The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 7

Elective Affinities

They can only touch the heart by bruising it.

A MODERN

The children adored him, he did not care for them; his thoughts were elsewhere. Nothing that these urchins could do ever tried his patience. Cold, just, impassive, and at the same time loved, because his coming had in a measure banished dullness from the house, he was a good tutor. For his part, he felt only hatred and horror for the high society in which he was allowed to occupy the very foot of the table, a position which may perhaps explain his hatred and horror. There were certain formal dinners at which he could barely contain his loathing of everything round about him. On Saint Louis’s day in particular, M. Valenod was laying down the law at M. de Renal’s; Julien almost gave himself away; he escaped into the garden, saying that he must look after the children. ‘What panegyrics of honesty!’ he exclaimed; ‘anyone would say that was the one and only virtue; and yet what consideration, what a cringing respect for a man who obviously has doubled and tripled his fortune since he has been in charge of the relief of the poor! I would wager that he makes something even out of the fund set apart for the foundlings, those wretches whose need is even more sacred than that of the other paupers. Ah, monsters! Monsters! And I too, I am a sort of foundling, hated by my father, my brothers, my whole family.’

Some days earlier, Julien walking by himself and saying his office in a little wood, known as the Belvedere, which overlooks the Cours de la Fidelite, had tried in vain to avoid his two brothers, whom he saw approaching him by a solitary path. The jealousy of these rough labourers had been so quickened by the sight of their brother’s handsome black coat, and air of extreme gentility, as well as by the sincere contempt which he felt for them, that they had proceeded to thrash him, leaving him there unconscious and bleeding freely. Madame de Renal, who was out walking with M. Valenod and the Sub–Prefect, happened to turn into the little wood; she saw Julien lying on the ground and thought him dead. She was so overcome as to make M. Valenod jealous.

His alarm was premature. Julien admired Madame de Renal’s looks, but hated her for her beauty; it was the first reef on which his fortune had nearly foundered. He spoke to her as seldom as possible, in the hope of making her forget the impulse which, at their first encounter, had led him to kiss her hand.

Elisa, Madame de Renal’s maid, had not failed to fall in love with the young tutor; she often spoke of him to her mistress. Miss Elisa’s love had brought upon Julien the hatred of one of the footmen. One day he heard this man say to Elisa: ‘You won’t speak to me any more, since that greasy tutor has been in the house.’ Julien did not deserve the epithet; but, with the instinct of a good-looking youth, became doubly attentive to his person. M. Valenod’s hatred was multiplied accordingly. He said in public that so much concern with one’s appearance was not becoming in a young cleric. Barring the cassock, Julien now wore clerical attire.

Madame de Renal observed that he was speaking more often than before to Miss Elisa; she learned that these conversations were due to the limitations of Julien’s extremely small wardrobe. He had so scanty a supply of linen that he was obliged to send it out constantly to be washed, and it was in performing these little services that Elisa made herself useful to him.

This extreme poverty, of which she had had no suspicion, touched Madame de Renal; she longed to make him presents, but did not dare; this inward resistance was the first feeling of regret that Julien caused her. Until then the name of Julien and the sense of a pure and wholly intellectual joy had been synonymous to her. Tormented by the idea of Julien’s poverty, Madame de Renal spoke to her husband about making him a present of linen:

‘What idiocy!’ he replied. ‘What! Make presents to a man with whom we are perfectly satisfied, and who is serving us well? It is when he neglects his duty that we should stimulate his zeal.’

Madame de Renal felt ashamed of this way of looking at things; before Julien came she would not have noticed it. She never saw the young cleric’s spotless, though very simple, toilet without asking herself: ‘Poor boy, how ever does he manage?’

As time went on she began to feel sorry for Julien’s deficiencies, instead of being shocked by them.

Madame de Renal was one of those women to be found in the provinces whom one may easily take to be fools until one has known them for a fortnight. She had no experience of life, and made no effort at conversation. Endowed with a delicate and haughty nature, that instinct for happiness natural to all human beings made her, generally speaking, pay no attention to the actions of the coarse creatures into whose midst chance had flung her.

She would have been remarkable for her naturalness and quickness of mind, had she received the most scanty education; but in her capacity as an heiress she had been brought up by nuns who practised a passionate devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and were animated by a violent hatred of the French as being enemies of the Jesuits. Madame de Renal had sufficient sense to forget at once, as absurdities, everything she had learned in the convent; but she put nothing else in its place, and ended by knowing nothing. The flatteries of which she had been the precocious object, as the heiress to a large fortune, and a marked tendency towards passionate devotion, had bred in her an attitude towards life that was wholly inward. With an outward show of the most perfect submission, and a self-suppression which the husbands of Verrieres used to quote as an example to their wives, and which was a source of pride to M. de Renal, her inner life was, as a matter of fact, dictated by the most lofty disdain. Any princess who is quoted as an illustration of pride pays infinitely more attention to what her gentlemen are doing round about her than this meekest of women, so modest in appearance, gave to anything that her husband said or did. Until Julien arrived, she had really paid no attention to anyone but her children. Their little illnesses, their sorrows, their little pleasures absorbed the whole sensibility of this human soul, which had never, in the whole of her life, adored anyone save God, while she was at the Sacred Heart in Besancon.

Although she did not condescend to say so to anyone, a feverish attack coming to one of her sons threw her almost into the same state as if the child had died. A burst of coarse laughter, a shrug of the shoulders, accompanied by some trivial maxim as to the foolishness of women, had regularly greeted the confessions of grief of this sort which the need of an outlet had led her to make to her husband during the first years of their married life. Witticisms of this sort, especially when they bore upon the illnesses of the children, turned the dagger in Madame de Renal’s heart. This was all the substitute she found for the obsequious, honeyed flatteries of the Jesuitical convent in which she had passed her girlhood. She was educated in the school of suffering. Too proud to speak of griefs of this sort, even to her friend Madame Derville, she imagined that all men resembled her husband, M. Valenod, and the Sub–Prefect Charcot de Maugiron. Coarse wit and the most brutal insensibility to everything that did not promise money, promotion or a Cross; a blind hatred of every argument that went against them seemed to her to be things natural to the male sex, like the wearing of boots and felt hats.

After many long years, Madame de Renal had not yet grown accustomed to these money-grubbing creatures among whom she had to live.

Hence the success of the little peasant Julien. She found much pleasant enjoyment, radiant with the charm of novelty, in the sympathy of this proud and noble spirit. Madame de Renal had soon forgiven him his extreme ignorance, which was an additional charm, and the roughness of his manners, which she succeeded in improving. She found that it was worth her while to listen to him, even when they spoke of the most ordinary things, even when it was a question of a poor dog that had been run over, as it was crossing the street, by a peasant’s cart going by at a trot. The sight of such a tragedy made her husband utter his coarse laugh, whereas she saw Julien’s fine, beautifully arched black eyebrows wince. Generosity, nobility of soul, humanity, seemed to her, after a time, to exist only in this young cleric. She felt for him alone all the sympathy and even admiration which those virtues arouse in well-bred natures.

In Paris, Julien’s position with regard to Madame de Renal would very soon have been simplified; but in Paris love is the child of the novels. The young tutor and his timid mistress would have found in three or four novels, and even in the lyrics of the Gymnase, a clear statement of their situation. The novels would have outlined for them the part to be played, shown them the model to copy; and this model, sooner or later, albeit without the slightest pleasure, and perhaps with reluctance, vanity would have compelled Julien to follow.

In a small town of the Aveyron or the Pyrenees, the slightest incident would have been made decisive by the ardour of the climate. Beneath our more sombre skies, a penniless young man, who is ambitious only because the refinement of his nature puts him in need of some of those pleasures which money provides, is in daily contact with a woman of thirty who is sincerely virtuous, occupied with her children, and never looks to novels for examples of conduct. Everything goes slowly, everything happens by degrees in the provinces: life is more natural.

Often, when she thought of the young tutor’s poverty, Madame de Renal was moved to tears. Julien came upon her, one day, actually crying.

‘Ah, Ma’am, you have had some bad news!’

‘No, my friend,’ was her answer: ‘Call the children, let us go for a walk.’

She took his arm and leaned on it in a manner which Julien thought strange. It was the first time that she had called him ‘my friend’.

Towards the end of their walk, Julien observed that she was blushing deeply. She slackened her pace.

‘You will have heard,’ she said without looking at him, ‘that I am the sole heiress of a very rich aunt who lives at Besancon. She loads me with presents. My sons are making . . . such astonishing progress . . . that I should like to ask you to accept a little present, as a token of my gratitude. It is only a matter of a few louis to supply you with linen. But —’ she added, blushing even more deeply, and was silent.

‘What, Ma’am?’ said Julien.

‘It would be unnecessary,’ she went on, lowering her head, ‘to speak of this to my husband.’

‘I may be humble, Ma’am, but I am not base,’ replied Julien coming to a standstill, his eyes ablaze with anger, and drawing himself up to his full height. ‘That is a point which you have not sufficiently considered. I should be less than a footman if I put myself in the position of hiding from M. de Renal anything that had to do with my money.’

Madame de Renal was overwhelmed.

‘The Mayor,’ Julien went on, ‘has given me thirty-six francs five times since I came to live in his house; I am prepared to show my account-book to M. de Renal or to anyone else, including M. Valenod who hates me.’

This outburst left Madame de Renal pale and trembling, and the walk came to an end before either of them could find an excuse for renewing the conversation. Love for Madame de Renal became more and more impossible in the proud heart of Julien: as for her, she respected, she admired him; she had been scolded by him. On the pretext of making amends for the humiliation which she had unintentionally caused him, she allowed herself to pay him the most delicate attentions. The novelty of this procedure kept her happy for a week. Its effect was to some extent to appease Julien’s anger; he was far from seeing anything in it that could be mistaken for personal affection.

‘That,’ he said to himself, ‘is what rich people are like: they humiliate one, and then think they can put things right by a few monkey-tricks.’

Madame de Renal’s heart was too full, and as yet too innocent for her, notwithstanding the resolutions she had made, not to tell her husband of the offer she had made to Julien and the manner in which she had been repulsed.

‘What,’ M. de Renal retorted, with keen annoyance, ‘could you tolerate a refusal from a servant?’

And as Madame de Renal protested at this word:

‘I speak, Ma’am, as the late Prince de Conde spoke, when presenting his Chamberlains to his bride: “All these people,” he told her, “are our servants.” I read you the passage from Besenval’s Memoirs, it is essential in questions of precedence. Everyone who is not a gentleman, who lives in your house and receives a salary, is your servant. I shall say a few words to this Master Julien, and give him a hundred francs.’

‘Ah, my dear,’ said Madame de Renal trembling, ‘please do not say anything in front of the servants.’

‘Yes, they might be jealous, and rightly,’ said her husband as he left the room, thinking of the magnitude of the sum.

Madame de Renal sank down on a chair, almost fainting with grief. ‘He is going to humiliate Julien, and it is my fault!’ She felt a horror of her husband, and hid her face in her hands. She promised herself that she would never confide anything in him again.

When she next saw Julien, she was trembling all over, her bosom was so contracted that she could not manage to utter a single word. In her embarrassment she took his hands and wrung them.

‘Well, my friend,’ she said to him after a little, ‘are you pleased with my husband?’

‘How should I not be?’ Julien answered with a bitter smile; ‘he has given me a hundred francs.’

Madame de Renal looked at him as though uncertain what to do.

‘Give me your arm,’ she said at length with an accent of courage which Julien had never yet observed in her.

She ventured to enter the shop of the Verrieres bookseller, in spite of his terrible reputation as a Liberal. There she chose books to the value of ten louis which she gave to her sons. But these books were the ones which she knew that Julien wanted. She insisted that there, in the bookseller’s shop, each of the children should write his own name in the books that fell to his share. While Madame de Renal was rejoicing at the partial reparation which she had had the courage to make to Julien, he was lost in amazement at the quantity of books which he saw on the bookseller’s shelves. Never had he dared to set foot in so profane a place; his heart beat violently. So far from his having any thought of trying to guess what was occurring in the heart of Madame de Renal, he was plunged in meditation as to how it would be possible for a young student of divinity to procure some of these books. At length the idea came to him that it might be possible, by a skilful approach, to persuade M. de Renal that he ought to set his sons, as the subject for an essay, the lives of the celebrated gentlemen who were natives of the province. After a month of careful preliminaries, he saw his idea prove successful, so much so that, shortly afterwards, he ventured, in speaking to M. de Renal, to mention an action considerably more offensive to the noble Mayor; it was a matter of contributing to the prosperity of a Liberal, by taking out a subscription at the library. M. de Renal entirely agreed that it was wise to let his eldest son have a visual impression of various works which he would hear mentioned in conversation when he went to the Military School; but Julien found the Mayor obdurate in refusing to go any farther. He suspected a secret reason, which he was unable to guess.

‘I was thinking, Sir,’ he said to him one day, ‘that it would be highly improper for the name of a respectable gentleman like a Renal to appear on the dirty ledger of the librarian.’

M. de Renal’s face brightened.

‘It would also be a very bad mark,’ Julien went on, in a humbler tone, ‘against a poor divinity student, if it should one day be discovered that his name had been on the ledger of a bookseller who keeps a library. The Liberals might accuse me of having asked for the most scandalous books; for all one knows they might even go so far as to write in after my name the titles of those perverse works.’

But Julien was going off the track. He saw the Mayor’s features resume their expression of embarrassment and ill humour. Julien was silent. ‘I have my man hooked,’ he said to himself.

A few days later, on the eldest boy’s questioning Julien as to a book advertised in the Quotidienne, in M. de Renal’s presence:

‘To remove all occasion for triumph from the Jacobin Party,’ said the young tutor, ‘and at the same time to enable me to answer Master Adolphe, one might open a subscription at the bookshop in the name of the lowest of your servants.’

‘That is not at all a bad idea,’ said M. de Renal, obviously delighted.

‘Only it would have to be specified,’ said Julien with that grave and almost sorrowful air which becomes certain people so well, when they see the success of the projects which have been longest in their minds, ‘it would have to be specified that the servant shall not take out any novels. Once they were in the house, those dangerous works might corrupt Madame’s maids, not to speak of the servant himself.’

‘You forget the political pamphlets,’ added M. de Renal, in a haughty tone. He wished to conceal the admiration that he felt for the clever middle course discovered by his children’s tutor.

Julien’s life was thus composed of a series of petty negotiations; and their success was of far more importance to him than the evidence of a marked preference for himself which was only waiting for him to read it in the heart of Madame de Renal.

The moral environment in which he had been placed all his life was repeated in the household of the worshipful Mayor of Verrieres. There, as in his father’s sawmill, he profoundly despised the people with whom he lived, and was hated by them. He saw every day, from the remarks made by the Sub–Prefect, by M. Valenod and by the other friends of the family, with reference to the things that had just happened under their eyes, how remote their ideas were from any semblance of reality. Did an action strike him as admirable, it was precisely what called forth blame from the people round about him. His unspoken retort was always: ‘What monsters!’ or ‘What fools!’ The amusing thing was that, with all his pride, frequently he understood nothing at all of what was being discussed.

In his whole life, he had never spoken with sincerity except to the old Surgeon–Major; the few ideas that he had bore reference to Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy, or to surgery. His youthful courage took delight in detailed accounts of the most painful operations; he said to himself: ‘I should not have flinched.’

The first time that Madame de Renal attempted a conversation with him on a subject other than that of the children’s education, he began to talk of surgical operations; she turned pale, and begged him to stop.

Julien knew nothing apart from these matters. And so, as he spent his time with Madame de Renal, the strangest silence grew up between them as soon as they were alone together. In her own drawing-room, humble as his bearing was, she found in his eyes an air of intellectual superiority over everyone that came to the house. Were she left alone for a moment with him, she saw him grow visibly embarrassed. This troubled her, for her womanly instinct made her realise that his embarrassment was not in the least degree amorous.

In consequence of some idea derived from a description of good society, as the old Surgeon–Major had beheld it, as soon as conversation ceased in a place where he found himself in the company of a woman, Julien felt abashed, as though he himself were specially to blame for this silence. This sensation was a hundred times more painful when they were alone. His imagination, full of the most extravagant, the most Spanish notions as to what a man ought to say, when he is alone with a woman, offered him in his agitation none but inadmissible ideas. His soul was in the clouds, and yet he was incapable of breaking the most humiliating silence. Thus his air of severity, during his long walks with Madame de Renal and the children, was intensified by the most cruel sufferings. He despised himself hideously. If by mischance he forced himself to speak, he found himself saying the most ridiculous things. To increase his misery, he saw and exaggerated his own absurdity; but what he did not see was the expression in his eyes, they were so fine and revealed so burning a soul that, like good actors, they imparted at times a charming meaning to what was meaningless. Madame de Renal remarked that, when alone with her, he never expressed himself well except when he was distracted by some unforeseen occurrence, he never thought of turning a compliment. As the friends of the family did not spoil her by offering her new and brilliant ideas, she took a delight in the flashes of Julien’s intellect.

Since the fall of Napoleon, all semblance of gallantry in speech has been sternly banished from the code of provincial behaviour. People are afraid of losing their posts. The unscrupulous seek support from the Congregation and hypocrisy has made the most brilliant advances even among the Liberal classes. Dulness increases. No pleasure is left, save in reading and agriculture.

Madame de Renal, the wealthy heiress of a religious aunt, married at sixteen to a worthy gentleman, had never in her life felt or seen anything that bore the faintest resemblance to love. Her confessor, the good cure Chelan, was the only person almost who had ever spoken to her of love, with reference to the advances of M. Valenod, and he had drawn so revolting a picture of it that the word conveyed nothing to her but the idea of the most abject immorality. She regarded as an exception, or rather as something quite apart from nature, love such as she had found it in the very small number of novels that chance had brought to her notice. Thanks to this ignorance, Madame de Renal, entirely happy, occupied incessantly with the thought of Julien, was far from reproaching herself in the slightest degree.

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