The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 41

The Trial

The country will remember this celebrated trial for a long time to come. Interest in the accused reached fever pitch; this was because his crime was astonishing and yet not atrocious. Even if it had been, the young man was so handsome! His great destiny abruptly cut short heightened the pity felt for him. Will he be condemned? the women would ask the men of their acquaintance and one could see them grow pale as they awaited the reply.

SAINTE-BEUVE

At length the day dawned so dreaded by Madame de Renal and Mathilde.

The strange appearance of the town increased their terror, and did not leave even Fouque’s stout heart unmoved. The whole Province had swarmed into Besancon to witness the trial of this romantic case.

For some days past there had not been a bed to be had in the inns. The President of the Assize Court was assailed with requests for cards of admission; all the ladies of the town wished to be present at the trial; Julien’s portrait was hawked through the streets, etc., etc.

Mathilde was keeping in reserve for this supreme moment a letter written throughout in the hand of the Lord Bishop of ——. This Prelate, who controlled the Church in France and appointed Bishops, deigned to ask for the acquittal of Julien. On the eve of the trial, Mathilde took this letter to the all-powerful Vicar–General.

At the close of the interview, as she was leaving the room in a flood of tears: ‘I answer for the verdict of the jury,’ M. de Frilair told her, emerging at length from his diplomatic reserve, and almost showing signs of emotion himself. ‘Among the twelve persons charged with the duty of finding whether your protege’s crime is proven, and especially whether there was premeditation, I number six friends devoted to my welfare, and I have given them to understand that it rested with them to raise me to the episcopate. Baron de Valenod, whom I have made Mayor of Verrieres, has entire control over two of his subordinates, MM. de Moirod and de Cholin. To tell the truth, chance has given us, for dealing with this affair, two jurors who are extremely disaffected; but, although Ultra–Liberals, they loyally obey my orders on great occasions, and I have sent word asking them to vote with M. Valenod. I learn that a sixth juror of the industrial class, an immensely rich and garrulous Liberal, is secretly hoping for a contract from the Ministry of War, and no doubt he would not wish to vex me. I have let him know that M. Valenod has my last word.’

‘And who is this M. Valenod?’ said Mathilde, anxiously.

‘If you knew him, you would have no doubt of our success. He is a bold speaker, impudent, coarse, a man made to be the leader of fools. 1814 raised him from penury, and I am going to make him a Prefect. He is capable of thrashing the other jurors if they refuse to vote as he wishes.’

Mathilde was somewhat reassured.

There was another discussion in store for her that evening. In order not to prolong a painful scene, the outcome of which appeared to him certain, Julien was determined not to open his mouth.

‘My counsel will speak, that is quite sufficient,’ he said to Mathilde. ‘As it is, I shall be all too long exposed as a spectacle to my enemies. These provincials are shocked by the rapid advancement which I owe to you, and, believe me, there is not one of them that does not wish for my conviction, except that he will cry like a fool when I am led to the scaffold.’

‘They wish to see you humiliated, it is only too true,’ replied Mathilde, ‘but I do not believe that they are cruel. My presence in Besancon and the spectacle of my grief have interested all the women; your handsome face will do the rest. If you say but one word before your judges, the whole court will be on your side,’ etc., etc.

The following morning at nine o’clock, when Julien came down from his prison to enter the great hall of the Law Courts, it was with the utmost difficulty that the gendarmes succeeded in clearing a passage through the immense crowd that packed the courtyard. Julien had slept well, he was quite calm, and felt no other sentiment than one of philosophical piety towards this crowd of envious persons who, without cruelty, were ready to applaud his sentence of death. He was quite surprised when, having been detained for more than a quarter of an hour among the crowd, he was obliged to admit that his presence was inspiring a tender pity in the assembly. He did not hear a single unpleasant remark. ‘These provincials are less evil-minded than I supposed,’ he said to himself.

On entering the court, he was struck by the elegance of the architecture. It was pure gothic, with a number of charming little pillars carved in stone with the most perfect finish. He imagined himself in England.

But presently his whole attention was absorbed in twelve or fifteen pretty women who, seated opposite the dock, filled the three galleries above the bench and the jurybox. On turning round towards the public seats, he saw that the circular gallery which overhung the well of the court was filled with women; most of them were young and seemed to him extremely pretty; their eyes were bright and full of interest. In the rest of the court, the crowd was enormous; people were struggling at the doors, and the sentries were unable to preserve silence.

When all the eyes that were looking for Julien became aware of his presence, on seeing him take his place on the slightly raised bench reserved for the prisoner, he was greeted with a murmur of astonishment and tender interest.

One would have said that morning that he was not yet twenty; he was dressed quite simply, but with a perfect grace; his hair and brow were charming; Mathilde had insisted on presiding in person over his toilet. His pallor was intense. As soon as he had taken his seat on the bench, he heard people say on all sides: ‘Lord, how young he is! . . . ’ ‘But he is a boy.’ ‘He is far better looking than his portrait.’

‘Prisoner,’ said the gendarme seated on his right, ‘do you see those six ladies who are on that balcony?’ The gendarme pointed to a little gallery which jutted out above the amphitheatre in which the jury was placed. ‘That is the Prefect’s lady,’ the gendarme continued; ‘next to her, Madame la Marquise de M——; that one loves you dearly. I heard her speak to the examining magistrate. Next to her is Madame Derville.’

‘Madame Derville,’ exclaimed Julien, and a vivid blush suffused his brow. ‘When she leaves the court,’ he thought, ‘she will write to Madame de Renal.’ He knew nothing of Madame de Renal’s arrival at Besancon.

The witnesses were quickly heard. At the first words of the speech for the prosecution made by the counsel for the prosecution, two of the ladies seated on the little balcony burst into tears. ‘Madame Derville is not so easily moved,’ thought Julien. He noticed, however, that she was extremely flushed.

The counsel for the prosecution was labouring an emotional point in bad French about the barbarity of the crime that had been committed; Julien noticed that Madame Derville’s neighbours showed signs of strong disapproval. Several of the jury, evidently friends of these ladies, spoke to them and seemed to reassure them. ‘That can only be a good sign,’ thought Julien.

Until then he had felt himself penetrated by an unmixed contempt for all the men who were taking part in this trial. The insipid eloquence of the counsel for the prosecution increased this sense of disgust. But gradually the sereneness of Julien’s heart melted before the marks of interest of which he was plainly the object.

He was pleased with the firm expression of his counsel. ‘No fine language,’ he murmured to him as he stood up to speak.

‘All the emphasis stolen from Bossuet, which has been displayed against you, has helped your case,’ said the counsel. And indeed, he had not been speaking for five minutes before almost all the ladies had their handkerchiefs in their hands. The counsel, encouraged by this, addressed the jury in extremely strong language. Julien shuddered, he felt that he was on the point of bursting into tears. ‘Great God! What will my enemies say?’

He was about to yield to the emotion that was overpowering him, when, fortunately for himself, he caught an insolent glance from M. Valenod.

‘That wretch’s eyes are ablaze,’ he said to himself; ‘what a triumph for that vile nature! Had my crime led to this alone, I should be bound to abhor it. Heaven knows what he will say of me to Madame de Renal!’

This thought obliterated all the rest. Shortly afterwards, Julien was recalled to himself by sounds of approval from the public. His counsel had just concluded his speech. Julien remembered that it was the correct thing to shake hands with him. The time had passed quickly.

Refreshments were brought to counsel and prisoner. It was only then that Julien was struck by a curious circumstance: none of the women had left the court for dinner.

‘Faith, I am dying of hunger,’ said his counsel, ‘and you?’

‘I am also,’ replied Julien.

‘Look, there is the Prefect’s lady getting her dinner, too,’ his counsel said to him, pointing to the little balcony. ‘Cheer up, everything is going well.’ The trial was resumed.

As the President was summing up, midnight struck. He was obliged to pause; amid the silence of the universal anxiety, the echoing notes of the clock filled the court.

‘Here begins the last day of my life,’ thought Julien. Presently he felt himself inflamed by the idea of duty. He had kept his emotion in check until then, and maintained his determination not to speak; but when the President of the Assizes asked him if he had anything to say, he rose. He saw in front of him the eyes of Madame Derville, which, in the lamplight, seemed to shine with a strange brilliance. ‘Can she be crying, by any chance,’ he wondered.

‘Gentlemen of the Jury,

‘My horror of the contempt which I believed that I could endure at the moment of my death, impels me to speak. Gentlemen, I have not the honour to belong to your class, you see in me a peasant who has risen in revolt against the lowliness of his station.

‘I ask you for no mercy,’ Julien went on, his voice growing stronger. ‘I am under no illusion; death is in store for me; it will be a just punishment. I have been guilty of attempting the life of the woman most worthy of all respect, of all devotion. Madame de Renal had been like a mother to me. My crime is atrocious, and it was premeditated. I have, therefore, deserved death, Gentlemen of the Jury. But, even were I less guilty, I see before me men who, without pausing to consider what pity may be due to my youth, will seek to punish in me and to discourage forever that class of young men who, born in an inferior station and in a sense burdened with poverty, have the good fortune to secure a sound education, and the audacity to mingle with what the pride of rich people calls society.

‘That is my crime, Gentlemen, and it will be punished with all the more severity inasmuch as actually I am not being tried by my peers. I do not see, anywhere among the jury, a peasant who has grown rich, but only indignant bourgeois . . . ’

For twenty minutes Julien continued to speak in this strain; he said everything that was in his heart; the counsel for the prosecution, who aspired to the favour of the aristocracy, kept springing from his seat; but in spite of the somewhat abstract turn which Julien had given the debate, all the women were dissolved in tears. Madame Derville herself had her handkerchief pressed to her eyes. Before concluding, Julien returned to the question of premeditation, to his repentance, to the respect, the filial and unbounded adoration which, in happier times, he had felt for Madame de Renal . . . Madame Derville uttered a cry and fainted.

One o’clock struck as the jury retired to their waiting-room. None of the women had left their seats; several of the men had tears in their eyes. The general conversation was at first most lively; but gradually, as the jury delayed their verdict, the feeling of weariness spread a calm over the assembly. It was a solemn moment; the lamps burned more dimly. Julien, who was dead tired, heard them discussing round him whether this delay augured well or ill. He noticed with pleasure that everyone was on his side; the jury did not return, and still not a woman left the court.

Just as two o’clock had struck, a general stir was audible. The little door of the jury-room opened. M. le Baron de Valenod advanced with a grave, theatrical step, followed by the rest of the jury. He coughed, then declared that on his soul and conscience the unanimous opinion of the jury was that Julien Sorel was guilty of murder, and of murder with premeditation: this verdict inferred a sentence of death; it was pronounced a moment later. Julien looked at his watch, and remembered M. de Lavalette; it was a quarter past two. Today is Friday,’ he thought.

‘Yes, but this is a lucky day for Valenod, who is sentencing me . . . I am too closely guarded for Mathilde to be able to effect my escape, like Madame de Lavalette . .. And so, in three days, at this same hour, I shall know what to think of the great hereafter.’

At that moment, he heard a cry and was recalled to the things of this world. The women round him were sobbing; he saw that every face was turned towards a little gallery concealed by the capital of a gothic pilaster. He learned afterwards that Mathilde had been hidden there. As the cry was not repeated, everyone turned back to look at Julien, for whom the gendarmes were trying to clear a passage through the crowd.

‘Let us try not to give that rascal Valenod any food for laughter,’ thought Julien. ‘With what a contrite and coaxing air he uttered the verdict that involved the death penalty! Whereas that poor president, even though he has been a judge for all these years, had tears in his eyes when he sentenced me. What a joy for Valenod to have his revenge for our old rivalry for Madame de Renal! And so I shall never see her any more! It is all finished . . . A last farewell is impossible between us, I feel it . . . How happy I should have been to express to her all the horror I feel for my crime!

‘These words only: I feel that I am justly condemned.’

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