The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 5

Sensibility and a Pious Lady

The smallest living idea seems an outrage, so accustomed are people there to words without colour. Woe to the man who innovates while he speaks!

FAUBLAS

After many months of trial, this is the stage that Julien had reached on the day when the steward of the household paid him his third quarter’s salary. M. de La Mole had set him to study the management of his estates in Brittany and Normandy. Julien made frequent journeys to those parts. His principal duty was to take charge of the correspondence relative to the famous lawsuit with the abbe de Frilair. M. Pirard had given him the necessary instructions.

>From the brief notes which the Marquis used to scribble on the margins of the papers of all kinds that came to him, Julien composed letters almost all of which were signed.

At the school of theology, his teachers complained of his lack of industry, but regarded him none the less as one of their most distinguished pupils. These several labours, taken up with all the ardour of a chafed ambition, had soon robbed Julien of the fresh complexion he had brought with him from the country. His pallor was a merit in the eyes of the young seminarists his companions; he found them much less irritating, much less inclined to fall upon their knees before a coin of the realm than those at Besancon; they, for their part, supposed him to be consumptive. The Marquis had given him a horse.

Afraid of their seeing him when he was out riding, Julien had told them that this exercise had been ordered him by the doctors. The abbe Pirard had taken him to a number of Jansenist societies. Julien was astonished; the idea of religion was inseparably linked in his mind with that of hypocrisy, and the hope of making money. He admired these devout and stern men who took no interest in the budget. Several of the Jansenists had formed an affection for him and gave him advice. A new world opened before him. He met among the Jansenists a certain Conte Altamira, a man six feet in height, a Liberal under sentence of death in his own country, and a devout Catholic. This strange incongruity, religion wedded to a love of freedom, impressed him.

Julien was out of favour with the young Count. Norbert had found that he replied with too much warmth to the pleasantries of certain of his friends. Julien after being guilty once or twice of a breach of good manners, had pledged himself never to address another word to Mademoiselle Mathilde. They were always perfectly civil to him at the Hotel de La Mole; but he felt that he had fallen in their esteem. His provincial common sense explained this change in the words of the popular proverb: ‘new is beautiful.’

Perhaps his perception was now a little clearer than at first, or else the first fascination produced by the urbanity of Paris had ceased.

As soon as he stopped working, he fell into the clutches of a deadly boredom; this was the withering effect of the politeness, admirable in itself, but so measured, so perfectly graduated according to one’s position, which is a mark of high society. A heart that is at all sensitive discerns the artificiality.

No doubt, provincials may be accused of a trace of vulgarity, or of a want of politeness; but they do show a little warmth in answering one. Never, in the Hotel de La Mole, was Julien’s self-esteem wounded; but often, at the end of the day he felt inclined to weep. In the provinces, a waiter in a cafe takes an interest in you if you meet with some accident on entering his cafe; but if that accident involves anything capable of wounding your vanity, then, in condoling with you, he will repeat again and again the word that makes you wince. In Paris they are so considerate as to turn their backs to laugh at you, but you will always remain a stranger.

We pass without comment over a multitude of minor adventures which would have brought Julien into ridicule had he not been in a sense beneath ridicule. An insane self-consciousness made him commit thousands of blunders. All his pleasures were forms of precaution; he practised with his pistol every day, and was numbered among the more promising pupils of the most famous fencing masters. Whenever he had a moment to spare, instead of spending it with a book as at one time, he would dash to the riding school and as ask for the most vicious horses. In his outings with the riding master, he was almost invariably thrown.

The Marquis found him useful owing to his persistent hard work, his reticence and his intelligence, and, by degrees, entrusted him with the handling of all his business that was at all complicated. In those moments in which his lofty ambition allowed him some relaxation, the Marquis did his business with sagacity; being in a position to hear all the latest news, he speculated with success. He bought houses, timber; but he took offence easily. He gave away hundreds of louis and went to law over hundreds of francs. Rich men with big ideas seek amusement and not results from their private undertakings. The Marquis needed a chief of staff who would put all his financial affairs into an easily intelligible order.

Madame de La Mole, albeit of so restrained a character, would sometimes make fun of Julien. The unexpected, an outcome of sensibility, horrifies great ladies; it is a direct challenge to all the conventions. On two or three occasions the Marquis took his part: ‘If he is absurd in your drawing-room, in his own office he reigns supreme.’ Julien, for his part, thought he could divine the Marquise’s secret. She deigned to take an interest in everything as soon as her servants announced the Baron de La Joumate. This was a chilly creature, with expressionless features. He was small, thin, ugly, very well dressed, he spent all his time at the Chateau and, as a rule, had nothing to say about anything. His speech revealed his mind. Madame de La Mole would have been passionately happy, for the first time in her life, if she could have secured him as a husband for her daughter.

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