The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 44

The Shadow of the Guillotine

As soon as he had gone, Julien began to weep copiously, at the thought of dying. After a while he said to himself that, if Madame de Renal had been at Besancon, he would have confessed his weakness to her. . . .

At the moment when he most regretted the absence of that beloved woman, he heard Mathilde’s step.

‘The worst drawback of a prison,’ he thought, ‘is that one can never close one’s door.’ All that Mathilde had to say served only to irritate him.

She informed him that, on the day of the trial, M. de Valenod, having in his pocket his appointment as Prefect, had ventured to defy M. de Frilair and indulge himself in the pleasure of condemning Julien to death.

‘“Whatever induced your friend,” M. de Frilair said to me just now, “to go and arouse and attack the petty vanity of that middle-class aristocracy? Why speak of caste? He showed them what they ought to do in their own political interest: the fools had never thought of it, and were ready to cry. This caste interest blinded their eyes to the horror of condemning a man to death. You must admit that M. Sorel shows great inexperience. If we do not succeed in saving him by an appeal to clemency, his death will be a sort of suicide . . . ”’

Mathilde did not, of course, mention to Julien a thing which she herself did not yet suspect; namely, that the Abbe de Frilair, seeing Julien irremediably lost, thought that it would serve his own ambition to aspire to become his successor.

Almost out of his mind with helpless rage and vexation: ‘Go and hear a mass for me,’ he said to Mathilde, ‘and leave me a moment’s peace.’ Mathilde, who was extremely jealous already at Madame de Renal’s visits and had just heard of her departure, realised the cause of Julien’s ill humour and burst into tears.

Her grief was genuine, Julien saw this and was all the more irritated. He felt a compelling need of solitude, and how was he to secure it?

Finally Mathilde, having tried every argument to soften him, left him to himself, but almost at that moment Fouque appeared.

‘I want to be alone,’ he said to this faithful friend. And, as he saw him hesitate: ‘I am composing a memorial for my appeal to clemency . . . but anyhow . . . do me a favour, never to speak to me of death. If I want any special services on the day, let me be the first to mention them.’

When Julien had at length secured solitude, he found himself more crushed and more of a coward than before. What little strength remained to his enfeebled spirit had been used up in the effort to conceal his condition from Mademoiselle de La Mole and Fouque.

Towards evening, a comforting thought came to him:

‘If this morning, at the moment when death seemed so ugly, I had been warned to prepare for execution, the eye of the public would have been the incentive to glory; my gait might perhaps have been a little heavy, like that of a timid fop on entering a drawing-room. A few perspicacious people, if there be any such among these provincials, might have guessed my weakness . . . but no one would have seen it.’

And he felt himself relieved of part of his load of misery. ‘I am a coward at this moment,’ he chanted to himself, ‘but no one will know of it.’

An almost more disagreeable incident was in store for him on the morrow. For a long time past, his father had been threatening a visit; that morning, before Julien was awake, the white-haired old carpenter appeared in his cell.

Julien felt utterly weak, he expected the most unpleasant reproaches. To complete his painful sensation, that morning he felt a keen remorse at not loving his father.

‘Chance has placed us together on this earth,’ he said to himself while the turnkey was making the cell a little tidy, ‘and we have done one another almost all the harm imaginable. He comes in the hour of my death to deal me his final blow.’

The old man’s severe reproaches began as soon as they were left without a witness.

Julien could not restrain his tears. ‘What unworthy weakness!’ he said to himself angrily. ‘He will go about everywhere exaggerating my want of courage; what a triumph for Valenod and for all the dull hypocrites who reign at Verrieres! They are very great people in France, they combine all the social advantages. Until now I could at least say to myself: They receive money, it is true, all the honours are heaped upon them, but I have nobility at heart.

‘And here is a witness whom they will all believe, and who will assure the whole of Verrieres, exaggerating the facts, that I have been weak in the face of death! I shall be said to have turned coward in this trial which they can all understand!’

Julien was almost in despair. He did not know how to get rid of his father. And to make-believe in such a way as to deceive this sharp-witted old man was, for the moment, utterly beyond his power.

His mind ran swiftly over all the possible ways of escape. ‘I have saved money!’ he exclaimed suddenly.

This inspired utterance altered the old man’s expression and Julien’s own position.

‘How ought I to dispose of it?’ he continued, with more calm: the effect produced by his words had rid him of all sense of inferiority.

The old carpenter was burning with a desire not to allow any of this money to escape, a part of which Julien seemed to wish to leave to his brothers. He spoke at great length and with heat. Julien managed to tease him.

‘Well, the Lord has given me inspiration for making my testament. I shall give a thousand francs to each of my brothers, and the remainder to you.’

‘Very good,’ said the old man, ‘that remainder is my due; but since God has been graciously pleased to touch your heart, if you wish to die like a good Christian, you ought first to pay your debts. There is still the cost of your maintenance and education, which I advanced, and which you have forgotten . . . ’

‘So that is a father’s love!’ Julien repeated to himself with despair in his heart, when at length he was alone. Soon the gaoler appeared.

‘Sir, after a visit from the family, I always bring my lodgers a bottle of good champagne. It is a trifle dear, six francs the bottle, but it rejoices the heart.’

‘Bring three glasses,’ Julien told him with boyish glee, ‘and send in two of the prisoners whom I hear walking in the corridor.’

The gaoler brought him in two gaolbirds who had repeated their offence and were waiting to be sent back to penal servitude. They were a merry pair of scoundrels and really quite remarkable for cunning, courage and coolness.

‘If you give me twenty francs,’ one of them said to Julien, ‘I will tell you the whole story of my life. It is as good as a play.’

‘But you will tell me lies?’ said Julien.

‘Not at all,’ was the answer; ‘my friend here, who wants my twenty francs, will give me away if I don’t tell the truth.’

His history was abominable. It revealed a courageous heart, in which there survived but a single passion, the lust for money.

After they had left him, Julien was no longer the same man. All his anger with himself had vanished. The piercing grief, envenomed by cowardice, to which he had been a prey since the departure of Madame de Renal, had turned to melancholy.

‘If I had only been less taken in by appearance,’ he told himself, ‘I should have seen that the drawing-rooms of Paris are inhabited by honest people like my father, or by able rascals like these gaolbirds. They are right, the men in the drawing-rooms never rise in the morning with that poignant thought: “How am I to dine today?” And they boast of their probity! And, when summoned to a jury, they proudly condemn the man who has stolen a silver fork because he felt faint with hunger!

‘But when there is a Court, when it is a question of securing or losing a Portfolio, my honest men of the drawing-rooms fall into crimes precisely similar to those which the want of food has inspired in this pair of gaolbirds . . .

‘There is no such thing as natural law: the expression is merely a hoary piece of stupidity well worthy of the Advocate–General who hunted me down the other day, and whose ancestor was made rich by one of Louis XIV’s confiscations. There is no law, save when there is a statute to prevent one from doing something, on pain of punishment. Before the statute, there is nothing natural save the strength of the lion, or the wants of the creature who suffers from hunger, or cold; in a word, necessity . . . No, the men whom we honour are merely rascals who have had the good fortune not to be caught red-handed. The accuser whom society sets at my heels has been made rich by a scandalous injustice . . . I have committed a murderous assault, and I am rightly condemned, but, short of murder only, the Valenod who condemned me is a hundred times more injurious to society.

‘Ah, well,’ Julien added sorrowfully, but without anger, ‘for all his avarice, my father is worth more than any of those men. He has never loved me. I am now going to fill his cup to overflowing, in dishonouring him by a shameful death. That fear of being in want of money, that exaggerated view of the wickedness of mankind which we call avarice, makes him see a prodigious source of consolation and security in a sum of three or four hundred louis which I may leave to him. On Sunday afternoons he will display his gold to all his envious neighbours in Verrieres. “To this tune,” his glance will say to them, “which of you would not be charmed to have a son guillotined?”’

This philosophy might be true, but it was of a nature to make a man long for death. In this way passed five endless days. He was polite and gentle to Mathilde, whom he saw to be exasperated by the most violent jealousy. One evening Julien thought seriously of taking his life. His spirit was exhausted by the profound dejection into which the departure of Madame de Renal had cast him. Nothing pleased him any more, either in real life or in imagination. Want of exercise was beginning to affect his health and to give him the weak and excitable character of a young German student. He was losing that manly pride which repels with a forcible oath certain degrading ideas by which the miserable are assailed.

‘I have loved the Truth . . . Where is it to be found? . . . Everywhere hypocrisy, or at least charlatanism, even among the most virtuous, even among the greatest’; and his lips curled in disgust . . . ‘No, man cannot place any trust in man.

‘Madame de — — when she was making a collection for her poor orphans, told me that some Prince had just given her ten louis; a lie. But what am I saying? Napoleon at Saint–Helena! . . . Pure charlatanism, a proclamation in favour of the King of Rome.

‘Great God! If such a man as he, at a time, too, when misfortune ought to recall him sternly to a sense of duty, stoops to charlatanism, what is one to expect of the rest of the species?

‘Where is Truth? In religion . . . Yes,’ he added with a bitter smile of the most intense scorn, ‘in the mouths of the Maslons, the Frilairs, the Castanedes . . . Perhaps in true Christianity, whose priests would be no more paid than were the Apostles? But Saint Paul was paid with the pleasure of commanding, of speaking, of hearing himself spoken of . . .

‘Ah! If there were a true religion . . . Idiot that I am! I see a gothic cathedral, storied windows; my feeble heart imagines the priest from those windows . . . My soul would understand him, my soul has need of him. I find only a fop with greasy hair . .. little different, in fact, from the Chevalier de Beauvoisis.

‘But a true priest, a Massillon, a Fenelon. . . . Massillon consecrated Dubois. The Memoires de Saint–Simon have spoiled Fenelon for me; but still, a true priest . . . Then the tender hearts would have a meeting-place in this world . . . We should not remain isolated . . . This good priest would speak to us of God. But what God? Not the God of the Bible, a petty despot, cruel and filled with a thirst for vengeance . . . but the God of Voltaire, just, good, infinite . . . ’

He was disturbed by all his memories of that Bible which he knew by heart . . . ‘But how, whenever three are gathered together, how is one to believe in that great name of GOD, after the frightful abuse that our priests make of it?

‘To live in isolation! . . . What torture! . . .

‘I am becoming foolish and unjust,’ said Julien, beating his brow. ‘I am isolated here in this cell; but I have not lived in isolation on this earth; I had always the compelling idea of duty. The duty that I had laid down for myself, rightly or wrongly, was like the trunk of a strong tree against which I leaned during the storm; I tottered, I was shaken. After all, I was only a man . . . but I was not carried away.

‘It is the damp air of this cell that makes me think of isolation . . .

‘And why be a hypocrite still when I am cursing hypocrisy? It is not death, nor the cell, nor the damp air, it is the absence of Madame de Renal that is crushing me. If I were at Verrieres, and, in order to see her, were obliged to live for weeks on end hidden in the cellars of her house, should I complain?

‘The influence of my contemporaries is too strong for me,’ he said aloud and with a bitter laugh. ‘Talking alone to myself, within an inch of death, I am still a hypocrite . . . Oh, nineteenth century!

‘A hunter fires his gun in a forest, his quarry falls, he runs forward to seize it. His boot strikes an anthill two feet high, destroys the habitation of the ants, scatters the ants and their eggs to the four winds . . . The most philosophical among the ants will never understand that black, enormous, fearful body — the hunter’s boot which all of a sudden has burst into their dwelling with incredible speed, preceded by a terrifying noise, accompanied by a flash of reddish flame . . .

‘So it is with death, life, eternity, things that would be quite simple to anyone who had organs vast enough to conceive them . . .

‘An ephemeral fly is born at nine o’clock in the morning, on one of the long days of summer, to die at five o’clock in the afternoon; how should it understand the word night?

‘Grant it five hours more of existence, it sees and understands what night is.

‘And so with myself, I am to die at three and twenty. Grant me five years more of life, to live with Madame de Renal.’

Here he gave a satanic laugh. What folly to discuss these great problems!

Imprimis: I am a hypocrite just as much as if there was someone in the cell to hear me.

Item: I am forgetting to live and love, when I have so few days left of life . . . Alas! Madame de Renal is absent; perhaps her husband will not allow her to come to Besancon again, and disgrace herself further.

‘That is what is isolating me, that and not the absence of a just, good, all-powerful God, who is not wicked, not hungry for vengeance . . .

‘Ah! If He existed . . . Alas! I should fall at His feet. I have deserved death, I should say to him; but, great God, good God, indulgent God, restore to me her whom I love!’

The night was by now far advanced. After an hour or two of peaceful slumber, Fouque arrived.

Julien felt himself to be strong and resolute like a man who sees clearly into his own heart.

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