The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 36

Painful Details

Do not look for any weakness on my part. I have avenged myself. I have deserved death, and here I am. Pray for my soul.

SCHILLER

Julien remained motionless, seeing nothing. When he came to himself a little, he noticed the whole congregation rushing from the church; the priest had left the altar. Julien set off at a leisurely pace in the wake of some women who were screaming as they went. One woman, who was trying to escape faster than the rest, gave him a violent push; he fell. His feet were caught in a chair overturned by the crowd; as he rose, he felt himself gripped by the collar; it was a gendarme in full uniform who was arresting him. Mechanically Julien’s hand went to his pocket pistols; but a second gendarme seized him by the arms.

He was led away to prison. They took him into a room, put irons on his wrists, and left him by himself; the door was shut on him and double-locked; all this was carried out quickly, and he remained unconscious of it.

‘Faith, all is over,’ he said aloud on coming to himself . . . ‘Yes, in a fortnight the guillotine . . . or suicide between now and then.’

His reasoning went no farther; he felt a pain in his head as though it had been gripped with violence. He looked round to see if anyone was holding it. A few moments later, he fell into a deep slumber.

Madame de Renal was not mortally wounded. The first bullet had passed through her hat; as she turned round, the second shot had been fired. This bullet had struck her in the shoulder, and, what was surprising, had glanced back from the shoulder-blade, which nevertheless it shattered, against a gothic pillar, from which it broke off a huge splinter of stone.

When, after a long and painful examination, the surgeon, a grave man, said to Madame de Renal: ‘I answer for your life as for my own,’ she was deeply affected.

For a long time she had sincerely longed for death. The letter which she had been ordered to write by her confessor of the moment, and had written to M. de La Mole, had dealt the final blow to this creature weakened by an ever-present sorrow. This sorrow was Julien’s absence; she herself called it remorse. Her director, a young cleric, virtuous and fervent, recently arrived from Dijon, was under no illusion.

‘To die thus, but not by my own hand, is not a sin,’ thought Madame de Renal. ‘God will pardon me perhaps for rejoicing in my death.’ She dared not add: ‘And to die by the hand of Julien is the acme of bliss.’

As soon as she was rid of the presence of the surgeon, and of all her friends who had come crowding round her, she sent for Elisa, her maid.

‘The gaoler,’ she said to her, blushing deeply, ‘is a cruel man. Doubtless he intends to maltreat him, thinking that by so doing he will be pleasing me . . . The thought of such a thing is unendurable. Could you not go, as though on your own behalf, and give the gaoler this packet which contains a few louis? You will tell him that religion does not permit his maltreating him . . . But on no account must he mention this gift of money.’

It was to this circumstance that Julien was indebted for the humanity of the gaoler of Verrieres; he was still that M. Noiroud, the loyal supporter of the government, whom we have seen thrown into such a panic by the arrival of M. Appert.

A magistrate appeared in the prison. ‘I have taken life with premeditation,’ Julien said to him; ‘I bought the pistols and had them loaded by So-and-so, the gunsmith. Article 1342. of the Penal Code is quite clear, I deserve death and await it.’ The magistrate, surprised by the character of this reply, sought to multiply his questions so that the accused might contradict himself in his answers.

‘But don’t you see,’ Julien said to him with a smile, ‘that I am making myself out as guilty as you can wish? Go, Sir, you shall not lack the quarry that you are pursuing. You shall have the pleasure of passing sentence. Spare me your presence.

‘I have still a tiresome duty to perform,’ thought Julien, ‘I must write to Mademoiselle de La Mole.

‘I have avenged myself,’ he told her. ‘Unfortunately, my name will appear in the newspapers, and I cannot escape from this world incognito. I shall die within two months. My revenge has been terrible, like the grief of being parted from you. From this moment, I forbid myself to write and to utter your name. Never speak of me, even to my son: silence is the only way of honouring me. To the average man I shall be a common murderer . . . Allow me to tell the truth in this supreme moment: you will forget me. This great catastrophe, as to which I recommend you never to open your lips to a living soul, will suppress for some years all the romantic and unduly adventurous element that I saw in your character. You were made to live among the heroes of the Middle Ages; show in this crisis their firmness of character. Let what is bound to happen be accomplished in secret and without compromising you. You will take a false name and dispense with a confidant. If you must absolutely have the assistance of a friend, I bequeath to you the abbe Pirard.

‘Do not speak to anyone else, especially to men of your own class; de Luz or Caylus.

‘A year after my death, marry M. de Croisenois; I order you as your husband. Do not write to me at all, I should not answer you. Though far less of a villain than Iago, or so it seems to me, I shall say like him: From this time forth I never will speak word.

‘No one shall see me either speak or write; you will have had my last words, with my last adoration.

‘J. S.’

It was after he had sent off this letter that for the first time, Julien, having slightly recovered himself, became extremely unhappy. One by one, each of the hopes of his ambition must be wrenched from his heart by those solemn words: ‘I am to die.’ Death, in itself, was not horrible in his eyes. His whole life had been merely a long preparation for misfortune, and he had certainly never forgotten what is reckoned the greatest misfortune of all.

‘Why!’ he said to himself, ‘if in sixty days I had to fight a duel with a man who was a champion fencer, should I be so weak as to think of it incessantly and with terror in my soul?’

He spent more than an hour in seeking to discover his exact sentiments in this connection.

When he had seen clearly into his soul, and the truth appeared before his eyes as sharply defined as one of the pillars of his prison, he thought of remorse.

‘Why should I feel any? I have been outraged in a terrible manner; I have taken life, I deserve death, but that is all. I die after having paid my reckoning with humanity. I leave behind me no unfulfilled obligation, I owe nothing to anyone; there is nothing shameful in my death but the instrument of it: that by itself, it is true, will amply suffice to shame me in the eyes of the townsfolk of Verrieres; but, from an intellectual point of view, what could be more contemptible? There remains one way of acquiring distinction in their eyes: namely, by scattering gold coins among the crowd on my way to the scaffold. My memory, linked with the thought of gold, will then be resplendent to them.’

After this consideration, which at the end of a minute seemed to him conclusive: ‘I have nothing more to do on earth,’ Julien said to himself and fell into a deep slumber.

About nine o’clock in the evening, the gaoler awakened him by bringing in his supper.

‘What are they saying in Verrieres?’

‘Monsieur Julien, the oath that I took before the Crucifix, in the King’s court, the day I was installed in my post, compels me to keep silence.’

He was silent, but remained in the room. The spectacle of this vulgar hypocrisy amused Julien. ‘I must,’ he thought, ‘keep him waiting a long time for the five francs which he wants as the price of his conscience.’

When the gaoler saw the meal come to an end without any attempt at corruption:

‘The friendship that I feel for you, Monsieur Julien,’ he began, with a false, winning air, ‘obliges me to speak; although they may say that it is against the interests of justice, because it may help you to arrange your defence . . . Monsieur Julien, who has a good heart, will be glad if I tell him that Madame de Renal is going on well.’

‘What! She is not dead?’ cried Julien, beside himself with amazement.

‘What! Didn’t you know?’ said the gaoler with an air of stupidity which presently turned to one of joyful greed. ‘It would only be right for Monsieur to give something to the surgeon who, according to law and justice, ought not to speak. But, to oblige Monsieur, I went to his house, and he told me everything . . . ’

‘In short, the injury is not mortal,’ said Julien, losing patience, ‘you answer for that with your life?’

The gaoler, a giant six feet in stature, took fright and retreated towards the door. Julien saw that he was going the wrong way to reach the truth, he sat down again and tossed a napoleon to M. Noiroud.

As the man’s story began to convince Julien that Madame de Renal’s injury was not mortal, he felt himself overcome by tears. ‘Leave me!’ he said suddenly.

The gaoler obeyed. As soon as the door was shut: ‘Great God! She is not dead!’ exclaimed Julien; and he fell on his knees, weeping hot tears.

In this supreme moment he was a believer. What matter the hypocrisies of the priests? Can they destroy anything of the truth and sublimity of the idea of God?

Only then did Julien begin to repent of the crime that he had committed. By a coincidence which saved him from despair, at that moment only had passed away the state of irritation and semi-insanity in which he had been plunged since leaving Paris for Verrieres.

His tears sprang from a generous source, he had no doubt as to the sentence that was in store for him.

‘And so she will live!’ he said to himself . . . ‘She will live to pardon me and to love me.’

Late next morning, when the gaoler awakened him:

‘You must have a wonderful heart, Monsieur Julien,’ the man said to him. ‘Twice I have come in and did not want to wake you. Here are two bottles of excellent wine which M. Maslon, our cure, sends you.’

‘What? Is that rascal here still?’ said Julien.

‘Yes, Sir,’ replied the gaoler, lowering his voice, ‘but do not speak so loud, it may damage you.’

Julien laughed heartily.

‘At the stage I have reached, my friend, you alone could damage me, if you ceased to be gentle and human . . . You shall be well paid,’ Julien broke off, resuming his imperious air. This air was immediately justified by the gift of a small coin.

M. Noiroud told him once more, going into the fullest detail, all that he had heard about Madame de Renal, but he did not mention Miss Elisa’s visit.

This man was as menial and submissive as possible. An idea came into Julien’s head: ‘This sort of ungainly giant may earn three or four hundred francs, for his prison is never crowded; I can guarantee him ten thousand francs, if he cares to escape to Switzerland with me . . . The difficulty will be to persuade him of my sincerity.’ The thought of the long colloquy that he would have to hold with so vile a creature filled Julien with disgust, he turned his mind to other things.

That evening, there was no longer time. A post-chaise came to fetch him at midnight. He was charmed with the gendarmes, his travelling companions. In the morning, when he arrived at the prison of Besancon, they were so kind as to lodge him on the upper floor of a gothic dungeon. He guessed the architecture to date from the beginning of the fourteenth century; he admired its grace and pointed airiness. Through a narrow gap between two walls on the farther side of a deep courtyard, there was a glimpse of a superb view.

Next day he was examined, after which, for several days, he was left to himself. His spirit was calm. He could find nothing that was not quite simple in his case: ‘I sought to kill, I must be killed.’

His thoughts did not linger to consider this argument. The trial, the annoyance of appearing in public, the defence, he regarded as so many trifling embarrassments, tiresome ceremonies of which it would be time to think when the day came. The prospect of death detained him almost as little: ‘I shall think of that after the sentence.’ Life was by no means tedious to him, he looked at everything in a fresh light. He had no ambition left. He thought rarely of Mademoiselle de La Mole. His remorse occupied him a great deal and often called up before him the image of Madame de Renal, especially in the silence of the night, disturbed only, in this lofty dungeon, by the cry of the osprey!

He thanked heaven for not having let him wound her mortally. ‘An astonishing thing!’ he said to himself, ‘I thought that by her letter to M. de La Mole she had destroyed my future happiness for all time, and, in less than a fortnight after the date of that letter, I no longer think of all that was occupying my mind . . . Two or three thousand livres a year to live quietly in a mountain village like Vergy . . . I was happy then . . . I did not recognise my own happiness!’

At other moments, he would rise with a bound from his chair. ‘If I had wounded Madame de Renal mortally, I should have killed myself . . . I require that certainty to make me feel a horror of myself.,,,

‘Kill myself! That is the great question,’ he said to himself. Those judges so steeped in formalities, so thirsty for the blood of the wretched prisoner, who would have the best of citizens hanged in order to hang a Cross from their own buttonholes . . . I should remove myself from their power, from their insults in bad French, which the local newspaper will proceed to call eloquence.

‘I may live for five or six weeks still, more or less . . . Kill myself! Faith, no,’ he said to himself after a few days, ‘Napoleon lived . . .

‘Besides, life is pleasant to me; this is a quiet spot to stay in; I have no worries,’ he added, laughing, and set to work to make a list of the books which he wished to have sent to him from Paris.

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