The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 27

The Best Positions in the Church

Service! talent! merit! bah! belong to a coterie.

TELEMACHUS

Thus the idea of a Bishopric was for the first time blended with that of Julien in the head of a woman who sooner or later would be distributing the best positions in the Church of France. This prospect would have made little difference to him; for the moment, his thoughts rose to nothing that was alien to his present misery: everything intensified it; for instance the sight of his bedroom had become intolerable to him. At night, when he came upstairs with his candle, each piece of furniture, every little ornament seemed to acquire the power of speech to inform him harshly of some fresh detail of his misery.

This evening, ‘I am a galley slave,’ he said to himself, as he entered it, with a vivacity long unfamiliar to him: ‘let us hope that the second letter will be as boring as the first.’

It was even more so. What he was copying seemed to him so absurd that he began to transcribe it line for line, without a thought of the meaning.

‘It is even more emphatic,’ he said to himself, ‘than the official documents of the Treaty of Muenster, which my tutor in diplomacy made me copy out in London.’

It was only then that he remembered the letters from Madame de Fervaques, the originals of which he had forgotten to restore to the grave Spaniard, Don Diego Bustos. He searched for them; they were really almost as fantastic a rigmarole as those of the young Russian gentleman. They were completely vague. They expressed everything and nothing. ‘It is the Aeolian harp of style,’ thought Julien. ‘Amid the most lofty thoughts about annihilation, death, the infinite, etc., I can see no reality save a shocking fear of ridicule.’

The monologue which we have here abridged was repeated nightly for a fortnight. Falling asleep while transcribing a sort of commentary on the Apocalypse, going next day to deliver a letter with a melancholy air, leaving his horse in the stable yard with the hope of catching a glimpse of Mathilde’s gown, working, putting in an appearance in the evening at the Opera when Madame de Fervaques did not come to the Hotel de La Mole; such were the monotonous events of Julien’s existence. They became more interesting when Madame de Fervaques paid a visit to the Marquise; then he could steal a glance at Mathilde’s eyes beneath the side of the Marechale’s hat, and would wax eloquent. His picturesque and sentimental phrases began to assume a turn at once more striking and more elegant.

He was fully aware that what he was saying seemed absurd to Mathilde, but he sought to impress her by the elegance of his diction. ‘The falser the things I say, the more I ought to appeal to her,’ thought Julien; and then, with a shocking boldness, he began to exaggerate certain aspects of nature. He very soon perceived that, if he were not to appear vulgar in the eyes of the Marechale, he must above all avoid any simple or reasonable idea. He continued on these lines, or abridged his amplifications according as he read success or indifference in the eyes of the two great ladies to whom he must appeal.

On the whole, his life was less horrible than at the time when his days passed in inaction.

‘But,’ he said to himself one evening, ‘here I am transcribing the fifteenth of these abominable dissertations; the first fourteen have been faithfully delivered to the Marechale’s Swiss. I shall soon have the honour of filling all the pigeonholes in her desk. And yet she treats me exactly as though I were not writing! What can be the end of all this? Can my constancy bore her as much as it bores me? I am bound to say that this Russian, Korasoff’s friend, who was in love with the fair Quakeress of Richmond, must have been a terrible fellow in his day; no one could be more deadly.’

Like everyone of inferior intelligence whom chance brings into touch with the operations of a great general, Julien understood nothing of the attack launched by the young Russian upon the heart of the fair English maid. The first forty letters were intended only to make her pardon his boldness in writing. It was necessary to make this gentle person, who perhaps was vastly bored, form the habit of receiving letters that were perhaps a trifle less insipid than her everyday life.

One morning, a letter was handed to Julien; he recognised the armorial bearings of Madame de Fervaques, and broke the seal with an eagerness which would have seemed quite impossible to him a few days earlier: it was only an invitation to dine.

He hastened to consult Prince Korasoff’s instructions. Unfortunately, the young Russian had chosen to be as frivolous as Dorat, just where he ought to have been simple and intelligible; Julien could not discover the moral attitude which he was supposed to adopt at the Marechale’s table.

Her drawing-room was the last word in magnificence, gilded like the Galerie de Diane in the Tuileries, with oil paintings in the panels. There were blank spaces in these paintings, Julien learned later on that the subjects had seemed hardly decent to the lady of the house, who had had the pictures corrected. ‘A moral age!’ he thought.

In this drawing-room he remarked three of the gentlemen who had been present at the drafting of the secret note. One of them, the Right Reverend Bishop of — — the Marechale’s uncle, had the patronage of benefices, and, it was said, could refuse nothing to his niece. ‘What a vast stride I have made,’ thought Julien, with a melancholy smile, ‘and how cold it leaves me! Here I am dining with the famous Bishop of ——.’

The dinner was indifferent and the conversation irritating. ‘It is like the table of contents of a dull book,’ thought Julien. ‘All the greatest subjects of human thought are proudly displayed in it. Listen to it for three minutes, and you ask yourself which is more striking, the emphasis of the speaker or his shocking ignorance.’

The reader has doubtless forgotten that little man of letters, named Tanbeau, the nephew of the Academician and an embryo professor, who, with his vile calumnies, seemed to be employed in poisoning the drawing-room of the Hotel de La Mole.

It was from this little man that Julien first gleaned the idea that it might well be that Madame de Fervaques, while refraining from answering his letters, looked with indulgence upon the sentiment that dictated them. The black heart of M. Tanbeau was torn asunder by the thought of Julien’s successes; but inasmuch as, looking at it from another angle, a deserving man cannot, any more than a fool, be in two places at once, ‘if Sorel becomes the lover of the sublime Marechale,’ the future professor told himself, ‘she will place him in the Church in some advantageous manner, and I shall be rid of him at the Hotel de La Mole.’

M. l’abbe Pirard also addressed long sermons to Julien on his successes at the Hotel de Fervaques. There was a sectarian jealousy between the austere Jansenist and the Jesuitical, regenerative and monarchical drawing-room of the virtuous Marechale.

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