The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 28

A Procession

All hearts were moved. God’s presence seemed to have come down into these narrow, gothic streets, decked on every side, and strewn with sand through the good offices of the faithful.

YOUNG†

† Tr. footnote: As in Chapter 26 I have left this motto in French. It seems, however, to be taken from Arthur Young rather and Edward. C. K. S. M.]

In vain might Julien make himself small and foolish, he could not give satisfaction, he was too different. ‘And yet,’ he said to himself, ‘all these Professors are men of great discernment, and picked men, each of them one in a thousand; how is it they do not like my humility?’ One alone seemed to him to be taking advantage of his readiness to believe anything and to appear taken in by everything. This was the abbe Chas–Bernard, Master of Ceremonies at the Cathedral, where, for the last fifteen years, he had been kept in hopes of a Canonry; in the meantime, he taught sacred eloquence at the Seminary. In the period of his blindness, this class was one of those in which Julien most regularly came out at the top. The abbe Chas had been led by this to show a partiality for him, and, at the end of his class, would gladly take his arm for a turn in the garden.

‘What can his object be?’ Julien asked himself. He found with amazement that, for hours on end, the abbe talked to him of the ornaments which the Cathedral possessed. It had seventeen apparelled chasubles, apart from the vestments worn at requiems. They had great hopes of President de Rubempre’s widow; this lady, who was ninety years old, had preserved for at least seventy of those years her wedding garments of superb Lyons stuffs, figured in gold. ‘Just imagine, my friend,’ said the abbe Chas coming to a standstill and opening his eyes wide, ‘these stuffs stand by themselves, there is so much gold in them. It is common opinion in Besancon that, under the Presidente’s will, the treasury of the Cathedral will be enriched with more than ten chasubles, not to mention four or five copes for the greater feasts. I will go farther,’ the abbe Chas added, lowering his voice. ‘I have good reason to think that the Presidente will bequeath to us eight magnificent silver-gilt candlesticks, which are supposed to have been bought in Italy, by the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, whose favourite minister was an ancestor of hers.’

‘But what is this man really aiming at behind all this frippery?’ Julien wondered. ‘This careful preparation has been going on for an age, and nothing comes of it. He must have singularly little faith in me! He is cleverer than any of the others, whose secret purposes one can see so plainly after a fortnight. I understand, this man’s ambition has been in torment for fifteen years.’

One evening, in the middle of the armed drill, Julien was sent for by the abbe Pirard, who said to him:

‘Tomorrow is the feast of Corpus Christi. M. l’abbe Chas–Bernard requires you to help him to decorate the Cathedral; go and obey.’

The abbe Pirard called him back, and added, in a tone of compassion:

‘It is for you to decide whether you wish to seize the opportunity of taking a stroll through the town.’

Incedo per ignes,’ replied Julien: which is to say, I am treading on dangerous ground.

Next morning at daybreak, Julien made his way to the Cathedral, walking with lowered eyes. The sight of the streets and the activity which was beginning to pervade the town did him good. On every side people were draping the fronts of their houses for the procession. All the time that he had spent in the Seminary seemed to him no more than an instant. His thoughts were at Vergy, and with that charming Amanda Binet, whom he might meet, for her cafe was but little out of his way. He saw in the distance the abbe Chas–Bernard, standing by the door of his beloved Cathedral; he was a large man with a joyful countenance and an open air. This morning he was triumphant: ‘I have been waiting for you, my dear son,’ he called out, as soon as he caught sight of Julien, ‘you are welcome. Our labours this day will be long and hard, let us fortify ourselves with an early breakfast; the other we shall take at ten o’clock during high mass.’

‘I desire, Sir,’ Julien said to him with an air of gravity, ‘not to be left alone for a moment; kindly observe,’ he added, pointing to the clock above their heads, ‘that I have arrived at one minute before five.’

‘Ah! So you are afraid of those young rascals at the Seminary! It is too kind of you to give them a thought,’ said the abbe Chas; ‘is a road any the worse, because there are thorns in the hedges on either side of it? The traveller goes his way and leaves the wicked thorns to wither where they are. However, we must to work, my dear friend, to work.’

The abbe Chas had been right in saying that their labours would be hard. There had been a great funeral service in the Cathedral the day before; it had been impossible to make any preparations; they were obliged, therefore, in the course of the morning, to drape each of the gothic pillars which separate the nave from the aisles in a sort of jacket of red damask which rose to a height of thirty feet. The Bishop had ordered four decorators from Paris by mail coach, but these gentlemen could not do everything themselves, and so far from encouraging the awkward efforts of their Bisontine colleagues they increased their awkwardness by laughing at it.

Julien saw that he would have to go up the ladders himself, his agility stood him in good stead. He undertook to direct the local decorators in person. The abbe Chas was in ecstasies as he watched him spring from one ladder to another. When all the pillars were hung with damask, the next thing was to go and place five enormous bunches of plumes on top of the great baldachino, over the high altar. A richly gilded wooden crown was supported on eight great twisted columns of Italian marble. But, in order to reach the centre of the baldachino, over the tabernacle, one had to step across an old wooden cornice, possibly worm-eaten, and forty feet from the ground.

The sight of this perilous ascent had extinguished the gaiety, so brilliant until then, of the Parisian decorators; they looked at it from beneath, discussed it volubly, and did not go up. Julien took possession of the bunches of plumes, and ran up the ladder. He arranged them admirably upon the ornament in the form of a crown in the centre of the baldachino. As he stepped down from the ladder, the abbe Chas–Bernard took him in his arms.

Optime!’ exclaimed the worthy priest, ‘I shall tell Monseigneur of this.’

Their ten o’clock breakfast was a merry feast. Never had the abbe Chas seen his church looking so well.

‘My dear disciple,’ he said to Julien, ‘my mother used to hire out chairs in this venerable fane, so that I was brought up in this great edifice. Robespierre’s Terror ruined us; but, at eight years old, as I then was, I was already serving masses in private houses, and their owners gave me my dinner on mass days. No one could fold a chasuble better than I, the gold braid was never broken. Since the restoration of the Faith by Napoleon, it has been my happy lot to take charge of everything in this venerable mother church. On five days in the year, my eyes behold it decked out with these beautiful ornaments. But never has it been so resplendent, never have the damask strips been so well hung as they are today, have they clung so to the pillars.’

‘At last, he is going to tell me his secret,’ thought Julien, ‘here he is talking to me of himself; he is beginning to expand.’ But nothing imprudent was said by this man, evidently in an excited state. ‘And yet he has worked hard, he is happy,’ Julien said to himself, ‘the good wine has not been spared. What a man! What an example for me! He takes the prize.’ (This was a low expression which he had picked up from the old surgeon.)

When the Sanctus bell rang during high mass, Julien wished to put on a surplice so as to follow the Bishop in the superb procession.

‘And the robbers, my friend, the robbers!’ cried the abbe Chas, ‘you forget them. The procession is going out; the church will be left empty; we must keep watch, you and I. We shall be fortunate if we lose only a couple of ells of that fine braid which goes round the base of the pillars. That is another gift from Madame de Rubempre; it comes from the famous Count, her great-grandfather; it is pure gold, my friend,’ the abbe went on, whispering in his ear, and with an air of evident exaltation, ‘nothing false about it! I entrust to you the inspection of the north aisle, do not stir from it. I keep for myself the south aisle and nave. Keep an eye on the confessionals; it is there that the robbers’ women spies watch for the moment when our backs are turned.’

As he finished speaking, the quarter before twelve struck, at once the big bell began to toll. It was being pulled with all the ringers’ might; the rich and solemn sound stirred Julien deeply. His imagination rose from the ground.

The odour of the incense and of the rose leaves strewn before the Blessed Sacrament by children dressed as little Saint Johns, intensified his excitement.

The sober note of the bell ought to have suggested to Julien only the thought of the work of a score of men earning fifty centimes, and assisted perhaps by fifteen or twenty of the faithful. He ought to have thought of the wear and tear of the ropes, of the timber, of the danger from the bell itself which fell every two hundred years, and to have planned some way of diminishing the wage of the ringers, or of paying them with some indulgence or other favour drawn from the spiritual treasury of the Church, with no strain upon her purse.

In place of these sage reflections, Julien’s soul, excited by these rich and virile sounds, was straying through imaginary space. Never will he make either a good priest or a great administrator. Souls that are moved thus are capable at most of producing an artist. Here Julien’s presumption breaks out in the full light of day. Fifty, perhaps, of his fellow seminarists, made attentive to the realities of life by the public hatred and Jacobinism which, they are told, is lurking behind every hedge, on hearing the big bell of the Cathedral, would have thought only of the wages paid to the ringers. They would have applied the genius of a Bareme to determine the question whether the degree of emotion aroused in the public was worth the money given to the ringers. Had Julien chosen to give his mind to the material interests of the Cathedral, his imagination flying beyond its goal would have thought of saving forty francs for the Chapter, and would have let slip the opportunity of avoiding an outlay of twenty-five centimes.

While, in the most perfect weather ever seen, the procession wound its way slowly through Besancon, and halted at the glittering stations which all the local authorities had vied with one another in erecting, the church remained wrapped in a profound silence. A suffused light, an agreeable coolness reigned in it; it was still balmy with the fragrance of flowers and incense.

The silence, the profound solitude, the coolness of the long aisles, made Julien’s musings all the sweeter. He had no fear of being disturbed by the abbe Chas, who was occupied in another part of the building. His soul had almost quitted its mortal envelope, which was strolling at a slow pace along the north aisle committed to his charge. He was all the more at rest, since he was certain that there was nobody in the confessionals save a few devout women; he saw without observing.

His distraction was nevertheless half conquered by the sight of two women extremely well dressed who were kneeling, one of them in a confessional, the other, close beside her, upon a chair. He saw without observing them; at the same time, whether from a vague sense of his duty, or from admiration of the plain but noble attire of these ladies, he remarked that there was no priest in that confessional. ‘It is strange,’ he thought, ‘that these beautiful ladies are not kneeling before some station, if they are religious; or placed in good seats in the front of some balcony, if they are fashionable. How well cut that gown is! What grace!’ He slackened his pace in order to see their faces.

The one who was kneeling in the confessional turned her head slightly on hearing the sound of Julien’s step amid the prevailing silence. All at once she gave a little cry, and fainted.

As her strength left her, this kneeling lady fell back; her friend, who was close at hand, hastened to the rescue. At the same time Julien caught sight of the shoulders of the lady who had fallen back. A rope of large seed pearls, well known to him, caught his eye. What was his state when he recognised the hair of Madame de Renal! It was she. The lady who was trying to hold up her head, and to arrest her fall, was Madame Derville. Julien, beside himself with emotion, sprang forward; Madame de Renal’s fall would perhaps have brought down her friend if he had not supported them. He saw Madame de Renal’s head, pale, absolutely devoid of consciousness, drooping upon her shoulder. He helped Madame Derville to prop that charming head against the back of a straw chair; he was on his knees.

Madame Derville turned and recognised him.

‘Fly, Sir, fly!’ she said to him in accents of the most burning anger. ‘On no account must she see you again. The sight of you must indeed fill her with horror, she was so happy before you came! Your behaviour is atrocious. Fly; be off with you, if you have any shame left.’

This speech was uttered with such authority, and Julien felt so weak at the moment, that he withdrew. ‘She always hated me,’ he said to himself, thinking of Madame Derville.

At that moment, the nasal chant of the leading priests in the procession rang through the church; the procession was returning. The abbe Chas–Bernard called repeatedly to Julien, who at first did not hear him: finally he came and led him by the arm from behind a pillar where Julien had taken refuge more dead than alive. He wished to present him to the Bishop.

‘You are feeling unwell, my child,’ said the abbe, seeing him so pale and almost unable to walk; ‘you have been working too hard.’ The abbe gave him his arm. ‘Come, sit down here, on the sacristan’s little stool, behind me; I shall screen you.’ They were now by the side of the main door. ‘Calm yourself, we have still a good twenty minutes before Monseigneur appears. Try to recover yourself; when he passes, I shall hold you up, for I am strong and vigorous, in spite of my age.’

But when the Bishop passed, Julien was so tremulous that the abbe Chas abandoned the idea of presenting him.

‘Do not worry yourself about it,’ he told him, ‘I shall find another opportunity.’

That evening, he sent down to the chapel of the Seminary ten pounds of candles, saved, he said, by Julien’s efforts and the rapidity with which he extinguished them. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. The poor boy was himself extinguished; he had not had a thought in his head after seeing Madame de Renal.

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