The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 23

The Sorrows of an Official

Il piacere di alzar la testa tutto l’anno e ben pagato da certi quarti d’ora che bisogna passar.

CASTI

But let us leave this little man to his little fears; why has he taken into his house a man of feeling, when what he required was the soul of a flunkey? Why does he not know how to select his servants? The ordinary procedure of the nineteenth century is that when a powerful and noble personage encounters a man of feeling, he kills, exiles, imprisons or so humiliates him that the other, like a fool, dies of grief. In this instance it so happens that it is not yet the man of feeling who suffers. The great misfortune of the small towns of France and of elected governments, like that of New York, is an inability to forget that there exist in the world persons like M. de Renal. In a town of twenty thousand inhabitants, these men form public opinion, and public opinion is a terrible force in a country that has the Charter. A man endowed with a noble soul, of generous instincts, who would have been your friend did he not live a hundred leagues away, judges you by the public opinion of your town, which is formed by the fools whom chance has made noble, rich and moderate. Woe to him who distinguishes himself!

Immediately after dinner, they set off again for Vergy; but, two days later, Julien saw the whole family return to Verrieres.

An hour had not gone by before, greatly to his surprise, he discovered that Madame de Renal was making a mystery of something. She broke off her conversations with her husband as soon as he appeared, and seemed almost to wish him to go away. Julien did not wait to be told twice. He became cold and reserved; Madame de Renal noticed this, and did not seek an explanation. ‘Is she going to provide me with a successor?’ thought Julien. ‘Only the day before yesterday, she was so intimate with me! But they say that this is how great ladies behave. They are like kings, no one receives so much attention as the minister who, on going home, finds the letter announcing his dismissal.’

Julien remarked that in these conversations, which ceased abruptly on his approach, there was frequent mention of a big house belonging to the municipality of Verrieres, old, but large and commodious, and situated opposite the church, in the most valuable quarter of the town. ‘What connection can there be between that house and a new lover?’ Julien asked himself. In his distress of mind, he repeated to himself those charming lines of Francois I, which seemed to him new, because it was not a month since Madame de Renal had taught them to him. At that time, by how many vows, by how many caresses had not each line been proved false!

Souvent femme varie Bien fol est qui s’y fie.

M. de Renal set off by post for Besancon. This journey was decided upon at two hours’ notice, he seemed greatly troubled. On his return, he flung a large bundle wrapped in grey paper on the table.

‘So much for that stupid business,’ he said to his wife.

An hour later, Julien saw the bill-sticker carrying off this large bundle; he followed him hastily. ‘I shall learn the secret at the first street corner.’

He waited impatiently behind the bill-sticker, who with his fat brush was slapping paste on the back of the bill. No sooner was it in its place than Julien’s curiosity read on it the announcement in full detail of the sale by public auction of the lease of that large and old house which recurred so frequently in M. de Renal’s conversations with his wife. The assignation was announced for the following day at two o’clock, in the town hall, on the extinction of the third light. Julien was greatly disappointed; he considered the interval to be rather short: how could all the possible bidders come to know of the sale in time? But apart from this, the bill, which was dated a fortnight earlier and which he read from beginning to end in three different places, told him nothing.

He went to inspect the vacant house. The porter, who did not see him approach, was saying mysteriously to a friend:

‘Bah! It’s a waste of time. M. Maslon promised him he should have it for three hundred francs; and as the Mayor kicked, he was sent to the Bishop’s Palace, by the Vicar–General de Frilair.’

Julien’s appearance on the scene seemed greatly to embarrass the two cronies, who did not say another word.

Julien did not fail to attend the auction. There was a crowd of people in an ill-lighted room; but everyone eyed his neighbours in a singular fashion. Every eye was fixed on a table, where Julien saw, on a pewter plate, three lighted candle-ends. The crier was shouting: ‘Three hundred francs, gentlemen!’

‘Three hundred francs! It is too bad!’ one man murmured to another. Julien was standing between them. ‘It is worth more than eight hundred; I am going to cover the bid.’

‘It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. What are you going to gain by bringing M. Maslon, M. Valenod, the Bishop, his terrible Vicar–General de Frilair and the whole of their gang down upon you?’

‘Three hundred and twenty,’ the other shouted.

‘Stupid idiot!’ retorted his neighbour. ‘And here’s one of the Mayor’s spies,’ he added pointing at Julien.

Julien turned sharply to rebuke him for this speech; but the two Franc–Comtois paid no attention to him. Their coolness restored his own. At this moment the last candle-end went out, and the drawling voice of the crier assigned the house for a lease of nine years to M. de Saint–Giraud, chief secretary at the Prefecture of — — and for three hundred and thirty francs.

As soon as the Mayor had left the room, the discussion began.

‘That’s thirty francs Grogeot’s imprudence has earned for the town,’ said one.

‘But M. de Saint–Giraud,’ came the answer, ‘will have his revenge on Grogeot, he will pass it on.’

‘What a scandal,’ said a stout man on Julien’s left: ‘a house for which I’ld have given, myself, eight hundred francs as a factory, and then it would have been a bargain.’

‘Bah!’ replied a young Liberal manufacturer, ‘isn’t M. de Saint–Giraud one of the Congregation? Haven’t his four children all got bursaries? Poor man! The town of Verrieres is simply bound to increase his income with an allowance of five hundred francs; that is all.’

‘And to think that the Mayor hasn’t been able to stop it!’ remarked a third. ‘For he may be an Ultra, if you like, but he’s not a thief.’

‘He’s not a thief?’ put in another; ‘it’s a regular thieves’ kitchen. Everything goes into a common fund, and is divided up at the end of the year. But there’s young Sorel; let us get away.’

Julien went home in the worst of tempers; he found Madame de Renal greatly depressed.

‘Have you come from the sale?’ she said to him.

‘Yes, Ma’am, where I had the honour to be taken for the Mayor’s spy.’

‘If he had taken my advice, he would have gone away somewhere.’

At that moment, M. de Renal appeared; he was very sombre. Dinner was eaten in silence. M. de Renal told Julien to accompany the children to Vergy; they travelled in unbroken gloom. Madame de Renal tried to comfort her husband.

‘Surely you are accustomed to it, my dear.’

That evening, they were seated in silence round the domestic hearth; the crackle of the blazing beech logs was their sole distraction. It was one of those moments of depression which are to be found in the most united families. One of the children uttered a joyful cry.

‘There’s the bell! The bell!’

‘Egad, if it’s M. de Saint–Giraud come to get hold of me, on the excuse of thanking me, I shall give him a piece of my mind; it’s too bad. It’s Valenod that he has to thank, and it is I who am compromised. What am I going to say if those pestilent Jacobin papers get hold of the story, and make me out a M. Nonante–Cinq?’†

† Footnote by C. K. S. M.: M. Marsan explains this allusion to a satire by Barthelemy at the expense of the Marseilles magistrate Merindol, who in sentencing him to a fine had made use of the Common Southern expression ‘Nonante-cinq’ for ‘Quatre-vingt-quinze.]

A good-looking man, with bushy black whiskers, entered the room at this moment in the wake of the servant.

‘M. le Maire, I am Signor Geronimo. Here is a letter which M. le Chevalier de Beauvaisis, attache at the Embassy at Naples, gave me for you when I came away; it is only nine days ago,’ Signor Geronimo added, with a sprightly air, looking at Madame de Renal. ‘Signor de Beauvaisis, your cousin, and my good friend, Madame, tells me that you know Italian.’

The good humour of the Neapolitan changed this dull evening into one that was extremely gay. Madame de Renal insisted upon his taking supper. She turned the whole house upside down; she wished at all costs to distract Julien’s thoughts from the description of him as a spy which twice in that day he had heard ringing in his ear. Signer Geronimo was a famous singer, a man used to good company, and at the same time the best of company himself, qualities which, in France, have almost ceased to be compatible. He sang after supper a little duet with Madame de Renal. He told charming stories. At one o’clock in the morning the children protested when Julien proposed that they should go to bed.

‘Just this story,’ said the eldest.

‘It is my own, Signorino,’ replied Signer Geronimo. ‘Eight years ago I was, like you, a young scholar in the Conservatorio of Naples, by which I mean that I was your age; for I had not the honour to be the son of the eminent Mayor of the beautiful town of Verrieres.’

This allusion drew a sigh from M. de Renal, who looked at his wife.

‘Signer Zingarelli,’ went on the young singer, speaking with a slightly exaggerated accent which made the children burst out laughing, ‘Signor Zingarelli is an exceedingly severe master. He is not loved at the Conservatorio; but he makes them act always as though they loved him. I escaped whenever I could; I used to go to the little theatre of San Carlino, where I used to hear music fit for the gods: but, O heavens, how was I to scrape together the eight soldi which were the price of admission to the pit? An enormous sum,’ he said, looking at the children, and the children laughed again. ‘Signer Giovannone, the Director of San Carlino, heard me sing. I was sixteen years old. “This boy is a treasure,” he said.

‘“Would you like me to engage you, my friend?” he said to me one day.

‘“How much will you give me?”

‘“Forty ducats a month.” That, gentlemen, is one hundred and sixty francs. I seemed to see the heavens open.

‘“But how,” I said to Giovannone, “am I to persuade the strict Zingarelli to let me go?”

‘“Lascia fare a me.”’

‘Leave it to me!’ cried the eldest of the children.

‘Precisely, young Sir. Signor Giovannone said to me: “First of all, caro, a little agreement.” I signed the paper: he gave me three ducats. I had never seen so much money. Then he told me what I must do.

‘Next day, I demanded an interview with the terrible Signer Zingarelli. His old servant showed me into the room.

‘“What do you want with me, you scapegrace?” said Zingarelli.

‘“Maestro” I told him, “I repent of my misdeeds; never again will I break out of the Conservatorio by climbing over the iron railings. I am going to study twice as hard.”

‘“If I were not afraid of spoiling the finest bass voice I have ever heard, I should lock you up on bread and water for a fortnight, you scoundrel.”

‘“Maestro” I went on, “I am going to be a model to the whole school, credete a me. But I ask one favour of you, if anyone comes to ask for me to sing outside, refuse him. Please say that you cannot allow it.”

‘“And who do you suppose is going to ask for a good for nothing like you? Do you think I shall ever allow you to leave the Conservatorio? Do you wish to make a fool of me? Off with you, off with you!” he said, aiming a kick at my hindquarters, “or it will be bread and water in a cell.”

‘An hour later, Signer Giovannone came to call on the Director.

‘“I have come to ask you to make my fortune,” he began, “let me have Geronimo. If he sings in my theatre this winter I give my daughter in marriage.”

‘“What do you propose to do with the rascal?” Zingarelli asked him. “I won’t allow it. You shan’t have him; besides, even if I consented, he would never be willing to leave the Conservatorio; he’s just told me so himself.”

‘“If his willingness is all that matters,” said Giovannone gravely, producing my agreement from his pocket, “carta canta! Here is his signature.”

‘Immediately Zingarelli, furious, flew to the bell-rope: “Turn Geronimo out of the Conservatorio,” he shouted, seething with rage. So out they turned me, I splitting my sides with laughter. That same evening, I sang the aria del Moltiplico. Polichinelle intends to marry, and counts up on his fingers the different things he will need for the house, and loses count afresh at every moment.’

‘Oh, won’t you, Sir, please sing us that air?’ said Madame de Renal.

Geronimo sang, and his audience all cried with laughter.

Signor Geronimo did not go to bed until two in the morning, leaving the family enchanted with his good manners, his obliging nature and his gay spirits.

Next day M. and Madame de Renal gave him the letters which he required for the French Court.

‘And so, falsehood everywhere,’ said Julien. ‘There is Signor Geronimo on his way to London with a salary of sixty thousand francs. But for the cleverness of the Director of San Carlino, his divine voice might not have been known and admired for another ten years, perhaps . . . Upon my soul, I would rather be a Geronimo than a Renal. He is not so highly honoured in society, but he has not the humiliation of having to grant leases like that one today, and his is a merry life.’

One thing astonished Julien: the weeks of solitude spent at Verrieres, in M. de Renal’s house, had been for him a time of happiness. He had encountered disgust and gloomy thoughts only at the dinners to which he had been invited; in that empty house, was he not free to read, write, meditate, undisturbed? He had not been aroused at every moment from his radiant dreams by the cruel necessity of studying the motions of a base soul, and that in order to deceive it by hypocritical words or actions.

‘Could happiness be thus within my reach? . . . The cost of such a life is nothing; I can, as I choose, marry Miss Elisa, or become Fouque’s partner . . . But the traveller who has just climbed a steep mountain, sits down on the summit, and finds a perfect pleasure in resting. Would he be happy if he were forced to rest always?’

Madame de Renal’s mind was a prey to carking thoughts. In spite of her resolve to the contrary, she had revealed to Julien the whole business of the lease. ‘So he will make me forget all my vows!’ she thought.

She would have given her life without hesitation to save that of her husband, had she seen him in peril. Hers was one of those noble and romantic natures, for which to see the possibility of a generous action, and not to perform it gives rise to a remorse almost equal to that which one feels for a past crime. Nevertheless, there were dreadful days on which she could not banish the thought of the absolute happiness which she would enjoy, if, suddenly left a widow, she were free to marry Julien.

He loved her children far more than their father; in spite of his strict discipline, he was adored by them. She was well aware that, if she married Julien, she would have to leave this Vergy whose leafy shade was so dear to her. She pictured herself living in Paris, continuing to provide her sons with that education at which everyone marvelled. Her children, she herself, Julien, all perfectly happy.

A strange effect of marriage, such as the nineteenth century has made it! The boredom of married life inevitably destroys love, when love has preceded marriage. And yet, as a philosopher has observed, it speedily brings about, among people who are rich enough not to have to work, an intense boredom with all quiet forms of enjoyment. And it is only dried up hearts, among women, that it does not predispose to love.

The philosopher’s observation makes me excuse Madame de Renal, but there was no excuse for her at Verrieres, and the whole town, without her suspecting it, was exclusively occupied with the scandal of her love. Thanks to this great scandal, people that autumn were less bored than usual.

The autumn, the first weeks of winter had soon come and gone. It was time to leave the woods of Vergy. The high society of Verrieres began to grow indignant that its anathemas were making so little impression upon M. de Renal. In less than a week, certain grave personages who made up for their habitual solemnity by giving themselves the pleasure of fulfilling missions of this sort, implanted in him the most cruel suspicions, but without going beyond the most measured terms.

M. Valenod, who was playing a close game, had placed Elisa with a noble and highly respected family, which included five women. Elisa fearing, she said, that she might not find a place during the winter, had asked this family for only about two thirds of what she was receiving at the Mayor’s. Of her own accord, the girl had the excellent idea of going to confess to the retired cure Chelan as well as to the new cure, so as to be able to give them both a detailed account of Julien’s amours.

On the morning after his return, at six o’clock, the abbe Chelan sent for Julien:

‘I ask you nothing,’ he said to him; ‘I beg you, and if need be order you to tell me nothing, I insist that within three days you leave either for the Seminary at Besancon or for the house of your friend Fouque, who is still willing to provide a splendid career for you. I have foreseen and settled everything, but you must go, and not return to Verrieres for a year.’

Julien made no answer; he was considering whether his honour ought to take offence at the arrangements which M. Chelan, who after all was not his father, had made for him.

‘Tomorrow at this hour I shall have the honour of seeing you again,’ he said at length to the cure.

M. Chelan, who reckoned upon overcoming the young man by main force, spoke volubly. His attitude, his features composed in the utmost humility, Julien did not open his mouth.

At length he made his escape, and hastened to inform Madame de Renal, whom he found in despair. Her husband had just been speaking to her with a certain frankness. The natural weakness of his character, seeking encouragement in the prospect of the inheritance from Besancon, had made him decide to regard her as entirely innocent. He had just confessed to her the strange condition in which he found public opinion at Verrieres. The public were wrong, had been led astray by envious ill-wishers, but what was to be done?

Madame de Renal had the momentary illusion that Julien might be able to accept M. Valenod’s offer, and remain at Verrieres. But she was no longer the simple, timid woman of the previous year; her fatal passion, her spells of remorse had enlightened her. Soon she had to bear the misery of proving to herself, while she listened to her husband, that a separation, at any rate for the time being, was now indispensable. ‘Away from me, Julien will drift back into those ambitious projects that are so natural when one has nothing. And I, great God! I am so rich, and so powerless to secure my own happiness! He will forget me. Charming as he is, he will be loved, he will love. Ah, unhappy woman! Of what can I complain? Heaven is just, I have not acquired merit by putting a stop to my crime; it blinds my judgment. It rested with me alone to win over Elisa with a bribe, nothing would have been easier. I did not take the trouble to reflect for a moment, the wild imaginings of love absorbed all my time. And now I perish.’

One thing struck Julien; as he conveyed to Madame de Renal the terrible news of his departure, he was met with no selfish objection. Evidently she was making an effort not to cry.

‘We require firmness, my friend.’

She cut off a lock of her hair.

‘I do not know what is to become of me,’ she said to him, ‘but if I die, promise me that you will never forget my children. Far or near, try to make them grow up honourable men. If there is another revolution, all the nobles will be murdered, their father may emigrate, perhaps, because of that peasant who was killed upon a roof. Watch over the family . . . Give me your hand. Farewell, my friend! These are our last moments together. This great sacrifice made, I hope that in public I shall have the courage to think of my reputation.’

Julien had been expecting despair. The simplicity of this farewell touched him.

‘No, I do not accept your farewell thus. I shall go; they wish it; you wish it yourself. But, three days after my departure, I shall return to visit you by night.’

Madame de Renal’s existence was changed. So Julien really did love her since he had had the idea, of his own accord, of seeing her again. Her bitter grief changed into one of the keenest bursts of joy that she had ever felt in her life. Everything became easy to her. The certainty of seeing her lover again took from these last moments all their lacerating force. From that instant the conduct, like the features of Madame de Renal was noble, firm, and perfectly conventional.

M. de Renal presently returned; he was beside himself. For the first time he mentioned to his wife the anonymous letter which he had received two months earlier.

‘I intend to take it to the Casino, to show them all that it comes from that wretch Valenod, whom I picked up out of the gutter and made into one of the richest citizens of Verrieres. I shall disgrace him publicly, and then fight him. It is going too far.’

‘I might be left a widow, great God!’ thought Madame de Renal. But almost at the same instant she said to herself: ‘If I do not prevent this duel, as I certainly can, I shall be my husband’s murderess.’

Never before had she handled his vanity with so much skill. In less than two hours she made him see, always by the use of arguments that had occurred first to him, that he must show himself friendlier than ever towards M. Valenod, and even take Elisa into the house again. Madame de Renal required courage to make up her mind to set eyes on this girl, the cause of all her troubles. But the idea had come to her from Julien.

Finally, after having been set three or four times in the right direction, M. de Renal arrived of his own accord at the idea (highly distressing, from the financial point of view) that the most unpleasant thing that could happen for himself was that Julien, amid the seething excitement and gossip of the whole of Verrieres, should remain there as tutor to M. Valenod’s children. It was obviously in Julien’s interest to accept the offer made him by the Governor of the Poorhouse. It was essential however to M. de Renal’s fair fame that Julien should leave Verrieres to enter the seminary at Besancon or at Dijon. But how was he to be made to agree, and after that how was he to maintain himself there?

M. de Renal, seeing the imminence of a pecuniary sacrifice, was in greater despair than his wife. For her part, after this conversation, she was in the position of a man of feeling who, weary of life, has taken a dose of stramonium; he ceases to act, save, so to speak, automatically, and no longer takes an interest in anything. Thus Louis XIV on his deathbed was led to say: ‘When I was king.’ An admirable speech!

On the morrow, at break of day, M. de Renal received an anonymous letter. It was couched in the most insulting style. The coarsest words applicable to his position stared from every line. It was the work of some envious subordinate. This letter brought him back to the thought of fighting a duel with M. Valenod. Soon his courage had risen to the idea of an immediate execution of his design. He left the house unaccompanied, and went to the gunsmith’s to procure a brace of pistols, which he told the man to load.

‘After all,’ he said to himself, ‘should the drastic rule of the Emperor Napoleon be restored, I myself could not be charged with the misappropriation of a halfpenny. At the most I have shut my eyes; but I have plenty of letters in my desk authorising me to do so.’

Madame de Renal was frightened by her husband’s cold anger, it brought back to her mind the fatal thought of widowhood, which she found it so hard to banish. She shut herself up with him. For hours on end she pleaded with him in vain, the latest anonymous letter had determined him. At length she succeeded in transforming the courage required to strike M. Valenod into that required to offer Julien six hundred francs for his maintenance for one year in a Seminary. M. de Renal, heaping a thousand curses on the day on which he had conceived the fatal idea of taking a tutor into his household, forgot the anonymous letter.

He found a grain of comfort in an idea which he did not communicate to his wife: by skilful handling, and by taking advantage of the young man’s romantic ideas, he hoped to bind him, for a smaller sum, to refuse M. Valenod’s offers.

Madame de Renal found it far harder to prove to Julien that, if he sacrificed to her husband’s convenience a post worth eight hundred francs, publicly offered him by the Governor of the Poorhouse, he might without blushing accept some compensation.

‘But,’ Julien continued to object, ‘I have never had, even for a moment, the slightest thought of accepting that offer. You have made me too familiar with a life of refinement, the vulgarity of those people would kill me.’

Cruel necessity, with its hand of iron, bent Julien’s will. His pride offered him the self-deception of accepting only as a loan the sum offered by the Mayor of Verrieres, and giving him a note of hand promising repayment with interest after five years.

Madame de Renal had still some thousands of francs hidden in the little cave in the mountains.

She offered him these, trembling, and feeling only too sure that they would be rejected with fury.

‘Do you wish,’ Julien asked her, ‘to make the memory of our love abominable?’

At length Julien left Verrieres. M. de Renal was overjoyed; at the decisive moment of accepting money from him, this sacrifice proved to be too great for Julien. He refused point-blank. M. de Renal fell upon his neck, with tears in his eyes. Julien having asked him for a testimonial to his character, he could not in his enthusiasm find terms laudatory enough to extol the young man’s conduct. Our hero had saved up five louis and intended to ask Fouque for a similar amount.

He was greatly moved. But when he had gone a league from Verrieres, where he was leaving such a treasure of love behind him, he thought only of the pleasure of seeing a capital, a great military centre like Besancon.

During this short parting of three days, Madame de Renal was duped by one of love’s most cruel illusions. Her life was tolerable enough, there was between her and the last extremes of misery this final meeting that she was still to have with Julien.

She counted the hours, the minutes that divided her from it. Finally, during the night that followed the third day, she heard in the distance the signal arranged between them. Having surmounted a thousand perils, Julien appeared before her.

>From that moment, she had but a single thought: ‘I am looking at you now for the last time.’ Far from responding to her lover’s eagerness, she was like a barely animated corpse. If she forced herself to tell him that she loved him, it was with an awkward air that was almost a proof to the contrary. Nothing could take her mind from the cruel thought of eternal separation. The suspicious Julien fancied for a moment that she had already forgotten him. His hints at such a possibility were received only with huge tears that flowed in silence, and with a convulsive pressure of his hand.

‘But, Great God! How do you expect me to believe you?’ was Julien’s reply to his mistress’s chill protestations. ‘You would show a hundred times more of sincere affection to Madame Derville, to a mere acquaintance.’

Madame de Renal, petrified, did not know how to answer.

‘It would be impossible for a woman to be more wretched . . . I hope I am going to die . . . I feel my heart freezing . . . ’

Such were the longest answers he was able to extract from her.

When the approach of day made his departure necessary, Madame de Renal’s tears ceased all at once. She saw him fasten a knotted cord to the window without saying a word, without returning his kisses. In vain might Julien say to her:

‘At last we have reached the state for which you so longed. Henceforward you will live without remorse. At the slightest indisposition of one of your children, you will no longer see them already in the grave.’

‘I am sorry you could not say good-bye to Stanislas,’ she said to him coldly.

In the end, Julien was deeply impressed by the embraces, in which there was no warmth, of this living corpse; he could think of nothing else for some leagues. His spirit was crushed, and before crossing the pass, so long as he was able to see the steeple of Verrieres church, he turned round often.

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