The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 43

Last Adieux

An hour later, when he was fast asleep, he was awakened by the tears which he felt trickling over his hand. ‘Ah! Mathilde again,’ he thought to himself, half awake. ‘She has come, faithful to her theory, to attack my resolve by force of tender sentiments.’ Irritated by the prospect of this fresh scene in the pathetic manner, he did not open his eyes. The lines of Belphegor flying from his wife came into his mind.

He heard a strange sigh; he opened his eyes; it was Madame de Renal.

‘Ah! Do I see you again before my death? Is it a phantom?’ he cried, as he flung himself at her feet.

‘But forgive me, Madame, I am nothing but a murderer in your eyes,’ he at once added, regaining his composure.

‘Sir, . . . I have come to implore you to appeal, I know that you do not wish to . . . ’ She was choked by her sobs; she was unable to speak.

‘Deign to forgive me.’

‘If you wish me to forgive you,’ she said to him, rising and throwing herself into his arms, ‘appeal at once from the sentence of death.’

Julien covered her with kisses.

‘Will you come and see me every day during the next two months?’

‘I swear it to you. Every day, unless my husband forbids me.’

‘Then I sign!’ cried Julien. ‘What! You forgive me! Is it possible?’

He clasped her in his arms; he was mad. She uttered a faint cry.

‘It is nothing,’ she told him, ‘you hurt me.’

‘In your shoulder,’ cried Julien, bursting into tears. He stepped back from her, and covered her hand with burning kisses. ‘Who would ever have said, last time I saw you, in your bedroom, at Verrieres . . .?’

‘Who would ever have said then that I should write M. de La Mole that infamous letter . . .?’

‘Know that I have always loved you, that I have never loved anyone but you.’

‘Is it really possible?’ cried Madame de Renal, equally enraptured. She bowed herself over Julien, who was kneeling at her feet, and for a long time they wept in silence.

At no time in his life had Julien experienced such a moment.

After a long interval, when they were able to speak:

‘And that young Madame Michele!’ said Madame de Renal, ‘or rather that Mademoiselle de La Mole; for I am beginning really to believe this strange tale!’

‘It is true only in appearance,’ replied Julien. ‘She is my wife, but she is not my mistress . . . ’

And, each interrupting the other a hundred times, they managed with difficulty, each of them, to tell what the other did not know. The letter sent to M. de La Mole had been written by the young priest who directed Madame de Renal’s conscience, and then copied out by her. ‘What a terrible crime religion has made me commit!’ she said to him; ‘though I did modify the worst passages in the letter. . . . ’

Julien’s transports of joy proved to her how completely he forgave her. Never had he been so madly in love.

‘And yet I regard myself as pious,’ Madame de Renal told him in the course of their conversation. ‘I believe sincerely in God; I believe equally, indeed it has been proved to me, that the crime I am committing is fearful, and yet, as soon as I set eyes on you, even after you have fired at me twice with a pistol . . . ’ Here, in spite of her resistance, Julien covered her with kisses.

‘Let me alone,’ she went on, ‘I wish to argue with you, before I forget . . . As soon as I set eyes on you, all sense of duty vanishes, there is nothing left of me but love for you, or rather love is too feeble a word. I feel for you what I ought to feel only for God: a blend of respect, love, obedience . . . In truth, I do not know what feeling you inspire in me. Were you to bid me thrust a knife into your gaoler, the crime would be committed before I had had time to think. Explain this to me in simple terms before I leave you, I wish to see clearly into my own heart; for in two months we must part . . . For that matter, need we part?’ she said, with a smile.

‘I take back my word,’ cried Julien, springing to his feet; ‘I shall not appeal from the sentence of death, if by poison, knife, pistol, charcoal or any other means whatsoever, you seek to put an end to, or to endanger your life.’

Madame de Renal’s expression altered suddenly; the warmest affection gave place to a profound abstraction.

‘If we were to die at once?’ she said to him at length.

‘Who knows what we shall find in our next life?’ replied Julien; ‘torments perhaps, perhaps nothing at all. Can we not spend two months together in a delicious manner? Two months, that is ever so many days. Never shall I have been so happy.’

‘You will never have been so happy?’

‘Never,’ replied Julien with rapture, ‘and I am speaking to you as I speak to myself. Heaven preserve me from exaggeration.’

‘To speak so is to command me,’ she said with a timid and melancholy smile.

‘Very well! You swear, by the love that you bear me, not to attempt your life by any direct means, or indirect means . . . Remember,’ he added, ‘that you are compelled to live for my son, whom Mathilde will abandon to the care of servants as soon as she is Marquise de Croisenois.’

‘I swear,’ she replied coldly, ‘but I mean to take away with me your appeal written and signed by your hand. I shall go myself to the Attorney–General.’

‘Take care, you will compromise yourself.’

‘After coming publicly to see you in prison, I am for ever, for Besancon and the whole of the Franche–Comte, a heroine of anecdotes,’ she said with an air of profound distress. ‘I have gone beyond the last limits of modesty . . . I am a woman who has forfeited her honour; it is true that it was for your sake . . . ’

Her tone was so melancholy that Julien embraced her with a happiness that was quite new to him. It was no longer the intoxication of love, it was extreme gratitude. He had just realised, for the first time, the full extent of the sacrifice that she had made for him.

Some charitable soul doubtless informed M. de Renal of the long visits which his wife was paying to Julien’s prison; for, after three days, he sent his carriage for her, with express orders that she was to return immediately to Verrieres.

This cruel parting had begun the day ill for Julien. He was informed, two or three hours later, that a certain intriguing priest, who for all that had not succeeded in making any headway among the Jesuits of Besancon, had taken his stand that morning outside the gate of the prison, in the street. It was raining hard, and outside there the man was trying to pose as a martyr. Julien was out of temper, this piece of foolishness moved him profoundly.

That morning he had already refused a visit from the priest, but the man had made up his mind to hear Julien’s confession, and to make a name for himself among the young women of Besancon, on the strength of all the confidences which he would pretend to have received.

He declared in a loud voice that he was going to remain day and night at the gate of the prison: ‘God has sent me to touch the heart of this other apostate.’ And the lower orders, always curious spectators of a scene, began to assemble in crowds.

‘Yes, my brethren,’ he said to them, ‘I shall spend the day here, and the night, and every day and night from now onwards. The Holy Spirit has spoken to me. I have a mission from on high; it is I that am to save the soul of young Sorel. Join with me in my prayers,’ etc., etc.

Julien had a horror of scandal, and of anything that might attract attention to himself. He thought of seizing the opportunity to escape from the world unknown; but he had still some hope of seeing Madame de Renal again, and was desperately in love.

The gate of the prison was situated in one of the most frequented streets. The thought of that mud-bespattered priest, drawing a crowd and creating a scandal, was torture to his soul. ‘And, without a doubt, at every instant he is repeating my name!’ This moment was more painful than death itself.

He called two or three times, at intervals of an hour, for a turnkey who was devoted to him, to send him out to see whether the priest were still at the gate of the prison.

‘Sir, he is on both his knees in the mud,’ was the turnkey’s invariable answer; ‘he is praying aloud, and repeating Litanies for your soul.’ ‘The impertinent fellow!’ thought Julien. At that moment, indeed, he heard a dull roar, it was the crowd responding to the Litany. To increase his impatience, he saw the turnkey move his lips as he repeated the Latin words. ‘They are beginning to say,’ the turnkey added, ‘that your heart must indeed be hardened if you refuse the succour of this holy man.’

‘O my country! How barbarous you still are!’ cried Julien in a frenzy of rage. And he continued his reasoning aloud, without a thought of the turnkey’s presence.

‘The man wants an article in the paper, and now he is certain of obtaining it.

‘Oh, cursed provincials! In Paris, I should not have been subjected to all these vexations. They are more adept there in charlatanism.

‘Let this holy priest come in,’ he said at length to the turnkey, and the sweat trickled in great drops from his brow. The turnkey made the sign of the Cross, and left the cell radiant.

The holy priest proved to be hideously ugly, and was even more foul with mud. The cold rain outside intensified the darkness and dampness of the cell. The priest tried to embrace Julien, and began to show emotion as he spoke to him. The vilest hypocrisy was all too evident; never in his life had Julien been in such a rage.

A quarter of an hour after the priest had entered, Julien found himself a complete coward. For the first time death appeared to him horrible. He thought of the state of putrefaction in which his body would be two days after his execution, etc., etc.

He was on the point of betraying himself by some sign of weakness, or of flinging himself upon the priest and strangling him with his chain, when it occurred to him to beg the holy man to go and say a good forty-franc mass for him, that very day.

As it was almost midday, the priest decamped.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/stendhal/red/book2.43.html

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