The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 19

The Opera–Bouffe

O how this spring of love resembleth The uncertain glory of an April day; Which now shows all the beauty of the sun, And by and by a cloud takes all away!

SHAKESPEARE

Occupied with thoughts of the future and of the singular part which she hoped to play, Mathilde soon came to look back with regret upon the dry, metaphysical discussions which she often had with Julien. Wearied with keeping her thoughts on so high a plane, sometimes also she would sigh for the moments of happiness which she had found in his company; these memories were not untouched by remorse, which at certain moments overwhelmed her.

‘But if one has a weakness,’ she said to herself, ‘it is incumbent upon a girl like myself to forget her duties only for a man of merit; people will not be able to say that it was his handsome moustaches or his elegant seat on a horse that seduced me, but his profound discussions of the future in store for France, his ideas as to the resemblance the events that are going to burst upon us may bear to the Revolution of 1688 in England. I have been seduced,’ she answered the voice of remorse, ‘I am a weak woman, but at least I have not been led astray like a puppet by outward advantages.

‘If there be a Revolution, why should not Julien Sorel play the part of Roland, and I that of Madame Roland? I prefer that to the part of Madame de Stael: immoral conduct will be an obstacle in our time. Certainly they shall not reproach me with a second lapse; I should die of shame.’

Mathilde’s meditations were not all as grave, it must be admitted, as the thoughts we have just transcribed.

She would look at Julien, and found a charming grace in his most trivial actions.

‘No doubt,’ she said to herself, ‘I have succeeded in destroying every idea in his mind that he has certain rights.

‘The air of misery and profound passion with which the poor boy addressed those words of love to me a week ago, is proof positive; I must confess that it was extraordinary in me to be vexed by a speech so fervent with respect and passion. Am I not his wife? That speech was only natural, and, I am bound to say, quite agreeable. Julien still loved me after endless conversations, in which I had spoken to him, and with great cruelty, I admit, only of the feelings of love which the boredom of the life I lead had inspired in me for the young men in society of whom he is so jealous. Ah, if he knew how little danger there is in them for me! How lifeless they seem to me when compared with him, all copies of each other.’

As she made these reflections, Mathilde was tracing lines with a pencil at random on a page of her album. One of the profiles as she finished it startled and delighted her: it bore a striking resemblance to Julien. ‘It is the voice of heaven! This is one of the miracles of love,’ she cried in a transport, ‘quite unconsciously I have drawn his portrait.’

She fled to her room, locked herself in, set to work, tried seriously to make a portrait of Julien, but could not succeed; the profile drawn at random was still the best likeness. Mathilde was enchanted; she saw in it a clear proof of her grand passion.

She did not lay aside her album until late in the evening, when the Marquise sent for her to go to the Italian opera. She had only one idea, to catch Julien’s eye, so as to make her mother invite him to join them.

He did not appear; the ladies had only the most commonplace people in their box. During the whole of the first act of the opera, Mathilde sat dreaming of the man whom she loved with transports of the most intense passion; but in the second act a maxim of love sung, it must be admitted, to a melody worthy of Cimarosa, penetrated her heart. The heroine of the opera said: ‘I must be punished for all the adoration that I feel for him, I love him too well!’

The moment she had heard this sublime cantilena, everything that existed in the world vanished from Mathilde’s ken. People spoke to her; she did not answer; her mother scolded her, it was all she could do to look at her. Her ecstasy reached a state of exaltation and passion comparable to the most violent emotions that, during the last few days, Julien had felt for her. The cantilena, divinely graceful, to which was sung the maxim that seemed to her to bear so striking an application to her own situation, occupied every moment in which she was not thinking directly of Julien. Thanks to her love of music, she became that evening as Madame de Renal invariably was when thinking of him. Love born in the brain is more spirited, doubtless, than true love, but it has only flashes of enthusiasm; it knows itself too well, it criticises itself incessantly; so far from banishing thought, it is itself reared only upon a structure of thought.

On her return home, in spite of anything that Madame de La Mole might say, Mathilde alleged an attack of fever, and spent part of the night playing over the cantilena on her piano. She sang the words of the famous aria which had charmed her:

Devo punirmi, devo punirmi, Se troppo amai.

The result of this night of madness was that she imagined herself to have succeeded in conquering her love. (This page will damage the unfortunate author in more ways than one. The frigid hearts will accuse it of indecency. It does not offer the insult to the young persons who shine in the drawing-rooms of Paris, of supposing that a single one of their number is susceptible to the mad impulses which degrade the character of Mathilde. This character is wholly imaginary, and is indeed imagined quite apart from the social customs which among all the ages will assure so distinguished a place to the civilisation of the nineteenth century.

It is certainly not prudence that is lacking in the young ladies who have been the ornament of the balls this winter.

Nor do I think that one can accuse them of unduly despising a brilliant fortune, horses, fine properties, and everything that ensures an agreeable position in society. So far from their seeing nothing but boredom in all these advantages, they are as a rule the object of their most constant desires, and if there is any passion in their hearts it is for them.

Neither is it love that provides for the welfare of young men endowed with a certain amount of talent like Julien; they attach themselves inseparably to a certain set, and when the set ‘arrives’, all the good things of society rain upon them. Woe to the student who belongs to no set, even his minute and far from certain successes will be made a reproach to him, and the higher virtue will triumph over him as it robs him. Ah, Sir, a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shows the mire, and you blame the mirror! Rather blame that high road upon which the puddle lies, still more the inspector of roads who allows the water to gather and the puddle to form.

Now that it is quite understood that the character of Mathilde is impossible in our age, no less prudent than virtuous, I am less afraid of causing annoyance by continuing the account of the follies of this charming girl.)

Throughout the whole of the day that followed she looked out for opportunities to assure herself that she had indeed conquered her insane passion. Her main object was to displease Julien in every way; but none of her movements passed unperceived by him.

Julien was too wretched and above all, too greatly agitated, to interpret so complicated a stratagem of passion, still less could he discern all the promise that it held out to himself: he fell a victim to it; never perhaps had his misery been so intense. His actions were so little under the control of his mind that if some morose philosopher had said to him: ‘Seek to take advantage rapidly of a disposition which for the moment is favourable to you; in this sort of brain-fed love, which we see in Paris, the same state of mind cannot continue for more than a couple of days,’ he would not have understood. But, excited as he might be, Julien had a sense of honour. His first duty was discretion; so much he did understand. To ask for advice, to relate his agony to the first comer would have been a happiness comparable to that of the wretch who, crossing a burning desert, receives from the sky a drop of ice-cold water. He was aware of the danger, he was afraid of answering with a torrent of tears the indiscreet person who should question him; he closeted himself in his room.

He saw Mathilde strolling late and long in the garden; when at length she had left it, he went down there; he made his way to a rose tree from which she had plucked a rose.

The night was dark, he could indulge the full extent of his misery without fear of being seen. It was evident to him that Mademoiselle de La Mole was in love with one of those young officers to whom she had been chattering so gaily. He himself had been loved by her, but she had seen how slight were his merits.

‘And indeed, they are slight!’ Julien told himself with entire conviction; ‘I am, when all is said, a very dull creature, very common, very tedious to others, quite insupportable to myself.’ He was sick to death of all his own good qualities, of all the things that he had loved with enthusiasm; and in this state of inverted imagination he set to work to criticise life with his imagination. This is an error that stamps a superior person.

More than once the idea of suicide occurred to him; this image was full of charm, it was like a delicious rest; it was the glass of ice-cold water offered to the wretch who, in the desert, is dying of thirst and heat.

‘My death will increase the scorn that she feels for me!’ he exclaimed. ‘What a memory I shall leave behind me!’

Sunk into the nethermost abyss of misery, a human being has no resource left but courage. Julien had not wisdom enough to say to himself: ‘I must venture all’; but as he looked up at the window of Mathilde’s room, he could see through the shutters that she was putting out her light: he pictured to himself that charming room which he had seen, alas, once only in his life. His imagination went no farther.

One o’clock struck; from hearing the note of the bell to saying to himself: ‘I am going up by the ladder,’ did not take a moment.

This was a flash of genius, cogent reasons followed in abundance. ‘Can I possibly be more wretched?’ he asked himself. He ran to the ladder, the gardener had made it fast with a chain. With the hammer of one of his pocket pistols, which he broke, Julien, animated for the moment by a superhuman force, wrenched open one of the iron links of the chain which bound the ladder; in a few minutes it was free, and he had placed it against Mathilde’s window.

‘She will be angry, will heap contempt upon me, what of that? I give her a kiss, a final kiss, I go up to my room and kill myself . . .; my lips will have touched her cheek before I die!’

He flew up the ladder, tapped at the shutter; a moment later Mathilde heard him, she tried to open the shutter, the ladder kept it closed. Julien clung to the iron latch intended to hold the shutter open, and, risking a thousand falls, gave the ladder a violent shake, and displaced it a little. Mathilde was able to open the shutter.

He flung himself into the room more dead than alive: ‘So it is you!’ she said, and fell into his arms . . .

* * *

What words can describe the intensity of Julien’s happiness? Mathilde’s was almost as great.

She spoke to him against herself, she accused herself to him.

‘Punish me for my atrocious pride,’ she said to him, squeezing him in her arms as though to strangle him; ‘you are my master, I am your slave, I must beg pardon upon my knees for having sought to rebel.’ She slipped from his embrace to fall at his feet. ‘Yes, you are my master,’ she said again, intoxicated with love and joy; ‘reign over me for ever, punish your slave severely when she seeks to rebel.’

In another moment she had torn herself from his arms, lighted the candle, and Julien had all the difficulty in the world in preventing her from cutting off all one side of her hair.

‘I wish to remind myself,’ she told him, ‘that I am your servant: should my accursed pride ever make me forget it, show me these locks and say: “There is no question now of love, we are not concerned with the emotion that your heart may be feeling at this moment, you have sworn to obey, obey upon your honour.”’

But it is wiser to suppress the description of so wild a felicity.

Julien’s chivalry was as great as his happiness; ‘I must go down now by the ladder,’ he said to Mathilde, when he saw the dawn appear over the distant chimneys to the east, beyond the gardens. The sacrifice that I am imposing on myself is worthy of you, I am depriving myself of some hours of the most astounding happiness that a human soul can enjoy, it is a sacrifice that I am offering to your reputation: if you know my heart you appreciate the effort that I have to make. Will you always be to me what you are at this moment? But the voice of honour speaks, it is enough. Let me tell you that, since our first meeting, suspicion has not been directed only against robbers. M. de La Mole has set a watch in the garden. M. de Croisenois is surrounded by spies, we know what he is, doing night by night . . . ’

When she heard this idea, Mathilde burst out laughing. Her mother and one of the maids were aroused: immediately they called to her through the door. Julien looked at her, she turned pale as she scolded the maid, and did not condescend to speak to her mother.

‘But if it should occur to them to open the window, they will see the ladder!’ Julien said to her.

He clasped her once more in his arms, sprang on to the ladder and slid rather than climbed down it; in a moment he was on the ground.

Three seconds later the ladder was under the lime alley, and Mathilde’s honour was saved. Julien, on recovering his senses, found himself bleeding copiously and half naked: he had cut himself in his headlong descent.

The intensity of his happiness had restored all the energy of his nature: had a score of men appeared before him, to attack them single-handed would, at that moment, have been but a pleasure the more. Fortunately, his martial valour was not put to the proof: he laid down the ladder in its accustomed place; he replaced the chain that fastened it; he did not forget to come back and obliterate the print which the ladder had left in the border of exotic flowers beneath Mathilde’s window.

As in the darkness he explored the loose earth with his hand, to make sure that the mark was entirely obliterated, he felt something drop on his hand; it was a whole side of Mathilde’s hair which she had clipped and threw down to him.

She was at her window.

‘See what your servant sends you,’ she said in audible tones, ‘it is the sign of eternal obedience. I renounce the exercise of my own reason; be my master.’

Julien, overcome, was on the point of fetching back the ladder and mounting again to her room. Finally reason prevailed.

To enter the house from the garden was by no means easy. He succeeded in forcing the door of a cellar; once in the house he was obliged to break open, as silently as possible, the door of his own room. In his confusion he had left everything behind, including the key, which was in the pocket of his coat. ‘Let us hope,’ he thought, ‘that she will remember to hide all that corpus delicti!’

Finally exhaustion overpowered happiness, and, as the sun rose, he fell into a profound slumber.

The luncheon bell just succeeded in waking him, he made his appearance in the dining-room. Shortly afterwards, Mathilde entered the room. Julien’s pride tasted a momentary joy when he saw the love that glowed in the eyes of this beautiful creature, surrounded by every mark of deference; but soon his prudence found an occasion for alarm.

On the pretext of not having had time to dress her hair properly, Mathilde had so arranged it that Julien could see at a glance the whole extent of the sacrifice that she had made for him in clipping her locks that night. If anything could have spoiled so lovely a head, Mathilde would have succeeded in spoiling hers; all one side of those beautiful pale golden locks were cropped to within half an inch of her scalp.

At luncheon, Mathilde’s whole behaviour was in keeping with this original imprudence. You would have said that she was deliberately trying to let everyone see the insane passion that she had for Julien. Fortunately, that day, M. de La Mole and the Marquise were greatly taken up with a list of forthcoming promotions to the Blue Riband, in which the name of M. de Chaulnes had not been included. Towards the end of the meal, Mathilde in talking to Julien addressed him as ‘my master’. He coloured to the whites of his eyes.

Whether by accident or by the express design of Madame de La Mole, Mathilde was not left alone for an instant that day. In the evening, however, as she passed from the dining-room to the drawing-room, she found an opportunity of saying to Julien:

‘I hope you do not think that it is my idea: Mamma has just decided that one of her maids is to sleep in my room.’

The day passed like lightning; Julien was on the highest pinnacle of happiness. By seven o’clock next morning he was installed in the library; he hoped that Mademoiselle de La Mole would deign to appear there; he had written her an endless letter.

He did not see her until several hours had passed, at luncheon. Her head was dressed on this occasion with the greatest pains; a marvellous art had been employed to conceal the gap left by the clipped locks. She looked once or twice at Julien, but with polite, calm eyes; there was no longer any question of her calling him ‘my master’.

Julien could not breathe for astonishment . . . Mathilde found fault with herself for almost everything that she had done for him.

On mature reflection, she had decided that he was a creature, if not altogether common, at any rate not sufficiently conspicuous to deserve all the strange follies which she had ventured to commit for him. On the whole, she no longer thought of love; she was tired of love that day.

As for Julien, the emotions of his heart were those of a boy of sixteen. Harrowing doubt, bewilderment, despair, seized upon him by turns during this luncheon, which seemed to him to be everlasting.

As soon as he could decently rise from table, he flew rather than ran to the stable, saddled his horse himself and was off at a gallop; he was afraid of disgracing himself by some sign of weakness. ‘I must kill my heart by physical exhaustion,’ he said to himself as he galloped through the woods of Meudon. ‘What have I done, what have I said to deserve such disgrace?

‘I must do nothing, say nothing today,’ he decided as he returned to the house, ‘be dead in body as I am in spirit. Julien no longer lives, it is his corpse that is still stirring.’

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