Love! In what folly do you not contrive to make us find pleasure?
Letters of a Portuguese Nun
Julien read over his letters. When the dinner bell sounded: ‘How ridiculous I must have appeared in the eyes of that Parisian doll!’ he said to himself; ‘what madness to tell her what was really in my thoughts! And yet perhaps not so very mad. The truth on this occasion was worthy of me.
‘Why, too, come and cross-examine me on private matters? Her question was indiscreet. She forgot herself. My thoughts on Danton form no part of the sacrifice for which her father pays me.’
On reaching the dining-room, Julien was distracted from his ill humour by Mademoiselle de La Mole’s deep mourning, which was all the more striking since none of the rest of the family was in black.
After dinner, he found himself entirely recovered from the fit of enthusiasm which had possessed him all day. Fortunately, the Academician who knew Latin was present at dinner. There is the man who will be least contemptuous of me, if, as I suppose, my question about Mademoiselle de La Mole’s mourning should prove a blunder.’
Mathilde was looking at him with a singular expression. ‘There we have an instance of the coquetry of the women of these parts, just as Madame de Renal described it to me,’ Julien told himself. ‘I was not agreeable to her this morning, I did not yield to her impulse for conversation. My value has increased in her eyes. No doubt the devil loses no opportunity there. Later on, her proud scorn will find out a way of avenging itself. Let her do her worst. How different from the woman I have lost! What natural charm! What simplicity! I knew what was in her mind before she did; I could see her thoughts take shape; I had no competitor, in her heart, but the fear of losing her children; it was a reasonable and natural affection, indeed it was pleasant for me who felt the same fear. I was a fool. The ideas that I had I formed of Paris prevented me from appreciating that sublime woman.
‘What a difference, great God! And what do I find here? A sere and haughty vanity, all the refinements of self-esteem and nothing more.’
The party left the table. ‘I must not let my Academician be intercepted,’ said Julien. He went up to him as they were moving into the garden, assumed a meek, submissive air, and sympathised with his rage at the success of Hernani.
‘If only we lived in the days of lettres de cachet!’ he said.
‘Ah, then he would never have dared,’ cried the Academician, with a gesture worthy of Talma.
In speaking of a flower, Julien quoted a line or two from Virgil’s Georgics, and decided that nothing came up to the poetry of the abbe Delille. In short, he flattered the Academician in every possible way. After which, with an air of the utmost indifference: ‘I suppose,’ he said to him, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole has received a legacy from some uncle for whom she is in mourning.’
‘What! You live in the house,’ said the Academician, coming to a standstill, ‘and you don’t know her mania? Indeed, it is strange that her mother allows such things; but, between you and me, it is not exactly by strength of character that they shine in this family. Mademoiselle Mathilde has enough for them all, and leads them by the nose. Today is the 3Oth of April!’ and the Academician broke off, looking at Julien, with an air of connivance. Julien smiled as intelligently as he was able.
‘What connection can there be between leading a whole household by the nose, wearing black and the 30th of April?’ he asked himself. ‘I must be even stupider than I thought.
‘I must confess to you,’ he said to the Academician, and his eye continued the question.
‘Let us take a turn in the garden,’ said the Academician, delighted to see this chance of delivering a long and formal speech. ‘What! Is it really possible that you do not know what happened on the 30th of April, 1574?’
‘Where?’ asked Julien, in surprise.
‘On the Place de Greve.’
Julien was so surprised that this name did not enlighten him. His curiosity, the prospect of a tragic interest, so attuned to his nature, gave him those sparkling eyes which a story-teller so loves to see in his audience. The Academician, delighted to find a virgin ear, related at full length to Julien how, on the 30th of April, 1574, the handsomest young man of his age, Boniface de La Mole, and Annibal de Coconasso, a Piedmontese gentleman, his friend, had been beheaded on the Place de Greve. ‘La Mole was the adored lover of Queen Marguerite of Navarre; and observe,’ the Academician added, ‘that Mademoiselle de La Mole is named Mathilde–Marguerite. La Mole was at the same time the favourite of the Duc d’Alencon and an intimate friend of the King of Navarre, afterwards Henri IV, the husband of his mistress. On Shrove Tuesday in this year, 1574, the Court happened to be at Saint–Germain, with the unfortunate King Charles IX, who was on his deathbed. La Mole wished to carry off the Princes, his friends, whom Queen Catherine de’ Medici was keeping as prisoners with the Court. He brought up two hundred horsemen under the walls of Saint–Germain, the Due d’Alencon took fright, and La Mole was sent to the scaffold.
‘But what appeals to Mademoiselle Mathilde, as she told me herself, seven or eight years ago, when she was only twelve, for she has a head, such a head! .. .’ and the Academician raised his eyes to heaven. ‘What impresses her in this political catastrophe is that Queen Marguerite of Navarre, who had waited concealed in a house on the Place de Greve, made bold to ask the executioner for her lover’s head. And the following night, at midnight, she took the head in her carriage, and went to bury it with her own hands in a chapel which stood at the foot of the hill of Montmartre.’
‘Is it possible?’ exclaimed Julien, deeply touched.
‘Mademoiselle Mathilde despises her brother because, as you see, he thinks nothing of all this ancient history, and never goes into mourning on the 30th of April. It is since this famous execution, and to recall the intimate friendship between La Mole and Coconasso, which Coconasso, being as he was an Italian, was named Annibal, that all the men of this family have borne that name. And,’ the Academician went on, lowering his voice, ‘this Coconasso was, on the authority of Charles IX, himself, one of the bloodiest assassins on the 24th of August, 1572.. But how is it possible, my dear Sorel, that you are ignorant of these matters, you, who are an inmate of the house?’
‘Then that is why twice, during the dinner, Mademoiselle de La Mole addressed her brother as Annibal. I thought I had not heard aright.’
‘It was a reproach. It is strange that the Marquise permits such folly . . . That great girl’s husband will see some fine doings!’
This expression was followed by five or six satirical phrases. The joy at thus revealing an intimate secret that shone in the Academician’s eyes shocked Julien. ‘What are we but a pair of servants engaged in slandering our employers?’ he thought. ‘But nothing ought to surprise me that is done by this academic gentleman.’
One day Julien had caught him on his knees before the Marquise de La Mole; he was begging her for a tobacco licence for a nephew in the country. That night, he gathered from a little maid of Mademoiselle de La Mole, who was making love to him, as Elisa had done in the past, that her mistress’s mourning was by no means put on to attract attention. This eccentricity was an intimate part of her nature. She really loved this La Mole, the favoured lover of the most brilliant Queen of her age, who had died for having sought to set his friends at liberty. And what friends! The First Prince of the Blood and Henri IV.
Accustomed to the perfect naturalness that shone through the whole of Madame de Renal’s conduct, Julien saw nothing but affectation in all the women of Paris, and even without feeling disposed to melancholy, could think of nothing to say to them. Mademoiselle de La Mole was the exception.
He began no longer to mistake for hardness of heart the kind of beauty that goes with nobility of bearing. He had long conversations with Mademoiselle de La Mole, who would stroll with him in the garden sometimes after dinner, past the open windows of the drawing-room. She told him one day that she was reading d’Aubigne’s History, and Brantome. ‘A strange choice,’ thought Julien, ‘and the Marquise does not allow her to read the novels of Walter Scott!’
One day she related to him, with that glow of pleasure in her eyes which proves the sincerity of the speaker’s admiration, the feat of a young woman in the reign of Henri in, which she had just discovered in the Memoires by l’Etoile: finding that her husband was unfaithful, she had stabbed him.
Julien’s self-esteem was flattered. A person surrounded by such deference, one who, according to the Academician, was the leader of the household, deigned to address him in a tone which might almost be regarded as friendly. ‘I was mistaken,’ was his next thought; ‘this is not familiarity, I am only the listener to a tragic story, it is the need to speak. I am regarded as learned by this family. I shall go and read Brantome, d’Aubigne, l’Etoile. I shall be able to challenge some of the anecdotes which Mademoiselle de La Mole cites to me. I must emerge from this part of a passive listener.’
In course of time his conversations with this girl, whose manner was at once so imposing and so easy, became more interesting. He forgot his melancholy role as a plebeian in revolt. He found her learned and indeed rational. Her opinions in the garden differed widely from those which she maintained in the drawing-room. At times she displayed with him an enthusiasm and a frankness which formed a perfect contrast with her normal manner, so haughty and cold.
‘The Wars of the League are the heroic age of France,’ she said to him one day, her eyes aflame with intellect and enthusiasm. ‘Then everyone fought to secure a definite object which he desired in order to make his party triumph, and not merely to win a stupid Cross as in the days of your Emperor. You must agree that there was less egoism and pettiness. I love that period.’
‘And Boniface de La Mole was its hero,’ he said to her.
‘At any rate he was loved as it is perhaps pleasant to be loved. What woman alive today would not be horrified to touch the head of her decapitated lover?’
Madame de La Mole called her daughter indoors. Hypocrisy, to be effective, must be concealed; and Julien, as we see, had taken Mademoiselle de La Mole partly into his confidence as to his admiration for Napoleon.
‘That is the immense advantage which they have over us,’ he said to himself, when left alone in the garden. ‘The history of their ancestors raises them above vulgar sentiments, and they have not always to be thinking of their daily bread! What a wretched state of things!’ he added bitterly. ‘I am not worthy to discuss these serious matters. My life is nothing more than a sequence of hypocrisies, because I have not an income of a thousand francs with which to buy my bread.’
‘What are you dreaming of, Sir?’ Mathilde asked him, running back outdoors.
Julien was tired of despising himself. In a moment of pride, he told her frankly what he was thinking. He blushed deeply when speaking of his poverty to a person who was so rich. He sought to make it quite clear by his proud tone that he asked for nothing. Never had he seemed so handsome to Mathilde; she found in him an expression of sensibility and frankness which he often lacked.
Less than a month later, Julien was strolling pensively in the garden of the Hotel de La Mole; but his features no longer showed the harshness, as of a surly philosopher, which the constant sense of his own inferiority impressed on them. He had just come from the door of the drawing-room to which he had escorted Mademoiselle de La Mole, who pretended that she had hurt her foot when running with her brother.
‘She leaned upon my arm in the strangest fashion!’ Julien said to himself. ‘Am I a fool, or can it be true that she has a liking for me? She listens to me so meekly even when I confess to her all the sufferings of my pride! She, who is so haughty with everyone else! They would be greatly surprised in the drawing-room if they saw her looking like that. There is no doubt about it, she never assumes that meek, friendly air with anyone but myself.’
Julien tried not to exaggerate this singular friendship. He compared it himself to an armed neutrality. Day by day, when they met, before resuming the almost intimate tone of the day before, they almost asked themselves: ‘Are we friends today, or enemies?’ Julien had realised that, were he once to allow himself to be insulted with impunity by this haughty girl, all was lost. ‘If I must quarrel, is it not to my advantage to do so from the first, in defending the lawful rights of my pride, rather than in repelling the marks of contempt that must quickly follow the slightest surrender of what I owe to my personal dignity?’
Several times, on days of mutual discord, Mathilde tried to adopt with him the tone of a great lady; she employed a rare skill in these attempts, but Julien repulsed them rudely.
One day he interrupted her suddenly: ‘Has Mademoiselle de La Mole some order to give to her father’s secretary?’ he asked her; ‘he is obliged to listen to her orders and to carry them out with respect; but apart from that, he has not one word to say to her. He certainly is not paid to communicate his thoughts to her.’
This state of affairs, and the singular doubts which Julien felt banished the boredom which he found regularly in that drawing-room, in which, for all its magnificence, people were afraid of everything, and it was not thought proper to treat any subject lightly.
‘It would be amusing if she loved me! Whether she loves me or not,’ Julien went on, ‘I have as my intimate confidant an intelligent girl, before whom I see the whole household tremble, and most of all the Marquis de Croisenois. That young man who is so polished, so gentle, so brave, who combines in his own person all the advantages of birth and fortune, any one of which would set my heart so at ease! He is madly in love with her, he is going to marry her. Think of all the letters M. de La Mole has made me write to the two lawyers arranging the contract! And I who see myself so subordinate, pen in hand, two hours later, here in the garden, I triumph over so attractive a young man: for after all, her preference is striking, direct. Perhaps, too, she hates the idea of him as a future husband. She is proud enough for that. And the favour she shows me, I obtain on the footing of a confidential servant!
‘But no, either I am mad, or she is making love to me; the more I show myself cold and respectful towards her, the more she seeks me out. That might be deliberate, an affectation; but I see her eyes become animated when I appear unexpectedly. Are the women of Paris capable of pretending to such an extent? What does it matter! I have appearances on my side, let us make the most of them. My God, how handsome she is! How I admire her great blue eyes, seen at close range, and looking at me as they often do! What a difference between this spring and the last, when I was living in misery, keeping myself alive by my strength of character, surrounded by those three hundred dirty and evil-minded hypocrites! I was almost as evil as they.’
In moments of depression: That girl is making a fool of me,’ Julien would think. ‘She is plotting with her brother to mystify me. But she seems so to despise her brother’s want of energy! He is brave, and there is no more to be said, she tells me. He has not an idea which ventures to depart from the fashion. It is always I who am obliged to take up her defence. A girl of nineteen! At that age can a girl be faithful at every moment of the day to the code of hypocrisy that she has laid down for herself?
‘On the other hand, when Mademoiselle de La Mole fastens her great blue eyes on me with a certain strange expression, Comte Norbert always moves away. That seems to me suspicious; ought he not to be annoyed at his sister’s singling out a domestic of their household? For I have heard the Duc de Chaulnes use that term of me.’ At this memory anger obliterated every other feeling. ‘Is it only the love of old-fashioned speech in that ducal maniac?
‘Anyhow, she is pretty!’ Julien went on, with the glare of a tiger. ‘I will have her, I shall then depart and woe to him that impedes me in my flight!’
This plan became Julien’s sole occupation; he could no longer give a thought to anything else. His days passed like hours. At all hours of the day, when he sought to occupy his mind with some serious business, his thoughts would abandon everything, and he would come to himself a quarter of an hour later, his heart throbbing, his head confused, and dreaming of this one idea: ‘Does she love me?’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00