The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 9

The Ball

The splendour of the dresses, the blaze of the candles, the perfumes; all those rounded arms, and fine shoulders; bouquets, the sound of Rossini’s music, pictures by Ciceri! I am beside myself!

Travels of Uzeri

‘You are feeling cross,’ the Marquise de La Mole said to her; ‘I warn you, that is not good manners at a ball.’

‘It is only a headache,’ replied Mathilde contemptuously, ‘it is too hot in here.’

At that moment, as though to corroborate Mademoiselle de La Mole, the old Baron de Tolly fainted and fell to the ground; he had to be carried out. There was talk of apoplexy, it was a disagreeable incident.

Mathilde did not give it a thought. It was one of her definite habits never to look at an old man or at anyone known to be given to talking about sad things.

She danced to escape the conversation about the apoplexy, which was nothing of the sort, for a day or two later the Baron reappeared.

‘But M. Sorel does not appear,’ she said to herself again after she had finished dancing. She was almost searching for him with her eyes when she caught sight of him in another room. Strange to say, he seemed to have shed the tone of impassive coldness which was so natural to him; he had no longer the air of an Englishman.

‘He is talking to Conte Altamira, my condemned man!’ Mathilde said to herself. ‘His eye is ablaze with a sombre fire; he has the air of a Prince in disguise; the arrogance of his gaze has increased.’

Julien was coming towards the spot where she was, still talking to Altamira; she looked fixedly at him, studying his features in search of those lofty qualities which may entitle a man to the honour of being sentenced to death.

As he passed by her:

‘Yes,’ he was saying to Conte Altamira, ‘Danton was a man!’

‘Oh, heavens! Is he to be another Danton,’ thought Mathilde; ‘but he has such a noble face, and that Danton was so horribly ugly, a butcher, I fancy.’ Julien was still quite near her, she had no hesitation in calling to him; she was conscious and proud of asking a question that was extraordinary, coming from a girl.

‘Was not Danton a butcher?’ she asked him.

‘Yes, in the eyes of certain people,’ Julien answered her with an expression of the most ill-concealed scorn, his eye still ablaze from his conversation with Altamira, ‘but unfortunately for people of birth, he was a lawyer at Mery-sur-Seine; that is to say, Mademoiselle,’ he went on with an air of sarcasm, ‘that he began life like several of the Peers whom I see here this evening. It is true that Danton had an enormous disadvantage in the eyes of beauty: he was extremely ugly.’

The last words were uttered rapidly, with an extraordinary and certainly far from courteous air.

Julien waited for a moment, bowing slightly from the waist and with an arrogantly humble air. He seemed to be saying: ‘I am paid to answer you, and I live upon my pay.’ He did not deign to raise his eyes to her face. She, with her fine eyes opened extraordinarily wide and fastened upon him, seemed like his slave. At length, as the silence continued, he looked at her as a servant looks at his master, when receiving orders. Although his eyes looked full into those of Mathilde, still fastened upon him with a strange gaze, he withdrew with marked alacrity.

‘That he, who really is so handsome,’ Mathilde said to herself at length, awakening from her dreams, ‘should pay such a tribute to ugliness! Never a thought of himself! He is not like Caylus or Croisenois. This Sorel has something of the air my father adopts when he is playing the Napoleon, at a ball.’ She had entirely forgotten Danton. ‘No doubt about it, I am bored this evening.’ She seized her brother by the arm, and, greatly to his disgust, forced him to take her for a tour of the rooms. The idea occurred to her of following the condemned man’s conversation with Julien.

The crowd was immense. She succeeded, however, in overtaking them at the moment when, just in front of her, Altamira had stopped by a tray of ices to help himself. He was talking to Julien, half turning towards him. He saw an arm in a braided sleeve stretched out to take an ice from the same tray. The gold lace seemed to attract his attention; he turned round bodily to see whose this arm was. Immediately his eyes, so noble and unaffected, assumed a slight expression of scorn.

‘You see that man,’ he murmured to Julien; ‘he is the Principe d’Araceli, the —— Ambassador. This morning he applied for my extradition to your French Foreign Minister, M. de Nerval. Look, there he is over there, playing whist. M. de Nerval is quite ready to give me up, for we gave you back two or three conspirators in 1816. If they surrender me to my King I shall be hanged within twenty-four hours. And it will be one of those pretty gentlemen with moustaches who will seize me.’

‘The wretches!’ exclaimed Julien, half aloud.

Mathilde did not lose a syllable of their conversation. Her boredom had vanished.

‘Not such wretches as all that,’ replied Conte Altamira. ‘I have spoken to you of myself to impress you with a real instance. Look at Principe d’Araceli; every five minutes he casts a glance at his Golden Fleece; he cannot get over the pleasure of seeing that trinket on his breast. The poor man is really nothing worse than an anachronism. A hundred years ago, the Golden Fleece was a signal honour, but then it would have been far above his head. Today, among people of breeding, one must be an Araceli to be thrilled by it. He would have hanged a whole town to obtain it.’

‘Was that the price he paid for it?’ said Julien, with anxiety.

‘Not exactly,’ replied Altamira coldly; ‘he perhaps had some thirty wealthy landowners of his country, who were supposed to be Liberals, flung into the river.’

‘What a monster!’ said Julien again.

Mademoiselle de La Mole, leaning forward with the keenest interest, was so close to him that her beautiful hair almost brushed his shoulder.

‘You are very young!’ replied Altamira. ‘I told you that I have a married sister in Provence; she is still pretty, good, gentle; she is an excellent mother, faithful to all her duties, pious without bigotry.’

‘What is he leading up to?’ thought Mademoiselle de La Mole.

‘She is happy,’ Conte Altamira continued; ‘she was happy in 1815. At that time I was in hiding there, on her property near Antibes; well, as soon as she heard of the execution of Marshal Ney, she began to dance!’

‘Is it possible?’ said the horrified Julien.

‘It is the partisan spirit,’ replied Altamira. There are no longer any genuine passions in the nineteenth century; that is why people are so bored in France. We commit the greatest cruelties, but without cruelty.’

‘All the worse!’ said Julien; ‘at least, when we commit crimes, we should commit them with pleasure: that is the only good thing about them, and the only excuse that can in any way justify them.’

Mademoiselle de La Mole, entirely forgetting what she owed to herself, had placed herself almost bodily between Altamira and Julien. Her brother, upon whose arm she leaned, being accustomed to obey her, was looking about the room, and, to hide his lack of composure, pretending to be held up by the crowd.

‘You are right,’ said Altamira; ‘we do everything without pleasure and without remembering it afterwards, even our crimes. I can point out to you at this ball ten men, perhaps, who will be damned as murderers. They have forgotten it, and the world also.†

† ‘A malcontent is speaking.’ (Note by Moliere to Tartuffe.)]

‘Many of them are moved to tears if their dog breaks its paw. At Pere–Lachaise, when people strew flowers on their graves, as you so charmingly say in Paris, we are told that they combined all the virtues of the knights of old, and we hear of the great deeds of their ancestor who lived in the days of Henri IV: If, despite the good offices of Principe d’Araceli, I am not hanged, and if I ever come to enjoy my fortune in Paris, I hope to invite you to dine with nine or ten murderers who are honoured and feel no remorse.

‘You and I, at that dinner, will be the only two whose hands are free from blood, but I shall be despised and almost hated, as a bloody and Jacobinical monster, and you will simply be despised as a plebeian who has thrust his way into good society.’

‘Nothing could be more true,’ said Mademoiselle de La Mole.

Altamira looked at her in astonishment; Julien did not deign to look at her.

‘Note that the revolution at the head of which I found myself,’ Conte Altamira went on, ‘was unsuccessful, solely because I would not cut off three heads, and distribute among our supporters seven or eight millions which happened to be in a safe of which I held the key. My King, who is now burning to have me hanged, and who, before the revolt, used to address me as tu, would have given me the Grand Cordon of his Order if I had cut off those three heads and distributed the money in those safes: for then I should have scored at least a partial success, and my country would have had a Charter of sorts . . . Such is the way of the world, it is a game of chess.’

‘Then,’ replied Julien, his eyes ablaze, ‘you did not know the game; now . . . ’

‘I should cut off the heads, you mean, and I should not be a Girondin as you gave me to understand the other day? I will answer you,’ said Altamira sadly, ‘when you have killed a man in a duel, and that is a great deal less unpleasant than having him put to death by a headsman.’

‘Faith!’ said Julien, ‘the end justifies the means; if, instead of being a mere atom, I had any power, I would hang three men to save the lives of four.’

His eyes expressed the fire of conscience and a contempt for the vain judgments of men; they met those of Mademoiselle de La Mole who stood close beside him, and this contempt, instead of changing into an air of gracious civility, seemed to intensify.

It shocked her profoundly; but it no longer lay in her power to forget Julien; she moved indifferently away, taking her brother with her.

‘I must take some punch, and dance a great deal,’ she said to herself, ‘I intend to take the best that is going, and to create an effect at all costs. Good, here comes that master of impertinence, the Comte de Fervaques.’ She accepted his invitation; they danced. ‘It remains to be seen,’ she thought, ‘which of us will be the more impertinent, but, to get the full enjoyment out of him, I must make him talk.’ Presently all the rest of the country dance became a pure formality. No one was willing to miss any of Mathilde’s piquant repartees. M. de Fervaques grew troubled, and, being able to think of nothing but elegant phrases, in place of ideas, began to smirk; Mathilde, who was out of temper, treated him cruelly, and made an enemy of him. She danced until daybreak, and finally went home horribly tired. But, in the carriage, the little strength that remained to her was still employed in making her melancholy and wretched. She had been scorned by Julien, and was unable to scorn him.

Julien was on a pinnacle of happiness. Carried away unconsciously by the music, the flowers, the beautiful women, the general elegance, and, most of all, by his own imagination, which dreamed of distinctions for himself and of liberty for mankind:

‘What a fine ball!’ he said to the Conte, ‘nothing is lacking.’

‘Thought is lacking,’ replied Altamira.

And his features betrayed that contempt which is all the more striking because one sees that politeness makes it a duty to conceal it.

‘You are here, Monsieur le Comte. Is not that thought, and actively conspiring, too?’

‘I am here because of my name. But they hate thought in your drawing-rooms. It must never rise above the level of a comic song: then it is rewarded. But the man who thinks, if he shows energy and novelty in his sallies, you call a cynic. Is not that the name that one of your judges bestowed upon Courier? You put him in prison, and Beranger also. Everything that is of any value among you, intellectually, the Congregation flings to the criminal police; and society applauds.

‘The truth is that your antiquated society values conventionality above everything .. . You will never rise higher than martial gallantry; you will have Murats, but never a Washington. I can see nothing in France but vanity. A man who thinks of things as he speaks may easily say something rash, and his host then imagines himself insulted.’

At this point, the Conte’s carriage, which was taking Julien home, stopped at the Hotel de La Mole. Julien was in love with his conspirator. Altamira had paid him a handsome compliment, evidently springing from a profound conviction: ‘You have not the French frivolity, and you understand the principle of utility.’ It so happened that, only two evenings before, Julien had seen Marino Faliero, a tragedy by M. Casimir Delavigne.

‘Has not Israel Bertuccio more character than all those Venetian nobles?’ our rebellious plebeian asked himself; ‘and yet they are men whose noble descent can be proved as far back as the year 700, a century before Charlemagne; whereas the bluest blood at M. de Retz’s ball tonight does not go farther back, and that only by a hop, skip and jump, than the thirteenth century. Very well! Among those Venetian nobles, so great by birth, it is Israel Bertuccio that one remembers.

‘A conspiracy wipes out all the titles conferred by social caprice. In those conditions, a man springs at once to the rank which his manner of facing death assigns to him. The mind itself loses some of its authority . . .

‘What would Danton be today, in this age of Valenods and Renais? Not even a Deputy Crown Prosecutor .. .

‘What am I saying? He would have sold himself to the Congregation; he would be a Minister, for after all the great Danton did steal. Mirabeau, too, sold himself. Napoleon stole millions in Italy, otherwise he would have been brought to a standstill by poverty, like Pichegru. Only La Fayette never stole. Must one steal, must one sell oneself?’ Julien wondered. The question arrested the flow of his imagination. He spent the rest of the night reading the history of the Revolution.

Next day, as he copied his letters in the library, he could still think of nothing but Conte Altamira’s conversation.

‘It is quite true,’ he said to himself, after a long spell of absorption; ‘if those Spanish Liberals had compromised the people by a few crimes, they would not have been swept away so easily. They were conceited, chattering boys . . . like myself!’ Julien suddenly cried, as though awaking with a bound.

‘What difficult thing have I ever done that gives me the right to judge poor devils who, after all, once in their lives, have dared, have begun to act? I am like a man who, on rising from table, exclaims: “Tomorrow I shall not dine; that will not prevent me from feeling strong and brisk as I do today.” How can I tell what people feel in the middle of a great action? .. .’ These lofty thoughts were interrupted by the sudden arrival of Mademoiselle de La Mole, who at this moment entered the library. He was so excited by his admiration for the great qualities of Danton, Mirabeau, Carnot, who had contrived not to be crushed, that his eyes rested upon Mademoiselle de La Mole, but without his thinking of her, without his greeting her, almost without his seeing her. When at length his great staring eyes became aware of her presence, the light died out in them. Mademoiselle de La Mole remarked this with a feeling of bitterness.

In vain did she ask him for a volume of Vely’s Histoire de France which stood on the highest shelf, so that Julien was obliged to fetch the longer of the two ladders. He brought the ladder; he found the volume, he handed it to her, still without being able to think of her. As he carried back the ladder, in his preoccupation, his elbow struck one of the glass panes protecting the shelves; the sound of the splinters falling on the floor at length aroused him. He hastened to make his apology to Mademoiselle de La Mole; he tried to be polite, but he was nothing more. Mathilde saw quite plainly that she had disturbed him, that he would have preferred to dream of what had been occupying his mind before her entry, rather than to talk to her. After a long glance at him, she slowly left the room. Julien watched her as she went. He enjoyed the contrast between the simplicity of the attire she was now wearing and her sumptuous magnificence overnight. The difference in her physiognomy was hardly less striking. This girl, so haughty at the Duc de Retz’s ball, had at this moment almost a suppliant look. ‘Really,’ Julien told himself, ‘that black gown shows off the beauty of her figure better than anything; but why is she in mourning?

‘If I ask anyone the reason of this mourning, I shall only make myself appear a fool as usual.’ Julien had quite come to earth from the soaring flight of his enthusiasm. ‘I must read over all the letters I have written today; Heaven knows how many missing words and blunders I shall find.’ As he was reading with forced attention the first of these letters, he heard close beside him the rustle of a silken gown; he turned sharply round; Mademoiselle de La Mole was standing by his table, and smiling. This second interruption made Julien lose his temper.

As for Mathilde, she had just become vividly aware that she meant nothing to this young man; her smile was intended to cover her embarrassment, and proved successful.

‘Evidently, you are thinking about something that is extremely interesting, Monsieur Sorel. Is it by any chance some curious anecdote of the conspiracy that has sent the Conte Altamira here to Paris? Tell me what it is? I am burning to know; I shall be discreet, I swear to you!’ This last sentence astonished her as she uttered it. What, she was pleading with a subordinate! Her embarrassment grew, she adopted a light manner:

‘What can suddenly have turned you, who are ordinarily so cold, into an inspired creature, a sort of Michelangelo prophet?’

This bold and indiscreet question, cutting Julien to the quick, revived all his passion.

‘Was Danton justified in stealing?’ he said to her sharply, and with an air that grew more and more savage. ‘The Revolutionaries of Piedmont, of Spain, ought they to have compromised the people by crimes? To have given away, even to men without merit, all the commands in the army, all the Crosses? Would not the men who wore those Crosses have had reason to fear a Restoration of their King? Ought they to have let the Treasury in Turin be pillaged? In a word, Mademoiselle,’ he said, as he came towards her with a terrible air, ‘ought the man who seeks to banish ignorance and crime from the earth to pass like a whirlwind and do evil as though blindly?’

Mathilde was afraid, she could not meet his gaze, and recoiled a little. She looked at him for a moment; then, ashamed of her fear, with a light step left the library.

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