The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 33

The Torment of the Weak

In cutting this diamond, a clumsy jeweller removed some of its brightest sparkles. In the Middle Ages, what am I saying? even under Richelieu, a Frenchman still had the power to desire.

MIRABEAU

Julien found the Marquis furious: for the first time in his life, perhaps, this gentleman was guilty of bad taste; he heaped on Julien all the insults that came to his lips. Our hero was astonished, irritated, but his sense of gratitude was not shaken. ‘How many fine projects long cherished in his secret thoughts, the poor man sees crumble in an instant. But I owe it to him to answer him, my silence would increase his rage.’ His answer was furnished for him from the part of Tartuffe.

I am no angel . . . I have served you well, you have rewarded me generously . . . I was grateful, but I am twenty-two years old . . . In this household, my thoughts were intelligible only to yourself, and to that obliging person . . . ’

‘Monster!’ cried the Marquis. ‘Obliging! Obliging! On the day when you found her obliging, you ought to have fled.’

‘I made an attempt; I asked you if I might go to Languedoc.’

Tired of pacing the room in fury, the Marquis, broken by grief, threw himself into an armchair; Julien heard him murmur to himself: ‘This is no scoundrel.’

‘No, I am not one to you,’ cried Julien, falling at his feet. But he felt extremely ashamed of this impulse and rose quickly.

The Marquis was really out of his mind. On seeing this movement he began again to shower upon Julien atrocious insults worthy of a cab-driver. The novelty of these oaths was perhaps a distraction.

‘What? My daughter is to be called Madame Sorel! What! My daughter is not to be a Duchess!’ Whenever these two ideas presented themselves in such clear terms, the Marquis was in torment, and his impulses were uncontrolled. Julien began to fear a thrashing.

In his lucid intervals, and when the Marquis began to grow accustomed to his disgrace, his reproaches became quite reasonable.

‘You ought to have gone, Sir,’ he said. ‘It was your duty to go . . . You are the meanest of mankind . . . ’

Julien went to the table and wrote:

For a long time my life has been insupportable, I am putting an end to it. I beg Monsieur le Marquis to accept, with my expression of a gratitude that knows no bounds, my apologies for the trouble which my death in his house may cause.’

‘Will Monsieur le Marquis deign to peruse this paper . . . Kill me,’ said Julien, ‘or have me killed by your valet. It is one o’clock in the morning, I am going to stroll in the garden towards the wall at the far end.’

‘Go to the devil,’ the Marquis shouted after him as he left the room.

‘I understand,’ thought Julien; ‘he would not be sorry to see me spare his valet the responsibility for my death . . . Let him kill me, well and good, it is a satisfaction that I am offering him . . . But, by Jove, I am in love with life . . . I owe myself to my child.’

This idea, which for the first time appeared thus clearly before his imagination, completely absorbed him after the first few minutes of his stroll had been devoted to the sense of danger.

This entirely novel interest made a prudent creature of him. ‘I need advice to guide me in dealing with that fiery man . . . He has no judgment, he is capable of anything. Fouque is too far off, besides he would not understand the sentiments of a heart like the Marquis’s.

‘Conte Altamira . . . Can I be sure of eternal silence? My request for advice must not be a definite action, nor complicate my position. Alas! There is no one left but the sombre abbe Pirard . . . His mind is narrowed by Jansenism . . . A rascally Jesuit would know the world better, and would be more to my purpose . . . M. Pirard is capable of beating me, at the mere mention of my crime.’

The genius of Tartuffe came to Julien’s aid: ‘Very well, I shall go and confess to him.’ This was the resolution to which he finally came in the garden, after pacing it for fully two hours. He no longer thought that he might be surprised by a gunshot; sleep was overpowering him.

Next morning, before daybreak, Julien was several leagues from Paris, knocking at the door of the stern Jansenist. He found, greatly to his astonishment, that the other was not unduly surprised at his confession.

‘I ought perhaps to blame myself,’ the abbe said to himself, more anxious than angry. ‘I had thought that I detected this love affair. My affection for yourself, you little wretch, restrained me from warning her father . . . ’

‘What will he do?’ Julien asked him boldly.

(At that moment, he loved the abbe and a scene would have been most painful to him.)

‘I can see three courses of action,’ Julien continued: ‘First of all, M. de La Mole may have me put to death’; and he told the abbe of the letter announcing his suicide which he had left with the Marquis; ‘secondly, he may have me shot down by Comte Norbert, who will challenge me to a duel.’

‘You would accept?’ said the abbe in a fury, rising to his feet.

‘You do not allow me to finish. Certainly I should never fire at the son of my benefactor.

‘Thirdly, he may send me away. If he says to me: “Go to Edinburgh, to New York,” I shall obey. Then they can conceal Mademoiselle de La Mole’s condition; but I shall never allow them to destroy my child.’

‘That, you may be sure, will be the first idea to occur to that corrupt man . . . ’

In Paris, Mathilde was in despair. She had seen her father about seven o’clock. He had shown her Julien’s letter, she trembled lest he should have deemed it noble to put an end to his life: ‘And without my permission?’ she said to herself with an agony which partook of anger.

‘If he is dead, I shall die,’ she said to her father. ‘It is you that will be the cause of my death . . . You will rejoice at it, perhaps . . . But I swear to his ghost that I shall at once put on mourning, and shall be publicly Madame veuve Sorel†, I shall send out the usual announcements, you may count on that . . . You will not find me pusillanimous nor a coward.’

† the widow of M. Sorel]

Her love rose to the pitch of madness. It was now M. de La Mole’s turn to be left speechless.

He began to look upon what had happened more reasonably. At luncheon Mathilde did not put in an appearance. The Marquis was relieved of an immense burden, and flattered as well, when he discovered that she had said nothing to her mother.

Julien dismounted from his horse. Mathilde sent for him, and flung herself into his arms almost in the sight of her maid. Julien was not unduly grateful for this transport, he had come away most diplomatic and most calculating from his long conference with the abbe Pirard. His imagination was extinguished by the calculation of possibilities. Mathilde, with tears in her eyes, informed him that she had seen the letter announcing his suicide.

‘My father may change his mind; oblige me by setting off instantly for Villequier. Mount your horse, leave the premises before they rise from table.’

As Julien did not in any way alter his air of cold astonishment, she burst into a flood of tears.

‘Allow me to manage our affairs,’ she cried to him with a transport, clasping him in her arms. ‘You know very well that it is not of my own free will that I part from you. Write under cover to my maid, let the address be in a strange hand; as for me, I shall write you volumes. Farewell! Fly.’

This last word wounded Julien, he obeyed nevertheless. ‘It is fated,’ he thought, ‘that even in their best moments, these people must find a way of hurting me.’

Mathilde put up a firm resistance to all her father’s prudent plans. She steadfastly refused to set the negotiation upon any other basis than this: She was to be Madame Sorel, and would live in poverty with her husband in Switzerland, or with her father in Paris. She thrust from her the suggestion of a clandestine confinement. ‘That would pave the way to the possibility of calumny and dishonour. Two months after our marriage, I shall travel abroad with my husband, and it will be easy for us to pretend that my child was born at a suitable date.’

Received at first with transports of rage, this firmness ended by inspiring the Marquis with doubts.

In a weak moment: ‘Here,’ he said to his daughter, ‘is a transfer of ten thousand livres a year in the Funds, send it to your Julien, and let him speedily make it impossible for me to reclaim it.’

To obey Mathilde, whose love of giving orders he knew, Julien had made an unnecessary journey of forty leagues: he was at Villequier, examining the accounts of the agents; this generosity on the part of the Marquis was the occasion of his return. He went to seek asylum with the abbe Pirard, who, during his absence, had become Mathilde’s most effective ally. As often as he was interrogated by the Marquis, he proved to him that any other course than a public marriage would be a crime in the sight of God.

‘And happily,’ the abbe added, ‘the wisdom of the world is here in accordance with religion. Could you reckon for an instant, knowing the fiery character of Mademoiselle de La Mole, upon a secrecy which she had not imposed on herself? If you do not allow the frank course of a public marriage, society will occupy itself for far longer with this strange misalliance. Everything must be stated at one time, without the least mystery, apparent or real.’

‘It is true,’ said the Marquis, growing pensive. ‘By this method, to talk of the marriage after three days becomes the chatter of a man who lacks ideas. We ought to profit by some great anti-Jacobin measure by the Government to slip in unobserved in its wake.’

Two or three of M. de La Mole’s friends shared the abbe Pirard’s view. The great obstacle, in their eyes, was Mathilde’s decided nature. But in spite of all these specious arguments, the Marquis could not grow reconciled to abandoning the hope of a tabouret for his daughter.

His memory and his imagination were full of all sorts of trickeries and pretences which had still been possible in his younger days. To yield to necessity, to go in fear of the law seemed to him an absurd thing and dishonouring to a man of his rank. He was paying dearly for those enchanting dreams in which he had indulged for the last ten years as to the future of his beloved daughter.

‘Who could have foreseen it?’ he said to himself. ‘A girl of so haughty a character, so elevated a mind, prouder than myself of the name she bears! One whose hand had been asked of me in advance by all the most illustratious blood in France!

‘We must abandon all prudence. This age is destined to bring everything to confusion! We are marching towards chaos.’

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