The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 15

Is it a Plot?

Ah! How cruel is the interval between the conception of a great project and its execution! What vain terrors! What irresolutions! Life is at stake. Far more than life — honour!

SCHILLER

‘This is becoming serious,’ thought Julien . . . ‘and a little too obvious,’ he added, after a moment’s reflection. ‘Why! This pretty young beauty can speak to me in the library with a freedom which, thank heaven, is unrestricted; the Marquis, for fear of my bothering him with accounts, never comes there. Why! M. de La Mole and Comte Norbert, the only people who ever show their faces here, are absent almost all day; it is easy to watch for the moment of their return to the house, and the sublime Mathilde, for whose hand a Sovereign Prince would not be too noble, wishes me to commit an act of abominable imprudence!

‘It is clear, they wish to ruin me, or to make a fool of me, at least. First of all, they sought to ruin me by my letters; these proved cautious; very well, now they require an action that shall be as clear as daylight. These pretty little gentlemen think me too simple or too conceited. The devil! With the brightest moon you ever saw, to climb up by a ladder to a first floor, five and twenty feet from the ground! They will have plenty of time to see me, even from the neighbouring houses. I shall be a fine sight on my ladder!’ Julien went up to his room and began to pack his trunk, whistling as he did so. He had made up his mind to go, and not even to answer the letter.

But this sage resolution gave him no peace of heart. ‘If, by any chance,’ he said to himself, suddenly, his trunk packed and shut, ‘Mathilde were sincere! Then I shall be cutting in her eyes the most perfect figure of a coward. I have no birth, so I require great qualities, ready on demand, with no flattering suppositions, qualities proved by eloquent deeds . . . ’

He spent a quarter of an hour pacing the floor of his room. ‘What use in denying it?’ he asked himself, at length; ‘I shall be a coward in her eyes. I lose not only the most brilliant young person in high society, as everyone was saying at M. le Duc de Retz’s ball, but, furthermore, the heavenly pleasure of seeing her throw over for me the Marquis de Croisenois, the son of a Duke, and a future Duke himself. A charming young man who has all the qualities that I lack: a ready wit, birth, fortune . . .

‘This remorse will pursue me all my life, not for her, there are heaps of mistresses, “but only one honour”, as old Don Diego says, and here I am clearly and plainly recoiling from the first peril that comes my way; for that duel with M. de Beauvoisis was a mere joke. This is quite different. I may be shot point-blank by a servant, but that is the least danger; I may forfeit my honour.

‘This is becoming serious, my boy,’ he went on, with a Gascon gaiety and accent. ‘Honur is at stake. A poor devil kept down by fate in my lowly station will never find such an opportunity again; I shall have adventures, but tawdry ones . . . ’

He reflected at length, he paced the room with a hurried step, stopping short now and again. There stood in his room a magnificent bust in marble of Cardinal Richelieu, which persistently caught his eye. This bust appeared to be gazing at him sternly, as though reproaching him for the want of that audacity which ought to be so natural to the French character. ‘In thy time, great man, should I have hesitated?

‘At the worst,’ Julien told himself finally, ‘let us suppose that all this is a plot, it is a very dark one, and highly compromising for a young girl. They know that I am not the man to keep silent. They will therefore have to kill me. That was all very well in 1574, in the days of Boniface de La Mole, but the La Mole of today would never dare. These people are not the same now. Mademoiselle de La Mole is so envied! Four hundred drawing-rooms would echo with her disgrace next day, and with what rejoicing!

‘The servants chatter among themselves of the marked preference that is shown me; I know it, I have heard them . . .

‘On the other hand, her letters! .. . They may suppose that I have them on me. They surprise me in her room, and take them from me. I shall have two, three, four, any number of men to deal with. But these men, where will they collect them? Where is one to find discreet agents in Paris? They are afraid of the law . . . Gad! It will be the Caylus and Croisenois and de Luz themselves. The thought of that moment, and the foolish figure I shall cut there among them will be what has tempted them. Beware the fate of Abelard, Master Secretary!

‘Begad, then, gentlemen, you shall bear the mark of my fists, I shall strike at your faces, like Caesar’s soldiers at Pharsalia .. . As for the letters, I can put them in a safe place.’

Julien made copies of the two last, concealed them in a volume of the fine Voltaire from the library, and went himself with the originals to the post.

When he returned: ‘Into what madness am I rushing!’ he said to himself with surprise and terror. He had been a quarter of an hour without considering his action of the coming night in all its aspects.

‘But, if I refuse, I must despise myself ever afterwards. All my life long, that action will be a matter for doubt to me, and such a doubt is the most bitter agony. Have I not felt it over Amanda’s lover? I believe that I should find it easier to forgive myself what was clearly a crime; once I had confessed it, I should cease to think about it.

‘What! I shall have been the rival of a man bearing one of the best names in France, and I myself, with a light heart, am to declare myself his inferior! Indeed, there is a strain of cowardice in not going. That word settles everything,’ cried Julien, springing to his feet . . . ‘besides, she is a real beauty!

‘If this is not treachery, how foolishly she is behaving for me! . . . If it is a mystification, begad, gentlemen, it rests with me to turn the jest to earnest, and so I shall.

‘But if they pinion my arms, the moment I enter the room; they may have set some diabolical machine there ready for me!

‘It is like a duel,’ he told himself with a laugh, ‘there is a parry for every thrust, my fencing master says, but the Almighty, who likes things to end, makes one of the fighters forget to parry. Anyhow, here is what will answer them’; he drew his pocket pistols; and, albeit they were fully charged, renewed the primings.

There were still many hours to wait; in order to have something to do, Julien wrote to Fouque: ‘My friend, open the enclosed letter only in case of accident, if you hear it said that something strange has befallen me. Then, erase the proper names from the manuscript that I am sending you, and make eight copies of it which you will send to the newspapers of Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyons, Brussels, etc.; ten days later, have the manuscript printed, send the first copy to M. le Marquis de La Mole, and a fortnight after that, scatter the other copies by night about the streets of Verrieres.’

This brief exonerating memoir, arranged in the form of a tale, which Fouque was to open only in case of accident, Julien made as little compromising as possible to Mademoiselle de La Mole, but, nevertheless, it described his position very accurately.

He had just sealed his packet when the dinner-bell rang; it made his heart beat violently. His imagination, preoccupied with the narrative which he had just composed, was a prey to all sorts of tragic presentiment. He had seen himself seized by servants, garrotted, carried down to a cellar with a gag in his mouth. There, one of them kept a close watch over him, and if the honour of the noble family required that the adventure should have a tragic ending, it was easy to end everything with one of those poisons which leave no trace; then, they would say that he had died a natural death, and would take his dead body back to his room.

Carried away by his own story like a dramatic author, Julien was really afraid when he entered the dining-room. He looked at all the servants in full livery. He studied their expressions. ‘Which of them have been chosen for tonight’s expedition?’ he asked himself. ‘In this family, the memories of the Court of Henri in are so present, so often recalled, that, when they think themselves outraged, they will show more decision than other people of their rank.’ He looked at Mademoiselle de La Mole in order to read in her eyes what were the plans of her family; she was pale, and had quite a mediaeval appearance. Never had he found such an air of grandeur in her, she was truly beautiful and imposing. He almost fell in love with her. ‘Pallida morte futura,’ he told himself, ‘her pallor betokens that something serious is afoot.’

In vain, after dinner, did he prolong his stroll in the garden, Mademoiselle de La Mole did not come out. Conversation with her would, at that moment, have relieved his heart of a great burden.

Why not confess it? He was afraid. As he was determined to act, he abandoned himself to this sentiment without shame. ‘Provided that at the moment of action, I find the courage that I require,’ he said to himself, ‘what does it matter how I may be feeling now?’ He went to reconnoitre the position and to try the weight of the ladder.

‘It is an instrument,’ he said to himself, with a laugh, ‘which it is written in my destiny that I am to use! Here as at Verrieres. What a difference! Then,’ he continued with a sigh, ‘I was not obliged to be suspicious of the person for whose sake I was exposing myself. What a difference, too, in the danger!

‘I might have been killed in M. de Renal’s gardens without any harm to my reputation. It would have been easy to make my death unaccountable. Here, what abominable tales will they not bandy about in the drawing-rooms of the Hotel de Chaulnes, the Hotel de Caylus, the Hotel de Retz, and in short everywhere? I shall be handed down to posterity as a monster.

‘For two or three years,’ he added, laughing at himself. But the thought of this overwhelmed him. ‘And I, who is going to justify me? Supposing that Fouque prints my posthumous pamphlet, it will be only an infamy the more. What! I am received in a house, and in payment for the hospitality I receive there, the kindness that is showered upon me, I print a pamphlet reporting all that goes on in the house! I attack the honour of its women! Ah, a thousand times rather, let us be trapped!’

It was a terrible evening.

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