The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 9

An Evening in the Country

M. Guerin’s Dido, a charming sketch!

STROMBECK

When he saw Madame de Renal again, the next morning, there was a strange look in his eyes; he watched her like an enemy with whom he would presently be engaged. This expression, so different from his expression overnight, made Madame de Renal lose her head; she had been kind to him, and he appeared vexed. She could not take her eyes from his.

Madame Derville’s presence excused Julien from his share of the conversation, and enabled him to concentrate his attention upon what he had in mind. His sole occupation, throughout the day, was that of fortifying himself by reading the inspired text which refreshed his soul.

He greatly curtailed the children’s lessons, and when, later on, the presence of Madame de Renal recalled him to the service of his own vanity, decided that it was absolutely essential that this evening she should allow her hand to remain in his.

The sun as it set and so brought nearer the decisive moment made Julien’s heart beat with a strange excitement. Night fell. He observed, with a joy that lifted a huge weight from his breast, that it was very dark. A sky packed with big clouds, kept in motion by a hot breeze, seemed to forebode a tempest. The two women continued strolling until a late hour. Everything that they did this evening seemed strange to Julien. They were enjoying this weather, which, in certain delicate natures, seems to enhance the pleasure of love.

At last they sat down, Madame de Renal next to Julien, and Madame Derville on the other side of her friend. Preoccupied with the attempt he must shortly make, Julien could think of nothing to say. The conversation languished.

‘Shall I tremble like this and feel as uncomfortable the first time I have to fight a duel?’ Julien wondered; for he had too little confidence either in himself or in others not to observe the state he was in.

In this agonising uncertainty, any danger would have seemed to him preferable. How often did he long to see Madame de Renal called by some duty which would oblige her to return to the house and so leave the garden! The violence of the effort which Julien had to make to control himself was such that his voice was entirely altered; presently Madame de Renal’s voice became tremulous also, but Julien never noticed this. The ruthless warfare which his sense of duty was waging with his natural timidity was too exhausting for him to be in a condition to observe anything outside himself. The quarter before ten had sounded from the tower clock, without his having yet ventured on anything. Julien, ashamed of his cowardice, told himself: ‘At the precise moment when ten o’clock strikes, I shall carry out the intention which, all day long, I have been promising myself that I would fulfil this evening, or I shall go up to my room and blow my brains out.’

After a final interval of tension and anxiety, during which the excess of his emotion carried Julien almost out of his senses, the strokes of ten sounded from the clock overhead. Each stroke of that fatal bell stirred an echo in his bosom, causing him almost a physical revulsion.

Finally, while the air was still throbbing with the last stroke of ten, he put out his hand and took that of Madame de Renal, who at once withdrew it. Julien, without exactly knowing what he was doing, grasped her hand again. Although greatly moved himself, he was struck by the icy coldness of the hand he was clasping; he pressed it with convulsive force; a last attempt was made to remove it from him, but finally the hand was left in his grasp.

His heart was flooded with joy, not because he loved Madame de Renal, but because a fearful torment was now at an end. So that Madame Derville should not notice anything, he felt himself obliged to speak; his voice, now, was loud and ringing. Madame de Renal’s, on the other hand, betrayed such emotion that her friend thought she must be ill and suggested to her that they should go indoors. Julien saw the danger: ‘If Madame de Renal returns to the drawing-room, I am going to fall back into the horrible position I have been in all day. I have not held this hand long enough to be able to reckon it as a definite conquest.’

When Madame Derville repeated her suggestion that they should go into the drawing-room, Julien pressed the hand that lay in his.

Madame de Renal, who was preparing to rise, resumed her seat, saying in a faint tone:

‘I do, as a matter of fact, feel a little unwell, but the fresh air is doing me good.’

These words confirmed Julien’s happiness, which, at this moment, was extreme: he talked, forgot to dissimulate, appeared the most charming of men to his two hearers. And yet there was still a slight want of courage in this eloquence which had suddenly come to him. He was in a deadly fear lest Madame Derville, exhausted by the wind which was beginning to rise, and heralded the storm, might decide to go in by herself to the drawing-room. Then he would be left alone with Madame de Renal. He had found almost by accident the blind courage which was sufficient for action; but he felt that it lay beyond his power to utter the simplest of words to Madame de Renal. However mild her reproaches might be, he was going to be defeated, and the advantage which he had just gained wiped out.

Fortunately for him, this evening, his touching and emphatic speeches found favour with Madame Derville, who as a rule found him as awkward as a schoolboy, and by no means amusing. As for Madame de Renal, her hand lying clasped in Julien’s, she had no thought of anything; she was allowing herself to live. The hours they spent beneath this huge lime, which, local tradition maintained, had been planted by Charles the Bold, were for her a time of happiness. She listened with rapture to the moaning of the wind in the thick foliage of the lime, and the sound of the first few drops that were beginning to fall upon its lowest leaves. Julien did not notice a detail which would have greatly reassured him; Madame de Renal, who had been obliged to remove her hand from his, on rising to help her cousin to pick up a pot of flowers which the wind had overturned at their feet, had no sooner sat down again than she gave him back her hand almost without difficulty, and as though it had been an understood thing between them.

Midnight had long since struck; at length it was time to leave the garden: the party broke up. Madame de Renal, transported by the joy of being in love, was so ignorant that she hardly reproached herself at all. Happiness robbed her of sleep. A sleep like lead carried off Julien, utterly worn out by the battle that had been raging all day in his heart between timidity and pride.

Next morning he was called at five o’clock; and (what would have been a cruel blow to Madame de Renal had she known of it) he barely gave her a thought. He had done his duty, and a heroic duty. Filled with joy by this sentiment, he turned the key in the door of his bedroom and gave himself up with an entirely new pleasure to reading about the exploits of his hero.

When the luncheon bell sounded, he had forgotten, in reading the reports of the Grand Army, all the advantages he had won overnight. He said to himself, in a careless tone, as he went down to the drawing-room: ‘I must tell this woman that I love her.’

Instead of that gaze charged with passion which he expected to meet, he found the stern face of M. de Renal, who, having arrived a couple of hours earlier from Verrieres, did not conceal his displeasure on finding that Julien was wasting the whole morning without attending to the children. No sight could have been so unprepossessing as that of this self-important man, conscious of a grievance and confident of his right to let it be seen.

Each of her husband’s harsh words pierced Madame de Renal to the heart. As for Julien, he was so plunged in ecstasy, still so absorbed in the great events which for the last few hours had been happening before his eyes, that at first he could barely lower the pitch of his attention to listen to the stern voice of M. de Renal. At length he answered him, sharply enough:

‘I was unwell.’

The tone of this reply would have stung a man far less susceptible than the Mayor of Verrieres; it occurred to him to reply to Julien with an immediate dismissal. He was restrained only by the maxim which he had laid down for himself, never to be too hasty in business matters.

‘This young fool,’ he soon reminded himself, ‘has made himself a sort of reputation in my house; Valenod may take him on, or else he will marry Elisa, and, in either case, he can afford to laugh at me in his heart.’

Despite the wisdom of these reflections, M. de Renal’s displeasure found an outlet nevertheless in a succession of coarse utterances which succeeded in irritating Julien. Madame de Renal was on the point of subsiding in tears. As soon as the meal was ended, she asked Julien to give her his arm for their walk; she leaned upon it in a friendly way. To all that Madame de Renal said to him, Julien could only murmur in reply:

‘This is what rich people are like!’

M. de Renal kept close beside them; his presence increased Julien’s anger. He noticed suddenly that Madame de Renal was leaning upon his arm in a marked manner; this action horrified him, he repulsed her violently, freeing his arm from hers.

Fortunately M. de Renal saw nothing of this fresh impertinence; it was noticed only by Madame Derville; her friend burst into tears. At this moment M. de Renal began flinging stones at a little peasant girl who was trespassing by taking a short cut across a corner of the orchard.

‘Monsieur Julien, kindly control yourself, remember that we are all of us liable to moments of ill temper,’ Madame Derville said hastily.

Julien looked at her coldly with eyes in which the loftiest contempt was portrayed.

This look astonished Madame Derville, and would have surprised her far more could she have guessed its full meaning; she would have read in it a vague hope of the most terrible revenge. It is doubtless to such moments of humiliation that we owe men like Robespierre.

‘Your Julien is very violent, he frightens me,’ Madame Derville murmured to her friend.

‘He has every reason to be angry,’ the other replied. ‘After the astonishing progress the children have made with him, what does it matter if he spends a morning without speaking to them? You must admit that gentlemen are very hard.’

For the first time in her life, Madame de Renal felt a sort of desire to be avenged on her husband. The intense hatred that animated Julien against rich people was about to break forth. Fortunately M. de Renal called for his gardener, with whom for the rest of the time he busied himself in stopping up with faggots of thorn the short cut that had been made across the orchard. Julien did not utter a single word in reply to the attentions that were shown him throughout the remainder of the walk. As soon as M. de Renal had left them, the two ladies, on the plea that they were tired, had asked him each for an arm.

As he walked between these women whose cheeks were flushed with the embarrassment of an intense discomfort, Julien’s sombre and decided air formed a striking contrast. He despised these women, and all tender feelings.

‘What!’ he said to himself, ‘not even an allowance of five hundred francs to complete my studies! Ah! How I should send her packing!’

Absorbed in these drastic thoughts, the little that he deigned to take in of the polite speeches of the two ladies displeased him as being devoid of meaning, silly, feeble, in a word feminine.

By dint of talking for talking’s sake, and of trying to keep the conversation alive, Madame de Renal found herself saying that her husband had come from Verrieres because he had made a bargain, for the purchase of maize straw, with one of his farmers. (In this district maize straw is used to stuff the palliasses of the beds.)

‘My husband will not be joining us again,’ Madame de Renal went on: ‘he will be busy with the gardener and his valet changing the straw in all the palliasses in the house. This morning he put fresh straw on all the beds on the first floor, now he is at work on the second.’

Julien changed colour; he looked at Madame de Renal in an odd manner, and presently drew her apart, so to speak, by increasing his pace. Madame Derville allowed them to move away from her.

‘Save my life,’ said Julien to Madame de Renal, ‘you alone can do it; for you know that the valet hates me like poison. I must confess to you, Ma’am, that I have a portrait; I have hidden it in the palliasse on my bed.’

At these words, Madame de Renal in turn grew pale.

‘You alone, Ma’am, can go into my room at this moment; feel, without letting yourself be observed, in the corner of the palliasse nearest to the window; you will find there a small box of shiny black pasteboard.’

‘It contains a portrait?’ said Madame de Renal, barely able to stand.

Her air of disappointment was noticed by Julien, who at once took advantage of it.

‘I have a second favour to ask of you, Ma’am; I beg you not to look at the portrait, it is my secret.’

‘It is a secret!’ repeated Madame de Renal, in faint accents.

But, albeit she had been reared among people proud of their wealth, and sensible of pecuniary interests alone, love had already instilled some generosity into her heart. Though cruelly wounded, it was with an air of the simplest devotion that Madame de Renal put to Julien the questions necessary to enable her to execute his commission properly.

‘And so,’ she said, as she left him, ‘it is a little round box, of black pasteboard, and very shiny.’

‘Yes, Ma’am,’ replied Julien in that hard tone which danger gives a man.

She mounted to the second floor of the house, as pale as though she were going to her death. To complete her misery she felt that she was on the point of fainting, but the necessity of doing Julien a service restored her strength.

‘I must have that box,’ she said to herself as she quickened her pace.

She could hear her husband talking to the valet, actually in Julien’s room. Fortunately they moved into the room in which the children slept. She lifted the mattress and plunged her hand into the straw with such force as to scratch her fingers. But, although extremely sensitive to slight injuries of this sort, she was now quite unconscious of the pain, for almost immediately she felt the polished surface of the pasteboard box. She seized it and fled.

No sooner was she rid of the fear of being surprised by her husband, than the horror inspired in her by this box made her feel that in another minute she must unquestionably faint.

‘So Julien is in love, and I have here the portrait of the woman he loves.’

Seated on a chair in the sitting-room of this apartment, Madame de Renal fell a prey to all the horrors of jealousy. Her extreme ignorance was of service to her again at this moment; astonishment tempered her grief. Julien appeared, snatched the box, without thanking her, without saying a word, and ran into his bedroom, where he struck a light and immediately destroyed it. He was pale, speechless; he exaggerated to himself the risk he had been running.

‘The portrait of Napoleon,’ he said to himself with a toss of the head, ‘found hidden in the room of a man who professes such hatred for the usurper! Found by M. de Renal, so ultra and so angry! and, to complete the imprudence, on the white card at the back of the portrait, lines in my writing! And lines that can leave no doubt as to the warmth of my admiration! And each of those transports of love is dated! There was one only two days ago!

‘All my reputation brought down, destroyed in a moment!’ Julien said to himself as he watched the box burn, ‘and my reputation is all I have, I live by it alone . . . and what a life at that, great God!’

An hour later, his exhaustion and the pity he felt for himself disposed him to feel affection. He met Madame de Renal and took her hand which he kissed with more sincerity than he had ever yet shown. She coloured with delight, and almost simultaneously repulsed Julien with the anger of a jealous woman. Julien’s pride, so recently wounded, made a fool of him at that moment. He saw in Madame de Renal only a rich woman, he let fall her hand with contempt, and strode away. He went out and walked pensively in the garden; presently a bitter smile appeared on his lips.

‘Here I am walking about as calm as a man who is his own master! I am not looking after the children! I am exposing myself to the humiliating remarks of M. de Renal, and he will be justified.’ He hastened to the children’s room.

The caresses of the youngest boy, to whom he was greatly attached, did something to soothe his agonising pain.

‘This one does not despise me yet,’ thought Julien. But presently he blamed himself for this relief from pain, as for a fresh weakness. These children fondle me as they might fondle the puppy that was bought yesterday.’

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