The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 13

A Plot

Disconnected remarks, chance meetings turn into proofs of the utmost clarity in the eyes of the imaginative man, if he has any fire in his heart.

SCHILLER

On the following day he again surprised Norbert and his sister, who were talking about him. On his arrival, a deathly silence fell, as on the day before. His suspicions knew no bounds. ‘Can these charming young people be planning to make a fool of me? I must own, that is far more probable, far more natural than a pretended passion on the part of Mademoiselle de La Mole, for a poor devil of a secretary. For one thing, do these people have passions? Mystification is their specialty. They are jealous of my wretched little superiority in language. Being jealous, that is another of their weaknesses. That explains everything. Mademoiselle de La Mole hopes to persuade me that she is singling me out, simply to offer me as a spectacle to her intended.’

This cruel suspicion completely changed Julien’s moral attitude. The idea encountered in his heart a germ of love which it had no difficulty in destroying. This love was founded only upon Mathilde’s rare beauty, or rather upon her regal manner and her admirable style in dress. In this respect Julien was still an upstart. A beautiful woman of fashion is, we are assured, the sight that most astonishes a clever man of peasant origin when he arrives amid the higher ranks of society. It was certainly not Mathilde’s character that had set Julien dreaming for days past. He had enough sense to grasp that he knew nothing about her character. Everything that he saw of it might be only a pretence.

For instance, Mathilde would not for anything in the world have failed to hear mass on a Sunday; almost every day she went to church with her mother. If, in the drawing-room of the Hotel de La Mole, some impudent fellow forgot where he was and allowed himself to make the remotest allusion to some jest aimed at the real or supposed interests of Throne or Altar, Mathilde would at once assume an icy severity. Her glance, which was so sparkling, took on all the expressionless pride of an old family portrait.

But Julien knew for certain that she always had in her room one or two of the most philosophical works of Voltaire. He himself frequently abstracted a volume or two of the handsome edition so magnificently bound. By slightly separating the other volumes on the shelf, he concealed the absence of the volume he was taking away; but soon he discovered that someone else was reading Voltaire. He had recourse to a trick of the Seminary, he placed some little pieces of horsehair across the volumes which he supposed might interest Mademoiselle de La Mole. They vanished for weeks at a time.

M. de La Mole, losing patience with his bookseller, who kept sending him all the sham Memoirs, gave Julien orders to buy every new book that was at all sensational. But, so that the poison might not spread through the household, the secretary was instructed to place these books in a little bookcase that stood in the Marquis’s own room. He soon acquired the certainty that if any of these books were hostile to the interests of Throne and Altar, they were not long in vanishing. It was certainly not Norbert that was reading them.

Julien, exaggerating the importance of this discovery, credited Mademoiselle de La Mole with a Machiavellian duplicity. This feigned criminality wa a charm in his eyes, almost the only moral charm that she possessed. The tediousness of hypocrisy and virtuous conversation drove him to this excess.

He excited his imagination rather than let himself be carried away by love.

It was after he had lost himself in dreams of the elegance of Mademoiselle de La Mole’s figure, the excellent taste of her toilet, the whiteness of her hand, the beauty of her arm, the disinvoltura of all her movements, that he found himself in love. Then, to complete her charm, he imagined her to be a Catherine de’ Medici. Nothing was too profound or too criminal for the character that he assigned to her. It was the ideal of the Maslons, the Frilairs and Castanedes whom he had admired in his younger days. It was, in short, the ideal, to him, of Paris.

Was ever anything so absurd as to imagine profundity or criminality in the Parisian character?

‘It is possible that this trio may be making a fool of me,’ he thought. The reader has learned very little of Julien’s nature if he has not already seen the sombre, frigid expression that he assumed when his eyes met those of Mathilde. A bitter irony repulsed the assurances of friendship with which Mademoiselle de La Mole in astonishment ventured on two or three occasions, to try him.

Piqued by his sudden eccentricity, the heart of this girl, naturally cold, bored, responsive to intelligence, became as passionate as it was in her nature to be. But there was also a great deal of pride in Mathilde’s nature, and the birth of a sentiment which made all her happiness dependent upon another was attended by a sombre melancholy.

Julien had made sufficient progress since his arrival in Paris to discern that this was not the barren melancholy of boredom. Instead of being eager, as in the past, for parties, shows and distractions of every kind, she avoided them.

Music performed by French singers bored Mathilde to death, and yet Julien, who made it his duty to be present at the close of the Opera, observed that she made her friends take her there as often as possible. He thought he could detect that she had lost a little of the perfect balance which shone in all her actions. She would sometimes reply to her friends with witticisms that were offensive in their pointed emphasis. It seemed to him that she had taken a dislike to the Marquis de Croisenois. ‘That young man must have a furious passion for money, not to go off and leave a girl like that, however rich she may be!’ thought Julien. As for himself, indignant at the insults offered to masculine dignity, his coldness towards her increased. Often he went the length of replying with positive discourtesy.

However determined he might be not to be taken in by the signs of interest shown by Mathilde, they were so evident on certain days, and Julien, from whose eyes the scales were beginning to fall, found her so attractive, that he was at times embarrassed by them.

‘The skill and forbearance of these young men of fashion will end by triumphing over my want of experience,’ he told himself; ‘I must go away, and put an end to all this.’ The Marquis had recently entrusted to him the management of a number of small properties and houses which he owned in lower Languedoc. A visit to the place became necessary: M. de La Mole gave a reluctant consent. Except in matters of high ambition, Julien had become his second self.

‘When all is said and done, they have not managed to catch me,’ Julien told himself as he prepared for his departure. ‘Whether the jokes which Mademoiselle de La Mole makes at the expense of these gentlemen be real, or only intended to inspire me with confidence, I have been amused by them.

‘If there is no conspiracy against the carpenter’s son, Mademoiselle de La Mole is inexplicable, but she is just as much so to the Marquis de Croisenois as to me. Yesterday, for instance, her ill humour was quite genuine, and I had the pleasure of seeing discomfited in my favour a young man as noble and rich as I am penniless and plebeian. That is my finest triumph. It will keep me in good spirits in my post-chaise, as I scour the plains of Languedoc.’

He had kept his departure secret, but Mathilde knew better than he that he was leaving Paris next day, and for a long time. She pleaded a splitting headache, which was made worse by the close atmosphere of the drawing-room. She walked for hours in the garden, and so pursued with her mordant pleasantries Norbert, the Marquis de Croisenois, Caylus, de Luz and various other young men who had dined at the Hotel de La Mole, that she forced them to take their leave. She looked at Julien in a strange fashion.

‘This look is perhaps a piece of play-acting,’ thought he; ‘but her quick breathing, all that emotion! Bah!’ he said to himself, ‘who am I to judge of these matters? This is an example of the most consummate, the most artificial behaviour to be found among the women of Paris. That quick breathing, which so nearly proved too much for me, she will have learned from Leontine Fay, whom she admires so.’

They were now left alone; the conversation was plainly languishing. ‘No! Julien has no feeling for me,’ Mathilde told herself with genuine distress.

As he took leave of her, she clutched his arm violently:

‘You will receive a letter from me this evening,’ she told him in a voice so strained as to be barely audible.

This had an immediate effect on Julien.

‘My father,’ she went on, ‘has a most natural regard for the services that you render him. You must not go tomorrow; find some excuse.’ And she ran from the garden.

Her figure was charming. It would have been impossible to have a prettier foot, she ran with a grace that enchanted Julien; but guess what was his second thought when she had quite vanished. He was offended by the tone of command in which she had uttered the words, you must. Similarly Louis XV, as he breathed his last, was keenly annoyed by the words you must awkwardly employed by his Chief Physician, and yet Louis XV was no upstart.

An hour later, a footman handed Julien a letter; it was nothing less than a declaration of love.

‘The style is not unduly affected,’ he said to himself, seeking by literary observations to contain the joy that was contorting his features and forcing him to laugh in spite of himself.

‘And so I,’ he suddenly exclaimed, his excitement being too strong to be held in check, ‘I, a poor peasant, have received a declaration of love from a great lady!

‘As for myself, I have not done badly,’ he went on, controlling his joy as far as was possible. ‘I have succeeded in preserving the dignity of my character. I have never said that I was in love.’ He began to study the shapes of her letters; Mademoiselle de La Mole wrote in a charming little English hand. He required some physical occupation to take his mind from a joy which was bordering on delirium.

‘Your departure obliges me to speak . . . It would be beyond my endurance not to see you any more.’

A sudden thought occurred to strike Julien as a discovery, interrupt the examination that he was making of Mathilde’s letter, and intensify his joy. ‘I am preferred to the Marquis de Croisenois,’ he cried, ‘I, who never say anything that is not serious! And he is so handsome! He wears moustaches, a charming uniform; he always manages to say, just at the right moment, something witty and clever.’

It was an exquisite moment for Julien; he roamed about the garden, mad with happiness.

Later, he went upstairs to his office, and sent in his name to the Marquis de La Mole, who fortunately had not gone out. He had no difficulty in proving to him, by showing him various marked papers that had arrived from Normandy, that the requirements of his employer’s lawsuits there obliged him to postpone his departure for Languedoc.

‘I am very glad you are not going,’ the Marquis said to him, when they had finished their business, ‘I like to see you.’ Julien left the room; this speech disturbed him.

‘And I am going to seduce his daughter! To render impossible, perhaps, that marriage with the Marquis de Croisenois, which is the bright spot in his future: if he is not made Duke, at least his daughter will be entitled to a tabouret.’ Julien thought of starting for Languedoc in spite of Mathilde’s letter, in spite of the explanation he had given the Marquis. This virtuous impulse soon faded.

‘How generous I am,’ he said to himself; ‘I, a plebeian, to feel pity for a family of such high rank! I, whom the Duc de Chaulnes calls a domestic! How does the Marquis increase his vast fortune? By selling national securities, when he hears at the Chateau that there is to be the threat of a Coup d’ Etat next day. And I, cast down to the humblest rank by a stepmotherly Providence, I, whom Providence has endowed with a noble heart and not a thousand francs of income, that is to say not enough for my daily bread, literally speaking, not enough for my daily bread; am I to refuse a pleasure that is offered me? A limpid spring which wells up to quench my thirst in the burning desert of mediocrity over which I trace my painful course! Faith, I am no such fool; everyone for himself in this desert of selfishness which is called life.’

And he reminded himself of several disdainful glances aimed at him by Madame de La Mole, and especially by the ladies, her friends.

The pleasure of triumphing over the Marquis de Croisenois completed the rout of this lingering trace of virtue.

‘How I should love to make him angry!’ said Julien; ‘with what assurance would I now thrust at him with my sword.’ And he struck a sweeping blow at the air. ‘Until now, I was a smug, basely profiting by a trace of courage. After this letter, I am his equal.

‘Yes,’ he said to himself with an infinite delight, dwelling on the words, ‘our merits, the Marquis’s and mine, have been weighed, and the poor carpenter from the Jura wins the day.

‘Good!’ he cried, ‘here is the signature to my reply ready found. Do not go and imagine, Mademoiselle de La Mole, that I am forgetting my station. I shall make you realise and feel that it is for the son of a carpenter that you are betraying a descendant of the famous Guy de Croisenois, who followed Saint Louis on his Crusade.’

Julien was unable to contain his joy. He was obliged to go down to the garden. His room, in which he had locked himself up, seemed too confined a space for him to breathe in.

‘I, a poor peasant from the Jura,’ he kept on repeating, ‘I, I condemned always to wear this dismal black coat! Alas, twenty years ago, I should have worn uniform like them! In those days a man of my sort was either killed, or a General at six and thirty.’ The letter, which he kept tightly clasped in his hand, gave him the bearing and pose of a hero. ‘Nowadays, it is true, with the said black coat, at the age of forty, a man has emoluments of one hundred thousand francs and the Blue Riband, like the Bishop of Beauvais.

‘Oh, well!’ he said to himself, laughing like Mephistopheles, ‘I have more sense than they; I know how to choose the uniform of my generation.’ And he felt an intensification of his ambition and of his attachment to the clerical habit. ‘How many Cardinals have there been of humbler birth than mine, who have risen to positions of government! My fellow-countryman Granvelle, for instance.’†

† Antoine de Granvelle, born at Besancon in 1517, was Minister to Charles V and Philip II and Governor of the Netherlands. C. K. S. M.]

Gradually Julien’s agitation subsided; prudence rose to the surface. He said to himself, like his master Tartuffe, whose part he knew by heart:

‘I might suppose these words an honest artifice . . . Nay, I shall not believe so flattering a speech Unless some favour shown by her for whom I sigh Assure me that they mean all that they might imply.’

(Tartuffe, Act IV, Scene V)

‘Tartuffe also was ruined by a woman, and he was as good a man as most . . . My answer may be shewn . . . a mishap for which we find this remedy,’ he went on, pronouncing each word slowly, and in accents of restrained ferocity, ‘we begin it by quoting the strongest expressions from the letter of the sublime Mathilde.

‘Yes, but then four of M. de Croisenois’s flunkeys will spring upon me, and tear the original from me.

‘No, for I am well armed, and am accustomed, as they know, to firing on flunkeys.

‘Very well! Say, one of them has some courage; he springs upon me. He has been promised a hundred napoleons. I kill or injure him, all the better, that is what they want. I am flung into prison with all the forms of law; I appear in the police court, and they send me, with all justice and equity on the judges’ part, to keep MM. Fontan and Magalon company at Poissy. There, I lie upon straw with four hundred poor wretches, pell-mell . . . And I am to feel some pity for these people,’ he cried, springing impetuously to his feet. ‘What pity do they show for the Third Estate when they have us in their power?’ These words were the dying breath of his gratitude to M. de La Mole which, in spite of himself, had tormented him until then.

‘Not so fast, my fine gentlemen, I understand this little stroke of Machiavellianism; the abbe Maslon or M. Castanede of the Seminary could not have been more clever. You rob me of my incitement, the letter, and I become the second volume of Colonel Caron at Colmar.

‘One moment, gentlemen, I am going to send the fatal letter in a carefully sealed packet to the custody of M. l’abbe Pirard. He is an honest man, a Jansenist, and as such out of reach of the temptations of the Budget. Yes, but he opens letters . . . it is to Fouque that I must send this one.’

It must be admitted the glare in Julien’s eyes was ghastly, his expression hideous; it was eloquent of unmitigated crime. He was an unhappy man at war with the whole of society.

To arms!’ cried Julien. And he sprang with one bound down the steps that led from the house. He entered the letter-writer’s booth at the street corner; the man was alarmed. ‘Copy this,’ said Julien, giving him Mademoiselle de La Mole’s letter.

While the writer was thus engaged, he himself wrote to Fouque; he begged him to keep for him a precious article. ‘But,’ he said to himself, laying down his pen, ‘the secret room in the post office will open my letter, and give you back the one you seek; no, gentlemen.’ He went and bought an enormous Bible from a Protestant bookseller, skilfully concealed Mathilde’s letter in the boards, had it packed up with his own letter, and his parcel went off by the mail, addressed to one of Fouque’s workmen, whose name was unknown to anybody in Paris.

This done, he returned joyful and brisk to the Hotel de La Mole. ‘It is our turn, now,’ he exclaimed, as he locked himself into his room, and flung off his coat:

‘What, Mademoiselle,’ he wrote to Mathilde, ‘it is Mademoiselle de La Mole who, by the hand of Arsene, her father’s servant, transmits a letter couched in too seductive terms to a poor carpenter from the Jura, doubtless to play a trick upon his simplicity . . . ’ And he transcribed the most unequivocal sentences from the letter he had received.

His own would have done credit to the diplomatic prudence of M. le Chevalier de Beauvoisis. It was still only ten o’clock; Julien, intoxicated with happiness and with the sense of his own power, so novel to a poor devil like himself, went off to the Italian opera. He heard his friend Geronimo sing. Never had music raised him to so high a pitch. He was a god.†

† Esprit per, pre. gui II. A. 30. (Note by Stendhal.)]

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