The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 6

Dullness

Non so piu cosa son, Cosa facio.

MOZART (Figaro)

With the vivacity and grace which came naturally to her when she was beyond the reach of male vision, Madame de Renal was coming out through the glass door which opened from the drawing-room into the garden, when she saw, standing by the front door, a young peasant, almost a boy still, extremely pale and showing traces of recent tears. He was wearing a clean white shirt and carried under his arm a neat jacket of violet ratteen.

This young peasant’s skin was so white, his eyes were so appealing, that the somewhat romantic mind of Madame de Renal conceived the idea at first that he might be a girl in disguise, come to ask some favour of the Mayor. She felt sorry for the poor creature, who had come to a standstill by the front door, and evidently could not summon up courage to ring the bell. Madame de Renal advanced, oblivious for the moment of the bitter grief that she felt at the tutor’s coming. Julien, who was facing the door, did not see her approach. He trembled when a pleasant voice sounded close to his ear:

‘What have you come for, my boy?’

Julien turned sharply round, and, struck by the charm of Madame de Renal’s expression, forgot part of his shyness. A moment later, astounded by her beauty, he forgot everything, even his purpose in coming. Madame de Renal had repeated her question.

‘I have come to be tutor, Madame,’ he at length informed her, put to shame by his tears which he dried as best he might.

Madame de Renal remained speechless; they were standing close together, looking at one another. Julien had never seen a person so well dressed as this, let alone a woman with so exquisite a complexion, to speak to him in a gentle tone. Madame de Renal looked at the large tears which lingered on the cheeks (so pallid at first and now so rosy) of this young peasant. Presently she burst out laughing, with all the wild hilarity of a girl; she was laughing at herself, and trying in vain to realise the full extent of her happiness. So this was the tutor whom she had imagined an unwashed and ill-dressed priest, who was coming to scold and whip her children.

‘Why, Sir!’ she said to him at length, ‘do you know Latin?’

The word ‘Sir’ came as such a surprise to Julien that he thought for a moment before answering.

‘Yes, Ma’am,’ he said shyly.

Madame de Renal felt so happy that she ventured to say to Julien:

‘You won’t scold those poor children too severely?’

‘Scold them? I?’ asked Julien in amazement. ‘Why should I?’

‘You will, Sir,’ she went on after a brief silence and in a voice that grew more emotional every moment, ‘you will be kind to them, you promise me?’

To hear himself addressed again as ‘Sir’, in all seriousness, and by a lady so fashionably attired, was more than Julien had ever dreamed of; in all the cloud castles of his boyhood, he had told himself that no fashionable lady would deign to speak to him until he had a smart uniform. Madame de Renal, for her part, was completely taken in by the beauty of Julien’s complexion, his great dark eyes and his becoming hair which was curling more than usual because, to cool himself, he had just dipped his head in the basin of the public fountain. To her great delight, she discovered an air of girlish shyness in this fatal tutor, whose severity and savage appearance she had so greatly dreaded for her children’s sake. To Madame de Renal’s peace-loving nature the contrast between her fears and what she now saw before her was a great event. Finally she recovered from her surprise. She was astonished to find herself standing like this at the door of her house with this young man almost in his shirtsleeves and so close to her.

‘Let us go indoors, Sir,’ she said to him with an air of distinct embarrassment.

Never in her life had a purely agreeable sensation so profoundly stirred Madame de Renal; never had so charming an apparition come in the wake of more disturbing fears. And so those sweet children, whom she had tended with such care, were not to fall into the hands of a dirty, growling priest. As soon as they were in the hall, she turned to Julien who was following her shyly. His air of surprise at the sight of so fine a house was an additional charm in the eyes of Madame de Renal. She could not believe her eyes; what she felt most of all was that the tutor ought to be wearing a black coat.

‘But is it true, Sir,’ she said to him, again coming to a halt, and mortally afraid lest she might be mistaken, so happy was the belief making her, ‘do you really know Latin?’

These words hurt Julien’s pride and destroyed the enchantment in which he had been living for the last quarter of an hour.

‘Yes, Ma’am,’ he informed her, trying to adopt a chilly air; ‘I know Latin as well as M. le cure; indeed, he is sometimes so kind as to say that I know it better.’

Madame de Renal felt that Julien had a very wicked air; he had stopped within arm’s length of her. She went nearer to him, and murmured:

‘For the first few days, you won’t take the whip to my children, even if they don’t know their lessons?’

This gentle, almost beseeching tone coming from so fine a lady at once made Julien forget what he owed to his reputation as a Latin scholar. Madame de Renal’s face was close to his own, he could smell the perfume of a woman’s summer attire, so astounding a thing to a poor peasant. Julien blushed deeply, and said with a sigh and in a faint voice:

‘Fear nothing, Ma’am, I shall obey you in every respect.’

It was at this moment only, when her anxiety for her children was completely banished, that Madame de Renal was struck by Julien’s extreme good looks. The almost feminine cast of his features and his air of embarrassment did not seem in the least absurd to a woman who was extremely timid herself. The manly air which is generally considered essential to masculine beauty would have frightened her.

‘How old are you, Sir?’ she asked Julien.

‘I shall soon be nineteen.’

‘My eldest son is eleven,’ went on Madame de Renal, completely reassured; ‘he will be almost a companion for you, you can talk to him seriously. His father tried to beat him once, the child was ill for a whole week, and yet it was quite a gentle blow.’

‘How different from me,’ thought Julien. ‘Only yesterday my father was thrashing me. How fortunate these rich people are!’

Madame de Renal had by this time arrived at the stage of remarking the most trivial changes in the state of the tutor’s mind; she mistook this envious impulse for shyness, and tried to give him fresh courage.

‘What is your name, Sir?’ she asked him with an accent and a grace the charm of which Julien could feel without knowing whence it sprang.

‘They call me Julien Sorel, Ma’am; I am trembling as I enter a strange house for the first time in my life; I have need of your protection, and shall require you to forgive me many things at first. I have never been to College, I was too poor; I have never talked to any other men, except my cousin the Surgeon–Major, a Member of the Legion of Honour, and the Reverend Father Chelan. He will give you a good account of me. My brothers have always beaten me, do not listen to them if they speak evil of me to you; pardon my faults, Ma’am, I shall never have any evil intention.’

Julien plucked up his courage again during this long speech; he was studying Madame de Renal. Such is the effect of perfect grace when it is natural to the character, particularly when she whom it adorns has no thought of being graceful. Julien, who knew all that was to be known about feminine beauty, would have sworn at that moment that she was no more than twenty. The bold idea at once occurred to him of kissing her hand. Next, this idea frightened him; a moment later, he said to himself: ‘It would be cowardly on my part not to carry out an action which may be of use to me, and diminish the scorn which this fine lady probably feels for a poor workman, only just taken from the sawbench.’ Perhaps Julien was somewhat encouraged by the words ‘good-looking boy’ which for the last six months he had been used to hearing on Sundays on the lips of various girls. While he debated thus with himself, Madame de Renal offered him a few suggestions as to how he should begin to handle her children. The violence of Julien’s effort to control himself made him turn quite pale again; he said, with an air of constraint:

‘Never, Ma’am, will I beat your children; I swear it before God.’

And so saying he ventured to take Madame de Renal’s hand and carry it to his lips. She was astonished at this action, and, on thinking it over, shocked. As the weather was very warm, her arm was completely bare under her shawl, and Julien’s action in raising her hand to his lips had uncovered it to the shoulder. A minute later she scolded herself; she felt that she had not been quickly enough offended.

M. de Renal, who had heard the sound of voices, came out of his study; with the same majestic and fatherly air that he assumed when he was conducting marriages in the Town Hall, he said to Julien:

‘It is essential that I speak to you before the children see you.’

He ushered Julien into one of the rooms and detained his wife, who was going to leave them together. Having shut the door, M. de Renal seated himself with gravity.

‘The cure has told me that you were an honest fellow, everyone in this house will treat you with respect, and if I am satisfied I shall help you to set up for yourself later on. I wish you to cease to see anything of either your family or your friends, their tone would not be suited to my children. Here are thirty-six francs for the first month; but I must have your word that you will not give a penny of this money to your father.’

M. de Renal was annoyed with the old man, who, in this business, had proved more subtle than he himself.

‘And now, Sir, for by my orders everyone in this house is to address you as Sir, and you will be conscious of the advantage of entering a well-ordered household; now, Sir, it is not proper that the children should see you in a jacket. Have the servants seen him?’ M. de Renal asked his wife.

‘No, dear,’ she replied with an air of deep thought.

‘Good. Put on this,’ he said to the astonished young man, handing him one of his own frock coats. ‘And now let us go to M. Durand, the clothier.’

More than an hour later, when M. de Renal returned with the new tutor dressed all in black, he found his wife still seated in the same place. She felt soothed by Julien’s presence; as she studied his appearance she forgot to feel afraid. Julien was not giving her a thought; for all his mistrust of destiny and of mankind, his heart at that moment was just like a child’s; he seemed to have lived whole years since the moment when, three hours earlier, he stood trembling in the church. He noticed Madame de Renal’s frigid manner, and gathered that she was angry because he had ventured to kiss her hand. But the sense of pride that he derived from the contact of garments so different from those which he was accustomed to wear caused him so much excitement, and he was so anxious to conceal his joy that all his gestures were more or less abrupt and foolish. Madame de Renal gazed at him with eyes of astonishment.

‘A little gravity, Sir,’ M. de Renal told him, ‘if you wish to be respected by my children and my servants.’

‘Sir,’ replied Julien, ‘I am uncomfortable in these new clothes; I, a humble peasant, have never worn any but short jackets; with your permission, I shall retire to my bedroom.’

‘What think you of this new acquisition?’ M. de Renal asked his wife.

With an almost instinctive impulse, of which she herself certainly was not aware, Madame de Renal concealed the truth from her husband.

‘I am by no means as enchanted as you are with this little peasant; your kindness will turn him into an impertinent rascal whom you will be obliged to send packing within a month.’

‘Very well! We shall send him packing; he will have cost me a hundred francs or so, and Verrieres will have grown used to seeing a tutor with M. de Renal’s children. That point I should not have gained if I had let Julien remain in the clothes of a working man. When I dismiss him, I shall of course keep the black suit which I have just ordered from the clothier. He shall have nothing but the coat I found ready made at the tailor’s, which he is now wearing.’

The hour which Julien spent in his room seemed like a second to Madame de Renal. The children, who had been told of their new tutor’s arrival, overwhelmed their mother with questions. Finally Julien appeared. He was another man. It would have been straining the word to say that he was grave; he was gravity incarnate. He was introduced to the children, and spoke to them with an air that surprised M. de Renal himself.

‘I am here, young gentlemen,’ he told them at the end of his address, ‘to teach you Latin. You know what is meant by repeating a lesson. Here is the Holy Bible,’ he said, and showed them a tiny volume in 32mo, bound in black. ‘It is in particular the story of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that is the part which is called the New Testament. I shall often make you repeat lessons; now you must make me repeat mine.’

Adolphe, the eldest boy, had taken the book.

‘Open it where you please,’ Julien went on, ‘and tell me the first word of a paragraph. I shall repeat by heart the sacred text, the rule of conduct for us all, until you stop me.’

Adolphe opened the book, read a word, and Julien repeated the whole page as easily as though he were speaking French. M. de Renal looked at his wife with an air of triumph. The children, seeing their parents’ amazement, opened their eyes wide. A servant came to the door of the drawing-room, Julien went on speaking in Latin. The servant at first stood motionless and then vanished. Presently the lady’s maid and the cook appeared in the doorway; by this time Adolphe had opened the book at eight different places, and Julien continued to repeat the words with the same ease.

‘Eh, what a bonny little priest,’ the cook, a good and truly devout girl, said aloud.

M. de Renal’s self-esteem was troubled; so far from having any thought of examining the tutor, he was engaged in ransacking his memory for a few words of Latin; at last, he managed to quote a line of Horace. Julien knew no Latin apart from the Bible. He replied with a frown:

‘The sacred ministry to which I intend to devote myself has forbidden me to read so profane a poet.’

M. de Renal repeated a fair number of alleged lines of Horace. He explained to his children what Horace was; but the children, overcome with admiration, paid little attention to what he was saying. They were watching Julien.

The servants being still at the door, Julien felt it incumbent upon him to prolong the test.

‘And now,’ he said to the youngest boy, ‘Master Stanislas Xavier too must set me a passage from the Holy Book.’

Little Stanislas, swelling with pride, read out to the best of his ability the opening words of a paragraph, and Julien repeated the whole page. That nothing might be wanting to complete M. de Renal’s triumph, while Julien was reciting, there entered M. Valenod, the possessor of fine Norman horses, and M. Charcot de Maugiron, Sub–Prefect of the district. This scene earned for Julien the title ‘Sir’; the servants themselves dared not withhold it from him.

That evening, the whole of Verrieres flocked to M. de Renal’s to behold the marvel. Julien answered them all with an air of gloom which kept them at a distance. His fame spread so rapidly through the town that, shortly afterwards, M. de Renal, afraid of losing him, suggested his signing a contract for two years.

‘No, Sir,’ Julien replied coldly, ‘if you chose to dismiss me I should be obliged to go. A contract which binds me without putting you under any obligation is unfair, I must decline.’

Julien managed so skilfully that, less than a month after his coming to the house, M. de Renal himself respected him. The cure having quarrelled with MM. de Renal and Valenod, there was no one who could betray Julien’s former passion for Napoleon, of whom he was careful to speak with horror.

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