The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 42

In the Prison

When Julien was lee back to prison he had been put in a cell reserved for those under sentence of death. He, who, as a rule, observed the most trifling details, had never noticed that he was not being taken up to his old dungeon. He was thinking of what he would say to Madame de Renal, if, before the fatal moment, he should have the good fortune to see her. He felt that she would not allow him to speak, and was seeking a way of expressing his repentance in the first words he would utter. ‘After such an action, how am I to convince her that I love her and her only? For after all I sought to kill her either out of ambition or for love of Mathilde.’

On getting into bed he found himself between sheets of a coarse cloth. The scales fell from his eyes. ‘Ah! I am in the condemned cell,’ he said to himself, ‘awaiting my sentence. It is right . . .

‘Conte Altamira told me once that, on the eve of his death, Danton said in his loud voice: “It is strange, the verb to guillotine cannot be conjugated in all its tenses; one can say: I shall be guillotined, thou shalt be guillotined, but one does not say: I have been guillotined.”

‘Why not,’ Julien went on, ‘if there is another life? Faith, if I meet the Christian Deity, I am lost: He is a tyrant, and, as such, is full of ideas of vengeance; His Bible speaks of nothing but fearful punishments. I never loved Him! I could never even believe that anyone did love Him sincerely. He is devoid of pity.’ (Here Julien recalled several passages from the Bible.) ‘He will punish me in some abominable manner . . .

‘But if I meet the God of Fenelon! He will say to me perhaps: “Much shall be pardoned thee, because thou hast loved much . . . ”

‘Have I loved much? Ah! I did love Madame de Renal, but my conduct has been atrocious. There, as elsewhere, I abandoned a simple and modest merit for what was brilliant . . .

‘But then, what a prospect! Colonel of Hussars, should we go to war; Secretary of Legation in time of peace; after that, Ambassador . . . for I should soon have learned the business . . . and had I been a mere fool, need the son-inlaw of the Marquis de La Mole fear any rival? All my foolish actions would have been forgiven me, or rather counted to me as merits. A man of distinction, enjoying the most splendid existence in Vienna or London . . .

‘Not precisely that, Sir, to be guillotined in three days’ time.’

Julien laughed heartily at this sally of his own wit. ‘Indeed, man has two different beings inside him,’ he reflected. ‘What devil thought of that malicious touch?

‘Very well, yes, my friend, guillotined in three days’ time,’ he replied to the interrupter. ‘M. de Cholin will hire a window, sharing the expense with the abbe Maslon. Well, for the cost of hiring that window, which of those two worthies will rob the other?’

A passage from Rotrou’s Venceslas entered his head suddenly.

Ladislas: My soul is well prepared. The King (his father): So is the scaffold; lay your head thereon.

‘A good answer,’ he thought, and fell asleep. Someone awakened him in the morning by shaking him violently.

‘What, already!’ said Julien, opening a haggard eye. He imagined himself to be in the headsman’s hands.

It was Mathilde. ‘Fortunately, she did not understand.’ This reflection restored all his presence of mind. He found Mathilde changed as though after six months of illness: she was positively unrecognisable.

‘That wretch Frilair has betrayed me,’ she said to him, wringing her hands; rage prevented her from speaking.

‘Was I not fine yesterday when I rose to speak?’ replied Julien. ‘I was improvising, and for the first time in my life! It is true that there is reason to fear it may also be the last.’

At this moment Julien was playing upon Mathilde’s nature with all the calm of a skilled pianist touching the keys of a piano . . . ‘The advantage of noble birth I lack, it is true,’ he went on, ‘but the great heart of Mathilde has raised her lover to her own level. Do you suppose that Boniface de La Mole cut a better figure before his judges?’

Mathilde, that morning, was tender without affectation, like any poor girl dwelling in an attic; but she could not win from him any simpler speech. He paid her back, unconsciously, the torment that she had often inflicted on him.

‘We do not know the source of the Nile,’ Julien said to himself; ‘it has not been granted to the eye of man to behold the King of Rivers in the form of a simple rivulet: similarly no human eye shall ever see Julien weak, if only because he is not weak. But I have a heart that is easily moved; the most commonplace words, if they are uttered with an accent of truth, may soften my voice and even make my tears begin to flow. How often have not the sere hearts despised me for this defect! They believed that I was begging for mercy: that is what I cannot endure.

‘They say that the thought of his wife overcame Danton at the foot of the scaffold; but Danton had given strength to a nation of coxcombs, and prevented the enemy from reaching Paris . . I alone know what I might have managed to do . . . To others, I am at best only a might-have-been.

‘If Madame de Renal had been here, in my cell, instead of Mathilde, should I have been able to control myself? The intensity of my despair and of my repentance would have appeared in the eyes of the Valenods, and of all the patricians of the neighbourhood, a craven fear of death; they are so proud, those feeble hearts, whom their financial position places out of reach of temptation! “You see what it is,” M. de Moirod and M. de Cholin, who have just sentenced me to death, would have said, “to be born the son of a carpenter! One may become learned, clever, but courage! . . . Courage is not taught at school.” Even this poor Mathilde, who is now weeping, or rather who can no longer weep,’ he said, looking at her red eyes . . . and he took her in his arms: the sight of genuine grief made him forget his syllogism. ‘She has been weeping all night, perhaps,’ he said to himself: ‘but one day how ashamed she will be when she remembers! She will regard herself as having been led astray, in early youth, by the low opinions of a plebeian . . . Croisenois is weak enough to marry her, and, i’ faith, he will do well for himself. She will make him play a part,

“By that right
  Which a firm spirit planning vast designs
  Has o’er the loutish minds of common men.”

‘Ah, now; here is a pleasant thing: now that I am to die, all the poetry I ever learned in my life comes back to me. It must be a sign of decadence . . . ’

Mathilde kept on saying to him in a faint voice: ‘He is there, in the next room.’ At length he began to pay attention to her words. ‘Her voice is feeble,’ he thought, ‘but all her imperious nature is still in its accents. She lowers her voice in order not to lose her temper.

‘Who is there?’ he asked her gently.

‘The lawyer, to make you sign your appeal.’

‘I shall not appeal.’

‘What! You will not appeal,’ she said, rising to her feet, her eyes ablaze with anger, ‘and why not, if you please?’

‘Because at this moment I feel that I have the courage to die without exciting undue derision. And who can say that in two months’ time, after a long confinement in this damp cell, I shall be so well prepared? I foresee interviews with priests, with my father . . . I can imagine nothing so unpleasant. Let us die.’

This unexpected obstinacy awoke all the latent pride in Mathilde’s nature. She had not been able to see the abbe de Frilair before the hour at which the cells in the prison of Besancon were opened; her anger fell upon Julien. She adored him, and for the next quarter of an hour he was reminded by her imprecations against his character, her regrets that she had ever loved him, of that proud spirit which in the past had heaped such poignant insults upon him, in the library of the Hotel de La Mole.

‘Heaven owed it to the glory of your race to bring you into the world a man,’ he told her.

‘But as for myself,’ he thought, ‘I should be a rare fool to live two months longer in this disgusting abode, the butt of all the infamous and humiliating lies that the patrician faction is capable of inventing,† my sole comfort the imprecations of this madwoman . . . Well, the day after tomorrow, I shall be fighting a duel in the morning with a man well known for his coolness and for his remarkable skill . . . Very remarkable,’ whispered Mephistopheles, ‘he never misses his stroke.

† A Jacobin is speaking. (Stendhal’s note.)]

‘Very well, so be it, all’s well that ends well.’ (Mathilde’s eloquence continued to flow.) ‘Begad, no,’ he said to himself, ‘I shall not appeal.’

Having made this decision, he relapsed into his dreams . . . ‘The postman on his rounds will bring the newspaper at six o’clock, as usual; at eight, after M. de Renal has read it, Elisa, entering the room on tiptoe, will lay it down on her bed. Later, she will awake: suddenly, as she reads, she will grow troubled; her lovely hand will tremble; she will come to the words: At five minutes past ten he had ceased to live.

‘She will shed hot tears, I know her; in vain did I seek to murder her, all will be forgotten, and the person whose life I sought to take will be the only one who will weep sincerely for my death.

‘Ah, this is a paradox!’ he thought, and, for the next quarter of an hour, while Mathilde continued to make a scene, he thought only of Madame de Renal. In spite of himself, and albeit frequently replying to what Mathilde said to him, he could not free his mind from the memory of that bedroom at Verrieres. He saw the Gazette de Besancon lying on the counterpane of orange taffeta. He saw that snowy hand clutching it with a convulsive movement; he saw Madame de Renal weep . . . He followed the course of each tear over that charming face. Mademoiselle de La Mole, having failed to get anything out of Julien, made the lawyer come in. He was fortunately an old Captain of the Army of Italy, of 1796, when he had served with Manuel.

For the sake of form, he opposed the condemned man’s decision. Julien, wishing to treat him with respect, explained all his reasons to him.

‘Faith, one may think as you do,’ M. Felix Vaneau (this was the lawyer’s name) said to him at length. ‘But you have three clear days in which to appeal, and it is my duty to come back each day. If a volcano opened beneath the prison, in the next two months, you would be saved. You may die a natural death,’ he said, looking at Julien.

Julien shook his hand. ‘I thank you, you are an honest man. I shall think it over.’

And when Mathilde left him, finally, with the lawyer, he felt far more affection for the lawyer than for her.

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