The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 27

First Experience of Life

The present moment, by God! is the ark of the Lord. Woe betide the man who lays his hand upon it.

DIDEROT

The reader will kindly excuse our giving but few clear and precise details of this epoch in Julien’s life. Not that we lack them, far from it; but perhaps the life he led in the Seminary is too black for the modest colouring which we have sought to preserve in these pages. People who have been made to suffer by certain things cannot be reminded of them without a horror which paralyses every other pleasure, even that to be found in reading a story.

Julien met with little success in his attempts at hypocrisy in action; he passed through moments of disgust and even of complete discouragement. He was utterly unsuccessful, and that moreover in a vile career. The slightest help from without would have sufficed to restore his morale, the difficulty to be overcome was not great; but he was alone, as lonely as a vessel abandoned in mid-ocean. ‘And if I should succeed,’ he said to himself; ‘to have to spend my whole life in such evil company! Gluttons who think of nothing but the ham omelette they are going to devour at dinner, or men like the abbe Castanede, to whom no crime is too black! They will rise to power; but at what a price, great God!

‘Man’s will is powerful, I see it written everywhere; but is it sufficiently so to overcome such repulsion? The task of great men has always been easy; however terrible was their danger, it was beautiful in their eyes; and who but myself can realise the ugliness of all that surrounds me?’

This was the most trying moment in his life. It was so easy for him to enlist in one of the fine regiments that were stationed at Besancon! He might become a teacher of Latin; he wanted so little to keep himself alive! But then, no career, no future for his imagination: it was a living death. Here is a detailed account of one of his wretched days.

‘My presumption has so often flattered itself upon my being different from the other young peasants! Well, I have lived long enough to see that difference breeds hatred,’ he said to himself one morning. This great truth had just been revealed to him by one of his most annoying failures. He had laboured for a week to make himself agreeable to a student who lived in the odour of sanctity. He was walking with him in the courtyard, listening submissively to idiocies that sent him to sleep as he walked. Suddenly a storm broke, the thunder growled, and the saintly student exclaimed, thrusting him rudely away:

‘Listen, each for himself in this world, I have no wish to be struck by lightning: God may blast you as an infidel, another Voltaire.’

His teeth clenched with rage and his eyes opened towards the sky furrowed by streaks of lightning: ‘I should deserve to be submerged, were I to let myself sleep during the storm!’ cried Julien. ‘Let us attempt the conquest of some other drudge.’

The bell rang for the abbe Castanede’s class of sacred history.

These young peasants who lived in such fear of the hard toil and poverty of their fathers, were taught that day by the abbe Castanede that that being so terrible in their eyes, the Government, had no real or legitimate power save what was delegated to it by God’s Vicar on Earth.

‘Render yourselves worthy of the Pope’s bounties by the sanctity of your lives, by your obedience, be like a rod in his hands,’ he went on, ‘and you will attain to a superb position where you will be in supreme command, under no man’s control; a permanent position, of which the Government pays one third of the emoluments, and the faithful, roused by your preaching, the other two thirds.’

On leaving his classroom, M. Castanede stopped in the courtyard.

‘You may well say of a cure, each man gets what he deserves,’ he said to the students who gathered round him. ‘I myself have known mountain parishes where the fees came to more than those of many town cures. There was as much in money, not to speak of the fat capons, eggs, fresh butter, and endless little delicacies; and there the cure takes the first place without challenge: no good meal to which he is not invited, made much of,’ etc.

No sooner had M. Castanede gone up to his own room, than the students divided into groups. Julien belonged to none of these; they drew away from him as from a tainted wether. In each of the groups, he saw a student toss a copper in the air, and if he guessed head or tail aright, his companions concluded that he would soon have one of these livings with fat fees.

Stories followed. One young priest, barely a year in orders, having presented a domestic rabbit to an old cure’s servant, had got the cure to ask for him as his assistant, and a few months afterwards, for the cure had died almost immediately, had succeeded him in a good living. Another had managed to have his name put forward for the eventual succession to the curacy of a prosperous country town, by attending all the meals of the paralytic old cure and carving his chickens for him gracefully.

The seminarists, like young men in every profession, exaggerated the effect of these little stratagems when they were out of the ordinary and struck the imagination.

‘I must,’ thought Julien, ‘take part in these conversations.’ When they were not discussing sausages and rich livings, their talk ran on the worldly side of ecclesiastical teaching; the differences between Bishops and Prefects, mayors and cures. Julien saw lurking in their minds the idea of a second God, but of a God far more to be feared and far more powerful than the first; this second God was the Pope. It was said, but with lowered voice, and when the speaker was quite certain of not being overheard by M. Pirard, that if the Pope did not take the trouble to appoint all the Prefects and all the mayors in France, it was because he had delegated the King of France for that duty, by naming him the Eldest Son of the Church.

It was about this time that Julien thought he might derive some benefit from his admiration for M. de Maistre’s book on the Pope. He did, as a matter of fact, astonish his fellow-students; but this was a fresh misfortune. He annoyed them by expressing their opinions better than they could themselves. M. Chelan had been a rash counsellor for Julien as he had been for himself. After training him to the habit of reasoning accurately and not letting himself be taken in by vain words, he had omitted to tell him that in a person of little repute this habit is a crime; for sound reasoning always gives offence.

Julien’s fine speech was therefore only another crime against him. His companions, being compelled to think about him, succeeded in finding two words to express all the horror with which he filled them: they nicknamed him Martin Luther; ‘chiefly,’ they said, ‘because of that infernal logic of which he is so proud.’

Several young seminarists had fresher complexions and might be reckoned better looking than Julien; but he had white hands, and could not hide certain habits of personal cleanliness. This distinction was none at all in the grim dwelling into which destiny had cast him. The unclean peasants among whom he lived declared that he had extremely lax morals. We are afraid to tire the reader by an account of our hero’s endless mishaps. To take one instance, the more vigorous among his companions tried to make a practice of thrashing him; he was obliged to arm himself with a metal compass and to inform them, but only by signs, that he would use it. Signs cannot be represented, in a spy’s report, so damningly as words.

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