The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 20

The Japanese Vase

His heart does not at first realise the whole extent of his misery: he is more disturbed than moved. But in proportion as his reason returns, he feels the depth of his misfortune. All the pleasures in life are as nothing to him, he can feel only the sharp points of the despair that is rending him. But what is the good of speaking of physical pain? What pain felt by the body alone is comparable to this?

JEAN-PAUL

The dinner bell rang, Julien had barely time to dress; he found Mathilde in the drawing-room urging her brother and M. de Croisenois not to go and spend the evening with Madame la Marechale de Fervaques.

She could hardly have been more seductive and charming with them. After dinner they were joined by M. de Luz, M. de Caylus and several of their friends. One would have said that Mademoiselle de La Mole had resumed, together with the observance of sisterly affection, that of the strictest conventions. Although the weather that evening was charming, she insisted that they should not go out to the garden; she was determined not to be lured away from the armchair in which Madame de La Mole was enthroned. The blue sofa was the centre of the group, as in winter.

Mathilde was out of humour with the garden, or at least it seemed to her to be utterly boring: it was associated with the memory of Julien.

Misery destroys judgment. Our hero made the blunder of clinging to that little cane chair which in the past had witnessed such brilliant triumphs. This evening, nobody spoke to him; his presence passed as though unperceived or worse. Those of Mademoiselle de La Mole’s friends who were seated near him at the end of the sofa made an affectation of turning their backs on him, or so he thought.

‘It is a courtier’s disgrace,’ he concluded. He decided to study for a moment the people who were trying to crush him with their disdain.

M. de Luz’s uncle held an important post in the King’s Household, the consequence of which was that this gallant officer opened his conversation with each fresh arrival with the following interesting detail: His uncle had set off at seven o’clock for Saint–Cloud, and expected to spend the night there. This piece of news was introduced in the most casual manner, but it never failed to come out.

Upon observing M. de Croisenois with the severe eye of misery, Julien remarked the enormous influence which this worthy and amiable young man attributed to occult causes. So much so that he became moody and cross if he heard an event of any importance set down to a simple and quite natural cause. ‘There is a trace of madness there,’ Julien told himself. ‘This character bears a striking resemblance to that of the Emperor Alexander, as Prince Korasoff described him to me.’ During the first year of his stay in Paris, poor Julien, coming fresh from the Seminary, dazzled by the graces, so novel to him, of all these agreeable young men, could do nothing but admire them. Their true character was only now beginning to outline itself before his eyes.

‘I am playing an undignified part here,’ he suddenly decided. The next thing was how to leave his little cane chair in a fashion that should not be too awkward. He tried to think of one, he called for something original upon an imagination that was fully occupied elsewhere. He was obliged to draw upon his memory, which, it must be confessed, was by no means rich in resources of this order; the boy was still a thorough novice, so that his awkwardness was complete and attracted everyone’s attention when he rose to leave the drawing-room. Misery was all too evident in his whole deportment. He had been playing the part for three quarters of an hour of a troublesome inferior from whom people do not take the trouble to conceal what they think of him.

The critical observations which he had been making at the expense of his rivals prevented him, however, from taking his misfortune too seriously; he retained, to give support to his pride, the memory of what had occurred the night before last. ‘Whatever the advantages they may have over me,’ he thought as he went into the garden by himself, ‘Mathilde has not been to any of them what, on two occasions in my life, she has deigned to be to me.’

His sagacity went no farther. He failed entirely to understand the character of the singular person whom chance had now made absolute mistress of his whole happiness.

He devoted the next day to killing himself and his horse with exhaustion. He made no further attempt, that evening, to approach the blue sofa to which Mathilde was faithful. He remarked that Comte Norbert did not so much as deign to look at him when they met in the house. ‘He must be making an extraordinary effort,’ he thought, ‘he who is naturally so polite.’

For Julien, sleep would have meant happiness. Despite his bodily exhaustion, memories of a too seductive kind began to invade his whole imagination. He had not the intelligence to see that by his long rides through the forests round Paris, acting only upon himself and in no way upon the heart or mind of Mathilde, he was leaving the arrangement of his destiny to chance.

It seemed to him that one thing would supply boundless comfort to his grief: namely to speak to Mathilde. And yet what could he venture to say to her?

This was the question upon which one morning at seven o’clock he was pondering deeply, when suddenly he saw her enter the library.

‘I know, Sir, that you desire to speak to me.’

‘Great God! Who told you that?’

‘I know it, what more do you want? If you are lacking in honour, you may ruin me, or at least attempt to do so; but this danger, which I do not regard as real, will certainly not prevent me from being sincere. I no longer love you, Sir; my wild imagination misled me . . . ’

On receiving this terrible blow, desperate with love and misery, Julien tried to excuse himself. Nothing could be more absurd. Does one excuse oneself for failing to please? But reason no longer held any sway over his actions. A blind instinct urged him to postpone the decision of his fate. It seemed to him that so long as he was still speaking, nothing was definitely settled. Mathilde did not listen to his words, the sound of them irritated her, she could not conceive how he had the audacity to interrupt her.

The twofold remorse of her virtue and her pride made her, that morning, equally unhappy. She was more or less crushed by the frightful idea of having given certain rights over herself to a little cleric, the son of a peasant. ‘It is almost,’ she told herself in moments when she exaggerated her distress, ‘as though I had to reproach myself with a weakness for one of the footmen.’

In bold and proud natures, it is only a step from anger with oneself to fury with other people; one’s transports of rage are in such circumstances a source of keen pleasure.

In a moment, Mademoiselle de La Mole reached the stage of heaping on Julien the marks of the most intense scorn. She had infinite cleverness, and this cleverness triumphed in the art of torturing the self-esteem of others and inflicting cruel wounds upon them.

For the first time in his life, Julien found himself subjected to the action of a superior intelligence animated by the most violent hatred of himself. So far from entertaining the slightest idea of defending himself at that moment, he began to despise himself. Hearing her heap upon him such cruel marks of scorn, so cleverly calculated to destroy any good opinion that he might have of himself, he felt that Mathilde was right, and that she was not saying enough.

As for her, her pride found an exquisite pleasure in thus punishing herself and him for the adoration which she had felt a few days earlier.

She had no need to invent or to think for the first time of the cruel words which she now uttered with such complacence. She was only repeating what for the last week had been said in her heart by the counsel of the opposite party to love.

Every word increased Julien’s fearful misery an hundredfold. He tried to escape, Mademoiselle de La Mole held him by the arm with a gesture of authority.

‘Please to observe,’ he said to her, ‘that you are speaking extremely loud; they will hear you in the next room.’

‘What of that!’ Mademoiselle de La Mole retorted proudly, ‘who will dare to say to me that he has heard me? I wish to rid your petty self-esteem for ever of the ideas which it may have formed of me.’

When Julien was able to leave the library, he was so astounded that he already felt his misery less keenly. ‘Well! She no longer loves me,’ he repeated to himself, speaking aloud as though to inform himself of his position. ‘It appears that she loved me for a week or ten days, and I shall love her all my life.

‘Is it really possible, she meant nothing, nothing at all to my heart, only a few days ago.’

The delights of satisfied pride flooded Mathilde’s bosom; so she had managed to break with him for ever! The thought of so complete a triumph over so strong an inclination made her perfectly happy. ‘And so this little gentleman will understand, and once for all, that he has not and never will have any power over me.’ She was so happy that really she had ceased to feel any love at that moment.

After so atrocious, so humiliating a scene, in anyone less passionate than Julien, love would have become impossible. Without departing for a single instant from what she owed to herself, Mademoiselle de La Mole had addressed to him certain of those disagreeable statements, so well calculated that they can appear to be true, even when one remembers them in cold blood.

The conclusion that Julien drew at the first moment from so astonishing a scene was that Mathilde had an unbounded pride. He believed firmly that everything was at an end for ever between them, and yet, the following day, at luncheon, he was awkward and timid in her presence. This was a fault that could not have been found with him until then. In small matters as in great, he knew clearly what he ought and wished to do, and carried it out.

That day, after luncheon, when Madame de La Mole asked him for a seditious and at the same time quite rare pamphlet, which her parish priest had brought to her secretly that morning, Julien, in taking it from a side table, knocked over an old vase of blue porcelain, the ugliest thing imaginable.

Madame de La Mole rose to her feet with a cry of distress and came across the room to examine the fragments of her beloved vase. ‘It was old Japan,’ she said, ‘it came to me from my great-aunt the Abbess of Chelles; it was a present from the Dutch to the Duke of Orleans when he was Regent and he gave it to his daughter . . . ’

Mathilde had followed her mother, delighted to see the destruction of this blue vase which seemed to her horribly ugly. Julien stood silent and not unduly distressed; he saw Mademoiselle de La Mole standing close beside him.

‘This vase,’ he said to her, ‘is destroyed for ever; so is it with a sentiment which was once the master of my heart; I beg you to accept my apologies for all the foolish things it has made me do’; and he left the room.

‘Really, one would think,’ said Madame de La Mole as he went, ‘that this M. Sorel is proud and delighted with what he has done.’

This speech fell like a weight upon Mathilde’s heart. ‘It is true,’ she told herself, ‘my mother has guessed aright, such is the sentiment that is animating him.’ Then and then only ended her joy in the scene that she had made with him the day before. ‘Ah, well, all is at an end,’ she said to herself with apparent calm; ‘I am left with a great example; my mistake has been fearful, degrading! It will make me wise for all the rest of my life.’

‘Was I not speaking the truth?’ thought Julien; ‘why does the love that I felt for that madwoman torment me still?’

This love, so far from dying, as he hoped, was making rapid strides. ‘She is mad, it is true,’ he said to himself, ‘but is she any less adorable? Is it possible for a girl to be more lovely? Everything that the most elegant civilisation can offer in the way of keen pleasures, was it not all combined to one’s heart’s content in Mademoiselle de La Mole?’ These memories of past happiness took possession of Julien, and rapidly undid all the work of reason.

Reason struggles in vain against memories of this sort; its stern endeavours serve only to enhance their charm.

Twenty-four hours after the breaking of the old Japanese vase, Julien was decidedly one of the unhappiest of men.

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