The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 26

Moral Love

There also was of course in Adeline

That calm patrician polish in the address,

  Which ne’er can pass the equinoctial line

Of anything which nature would express;

  Just as a mandarin finds nothing fine,

At least his manner suffers not to guess

  That anything he views can greatly please.

  Don Juan, XIII. 34

‘There is a trace of madness in the way the whole of this family have of looking at things,’ thought the Marechale; ‘they are infatuated with their little abbe, who can do nothing but sit and stare at one; it is true, his eyes are not bad-looking.’

Julien, for his part, found in the Marechale’s manner an almost perfect example of that patrician calm which betokens a scrupulous politeness and still more the impossibility of any keen emotion. Any sudden outburst, a want of self-control, would have shocked Madame de Fervaques almost as much as a want of dignity towards one’s inferiors. The least sign of sensibility would have been in her eyes like a sort of moral intoxication for which one ought to blush, and which was highly damaging to what a person of exalted rank owed to herself. Her great happiness was to speak of the King’s latest hunt, her favourite book the Memoires du duc de Saint–Simon, especially the genealogical part.

Julien knew the place in the drawing-room which, as the lights were arranged, suited the style of beauty of Madame de Fervaques. He would be there waiting for her, but took great care to turn his chair so that he should not be able to see Mathilde. Astonished by this persistence in hiding from her, one evening she left the blue sofa and came to work at a little table that stood by the Marquise’s armchair. Julien could see her at quite a close range from beneath the brim of Madame de Fervaques’s hat. Those eyes, which governed his destiny, frightened him at first, seen at such close range, then jerked him violently out of his habitual apathy; he talked, and talked very well.

He addressed himself to the Marechale, but his sole object was to influence the heart of Mathilde. He grew so animated that finally Madame de Fervaques could not understand what he said.

This was so much to the good. Had it occurred to Julien to follow it up with a few expressions of German mysticism, religious fervour and Jesuitry, the Marechale would have numbered him straightway among the superior persons called to regenerate the age.

‘Since he shows such bad taste,’ Mademoiselle de La Mole said to herself, ‘as to talk for so long and with such fervour to Madame de Fervaques, I shall not listen to him any more.’ For the rest of the evening she kept her word, albeit with difficulty.

At midnight, when she took up her mother’s candlestick, to escort her to her room, Madame de La Mole stopped on the stairs to utter a perfect panegyric of Julien. This completed Mathilde’s ill humour; she could not send herself to sleep. A thought came to her which soothed her: ‘The things that I despise may even be great distinctions in the Marechale’s eyes.’

As for Julien, he had now taken action, he was less wretched; his eyes happened to fall on the Russia-leather portfolio in which Prince Korasoff had placed the fifty-three love letters of which he had made him a present. Julien saw a note at the foot of the first letter: ‘Send No. 1 a week after the first meeting.’

‘I am late!’ exclaimed Julien, ‘for it is ever so long now since I first met Madame de Fervaques.’ He set to work at once to copy out this first love letter; it was a homily stuffed with phrases about virtue, and of a deadly dullness; Julien was fortunate in falling asleep over the second page.

Some hours later the risen sun surprised him crouching with his head on the table. One of the most painful moments of his life was that in which, every morning, as he awoke, he discovered his distress. This morning, he finished copying his letter almost with a laugh. ‘Is it possible,’ he asked himself, ‘that there can ever have been a young man who could write such stuff?’ He counted several sentences of nine lines. At the foot of the original he caught sight of a pencilled note.

‘One delivers these letters oneself: on horseback, a black cravat, a blue greatcoat. One hands the letter to the porter with a contrite air; profound melancholy in the gaze. If one should see a lady’s maid, wipe the eyes furtively. Address a few words to the maid.’

All these instructions were faithfully carried out.

‘What I am doing is very bold,’ thought Julien, as he rode away from the Hotel de Fervaques, ‘but so much the worse for Korasoff. To dare write to so notorious a prude! I am going to be treated with the utmost contempt, and nothing will amuse me more. This is, really, the only form of comedy to which I can respond. Yes, to cover with ridicule that odious being whom I call myself will amuse me. If I obeyed my instincts I should commit some crime for the sake of distraction.’

For a month past, the happiest moment in Julien’s day had been that in which he brought his horse back to the stables. Korasoff had expressly forbidden him to look, upon any pretext whatsoever, at the mistress who had abandoned him. But the paces of that horse which she knew so well, the way in which Julien rapped with his whip at the stable door to summon a groom, sometimes drew Mathilde to stand behind her window curtain. The muslin was so fine that Julien could see through it. By looking up in a certain way from under the brim of his hat, he caught a glimpse of Mathilde’s form without seeing her eyes. ‘Consequently,’ he told himself, ‘she cannot see mine, and this is not the same as looking at her.’

That evening, Madame de Fervaques behaved to him exactly as though she had not received the philosophical, mystical and religious dissertation which, in the morning, he had handed to her porter with such an air of melancholy. The evening before, chance had revealed to Julien the secret springs of eloquence; he arranged himself so as to be able to see Mathilde’s eyes. She, meanwhile, immediately after the arrival of the Marechale, rose from the blue sofa: this was a desertion of her regular company. M. de Croisenois showed consternation at this new caprice; his evident distress relieved Julien of the keenest pangs of his own sufferings.

This unexpected turn in his affairs made him talk like an angel; and as self-esteem finds its way even into hearts that serve as temples to the most august virtue: ‘Madame de La Mole is right,’ the Marechale said to herself, as she stepped into her carriage, ‘that young priest has distinction. My presence must, at first, have frightened him. Indeed, everything that one finds in that house is very frivolous; all the virtue I see there is the result of age, and stood in great need of the congealing hand of time. That young man must have seen the difference; he writes well; but I am much afraid that the request that I should enlighten him with my advice, which he makes in his letter, is in reality only a sentiment unaware of itself.

‘And yet, how many conversions have begun in this way! What leads me to augur well of this one is the difference in his style from that of the young men whose letters I have had occasion to see. It is impossible not to recognise unction, a profound earnestness and great conviction in the prose of this young Levite; he must have the soothing virtue of Massillon.’

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