The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 25

The Office of Virtue

But if I take this pleasure with so much prudence and circumspection, it ceases to be a pleasure for me.

LOPE DE VEGA

Immediately on his return to Paris, and on leaving the study of the Marquis de La Mole, who appeared greatly disconcerted by the messages that were conveyed to him, our hero hastened to find Conte Altamira. With the distinction of being under sentence of death, this handsome foreigner combined abundant gravity and had the good fortune to be devout; these two merits and, more than all, the exalted birth of the Count were entirely to the taste of Madame de Fervaques, who saw much of him.

Julien confessed to him gravely that he was deeply in love with her.

‘She represents the purest and loftiest virtue,’ replied Altamira, ‘only it is a trifle Jesuitical and emphatic. There are days on which I understand every word that she uses, but I do not understand the sentence as a whole. She often makes me think that I do not know French as well as people say. This acquaintance will make you talked about; it will give you a position in society. But let us go and see Bustos,’ said Conte Altamira, who had an orderly mind; ‘he has made love to Madame la Marechale.’

Don Diego Bustos made them explain the matter to him in detail, without saying a word, like a barrister in chambers. He had a plump, monkish face, with black moustaches, and an unparalleled gravity; in other respects, a good carbonaro.

‘I understand,’ he said at length to Julien. ‘Has the Marechale de Fervaques had lovers, or has she not? Have you, therefore, any hope of success? That is the question. It is as much as to say that, for my own part, I have failed. Now that I am no longer aggrieved, I put it to myself in this way: often she is out of temper, and, as I shall shortly prove to you, she is nothing if not vindictive.

‘I do not find in her that choleric temperament which is a mark of genius and covers every action with a sort of glaze of passion. It is, on the contrary, to her calm and phlegmatic Dutch manner that she owes her rare beauty and the freshness of her complexion.’

Julien was growing impatient with the deliberateness and imperturbable phlegm of the Spaniard; now and again, in spite of himself, he gave vent to a monosyllabic comment.

‘Will you listen to me?’ Don Diego Bustos inquired gravely.

‘Pardon the furia francese; I am all ears,’ said Julien.

‘Well, then, the Marechale de Fervaques is much given to hatred; she is pitiless in her pursuit of people she has never seen, lawyers, poor devils of literary men who have written songs like Colle, you know?

“J’ai la marotte D’aimer Marote,” etc.’

And Julien was obliged to listen to the quotation to the end. The Spaniard greatly enjoyed singing in French.

That divine song was never listened to with greater impatience. When he had finished: ‘The Marechale,’ said Don Diego Bustos, ‘has ruined the author of the song:

“Un jour l’amant au cabaret . . . ”’

Julien was in an agony lest he should wish to sing it. He contented himself with analysing it. It was, as a matter of fact, impious and hardly decent.

‘When the Marechale flew into a passion with that song,’ said Don Diego, ‘I pointed out to her that a woman of her rank ought not to read all the stupid things that are published. Whatever progress piety and gravity may make, there will always be in France a literature of the tavern. When Madame de Fervaques had the author, a poor devil on half pay, deprived of a post worth eighteen hundred francs: “Take care,” said I to her, “you have attacked this rhymester with your weapons, he may reply to you with his rhymes: he will make a song about virtue. The gilded saloons will be on your side; the people who like to laugh will repeat his epigrams.” Do you know, Sir, what answer the Marechale made me? “In the Lord’s service all Paris would see me tread the path of martyrdom; it would be a novel spectacle in France. The people would learn to respect the quality. It would be the happiest day of my life.” Never were her eyes more brilliant.’

‘And she has superb eyes,’ exclaimed Julien.

‘I see that you are in love . . . Very well, then,’ Don Diego Bustos went on gravely, ‘she has not the choleric constitution that impels one to vengeance. If she enjoys injuring people, nevertheless, it is because she is unhappy, I suspect inward suffering. May she not be a prude who has grown weary of her calling?’

The Spaniard gazed at him in silence for fully a minute.

‘That is the whole question,’ he went on gravely, ‘and it is from this that you may derive some hope. I gave it much thought during the two years in which I professed myself her most humble servant. Your whole future, you, Sir, who are in love, hangs on this great problem. Is she a prude, weary of her calling, and malicious because she is miserable?’

‘Or rather,’ said Altamira, emerging at last from his profound silence, ‘can it be what I have said to you twenty times? Simply and solely French vanity; it is the memory of her father, the famous cloth merchant, that causes the unhappiness of a character naturally morose and dry. There could be only one happiness for her, that of living in Toledo, and being tormented by a confessor, who every day would show her hell gaping for her.’

As Julien rose to leave: ‘Altamira tells me that you are one of us,’ Don Diego said to him, graver than ever. ‘One day you will help us to reconquer our freedom, and so I wish to help you in this little diversion. It is as well that you should be acquainted with the Marechale’s style; here are four letters in her hand.’

‘I shall have them copied,’ cried Julien, ‘and return them to you.’

‘And no one shall ever learn from you a single word of what we have been saying?’

‘Never, upon my honour!’ cried Julien.

‘Then may heaven help you!’ the Spaniard concluded; and he accompanied Julien and Altamira in silence to the head of the stair.

This scene cheered our hero somewhat; he almost smiled. ‘And here is the devout Altamira,’ he said to himself, ‘helping me in an adulterous enterprise.’

Throughout the whole of the grave conversation of Don Diego Bustos, Julien had been attentive to the stroke of the hours on the clock of the Hotel d’Aligre.

The dinner hour was approaching, he was to see Mathilde again! He went home, and dressed himself with great care.

‘My first blunder,’ he said to himself, as he was going downstairs; ‘I must carry out the Prince’s orders to the letter.’

He returned to his room, and put on a travelling costume of the utmost simplicity.

‘Now,’ he thought, ‘I must consider how I am to look at her.’ It was only half-past five, and dinner was at six. He decided to go down to the drawing-room, which he found deserted. The sight of the blue sofa moved him to tears; soon his cheeks began to burn. ‘I must get rid of this absurd sensibility,’ he said to himself angrily; ‘it will betray me.’ He took up a newspaper to keep himself in countenance, and strolled three or four times from the drawing-room to the garden.

It was only in fear and trembling and safely concealed behind a big oak tree that he ventured to raise his eyes to the window of Mademoiselle de La Mole’s room. It was fast shut; he nearly fell to the ground, and stood for a long time leaning against the oak; then, with a tottering step, he went to look at the gardener’s ladder.

The link of the chain, forced open by him in circumstances, alas, so different, had not been mended. Carried away by a mad impulse, Julien pressed it to his lips.

After a long course of wandering between drawing-room and garden, he found himself horribly tired; this was an initial success which pleased him greatly. ‘My eyes will be dull and will not betray me!’ Gradually, the guests arrived in the drawing-room; the door never opened without plunging Julien in mortal dread.

They sat down to table. At length Mademoiselle de La Mole appeared, still faithful to her principle of keeping the others waiting. She blushed a deep red on seeing Julien; she had not been told of his arrival. Following Prince Korasoff’s advice, Julien looked at her hands; they were trembling. Disquieted himself, beyond all expression, by this discovery, he was thankful to appear to be merely tired.

M. de La Mole sang his praises. The Marquise addressed him shortly afterwards, and expressed concern at his appearance of fatigue. Julien kept on saying to himself: ‘I must not look at Mademoiselle de La Mole too much, but I ought not either to avoid her eye. I must appear to be what I really was a week before my disaster . . . ’ He had occasion to be satisfied with his success, and remained in the drawing-room. Attentive for the first time to the lady of the house, he spared no effort to make the men of her circle talk, and to keep the conversation alive.

His politeness was rewarded: about eight o’clock, Madame la Marechale de Fervaques was announced. Julien left the room and presently reappeared, dressed with the most scrupulous care. Madame de La Mole was vastly flattered by this mark of respect, and sought to give him a proof of her satisfaction by speaking of his travels to Madame de Fervaques. Julien took his seat beside the Marechale, in such a way that his eyes should not be visible to Mathilde. Thus placed, and following all the rules of the art, he made Madame de Fervaques the object of the most awed admiration. It was with an outburst on this sentiment that the first of the fifty-three letters of which Prince Korasoff had made him a present began.

The Marechale announced that she was going on to the Opera–Bouffe. Julien hastened there; he found the Chevalier de Beauvoisis, who took him to the box of the Gentlemen of the Household, immediately beside that of Madame de Fervaques. Julien gazed at her incessantly. ‘I must,’ he said to himself, as he returned home, ‘keep a diary of the siege; otherwise I should lose count of my attacks.’ He forced himself to write down two or three pages on this boring subject, and thus succeeded (marvel of marvels!) in hardly giving a thought to Mademoiselle de La Mole.

Mathilde had almost forgotten him during his absence. ‘After all, he is only a common person,’ she thought, ‘his name will always remind me of the greatest mistake of my life. I must return in all sincerity to the recognised standards of prudence and honour; a woman has everything to lose in forgetting them.’ She showed herself ready to permit at length the conclusion of the arrangement with the Marquis de Croisenois, begun so long since. He was wild with joy; he would have been greatly astonished had anyone told him that it was resignation that lay at the root of this attitude on Mathilde’s part, which was making him so proud.

All Mademoiselle de La Mole’s ideas changed at the sight of Julien. ‘In reality, that is my husband,’ she said to herself; ‘if I return in sincerity to the standards of prudence, it is obviously he that I ought to marry.’

She was prepared for importunities, for an air of misery on Julien’s part; she prepared her answers: for doubtless, on rising from table, he would endeavour to say a few words to her. Far from it, he remained fixed in the drawing-room, his eyes never even turned towards the garden, heaven knows with how great an effort! ‘It would be better to get our explanation over at once,’ Mademoiselle de La Mole told herself; she went out by herself to the garden, Julien did not appear there. Mathilde returned and strolled past the drawing-room windows; she saw him busily engaged in describing to Madame de Fervaques the old ruined castles that crown the steep banks of the Rhine and give them so distinctive a character. He was beginning to acquit himself none too badly in the use of the sentimental and picturesque language which is called wit in certain drawing-rooms.

Prince Korasoff would indeed have been proud, had he been in Paris: the evening was passing exactly as he had foretold.

He would have approved of the mode of behaviour to which Julien adhered throughout the days that followed.

An intrigue among those constituting the Power behind the Throne was about to dispose of several Blue Ribands; Madame la Marechale de Fervaques insisted that her great-uncle should be made a Knight of the Order. The Marquis de La Mole was making a similar claim for his father-inlaw; they combined their efforts, and the Marechale came almost every day to the Hotel de La Mole. It was from her that Julien learned that the Marquis was to become a Minister: he offered the Camarilla a highly ingenious plan for destroying the Charter, without any fuss, in three years’ time.

Julien might expect a Bishopric, if M. de La Mole entered the Ministry; but to his eyes all these important interests were as though hidden by a veil. His imagination perceived them now only vaguely, and so to speak in the distance. The fearful misery which was driving him mad made him see every interest in life in the state of his relations with Mademoiselle de La Mole. He calculated that after five or six years of patient effort, he might succeed in making her love him once again.

This coolest of heads had, as we see, sunk to a state of absolute unreason. Of all the qualities that had distinguished him in the past, there remained to him only a trace of firmness. Faithful to the letter to the plan of conduct dictated to him by Prince Korasoff, every evening he took his place as near as possible to the armchair occupied by Madame de Fervaques, but found it impossible to think of a word to say to her.

The effort that he was imposing on himself to appear cured in the eyes of Mathilde absorbed all his spiritual strength, he remained rooted beside the Marechale like a barely animate being; his eyes even, as in the extremity of physical suffering, had lost all their fire.

Since Madame de La Mole’s attitude towards the world was never anything more than a feeble copy of the opinions of that husband who might make her a Duchess, for some days she had been lauding Julien’s merits to the skies.

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