The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 21

The Secret Note

For I saw everything that I am telling you; and if I may have been deceived when I saw it, I am most certainly not deceiving you in telling you of it.

From a Letter to the Author

The Marquis sent for him; M. de La Mole seemed rejuvenated, there was a gleam in his eye.

‘Let us hear a little about your memory,’ he said to Julien. ‘I am told it is prodigious! Could you learn four pages by heart and go and repeat them in London? But without altering a word!’

The Marquis was feverishly turning the pages of that morning’s Quotidienne, and seeking in vain to dissimulate a highly serious air, which Julien had never seen him display, not even when they were discussing the Frilair case.

Julien had by this time sufficient experience to feel that he ought to appear thoroughly deceived by the light manner that was being assumed for his benefit.

‘This number of the Quotidienne is perhaps not very amusing; but, if M. le Marquis will allow me, tomorrow morning I shall have the honour to recite it to him from beginning to end.’

‘What! Even the advertisements?’

‘Literally, and without missing a word.’

‘Do you give me your word for that?’ went on the Marquis with a sudden gravity.

‘Yes, Sir, only the fear of not keeping it might upset my memory.’

‘What I mean is that I forgot to ask you this question yesterday; I do not ask you on your oath never to repeat what you are about to hear; I know you too well to insult you in that way. I have answered for you, I am going to take you to a room where there will be twelve persons assembled; you will take note of what each of them says.

‘Do not be uneasy, it is not going to be a confused conversation, each one will speak in his turn, I do not mean a set speech,’ the Marquis went on, resuming the tone of careless superiority which came so naturally to him. ‘While we are talking, you will write down twenty pages or so; you will return here with me, we shall cut down those twenty pages to four. It is those four pages that you shall recite to me tomorrow morning instead of the whole number of the Quotidienne. You will then set off at once; you will have to take post like a young man who is travelling for his pleasure. Your object will be to pass unobserved by anyone. You will arrive in the presence of a great personage. There, you will require more skill. It will be a question of taking in everyone round him; for among his secretaries, among his servants, there are men in the pay of our enemies, who lie in wait for our agents to intercept them. You shall have a formal letter of introduction. When His Excellency looks at you, you will take out my watch here, which I am going to lend you for the journey. Take it now, while you are about it, and give me yours.

‘The Duke himself will condescend to copy out at your dictation the four pages which you will have learned by heart.

‘When this has been done, but not before, remember, you may, if His Excellency questions you, give him an account of the meeting which you are now about to attend.

‘One thing that will prevent you from feeling bored on your jorney is that between Paris and the residence of the Minister there are people who would ask for nothing better than to fire a shot at M. l’abbe Sorel. Then his mission is at an end and I foresee a long delay; for, my dear fellow, how shall we hear of your death? Your zeal cannot go so far as to inform us of it.

‘Run off at once and buy yourself a complete outfit,’ the Marquis went on with a serious air. ‘Dress in the style of the year before last. This evening you will have to look a little shabby. On the journey, however, you will dress as usual. Does that surprise you, does your suspicious mind guess the reason? Yes, my friend, one of the venerable personages whom you are about to hear discuss is fully capable of transmitting information by means of which someone may quite possibly administer opium to you, if nothing worse, in the evening, in some respectable inn at which you will have called for supper.’

‘It would be better,’ said Julien, ‘to travel thirty leagues farther and avoid the direct route. My destination is Rome, I suppose . . . ’

The Marquis assumed an air of haughty displeasure which Julien had not seen to so marked a degree since Bray-le-Haut.

‘That is what you shall learn, Sir, when I think fit to tell you. I do not like questions.’

‘It was not a question,’ replied Julien effusively: ‘I swear to you, Sir, I was thinking aloud, I was seeking in my own mind the safest route.’

‘Yes, it seems that your thoughts were far away. Never forget that an ambassador, one of your youth especially, ought not to appear to be forcing confidences.’

Julien was greatly mortified, he was in the wrong. His self-esteem sought for an excuse and could find none.

‘Understand then,’ M. de La Mole went on, ‘that people always appeal to their hearts when they have done something foolish.’

An hour later, Julien was in the Marquis’s waiting-room in the garb of an inferior, with old-fashioned clothes, a doubtfully clean neckcloth and something distinctly smug about his whole appearance.

At the sight of him, the Marquis burst out laughing, and then only was Julien’s apology accepted.

‘If this young man betrays me,’ M. de La Mole asked himself, ‘whom can I trust? And yet when it comes to action, one has to trust somebody. My son and his brilliant friends of the same kidney have honest hearts, and loyalty enough for a hundred thousand; if it were a question of fighting, they would perish on the steps of the throne, they know everything . . . except just what is required at the moment. Devil take me if I can think of one of them who could learn four pages by heart and travel a hundred leagues without being tracked. Norbert would know how to let himself be killed like his ancestors, but any conscript can do that . . . ’

The Marquis fell into a profound meditation: ‘And even being killed,’ he said with a sigh, ‘perhaps this Sorel would manage that as well as he . . .

‘The carriage is waiting,’ said the Marquis, as though to banish a vexatious thought.

‘Sir,’ said Julien, ‘while they were altering this coat for me, I committed to memory the first page of today’s Quotidienne.’

The Marquis took the paper, Julien repeated the page without a single mistake. ‘Good,’ said the Marquis, every inch the diplomat that evening; ‘meanwhile this young man is not observing the streets through which we are passing.’

They arrived in a large room of a distinctly gloomy aspect, partly panelled and partly hung in green velvet. In the middle of the room, a scowling footman had just set up a large dinner-table, which he proceeded to convert into a writing table, by means of an immense green cloth covered with ink stains, a relic of some Ministry.

The master of the house was a corpulent man whose name was never uttered; Julien decided that his expression and speech were those of a man engaged in digestion.

At a sign from the Marquis, Julien had remained at the lower end of the table. To avoid drawing attention to himself he began to point the quills. He counted out of the corner of his eye seven speakers, but he could see nothing more of them than their backs. Two of them appeared to him to be addressing M. de La Mole on terms of equality, the others seemed more or less deferential.

Another person entered the room unannounced. ‘This is strange,’ thought Julien, ‘no one is announced in this room. Can this precaution have been taken in my honour?’ Everyone rose to receive the newcomer. He was wearing the same extremely distinguished decoration as three of the men who were already in the room. They spoke in low tones. In judging the newcomer, Julien was restricted to what he could learn from his features and dress. He was short and stout, with a high complexion and a gleaming eye devoid of any expression beyond the savage glare of a wild boar.

Julien’s attention was sharply distracted by the almost immediate arrival of a wholly different person. This was a tall man, extremely thin and wearing three or four waistcoats. His eye was caressing, his gestures polished.

‘That is just the expression of the old Bishop of Besancon,’ thought Julien. This man evidently belonged to the Church, he did not appear to be more than fifty or fifty-five, no one could have looked more fatherly.

The young Bishop of Agde appeared, and seemed greatly surprised when, in making a survey of those present, his eye rested on Julien. He had not spoken to him since the ceremony at Bray-le-Haut. His look of surprise embarrassed and irritated Julien. ‘What,’ the latter said to himself, ‘is knowing a man to be always to my disadvantage? All these great gentlemen whom I have never seen before do not frighten me in the least, and the look in this young Bishop’s eyes freezes me! It must be admitted that I am a very strange and very unfortunate creature.’

A small and extremely dark man presently made a noisy entrance, and began speaking from the door; he had a sallow complexion and a slightly eccentric air. On the arrival of this pitiless talker, groups began to form, apparently to escape the boredom of listening to him.

As they withdrew from the fireplace they drew near to the lower end of the table, where Julien was installed. His expression became more and more embarrassed, for now at last, in spite of all his efforts, he could not avoid hearing them, and however slight his experience might be, he realised the full importance of the matters that were being discussed without any attempt at concealment; and yet how careful the evidently exalted personages whom he saw before him ought to be to keep them secret.

Already, working as slowly as possible, Julien had pointed a score of quills; this resource must soon fail him. He looked in vain for an order in the eyes of M. de La Mole; the Marquis had forgotten him.

‘What I am doing is absurd,’ thought Julien as he pointed his pens; ‘but people who are so commonplace in appearance, and are entrusted by others or by themselves with such high interests, must be highly susceptible. My unfortunate expression has a questioning and scarcely respectful effect which would doubtless annoy them. If I lower my eyes too far I shall appear to be making a record of their talk.’

His embarrassment was extreme, he was hearing some strange things said.

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