The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 4

The Hotel de La Mole

What is he doing here? might it please him? might he think to please?

RONSARD

If everything seemed strange to Julien, in the noble drawing-room of the Hotel de La Mole, the young man himself, pale and dressed in black, seemed in turn highly singular to those who deigned to notice him. Madame de La Mole suggested that her husband should send him away on business upon days when certain personages were coming to dine.

‘I should like to carry through the experiment,’ replied the Marquis. ‘The abbe Pirard maintains that we do wrong to crush the self-respect of the people we admit into our households. One can lean only upon what resists, etc. There is nothing wrong with this fellow except his uncouth appearance; he might be deaf and dumb.’

‘If I am to keep my bearings, I must,’ Julien said to himself, ‘write down the names and a few words as to the character of the people I see appear in this drawing-room.’

At the head of his list he placed five or six friends of the family who paid a desperate court to him, supposing him to be protected by some caprice of the Marquis. These were poor devils, more or less spiritless; but, it must be said in praise of men of this class as they are to be found today in the drawing-rooms of the nobility, they were not equally spiritless to all comers. Some of them would have let themselves be abused by the Marquis, and yet would have revolted against a harsh word addressed to them by Madame de La Mole.

There was too much pride, there was too much boredom in the character of both host and hostess; they were too much in the habit of insulting people for their own distraction, to be able to expect any true friends. But, except on wet days, and in their moments of furious boredom, which were rare, they were never to be found wanting in politeness.

If the five or six flatterers who treated Julien with such fatherly affection had deserted the Hotel de La Mole, the Marquise would have been left to long hours of solitude; and, in the eyes of women of her rank, solitude is a dreadful thing: it is the badge of disgrace.

The Marquis behaved admirably to his wife; he saw to it that her drawing-room was adequately filled; not with peers, he found his new colleagues scarcely noble enough to come to his house as friends, nor entertaining enough to be admitted as subordinates.

It was not until much later that Julien discovered these secrets. The political questions which form the chief topic in middle-class houses are never mentioned in houses like that of the Marquis, save in times of trouble.

So powerful still, even in this age of boredom, are the dictates of the need of amusement, that even on the evenings of dinnerparties, as soon as the Marquis had left the drawing-room, everyone else fled. So long as you did not speak lightly of God, or of the clergy, or of the King, or of the men in power, or of the artists patronised by the court, or of anything established; so long as you did not say anything good of Beranger, or of the opposition press, or of Voltaire, or of Rousseau, or of anything that allowed itself the liberty of a little freedom of speech; so long, above all, as you did not talk politics, you could discuss anything you pleased with freedom.

There is no income of a hundred thousand crowns, no blue riband that can prevail against a drawing-room so constituted. The smallest living idea seemed an outrage. Despite good tone, perfect manners, the desire to be agreeable, boredom was written upon every brow. The young men who came to pay their respects, afraid to speak of anything that might lead to their being suspected of thinking, afraid to reveal some forbidden reading, became silent after a few elegantly phrased sentences on Rossini and the weather.

Julien observed that the conversation was usually kept going by two Viscounts and five Barons whom M. de La Mole had known during the Emigration. These gentlemen enjoyed incomes of from six to eight thousand livres; four of them swore by the Quotidienne, and three by the Gazette de France. One of them had some new story to tell every day of the Chateau, in which the word ‘admirable’ was lavishly used. Julien remarked that this man wore five Crosses, whereas the others, as a rule, had no more than three.

On the other hand, you saw in the ante-room ten footmen in livery, and all through the evening you had ices or tea every quarter of an hour; and, at midnight, a sort of supper with champagne.

It was for this reason that Julien sometimes remained to the end; otherwise, he failed to understand how anyone could listen seriously to the ordinary conversation of this drawing-room, so magnificently gilded. Now and again he would watch the speakers, to see whether they themselves were not laughing at what they were saying. ‘My M. de Maistre, whom I know by heart, has said things a hundred times better,’ he thought; ‘and even he is extremely boring.’

Julien was not the only one to be aware of the mental stagnation. Some consoled themselves by taking quantities of ices; the others with the pleasure of being able to say for the rest of the evening: ‘I have just come from the Hotel de La Mole, where I heard that Russia’, etc., etc.

Julien learned, from one of the flatterers, that less than six months ago Madame de La Mole had rewarded an assiduity that had lasted for more than twenty years by securing a Prefecture for poor Baron Le Bourguignon, who had been a Sub–Prefect ever since the Restoration.

This great event had rekindled the zeal of these gentlemen; the least thing might have offended them before, now they were no longer offended by anything. It was rare that the incivility was direct, but Julien had already overheard at table two or three brief little passages between the Marquis and his wife, wounding to those who were placed near them. These noble personages did not conceal their sincere contempt for everyone that was not the offspring of people who rode in the King’s carriages. Julien observed that the word Crusade was the only one that brought to their faces an expression of intense seriousness, blended with respect. Their ordinary respect had always a shade of condescension.

In the midst of this magnificence and this boredom, Julien was interested in nothing but M. de La Mole; he listened with pleasure one day to his protestations that he was in no way responsible for the promotion of that poor Le Bourguignon. This was a delicate attention to the Marquise: Julien had learned the truth from the abbe Pirard.

One morning when the abbe was working with Julien, in the Marquis’s library, on the endless litigation with Frilair:

‘Sir,’ said Julien suddenly, ‘is dining every evening with Madame la Marquise one of my duties, or is it a favour that they show me?’

‘It is a signal honour!’ replied the abbe, greatly shocked. ‘M. N— — the Academician, who has been paying assiduous court for the last fifteen years, has never been able to obtain it for his nephew M. Tanbeau.’

‘It is to me, Sir, the most tedious part of my employment. I was less bored at the Seminary. I see even Mademoiselle de La Mole yawn at times, although she must be accustomed to the pretty speeches of the friends of the family. I am afraid of falling asleep. Please be so good as to obtain leave for me to go and dine for forty sous in some obscure inn.’

The abbe, a regular parvenu, was highly sensible of the honour of dining with a great nobleman. While he was endeavouring to make Julien understand what he felt, a slight sound made them turn their heads. Julien saw Mademoiselle de La Mole who was listening. He blushed. She had come in search of a book and had heard everything; she felt a certain respect for Julien. ‘This fellow was not born on his knees,’ she thought, ‘like that old abbe. Heavens! How ugly he is.’

At dinner, Julien dared not look at Mademoiselle de La Mole, but she was so kind as to speak to him. That evening, they expected a large party; she made him promise to remain. Girls in Paris do not care for men of a certain age, especially when they are not well dressed. Julien did not require much sagacity to perceive that M. Le Bourguignon’s colleagues, who remained in the drawing-room, had the honour to be the customary butt of Mademoiselle de La Mole’s wit. That evening, whether with deliberate affectation or not, she was cruel in her treatment of the bores.

Mademoiselle de La Mole was the centre of a little group that assembled almost every evening behind the Marquise’s immense armchair. There, you would find the Marquis de Croisenois, the Comte de Caylus, the Vicomte de Luz and two or three other young officers, friends of Norbert or his sister. These gentlemen sat upon a large blue sofa. At the end of the sofa, opposite to that occupied by the brilliant Mathilde, Julien was silently installed upon a little cane-bottomed chair with a low seat. This modest post was the envy of all the flatterers; Norbert kept his father’s young secretary in countenance by addressing him or uttering his name once or twice in the course of the evening. On this occasion, Mademoiselle de La Mole asked him what might be the height of the mountain on which the citadel of Besancon stood. Julien could not for the life of him have said whether this mountain was higher or lower than Montmartre. Often he laughed heartily at what was being said in the little group; but he felt himself incapable of thinking of anything similar to say. It was like a foreign language which he could understand, but was unable to speak.

Mathilde’s friends were that evening in a state of constant hostility towards the people who kept arriving in this vast drawing-room. The friends of the family had the preference at first, being better known. One can imagine whether Julien was attentive; everything interested him, both the things themselves, and the way they were made to seem ridiculous.

‘Ah! Here comes M. Descoulis,’ said Mathilde; ‘he has left off his wig; can he be hoping to secure a Prefecture by his genius? He is exposing that bald brow which he says is filled with lofty thoughts.’

‘He is a man who knows the whole world,’ said the Marquis de Croisenois; ‘he comes to my uncle, the Cardinal’s, too. He is capable of cultivating a lie with each of his friends, for years on end, and he has two or three hundred friends. He knows how to foster friendship, that is his talent. You ought to see him, covered in mud, at the door of a friend’s house, at seven o’clock on a winter morning.

‘He hatches a quarrel, now and again, and writes seven or eight letters to keep up the quarrel. Then he is reconciled, and produces seven or eight letters for the transports of affection. But it is in the frank and sincere expansion of an honest man who can keep nothing on his conscience that he shines most. This is his favourite device when he has some favour to ask. One of my uncle’s Vicars–General is perfect when he relates the life of M. Descoulis since the Restoration. I shall bring him to see you.’

‘Bah! I shouldn’t listen to that talk; it is the professional jealousy of small-minded people,’ said the Comte de Caylus.

‘M. Descoulis will have a name in history,’ the Marquis went on; ‘he made the Restoration with the Abbe de Pradt and M. Talleyrand and Pozzo di Borgo.’

‘That man has handled millions,’ said Norbert, ‘and I cannot conceive why he comes here to swallow my father’s epigrams, which are often appalling. “How many times have you betrayed your friends, my dear Descoulis?” he shouted at him the other day, down the whole length of the table.’

‘But is it true that he has betrayed people?’ said Mademoiselle de La Mole. ‘Who is there that has not?’

‘What!’ said the Comte de Caylus to Norbert, ‘you have M. Sainclair here, the notorious Liberal; what the devil can he have come for? I must go over to him, and talk to him, and make him talk; they say he is so clever.’

‘But how can your mother have him in the house?’ said M de Croisenois. ‘His ideas are so extravagant, so enthusiastic, so independent . . . ’

‘Look,’ said Mademoiselle de La Mole, ‘there is your independent man, bowing to the ground before M. Descoulis, and seizing his hand. I almost thought he was going to raise it to his lips.’

‘Descoulis must stand better with the authorities than we thought,’ put in M. de Croisenois.

‘Sainclair comes here to get into the Academy,’ said Norbert; ‘look how he is bowing to Baron L— — Croisenois.’

‘He would be less servile if he went on his knees,’ put in M. de Luz.

‘My dear Sorel,’ said Norbert, ‘you who are a man of brains, but have just come down from your mountains, see that you never bow to people as that great poet does, not even to God Almighty.’

‘Ah! Here comes a man of brains if you like, M. le Baron Baton,’ said Mademoiselle de La Mole, imitating the voice of the footman who had just announced him.

‘I think even your servants laugh at him. What a name, Baron Baton!’ said M. de Caylus.

‘“What’s in a name?” as he said to us the other day,’ retorted Mathilde. ‘“Imagine the Duc de Bouillon announced for the first time. All the public needs, in my case, is to have grown accustomed to it.”’

Julien quitted the circle round the sofa. Still but little sensible of the charming subtleties of a light-handed mockery, if he were to laugh at a witticism, he required that it should be founded on reason. He could see nothing in the talk of these young men, but the tone of general depreciation, and this shocked him. His provincial or English prudery went so far as to detect envy in it, wherein he was certainly mistaken.

‘Comte Norbert,’ he said to himself, ‘whom I have seen make three rough copies of a letter of twenty lines to his Colonel, would be very glad to have written a single page in his life like those of M. Sainclair.’

Passing unperceived owing to his lack of importance, Julien approached several groups in turn; he was following Baron Baton at a distance, and wished to hear him talk. This man of such intelligence wore a troubled air, and Julien saw him recover himself a little only when he had hit upon three or four sparkling sentences. It seemed to Julien that this kind of wit required ample room to develop itself.

The Baron could not produce epigrams; he required at least four sentences of six lines each to be brilliant.

‘This man is holding forth, he is not talking,’ said someone behind Julien’s back. He turned round and flushed with pleasure when he heard the name of Comte Chalvet. This was the cleverest man of the day. Julien had often come upon his name in the Memorial de Sainte–Helene and in the fragments of history dictated by Napoleon. Comte Chalvet was curt in his speech; his remarks were flashes of lightning, accurate, keen, profound. If he spoke of any public matter, immediately one saw the discussion reach a fresh stage. He brought facts to bear on it, it was a pleasure to listen to him. In politics, however, he was a brazen cynic.

‘I am independent, myself,’ he was saying to a gentleman wearing three decorations, whom he was apparently quizzing. ‘Why should I be expected to hold the same opinion today that I held six weeks ago? If I did, I should be a slave to my opinion.’

Four grave young men who stood round him made grimaces at this; these gentlemen do not care for the flippant style. The Comte saw that he had gone too far. Fortunately he caught sight of the honest M. Balland, a tartuffe of honesty. The Comte began talking to him: people gathered round them, guessing that poor Balland was going to be scarified. By dint of morals and morality, although horribly ugly, and after early struggles with the world which it would be hard to describe, M. Balland had married an extremely rich wife, who died; then a second extremely rich wife, who was never seen in society. He enjoyed in all humility an income of sixty thousand livres, and had flatterers of his own. Comte Chalvet spoke to him of all this, without pity. Presently they were surrounded by a circle of thirty people. Everyone smiled, even the grave young men, the hope of the age.

‘Why does he come to M. de La Mole’s, where he is obviously made a butt?’ thought Julien. He went across to the abbe Pirard, to ask him.

M. Balland left the room.

‘Good!’ said Norbert, ‘there’s one of my father’s spies gone; that leaves only the little cripple Napier.’

‘Can that be the clue to the riddle?’ thought Julien. ‘But, in that case, why does the Marquis invite M. Balland?’

The stern abbe Pirard was making faces in a corner of the room, as he heard fresh names announced.

‘Why, it is a den,’ he said, like Basilic, ‘I see none but villains enter.’

The fact was that the stern abbe did not recognise the distinguishing marks of good society. But, from his Jansenist friends, he had a very accurate notion of the men who make their way into drawing-rooms only by their extreme cleverness in the service of all parties, or by a fortune of notorious origin. For some minutes, that evening, he replied from the abundance of his heart to Julien’s eager questions, then cut himself short, distressed to find himself speaking ill of everyone, and imputing it to himself as a sin. Being choleric and a Jansenist, and regarding Christian charity as a duty, his life in society was a perpetual conflict.

‘How frightful that abbe Pirard looks!’ Mademoiselle de La Mole was saying, as Julien returned to the sofa.

Julien felt a sting of irritation, and yet she was right. M. Pirard was beyond question the most honest man in the room, but his blotched face, distorted by the pangs of conscience, made him hideous at the moment. ‘Never judge by appearances after this,’ thought Julien; ‘it is at the moment when the abbe’s scruples are reproaching him with some peccadillo that he looks terrible; whereas on the face of that Napier, whom everyone knows to be a spy, one sees a pure and tranquil happiness.’ The abbe Pirard had nevertheless made a great concession to his party; he had engaged a valet, and was quite well dressed.

Julien remarked a singular occurrence in the drawing-room: this was a general movement of all eyes towards the door, with a lull in the conversation. A footman announced the famous Baron de Tolly, to whom the recent elections had attracted universal attention. Julien moved forward and had an excellent view of him. The Baron was returning officer in a certain constituency: he had had the bright idea of making away with the little slips of paper bearing the votes of one of the parties. But, to compensate for this, he duly replaced them with other little slips of paper bearing a name of which he himself approved. This decisive manoeuvre was observed by some of the electors, who lost no time in presenting their compliments to Baron de Tolly. The worthy man was still pale after his great excitement. Evil tongues had uttered the word galleys. M. de La Mole received him coldly. The poor Baron hurriedly made his escape.

‘If he leaves us so soon, it must be to go to M. Comte’s,’† said Comte Chalvet; and the others laughed.

† A celebrated conjurer of the day.]

Amid a crowd of great noblemen who remained silent, and of intriguers, mostly disreputable, but all of them clever fellows, who arrived one after another that evening, in M. de La Mole’s drawing-room (people were speaking of him for a vacant Ministry), young Tanbeau was winning his spurs. If he had not yet acquired any fineness of perception, he made up for the deficiency, as we shall see, by the vigour of his language.

‘Why not sentence the man to ten years’ imprisonment?’ he was saying at the moment when Julien joined his group; ‘it is in a dungeon underground that we ought to keep reptiles shut up; they must be made to die in the dark, otherwise their venom spreads and becomes more dangerous. What is the good of fining him a thousand crowns? He is poor, very well, all the better; but his party will pay the fine for him. It should have been a fine of five hundred francs and ten years in a dungeon.’

‘Good God! Who can the monster be that they are discussing?’ thought Julien, marvelling at his colleague’s vehement tone and stilted gestures. The thin, drawn little face of the Academician’s favourite nephew was hideous as he spoke. Julien soon learned that the person in question was the greatest poet of the day.†

† Beranger, sentenced in December, 1828, to imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 francs. C. K. S. M.]

‘Ah, monster!’ exclaimed Julien, half aloud, and generous tears sprang to his eyes. ‘Ah, little wretch, I shall make you eat those words.

‘And yet these,’ he thought, ‘are the waifs and strays of the party of which the Marquis is one of the leaders! And that illustrious man whom he is slandering, how many Crosses, how many sinecures might he not have collected, if he had sold himself, I do not say to the lifeless Ministry of M. de Nerval, but to one of those passably honest Ministers whom we have seen succeed one another in office?’

The abbe Pirard beckoned to Julien; M. de La Mole had just been saying something to him. But when Julien, who at the moment was listening, with lowered gaze, to the lamentations of a Bishop, was free to move, and able to join his friend, he found him monopolised by that abominable young Tanbeau. The little monster loathed him as the source of the favour that Julien enjoyed, and had come to pay court to him.

‘When will death rid us of that old mass of corruption?’ It was in these terms, with Biblical emphasis, that the little man of letters was speaking at that moment of the eminent Lord Holland. His chief merit was a thorough knowledge of the biography of living men, and he had just been making a rapid survey of all those who might aspire to positions of influence under the new King of England.

The abbe Pirard moved into an adjoining room; Julien followed him.

‘The Marquis does not like scribblers, I warn you; it is his one antipathy. Know Latin, Greek if you can, the History of the Egyptians, of the Persians, and so forth; he will honour you and protect you as a scholar. But do not go and write a single page in French, especially upon grave subjects, that are above your position in society; he would call you a scribbler, and would take a dislike to you. What, living in a great nobleman’s mansion, don’t you know the Duc de Castries’s saying about d’Alembert and Rousseau: “That sort of fellow wishes to argue about everything, and has not a thousand crowns a year?”’

‘Everything becomes known,’ thought Julien, ‘here as in the Seminary.’ He had written nine or ten pages with distinct emphasis: they were a sort of historical eulogy of the old Surgeon–Major, who, he said, had made a man of him. ‘And that little copy-book,’ Julien said to himself, ‘has always been kept under lock and key.’ He went upstairs, burned his manuscript and returned to the drawing-room. The brilliant rogues had departed, there remained only the stars and ribands.

Round the table, which the servants had just brought in already laid, were seated seven or eight ladies, extremely noble, extremely religious, extremely affected, between thirty and thirty-five years of age. The brilliant wife of Marshal de Fervaques entered the room, apologising for the lateness of the hour. It was after midnight; she took her place next to the Marquise. Julien was deeply stirred; her eyes and her expression reminded him of Madame de Renal.

The group round Mademoiselle de La Mole was still numerous. She and her friends were engaged in making fun of the unfortunate Comte de Thaler. This was the only son of the famous Jew, celebrated for the riches that he had acquired by lending money to Kings to make war on the common people. The Jew had recently died leaving his son a monthly income of one hundred thousand crowns, and a name that, alas, was only too well known! This singular position required either simplicity of character or great determination.

Unfortunately, the Comte was nothing but a good fellow, adorned with all sorts of pretensions inspired in him by his flatterers.

M. de Caylus asserted that he had been credited with the determination to propose for the hand of Mademoiselle de La Mole (to whom the Marquis de Croisenois, who was heir to a Dukedom with an income of one hundred thousand livres, was paying court).

‘Ah! Don’t accuse him of having any determination,’ Norbert pleaded compassionately.

What this poor Comte de Thaler most lacked was, perhaps, the power to determine anything. In this respect, he would have made an excellent King. Taking advice incessantly from everybody, he had not the courage to follow out any suggestion to the end.

His features would have been enough by themselves, said Mademoiselle de La Mole, to fill her with everlasting joy. His face was a curious blend of uneasiness and disappointment; but from time to time one could make out quite plainly bursts of self-importance, combined with that cutting tone which the wealthiest man in France ought to adopt, especially when he is by no means bad-looking, and is not yet thirty-six. ‘He is timidly insolent,’ said M. de Croisenois. The Comte de Caylus, Norbert and two or three young men with moustaches made fun of him to their hearts’ content, without his guessing it, and finally sent him away as one o’clock struck.

‘Is it your famous pair of arabs that you are keeping waiting in this weather?’ Norbert asked him.

‘No, I have a new pair that cost much less,’ replied M. de Thaler. ‘The near horse cost me five thousand francs, and the off horse is only worth a hundred louis; but I must have you understand that he is only brought out at night. The fact is that he trots perfectly with the other.’

Norbert’s remark made the Comte think that it befitted a man in his position to have a passion for horses, and that he ought not to allow his to stand in the rain. He left, and the other gentlemen took their leave immediately, laughing at him as they went.

‘And so,’ thought Julien, as he heard the sound of their laughter on the staircase, ‘I have been allowed to see the opposite extreme to my own position! I have not an income of twenty louis, and I have found myself rubbing shoulders with a man who has an income of twenty louis an hour, and they laughed at him . . . A sight like that cures one of envy.’

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