The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 34

A Man of Spirit

The prefect riding along on his horse thought to himself, Why should I not be a minister, head of the Cabinet, a duke? This is how I would wage war . . . In that way I would have innovators put in chains.

Le Globe

No argument is sufficient to destroy the mastery acquired by ten years of pleasant fancies. The Marquis thought it unreasonable to be angry, but could not bring himself to forgive. ‘If this Julien could die by accident,’ he said to himself at times . . . Thus it was that his sorrowful imagination found some relief in pursuing the most absurd chimeras. They paralysed the influence of the wise counsels of the abbe Pirard. A month passed in this way without the slightest advance in the negotiations.

In this family affair, as in affairs of politics, the Marquis had brilliant flashes of insight which would leave him enthusiastic for three days on end. At such times a plan of conduct would not please him because it was backed by sound reasons; the reasons found favour in his sight only in so far as they supported his favourite plan. For three days, he would labour with all the ardour and enthusiasm of a poet, to bring matters to a certain position; on the fourth, he no longer gave it a thought.

At first Julien was disconcerted by the dilatoriness of the Marquis; but, after some weeks, he began to discern that M. de La Mole had, in dealing with this affair, no definite plan.

Madame de La Mole and the rest of the household thought that Julien had gone into the country to look after the estates; he was in hiding in the abbe Pirard’s presbytery, and saw Mathilde almost every day; she, each morning, went to spend an hour with her father, but sometimes they remained for weeks on end without mentioning the matter that was occupying all their thoughts.

‘I do not wish to know where that man is,’ the Marquis said to her one day; ‘send him this letter.’ Mathilde read:

‘The estates in Languedoc bring in 20,600 francs. I give 10,600 francs to my daughter, and 10,000 francs to M. Julien Sorel. I make over the estates themselves, that is to say. Tell the lawyer to draft two separate deeds of gift, and to bring me them tomorrow; after which, no further relations between us. Ah! Sir, how was I to expect such a thing as this?


‘I thank you very much,’ said Mathilde gaily. ‘We are going to settle in the Chateau d’Aiguillon, between Agen and Marmande. They say that the country there is as beautiful as Italy.’

This donation came as a great surprise to Julien. He was no longer the severe, cold man that we have known. The destiny of his child absorbed all his thoughts in anticipation. This unexpected fortune, quite considerable for so poor a man, made him ambitious. He now saw, settled on his wife or himself, an income of 30,600 francs. As for Mathilde, all her sentiments were absorbed in one of adoration of her husband, for thus it was that her pride always named Julien. Her great, her sole ambition was to have her marriage recognised. She spent her time in exaggerating the high degree of prudence that she had shown in uniting her destiny with that of a superior man. Personal merit was in fashion in her brain.

Their almost continuous separation, the multiplicity of business, the little time that they had to talk of love, now completed the good effect of the wise policy adopted by Julien in the past.

Finally Mathilde grew impatient at seeing so little of the man whom she had now come to love sincerely.

In a moment of ill humour she wrote to her father, and began her letter like Othello:

‘That I have preferred Julien to the attractions which society offered to the daughter of M. le Marquis de La Mole, my choice of him sufficiently proves. These pleasures of reputation and petty vanity are nothing to me. It will soon be six weeks that I have lived apart from my husband. That is enough to prove my respect for you. Before next Thursday, I shall leave the paternal roof. Your generosity has made us rich. No one knows my secret save the estimable abbe Pirard. I shall go to him; he will marry us, and an hour after the ceremony we shall be on our way to Languedoc, and shall never appear again in Paris save by your order. But what pierces me to the heart is that all this will furnish a savoury anecdote at my expense, and at yours. May not the epigrams of a foolish public oblige our excellent Norbert to seek a quarrel with Julien? In that event, I know him, I should have no control over him. We should find in his heart the plebeian in revolt. I implore you on my knees, O my father, come and attend our wedding, in M. Pirard’s church, next Thursday. The point of the malicious anecdote will be blunted, and the life of your only son, my husband’s life will be made safe,’ etc., etc.

This letter plunged the Marquis in a strange embarrassment. He must now at length make up his mind. AH his little habits, all his commonplace friends had lost their influence.

In these strange circumstances, the salient features of his character, stamped upon it by the events of his younger days, resumed their full sway. The troubles of the Emigration had made him a man of imagination. After he had enjoyed for two years an immense fortune and all the distinctions of the Court, 1790 had cast him into the fearful hardships of the Emigration. This hard school had changed the heart of a man of two and twenty. Actually he was encamped amid his present wealth rather than dominated by it. But this same imagination which had preserved his soul from the gangrene of gold, had left him a prey to an insane passion for seeing his daughter adorned with a fine-sounding title.

During the six weeks that had just elapsed, urged at one moment by a caprice, the Marquis had decided to enrich Julien; poverty seemed to him ignoble, dishonouring to himself, M. de La Mole, impossible in the husband of his daughter; he showered money upon him. Next day, his imagination taking another direction, it seemed to him that Julien would hear the silent voice of this generosity in the matter of money, change his name, retire to America, write to Mathilde that he was dead to her. M. de La Mole imagined this letter as written, and traced its effect on his daughter’s character . . .

On the day on which he was awakened from these youthful dreams by Mathilde’s real letter, after having long thought of killing Julien or of making him disappear, he was dreaming of building up for him a brilliant future. He was making him take the name of one of his properties; and why should he not secure the transmission of his peerage to him? M. le Duc de Chaulnes, his father-inlaw, had spoken to him several times, since his only son had been killed in Spain, of wishing to hand on his title to Norbert . . .

‘One cannot deny that Julien shows a singular aptitude for business, audacity, perhaps even brilliance,’ the Marquis said to himself . . . ‘But at the back of that character, I find something alarming. It is the impression that he produces on everyone, therefore there must be something real in it’ (the more difficult this reality was to grasp, the more it alarmed the imaginative spirit of the old Marquis).

‘My daughter expressed it to me very cleverly the other day’ (in a letter which we have suppressed): ‘“Julien belongs to no drawing-room, to no set.” He has not contrived to find any support against me, not the slightest resource if I abandon him . . . But is that due to ignorance of the actual state of society? Two or three times I have said to him: “There is no real and profitable candidature save that of the drawing-rooms . . .”

‘No, he has not the adroit and cautious spirit of a pettifogger who never loses a minute or an opportunity . . . It is not at all the character of a Louis XI. On the other hand, I see in him the most ungenerous maxims . . . I lose track of him . . . Does he repeat those maxims to himself, to serve as a dam to his passions?

‘Anyhow, one thing is clear: he cannot endure contempt, in that way I hold him.

‘He has not the religious feeling for high birth, it is true, he does not respect us by instinct . . . That is bad; but, after all, the heart of a seminarist should be impatient only of the want of pleasure and money. He is very different; he cannot endure contempt at any price.’

Forced by his daughter’s letter, M. de La Mole saw the necessity of making up his mind: ‘Well, here is the great question: has Julien’s audacity gone the length of setting him to make love to my daughter, because he knows that I love her more than anything in the world, and that I have an income of a hundred thousand crowns?

‘Mathilde protests the opposite . . . No, master Julien, that is a point upon which I wish to be under no illusion.

‘Has there been genuine, unpremeditated love? Or rather a vulgar desire to raise himself to a good position? Mathilde is perspicacious, she felt from the first that this suspicion might ruin him with me; hence that admission: it was she who thought first of loving him . . .

‘That a girl of so lofty a character should so far have forgotten herself as to make tangible advances! . . . Press his arm in the garden, one evening, how horrible! As though she had not had a hundred less indelicate ways of letting him know that she favoured him.

‘To excuse is to accuse; I distrust Mathilde .. .’ That day, the Marquis’s arguments were more conclusive than usual. Habit, however, prevailed; he resolved to gain time and to write to his daughter; for they communicated by letter between different parts of the house. M. de La Mole dared not discuss matters with Mathilde and hold out against her. He was afraid of bringing everything to an end by a sudden concession.

‘Take care not to commit any fresh act of folly; here is a commission as Lieutenant of Hussars for M. le Chevalier Julien Sorel de La Vernaye. You see what I am doing for him. Do not cross me, do not question me. He shall start within twenty-four hours, and report himself at Strasbourg, where his regiment is quartered. Here is a draft upon my banker; I expect obedience.’

Mathilde’s love and joy knew no bounds; she sought to profit by her victory and replied at once:

‘M. de La Vernaye would be at your feet, speechless with gratitude, if he knew all that you are deigning to do for him. But, in the midst of this generosity, my father has forgotten me; your daughter’s honour is in danger. A single indiscretion may leave an everlasting blot, which an income of twenty thousand crowns would not efface. I shall send this commission to M. de La Vernaye only if you give me your word that, in the course of the next month, my marriage shall be celebrated in public, at Villequier. Soon after that period, which I beg you not to prolong, your daughter will be unable to appear in public save with the name of Madame de La Vernaye. How I thank you, dear Papa, for having saved me from the name of Sorel,’ etc., etc.

The reply was unexpected.

‘Obey or I retract all. Tremble, rash girl, I do not yet know what your Julien is, and you yourself know even less than I. Let him start for Strasbourg, and put his best foot foremost. I shall make my wishes known in a fortnight’s time.’

The firmness of this reply astonished Mathilde. ‘I do not know Julien’; these words plunged her in a day-dream which presently ended in the most enchanting suppositions; but she believed them to be the truth. ‘My Julien’s mind has not donned the tawdry little uniform of the drawing-rooms, and my father disbelieves in his superiority because of the very fact which proves it . . .

‘Anyhow, if I do not obey this sudden impulse, I foresee the possibility of a public scene; a scandal lowers my position in society, and may make me less attractive in Julien’s eyes. After the scandal . . . ten years of poverty; and the folly of choosing a husband on account of his merit can only be saved from ridicule by the most brilliant opulence. If I live apart from my father, at his age, he may forget me . . . Norbert will marry some attractive, clever woman: the old Louis XIV was beguiled by the Duchesse de Bourgogne . . . ’

She decided to obey, but refrained from communicating her father’s letter to Julien; his unaccountable nature might lead him to commit some act of folly.

That evening, when she informed Julien that he was a Lieutenant of Hussars, his joy knew no bounds. We may form an idea of it from the ambition that marked his whole life, and from the passionate love that he now felt for his child. The change of name filled him with astonishment.

‘At last,’ he thought, ‘the tale of my adventures is finished, and the credit is all mine. I have contrived to make myself loved by this monster of pride,’ he added, looking at Mathilde; ‘her father cannot live without her, nor she without me.’

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