The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 29

Boredom

Sacrificing oneself to one’s passions is one thing; but to passions that one doesn’t have! O sad nineteenth century!

GIRODET

After having read without pleasure at first Julien’s long letters, Madame de Fervaques began to take an interest in them; but one thing distressed her: ‘What a pity that M. Sorel is not really a priest! One could admit him to a sort of intimacy: with that Cross and what is almost a layman’s coat, one is exposed to cruel questions, and how is one to answer them?’ She did not complete her thought: ‘some malicious friend may suppose and indeed spread the report that he is some humble little cousin, one of my father’s family, some tradesman decorated by the National Guard.’

Until the moment of her first meeting Julien, Madame de Fervaques’s greatest pleasure had been to write the word Marechale before her own name. Thenceforward the vanity of an upstart, morbid and easily offended, had to fight a nascent interest.

‘It would be so easy for me,’ the Marechale said to herself, ‘to make a Vicar–General of him in some diocese not far from Paris! But M. Sorel by itself, and to add to that a mere secretary of M. de La Mole! It is deplorable.’

For the first time, this spirit which dreaded everything was stirred by an interest apart from its own pretensions to rank and to social superiority. Her old porter noticed that, when he brought her a letter from that handsome young man, who wore such a melancholy air, he was certain to see vanish the distracted and irritated expression which the Marechale always took care to assume when any of her servants entered the room.

The boredom of a mode of life whose sole ambition was to create an effect on the public, without there being at the bottom of her heart any real enjoyment of this kind of success, had become so intolerable since she had begun to think of Julien, that, if her maids were not to be ill-treated throughout the whole of a day, it was enough that during the previous evening she should have spent an hour with this strange young man. His growing credit survived anonymous letters, very well composed. In vain did little Tanbeau supply MM. de Luz, de Croisenois, de Caylus, with two or three most adroit calumnies which those gentlemen took pleasure in spreading abroad, without stopping to consider the truth of the accusations. The Marechale, whose mind was not framed to withstand these vulgar methods, reported her doubts to Mathilde, and was always comforted.

One day, after having inquired three times whether there were any letters, Madame de Fervaques suddenly decided to write to Julien. This was a victory gained by boredom. At the second letter, the Marechale was almost brought to a standstill by the unpleasantness of writing with her own hand so vulgar an address as: ‘a M. Sorel, chez M. le Marquis de La Mole’.

‘You must,’ she said to Julien that evening in the driest of tones, ‘bring me some envelopes with your address written on them.’

‘So now I am to combine the lover and the flunkey,’ thought Julien, and bowed, amusing himself by screwing up his face like Arsene, the Marquis’s old footman.

That same evening he brought a supply of envelopes, and next day, early in the morning, he received a third letter: he read five or six lines at the beginning, and two or three towards the end. It covered four pages in a small and very close script.

Gradually she formed the pleasant habit of writing almost every day. Julien replied with faithful copies of the Russian letters, and, such is the advantage of the emphatic style, Madame de Fervaques was not at all surprised by the want of connection between the replies and her own letters.

What would have been the irritation to her pride if little Tanbeau, who had appointed himself a voluntary spy upon Julien’s actions, had been able to tell her that all these letters, with their seals unbroken, were flung pell-mell into Julien’s drawer!

One morning, the porter brought to him in the library a letter from the Marechale; Mathilde met the man, saw the letter, and read the address in Julien’s hand. She entered the library as the porter left it; the letter was still lying on the edge of the table; Julien, busily engaged in writing, had not placed it in his drawer.

‘This is what I cannot endure,’ cried Mathilde, seizing the letter; ‘you are forgetting me entirely, me who am your wife. Your conduct is appalling, Sir.’

With these words, her pride, astonished by the fearful impropriety of her action, stifled her; she burst into tears, and a moment later appeared to Julien to be unable to breathe.

Surprised, confounded, Julien did not clearly distinguish all the admirable and happy consequences which this scene foreboded for himself. He helped Mathilde to a seat; she almost abandoned herself in his arms.

The first instant in which he perceived this relaxation was one of extreme joy. His second thought was of Korasoff: ‘I may ruin everything by a single word.’

His arms ached, so painful was the effort imposed on him by policy. ‘I ought not even to allow myself to press to my heart this supple and charming form, or she will despise and abuse me. What a frightful nature!’

And as he cursed Mathilde’s nature, he loved her for it a hundred times more; he felt as though he were holding a queen in his arms.

Julien’s unfeeling coldness intensified the misery of wounded pride which was tearing the heart of Mademoiselle de La Mole. She was far from possessing the necessary coolness to seek to read in his eyes what he was feeling for her at that moment. She could not bring herself to look at him; she trembled lest she should meet an expression of scorn.

Seated on the divan in the library, motionless and with her head turned away from Julien, she was a prey to the keenest suffering that pride and love can make a human heart feel. Into what a frightful course of action had she fallen!

‘It was reserved for me, wretch that I am, to see the most indelicate advances repulsed! And repulsed by whom?’ added a pride mad with suffering, ‘by one of my father’s servants.

‘That is what I will not endure,’ she said aloud.

And, rising with fury, she opened the drawer of Julien’s table, which stood a few feet away from her. She remained frozen with horror on seeing there nine or ten letters unopened, similar in every respect to the letter which the porter had just brought in. On all the envelopes, she recognised Julien’s hand, more or less disguised.

‘And so,’ she cried, beside herself with rage, ‘not only have you found favour with her, but you despise her. You, a man of nought, to despise Madame la Marechale de Fervaques!

‘Ah, forgive me, my dear,’ she went on, flinging herself at his feet, ‘despise me if you wish, but love me, I can no longer live deprived of your love.’ And she fell to the ground in a dead faint.

‘So there she is, that proud creature, at my feet!’ thought Julien.

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