Book One : Chapter 13 - Open-work Stockings
A novel is a mirror taken along a road.
When Julien caught sight of the picturesque ruins of the old church of Vergy, it occurred to him that for two whole days he had not once thought of Madame de Renal. The other day, as I was leaving, that woman reminded me of the vast gulf that separates us, she treated me like a workman’s son. No doubt she wished to show me that she repented of having let me hold her hand the night before . . . It is a lovely hand, all the same! What charm, what nobility dwells in that woman’s glance!’
The possibility of making a fortune with Fouque gave a certain facility to the course of Julien’s reasoning; it was less often interrupted by irritation, and the keen sense of his own poverty and humble position in the eyes of the world. As though perched on a lofty promontory, he was able to judge, and, so to speak, overlooked extreme poverty on the one hand and that life of comfort which he still called riches on the other. He was far from considering his position like a philosopher, but he had sufficient perception to feel that he was different after this little expedition among the mountains.
He was struck by the extreme uneasiness with which Madame de Renal listened to the short account of his journey, for which she had asked him.
Fouque had had thoughts of marriage, unhappy love affairs; the conversation between the friends had been filled with long confidences of this nature. After finding happiness too soon, Fouque had discovered that he was not the sole possessor of his mistress’s heart. These disclosures had astonished Julien; he had learned much that was new to him. His solitary life, compounded of imagination and suspicion, had kept him aloof from everything that could have enlightened him.
During his absence, life had been for Madame de Renal nothing more than a succession of torments, each different but all alike intolerable; she was really ill.
‘You must not, on any account,’ Madame Derville told her when she saw Julien return, ‘feeling as you do, sit in the garden this evening, the damp air would make you worse.’
Madame Derville was surprised to see that her friend, who was always being scolded by M. de Renal for the undue simplicity of her attire, had put on open-work stockings and a pair of charming little shoes that had arrived from Paris. For the last three days Madame de Renal’s sole distraction had been to cut out and make Elisa put together in all haste a summer gown, of a charming little fabric greatly in fashion. It was just possible to finish this gown a few minutes after Julien’s arrival; Madame de Renal at once put it on. Her friend had no longer any doubt.
‘She is in love, poor woman!’ Madame Derville said to herself. She understood all the strange symptoms of her illness.
She saw her speak to Julien. Pallor took the place of the most vivid blushes. Anxiety stood revealed in her eyes, fastened on those of the young tutor. Madame de Renal expected every moment that he was going to offer an explanation, and announce that he was leaving the house, or would remain. It never occurred to Julien to say anything about this subject, which had not entered his thoughts. After a terrible struggle, Madame de Renal at last ventured to say to him, in a tremulous voice, in which the whole extent of her passion lay revealed:
‘Are you going to leave your pupils to take a post elsewhere?’
Julien was struck by her quavering voice and by the look in her eyes. ‘This woman loves me,’ he said to himself; ‘but after this passing weakness for which her pride is reproaching her, and as soon as she is no longer afraid of my going, she will return to her arrogance.’ This glimpse of their respective positions came to Julien like a flash of lightning; he replied, hesitatingly:
‘I should greatly regret leaving such attractive and well-born children, but perhaps it will be inevitable. A man has duties towards himself also.’
As he uttered the words well born (this was one of the aristocratic expressions which Julien had recently acquired), he burned with a strong feeling of antipathy.
‘To this woman,’ he said to himself, ‘I am not well born.’
Madame de Renal, as she listened to him, was admiring his intelligence, his beauty, her heart was pierced by the possibility of departure which he dangled before her. All her friends from Verrieres who, during Julien’s absence, had come out to dine at Vergy, had almost vied in complimenting her upon the astonishing young man that her husband had had the good fortune to unearth. This was not to say that they understood anything of the progress that the children had made. The fact of his knowing the Bible by heart, and in Latin, too, had provoked in the inhabitants of Verrieres an admiration that will endure for, it may be, a century.
Julien, who spoke to no one, knew nothing of all this. If Madame de Renal had had the slightest self-control, she would have congratulated him on the reputation he had won, and Julien, his pride set at rest, would have been pleasant and affable to her, all the more as her new gown seemed to him charming. Madame de Renal, also pleased with her pretty gown, and with what Julien said to her about it, had proposed a turn in the garden; soon she had confessed that she was not well enough to walk. She had taken the returned traveller’s arm, and, far from restoring her strength, the contact of that arm deprived her of what little strength remained to her.
It was dark; no sooner were they seated than Julien, relying on the privilege he had already won, ventured to press his lips to the arm of his pretty neighbour, and to take her hand. He was thinking of the boldness which Fouque had used with his mistresses, and not of Madame de Renal; the phrase well born still weighed upon his heart. His own hand was pressed, but this afforded him no pleasure. Far from his being proud, or even grateful for the affection which Madame de Renal betrayed this evening by unmistakable signs, beauty, elegance, freshness found him almost unconscious of their appeal. Purity of heart, freedom from any feeling of hatred, serve doubtless to prolong the duration of youth. It is the face that ages first in the majority of beautiful women.
Julien was sullen all the evening; hitherto he had been angry only with fortune and with society; now that Fouque had offered him an ignoble way of arriving at comfort, he was angry with himself. Absorbed in his own thoughts, although now and then he addressed a few words to the ladies, Julien ended by unconsciously letting go Madame de Renal’s hand. This action completely nonplussed the poor woman; she saw in it an indication of her fate.
Had she been certain of Julien’s affection, her virtue might perhaps have found strength to resist him. Trembling at the thought of losing him for ever, her passion carried her to the point of seizing Julien’s hand, which, in his distraction, he had allowed to rest upon the back of a chair. This action stirred the ambitious youth; he would have liked it to be witnessed by all those proud nobles who, at table, when he was at the lower end with the children, used to look at him with so patronising a smile. ‘This woman cannot despise me any longer: in that case,’ he said to himself, ‘I ought to be stirred by her beauty; I owe it to myself to be her lover.’ Such an idea would never have occurred to him before he received the artless confidences of his friend.
The sudden resolution he had just made formed a pleasing distraction. He said to himself: ‘I must have one of these two women’; he realised that he would greatly have preferred to pay his court to Madame Derville; it was not that she was more attractive, but she had seen him always as a tutor honoured for his learning, and not as a working carpenter, with a ratteen jacket folded under his arm, as he had first appeared to Madame de Renal.
It was precisely as a young workman, blushing to the whites of his eyes, hesitating outside the door of the house and not venturing to ring the bell, that Madame de Renal delighted most to picture him.
As he followed up this survey of his position, Julien saw that he must not think of attempting the conquest of Madame Derville, who had probably noticed the weakness that Madame de Renal showed for him. Forced to return to the latter: ‘What do I know of this woman’s character?’ Julien asked himself. ‘Only this: before I went away, I took her hand, she withdrew it; today I withdraw my hand, she seizes it and presses it. A good opportunity to repay her all the contempt she has shown for me. God knows how many lovers she has had! Perhaps she is deciding in my favour only because of the facilities for our meeting.’
Such is, alas, the drawback of an excessive civilisation. At the age of twenty, the heart of a young man, if he has any education, is a thousand leagues from that devil-may-care attitude without which love is often only the most tedious duty.
‘I owe it to myself all the more,’ went on Julien’s petty vanity, ‘to succeed with this woman, so that if I ever make my fortune, and someone reproaches me with having filled the humble post of tutor, I may let it be understood that it was love that brought me into that position.’
Julien once more withdrew his hand from that of Madame de Renal, then took her hand again and pressed it. As they returned to the drawing-room, towards midnight, Madame de Renal murmured in his ear:
‘Are you leaving us, are you going away?’
Julien answered with a sigh:
‘I must indeed go away, for I love you passionately; it is a sin . . . and what a sin for a young priest!’
Madame de Renal leaned upon his arm, bending towards him until her cheek felt the warmth of his.
The night passed for these two people very differently. Madame de Renal was exalted by transports of the most lofty moral pleasure. A coquettish girl who falls in love early grows accustomed to the distress of love; when she comes to the age of true passion, the charm of novelty is lacking. As Madame de Renal had never read any novels, all the refinements of her happiness were new to her. No melancholy truth came to freeze her heart, not even the spectre of the future. She saw herself as happy in ten years’ time as she was at that moment. Even the thought of virtue and of the fidelity she had vowed to M. de Renal, which had distressed her some days before, presented itself in vain, she dismissed it like an importunate stranger. ‘Never will I allow Julien to take any liberty,’ Madame de Renal told herself, ‘we shall live in future as we have been living for the last month. He shall be a friend.’