The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 3

First Steps

That immense valley filled with brilliant lights and with all those thousands of people dazzles my sight. Not one of them knows me, all are superior to me. My head reels.

Poemi dell’ avvocato, REINA

Early in the morning of the following day, Julien was copying letters in the library, when Mademoiselle Mathilde entered by a little private door, cleverly concealed with shelves of dummy books. While Julien was admiring this device, Mademoiselle Mathilde appeared greatly surprised and distinctly annoyed to see him there. Julien decided that her curlpapers gave her a hard, haughty, almost masculine air. Mademoiselle de La Mole had a secret habit of stealing books from her father’s library, undetected. Julien’s presence frustrated her expedition that morning, which annoyed her all the more as she had come to secure the second volume of Voltaire’s Princesse de Babylone, a fitting complement to an eminently monarchical and religious education, a triumph on the part of the Sacre–Coeur! This poor girl, at nineteen, already required the spice of wit to make her interested in a novel.

Comte Norbert appeared in the library about three o’clock; he had come to study a newspaper, in order to be able to talk politics that evening, and was quite pleased to find Julien, whose existence he had forgotten. He was charming to him, and offered to lend him a horse.

‘My father is letting us off until dinner.’

Julien appreciated this us, and thought it charming.

‘Heavens, Monsieur le Comte,’ said Julien, ‘if it were a question of felling an eighty-foot tree, trimming it and sawing it into planks, I venture to say that I should manage it well enough; but riding a horse is a thing I haven’t done six times in my life.’

‘Well, this will be the seventh,’ said Norbert.

Privately, Julien remembered the entry of the King of —— into Verrieres and imagined himself a superior horseman. But, on their way back from the Bois de Boulogne, in the very middle of the Rue du Bac, he fell off, while trying to avoid a passing cab, and covered himself in mud. It was fortunate for him that he had a change of clothes. At the dinner the Marquis, wishing to include him in the conversation, asked him about his ride; Norbert made haste to reply in generous language.

‘Monsieur le Comte is too kind to me,’ put in Julien. ‘I thank him for it, and fully appreciate his kindness. He has been so good as to give me the quietest and handsomest of horses; but after all he could not glue me on to it, and, that being so, I fell off right in the middle of that very long street near the bridge.’

Mademoiselle Mathilde tried in vain to stifle a peal of laughter; finally indiscretion prevailed and she begged for details. Julien emerged from the difficulty with great simplicity; he had an unconscious grace.

‘I augur well of this little priest,’ the Marquis said to the Academician; ‘a simple countryman in such a scrape! Such a thing was never yet seen and never will be seen; in addition to which he relates his misadventure before the ladies!’

Julien set his listeners so thoroughly at ease over his mishap that at the end of dinner, when the general conversation had taken another turn, Mademoiselle Mathilde began to ply her brother with questions as to the details of the distressing event. As her inquiry continued, and as Julien more than once caught her eye, he ventured to reply directly, although he had not been questioned, and all three ended in laughter, just like three young peasants from a village in the heart of a forest.

On the following day Julien attended two lectures on theology, and then returned to transcribe a score of letters. He found ensconced by his own place in the library a young man dressed with great neatness, but his general appearance was ignominious and his expression one of envy.

The Marquis entered.

‘What are you doing here, Monsieur Tanbeau?’ he asked the newcomer in a severe tone.

‘I thought,’ the young man began with a servile smile.

‘No, Sir, you did not think. This is an attempt, but it is an unfortunate one.’

Young Tanbeau rose in a fury and left the room. He was a nephew of the Academician, Madame de La Mole’s friend, and was intended for a literary career. The Academician had persuaded the Marquis to take him as a secretary. Tanbeau, who worked in a room apart, having heard of the favour that was being bestowed upon Julien, was anxious to share it, and that morning had come and set up his desk in the library.

At four o’clock, Julien ventured, after some hesitation, to seek out Comte Norbert. This young gentleman was going out riding, and was somewhat embarrassed, for his manners were perfect.

‘I think,’ he said to Julien, ‘that presently you might go to the riding school; and after a few weeks I shall be delighted to ride with you.’

‘I wished to have the honour of thanking you for all your kindness to me; pray believe, Sir,’ Julien added with a most serious air, ‘that I am fully conscious of all that I owe you. If your horse is not injured as a result of my clumsiness yesterday, and if it is free, I should like to ride it today.’

‘Faith, my dear Sorel, on your own head be it! Assume that I have raised all the objections that prudence demands; the fact is that it is four o’clock, we have no time to lose.’

After he was in the saddle:

‘What must one do, not to fall off?’ Julien asked the young Comte.

‘All sorts of things,’ replied Norbert with a shout of laughter: ‘for instance, sit well back.’

Julien began to trot. They were crossing the Place Louis XVI.

‘Ah! Young hothead, there are too many carriages here, and with careless drivers too. Once you are on the ground, their tilburys will go bowling over you; they are not going to risk hurting their horses’ mouths by pulling up short.’

A score of times Norbert saw Julien on the point of falling; but at last their ride ended without mishap. On their return, the young Comte said to his sister:

‘Let me introduce a regular dare-devil.’

At dinner, speaking to his father, down the length of the table, he did justice to Julien’s courage; it was all that one could praise in his method of riding. During the day the young Comte had heard the men who were grooming the horses in the yard make Julien’s fall an excuse for the most outrageous mockery of him.

In spite of all this kindness, Julien soon felt himself completely isolated among this family. All their customs seemed strange to him, and he was always making mistakes. His blunders were the delight of the footmen.

The abbe Pirard had gone off to his living. ‘If Julien is a frail reed, let him perish; if he is a man of courage, let him make his way by himself,’ he thought.

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