The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 6

Pronunciation

Their lofty mission is to pass calm judgment on the trivial events in the daily life of nations. Their wisdom should preempt any fury caused by little things, or by events which the voice of repute transfigures in bruiting them abroad.

GRATIUS

For a newcomer, who, out of pride, never asked any questions, Julien managed to avoid any serious pitfall. One day, when he had been driven into a cafe in the Rue Saint–Honore by a sudden shower, a tall man in a beaver coat, surprised at his gloomy stare, began to stare back at him exactly as Mademoiselle Amanda’s lover had stared at him, long before, at Besancon.

Julien had too often reproached himself for having allowed the former insult to pass unpunished to tolerate this stare. He demanded an explanation, the man in the greatcoat at once began to abuse him in the foulest terms: everyone in the cafe gathered round them; the passers-by stopped outside the door. With provincial caution, Julien always carried a brace of pocket pistols; his hand gripped one of these in his pocket with a convulsive movement. Better counsels prevailed, however, and he confined himself to repeating with clockwork regularity: ‘Sir, your address? I scorn you.’

The persistence with which he clung to these six words began to impress the crowd.

‘Gad, that other fellow who goes on talking by himself ought to give him his address.’ The man in the greatcoat, hearing this opinion freely vented, flung a handful of visiting cards in Julien’s face. Fortunately, none of them hit him, he had vowed that he would use his pistol only in the event of his being touched. The man went away, not without turning round from time to time to shake his fist at Julien and to shout abuse.

Julien found himself bathed in sweat. ‘So it lies within the power of the lowest of mankind to work me up like this!’ he said angrily to himself. ‘How am I to destroy this humiliating sensibility?’

Where was he to find a second? He had made the acquaintance of a number of men; but all of them, after six weeks or so, had drifted away from him. ‘I am unsociable, and here I am cruelly punished for it,’ he thought. Finally, it occurred to him to apply to a retired Lieutenant of the 96th named Lieven, a poor devil with whom he used often to fence. Julien was frank with him.

‘I shall be glad to be your second,’ said Lieven, ‘but upon one condition: if you do not hit your man, you shall fight with me, there and then.’

‘Agreed,’ said Julien, with delight; and they went to find M. C. de Beauvoisis at the address indicated upon his cards, in the heart of the Faubourg Saint–Germain.

It was seven o’clock in the morning. It was only when he sent in his name that it occurred to Julien that this might be Madame de Renal’s young relative, formerly attached to the Embassy at Rome or Naples, who had given the singer Geronimo a letter of introduction.

Julien had handed to a tall footman one of the cards flung at him the day before, together with one of his own.

He was kept waiting, with his second, for fully three quarters of an hour; finally they were shown into an admirably furnished apartment. They found a tall young man, got up like a doll; his features exemplified the perfection and the insignificance of Grecian beauty. His head, remarkably narrow, was crowned with a pyramid of the most beautiful golden locks. These were curled with scrupulous care, not a hair stood out from the rest. ‘It is to have his hair curled like that,’ thought the Lieutenant of the 96th, ‘that this damned idiot has been keeping us waiting.’ His striped dressing-gown, his morning trousers, everything, down to his embroidered slippers, was correct and marvellously well cared for. His features, noble and vacuous, betokened a propriety and paucity of ideas, the ideal of the well-meaning man, a horror of the unexpected and of ridicule, an abundance of gravity.

Julien, to whom his Lieutenant of the 96th had explained that to keep him waiting so long, after rudely flinging his card in his face, was an additional insult, strode boldly into M. de Beauvoisis’s presence. It was his intention to be insolent, but he wished at the same time to show his good breeding.

He was so much impressed by M. de Beauvoisis’s gentle manners, by his air at once formal, important and self-satisfied, by the admirable elegance of his surroundings, that in a twinkling all thought of being insolent forsook him. This was not his man of the day before. So great was his astonishment at finding so distinguished a person in place of the vulgar fellow he had met in the cafe, that he could not think of a single word to say. He presented one of the cards that had been flung at him:

‘This is my name,’ said the man of fashion, in whom Julien’s black coat, at seven o’clock in the morning, inspired but scant respect; ‘but I do not understand, the honour . . . ’

His way of pronouncing these last words restored some of Julien’s ill humour.

‘I have come to fight with you, Sir,’ and he rapidly explained the situation.

M. Charles de Beauvoisis, after giving it careful thought, was quite satisfied with the cut of Julien’s black coat. ‘From Staub’s, clearly,’ he said to himself, listening to him in silence, ‘that waistcoat is in good taste, the boots are right; but, on the other hand, that black coat in the early morning! . . . It will be to stop the bullet,’ thought the Chevalier de Beauvoisis.

As soon as he had furnished himself with this explanation, he reverted to a perfect politeness, and addressed Julien almost as an equal. The discussion lasted for some time, it was a delicate matter; but in the end Julien could not reject the evidence of his own eyes. The well-bred young man whom he saw before him bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rude person who, the day before, had insulted him.

Julien felt an invincible reluctance to go away, he prolonged the explanation. He observed the self-sufficiency of the Chevalier de Beauvoisis, for such was the style that he had adopted in referring to himself, shocked at Julien’s addressing him as Monsieur, pure and simple.

He admired the other’s gravity, blended with a certain modest fatuity but never discarded for a single instant. He was astonished by the curious way in which his tongue moved as he enunciated his words . . . But after all, in all this, there was not the slightest reason to pick a quarrel with him.

The young diplomat offered to fight with great courtesy, but the ex-Lieutenant of the 96th, who had been sitting for an hour with his legs apart, his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo, decided that his friend, M. Sorel, was not the sort of person to pick a quarrel, in the German fashion, with another man, because that man’s visiting cards had been stolen.

Julien left the house in the worst of tempers. The Chevalier de Beauvoisis’s carriage was waiting for him in the courtyard, in front of the steps; as it happened, Julien raised his eyes and recognised his man of the previous day in the coachman.

Seeing him, grasping him by the skirts of his coat, pulling him down from his box and belabouring him with his whip, were the work of a moment. Two lackeys tried to defend their fellow; Julien received a pummelling: immediately he drew one of his pocket pistols and fired at them; they took to their heels. It was all over in a minute.

The Chevalier de Beauvoisis came slowly downstairs with the most charming gravity, repeating in the accents of a great nobleman: ‘What’s this? What’s this?’ His curiosity was evidently aroused, but his diplomatic importance did not allow him to show any sign of interest. When he learned what the matter was, a lofty pride still struggled in his features against the slightly playful coolness which ought never to be absent from the face of a diplomat.

The Lieutenant of the 96th realised that M. de Beauvoisis was anxious to fight; he wished also, diplomatically enough, to preserve for his friend the advantages of the initiative. ‘This time,’ he cried, ‘there are grounds for a duel!’ ‘I should think so,’ replied the diplomat.

‘I dismiss that rascal,’ he said to his servants; ‘someone else must drive.’ They opened the carriage door: the Chevalier insisted that Julien and his second should get in before him. They went to find a friend of M. de Beauvoisis, who suggested a quiet spot. The conversation as they drove to it was perfect. The only odd thing was the diplomat in undress.

‘These gentlemen, although of the highest nobility,’ thought Julien, ‘are not in the least boring like the people who come to dine with M. de La Mole; and I can see why,’ he added a moment later, ‘they are not ashamed to be indecent.’ They were speaking of the dancers whom the public had applauded in a ballet of the previous evening. The gentlemen made allusions to spicy anecdotes of which Julien and his second, the Lieutenant of the 96th, were entirely ignorant. Julien did not make the mistake of pretending to know them; he admitted his ignorance with good grace. This frankness found favour with the Chevalier’s friend; he repeated the anecdotes to him in full detail, and extremely well.

One thing astonished Julien vastly. A station which was being erected in the middle of the street for the Corpus Christi day procession, held up the carriage for a moment. The gentlemen indulged in a number of pleasantries; the cure, according to them, was the son of an Archbishop. Never, in the house of the Marquis de La Mole, who hoped to become a Duke, would anyone have dared to say such a thing.

The duel was over in an instant: Julien received a bullet in his arm; they bound it up for him with handkerchiefs; these were soaked in brandy, and the Chevalier de Beauvoisis asked Julien most politely to allow him to take him home, in the carriage that had brought them. When Julien gave his address as the Hotel de La Mole, the young diplomat and his friend exchanged glances. Julien’s cab was waiting, but he found these gentlemen’s conversation infinitely more amusing than that of the worthy Lieutenant of the 96th.

‘Good God! A duel, is that all?’ thought Julien. ‘How fortunate I was to come across that coachman again! What a misfortune, if I had had to endure that insult a second time in a cafe!’ The amusing conversation had scarcely been interrupted. Julien now understood that the affectation of a diplomat does serve some purpose.

‘So dullness is by no means inherent,’ he said to himself, ‘in a conversation between people of high birth! These men make fun of the Corpus Christi day procession, they venture to repeat highly scabrous anecdotes, and with picturesque details. Positively the only thing lacking to them is judgment in politics, and this deficiency is more than made up for by the charm of their tone and the perfect aptness of their expressions.’ Julien felt himself keenly attracted to them. ‘How glad I should be to see them often!’

No sooner had they parted than the Chevalier de Beauvoisis hastened in search of information: what he heard was by no means promising.

He was extremely curious to know his man better; could he with decency call upon him? The scanty information he managed to obtain was not of an encouraging nature.

‘This is frightful!’ he said to his second. ‘It is impossible for me to admit that I have fought a duel with a mere secretary of M. de La Mole, and that because I have been robbed of my visiting cards by a coachman.’

‘Certainly the whole story leaves one exposed to ridicule.’

That evening, the Chevalier de Beauvoisis spread the report everywhere that this M. Sorel, who incidentally was a perfectly charming young man, was the natural son of an intimate friend of the Marquis de La Mole. The rumour passed without difficulty. As soon as it was established, the young diplomat and his friend deigned to pay Julien several visits, during the fortnight for which he was confined to his room. Julien confessed to them that he had never in his life been to the Opera.

‘This is terrible,’ they told him, ‘where else does one go? Your first outing must be to the Comte Ory.’

At the Opera, the Chevalier de Beauvoisis presented him to the famous singer Geronimo, who was enjoying an immense success that season.

Julien almost paid court to the Chevalier; his blend of self-respect, mysterious importance and boyish fatuity enchanted him. For instance, the Chevalier stammered slightly because he had the honour to be frequently in the company of a great nobleman who suffered from that infirmity. Never had Julien seen combined in a single person the absurdity which keeps one amused and the perfection of manners which a poor provincial must seek to copy.

He was seen at the Opera with the Chevalier de Beauvoisis; their association caused his name to be mentioned.

‘Well, Sir!’ M. de La Mole said to him one day, ‘and so you are the natural son of a rich gentleman of the Franche–Comte, my intimate friend!’

The Marquis cut Julien short when he tried to protest that he had in no way helped to give currency to this rumour.

‘M. de Beauvoisis did not wish to have fought a duel with a carpenter’s son.’

‘I know, I know,’ said M. de La Mole; ‘it rests with me now to give consistency to the story, which suits me. But I have one favour to ask you, which will cost you no more than half an hour of your time: every Opera evening, at half-past eleven, go and stand in the vestibule when the people of fashion are coming out. I still notice provincial mannerisms in you at times, you must get rid of them; besides, it can do you no harm to know, at least by sight, important personages to whom I may one day have occasion to send you. Call at the box office to have yourself identified; they have placed your name on the list.’

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