The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 30

A Box at the Bouffes

As the blackest sky Foretells the heaviest tempest.

Don Juan, I. 73

In the thick of all this great commotion, Julien was more bewildered than happy. Mathilde’s abuse of him showed him how wise the Russian policy had been. ‘Say little, do little, that is my one way of salvation.’

He lifted up Mathilde and without a word laid her down again on the divan. Gradually she gave way to tears.

To keep herself in countenance, she took Madame de Fervaques’s letters in her hands; she broke the seals slowly. She gave a nervous start on recognising the Marechale’s handwriting. She turned over the sheets of these letters without reading them; the majority of them covered six pages.

‘Answer me this, at least,’ said Mathilde at length in the most supplicating tone, but without venturing to look at Julien. ‘You know very well that I am proud; it is the misfortune of my position, and indeed of my nature, I must admit; so Madame de Fervaques has stolen your heart from me . . . Has she offered you all the sacrifices to which that fatal passion led me?’

A grim silence was Julien’s only answer. ‘By what right,’ he thought, ‘does she ask of me an indiscretion unworthy of an honourable man?’

Mathilde endeavoured to read the letters; the tears that filled her eyes made it impossible for her to do so.

For a month past she had been miserable, but that proud spirit was far from confessing its feelings to itself. Chance alone had brought about this explosion. For an instant jealousy and love had overcome pride. She was seated upon the divan and in close proximity to him. He saw her hair and her throat of alabaster; for a moment he forgot all that he owed to himself; he slipped his arm round her waist, and almost hugged her to his bosom.

She turned her head towards him slowly: he was astonished at the intense grief that was visible in her eyes, and made them quite unrecognisable as hers.

Julien felt his strength begin to fail him, so colossal was the effort involved in the act of courage which he was imposing on himself.

‘Those eyes will soon express nothing but the coldest disdain,’ he said to himself, ‘if I allow myself to be carried away by the joy of loving her.’ Meanwhile, in a faint voice and in words which she had barely the strength to utter, she was repeating to him at that moment her assurance of all her regret for the action which an excessive pride might have counselled her to take.

‘I too, have my pride,’ Julien said to her in a voice that was barely articulate, and his features indicated the extreme limit of physical exhaustion.

Mathilde turned sharply towards him. The sound of his voice was a pleasure the hope of which she had almost abandoned. At that moment she recalled her pride only to curse it, she would fain have discovered some unusual, incredible act to prove to him how greatly she adored him and detested herself.

‘It is probably because of that pride,’ Julien went on, ‘that you have singled me out for an instant; it is certainly because of that courageous firmness, becoming in a man, that you respect me at this moment. I may be in love with the Marechale . . . ’

Mathilde shuddered; her eyes assumed a strange expression. She was about to hear her sentence uttered. This movement did not pass unobserved by Julien; he felt his courage weaken.

‘Ah!’ he said to himself, listening to the sound of the vain words that came from his lips, as he might have listened to a noise from without; ‘if I could only cover those pale cheeks with kisses, and you not feel them!

‘I may be in love with the Marechale,’ he continued . .. and his voice grew fainter and fainter; ‘but certainly, of her interest in myself I have no decisive proof . . . ’

Mathilde gazed at him; he met her gaze, at least he hoped that his features had not betrayed him. He felt himself penetrated by love to the innermost recesses of his heart. Never had he adored her so intensely; he was scarcely less mad than Mathilde. Could she have found sufficient self-control and courage to manoeuvre, he would have fallen at her feet, forswearing all idle play-acting. He had strength enough to be able to continue to speak. ‘Ah! Korasoff,’ he exclaimed inwardly, ‘why are not you here? How I need a word of advice to direct my conduct!’ Meanwhile his voice was saying:

‘Failing any other sentiment, gratitude would suffice to attach me to the Marechale; she has shown me indulgence, she has comforted me when others scorned me . . . I may perhaps not repose an unbounded faith in certain signs which are extremely flattering, no doubt, but also, perhaps, are of very brief duration.’

‘Ah! Great God!’ cried Mathilde.

‘Very well! What guarantee will you give me?’ Julien went on in sharp, firm accents, seeming to abandon for an instant the prudent forms of diplomacy. ‘What guarantee, what god will assure me that the position which you seem disposed to restore to me at this moment will last for more than two days?’

‘The intensity of my love and of my misery if you no longer love me,’ she said, clasping his hands and turning her face towards him.

The violent movement which she thus made had slightly displaced her pelerine: Julien caught a glimpse of her charming shoulders. Her hair, slightly disordered, recalled to him an exquisite memory . . .

He was about to yield. ‘An imprudent word,’ he told himself, ‘and I begin once more that long succession of days passed in despair. Madame de Renal used to find reasons for obeying the dictates of her heart: this young girl of high society allows her heart to be moved only when she has proved to herself with good reasons that it ought to be moved.’

He perceived this truth in a flash, and in a flash also regained his courage.

He freed his hands which Mathilde was clasping in her own, and with marked respect withdrew a little way from her. Human courage can go no farther. He then busied himself in gathering together all Madame de Fervaques’s letters which were scattered over the divan, and it was with a show of extreme politeness, so cruel at that moment, that he added:

‘Mademoiselle de La Mole will deign to permit me to think over all this.’ He withdrew rapidly and left the library; she heard him shut all the doors in turn.

‘The monster is not in the least perturbed,’ she said to herself . . .

‘But what am I saying, a monster! He is wise, prudent, good; it is I who have done more wrong than could be imagined.’

This point of view persisted. Mathilde was almost happy that day, for she was altogether in love; you would have said that never had that heart been stirred by pride — and such pride!

She shuddered with horror when, that evening in the drawing-room, a footman announced Madame de Fervaques; the man’s voice seemed to her to have a sinister sound. She could not endure the sight of the Marechale, and quickly left the room. Julien, with little pride in his hard-won victory, had been afraid lest his own eyes should betray him, and had not dined at the Hotel de La Mole.

His love and his happiness increased rapidly as the hour of battle receded; he had already begun to find fault with himself. ‘How could I resist her?’ he asked himself; ‘if she was going to cease to love me! A single moment may alter that proud spirit, and I must confess that I have treated her scandalously.’

In the evening, he felt that he absolutely must appear at the Bouffes in Madame de Fervaques’s box. She had given him an express invitation: Mathilde would not fail to hear of his presence there or of his discourteous absence. Despite the self-evidence of this argument, he had not the strength, early in the evening, to plunge into society. If he talked, he would forfeit half his happiness.

Ten o’clock struck: he must absolutely show his face.

Fortunately he found the Marechale’s box filled with women, and was relegated to a place by the door, and entirely concealed by their hats. This position saved him from making a fool of himself; the divine accents of despair of Carolina in Il matrimonio segreto made him burst into tears. Madame de Fervaques saw these tears; they were in so marked a contrast to the manly firmness of his usual appearance, that this spirit of a great lady long saturated in all the most corrosive elements of the pride of an upstart was touched by them. What little she had left of a woman’s heart led her to speak. She wished to enjoy the sound of her own voice at that moment.

‘Have you seen the ladies de La Mole,’ she said to him, ‘they are in the third tier.’ Instantly Julien bent forward into the house, leaning somewhat rudely upon the ledge of the box: he saw Mathilde; her eyes were bright with tears.

‘And yet it is not their day for the Opera,’ thought Julien; ‘what eagerness!’

Mathilde had made her mother come to the Bouffes, despite the inferior position of the box which a sycophant of their circle had made haste to offer them. She wished to see whether Julien would spend that evening with the Marechale.

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