The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 16

One o’Clock in the Morning

The garden was extremely large, laid out with perfect taste just a few years previously. But the trees were over a century old. The place had something rustic about it.

MASSINGER†

† I have left this motto untranslated, as the attribution to Massinger seems to be entirely fantastic. C. K. S. M.]

He was on the point of countermanding his instructions to Fouque when the clock struck eleven. He came out of his bedroom and shut the door behind him, turning the key noisily in the lock, as though he were locking himself in. He prowled round the house to see what was afoot everywhere, especially on the fourth floor, where the servants slept. There was nothing unusual. One of Madame de La Mole’s maids was giving a party, the servants were merrily imbibing punch. ‘The men who are laughing like that,’ thought Julien, ‘cannot have been detailed for the midnight encounter, they would be more serious.’

Finally he took his stand in a dark corner of the garden. ‘If their plan is to avoid the notice of the servants of the house, they will make the men they have hired to seize me come in over the garden wall.

‘If M. de Croisenois is taking all this calmly, he must feel that it will be less compromising for the young person whom he intends to marry to have me seized before the moment when I shall have entered her room.’

He made an extremely careful military reconnaissance. ‘My honour is at stake,’ he thought; ‘if I make some blunder, it will be no excuse in my own eyes to say to myself: “I never thought of that.”’

The sky was maddeningly clear. About eleven o’clock the moon rose, at half-past twelve it lighted the whole garden front of the house.

‘She is mad,’ Julien said to himself; when one o’clock struck, there was still a light in Comte Norbert’s windows. Never in his life had Julien been so much afraid, he saw only the dangers of the enterprise, and felt not the least enthusiasm.

He went to fetch the huge ladder, waited five minutes, to allow time for a countermand, and at five minutes past one placed the ladder against Mathilde’s window. He climbed quietly, pistol in hand, astonished not to find himself attacked. As he reached the window, she opened it silently:

‘Here you are, Sir,’ Mathilde said to him with deep emotion; ‘I have been following your movements for the last hour.’

Julien was greatly embarrassed, he did not know how to behave, he did not feel the least vestige of love. In his embarrassment, he decided that he must show courage, he attempted to embrace Mathilde.

‘Fie, Sir!’ she said, and thrust him from her.

Greatly relieved at this repulse, he hastened to cast an eye round the room: the moonlight was so brilliant that the shadows which it formed in Mademoiselle de La Mole’s room were black. ‘There may easily be men concealed there without my seeing them,’ he thought.

‘What have you in the side pocket of your coat?’ Mathilde asked him, delighted at finding a topic of conversation. She was strangely ill at ease; all the feelings of reserve and timidity, so natural to a young girl of good family, had resumed their sway and were keeping her on tenter-hooks.

‘I have all sorts of weapons and pistols,’ replied Julien, no less pleased at having something to say.

‘You must pull up the ladder,’ said Mathilde.

‘It is huge, and may break the windows of the room below, or of the mezzanine.’

‘It must not break the windows,’ Mathilde went on, trying in vain to adopt the tone of ordinary conversation; ‘you might, it seems to me, let the ladder down by means of a cord tied to the top rung. I always keep a supply of cords by me.’

‘And this is a woman in love!’ thought Julien, ‘she dares to say that she loves! Such coolness, such sagacity in her precautions make it plain to me that I am not triumphing over M. de Croisenois, as I foolishly imagined; but am simply becoming his successor. After all, what does it matter? I am not in love! I triumph over the Marquis in this sense, that he will be greatly annoyed at having a successor, and still more annoyed that his successor should be myself. How arrogantly he stared at me last night in the Cafe Tortoni, pretending not to know me! How savagely he bowed to me afterwards, when he could no longer avoid it!’

Julien had fastened the cord to the highest rung of the ladder, he now let it down gently, leaning far out over the balcony so as to see that it did not touch the windows. ‘A fine moment for killing me,’ he thought, ‘if there is anyone hidden in Mathilde’s room’; but a profound silence continued to reign everywhere.

The head of the ladder touched the ground. Julien succeeded in concealing it in the bed of exotic flowers that ran beneath the wall.

‘What will my mother say,’ said Mathilde, ‘when she sees her beautiful plants all ruined! You must throw down the cord,’ she went on, with perfect calm. ‘If it were seen running up to the balcony, it would be difficult to explain its presence.’

‘And how me gwine get way?’ asked Julien, in a playful tone, imitating Creole speech. (One of the maids in the house was a native of San Domingo.)

‘You get way by the door,’ said Mathilde, delighted at this solution.

‘Ah! How worthy this man is of all my love,’ she thought.

Julien had just let the cord drop into the garden; Mathilde gripped him by the arm. He thought he was being seized by an enemy, and turned sharply round drawing a dagger. She thought she had heard a window being opened. They stood motionless, without breathing. The moon shone full upon them. As the sound was not repeated, there was no further cause for alarm.

Then their embarrassment began again, and was great on both sides. Julien made sure that the door was fastened with all its bolts; he even thought of looking under the bed, but dared not; they might have hidden a footman or two there. Finally, the fear of a subsequent reproach from his prudence made him look.

Mathilde had succumbed to all the agonies of extreme shyness. She felt a horror of her position.

‘What have you done with my letters?’ she said, at length.

‘What a fine opportunity to discomfit these gentlemen, if they are listening, and so avoid the conflict!’ thought Julien.

‘The first is hidden in a stout Protestant Bible which last night’s mail has carried far from here.’

He spoke very distinctly as he entered into these details, and in such a way as to be overheard by anyone who might be concealed in two great mahogany wardrobes which he had not dared to examine.

‘The other two are in the post, and are going the same way as the first.’

‘Good Lord! But why all these precautions?’ said Mathilde, with astonishment.

‘Is there any reason why I should lie to her?’ thought Julien; and he confessed to her all his suspicions.

‘So that accounts for the coldness of thy letters!’ cried Mathilde, in accents rather of frenzy than of affection.

Julien did not observe her change of tone. This use of the singular pronoun made him lose his head, or at least his suspicions vanished; he ventured to clasp in his arms this girl who was so beautiful and inspired such respect in him. He was only half repulsed.

He had recourse to his memory, as once before, long ago, at Besancon with Amanda Binet, and repeated several of the finest passages from the Nouvelle Heloise.

‘Thou hast a man’s heart,’ she replied, without paying much attention to what he was saying; ‘I wished to test thy bravery, I admit. Thy first suspicions and thy determination to come shew thee to be even more intrepid than I supposed.’

Mathilde made an effort to use the more intimate form; she was evidently more attentive to this unusual way of speaking than to what she was saying. This use of the tu form, stripped of the tone of affection, ceased, after a moment, to afford Julien any pleasure, he was astonished at the absence of happiness; finally, in order to feel it, he had recourse to his reason. He saw himself highly esteemed by this girl who was so proud, and never bestowed unrestricted praise; by this line of reasoning he arrived at a gratification of his self-esteem.

This was not, it is true, that spiritual ecstasy which he had found at times in the company of Madame de Renal. There was nothing tender in his sentiments at this first moment. What he felt was the keenest gratification of his ambition, and Julien was above all things ambitious. He spoke again of the people he suspected and of the precautions he had contrived. As he spoke he was thinking of how best to profit by his victory.

Mathilde, who was still greatly embarrassed and had the air of one appalled by what she had done, seemed enchanted at finding a topic of conversation. They discussed how they should meet again. Julien employed to the full the intelligence and daring of which he furnished fresh proofs in the course of this discussion. They had some extremely sharp-sighted people against them, young Tanbeau was certainly a spy, but Mathilde and he were not altogether incompetent either.

What could be easier than to meet in the library, and arrange everything?

‘I can appear, without arousing suspicion, in any part of the house, I could almost appear in Madame de La Mole’s bedroom.’ It was absolutely necessary to pass through this room to reach her daughter’s. If Mathilde preferred that he should always come by a ladder, it was with a heart wild with joy that he would expose himself to this slight risk.

As she listened to him speaking, Mathilde was shocked by his air of triumph. ‘He is my master, then!’ she told herself. Already she was devoured by remorse. Her reason felt a horror of the signal act of folly which she had just committed. Had it been possible, she would have destroyed herself and Julien. Whenever, for an instant, the strength of her will made her remorse silent, feelings of shyness and outraged modesty made her extremely wretched. She had never for a moment anticipated the dreadful plight in which she now found herself.

‘I must speak to him, though,’ she said to herself, finally, ‘that is laid down in the rules, one speaks to one’s lover.’ And then, as though performing a duty, and with a tenderness that was evident rather in the words that she used than in the sound of her voice, she told him of the various decisions to which she had come with regard to him during the last few days.

She had made up her mind that if he ventured to come to her with the aid of the gardener’s ladder, as she had bidden him, she would give herself to him. But never were things so tender said in a colder and more formal tone. So far, their intercourse was ice-bound. It was enough to make one hate the thought of love. What a moral lesson for a rash young woman! Is it worth her while to wreck her future for such a moment?

After prolonged uncertainties, which might have appeared to a superficial observer to be due to the most decided hatred, so hard was it for the feeling of self-respect which a woman owes to herself, to yield to so masterful a will, Mathilde finally became his mistress.

To tell the truth, their transports were somewhat deliberate. Passionate love was far more a model which they were imitating than a reality with them.

Mademoiselle de La Mole believed that she was performing a duty towards herself and towards her lover. ‘The poor boy,’ she told herself, ‘has been the last word in daring, he deserves to be made happy, or else I am wanting in character.’ But she would gladly have redeemed at the cost of an eternity of suffering the cruel necessity to which she found herself committed.

In spite of the violence she was doing to herself, she retained entire command of her speech.

No regret, no reproach came to mar this night which seemed odd rather than happy to Julien. What a difference, great God, from his last visit, of twenty-four hours, to Verrieres! ‘These fine Paris manners have found out the secret of spoiling everything, even love,’ he said to himself with an extreme disregard of justice.

He abandoned himself to these reflections, standing upright in one of the great mahogany wardrobes into which he had been thrust at the first sound heard from the next room, which was Madame de La Mole’s bedroom. Mathilde accompanied her mother to mass, the maids soon left the apartment, and Julien easily made his escape before they returned to complete their labours.

He mounted his horse and made at a leisurely pace for the most solitary recesses of one of the forests near Paris. He was still more surprised than happy. The happiness which, from time to time, came flooding into his heart, was akin to that of a young Second Lieutenant who, after some astounding action, has just been promoted Colonel by the Commander in Chief; he felt himself carried to an immense height. Everything that had been above him the day before was now on his level or far beneath him. Gradually Julien’s happiness increased as he put the miles behind him.

If there was nothing tender in his heart, it was because, strange as it may appear, Mathilde, throughout the whole of her conduct with him, had been performing a duty. There was nothing unforeseen for her in all the events of this night but the misery and shame which she had found in the place of that utter bliss of which we read in novels.

‘Can I have been mistaken? Am I not in love with him?’ she asked herself.

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