The Red and the Black, by Stendhal

Chapter 24

A Capital

So much noise, so many busy people! So many ideas in the head of a man of twenty! So many distractions for love!


At length he made out, on a distant mountain, a line of dark walls; it was the citadel of Besancon. ‘How different for me,’ he said with a sigh, ‘if I were arriving in this noble fortress to be a sublieutenant in one of the regiments entrusted with its defence!’

Besancon is not merely one of the most charming towns in France, it abounds in men and women of feeling and spirit. But Julien was only a young peasant and had no way of approaching the distinguished people.

He had borrowed from Fouque a layman’s coat, and it was in this attire that he crossed the drawbridges. His mind full of the history of the siege of 1674, he was determined to visit, before shutting himself up in the Seminary, the ramparts and the citadel. More than once, he was on the point of being arrested by the sentries for making his way into places from which the engineers of the garrison excluded the public, in order to make a profit of twelve or fifteen francs every year by the sale of the hay grown there.

The height of the walls, the depth of the moats, the awe-inspiring appearance of the guns had occupied him for some hours, when he happened to pass by the principal cafe, on the boulevard. He stood speechless with admiration; albeit he could read the word Cafe inscribed in huge letters over the two vast doors, he could not believe his eyes. He made an effort to master his timidity; he ventured to enter, and found himself in a hall thirty or forty feet long, the ceiling of which rose to a height of at least twenty feet. On this day of days everything wore an air of enchantment for him.

Two games of billiards were in progress. The waiters were calling out the scores; the players hurried round the tables through a crowd of onlookers. Streams of tobacco smoke, pouring from every mouth, enveloped them in a blue haze. The tall stature of these men, their rounded shoulders, their heavy gait, their bushy whiskers, the long frock coats that coveted their bodies, all attracted Julien’s attention. These noble sons of ancient Bisontium conversed only in shouts; they gave themselves the air of tremendous warriors. Julien stood spellbound in admiration; he was thinking of the vastness and splendour of a great capital like Besancon. He felt that he could not possibly summon up courage to ask for a cup of coffee from one of those gentlemen with the proud gaze who were marking the score at billiards.

But the young lady behind the counter had remarked the charming appearance of this young country cousin, who, brought to a standstill three paces from the stove, hugging his little bundle under his arm, was studying the bust of the King, in gleaming white plaster. This young lady, a strapping Franc–Comtoise, extremely well made, and dressed in the style calculated to give tone to a cafe, had already said twice, in a low voice so modulated that only Julien should hear her: ‘Sir! Sir!’ Julien’s gaze met that of a pair of the most tender blue eyes, and saw that it was himself who was being addressed.

He stepped briskly up to the counter and the pretty girl, as he might have advanced in the face of the enemy. As he executed this great movement, his bundle fell to the ground.

What pity will not our provincial inspire in the young scholars of Paris, who at fifteen, have already learned how to enter a cafe with so distinguished an air! But these children, so stylish at fifteen, at eighteen begin to turn common. The passionate shyness which one meets in the provinces now and then overcomes itself, and then teaches its victim to desire. As he approached this beautiful girl who had deigned to speak to him, ‘I must tell her the truth,’ thought Julien, who was growing courageous by dint of his conquered shyness.

‘Madame, I have come for the first time in my life to Besancon; I should like to have, and to pay for, a roll of bread and a cup of coffee.’

The girl smiled a little and then blushed; she feared, for this good-looking young man, the satirical attention and witticisms of the billiard players. He would be frightened and would never show his face there again.

‘Sit down here, near me,’ she said, and pointed to a marble table, almost entirely hidden by the enormous mahogany counter which protruded into the room.

The young woman leaned over this counter, which gave her an opportunity to display a superb figure. Julien observed this; all his ideas altered. The pretty girl had just set before him a cup, some sugar and a roll of bread. She hesitated before calling to a waiter for coffee, realising that on the arrival of the said waiter her private conversation with Julien would be at an end.

Julien, lost in thought, was comparing this fair and sprightly beauty with certain memories which often stirred him. The thought of the passion of which he had been the object took from him almost all his timidity. The pretty girl had only a moment; she read the expression in Julien’s eyes.

‘This pipe smoke makes you cough, come to breakfast tomorrow before eight o’clock; at that time, I am almost alone.’

‘What is your name?’ said Julien, with the caressing smile of happy timidity.

‘Amanda Binet.’

‘Will you permit me to send you, in an hour’s time, a little parcel no bigger than this?’

The fair Amanda reflected for a while.

‘I am watched: what you ask may compromise me; however, I am now going to write down my address upon a card, which you can attach to your parcel. Send it to me without fear.’

‘My name is Julien Sorel,’ said the young man. ‘I have neither family nor friends in Besancon.’

‘Ah! Now I understand,’ she exclaimed joyfully, ‘you have come for the law school?’

‘Alas, no!’ replied Julien; ‘they are sending me to the Seminary.’

The most complete discouragement extinguished the light in Amanda’s features; she called a waiter: she had the necessary courage now. The waiter poured out Julien’s coffee, without looking at him.

Amanda was taking money at the counter; Julien prided himself on having ventured to speak to her: there was a dispute in progress at one of the billiard tables. The shouts and contradictions of the players, echoing through that vast hall, made a din which astonished Julien. Amanda was pensive and did not raise her eyes.

‘If you like, Mademoiselle,’ he said to her suddenly with assurance, ‘I can say that I am your cousin.’

This little air of authority delighted Amanda. This is no good-for-nothing young fellow,’ she thought. She said to him very quickly, without looking at him, for her eye was occupied in watching whether anyone were approaching the counter:

‘I come from Genlis, near Dijon; say that you are from Genlis too, and my mother’s cousin.’

‘I shall not forget.’

‘On Thursdays, at five o’clock, in summer, the young gentlemen from the Seminary come past the cafe here.’

‘If you are thinking of me, when I pass, have a bunch of violets in your hand.’

Amanda gazed at him with an air of astonishment; this gaze changed Julien’s courage into temerity; he blushed deeply, however, as he said to her:

‘I feel that I love you with the most violent love.’

‘Don’t speak so loud, then,’ she warned him with an air of alarm.

Julien thought of trying to recollect the language of an odd volume of the Nouvelle Heloise, which he had found at Vergy. His memory served him well; he had been for ten minutes reciting the Nouvelle Heloise to Miss Amanda, who was in ecstasies; he was delighted with his own courage, when suddenly the fair Franc–Comtoise assumed a glacial air. One of her admirers stood in the doorway of the cafe.

He came up to the counter, whistling and swaying his shoulders; he stared at Julien. For the moment, the latter’s imagination, always flying to extremes, was filled entirely with thoughts of a duel. He turned deadly pale, thrust away his cup, assumed an air of assurance and studied his rival most attentively. While this rival’s head was lowered as he familiarly poured himself out a glass of brandy upon the counter, with a glance Amanda ordered Julien to lower his gaze. He obeyed, and for a minute or two sat motionless in his place, pale, determined, and thinking only of what was going to happen; he was really fine at that moment. The rival had been astonished by Julien’s eyes; his glass of brandy drained at a gulp, he said a few words to Amanda, thrust his hands into the side pockets of his ample coat, and made his way to one of the billiard tables, breathing loudly and staring at Julien. The latter sprang to his feet in a transport of rage; but did not know what action to take to be insulting. He laid down his little bundle and, with the most swaggering gait that he could assume, strode towards the billiard table.

In vain did prudence warn him: ‘With a duel on the day of your arrival at Besancon, your career in the church is gone for ever.’

‘What does that matter, it shall never be said that I quailed before an insult.’

Amanda observed his courage; it formed a charming contrast with the simplicity of his manners; in an instant, she preferred him to the big young man in the long coat. She rose, and, while appearing to be following with her eyes the movements of someone going by in the street, took her place swiftly between him and the billiard table.

‘You are not to look askance at that gentleman; he is my brother-inlaw.’

‘What do I care? He looked at me.’

‘Do you wish to get me into trouble? No doubt, he looked at you, perhaps he will even come up and speak to you. I have told him that you are one of my mother’s family and that you have just come from Genlis. He is a Franc–Comtois and has never been farther than Dole, on the road into Burgundy; so tell him whatever you like, don’t be afraid.’

Julien continued to hesitate; she added rapidly, her barmaid’s imagination supplying her with falsehoods in abundance:

‘I dare say he did look at you, but it was when he was asking me who you were; he is a man who is rude with everyone, he didn’t mean to insult you.’

Julien’s eye followed the alleged brother-inlaw; he saw him buy a number for the game of pool which was beginning at the farther of the two billiard tables. Julien heard his loud voice exclaim: ‘I volunteer!’ He passed nimbly behind Miss Amanda’s back and took a step towards the billiard table. Amanda seized him by the arm.

‘Come and pay me first,’ she said to him.

‘Quite right,’ thought Julien; ‘she is afraid I may leave without paying.’ Amanda was as greatly agitated as himself, and had turned very red; she counted out his change as slowly as she could, repeating to him in a whisper as she did so:

‘Leave the cafe this instant, or I shan’t like you any more; I do like you, though, very much.’

Julien did indeed leave, but slowly. ‘Is it not incumbent upon me,’ he repeated to himself, ‘to go and stare at that rude person in my turn, and breathe in his face?’ This uncertainty detained him for an hour on the boulevard, outside the cafe; he watched to see if his man came out. He did not however appear, and Julien withdrew.

He had been but a few hours in Besancon, and already he had something to regret. The old Surgeon–Major had long ago, notwithstanding his gout, taught him a few lessons in fencing; this was all the science that Julien could place at the service of his anger. But this embarrassment would have been nothing if he had known how to pick a quarrel otherwise than by striking a blow; and, if they had come to fisticuffs, his rival, a giant of a man, would have beaten him and left him discomfited.

‘For a poor devil like me,’ thought Julien, ‘without protectors and without money, there will be no great difference between a Seminary and a prison; I must leave my lay clothes in some inn, where I can put on my black coat. If I ever succeed in escaping from the Seminary for an hour or two, I can easily, in my lay clothes, see Miss Amanda again.’ This was sound reasoning; but Julien, as he passed by all the inns in turn, had not the courage to enter any of them.

Finally, as he came again to the Hotel des Ambassadeurs, his roving gaze met that of a stout woman, still reasonably young, with a high complexion, a happy and gay expression. He went up to her and told her his story.

‘Certainly, my fine young priest,’ the landlady of the Ambassadeurs said to him, ‘I shall keep your lay clothes for you, indeed I will have them brushed regularly. In this weather, it is a mistake to leave a broadcloth coat lying.’ She took a key and led him herself to a bedroom, advising him to write down a list of what he was leaving behind.

‘Lord, how nice you look like that, M. l’abbe Sorel,’ said the stout woman, when he came down to the kitchen. ‘I am going to order you a good dinner; and,’ she added in an undertone, ‘it will only cost you twenty sous, instead of the fifty people generally pay; for you must be careful with your little purse.’

‘I have ten louis,’ retorted Julien with a certain note of pride.

‘Oh, good Lord!’ replied the good landlady in alarm, ‘do not speak so loud; there are plenty of bad folk in Besancon. They will have that out of you in less than no time. Whatever you do, never go into the cafes, they are full of rogues.’

‘Indeed!’ said Julien, to whom this last statement gave food for thought.

‘Never go anywhere except to me, I will give you your coffee. Bear in mind that you will always find a friend here and a good dinner for twenty sous; that’s good enough for you, I hope. Go and sit down at the table, I am going to serve you myself.’

‘I should not be able to eat,’ Julien told her. ‘I am too much excited, I am going to enter the Seminary as soon as I leave here.’

The good woman would not allow him to leave until she had stuffed his pockets with provisions. Finally Julien set out for the dread spot, the landlady from her doorstep pointing out the way.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00