The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 39

Intrigue

Castres, 1676. — He that endeavoured to kill his sister in our house, had before killed a man, and it had cost his father five hundred ecus to get him off; by their secret distribution, gaining the favour of the counsellors.

LOCKE, Travels in France

† I am indebted to the patience and ingenuity of Mr. Vyvyan Holland, who has traced the original text of this motto in The Life of John Locke, with extracts from his Correspondence, Journals and Commonplace Books by Lord King (new edition, 1830) C. K. S. M.]

On leaving the Bishop’s palace, Mathilde did not hesitate to send a messenger to Madame de Fervaques; the fear of compromising herself did not restrain her for a second. She implored her rival to obtain a letter for M. de Frilair, written throughout in the hand of the Lord Bishop of ——. She even went the length of beseeching the other to hasten, herself, to Besancon. This was a heroic measure on the part of a proud and jealous spirit.

On the advice of Fouque, she had taken the precaution of saying nothing about what she was doing to Julien. Her presence was disturbing enough in itself. A more honourable man at the approach of death than he had been during his life, he now felt compunction at the thought not only of M. de La Mole, but also of Mathilde.

‘What is this?’ he asked himself, ‘I experience in her company moments of abstraction and even of boredom. She is ruining herself for me, and it is thus that I reward her. Can I indeed be wicked?’ This question would have troubled him little when he was ambitious; then, not to succeed in life was the only disgrace in his eyes.

His moral uneasiness, in Mathilde’s presence, was all the more marked, in that he inspired in her at that moment the most extraordinary and insensate passion. She could speak of nothing but the strange sacrifices which she was anxious to make to save him.

Carried away by a sentiment of which she was proud and which completely overbore her pride, she would have liked not to allow a moment of her life to pass that was not filled with some extraordinary action. The strangest plans, the most perilous to herself, formed the theme of her long conversations with Julien. His gaolers, well rewarded, allowed her to have her way in the prison. Mathilde’s ideas were not confined to the sacrifice of her reputation; it mattered nothing to her though she made her condition known to the whole of society. To fling herself on her knees to crave pardon for Julien, in front of the King’s carriage as it came by at a gallop, to attract the royal attention, at the risk of a thousand deaths, was one of the tamest fancies of this exalted and courageous imagination. Through her friends who held posts at court, she could count upon being admitted to the reserved parts of the park of Saint–Cloud.

Julien felt himself to be hardly worthy of such devotion, to tell the truth he was tired of heroism. It would have required a simple, artless, almost timid affection to appeal to him, whereas on the contrary, Mathilde’s proud spirit must always entertain the idea of a public, of what people would say.

In the midst of all her anguish, of all her fears for the life of this lover, whom she was determined not to outlive, she had a secret longing to astonish the public by the intensity of her love and the sublimity of her actions.

He resented the discovery that he was unable to feel at all touched by all this heroism. What would his resentment have been, had he known of all the follies with which Mathilde overpowered the devoted, but eminently reasonable and limited mind of the good Fouque?

The latter could scarcely find fault with Mathilde’s devotion; for he, too, would have sacrificed his whole fortune and exposed his life to the greatest risks to save Julien. He was stupefied by the quantity of gold which Mathilde scattered abroad. At first, the sums thus spent impressed Fouque, who had for money all the veneration of a provincial.

Later, he discovered that Mademoiselle de La Mole’s plans often varied, and, to his great relief, found a word with which to reproach this character which was so exhausting to him: she was changeable. To this epithet, that of wrongheaded, the direst anathema in the provinces, is the immediate sequel.

‘It is strange,’ Julien said to himself one day as Mathilde was leaving his prison, ‘that so warm a passion, and one of which I am the object, leaves me so unmoved! And I worshipped her two months ago! I have indeed read that at the approach of death we lose interest in everything; but it is frightful to feel oneself ungrateful and to be unable to change. Can I be an egoist?’ He heaped on himself, in this connection, the most humiliating reproaches.

Ambition was dead in his heart, another passion had risen from its ashes; he called it remorse for having murdered Madame de Renal.

As a matter of fact, he was hopelessly in love with her. He found a strange happiness when, left absolutely alone and without any fear of being disturbed, he could abandon himself entirely to the memory of the happy days which he had spent in the past at Verrieres or at Vergy. The most trifling incidents of that time, too swiftly flown, had for him a freshness and a charm that were irresistible. He never gave a thought to his Parisian successes; they bored him.

This tendency, which grew rapidly stronger, was not entirely hidden from the jealous Mathilde. She saw quite plainly that she had to contend with the love of solitude. Now and again, she uttered with terror in her heart the name of Madame de Renal. She saw Julien shudder. From that moment, her passion knew no bounds nor measure.

‘If he dies, I die after him,’ she said to herself with absolute sincerity. ‘What would the drawing-rooms of Paris say, to see a girl of my rank carry to such a point her adoration of a lover condemned to death? To find such sentiments, we must go back to the days of the heroes; it was love of this nature that set hearts throbbing in the age of Charles IX and Henri III.’

Amid the most impassioned transports, when she pressed Julien’s head to her heart: ‘What!’ she said to herself with horror, ‘can this precious head be doomed to fall? Very well!’ she added, inflamed by a heroism that was not devoid of happiness, ‘my lips, which are now pressed against these dear locks, will be frozen within twenty-four hours after.’

Memories of these moments of heroism and fearful ecstasy seized her in an ineluctable grip. The thought of suicide, so absorbing in itself, and hitherto so remote from that proud spirit, penetrated its defences and soon reigned there with an absolute sway. ‘No, the blood of my ancestors has not grown lukewarm in its descent to me,’ Mathilde told herself proudly.

‘I have a favour to ask you,’ her lover said to her one day: Put your child out to nurse at Verrieres, Madame de Renal will look after the nurse.’

‘That is a very harsh saying . . .’ Mathilde turned pale.

‘True, and I ask a thousand pardons,’ cried Julien, awakening from his dream and pressing her to his bosom.

Having dried her tears, he returned to the subject of his thoughts, but with more subtlety. He had given the conversation a turn of melancholy philosophy. He spoke of that future which was soon to close for him. ‘You must agree, my dear friend, that the passions are an accident in life, but this accident is to be found only in superior beings . . . The death of my son would be in reality a relief to the pride of your family, so much the subordinate agents will perceive. Neglect will be the lot of that child of misery and shame . . . I hope that at a date which I do not wish to specify, which however I have the courage to anticipate, you will obey my final behest: You will marry the Marquis de Croisenois.’

‘What, dishonoured!’

‘Dishonour can have no hold over such a name as yours. You will be a widow, and the widow of a madman, that is all. I shall go farther: my crime, being free from any pecuniary motive, will be in no way dishonouring. Perhaps by that time some philosophical legislator will have secured, from the prejudices of his contemporaries, the suppression of capital punishment. Then, some friendly voice will cite as an instance: “Why, Mademoiselle de La Mole’s first husband was mad, but not a wicked man, he was no criminal. It was absurd to cut his head off . . . ” Then my memory will cease to be infamous; at least, after a certain time . . . Your position in society, your fortune, and, let me say, your genius will enable M. de Croisenois to play a part, once he is your husband, to which by himself he could not hope to attain.

He has only his birth and his gallantry, and those qualities by themselves, which made a man accomplished in 1729, are an anachronism a hundred years later, and only give rise to pretensions. A man must have other things besides if he is to place himself at the head of the youth of France.

‘You will bring the support of a firm and adventurous character to the political party in which you will place your husband. You may succeed the Chevreuses and Longuevilles of the Fronde . . . But by then, my dear friend, the heavenly fire which animates you at this moment will have cooled a little.

‘Allow me to tell you,’ he went on, after many other preliminary phrases, ‘in fifteen years from now you will regard as an act of folly, pardonable but still an act of folly, the love that you have felt for me . . . ’

He broke off abruptly and returned to his dreams. He found himself once again confronted by that idea, so shocking to Mathilde: ‘In fifteen years Madame de Renal will adore my son, and you will have forgotten him.’

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