The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 8

What Is the Decoration that Confers Distinction?

Your water does not refresh me, said the thirsty genie. Yet it is the coolest well in all the Diar Bekir.

PELLICO

One day Julien returned from the charming property of Villequier, on the bank of the Seine, in which M. de La Mole took a special interest because, of all his estates, it was the only one that had belonged to the celebrated Boniface de La Mole. He found at the Hotel the Marquise and her daughter, who had returned from Hyeres.

Julien was now a dandy and understood the art of life in Paris. He greeted Mademoiselle de La Mole with perfect coolness. He appeared to remember nothing of the time when she asked him so gaily to tell her all about his way of falling from his horse.

Mademoiselle de La Mole found him taller and paler. There was no longer anything provincial about his figure or his attire; not so with his conversation: this was still perceptibly too serious, too positive. In spite of these sober qualities, and thanks to his pride, it conveyed no sense of inferiority; one felt merely that he still regarded too many things as important. But one saw that he was a man who would stand by his word.

‘He is wanting in lightness of touch, but not in intelligence,’ Mademoiselle de La Mole said to her father, as she teased him over the Cross he had given Julien. ‘My brother has been asking you for it for the last eighteen months, and he is a La Mole!’

‘Yes; but Julien has novelty. That has never been the case with the La Mole you mention.’

M. le Duc de Retz was announced.

Mathilde felt herself seized by an irresistible desire to yawn; she recognised the antique decorations and the old frequenters of the paternal drawing-room. She formed an entirely boring picture of the life she was going to resume in Paris. And yet at Hyeres she had longed for Paris.

‘To think that I am nineteen!’ she reflected: ‘it is the age of happiness, according to all those gilt-edged idiots.’ She looked at nine or ten volumes of recent poetry that had accumulated, during her absence in Provence, on the drawing-room table. It was her misfortune to have more intelligence than MM. de Croisenois, de Caylus, de Luz, and the rest of her friends. She could imagine everything that they would say to her about the beautiful sky in Provence, poetry, the south, etc., etc.

Those lovely eyes, in which was revealed the most profound boredom, and, what was worse still, a despair of finding any pleasure, came to rest upon Julien. At any rate, he was not exactly like all the rest.

‘Monsieur Sorel,’ she said in that short, sharp voice, with nothing feminine about it, which is used by young women of the highest rank, ‘Monsieur Sorel, are you coming to M. de Retz’s ball tonight?’

‘Mademoiselle, I have not had the honour to be presented to M. le Duc.’ (One would have said that these words and the title burned the lips of the proud provincial.)

‘He has asked my brother to bring you; and, if you came, you could tell me all about Villequier; there is some talk of our going there in the spring. I should like to know whether the house is habitable, and if the country round it is as pretty as people say. There are so many undeserved reputations!’

Julien made no reply.

‘Come to the ball with my brother,’ she added, in the driest of tones.

Julien made a respectful bow. ‘So, even in the middle of a ball, I must render accounts to all the members of the family. Am I not paid to be their man of business?’ In his ill humour, he added: ‘Heaven only knows whether what I tell the daughter may not upset the plans of her father, and brother, and mother! It is just like the court of a Sovereign Prince. One is expected to be a complete nonentity, and at the same time give no one any grounds for complaint.

‘How I dislike that great girl!’ he thought, as he watched Mademoiselle de La Mole cross the room, her mother having called her to introduce her to a number of women visitors. ‘She overdoes all the fashions, her gown is falling off her shoulders . . . she is even paler than when she went away . . . What colourless hair, if that is what they call golden! You would say the light shone through it. How arrogant her way of bowing, of looking at people! What regal gestures!’

Mademoiselle de La Mole had called her brother back, as he was leaving the room.

Comte Norbert came up to Julien:

‘My dear Sorel,’ he began, ‘where would you like me to call for you at midnight for M. de Retz’s ball? He told me particularly to bring you.’

‘I know to whom I am indebted for such kindness,’ replied Julien, bowing to the ground.

His ill humour, having no fault to find with the tone of politeness, indeed of personal interest, in which Norbert had addressed him, vented itself upon the reply which he himself had made to this friendly speech. He detected a trace of servility in it.

That night, on arriving at the ball, he was struck by the magnificence of the Hotel de Retz. The courtyard was covered with an immense crimson awning patterned with golden stars: nothing could have been more elegant. Beneath this awning, the court was transformed into a grove of orange trees and oleanders in blossom. As their tubs had been carefully buried at a sufficient depth, these oleanders and orange trees seemed to be springing from the ground. The carriage drive had been sprinkled with sand.

The general effect seemed extraordinary to our provincial. He had no idea that such magnificence could exist; in an instant his imagination had taken wings and flown a thousand leagues away from ill humour. In the carriage, on their way to the ball, Norbert had been happy, and he had seen everything in dark colours; as soon as they entered the courtyard their moods were reversed.

Norbert was conscious only of certain details, which, in the midst of all this magnificence, had been overlooked. He reckoned up the cost of everything, and as he arrived at a high total, Julien remarked that he appeared almost jealous of the outlay and began to sulk.

As for Julien, he arrived spell-bound with admiration, and almost timid with excess of emotion in the first of the saloons in which the company were dancing. Everyone was making for the door of the second room, and the throng was so great that he found it impossible to move. This great saloon was decorated to represent the Alhambra of Granada.

‘She is the belle of the ball, no doubt about it,’ said a young man with moustaches, whose shoulder dug into Julien’s chest.

‘Mademoiselle Fourmont, who has been the reigning beauty all winter,’ his companion rejoined, ‘sees that she must now take the second place: look how strangely she is frowning.’

‘Indeed she is hoisting all her canvas to attract. Look, look at that gracious smile as soon as she steps into the middle in that country dance. It is inimitable, upon my honour.’

‘Mademoiselle de La Mole has the air of being in full control of the pleasure she derives from her triumph, of which she is very well aware. One would say that she was afraid of attracting whoever speaks to her.’

‘Precisely! That is the art of seduction.’

Julien was making vain efforts to catch a glimpse of this seductive woman; seven or eight men taller than himself prevented him from seeing her.

‘There is a good deal of coquetry in that noble reserve,’ went on the young man with the moustaches.

‘And those big blue eyes which droop so slowly just at the moment when one would say they were going to give her away,’ his companion added. ‘Faith, she’s a past master.’

‘Look how common the fair Fourmont appears beside her,’ said a third.

‘That air of reserve is as much as to say: “How charming I should make myself to you, if you were the man that was worthy of me.”’

‘And who could be worthy of the sublime Mathilde?’ said the first: ‘Some reigning Prince, handsome, clever, well made, a hero in battle, and aged twenty at the most.’

‘The natural son of the Emperor of Russia, for whom, on the occasion of such a marriage, a Kingdom would be created; or simply the Comte de Thaler, with his air of a peasant in his Sunday clothes . . .’

The passage was now cleared, Julien was free to enter.

‘Since she appears so remarkable in the eyes of these puppets, it is worth my while to study her,’ he thought. ‘I shall understand what perfection means to these people.’

As he was trying to catch her eye, Mathilde looked at him. ‘Duty calls me,’ Julien said to himself, but his resentment was now confined to his expression. Curiosity made him step forward with a pleasure which the low cut of the gown on Mathilda’s shoulders rapidly enhanced, in a manner, it must be admitted, by no means flattering to his self-esteem. ‘Her beauty has the charm of youth,’ he thought. Five or six young men, among whom Julien recognised those whom he had heard talking in the doorway, stood between her and him.

‘You can tell me, Sir, as you have been here all the winter,’ she said to him, ‘is it not true that this is the prettiest ball of the season?’ He made no answer.

‘This Coulon quadrille seems to me admirable; and the ladies are dancing it quite perfectly.’ The young men turned round to see who the fortunate person was who was being thus pressed for an answer. It was not encouraging.

‘I should hardly be a good judge, Mademoiselle; I spend my time writing: this is the first ball on such a scale that I have seen.’

The moustached young men were shocked.

‘You are a sage, Monsieur Sorel,’ she went on with a more marked interest; ‘you look upon all these balls, all these parties, like a philosopher, like a Jean–Jacques Rousseau. These follies surprise you without tempting you.’

A chance word had stifled Julien’s imagination and banished every illusion from his heart. His lips assumed an expression of disdain that was perhaps slightly exaggerated.

‘Jean–Jacques Rousseau,’ he replied, ‘is nothing but a fool in my eyes when he takes it upon himself to criticise society; he did not understand it, and approached it with the heart of an upstart flunkey.’

‘He wrote the Contrat Social,’ said Mathilde in a tone of veneration.

‘For all his preaching a Republic and the overthrow of monarchical titles, the upstart is mad with joy if a Duke alters the course of his after-dinner stroll to accompany one of his friends.’

‘Ah, yes! The Due de Luxembourg at Montmorency accompanies a M. Coindet on the road to Paris,’ replied Mademoiselle de La Mole with the impetuous delight of a first enjoyment of pedantry. She was overjoyed at her own learning, almost like the Academician who discovered the existence of King Feretrius. Julien’s eye remained penetrating and stern. Mathilde had felt a momentary enthusiasm; her partner’s coldness disconcerted her profoundly. She was all the more astonished inasmuch as it was she who was in the habit of producing this effect upon other people.

At that moment, the Marquis de Croisenois advanced eagerly towards Mademoiselle de La Mole. He stopped for a moment within a few feet of her, unable to approach her on account of the crowd. He looked at her, with a smile at the obstacle. The young Marquise de Rouvray was close beside him; she was a cousin of Mathilde. She gave her arm to her husband, who had been married for only a fortnight. The Marquis de Rouvray, who was quite young also, showed all that fatuous love which seizes a man, who having made a ‘suitable’ marriage entirely arranged by the family lawyers, finds that he has a perfectly charming spouse. M. de Rouvray would be a Duke on the death of an uncle of advanced years.

While the Marquis de Croisenois, unable to penetrate the throng, stood gazing at Mathilde with a smiling air, she allowed her large, sky-blue eyes to rest upon him and his neighbours. ‘What could be duller,’ she said to herself, ‘than all that group! Look at Croisenois who hopes to marry me; he is nice and polite, he has perfect manners like M. de Rouvray. If they did not bore me, these gentlemen would be quite charming. He, too, will come to balls with me with that smug, satisfied air. A year after we are married, my carriage, my horses, my gowns, my country house twenty leagues from Paris, everything will be as perfect as possible, just what is needed to make an upstart burst with envy, a Comtesse de Roiville for instance; and after that?

Mathilde let her mind drift into the future. The Marquis de Croisenois succeeded in reaching her, and spoke to her, but she dreamed on without listening. The sound of his voice was lost in the hubbub of the ball. Her eye mechanically followed Julien, who had moved away with a respectful, but proud and discontented air. She saw in a corner, aloof from the moving crowd, Conte Altamira, who was under sentence of death in his own country, as the reader already knows. Under Louis XIV, a lady of his family had married a Prince de Conti; this antecedent protected him to some extent from the police of the Congregation.

‘I can see nothing but a sentence of death that distinguishes a man,’ thought Mathilde: ‘it is the only thing that is not to be bought.

‘Ah! There is a witty saying that I have wasted on myself! What a pity that it did not occur to me when I could have made the most of it!’ Mathilde had too much taste to lead up in conversation to a witticism prepared beforehand; but she had also too much vanity not to be delighted with her own wit. An air of happiness succeeded the appearance of boredom in her face. The Marquis de Croisenois, who was still addressing her, thought he saw a chance of success, and doubled his loquacity.

‘What fault would anyone have to find with my remark?’ Mathilde asked herself. ‘I should answer my critic: “A title of Baron, or Viscount, that can be bought; a Cross, that is given; my brother has just had one, what has he ever done? A step in promotion, that is obtained. Ten years of garrison duty, or a relative as Minister for War, and one becomes a squadron-commander, like Norbert. A great fortune! That is still the most difficult thing to secure, and therefore the most meritorious. Now is not that odd? It is just the opposite to what all the books say . .. Well, to secure a fortune, one marries M. Rothschild’s daughter.”

‘My remark is really subtle. A death sentence is still the only thing for which no one has ever thought of asking.

‘Do you know Conte Altamira?’ she asked M. de Croisenois.

She had the air of having come back to earth from so remote an abstraction, and this question bore so little relation to all that the poor Marquis had been saying to her for the last five minutes, that his friendly feelings were somewhat disconcerted. He was, however, a man of ready wit, and highly esteemed in that capacity.

‘Mathilde is certainly odd,’ he thought; ‘it is a drawback, but she gives her husband such a splendid social position! I cannot think how the Marquis de La Mole manages it; he is on intimate terms with the best people in every party, he is a man who cannot fall. Besides, this oddity in Mathilde may pass for genius. Given noble birth and an ample fortune, genius is not to be laughed at, and then, what distinction! She has such a command, too, when she pleases, of that combination of wit, character and aptness, which makes conversation perfect. ..’ As it is hard to do two things well at the same time, the Marquis answered Mathilde with a vacant air, and as though repeating a lesson:

‘Who does not know poor Altamira?’ and he told her the story of the absurd, abortive conspiracy.

‘Most absurd!’ said Mathilde, as though speaking to herself, ‘but he has done something. I wish to see a man; bring him to me,’ she said to the Marquis, who was deeply shocked.

Conte Altamira was one of the most openly professed admirers of the haughty and almost impertinent air of Mademoiselle de La Mole; she was, according to him, one of the loveliest creatures in Paris.

‘How beautiful she would be on a throne!’ he said to M. de Croisenois, and made no difficulty about allowing himself to be led to her.

There are not wanting in society people who seek to establish the principle that nothing is in such bad tone as a conspiracy; it reeks of Jacobinism. And what can be more vile than an unsuccessful Jacobin?

Mathilde’s glance derided Altamira’s Liberalism to M. de Croisenois, but she listened to him with pleasure.

‘A conspirator at a ball, it is a charming contrast,’ she thought. In this conspirator, with his black moustaches, she detected a resemblance to a lion in repose; but she soon found that his mind had but one attitude: utility, admiration for utility.

Excepting only what might bring to his country Two Chamber government, the young Count felt that nothing was worthy of his attention. He parted from Mathilde, the most attractive person at the ball, with pleasure because he had seen a Peruvian General enter the room.

Despairing of Europe, poor Altamira had been reduced to hoping that, when the States of South America became strong and powerful, they might restore to Europe the freedom which Mirabeau had sent to them.†

† This page, written on July 25, 1830, was printed on August 4. (Publisher’s note.) — Le Rouge et le Noir was published in 1831. It was an order of July 25, 1830, dissolving the Chamber, which provoked the Revolution of the following days, the abdication of Charles X, and the accession of Louis–Phillippe — C. K. S. M.]

A swarm of young men with moustaches had gathered round Mathilde. She had seen quite well that Altamira was not attracted, and felt piqued by his desertion of her; she saw his dark eye gleam as he spoke to the Peruvian General. Mademoiselle de La Mole studied the young Frenchmen with that profound seriousness which none of her rivals was able to imitate. ‘Which of them,’ she thought, ‘could ever be sentenced to death, even allowing him the most favourable conditions?’

This singular gaze flattered those who had little intelligence, but disturbed the rest. They feared the explosion of some pointed witticism which it would be difficult to answer.

‘Good birth gives a man a hundred qualities the absence of which would offend me: I see that in Julien’s case,’ thought Mathilde; ‘but it destroys those qualities of the spirit which make people be sentenced to death.’

At that moment someone remarked in her hearing: ‘That Conte Altamira is the second son of the Principe di San Nazaro–Pimentel; it was a Pimentel who attempted to save Conradin, beheaded in 1268. They are one of the noblest families of Naples.’

‘There,’ Mathilde said to herself, ‘is an excellent proof of my maxim: Good birth destroys the strength of character without which people do not incur sentences of death. I seem fated to go wrong this evening. Since I am only a woman like any other, well, I must dance.’ She yielded to the persistence of the Marquis de Croisenois, who for the last hour had been pleading for a galop. To distract her thoughts from her philosophical failure, Mathilde chose to be perfectly bewitching; M. de Croisenois was in ecstasies.

But not the dance, nor the desire to please one of the handsomest men at court, nothing could distract Mathilde. She could not possibly have enjoyed a greater triumph. She was the queen of the ball, she knew it, but she remained cold.

‘What a colourless life I shall lead with a creature like Croisenois,’ she said to herself, as he led her back to her place an hour later . . . ‘What pleasure can there be for me,’ she went on sadly, ‘if after an absence of six months, I do not find any in a ball which is the envy of all the women in Paris? And moreover I am surrounded by the homage of a society which could not conceivably be more select. There is no plebeian element here except a few peers and a Julien or two perhaps. And yet,’ she added, with a growing melancholy, ‘what advantages has not fate bestowed on me! Birth, wealth, youth! Everything, alas, but happiness.

‘The most dubious of my advantages are those of which they have been telling me all evening. Wit, I know I have, for obviously I frighten them all. If they venture to broach a serious subject, after five minutes of conversation they all arrive out of breath, and as though making a great discovery, at something which I have been repeating to them for the last hour. I am beautiful, I have that advantage for which Madame de Stael would have sacrificed everything, and yet the fact remains that I am dying of boredom. Is there any reason why I should be less bored when I have changed my name to that of the Marquis de Croisenois?

‘But, Lord!’ she added, almost in tears, ‘is he not a perfect man? He is the masterpiece of the education of the age; one cannot look at him without his thinking of something pleasant, and even clever, to say to one; he is brave . . . But that Sorel is a strange fellow,’ she said to herself, and the look of gloom in her eye gave place to a look of anger. ‘I told him that I had something to say to him, and he does not condescend to return!’

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