The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 8

Minor Events

Then there were sighs, the deeper for suppression,

And stolen glances, sweeter for the theft,

  And burning blushes, though for no transgression.

  Don Juan, I. 74

The angelic sweetness which Madame de Renal derived from her own character as well as from her present happiness was interrupted only when she happened to think of her maid Elisa. This young woman received a legacy, went to make her confession to the cure Chelan, and revealed to him her intention to marry Julien. The cure was genuinely delighted at his friend’s good fortune; but his surprise was great when Julien informed him with a resolute air that Miss Elisa’s offer could not be accepted.

‘Pay good heed, my son, to what is taking place in your heart,’ said the cure, frowning; ‘I congratulate you on your vocation, if it is to it alone that must be ascribed your scorn of a more than adequate provision. For fifty-six years and more have I been cure at Verrieres, and yet, so far as one can see, I am going to be deprived. This distresses me, albeit I have an income of eight hundred livres. I tell you of this detail in order that you may not be under any illusion as to what is in store for you in the priestly calling. If you think of paying court to the men in power, your eternal ruin is assured. You may make your fortune, but you will have to injure the poor and needy, flatter the Sub–Prefect, the Mayor, the important person, and minister to his passions: such conduct, which in the world is called the art of life, may, in a layman, be not wholly incompatible with salvation; but in our calling, we have to choose; we must make our fortune either in this world or in the next, there is no middle way. Go, my dear friend, reflect, and come back in three days’ time with a definite answer. I am sorry to see underlying your character, a smouldering ardour which does not suggest to my mind the moderation and complete renunciation of earthly advantages necessary in a priest; I augur well from your intelligence; but, allow me to tell you,’ the good cure went on, with tears in his eyes, ‘in the calling of a priest, I shall tremble for your salvation.’

Julien was ashamed of his emotion; for the first time in his life, he saw himself loved; he wept for joy, and went to hide his tears in the great woods above Verrieres.

‘Why am I in this state?’ he asked himself at length; ‘I feel that I would give my life a hundred times over for that good Father Chelan, and yet he has just proved to me that I am no better than a fool. It is he above all that I have to deceive, and he sees through me. That secret ardour of which he speaks is my plan for making my fortune. He thinks me unfit to be a priest, at the very moment when I imagined that the sacrifice of an income of fifty louis was going to give him the most exalted idea of my piety and my vocation.

‘For the future,’ Julien continued, ‘I shall rely only upon those elements of my character which I have tested. Who would ever have said that I should find pleasure in shedding tears? That I should love the man who proves to me that I am nothing more than a fool?’

Three days later, Julien had found the pretext with which he should have armed himself from the first; this pretext was a calumny, but what of that? He admitted to the cure, after much hesitation, that a reason which he could not explain to him, because to reveal it would injure a third party, had dissuaded him from the first from the projected marriage. This was tantamount to an indictment of Elisa’s conduct. M. Chelan detected in his manner a fire that was wholly mundane, and very different from that which should have inspired a young Levite.

‘My friend,’ he appealed to him again, ‘be an honest yeoman, educated and respected, rather than a priest without a vocation.’

Julien replied to these fresh remonstrances extremely well, so far as words went; he hit upon the expressions which a fervent young seminarist would have employed; but the tone in which he uttered them, the ill-concealed fire that smouldered in his eyes alarmed M. Chelan.

We need not augur ill for Julien’s future; he hit upon the correct form of words of a cunning and prudent hypocrisy. That is not bad at his age. As for his tone and gestures, he lived among country folk; he had been debarred from seeing the great models. In the sequel, no sooner had he been permitted to mix with these gentlemen than he became admirable as well in gesture as in speech.

Madame de Renal was surprised that her maid’s newly acquired fortune had not made the girl more happy; she saw her going incessantly to the cure’s, and returning with tears in her eyes; finally Elisa spoke to her mistress of her marriage.

Madame de Renal believed herself to have fallen ill; a sort of fever prevented her enjoying any sleep; she was alive only when she had her maid or Julien before her eyes. She could think of nothing but them and the happiness they would find in their married life. The poverty of the small house in which people would be obliged to live, with an income of fifty louis, portrayed itself to her in enchanting colours. Julien might very well become a lawyer at Bray, the Sub–Prefecture two leagues from Verrieres; in that event she would see something of him.

Madame de Renal sincerely believed that she was going mad; she said so to her husband, and finally did fall ill. That evening, as her maid was waiting upon her, she noticed that the girl was crying. She loathed Elisa at that moment, and had spoken sharply to her; she begged the girl’s pardon. Elisa’s tears increased; she said that if her mistress would allow it, she would tell her the whole tale of her distress.

‘Speak,’ replied Madame de Renal.

‘Well, the fact is, Ma’am, he won’t have me; wicked people must have spoken evil of me to him, and he believes them.’

‘Who won’t have you?’ said Madame de Renal, scarcely able to breathe.

‘And who could it be, Ma’am, but M. Julien?’ the maid replied through her sobs. ‘His Reverence has failed to overcome his resistance; for His Reverence considers that he ought not to refuse a decent girl, just because she has been a lady’s maid. After all, M. Julien’s own father is no better than a carpenter; and he himself, how was he earning his living before he came to Madame’s?’

Madame de Renal had ceased to listen; surfeit of happiness had almost deprived her of the use of her reason. She made the girl repeat to her several times the assurance that Julien had refused in a positive manner, which would not permit of his coming to a more reasonable decision later on.

‘I wish to make a final effort,’ she said to her maid. ‘I shall speak to M. Julien.’

Next day after luncheon, Madame de Renal gave herself the exquisite sensation of pleading her rival’s cause, and of seeing Elisa’s hand and fortune persistently refused for an hour on end.

Little by little Julien abandoned his attitude of studied reserve, and ended by making spirited answers to the sound arguments advanced by Madame de Renal. She could not hold out against the torrent of happiness which now poured into her heart after all those days of despair. She found herself really ill. When she had come to herself, and was comfortably settled in her own room, she asked to be left alone. She was in a state of profound astonishment.

‘Can I be in love with Julien?’ she asked herself at length.

This discovery, which at any other time would have filled her with remorse and with a profound agitation, was no more to her than a singular spectacle, but one that left her indifferent. Her heart, exhausted by all that she had just undergone, had no sensibility left to place at the service of her passions.

Madame de Renal tried to work, and fell into a deep sleep; when she awoke, she was less alarmed than she should have been. She was too happy to be able to take anything amiss. Artless and innocent as she was, this honest provincial had never tormented her soul in an attempt to wring from it some little sensibility to some novel shade of sentiment or distress. Entirely absorbed, before Julien came, in that mass of work which, outside Paris, is the lot of a good wife and mother, Madame de Renal thought about the passions, as we think about the lottery: a certain disappointment and a happiness sought by fools alone.

The dinner bell rang; Madame de Renal blushed deeply when she heard Julien’s voice as he brought in the children. Having acquired some adroitness since she had fallen in love, she accounted for her colour by complaining of a splitting headache.

‘There you have women,’ put in M. de Renal, with a coarse laugh. ‘There’s always something out of order in their machinery.’

Accustomed as she was to this form of wit, the tone of his voice hurt Madame de Renal. She sought relief in studying Julien’s features; had he been the ugliest man in the world, he would have charmed her at that moment.

Always zealous in imitating the habits of the Court, with the first fine days of spring M. de Renal removed his household to Vergy; it is the village rendered famous by the tragic adventure of Gabrielle. A few hundred yards from the picturesque ruins of the old gothic church, M. de Renal owned an old castle with its four towers, and a garden laid out like that of the Tuileries, with a number of box borders, and chestnut alleys trimmed twice in the year. An adjoining field, planted with apple trees, allowed the family to take the air. Nine or ten splendid walnuts grew at the end of the orchard; their massive foliage rose to a height of some eighty feet.

‘Each of those damned walnuts,’ M. de Renal would say when his wife admired them, ‘costs me half an acre of crop; the corn will not grow in their shade.’

The rustic scene appeared to come as a novelty to Madame de Renal; her admiration knew no bounds. The feeling that animated her gave her a new spirit and determination. On the second day after their removal to Vergy, M. de Renal having returned to town upon some official business, his wife engaged labourers at her own expense. Julien had given her the idea of a little gravelled path, which should run round the orchard and beneath the big walnuts, and would allow the children to walk there in the early morning without wetting their shoes in the dew. This plan was put into execution within twenty-four hours of its conception. Madame de Renal spent a long and happy day with Julieu supervising the labourers.

When the Mayor of Verrieres returned from the town, he was greatly surprised to find the path finished. His coming surprised Madame de Renal also; she had forgotten that he existed. For the next two months, he continued to speak with annoyance of their presumption in having carried out, without consulting him, so important a repair, but Madame de Renal had done it at her own expense, and this to some extent consoled him.

She spent her days running about the orchard with her children, and chasing butterflies. They had made a number of large nets of light-coloured gauze, with which they caught the unfortunate lepidoptera. This was the outlandish name which Julien taught Madame de Renal. For she had sent to Besancon for the handsome work on the subject by M. Godart; and Julien read to her the strange habits of these insects.

They fastened them, without compunction, with pins upon a large sheet of pasteboard, also prepared by Julien.

At last Madame de Renal and Julien had a subject for conversation; he was no longer exposed to the frightful torture inflicted on him by intervals of silence.

They conversed incessantly, and with extreme interest, although always of the most innocent things. This life, active, occupied and cheerful, suited everyone, except Miss Elisa, who found herself worked to death. ‘Even at carnival-time,’ she said, ‘when there is a ball at Verrieres, Madame has never taken so much trouble over her dress; she changes her clothes two or three times a day.’

As it is our intention to flatter no one, we shall not conceal the fact that Madame de Renal, who had a superb skin, had dresses made for her which exposed her arms and bosom freely. She was very well made, and this way of dressing suited her to perfection.

‘You have never been so young, Ma’am,’ her friends from Verrieres used to tell her when they came to dine at Vergy. (It is a local form of speech.)

A curious point, which our readers will scarcely believe, was that Madame de Renal had no deliberate intention in taking such pains with her appearance. She enjoyed doing so; and, without giving the matter any particular thought, whenever she was not chasing butterflies with the children and Julien, she was engaged with Elisa making dresses. Her one expedition to Verrieres was due to a desire to purchase new summer clothes which had just arrived there from Mulhouse.

She brought back with her to Vergy a young woman, one of her cousins. Since her marriage, Madame de Renal had gradually formed an intimate friendship with Madame Derville, who in their younger days had been her school-fellow at the Sacre–Coeur.

Madame Derville laughed heartily at what she called her cousin’s absurd ideas. ‘If I were alone, they would never occur to me,’ she used to say. These sudden ideas, which in Paris would have been called sallies, made Madame de Renal feel ashamed, as of something foolish, when she was with her husband; but Madame Derville’s presence gave her courage. She began by telling her what she was thinking in a timid voice; when the ladies were by themselves for any length of time, Madame de Renal would become animated, and a long, undisturbed morning passed in a flash and left the friends quite merry. On this visit, the sensible Madame Derville found her cousin much less merry and much happier.

Julien, meanwhile, had been living the life of a child since he had come to the country, as happy to be running after butterflies as were his pupils. After so much constraint and skilful diplomacy, alone, unobserved by his fellow-men, and, instinctively, feeling not in the least afraid of Madame de Renal, he gave himself up to the pleasure of being alive, so keen at his age, and in the midst of the fairest mountains in the world.

As soon as Madame Derville arrived, Julien felt that she was his friend; he hastened to show her the view that was to be seen from the end of the new path; as a matter of fact it was equal, if not superior to the most admirable scenery which Switzerland and the Italian lakes have to offer. By climbing the steep slope which began a few yards farther on, one came presently to high precipices fringed with oakwoods, which projected almost over the bed of the river. It was to the summits of these sheer rocks that Julien, happy, free, and indeed something more, lord of the house, led the two friends, and relished their admiration of those sublime prospects.

‘To me it is like Mozart’s music,’ said Madame Derville.

His brothers’ jealousy, the presence of a despotic and ill-tempered father had spoiled the country round Verrieres in Julien’s eyes. At Vergy, he found no trace of these unpleasant memories; for the first time in his life, he could see no one that was his enemy. When M. de Renal was in town, as frequently happened, he ventured to read; soon, instead of reading at night, and then taking care, moreover, to shade his lamp with an inverted flower-pot, he could take his full measure of sleep; during the day, in the interval between the children’s lessons, he climbed up among these rocks with the book that was his sole rule of conduct, and the sole object of his transports. He found in it at once happiness, ecstasy and consolation in moments of depression.

Certain things which Napoleon says of women, various discussions of the merits of the novels in vogue during his reign, furnished him now, for the first time, with several ideas which would long since have been familiar to any other young man of his age.

The hot weather came. They formed the habit of spending the evening under a huge lime a few yards from the house. There the darkness was intense. One evening, Julien was talking with emphasis, he was revelling in the pleasure of talking well and to young married women; as he gesticulated, he touched the hand of Madame de Renal, who was leaning on the back of one of those chairs of painted wood that are placed in gardens.

The hand was hurriedly withdrawn; but Julien decided that it was his duty to secure that the hand should not be withdrawn when he touched it. The idea of a duty to be performed, and of making himself ridiculous, or rather being left with a sense of inferiority if he did not succeed in performing it, at once took all the pleasure from his heart.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stendhal/red/book1.8.html

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