien’s conscience warned him, ‘you have the sordid fortune which you will achieve, and you will enjoy it only in these conditions and in such company as this! You will have a place worth perhaps twenty thousand francs, but it must be that while you gorge to repletion you stop the poor prisoner from singing; you will give dinner parties with the money you have filched from his miserable pittance, and during your dinner he will be more wretched still! O Napoleon! How pleasant it was in your time to climb to fortune through the dangers of a battle; but meanly to intensify the sufferings of the wretched!’

I admit that the weakness which Julien displays in this monologue gives me a poor opinion of him. He would be a worthy colleague for those conspirators in yellow gloves, who profess to reform all the conditions of life in a great country, and would be horrified at having to undergo the slightest inconvenience themselves.

Julien was sharply recalled to his proper part. It was not that he might dream and say nothing that he had been invited to dine in such good company.

A retired calico printer, a corresponding member of the Academy of Besancon and of that of Uzes, was speaking to him, down the whole length of the table, inquiring whether all that was commonly reported as to his astonishing prowess in the study of the New Testament was true.

A profound silence fell instantly; a New Testament appeared as though by magic in the hands of the learned member of the two academies. Julien having answered in the affirmative, a few words in Latin were read out to him at random. He began to recite: his memory did not betray him, and this prodigy was admired with all the noisy energy of the end of a dinner. Julien studied the glowing faces of the women. Several of them were not ill-looking. He had made out the wife of the collector who sang so well.

‘Really, I am ashamed to go on speaking Latin so long before these ladies,’ he said, looking at her. ‘If M. Rubigneau’ (this was the member of the two academies) ‘will be so good as to read out any sentence in Latin, instead of going on with the Latin text, I shall endeavour to improvise a translation.’

This second test set the crown of glory on his achievement.

There were in the room a number of Liberals, men of means, but the happy fathers of children who were capable of winning bursaries, and in this capacity suddenly converted after the last Mission. Despite this brilliant stroke of policy, M. de Renal had never consented to have them in his house. These worthy folk, who knew Julien only by reputation and from having seen him on horseback on the day of the King of ——‘s visit, were his most vociferous admirers. ‘When will these fools tire of listening to this Biblical language, of which they understand nothing?’ he thought. On the contrary, this language amused them by its unfamiliarity; they laughed at it. But Julien had grown tired.

He rose gravely as six o’clock struck and mentioned a chapter of the new theology of Liguori, which he had to learn by heart in order to repeat it next day to M. Chelan. ‘For my business,’ he added pleasantly, ‘is to make other people repeat lessons, and to repeat them myself.’

His audience laughed heartily and applauded; this is the kind of wit that goes down at Verrieres. Julien was by this time on his feet, everyone else rose, regardless of decorum; such is the power of genius. Madame Valenod kept him for a quarter of an hour longer; he really must hear the children repeat their catechism; they made the most absurd mistakes which he alone noticed. He made no attempt to correct them. ‘What ignorance of the first principles of religion,’ he thought. At length he said good-bye and thought that he might escape; but the children must next attempt one of La Fontaine’s Fables.

‘That author is most immoral,’ Julien said to Madame Valenod; ‘in one of his Fables on Messire Jean Chouart, he has ventured to heap ridicule on all that is most venerable. He is strongly reproved by the best commentators.’

Before leaving the house Julien received four or five invitations to dinner. ‘This young man does honour to the Department,’ his fellow-guests, in great hilarity, were all exclaiming at once. They went so far as to speak of a pension voted out of the municipal funds, to enable him to continue his studies in Paris.

While this rash idea was making the dining-room ring, Julien had stolen away to the porch. ‘Oh, what scum! What scum!’ he murmured three or four times, as he treated himself to the pleasure of drinking in the fresh air.

He felt himself a thorough aristocrat for the moment, he who for long had been so shocked by the disdainful smile and the haughty superiority which he found lurking behind all the compliments that were paid him at M. de Renal’s. He could not help feeling the extreme difference. ‘Even if we forget,’ he said to himself as he walked away, ‘that the money has been stolen from the poor prisoners, and that they are forbidden to sing as well, would it ever occur to M. de Renal to tell his guests the price of each bottle of wine that he offers them? And this M. Valenod, in going over the list of his property, which he does incessantly, cannot refer to his house, his land and all the rest of it, if his wife is present, without saying your house, your land.’

This lady, apparently so conscious of the joy of ownership, had just made an abominable scene, during dinner, with a servant who had broken a wineglass and spoiled one of her sets; and the servant had answered her with the most gross insolence.

‘What a household!’ thought Julien; ‘if they were to give me half of all the money they steal, I wouldn’t live among them. One fine day I should give myself away; I should be unable to keep back the contempt they inspire in me.’

He was obliged, nevertheless, obeying Madame de Renal’s orders, to attend several dinners of this sort; Julien was the fashion; people forgave him his uniform and the guard of honour, or rather that imprudent display was the true cause of his success. Soon, the only question discussed in Verrieres was who would be successful in the struggle to secure the learned young man’s services, M. de Renal or the Governor of the Poorhouse. These two gentlemen formed with M. Maslon a triumvirate which for some years past had tyrannised the town. People were jealous of the Mayor, the Liberals had grounds for complaint against him; but after all he was noble and created to fill a superior station, whereas M. Valenod’s father had not left him an income of six hundred livres. He had been obliged to pass from the stage of being pitied for the shabby apple-green coat in which everybody remembered him in his younger days to that of being envied for his Norman horses, his gold chains, the clothes he ordered from Paris, in short, all his present prosperity.

In the welter of this world so new to Julien he thought he had discovered an honest man; this was a geometrician, was named Gros and was reckoned a Jacobin. Julien, having made a vow never to say anything except what he himself believed to be false, was obliged to make a show of being suspicious of M. Gros. He received from Vergy large packets of exercises. He was advised to see much of his father, and complied with this painful necessity. In a word, he was quite redeeming his reputation, when one morning he was greatly surprised to find himself awakened by a pair of hands which were clapped over his eyes.

It was Madame de Renal who had come in to town and, running upstairs four steps at a time and leaving her children occupied with a favourite rabbit that they had brought with them, had reached Julien’s room a minute in advance of them. The moment was delicious but all too brief: Madame de Renal had vanished when the children arrived with the rabbit, which they wanted to show to their friend. Julien welcomed them all, including the rabbit. He seemed to be once more one of a family party; he felt that he loved these children, that it amused him to join in their chatter. He was amazed by the sweetness of their voices, the simplicity and nobility of their manners; he required to wash his imagination clean of all the vulgar behaviour, all the unpleasant thoughts the atmosphere of which he had to breathe at Verrieres. There was always the dread of bankruptcy, wealth and poverty were always fighting for the upper hand. The people with whom he dined, in speaking of the joint on their table, made confidences humiliating to themselves, and nauseating to their hearers.

‘You aristocrats, you have every reason to be proud,’ he said to Madame de Renal. And he told her of all the dinners he had endured.

‘Why, so you are in the fashion!’ And she laughed heartily at the thought of the rouge which Madame Valenod felt herself obliged to put on whenever she expected Julien. ‘I believe she has designs on your heart,’ she added.

Luncheon was a joy. The presence of the children, albeit apparently a nuisance, increased as a matter of fact the general enjoyment. These poor children did not know how to express their delight at seeing Julien again. The servants had not failed to inform them that he was being offered two hundred francs more to educate the little Valenods.

In the middle of luncheon, Stanislas Xavier, still pale after his serious illness, suddenly asked his mother what was the value of his silver spoon and fork and of the mug out of which he was drinking.

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘I want to sell them to give the money to M. Julien, so that he shan’t be a dupe to stay with us.’

Julien embraced him, the tears standing in his eyes. The mother wept outright, while Julien, who had taken Stanislas on his knees, explained to him that he must not use the word dupe, which, employed in that sense, was a servant’s expression. Seeing the pleasure he was giving Madame de Renal, he tried to explain, by picturesque examples, which amused the children, what was meant by a dupe.

‘I understand,’ said Stanislas, ‘it’s the crow who is silly and drops his cheese, which is picked up by the fox, who is a flatterer.’

Madame de Renal, wild with joy, smothered her children in kisses, which she could hardly do without leaning slightly upon Julien.

Suddenly the door opened; it was M. de Renal. His stern, angry face formed a strange contrast with the innocent gaiety which his presence banished. Madame de Renal turned pale; she felt herself incapable of denying anything. Julien seized the opportunity and, speaking very loud, began to tell the Mayor the incident of the silver mug which Stanislas wanted to sell. He was sure that this story would be ill received. At the first word M. de Renal frowned, from force of habit at the mere name of silver. ‘The mention of that metal,’ he would say, ‘is always a preliminary to some call upon my purse.’

But here there was more than money at stake; there was an increase of his suspicions. The air of happiness which animated his family in his absence was not calculated to improve matters with a man dominated by so sensitive a vanity. When his wife praised the graceful and witty manner in which Julien imparted fresh ideas to his pupils:

‘Yes, yes, I know, he is making me odious to my children; it is very easy for him to be a hundred times pleasanter to them than I, who am, after all, the master. Everything tends in these days to bring lawful authority into contempt. Unhappy France!’

Madame de Renal did not stop to examine the implications of her husband’s manner. She had just seen the possibility of spending twelve hours in Julien’s company. She had any number of purchases to make in the town, and declared that she absolutely must dine in a tavern; in spite of anything her husband might say or do, she clung to her idea. The children were in ecstasies at the mere word tavern, which modern prudery finds such pleasure in pronouncing.

M. de Renal left his wife in the first linen-draper’s shop that she entered, to go and pay some calls. He returned more gloomy than in the morning; he was convinced that the whole town was thinking about nothing but himself and Julien. As a matter of fact, no one had as yet allowed him to form any suspicion of the offensive element in the popular comments. Those that had been repeated to the Mayor had dealt exclusively with the question whether Julien would remain with him at six hundred francs or would accept the eight hundred francs offered by the Governor of the Poorhouse.

The said Governor, when he met M. de Renal in society, gave him the cold shoulder. His behaviour was not without a certain subtlety; there is not much thoughtless action in the provinces: sensations are so infrequent there that people suppress them.

M. Valenod was what is called, a hundred leagues from Paris, a faraud; this is a species marked by coarseness and natural effrontery. His triumphant existence, since 1815, had confirmed him in his habits. He reigned, so to speak, at Verrieres, under the orders of M. de Renal; but being far more active, blushing at nothing, interfering in everything, everlastingly going about, writing, speaking, forgetting humiliations, having no personal pretensions, he had succeeded in equalling the credit of his Mayor in the eyes of ecclesiastical authority. M. Valenod had as good as told the grocers of the place: ‘Give me the two biggest fools among you’; the lawyers: ‘Point me out the two most ignorant’; the officers of health: ‘Let me have your two biggest rascals.’ When he had collected the most shameless representatives of each profession, he had said to them: ‘Let us reign together.’

The manners of these men annoyed M. de Renal. Valenod’s coarse nature was offended by nothing, not even when the young abbe Maslon gave him the lie direct in public.

But, in the midst of this prosperity, M. Valenod was obliged to fortify himself by little insolences in points of detail against the harsh truths which he was well aware that everyone was entitled to address to him. His activity had multiplied since the alarms which M. Appert’s visit had left in its wake. He had made three journeys to Besancon; he wrote several letters for each mail; he sent others by unknown messengers who came to his house at nightfall. He had been wrong perhaps in securing the deprivation of the old cure Chelan; for this vindictive action had made him be regarded, by several pious ladies of good birth, as a profoundly wicked man. Moreover this service rendered had placed him in the absolute power of the Vicar–General de Frilair, from whom he received strange orders. He had reached this stage in his career when he yielded to the pleasure of writing an anonymous letter. To add to his embarrassment, his wife informed him that she wished to have Julien in the house; the idea appealed to her vanity.

In this situation, M. Valenod foresaw a final rupture with his former confederate M. de Renal. The Mayor would address him in harsh language, which mattered little enough to him; but he might write to Besancon, or even to Paris. A cousin of some Minister or other might suddenly descend upon Verrieres and take over the Governorship of the Poorhouse. M. Valenod thought of making friends with the Liberals; it was for this reason that several of them were invited to the dinner at which Julien recited. He would find powerful support there against the Mayor. But an election might come, and it went without saying that the Poorhouse and a vote for the wrong party were incompatible. The history of these tactics, admirably divined by Madame de Renal, had been imparted to Julien while he gave her his arm to escort her from one shop to another, and little by little had carried them to the Cours de la Fidelite, where they spent some hours, almost as peaceful as the hours at Vergy.

At this period, M. Valenod was seeking to avoid a final rupture with his former chief, by himself adopting a bold air towards him. On the day of which we treat, this system proved successful, but increased the Mayor’s ill humour.

Never can vanity, at grips with all the nastiest and shabbiest elements of a petty love of money, have plunged a man in a more wretched state than that in which M. de Renal found himself, at the moment of his entering the tavern. Never, on the contrary, had his children been gayer or more joyful. The contrast goaded him to fury.

‘I am not wanted in my own family, so far as I can see!’ he said as he entered, in a tone which he sought to make imposing.

By way of reply, his wife drew him aside and explained to him the necessity of getting rid of Julien. The hours of happiness she had just enjoyed had given her back the ease and resolution necessary for carrying out the plan of conduct which she had been meditating for the last fortnight. What really and completely dismayed the poor Mayor of Verrieres was that he knew that people joked publicly in the town at the expense of his attachment to hard cash: M. Valenod was as generous as a robber, whereas he had shown himself in a prudent rather than a brilliant light in the last five or six subscription lists for the Confraternity of Saint Joseph, the Congregation of Our Lady, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and so forth.

Among the country gentlemen of Verrieres and the neighbourhood, skilfully classified in the lists compiled by the collecting Brethren, according to the amount of their offerings, the name of M. de Renal had more than once been seen figuring upon the lowest line. In vain might he protest that he earned nothing. The clergy allow no joking on that subject.

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