The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 37

A Dungeon

The tomb of a friend.

STERNE

He heard a great din in the corridor; it was not the hour for visiting his cell; the osprey flew away screaming, the door opened, and the venerable cure Chelan, trembling all over and leaning upon his cane, flung himself into Julien’s arms.

‘Ah, great God! Is it possible, my child . . . Monster, I ought to say.’

And the good old man could not add another word. Julien was afraid of his falling. He was obliged to lead him to a chair. The hand of time had fallen heavily upon this man, so vigorous in days gone by. He appeared to Julien to be only the ghost of his former self.

When he had recovered his breath: ‘Only the day before yesterday, I received your letter from Strasbourg, with your five hundred francs for the poor of Verrieres; it was brought to me up in the mountains at Liveru, where I have gone to live with my nephew Jean. Yesterday, I learned of the catastrophe . . . Oh, heavens! Is it possible?’ The old man’s tears ceased to flow, he seemed incapable of thought and added mechanically: ‘You will need your five hundred francs, I have brought them back to you.’

‘I need to see you, Father!’ Julien exclaimed with emotion. ‘I have plenty of money.’

But he could not extract any coherent answer. From time to time, M. Chelan shed a few tears which rolled in silence down his cheeks; then he gazed at Julien, and was almost stupefied at seeing him take his hands and raise them to his lips. That countenance, once so lively, and so vigorous in its expression of the noblest sentiments, was no longer to be aroused from a state of apathy. A sort of peasant came presently to fetch the old man. ‘It does not do to tire him,’ he said to Julien, who realised that this was the nephew. This visit left Julien plunged in bitter grief which stopped his tears. Everything seemed to him sad and comfortless; he felt his heart freeze in his bosom.

This was the most cruel moment that he had experienced since the crime. He had seen death face to face, and in all its ugliness. All the illusions of greatness of soul and generosity had been scattered like a cloud before the storm.

This fearful situation lasted for some hours. After moral poisoning, one requires physical remedies and a bottle of champagne. Julien would have deemed himself a coward had he had recourse to them. Towards the end of a horrible day, the whole of which he had spent in pacing the floor of his narrow dungeon: ‘What a fool I am!’ he exclaimed. ‘It would be if I expected to die in my bed that the sight of that poor old man ought to make me so utterly wretched; but a swift death in the springtide of life is the very thing to save me from that miserable decrepitude.’

Whatever arguments he might thus advance, Julien found that he was moved like any pusillanimous creature and made wretched in consequence by this visit.

There was no longer any trace of rugged grandeur in him, any Roman virtue; death appeared to him on a higher plane, and as a thing less easily to be won.

‘This shall be my thermometer,’ he said to himself. This evening I am ten degrees below the level of courage that must lead me to the guillotine. This morning, I had that courage. What does it matter, after all? Provided that it returns to me at the right moment.’ This idea of a thermometer amused him and succeeded finally in distracting him.

Next morning, on waking, he was ashamed of his behaviour the day before. ‘My happiness, my tranquillity are at stake.’ He almost made up his mind to write to the Attorney–General to ask that nobody should be admitted to his cell. ‘And Fouque?’ he thought. ‘If he can manage to come to Besancon, how distressed he will be.’

It was perhaps two months since he had given Fouque a thought. ‘I was an utter fool at Strasbourg, my thoughts never went beyond my coat collar.’ Memories of Fouque kept recurring to his mind and left him in a more tender mood. He paced the floor with agitation. ‘Now I am certainly twenty degrees below the level of death . . . If this weakness increases, it will pay me better to kill myself. What a joy for the abbe Maslons and the Valenods if I die here like a rat!’

Fouque arrived; the simple, honest fellow was shattered by grief. His sole idea, if he had one at all, was to sell all that he possessed in order to corrupt the gaoler and so save Julien’s life. He spoke to him for hours of the escape of M. de Lavalette.

‘You distress me,’ Julien said to him; ‘M. de Lavalette was innocent, I am guilty. Without meaning to do so, you make me realise the difference . . .

‘But is it true? What! You would sell all that you have?’ said Julien, suddenly becoming observant and suspicious once more.

Fouque, delighted to see his friend at last responsive to his dominant idea, explained to him in full detail, and to within a hundred francs or so, what he expected to receive for each of his properties.

‘What a sublime effort in a small landowner!’ thought Julien. ‘How many savings, how many little cheese-parings, which made me blush so when I saw him make them, he is willing to sacrifice for me! None of those fine young fellows whom I used to see at the Hotel de La Mole, who read Rene, would have any of his absurdities; but apart from those of them who are very young and have inherited fortunes, as well, and know nothing of the value of money, which of those fine Parisians would be capable of such a sacrifice?’

All Fouque’s mistakes in grammer, all his vulgar mannerisms vanished, he flung himself into his arms. Never have the provinces, when contrasted with Paris, received a nobler homage. Fouque, delighted by the enthusiasm which he read in his friend’s eyes, mistook it for consent to an escape.

This glimpse of the sublime restored to Julien all the strength of which M. Chelan’s visit had robbed him. He was still very young; but, to my mind, he was a fine plant. Instead of his advancing from tenderness to cunning, like the majority of men, age would have given him an easy access to emotion, he would have been cured of an insane distrust . . . But what good is there in these vain predictions?

The examinations became more frequent, in spite of the efforts of Julien, whose answers were all aimed at cutting the whole business short. ‘I have taken life, or at least I have sought to take life, and with premeditation,’ he repeated day after day. But the magistrate was a formalist first and foremost. Julien’s statements in no way cut short the examinations; the magistrate’s feelings were hurt. Julien did not know that they had proposed to remove him to a horrible cellar, and that it was thanks to Fouque’s intervention that he was allowed to remain in his charming room one hundred and eighty steps from the ground.

M. l’abbe de Frilair was one of the important persons who contracted with Fouque for the supply of their firewood. The honest merchant had access even to the all-powerful Vicar–General. To his inexpressible delight, M. de Frilair informed him that, touched by the good qualities of Julien and by the services which he had rendered in the past to the Seminary, he intended to intervene on his behalf with the judges. Fouque saw a hope of saving his friend, and on leaving his presence, bowing to the ground, begged the Vicar–General to expend upon masses, to pray for the acquittal of the prisoner, a sum of ten louis.

Fouque was strangely in error. M. de Frilair was by no means a Valenod. He refused, and even tried to make the worthy peasant understand that he would do better to keep his money in his pocket. Seeing that it was impossible to make his meaning clear without indiscretion, he advised him to distribute the sum in alms, for the poor prisoners, who, as a matter of fact, were in need of everything.

‘This Julien is a strange creature, his action is inexplicable,’ thought M. de Frilair, ‘and nothing ought to be inexplicable to me . . . Perhaps it will be possible to make a martyr of him . . . In any case, I shall get to the true inwardness of this business and may perhaps find an opportunity of inspiring fear in that Madame de Renal, who has no respect for us, and detests me in her heart . . . Perhaps I may even discover in all this some sensational means of reconciliation with M. de La Mole, who has a weakness for this little Seminarist.’

The settlement of the lawsuit had been signed some weeks earlier, and the abbe Pirard had left Besancon, not without having spoken of the mystery of Julien’s birth, on the very day on which the wretched fellow tried to kill Madame de Renal in the church of Verrieres.

Julien saw only one disagreeable incident in store for him before his death, namely a visit from his father. He consulted Fouque as to his idea of writing to the Attorney–General, asking to be excused any further visitors. This horror at the sight of a father, at such a moment, shocked the honest and respectable heart of the timber-merchant profoundly.

He thought he understood why so many people felt a passionate hatred of his friend. Out of respect for another’s grief, he concealed his feelings.

‘In any case,’ he replied coldly, ‘an order for solitary confinement would not apply to your father.’

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