Three hundred and thirty-six dinners at 83 centimes, three hundred and thirty-six suppers at 38 centimes, chocolate to such as are entitled to it; how much is there to be made on the contract?
THE VALENOD OF BESANCON
He saw from a distance the cross of gilded iron over the door; he went towards it slowly; his legs seemed to be giving way under him. ‘So there is that hell upon earth, from which I can never escape!’ Finally he decided to ring. The sound of the bell echoed as though in a deserted place. After ten minutes, a pale man dressed in black came and opened the door to him. Julien looked at him and at once lowered his gaze. This porter had a singular physiognomy. The prominent green pupils of his eyes were convex as those of a cat’s; the unwinking contours of his eyelids proclaimed the impossibility of any human feeling; his thin lips were stretched and curved over his protruding teeth. And yet this physiognomy did not suggest a criminal nature, so much as that entire insensibility which inspires far greater terror in the young. The sole feeling that Julien’s rapid glance could discern in that long, smug face was a profound contempt for every subject that might be mentioned to him, which did not refer to another and a better world.
Julien raised his eyes with an effort, and in a voice which the palpitation of his heart made tremulous explained that he wished to speak to M. Pirard, the Director of the Seminary. Without a word, the man in black made a sign to him to follow. They climbed two flights of a wide staircase with a wooden baluster, the warped steps of which sloped at a downward angle from the wall, and seemed on the point of collapse. A small door, surmounted by a large graveyard cross of white wood painted black, yielded to pressure and the porter showed him into a low and gloomy room, the whitewashed walls of which were adorned with two large pictures dark with age. There, Julien was left to himself; he was terrified, his heart throbbed violently; he would have liked to find the courage to weep. A deathly silence reigned throughout the building.
After a quarter of an hour, which seemed to him a day, the sinister porter reappeared on the threshold of a door at the other end of the room, and, without condescending to utter a word, beckoned to him to advance. He entered a room even larger than the first and very badly lighted. The walls of this room were whitewashed also; but they were bare of ornament. Only in a corner by the door, Julien noticed in passing a bed of white wood, two straw chairs and a little armchair made of planks of firwood without a cushion. At the other end of the room, near a small window with dingy panes, decked with neglected flowerpots, he saw a man seated at a table and dressed in a shabby cassock; he appeared to be in a rage, and was taking one after another from a pile of little sheets of paper which he spread out on his table after writing a few words on each. He did not observe Julien’s presence. The latter remained motionless, standing in the middle of the room, where he had been left by the porter, who had gone out again shutting the door behind him.
Ten minutes passed in this fashion; the shabbily dressed man writing all the time. Julien’s emotion and terror were such that he felt himself to be on the point of collapsing. A philosopher would have said, perhaps wrongly: ‘It is the violent impression made by ugliness on a soul created to love what is beautiful.’
The man who was writing raised his head; Julien did not observe this for a moment, and indeed, after he had noticed it, still remained motionless, as though turned to stone by the terrible gaze that was fixed on him. Julien’s swimming eyes could barely make out a long face covered all over with red spots, except on the forehead, which displayed a deathly pallor. Between the red cheeks and white forehead shone a pair of little black eyes calculated to inspire terror in the bravest heart. The vast expanse of his forehead was outlined by a mass of straight hair, as black as jet.
‘Are you coming nearer, or not?’ the man said at length impatiently.
Julien advanced with an uncertain step, and at length, ready to fall to the ground and paler than he had ever been in his life, came to a halt a few feet away from the little table of white wood covered with scraps of paper.
‘Nearer,’ said the man.
Julien advanced farther, stretching out his hand as though in search of something to lean upon.
‘You are very late,’ said the other, once more fastening upon him a terrible eye.
Julien could not endure this gaze; putting out his hand as though to support himself, he fell full length upon the floor.
The man rang a bell. Julien had lost only his sense of vision and the strength to move; he could hear footsteps approaching.
He was picked up and placed in the little armchair of white wood. He heard the terrible man say to the porter:
‘An epileptic, evidently; I might have known it.’
When Julien was able to open his eyes, the man with the red face was again writing; the porter had vanished. ‘I must have courage,’ our hero told himself, ‘and above all hide my feelings.’ He felt a sharp pain at his heart. ‘If I am taken ill, heaven knows what they will think of me.’ At length the man stopped writing, and with a sidelong glance at Julien asked:
‘Are you in a fit state to answer my questions?’
‘Yes, Sir,’ said Julien in a feeble voice.
‘Ah! That is fortunate.’
The man in black had half risen and was impatiently seeking for a letter in the drawer of his table of firwood which opened with a creak. He found it, slowly resumed his seat, and once more gazing at Julien, with an air which seemed to wrest from him the little life that remained to him:
‘You are recommended to me by M. Chelan, who was the best cure in the diocese, a good man if ever there was one, and my friend for the last thirty years.’
‘Ah! It is M. Pirard that I have the honour to address,’ said Julien in a feeble voice.
‘So it seems,’ said the Director of the Seminary, looking sourly at him.
The gleam in his little eyes brightened, followed by an involuntary jerk of the muscles round his mouth. It was the physiognomy of a tiger relishing in anticipation the pleasure of devouring its prey.
‘Chelan’s letter is short,’ he said, as though speaking to himself. ‘Intelligenti pauca; in these days, one cannot write too little.’ He read aloud:
‘“I send you Julien Sorel, of this parish, whom I baptised nearly twenty years ago; his father is a wealthy carpenter but allows him nothing. Julien will be a noteworthy labourer in the Lord’s vineyard. Memory, intelligence are not wanting, he has the power of reflection. Will his vocation last? Is it sincere?”’
‘Sincere!’ repeated the abbe Pirard with an air of surprise, gazing at Julien; but this time the abbe’s gaze was less devoid of all trace of humanity. ‘Sincere!’ he repeated, lowering his voice and returning to the letter:
‘“I ask you for a bursary for Julien; he will qualify for it by undergoing the necessary examinations. I have taught him a little divinity, that old and sound divinity of Bossuet, Arnault, Fleury. If the young man is not to your liking, send him back to me; the Governor of our Poorhouse, whom you know well, offers him eight hundred francs to come as tutor to his children. Inwardly I am calm, thank God. I am growing accustomed to the terrible blow. Vale et me ama.”’
The abbe Pirard, relaxing the speed of his utterance as he came to the signature, breathed with a sigh the word ‘Chelan.’
‘He is calm,’ he said; ‘indeed, his virtue deserved that reward; God grant it to me, when my time comes!’
He looked upwards and made the sign of the Cross. At the sight of this holy symbol Julien felt a slackening of the profound horror which, from his entering the building, had frozen him.
‘I have here three hundred and twenty-one aspirants for the holiest of callings,’ the abbe Pirard said at length, in a severe but not hostile tone; ‘only seven or eight have been recommended to me by men like the abbe Chelan; thus among the three hundred and twenty-one you will be the ninth. But my protection is neither favour nor weakness, it is an increase of precaution and severity against vice. Go and lock that door.’
Julien made an effort to walk and managed not to fall. He noticed that a little window, near the door by which he had entered, commanded a view of the country. He looked at the trees; the sight of them did him good, as though he had caught sight of old friends.
‘Loquerisne linguam latinam? (Do you speak Latin?)’ the abbe Pirard asked him as he returned.
‘Ita, pater optime (Yes, excellent Father),’ replied Julien, who was beginning to come to himself. Certainly nobody in the world had appeared to him less excellent than M. Pirard, during the last half-hour.
The conversation continued in Latin. The expression in the abbe’s eyes grew gentler; Julien recovered a certain coolness. ‘How weak I am,’ he thought, ‘to let myself be imposed upon by this show of virtue! This man will be simply a rascal like M. Maslon’; and Julien congratulated himself on having hidden almost all his money in his boots.
The abbe Pirard examined Julien in theology, and was surprised by the extent of his knowledge. His astonishment increased when he questioned him more particularly on the Holy Scriptures. But when he came to questions touching the doctrine of the Fathers, he discovered that Julien barely knew the names of Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Basil, etc., etc.
‘In fact,’ thought the abbe Pirard, ‘here is another instance of that fatal tendency towards Protestantism which I have always had to rebuke in Chelan. A thorough, a too thorough acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures.’
(Julien had just spoken to him, without having been questioned on the subject, of the true date of authorship of Genesis, the Pentateuch, etc.)
‘To what does all this endless discussion of the Holy Scriptures lead,’ thought the abbe Pirard, ‘if not to private judgment, that is to say to the most fearful Protestantism? And, in conjunction with this rash learning, nothing about the Fathers that can compensate for this tendency.’
But the astonishment of the Director of the Seminary knew no bounds when, questioning Julien as to the authority of the Pope, and expecting the maxims of the ancient Gallican church, he heard the young man repeat the whole of M. de Maistre’s book.
‘A strange man, Chelan,’ thought the abbe Pirard; ‘has he given him this book to teach him to laugh at it?’
In vain did he question Julien, trying to discover whether he seriously believed the doctrine of M. de Maistre. The young man could answer him only by rote. From this moment, Julien was really admirable, he felt that he was master of himself. After a prolonged examination it seemed to him that M. Pirard’s severity towards him was no more than an affectation. Indeed, but for the rule of austere gravity which, for the last fifteen years, he had imposed on himself in dealing with his pupils in theology, the Director of the Seminary would have embraced Julien in the name of logic, such clarity, precision, and point did he find in the young man’s answers.
‘This is a bold and healthy mind,’ he said to himself, ‘but corpus debile (a frail body).
‘Do you often fall like that?’ he asked Julien in French, pointing with his finger to the floor.
‘It was the first time in my life; the sight of the porter’s face paralysed me,’ Julien explained, colouring like a child.
The abbe Pirard almost smiled.
‘Such is the effect of the vain pomps of this world; you are evidently accustomed to smiling faces, positive theatres of falsehood. The truth is austere, Sir. But is not our task here below austere also? You will have to see that your conscience is on its guard against this weakness: Undue sensibility to vain outward charms.
‘Had you not been recommended to me,’ said the abbe Pirard, returning with marked pleasure to the Latin tongue, ‘had you not been recommended to me by a man such as the abbe Chelan, I should address you in the vain language of this world to which it appears that you are too well accustomed. The entire bursary for which you apply is, I may tell you, the hardest thing in the world to obtain. But the abbe Chelan has earned little, by fifty-six years of apostolic labours, if he cannot dispose of a bursary at the Seminary.’
After saying these words, the abbe Pirard advised Julien not to join any secret society or congregation without his consent.
‘I give you my word of honour,’ said Julien with the heartfelt warmth of an honest man.
The Director of the Seminary smiled for the first time.
‘That expression is not in keeping here,’ he told him; ‘it is too suggestive of the vain honour of men of the world, which leads them into so many errors and often into crime. You owe me obedience in virtue of the seventeenth paragraph of the Bull Unam Ecclesiam of Saint Pius V. I am your ecclesiastical superior. In this house to hear, my dearly beloved son, is to obey. How much money have you?’
(‘Now we come to the point,’ thought Julien, ‘this is the reason of the “dearly beloved son”.’)
‘Thirty-five francs, Father.’
‘Keep a careful note of how you spend your money; you will have to account for it to me.’
This exhausting interview had lasted three hours. Julien was told to summon the porter.
‘Put Julien Sorel in cell number 103,’ the abbe Pirard told the man.
As a special favour, he was giving Julien a room to himself.
‘Take up his trunk,’ he added.
Julien lowered his eyes and saw his trunk staring him in the face; he had been looking at it for three hours and had never seen it.
On arriving at No. 103, which was a tiny room eight feet square on the highest floor of the building, Julien observed that it looked out towards the ramparts, beyond which one saw the smiling plain which the Doubs divides from the city.
‘What a charming view!’ exclaimed Julien; in speaking thus to himself he was not conscious of the feeling implied by his words. The violent sensations he had experienced in the short time that he had spent in Besancon had completely drained his strength. He sat down by the window on the solitary wooden chair that was in his cell, and at once fell into a profound slumber. He did not hear the supper bell, nor that for Benediction; he had been forgotten.
When the first rays of the sun awakened him next morning, he found himself lying upon the floor.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00