The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 17

An Old Sword

I now mean to be serious:— it is time,

Since laughter nowadays is deem’d too serious.

  A jest at Vice by Virtue’s call’d a crime.

Don Juan, XIII.

She did not appear at dinner. In the evening she came to the drawing-room for a moment, but did not look at Julien. This behaviour seemed to him strange; ‘but,’ he thought, ‘I do not know the ways of good society, she will give me some good reason for all this.’ At the same time, urged by the most intense curiosity, he studied the expression on Mathilde’s features; he could not conceal from himself that she had a sharp and malevolent air. Evidently this was not the same woman who, the night before, had felt or pretended to feel transports of joy too excessive to be genuine.

Next day, and the day after, the same coldness on her part; she never once looked at him, she seemed unaware of his existence. Julien, devoured by the keenest anxiety, was a thousand leagues from the feeling of triumph which alone had animated him on the first day. ‘Can it, by any chance,’ he asked himself, ‘be a return to the path of virtue?’ But that was a very middle-class expression to use of the proud Mathilde.

‘In the ordinary situations of life she has no belief in religion,’ thought Julien; ‘she values it as being very useful to the interests of her caste.

‘But out of simple delicacy may she not be bitterly reproaching herself with the mistake that she has made?’ Julien assumed that he was her first lover.

‘But,’ he said to himself at other moments, ‘one must admit that there is nothing artless, simple, tender, in her attitude; never have I seen her looking so haughty. Can she despise me? It would be like her to reproach herself with what she has done for me, solely on account of my humble birth.’

While Julien, steeped in the prejudices he had derived from books and from memories of Verrieres, was pursuing the chimera of a tender mistress who never gives a thought to her own existence the moment she has gratified the desires of her lover, Mathilde in her vanity was furious with him.

As she had ceased to be bored for the last two months, she was no longer afraid of boredom; so, albeit he could not for a moment suspect it, Julien was deprived of his strongest advantage.

‘I have given myself a master!’ Mademoiselle de La Mole was saying to herself, in the grip of the blackest despond. ‘He may be the soul of honour; but if I goad his vanity to extremes, he will have his revenge by making public the nature of our relations.’ Mathilde had never had a lover, and at this epoch in life, which gives certain tender illusions to even the most sterile hearts, she was a prey to the bitterest reflections.

‘He has an immense power over me, since he reigns by terror and can inflict a fearful punishment on me if I drive him to extremes.’ This idea, by itself, was enough to provoke Mathilde to insult him. Courage was the fundamental quality in her character. Nothing was capable of giving her any excitement and of curing her of an ever-present tendency to boredom, but the idea that she was playing heads or tails with her whole existence.

On the third day, as Mademoiselle de La Mole persisted in not looking at him, Julien followed her after dinner, to her evident annoyance, into the billiard room.

‘Well, Sir; you must imagine yourself to have acquired some very powerful hold over me,’ she said to him, with ill-controlled rage, ‘since in opposition to my clearly expressed wishes, you insist on speaking to me? Are you aware that nobody in the world has ever been so presumptuous?’

Nothing could be more entertaining than the dialogue between these two lovers; unconsciously they were animated by a mutual sentiment of the keenest hatred. As neither of them had a consistent nature, as moreover they were used to the ways of good society, it was not long before they both declared in plain terms that they had quarrelled for ever.

‘I swear to you eternal secrecy,’ said Julien; ‘I would even add that I will never address a word to you again, were it not that your reputation might be injured by too marked a change.’ He bowed respectfully and left her.

He performed without undue difficulty what he regarded as a duty; he was far from imagining himself to be deeply in love with Mademoiselle de La Mole. No doubt he had not been in love with her three days earlier, when he had been concealed in the great mahogany wardrobe. But everything changed rapidly in his heart from the moment when he saw himself parted from her for ever.

His pitiless memory set to work reminding him of the slightest incidents of that night which in reality had left him so cold.

During the very night after their vow of eternal separation, Julien nearly went mad when he found himself forced to admit that he was in love with Mademoiselle de La Mole.

A ghastly conflict followed this discovery: all his feelings were thrown into confusion.

Two days later, instead of being haughty with M. de Croisenois, he could almost have burst into tears and embraced him.

The force of continued unhappiness gave him a glimmer of common sense; he decided to set off for Languedoc, packed his trunk and went to the posting house.

He almost fainted when, on reaching the coach office, he was informed that, by mere chance, there was a place vacant next day in the Toulouse mail. He engaged it and returned to the Hotel de La Mole to warn the Marquis of his departure.

M. de La Mole had gone out. More dead than alive, Julien went to wait for him in the library. What were his feelings on finding Mademoiselle de La Mole there?

On seeing him appear, she assumed an air of malevolence which it was impossible for him to misinterpret,

Carried away by his misery, dazed by surprise, Julien was weak enough to say to her, in the tenderest of tones and one that sprang from the heart: ‘Then, you no longer love me?’

‘I am horrified at having given myself to the first comer,’ said Mathilde, weeping with rage at herself.

To the first comer!’ cried Julien, and he snatched up an old mediaeval sword which was kept in the library as a curiosity.

His grief, which he had believed to be intense at the moment of his speaking to Mademoiselle de La Mole, had now been increased an hundredfold by the tears of shame which he saw her shed. He would have been the happiest of men had it been possible to kill her.

Just as he had drawn the sword, with some difficulty, from its antiquated scabbard, Mathilde, delighted by so novel a sensation, advanced proudly towards him; her tears had ceased to flow.

The thought of the Marquis de La Mole, his benefactor, arose vividly in Julien’s mind. ‘I should be killing his daughter!’ he said to himself; ‘how horrible!’ He made as though to fling away the sword. ‘Certainly,’ he thought, ‘she will now burst out laughing at the sight of this melodramatic gesture’: thanks to this consideration, he entirely regained his self-possession. He examined the blade of the old sword with curiosity, and as though he were looking for a spot of rust, then replaced it in its scabbard, and with the utmost calm hung it up on the nail of gilded bronze from which he had taken it.

This series of actions, very deliberate towards the end, occupied fully a minute; Mademoiselle de La Mole gazed at him in astonishment. ‘So I have been within an inch of being killed by my lover!’ she said to herself.

This thought carried her back to the bravest days of the age of Charles IX and Henri III.

She stood motionless before Julien who had now replaced the sword, she gazed at him with eyes in which there was no more hatred. It must be admitted that she was very attractive at that moment, certainly no woman had ever borne less resemblance to a Parisian doll (this label expressed Julien’s chief objection to the women of that city).

‘I am going to fall back into a fondness for him,’ thought Mathilde; ‘and then at once he would suppose himself to be my lord and master, after a relapse, and at the very moment when I have just spoken to him so firmly.’ She fled.

‘My God! How beautiful she is!’ said Julien, as he watched her run from the room: ‘that is the creature who flung herself into my arms with such frenzy not a week ago . . . And those moments will never come again! And it is my fault! And, at the moment of so extraordinary an action, and one that concerned me so closely, I was not conscious of it! . . . I must admit that I was born with a very dull and unhappy nature.’

The Marquis appeared; Julien made haste to inform him of his departure.

‘For where?’ said M. de La Mole.

‘For Languedoc.’

‘No, if you please, you are reserved for a higher destiny; if you go anywhere, it will be to the North . . . Indeed, in military parlance, I confine you to your quarters. You will oblige me by never being absent for more than two or three hours, I may need you at any moment.’

Julien bowed, and withdrew without uttering a word, leaving the Marquis greatly astonished; he was incapable of speech, and shut himself up in his room. There, he was free to exaggerate all the iniquity of his lot.

‘And so,’ he thought, ‘I cannot even go away! God knows for how many days the Marquis is going to keep me in Paris; great God! What is to become of me? And not a friend that I can consult; the abbe Pirard would not let me finish my first sentence, Conte Altamira would offer to enlist me in some conspiracy.

‘And meanwhile I am mad, I feel it; I am mad!

‘Who can guide me, what is to become of me?’

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