The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 11

The Tyranny of a Girl

I admire her beauty, but I fear her intelligence.

MERIMEE

Had Julien devoted to the consideration of what went on in the drawing-room the time which he spent in exaggerating Mathilde’s beauty, or in lashing himself into a fury at the aloofness natural to her family, whom she was forgetting in his company, he would have understood in what her despotic power over everyone round about her consisted. Whenever anyone earned Mademoiselle de La Mole’s displeasure, she knew how to punish him by a witticism so calculated, so well chosen, apparently so harmless, so aptly launched, that the wound it left deepened the more he thought of it. In time she became deadly to wounded vanity. As she attached no importance to many things that were the object of serious ambition with the rest of her family, she always appeared cool in their eyes. The drawing-rooms of the nobility are pleasant things to mention after one has left them, but that is all; bare politeness is something in itself only for the first few days. Julien experienced this; after the first enchantment, the first bewilderment. ‘Politeness,’ he said to himself, ‘is nothing more than the absence of the irritation which would come from bad manners.’ Mathilde was frequently bored, perhaps she would have been bored in any circumstances. At such times to sharpen the point of an epigram was for her a distraction and a real pleasure.

It was perhaps in order to have victims slightly more amusing than her distinguished relatives, the Academician and the five or six other inferiors who formed their court, that she had given grounds for hope to the Marquis de Croisenois, the Comte de Caylus and two or three other young men of the highest distinction. They were nothing more to her than fresh subjects for epigram.

We confess with sorrow, for we are fond of Mathilde, that she had received letters from several of their number, and had occasionally answered them. We hasten to add that this character in our story forms an exception to the habits of the age. It is not, generally speaking, with want of prudence that one can reproach the pupils of the noble Convent of the Sacre–Coeur.

One day the Marquis de Croisenois returned to Mathilde a distinctly compromising letter which she had written him the day before. He thought that by this sign of extreme prudence he was greatly strengthening his position. But imprudence was what Mathilde enjoyed in her correspondence. It was her chief pleasure to play with fire. She did not speak to him again for six weeks.

She amused herself with the letters of these young men; but, according to her, they were all alike. It was always the most profound, the most melancholy passion.

‘They are all the same perfect gentlemen, ready to set off for Palestine,’ she said to her cousin. ‘Can you think of anything more insipid? Think that this is the sort of letter that I am going to receive for the rest of my life! These letters can only change every twenty years, according to the kind of occupation that is in fashion. They must have been less colourless in the days of the Empire. Then all these young men in society had seen or performed actions in which there was real greatness. The Due de N— — my uncle, fought at Wagram.’

‘What intelligence is required to wield a sabre? And when that has happened to them, they talk about it so often!’ said Mademoiselle de Sainte–Heredite, Mathilde’s cousin.

‘Oh, well, those stories amuse me. To have been in a real battle, one of Napoleon’s battles, in which ten thousand soldiers were killed, is a proof of courage. Exposing oneself to danger elevates the soul, and saves it from the boredom in which all my poor adorers seem to be plunged; and it is contagious, that boredom. Which of them ever dreams of doing anything out of the common? They seek to win my hand, a fine enterprise! I am rich, and my father will help on his son-inlaw. Oh, if only he could find one who was at all amusing!’

Mathilde’s vivid, picturesque point of view affected her speech, as we can see. Often something she said jarred on the refined nerves of her highly polished friends. They would almost have admitted, had she been less in the fashion, that there was something in her language a little too highly coloured for feminine delicacy.

She, on her part, was most unjust to the handsome men on horseback who throng the Bois de Boulogne. She looked towards the future, not with terror, that would have been too strong a feeling, but with a disgust very rare at her age.

What had she left to desire? Fortune, noble birth, wit, beauty, or so it was said, and she believed, all had been heaped upon her by the hand of chance.

Such were the thoughts of the most envied heiress of the Faubourg Saint–Germain, when she began to find pleasure in strolling with Julien. She was amazed at his pride; she admired the cunning of this little plebeian. ‘He will manage to get himself made a Bishop like the abbe Maury,’ she said to herself.

Presently the sincere and unfeigned resistance, with which our hero received a number of her ideas, began to occupy her mind; she thought about him; she reported to her cousin the pettiest details of their conversations, and found that she could never succeed in displaying them in every aspect.

Suddenly an idea dawned upon her: ‘I have the good fortune to be in love,’ she told herself one day, with an indescribable transport of joy. ‘I am in love, I am in love, it is quite clear! At my age, a young girl, beautiful, clever, where can she find sensations, if not in love? I may do what I like, I shall never feel any love for Croisenois, Caylus, e tutti quanti. They are perfect, too perfect perhaps; in short, they bore me.’

She turned over in her mind all the descriptions of passion which she had read in Manon Lescaut, the Nouvelle Heloise, the Letters of a Portuguese Nun, and so forth. There was no question, of course, of anything but a grand passion; mere fleeting affection was unworthy of a girl of her age and birth. She bestowed the name of love only upon that heroic sentiment which was to be found in France in the days of Henri IV and Bassompierre. That love never basely succumbed to obstacles; far from it, it caused great deeds to be done. ‘What a misfortune for me that there is not a real Court like that of Catherine de’ Medici or Louis XIII! I feel that I am equal to everything that is most daring and great. What should I not do with a King who was a man of feeling, like Louis XII, sighing at my feet! I should lead him to the Vendee, as Baron de Tolly is always saying, and from there he would reconquer his Kingdom; then no more talk of a Charter . . . and Julien would aid me. What is it that he lacks? A name and a fortune. He would make a name for himself, he would acquire a fortune.

‘The Marquis de Croisenois lacks nothing, and all his life long he will be merely a Duke, half Ultra, half Liberal, an undecided creature always holding back from extremes, and consequently finding himself everywhere in the second rank.

‘Where is the great action which is not an extreme at the moment in which one undertakes it? It is when it is accomplished that it seems possible to creatures of common clay. Yes, it is love with all its miracles that is going to reign in my heart; I feel it by the fire that is animating me. Heaven owed me this favour. Not in vain will it have heaped every advantage upon a single head. My happiness will be worthy of myself. Each of my days will not coldly resemble the day before. There is already something grand and audacious in daring to love a man placed so far beneath me in social position. Let me see: will he continue to deserve me? At the first sign of weakness that I observe in him, I abandon him. A girl of my birth, and with the chivalrous character which they are so kind as to attribute to me’ (this was one of her father’s sayings) ‘ought not to behave like a fool.

‘Is not that the part that I should be playing if I loved the Marquis de Croisenois? It would be simply a repetition of the happiness of my cousins, whom I despise so utterly. I know beforehand everything that the poor Marquis would say to me, all that I should have to say to him in reply. What is the use of a love that makes one yawn? One might as well take to religion. I should have a scene at the signing of my marriage contract like my youngest cousin, with the noble relatives shedding tears, provided they were not made angry by a final condition inserted in the contract the day before by the solicitor to the other party.’

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