The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 14

A Girl’s Thoughts

So much perplexity? So many sleepless nights! Good God! Am I making myself despicable? He will despise me himself. But he’s leaving, he’s going.

ALFRED DE MUSSET

It was not without an inward struggle that Mathilde had brought herself to write. Whatever might have been the beginning of her interest in Julien, it soon overcame the pride which, ever since she had been aware of herself, had reigned alone in her heart. That cold and haughty spirit was carried away for the first time by a passionate sentiment. But if this overcame her pride, it was still faithful to the habits bred of pride. Two months of struggle and of novel sensations had so to speak altered her whole moral nature.

Mathilde thought she had happiness in sight. This prospect, irresistible to a courageous spirit combined with a superior intellect, had to make a long fight against dignity and every sentiment of common duty. One day she entered her mother’s room, at seven o’clock in the morning, begging her for leave to retire to Villequier. The Marquise did not even deign to answer her, and recommended her to go back to her bed. This was the last effort made by plain sense and the deference paid to accepted ideas.

The fear of wrongdoing and of shocking the ideas held as sacred by the Caylus, the de Luz, the Croisenois, had little or no hold over her; such creatures as they did not seem to her to be made to understand her; she would have consulted them had it been a question of buying a carriage or an estate. Her real terror was that Julien might be displeased with her.

‘Perhaps, too, he has only the outward appearance of a superior person.’

She abhorred want of character, it was her sole objection to the handsome young men among whom she lived. The more gracefully they mocked at everything which departed from the fashion, or which followed it wrongly when intending to follow it, the more they condemned themselves in her eyes.

They were brave, and that was all. ‘And besides, how are they brave?’ she asked herself: ‘in a duel. But the duel is nothing more now than a formality. Everything is known beforehand, even what a man is to say when he falls. Lying on the grass, his hand on his heart, he must extend a handsome pardon to his adversary and leave a message for a fair one who is often imaginary, or who goes to a ball on the day of his death, for fear of arousing suspicion.

‘A man will face danger at the head of a squadron all glittering with steel, but a danger that is solitary, strange, sudden, truly ugly?

‘Alas!’ said Mathilde, ‘it was at the Court of Henri in that one found men great by character as well as by birth! Ah, if Julien had served at Jarnac or at Moncontour, I should no longer be in doubt. In those days of strength and prowess, Frenchmen were not mere dolls. The day of battle was almost the day of least perplexity.

‘Their life was not imprisoned like an Egyptian mummy, within an envelope always common to them all, always the same. Yes,’ she went on, ‘there was more true courage in crossing the town alone at eleven o’clock at night, after leaving the Hotel de Soissons, occupied by Catherine de’ Medici, than there is today in dashing to Algiers. A man’s life was a succession of hazards. Nowadays civilisation has banished hazard, there is no room for the unexpected. If it appears in our ideas, there are not epigrams enough to cope with it; if it appears in events, no act of cowardice is too great for our fear. Whatever folly our fear makes us commit is excused us. Degenerate and boring age! What would Boniface de La Mole have said if, raising his severed head from the tomb, he had seen, in 1793, seventeen of his descendants allow themselves to be penned like sheep, to be guillotined a day or two later? Their death was certain, but it would have been in bad form to defend themselves and at least kill a Jacobin or two. Ah! In the heroic age of France, in the days of Boniface de La Mole, Julien would have been the squadron commander, and my brother the young priest, properly behaved, with wisdom in his eyes and reason on his lips.’

A few months since, Mathilde had despaired of meeting anyone a little different from the common pattern. She had found a certain happiness in allowing herself to write to various young men of fashion. This act of boldness, so unconventional, so imprudent in a young girl, might dishonour her in the eyes of M. de Croisenois, of his father, the Duc de Chaulnes, and of the whole house of Chaulnes, who, seeing the projected marriage broken off, would wish to know the reason. At that time, on the night after she had written one of these letters, Mathilde was unable to sleep. But these letters were mere replies.

Now she had ventured to say that she was in love. She had written first (what a terrible word!) to a man in the lowest rank of society.

This circumstance assured her, in the event of discovery, eternal disgrace. Which of the women who came to see her mother would dare to take her part? What polite expression could be put into their mouths to lessen the shock of the fearful contempt of the drawing-rooms?

And even to speak to a man was fearful, but to write! ‘There are things which one does not write,’ Napoleon exclaimed when he heard of the surrender of Baylen. And it was Julien who had told her of this saying! As though teaching her a lesson in advance.

But all this was still nothing, Mathilde’s anguish had other causes. Oblivious of the horrible effect upon society, of the ineradicable blot, the universal contempt, for she was outraging her caste, Mathilde was writing to a person of a very different nature from the Croisenois, the de Luz, the Caylus.

The depth, the strangeness of Julien’s character had alarmed her, even when she was forming an ordinary relation with him. And she was going to make him her lover, possibly her master!

‘What claims will he not assert, if ever he is in a position to do as he likes with me? Very well! I shall say to myself like Medea: “Midst all these perils, I have still MYSELF.”’

Julien had no reverence for nobility of blood, she understood. Worse, still, perhaps, he felt no love for her!

In these final moments of tormenting doubts, she was visited by ideas of feminine pride. ‘Everything ought to be strange in the lot of a girl like myself,’ cried Mathilde, with impatience. And so the pride that had been inculcated in her from her cradle began to fight against her virtue. It was at this point that Julien’s threatened departure came to precipitate events.

(Such characters are fortunately quite rare.)

Late that night, Julien was malicious enough to have an extremely heavy trunk carried down to the porter’s lodge; to carry it, he summoned the footman who was courting Mademoiselle de La Mole’s maid. ‘This device may lead to no result,’ he said to himself, ‘but if it proves successful, she will think that I have gone.’ He went to sleep, highly delighted with his trick. Mathilde never closed an eye.

Next morning, at a very early hour, Julien left the house unobserved, but returned before eight o’clock.

No sooner was he in the library than Mademoiselle de La Mole appeared on the threshold. He handed her his answer. He thought that it was incumbent upon him to speak to her; this, at least, was the most polite course, but Mademoiselle de La Mole would not listen to him and vanished. Julien was overjoyed, he had not known what to say to her.

‘If all this is not a trick arranged with Comte Norbert, plainly it must have been my frigid glance that has kindled the freakish love which this girl of noble birth has taken it into her head to feel for me. I should be a little too much of a fool if I ever allowed myself to be drawn into feeling any attraction towards the great flaxen doll.’ This piece of reasoning left him more cold and calculating than he had ever been.

‘In the battle that is preparing,’ he went on, ‘pride of birth will be like a high hill, forming a military position between her and myself. It is there that we must manoeuvre. I have done wrong to remain in Paris; this postponement of my departure cheapens me, and exposes my flank if all this is only a game. What danger was there in my going? I was fooling them, if they are fooling me. If her interest in me has any reality, I was increasing that interest an hundredfold.’

Mademoiselle de La Mole’s letter had so flattered Julien’s vanity that, while he laughed at what was happening to him, he had forgotten to think seriously of the advantages of departure.

It was a weakness of his character to be extremely sensitive to his own faults. He was extremely annoyed at this instance of his weakness, and had almost ceased to think of the incredible victory which had preceded this slight check when, about nine o’clock, Mademoiselle de La Mole appeared on the threshold of the library, flung him a letter, and fled.

‘It appears that this is to be a romance told in letters,’ he said, as he picked this one up. ‘The enemy makes a false move, now I am going to bring coldness and virtue into play.’

The letter called for a definite answer with an arrogance which increased his inward gaiety. He gave himself the pleasure of mystifying, for the space of two pages, the people who might wish to make a fool of him, and it was with a fresh pleasantry that he announced, towards the end of his reply, his decision to depart on the following morning.

This letter finished: ‘The garden can serve me as a post office,’ he thought, and made his way there. He looked up at the window of Mademoiselle de La Mole’s room.

It was on the first floor, next to her mother’s apartment, but there was a spacious mezzanine beneath.

This first floor stood so high, that, as he advanced beneath the lime-alley, letter in hand, Julien could not be seen from Mademoiselle de La Mole’s window. The vault formed by the limes, which were admirably pleached, intercepted the view.

‘But what is this!’ Julien said to himself, angrily, ‘another imprudence! If they have decided to make a fool of me, to let myself be seen with a letter in my hand, is to play the enemy’s game.’

Norbert’s room was immediately above his sister’s, and if Julien emerged from the alley formed by the pleached branches of the limes, the Count and his friends would be able to follow his every movement.

Mademoiselle de La Mole appeared behind her closed window; he half showed her his letter; she bowed her head. At once Julien ran up to his own room, and happened to meet, on the main staircase, the fair Mathilde, who snatched the letter with perfect composure and laughing eyes.

‘What passion there was in the eyes of that poor Madame de Renal,’ Julien said to himself, ‘when, even after six months of intimate relations, she ventured to receive a letter from me! Never once, I am sure, did she look at me with a laugh in her eyes.’

He did not express to himself so clearly the rest of his comment; was he ashamed of the futility of his motives? ‘But also what a difference,’ his thoughts added, ‘in the elegance of her morning gown, in the elegance of her whole appearance! On catching sight of Mademoiselle de La Mole thirty yards off, a man of taste could tell the rank that she occupies in society. That is what one may call an explicit merit.’

Still playing with his theme, Julien did not yet confess to himself the whole of his thoughts; Madame de Renal had had no Marquis de Croisenois to sacrifice to him. He had had as a rival only that ignoble Sub–Prefect M. Charcot, who had assumed the name of Maugiron, because the Maugirons were extinct.

At five o’clock, Julien received a third letter; it was flung at him from the library door. Mademoiselle de La Mole again fled. ‘What a mania for writing,’ he said to himself with a laugh, ‘when it is so easy for us to talk! The enemy wishes to have my letters, that is clear, and plenty of them!’ He was in no haste to open this last. ‘More elegant phrases,’ he thought; but he turned pale as he read it. It consisted of eight lines only.

‘I have to speak to you: I must speak to you, tonight; when one o’clock strikes, be in the garden. Take the gardener’s long ladder from beside the well; place it against my window and come up to my room. There is a moon: no matter.’

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