The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 38

A Man of Power

But there is such mystery in her movements, such elegance in her form. Who can she be?

SCHILLER

The doors of the dungeon were thrown open at a very early hour the next morning. Julien awoke with a start.

‘Oh, good God,’ he thought, ‘here comes my father. What a disagreeable scene!’

At that moment, a woman dressed as a peasant flung herself into his arms; he had difficulty in recognising her. It was Mademoiselle de La Mole.

‘Miscreant, it was only from your letter that I learned where you were. What you call your crime, though it is nothing but a noble revenge which shows me all the loftiness of the heart that beats in your bosom, I learned only at Verrieres . . . ’

Notwithstanding his prejudices against Mademoiselle de La Mole, prejudices of which, moreover, he had not himself formed any definite idea, Julien found her extremely good-looking. How could he fail to see in all this manner of speech and action a noble, disinterested sentiment, far above anything that a petty, vulgar spirit would have dared? He imagined once again that he was in love with a queen, and after a few moments it was with a rare nobility of speech and thought that he said to her:

‘The future was tracing itself quite clearly before my eyes. After my death, I married you to Croisenois, who would be marrying a widow. The noble but slightly romantic spirit of this charming widow, startled and converted to the service of common prudence by an event at once singular, tragic and for her momentous, would have deigned to appreciate the quite genuine merit of the young Marquis. You would have resigned yourself to enjoying the happiness of the rest of the world: esteem, riches, high rank . . . But, dear Mathilde, your coming to Besancon, if it is suspected, is going to be a mortal blow to M. de La Mole, and that is what I will never forgive myself. I have already caused him so much sorrow! The Academician will say that he has been warming a serpent in his bosom.’

‘I must confess that I hardly expected so much cold reasoning, so much thought for the future,’ said Mademoiselle de La Mole, half annoyed. ‘My maid, who is almost as prudent as yourself, procured a passport for herself, and it is in the name of Madame Michelet that I have travelled post.’

‘And Madame Michelet found it so easy to make her way in to me?’

‘Ah! You are still the superior man, the man of my choice! First of all, I offered a hundred francs to a magistrate’s secretary, who assured me that it was impossible for me to enter this dungeon. But after taking the money, this honest man made me wait, raised objections, I thought that he meant to rob me . . . ’ She broke off.

‘Well?’ asked Julien.

‘Do not be angry with me, my little Julien,’ she said, embracing him, ‘I was obliged to give my name to this secretary, who took me for a young milliner from Paris, enamoured of the handsome Julien . . . Indeed, those are his very words. I swore to him that I was your wife, and I am to have permission to see you every day.’

‘That finishes everything,’ thought Julien; ‘I could not prevent it. After all, M. de La Mole is so great a nobleman that public opinion will easily find an excuse for the young Colonel who will wed this charming widow. My approaching death will cover everything’; and he abandoned himself with ecstasy to Mathilde’s love; there followed madness, magnanimity, everything that was most strange. She seriously proposed to him that she should die with him.

After these first transports, and when she had grown used to the happiness of seeing Julien, a keen curiosity suddenly took possession of her soul. She examined her lover, and found him far superior to what she had imagined. Boniface de La Mole seemed to her reincarnate in him, but in a more heroic mould.

Mathilde saw the leading counsel of the place, whom she insulted by offering them gold too crudely; but they ended by accepting.

She speedily came to the conclusion that in doubtful matters of high import, everything in Besancon depended upon M. l’abbe de Frilair.

Under the obscure name of Madame Michelet, she at first found insuperable obstacles in the way to the presence of the all-powerful leader of the Congregation. But the rumour of the beauty of a young milliner, madly in love, who had come from Paris to Besancon to comfort the young abbe Julien Sorel, began to spread through the town.

Mathilde went alone and on foot through the streets of Besancon; she hoped that she might not be recognised. In any event, she thought that it must help her cause to create a strong impression upon the populace. In her folly she thought of making them revolt, to save Julien on his way to the scaffold. Mademoiselle de La Mole imagined herself to be dressed simply and in a manner becoming a woman stricken with grief; she was dressed in such a fashion as to attract every eye.

She was the sole object of attention in Besancon, when, after a week of solicitation, she obtained an audience of M. Frilair.

Great as her courage might be, the idea of an influential head of the Congregation and that of a profound and cautious rascality were so closely associated in her mind that she trembled as she rang the bell at the door of the Bishop’s palace. She could barely stand when she had to climb the stair that led to the First Vicar–General’s apartment. The loneliness of the episcopal palace chilled her with fear. ‘I may sit down in an armchair, and the armchair grip me by the arms, I shall have vanished. Of whom can my maid ask for news of me? The Captain of Police will decline to interfere . . . I am all alone in this great town!’

Her first sight of the apartment set Mademoiselle de La Mole’s heart at rest. First of all, it was a footman in the most elegant livery that had opened the door to her. The parlour in which she was asked to wait displayed that refined and delicate luxury, so different from vulgar magnificence, which one finds in Paris only in the best houses. As soon as she caught sight of M. de Frilair, who came towards her with a fatherly air, all thoughts of a dastardly crime vanished. She did not even find on his handsome countenance the imprint of that energetic, that almost wild virtue, so antipathetic to Parisian society. The half-smile that animated the features of the priest who was in supreme control of everything at Besancon, betokened the man used to good society, the cultured prelate, the able administrator. Mathilde imagined herself in Paris.

It needed only a few minutes for M. de Frilair to lead Mathilde on to admit to him that she was the daughter of his powerful adversary, the Marquis de La Mole.

‘I am not, as a matter of fact, Madame Michelet,’ she said, resuming all the loftiness of her bearing, ‘and this admission costs me little, for I have come to consult you, Sir, as to the possibility of procuring the escape of M. de La Vernaye. In the first place he is guilty of nothing worse than a piece of stupidity; the woman at whom he fired is doing well. In the second place, to corrupt the subordinates, I can put down here and now fifty thousand francs, and bind myself to pay double that sum. Lastly, my gratitude and the gratitude of my family will consider no request impossible from the person who has saved M. de La Vernaye.’

M. de Frilair appeared to be surprised at this name. Mathilde showed him a number of letters from the Ministry of War, addressed to M. Julien Sorel de La Vernaye.

‘You see, Sir, that my father undertook to provide for his future. I married him secretly, my father wished him to be a senior officer before making public this marriage, which is a little odd for a La Mole.’

Mathilde remarked that the expression of benevolence and of a mild gaiety speedily vanished as M. de Frilair began to arrive at important discoveries. A subtlety blended with profound insincerity was portrayed on his features.

The abbe had his doubts, he perused the official documents once more slowly.

‘What advantage can I gain from these strange confidences?’ he asked himself. ‘Here I am suddenly brought into close personal contact with a friend of the famous Marechale de Fervaques, the all-powerful niece of the Lord Bishop of — — through whom one becomes a Bishop in France.

‘What I have always regarded as hidden in the future suddenly presents itself. This may lead me to the goal of all my ambition.’

At first Mathilde was alarmed by the rapid change in the physiognomy of this powerful man, with whom she found herself shut up alone in a remote part of the building. ‘But why!’ she said to herself presently, ‘would it not have been worse to have made no impression upon the cold egoism of a priest sated with the enjoyment of power?’

Dazzled by this rapid and unexpected avenue to the episcopate that was opening before his eyes, astonished at Mathilde’s intelligence, for a moment M. de Frilair was off his guard. Mademoiselle de La Mole saw him almost at her feet, trembling nervously with the intensity of his ambition.

‘Everything becomes clear,’ she thought, ‘nothing will be impossible here for a friend of Madame de Fervaques.’ Despite a sense of jealousy that was still most painful, she found courage to explain that Julien was an intimate friend of the Marechale, and almost every evening used to meet, in her house, the Lord Bishop of ——.

‘If you were to draw by lot four or five times in succession a list of thirty-six jurymen from among the principal inhabitants of this Department,’ said the Vicar–General with the harsh glare of ambition, dwelling upon each of his words, ‘I should consider myself most unfortunate if in each list I did not find eight or nine friends, and those the most intelligent of the lot. Almost invariably I should have a majority, more than that, even for a verdict of guilty; you see, Mademoiselle, with what ease I can secure an acquittal . . . ”

The abbe broke off suddenly, as though startled by the sound of his words; he was admitting things which are never uttered to the profane.

But Mathilde in turn was stupefied when he informed her that what was most astonishing and interesting to Besancon society in Julien’s strange adventure, was that in the past he had inspired a grand passion in Madame de Renal, which he had long reciprocated. M. de Frilair had no difficulty in perceiving the extreme distress which his story produced.

‘I have my revenge!’ he thought. ‘Here, at last, is a way of controlling this decided young person; I was trembling lest I should not succeed in finding one.’ Her distinguished air, as of one not easily led, intensified in his eyes the charm of the rare beauty which he saw almost suppliant before him. He recovered all his self-possession and had no hesitation in turning the knife in the wound.

‘I should not be surprised after all,’ he said to her lightly, ‘were we to learn that it was from jealousy that M. Sorel fired two shots at this woman whom once he loved so dearly. She must have had some relaxation, and for some time past she had been seeing a great deal of a certain abbe Marquinot of Dijon, a sort of Jansenist, utterly without morals, like all of them.’

M. de Frilair went on torturing with voluptuous relish and at his leisure the heart of this beautiful girl, whose weak spot he had discovered.

‘Why,’ he said, fixing a pair of burning eyes on Mathilde, ‘should M. Sorel have chosen the church, if not because at that very moment his rival was celebrating mass there? Everyone agrees in ascribing boundless intelligence and even more prudence to the man who is so fortunate as to enjoy your protection. What more simple than to conceal himself in M. de Renal’s gardens, which he knows so well? There, with almost a certainty of not being seen, nor caught, nor suspected, he could have inflicted death on the woman of whom he was jealous.’

These arguments, apparently so well founded, reduced Mathilde to utter despair. Her spirit, haughty enough but saturated with all that dry prudence which passes in society as a faithful portrayal of the human heart, was not made to understand in a moment the joy of defying all prudence which can be so keen a joy to an ardent soul. In the upper classes of Parisian society, in which Mathilde had lived, passion can only very rarely divest itself of prudence, and it is from the attics on the fifth floor that girls throw themselves out of windows.

At last the abbe de Frilair was sure of his control. He gave Mathilde to understand (he was probably lying) that he could influence as he chose the Crown Counsel, who would have to support the charge against Julien.

After the names of the thirty-six jurors for the assize had been drawn by lot, he would make a direct and personal appeal to at least thirty of them.

If M. de Frilair had not thought Mathilde so good-looking, he would not have spoken to her in such plain terms until their fifth or sixth interview.

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