BOOK TWO : Chapter 12 - Another Danton
The need for anxiety explains the character of the beautiful Marguerite de Valois, my aunt, who soon afterwards married the King of Navarre, whom we now see on the throne of France under the name of Henri IV. The need to gamble was the key to the character of this delightful princess; hence the quarrels and the reconciliations with her brothers from the age of sixteen onwards. And what does a young girl gamble with? The most precious thing she has: her reputation, the possibility of esteem for her entire life.
Memoirs of the Due d’Angouleme, natural son of Charles IX
‘With Julien and me there is no contract to be signed, no lawyer; everything is heroic, everything will be left to chance. But for nobility, which he lacks, it is the love of Marguerite de Valois for young La Mole, the most distinguished man of his time. Is it my fault if the young men at Court are such ardent devotees of the Conventions, and turn pale at the mere thought of any adventure that is slightly out of the common? A little expedition to Greece or Africa is to them the height of audacity, and even then they can only go in a troop. As soon as they find themselves alone, they become afraid, not of Bedouin spears, but of ridicule, and that drives them mad.
‘My little Julien, on the contrary, will only act alone. Never, in that privileged being, is there the slightest thought of seeking the approval and support of others! He despises other people, that is why I do not despise him.
‘If, with his poverty, Julien had been noble, my love would be nothing more than a piece of vulgar folly, an unfortunate marriage; I should not object to that; it would lack that element which characterises great passion: the immensity of the difficulty to be overcome and the black uncertainty of events.’
Mademoiselle de La Mole was so absorbed in these fine speculations that next day, quite unintentionally, she sang Julien’s praises to the Marquis de Croisenois and her brother. Her eloquence went so far that they became annoyed.
‘Beware of that young man, who has so much energy,’ her brother cried; ‘if the Revolution begins again, he will have us all guillotined.’
She made no answer, and hastened to tease her brother and the Marquis de Croisenois over the fear that energy inspired in them. It was nothing more, really, than the fear of meeting something unexpected, the fear of being brought up short in the presence of the unexpected . . .
‘Still, gentlemen, still the fear of ridicule, a monster which, unfortunately, died in 1816.’
‘There can be no more ridicule,’ M. de La Mole used to say, ‘in a country where there are two Parties.’
His daughter had assimilated this idea.
‘And so, gentlemen,’ she told Julien’s enemies, ‘you will be haunted by fear all your lives, and afterwards people will say of you:
‘“It was not a wolf, it was only a shadow.”’
Mathilde soon left them. Her brother’s remark filled her with horror; it greatly disturbed her; but after sleeping on it, she interpreted it as the highest possible praise.
‘In this age, when all energy is dead, his energy makes them afraid. I shall tell him what my brother said. I wish to see what answer he will make. But I shall choose a moment when his eyes are glowing. Then he cannot lie to me.
‘Another Danton?’ she went on after a long, vague spell of musing. ‘Very well! Let us suppose that the Revolution has begun. What parts would Croisenois and my brother play? It is all prescribed for them: sublime resignation. They would be heroic sheep, allowing their throats to be cut without a word. Their sole fear when dying would still be of committing a breach of taste. My little Julien would blow out the brains of the Jacobin who came to arrest him, if he had the slightest hope of escaping. He, at least, has no fear of bad taste.’
These last words made her pensive again; they revived painful memories, and destroyed all her courage. They reminded her of the witticisms of MM. de Caylus, de Croisenois, de Luz, and her brother. These gentlemen were unanimous in accusing Julien of a priestly air, humble and hypocritical.
‘But,’ she went on, suddenly, her eye sparkling with joy, ‘by the bitterness and the frequency of their sarcasms, they prove, in spite of themselves, that he is the most distinguished man that we have seen this winter. What do his faults, his absurdities matter? He has greatness, and they are shocked by it, they who in other respects are so kind and indulgent. He knows well that he is poor, and that he has studied to become a priest; they are squadron commanders, and have no need of study; it is a more comfortable life.
‘In spite of all the drawbacks of his eternal black coat, and of that priestly face, which he is obliged to assume, poor boy, if he is not to die of hunger, his merit alarms them, nothing could be clearer. And that priestly expression, he no longer wears it when we have been for a few moments by ourselves. Besides, when these gentlemen say anything which they consider clever and startling, is not their first glance always at Julien? I have noticed that distinctly. And yet they know quite well that he never speaks to them, unless he is asked a question. It is only myself that he addresses. He thinks that I have a lofty nature. He replies to their objections only so far as politeness requires. He becomes respectful at once. With me, he will discuss things for hours on end, he is not sure of his own ideas if I offer the slightest objection. After all, all this winter we have not heard a shot fired; the only possible way to attract attention has been by one’s talk. Well, my father, a superior man, and one who will greatly advance the fortunes of our family, respects Julien. All the rest hate him, no one despises him, except my mother’s religious friends.’
The Comte de Caylus had or pretended to have a great passion for horses; he spent all his time in his stables, and often took his luncheon there. This great passion, combined with his habit of never laughing, had won him a great esteem among his friends: he was the ‘strong man’ of their little circle.
As soon as it had assembled next day behind Madame de La Mole’s armchair, Julien not being present, M. de Caylus, supported by Croisenois and Norbert, launched a violent attack upon the good opinion Mathilde had of Julien, without any reason and almost as soon as he saw Mademoiselle de La Mole. She detected this stratagem a mile off, and was charmed by it.
‘There they are all in league,’ she said to herself, ‘against a man who has not ten louis to his name, and can answer them only when he is questioned. They are afraid of him in his black coat. What would he be with epaulettes?’
Never had she been so brilliant. At the first onslaught, she covered Caylus and his allies with witty sarcasm. When the fire of these brilliant officers’ pleasantries was extinguished:
‘Tomorrow some country squire from the mountains of the Franche–Comte,’ she said to M. de Caylus, ‘has only to discover that Julien is his natural son, and give him a name and a few thousand francs, and in six weeks he will have grown moustaches like yourselves, gentlemen; in six months he will be an officer of hussars like yourselves, gentlemen. And then the greatness of his character will no longer be a joke. I can see you reduced, My Lord Duke-to-be, to that old and worthless plea: the superiority of the nobility of the Court to the provincial nobility. But what defence have you left if I choose to take an extreme case, if I am so unkind as to make Julien’s father a Spanish Duke, a prisoner of war at Besancon in Napoleon’s time, who, from a scruple of conscience, acknowledges him on his deathbed?’
All these assumptions of a birth out of wedlock were regarded by MM. de Caylus and de Croisenois as in distinctly bad taste. This was all that they saw in Mathilde’s argument.
Obedient as Norbert was, his sister’s meaning was so unmistakable that he assumed an air of gravity, little in keeping, it must be confessed, with his genial, smiling features. He ventured to say a few words:
‘Are you unwell, dear?’ Mathilde answered him with a mock-serious expression. ‘You must be feeling very ill to reply to a joke with a sermon.
‘A sermon, from you! Are you thinking of asking to be made a Prefect?’
Mathilde very soon forgot the annoyance of the Comte de Caylus, Norbert’s ill humour and the silent despair of M. de Croisenois. She had to make up her mind over a desperate idea which had taken possession of her.
‘Julien is quite sincere with me,’ she told herself; ‘at his age, in an inferior state of fortune, wretched as an astounding ambition makes him, he needs a woman friend. I can be that friend; but I see no sign in him of love. With the audacity of his nature, he would have spoken to me of his love.’
This uncertainty, this inward discussion, which, from now onwards, occupied every moment of Mathilde’s life, and in support of which, whenever Julien addressed her, she found fresh arguments, completely banished those periods of depression to which she was so liable.
The daughter of a man of intelligence who might become a Minister, and restore their forests to the Clergy, Mademoiselle de La Mole had been, in the Convent of the Sacre–Coeur, the object of the most extravagant flatteries. The harm done in this way can never be effaced. They had persuaded her that, in view of all her advantages of birth, fortune, etc., she ought to be happier than other girls. This is the source of the boredom from which princes suffer, and of all their follies.
Mathilde had not been immune to the fatal influence of this idea. However intelligent a girl may be, she cannot be on her guard for ten years against the flattery of an entire convent, especially when it appears to be so well founded.
From the moment in which she decided that she was in love with Julien, she was no longer bored. Every day she congratulated herself on the decision she had made to indulge in a grand passion. ‘This amusement has its dangers,’ she thought. ‘All the better! A thousand times better!
‘Without a grand passion, I was languishing with boredom at the best moment in a girl’s life, between sixteen and twenty. I have already wasted my best years; with no pleasure but to listen to the nonsense talked by my mother’s friends, who at Coblenz, in 1792, were not quite, one gathers, so strict in their conduct, as they are today in speech.’
It was while Mathilde was still devoured by this great uncertainty that Julien was unable to understand the gaze which she kept fastened upon him. He did indeed find an increased coldness in Comte Herbert’s manner, and a stiffening of pride in that of MM. de Caylus, de Luz and de Croisenois. He was used to it. This discomfiture befell him at times after an evening in which he had shone more brightly than befitted his position. But for the special welcome which Mathilde extended to him, and the curiosity which the whole scene inspired in him, he would have refrained from following into the garden these brilliant young men with the moustaches, when after dinner they escorted Mademoiselle de La Mole.
‘Yes, I cannot possibly blind myself to the fact,’ thought Julien, ‘Mademoiselle de La Mole keeps looking at me in a strange fashion. But, even when her beautiful blue eyes seem to gaze at me with least restraint, I can always read in them a cold, malevolent scrutiny. Is it possible that this is love? How different from the look in Madame de Renal’s eyes.’
One evening after dinner, Julien, who had gone with M. de La Mole to his study, came rapidly out to the garden. As he walked boldly up to the group round Mathilde, he overheard a few words uttered in a loud voice. She was teasing her brother. Julien heard his own name uttered distinctly twice. He appeared; a profound silence at once fell, and vain efforts were made to break it. Mademoiselle de La Mole and her brother were too much excited to think of another topic of conversation. MM. de Caylus, de Croisenois, de Luz and another of their friends met Julien with an icy coldness. He withdrew.