The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 1

Country Pleasures

O rus, quando ego te aspiciam!

VIRGIL†

† HORACE in earlier edition]

‘The gentleman is waiting, surely, for the mail-coach for Paris?’ he was asked by the landlord of an inn at which he stopped to break his fast.

‘Today or tomorrow, it is all the same to me,’ said Julien.

The coach arrived while he was feigning indifference. There were two places vacant.

‘What! It is you, my poor Falcoz,’ said the traveller, who had come from the direction of Geneva to him who now entered the coach with Julien.

‘I thought you had settled in the neighbourhood of Lyons,’ said Falcoz, ‘in a charming valley by the Rhone.’

‘Settled, indeed! I am running away.’

‘What! Running away? You, Saint–Giraud! With that honest face of yours, have you committed a crime?’ said Falcoz, with a laugh.

‘Upon my soul, not far off it. I am running away from the abominable life one leads in the country. I love the shade of the woods and the quiet of the fields, as you know; you have often accused me of being romantic. The one thing I never wished to hear mentioned was politics, and politics pursue me everywhere.’

‘But to what party do you belong?’

‘To none, and that is what has been fatal to me. These are all my politics: I enjoy music, and painting; a good book is an event in my life; I shall soon be four and forty. How many years have I to live? Fifteen, twenty, thirty, perhaps, at the most. Very well; I hold that in thirty years from now, our Ministers will be a little more able, but otherwise just as good fellows as we have today. The history of England serves as a mirror to show me our future. There will always be a King who seeks to extend his prerogative; the ambition to enter Parliament, the glory and the hundreds of thousands of francs amassed by Mirabeau will always keep our wealthy provincials awake at night: they will call that being Liberal and loving the people. The desire to become a Peer or a Gentleman in Waiting will always possess the Ultras. On board the Ship of State, everyone will wish to be at the helm, for the post is well paid. Will there never be a little corner anywhere for the mere passenger?’

‘Why, of course, and a very pleasant one, too, for a man of your peaceful nature. Is it the last election that is driving you from your district?’

‘My trouble dates from farther back. I was, four years ago, forty years old, and had five hundred thousand francs, I am four years older now, and have probably fifty thousand less, which I shall lose by the sale of my place, Monfleury, by the Rhone, a superb position.

‘In Paris, I was tired of that perpetual play-acting, to which one is driven by what you call nineteenth-century civilisation. I felt a longing for human fellowship and simplicity. I bought a piece of land in the mountains by the Rhone, the most beautiful spot in the world.

‘The vicar of the village and the neighbouring squires made much of me for the first six months; I had them to dine; I had left Paris, I told them, so as never to mention or to hear of politics again. You see, I subscribe to no newspaper. The fewer letters the postman brings me, the happier I am.

‘This was not what the vicar wanted; presently I was besieged with endless indiscreet requests, intrigues, and so forth. I wished to give two or three hundred francs every year to the poor, they pestered me for them on behalf of pious associations; Saint Joseph, Our Lady, and so forth. I refused: then I came in for endless insults. I was foolish enough to show annoyance. I could no longer leave the house in the morning to go and enjoy the beauty of our mountain scenery, without meeting some bore who would interrupt my thoughts with an unpleasant reminder of my fellow men and their evil ways. In the Rogationtide processions, for instance, the chanting in which I like (it is probably a Greek melody), they no longer bless my fields, because, the vicar says, they belong to an unbeliever. A pious old peasant woman’s cow dies, she says that it is because there is a pond close by which belongs to me, the unbeliever, a philosopher from Paris, and a week later I find all my fish floating on the water, poisoned with lime. I am surrounded by trickery in every form. The justice of the peace, an honest man, but afraid of losing his place, always decides against me. The peace of the fields is hell to me. As soon as they saw me abandoned by the vicar, head of the village Congregation, and not supported by the retired captain, head of the Liberals, they all fell upon me, even the mason who had been living upon me for a year, even the wheelwright, who tried to get away with cheating me when he mended my ploughs.

‘In order to have some footing and to win a few at least of my lawsuits, I turned Liberal; but, as you were saying, those damned elections came, they asked me for my vote . . . ’

‘For a stranger?’

‘Not a bit of it, for a man I know only too well. I refused, a fearful imprudence! From that moment, I had the Liberals on top of me as well, my position became intolerable. I believe that if it had ever entered the vicar’s head to accuse me of having murdered my servant, there would have been a score of witnesses from both parties, ready to swear that they had seen me commit the crime.’

‘You wish to live in the country without ministering to your neighbours’ passions, without even listening to their gossip. What a mistake!’

‘I have made amends for it now. Monfleury is for sale. I shall lose fifty thousand francs, if I must, but I am overjoyed, I am leaving that hell of hypocrisy and malice. I am going to seek solitude and rustic peace in the one place in France where they exist, in a fourth-floor apartment, overlooking the Champs–Elysees. And yet I am just thinking whether I shall not begin my political career, in the Roule quarter, by presenting the blessed bread in the parish church.’

‘None of that would have happened to you under Bonaparte,’ said Falcoz, his eyes shining with anger and regret.

‘That’s all very well, but why couldn’t he keep going, your Bonaparte? Everything that I suffer from today is his doing.’

Here Julien began to listen with increased attention. He had realised from the first that the Bonapartist Falcoz was the early playmate of M. de Renal, repudiated by him in 1816, while the philosopher Saint–Giraud must be a brother of that chief clerk in the Prefecture of — — who knew how to have municipal property knocked down to him on easy terms.

‘And all that has been your Bonaparte’s doing,’ Saint–Giraud continued: ‘An honest man, harmless if ever there was one, forty years old and with five hundred thousand francs, can’t settle down in the country and find peace there. Bonaparte’s priests and nobles drive him out again.’

‘Ah! You must not speak evil of him,’ cried Falcoz, ‘never has France stood so high in the esteem of foreign nations as during the thirteen years of his reign. In those days, everything that was done had greatness in it.’

‘Your Emperor, may the devil fly away with him,’ went on the man of four and forty, ‘was great only upon his battlefields, and when he restored our financial balance in 1801. What was the meaning of all his conduct after that? With his chamberlains and his pomp and his receptions at the Tuileries, he simply furnished a new edition of all the stuff and nonsense of the monarchy. It was a corrected edition, it might have served for a century or two. The nobles and priests preferred to return to the old edition, but they have not the iron hand that they need to bring it before the public.’

‘Listen to the old printer talking!’

‘Who is it that is turning me off my land?’ went on the printer with heat. ‘The priests, whom Napoleon brought back with his Concordat, instead of treating them as the State treats doctors, lawyers, astronomers, of regarding them merely as citizens, without inquiring into the trade by which they earn their living. Would there be these insolent gentlemen today if your Bonaparte had not created barons and counts? No, the fashion had passed. Next to the priests, it is the minor country nobles that have annoyed me most, and forced me to turn Liberal.’

The discussion was endless, this theme will occupy the minds and tongues of France for the next half-century. As Saint–Giraud kept on repeating that it was impossible to live in the provinces, Julien timidly cited the example of M. de Renal.

‘Egad, young man, you’re a good one!’ cried Falcoz, ‘he has turned himself into a hammer so as not to be made the anvil, and a terrible hammer at that. But I can see him cut out by Valenod. Do you know that rascal? He’s the real article. What will your M. de Renal say when he finds himself turned out of office one of these fine days, and Valenod filling his place?’

‘He will be left to meditate on his crimes,’ said Saint–Giraud. ‘So you know Verrieres, young man, do you? Very good! Bonaparte, whom heaven confound, made possible the reign of the Renals and Chelans, which has paved the way for the reign of the Valenods and Maslons.’

This talk of shady politics astonished Julien, and took his thoughts from his dreams of sensual bliss.

He was little impressed by the first view of Paris seen in the distance. His fantastic imaginings of the future in store for him had to do battle with the still vivid memory of the twenty-four hours which he had just spent at Verrieres. He made a vow that he would never abandon his mistress’s children, but would give up everything to protect them, should the impertinences of the priests give us a Republic and lead to persecutions of the nobility.

What would have happened to him on the night of his arrival at Verrieres if, at the moment when he placed his ladder against Madame de Renal’s bedroom window, he had found that room occupied by a stranger, or by M. de Renal?

But also what bliss in those first few hours, when his mistress really wished to send him away, and he pleaded his cause, seated by her side in the darkness! A mind like Julien’s is pursued by such memories for a lifetime. The rest of their meeting had already merged into the first phases of their love, fourteen months earlier.

Julien was awakened from his profound abstraction by the stopping of the carriage. They had driven into the courtyard of the posthouse in the rue Jean–Jacques Rousseau. ‘I wish to go to La Malmaison,’ he told the driver of a passing cabriolet. ‘At this time of night, Sir? What to do?’ ‘What business is it of yours? Drive on.’

True passion thinks only of itself. That, it seems to me, is why the passions are so absurd in Paris, where one’s neighbour always insists upon one’s thinking largely of him. I shall not describe Julien’s transports at La Malmaison. He wept. What! In spite of the ugly white walls set up this year, which divide the park in pieces? Yes, sir; for Julien, as for posterity, there was no distinction between Arcole, Saint Helena and La Malmaison.

That evening, Julien hesitated for long before entering the playhouse; he had strange ideas as to that sink of iniquity.

An intense distrust prevented him from admiring the Paris of today, he was moved only by the monuments bequeathed by his hero.

‘So here I am in the centre of intrigue and hypocrisy! This is where the abbe de Frilair’s protectors reign.’

On the evening of the third day, curiosity prevailed over his plan of seeing everything before calling upon the abbe Pirard.

The said abbe explained to him, in a frigid tone, the sort of life that awaited him at M. de La Mole’s.

‘If after a few months you are of no use to him, you will return to the Seminary, but by the front door. You are going to lodge with the Marquis, one of the greatest noblemen in France. You will dress in black, but like a layman in mourning, not like a churchman. I require that, thrice weekly, you pursue your theological studies in a Seminary, where I shall introduce you. Each day, at noon, you will take your place in the library of the Marquis, who intends to employ you in writing letters with reference to lawsuits and other business. The Marquis notes down, in a word or two, upon the margin of each letter that he receives, the type of answer that it requires. I have undertaken that, by the end of three months, you will have learned to compose these answers to such effect that, of every twelve which you present to the Marquis for his signature, he will be able to sign eight or nine. In the evening, at eight o’clock, you will put his papers in order, and at ten you will be free.

‘It may happen,’ the abbe Pirard continued, ‘that some old lady or some man of persuasive speech will hint to you the prospect of immense advantages, or quite plainly offer you money to let him see the letters received by the Marquis . . . ’

‘Oh, Sir!’ cried Julien, blushing.

‘It is strange,’ said the abbe with a bitter smile, ‘that, poor as you are, and after a year of Seminary, you still retain these virtuous indignations. You must indeed have been blind!

‘Can it be his blood coming out?’ murmured the abbe, as though putting the question to himself. ‘The strange thing is,’ he added, looking at Julien, ‘that the Marquis knows you . . . How, I cannot say. He is giving you, to begin with, a salary of one hundred louis. He is a man who acts only from caprice, that is his weakness; he will outdo you in puerilities. If he is pleased with you, your salary may rise in time to eight thousand francs.

‘But you must be well aware,’ the abbe went on in a harsh tone, ‘that he is not giving you all this money for your handsome face. You will have to be of use to him. If I were in your position, I should speak as little as possible, and above all, never speak of matters of which I know nothing.

‘Ah!’ said the abbe, ‘I have been making inquiries on your behalf; I was forgetting M. de La Mole’s family. He has two children, a daughter, and a son of nineteen, the last word in elegance, a mad fellow, who never knows at one minute what he will be doing the next. He has spirit, and courage; he has fought in Spain. The Marquis hopes, I cannot say why, that you will become friends with the young Comte Norbert. I have said that you are a great Latin scholar, perhaps he reckons upon your teaching his son a few ready-made phrases about Cicero and Virgil.

‘In your place, I should never allow this fine young man to make free with me; and, before yielding to his overtures, which will be perfectly civil, but slightly marred by irony, I should make him repeat them at least twice.

‘I shall not conceal from you that the young Comte de La Mole is bound to look down upon you at first, because of your humble birth. He is the direct descendant of a courtier, who had the honour to have his head cut off on the Place de Greve, on the 26th of April, 1574, for a political intrigue. As for you, you are the son of a carpenter at Verrieres, and moreover, you are in his father’s pay. Weigh these differences carefully, and study the history of this family in Moreri, all the flatterers who dine at their table make from time to time what they call delicate allusions to it.

‘Take care how you respond to the pleasantries of M. le Comte Norbert de La Mole, Squadron Commander of Hussars and a future Peer of France, and do not come and complain to me afterwards.’

‘It seems to me,’ said Julien, blushing deeply, ‘that I ought not even to answer a man who looks down upon me.’

‘You have no idea of this form of contempt; it will reveal itself only in exaggerated compliments. If you were a fool, you might let yourself be taken in by them; if you wished to succeed, you ought to let yourself be taken in.’

‘On the day when all this ceases to agree with me,’ said Julien, ‘shall I be considered ungrateful if I return to my little cell, number 103?’

‘No doubt,’ replied the abbe, ‘all the sycophants of the house will slander you, but then I shall appear. Adsum qui fed. I shall say that it was from me that the decision came.’

Julien was dismayed by the bitter and almost malicious tone which he remarked in M. Pirard; this tone completely spoiled his last utterance.

The fact was that the abbe felt a scruple of conscience about loving Julien, and it was with a sort of religious terror that he was thus directly interfering with the destiny of another man.

‘You will also see,’ he continued, with the same ill grace, and as though in the performance of a painful duty, ‘you will see Madame la Marquise de La Mole. She is a tall, fair woman, pious, proud, perfectly civil and even more insignificant. She is a daughter of the old Due de Chaulnes, so famous for his aristocratic prejudices. This great lady is a sort of compendium, in high relief, of all that makes up the character of the women of her rank. She makes it no secret that to have had ancestors who went to the Crusades is the sole advantage to which she attaches any importance. Money comes only a long way after: does that surprise you? We are no longer in the country, my friend.

‘You will find in her drawing-room many great noblemen speaking of our Princes in a tone of singular disrespect. As for Madame de La Mole, she lowers her voice in respect whenever she names a Prince, let alone a Princess. I should not advise you to say in her hearing that Philip II or Henry VIII was a monster. They were KINGS, and that gives them an inalienable right to the respect of everyone, and above all to the respect of creatures without birth, like you and me. However,’ M. Pirard added, ‘we are priests, for she will take you for one; on that footing, she regards us as lackeys necessary to her salvation.’

‘Sir,’ said Julien, ‘it seems to me that I shall not remain long in Paris.’

‘As you please; but observe that there is no hope of success, for a man of our cloth, except through the great nobles. With that indefinable element (at least, I cannot define it), which there is in your character, if you do not succeed you will be persecuted; there is no middle way for you. Do not abuse your position. People see that you are not pleased when they speak to you; in a social environment like this, you are doomed to misfortune, if you do not succeed in winning respect.

‘What would have become of you at Besancon, but for this caprice on the part of the Marquis de La Mole? One day, you will appreciate all the singularity of what he is doing for you, and, if you are not a monster, you will feel eternal gratitude to him and his family. How many poor abbes, cleverer men than you, have lived for years in Paris, upon the fifteen sous for their mass and the ten sous for their lectures in the Sorbonne! . . . Remember what I told you, last winter, of the early years of that wretch, Cardinal Dubois. Are you, by any chance, so proud as to imagine that you have more talent than he?

‘I, for example, a peaceable and insignificant man, expected to end my days in my Seminary; I was childish enough to have grown attached to it. Very well! I was going to be turned out when I offered my resignation. Do you know what was the extent of my fortune? I had five hundred and twenty francs of capital, neither more nor less; not a friend, at most two or three acquaintances. M. de La Mole, whom I had never seen, saved me from disaster; he had only to say the word, and I was given a living in which all my parishioners are people in easy circumstances, above the common vices, and the stipend fills me with shame, so far out of proportion is it to my work. I have spoken to you at this length only to put a little ballast into that head of yours.

‘One word more; it is my misfortune to have a hasty temper; it is possible that you and I may cease to speak to one another.

‘If the arrogance of the Marquise, or the mischievous pranks of her son, make the house definitely insupportable to you, I advise you to finish your studies in some Seminary thirty leagues from Paris, and in the North, rather than in the South. You will find in the North more civilisation and fewer injustices; and,’ he added, lowering his voice, ‘I must admit it, the proximity of the Parisian newspapers makes the petty tyrants afraid.

‘If we continue to find pleasure in each other’s company, and the Marquis’s household does not agree with you, I offer you a place as my vicar, and shall divide the revenues of this living with you equally. I owe you this and more,’ he added, cutting short Julien’s expressions of gratitude, ‘for the singular offer which you made me at Besancon. If, instead of five hundred and twenty francs, I had had nothing, you would have saved me.’

The cruel tone had gone from the abbe’s voice. To his great confusion, Julien felt the tears start to his eyes; he was longing to fling himself into the arms of his friend: he could not resist saying to him, with the most manly air that he was capable of affecting:

‘I have been hated by my father from the cradle; it was one of my great misfortunes; but I shall no longer complain of fortune. I have found another father in you, Sir.’

‘Good, good,’ said the abbe, with embarrassment; then remembering most opportunely a phrase from the vocabulary of a Director of a Seminary: ‘You must never say fortune, my child, always say Providence.’

The cab stopped; the drier lifted the bronze knocker on an immense door: it was the HOTEL DE LA MOLE; and, so that the passer-by might be left in no doubt of this, the words were to be read on a slab of black marble over the door.

This affectation was not to Julien’s liking. ‘They are so afraid of the Jacobins! They see a Robespierre and his tumbril behind every hedge; often they make one die with laughing, and they advertise their house like this so that the mob shall know it in the event of a rising, and sack it.’ He communicated what was in his mind to the Abbe Pirard.

‘Ah! Poor boy, you will soon be my vicar. What an appalling idea to come into your head!’

‘I can think of nothing more simple,’ said Julien.

The gravity of the porter and above all the cleanness of the courtyard had filled him with admiration. The sun was shining brightly.

‘What magnificent architecture!’ he said to his friend.

It was one of the typical town houses, with their lifeless fronts, of the Faubourg Saint–Germain, built about the date of Voltaire’s death. Never have the fashionable and the beautiful been such worlds apart.

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