BOOK TWO : Chapter 24 - Strasbourg
Fascination! Thou sharest with love all its energy, all its capacity for suffering. Its enchanting pleasures, its sweet delights are alone beyond thy sphere. I could not say, as I saw her asleep: She is all mine with her angelic beauty and her sweet frailties! Behold her delivered into my power, as heaven made her in its compassion to enchant a man’s heart.
Ode by SCHILLER
Obliged to spend a week in Strasbourg, Julien sought to distract himself with thoughts of martial glory and of devotion to his country. Was he in love, then? He could not say, only he found in his bruised heart Mathilde the absolute mistress of his happiness as of his imagination. He required all his natural energy to keep himself from sinking into despair. To think of anything that bore no relation to Mademoiselle de La Mole was beyond his power. Ambition, the mere triumphs of vanity, had I distracted him in the past from the sentiments that Madame de Renal inspired in him. Mathilde had absorbed all; he found her everywhere in his future.
On every hand, in this future, Julien foresaw failure. This creature whom we saw at Verrieres so filled with presumption, so arrogant, had fallen into an absurd extreme of modesty.
Three days earlier he would have killed the abbe Castanede with pleasure, and at Strasbourg, had a boy picked a quarrel with him, he would have offered the boy an apology. In thinking over the adversaries, the enemies whom he had encountered in the course of his life, he found that invariably he, Julien, had been in the wrong.
The fact was that he had now an implacable enemy in that powerful imagination, which before had been constantly employed in painting such brilliant successes for him in the future.
The absolute solitude of a traveller’s existence strengthened the power of this dark imagination. What a treasure would a friend have been! ‘But,’ Julien asked himself, ‘is there a heart in the world that beats for me? And if I had a friend, does not honour impose on me an eternal silence?’
He took a horse and rode sadly about the neighbourhood of Kehl; it is a village on the bank of the Rhine, immortalised by Desaix and Gouvion Saint–Cyr. A German peasant pointed out to him the little streams, the roads, the islands in the Rhine which the valour of those great Generals has made famous. Julien, holding the reins in his left hand, was carrying spread out in his right the superb map which illustrates the Memoirs of Marshal Saint–Cyr. A joyful exclamation made him raise his head.
It was Prince Korasoff, his London friend, who had expounded to him some months earlier the first principles of high fatuity. Faithful to this great art, Korasoff, who had arrived in Strasbourg the day before, had been an hour at Kehl, and had never in his life read a line about the siege of 1796, began to explain it all to Julien. The German peasant gazed at him in astonishment; for he knew enough French to make out the enormous blunders into which the Prince fell. Julien’s thoughts were a thousand leagues away from the peasant’s, he was looking with amazement at this handsome young man, and admiring his grace in the saddle.
‘A happy nature!’ he said to himself. ‘How well his breeches fit him, how elegantly his hair is cut! Alas, if I had been like that, perhaps after loving me for three days she would not have taken a dislike to me.’
When the Prince had come to an end of his version of the siege of Kehl: ‘You look like a Trappist,’ he said to Julien, ‘you are infringing the principle of gravity I taught you in London. A melancholy air can never be the right thing; what you want is a bored air. If you are melancholy, it must be because you want something, there is something in which you have not succeeded.
‘It is shewing your inferiority. If you are bored, on the other hand, it is the person who has tried in vain to please you who is inferior. Realise, my dear fellow, what a grave mistake you are making.’
Julien flung a crown to the peasant who stood listening to them, open-mouthed.
‘Good,’ said the Prince, ‘that is graceful, a noble disdain! Very good!’ And he put his horse into a gallop. Julien followed him, filled with a stupefied admiration.
‘Ah! If I had been like that, she would not have preferred Croisenois to me!’ The more his reason was shocked by the absurdities of the Prince, the more he despised himself for not admiring them, and deemed himself unfortunate in not sharing them. Self-contempt can be carried no farther.
The Prince found him decidedly melancholy: ‘Ah, my dear fellow,’ he said to him, as they rode into Strasbourg, ‘have you lost all your money, or can you be in love with some little actress?’
The Russians imitate French ways, but always at a distance of fifty years. They have now reached the days of Louis XV.
These jests, at the expense of love, filled Julien’s eyes with tears: ‘Why should not I consult so friendly a man?’ he asked himself suddenly.
‘Well, yes, my friend,’ he said to the Prince, ‘you find me in Strasbourg, madly in love, indeed crossed in love. A charming woman, who lives in a neighbouring town, has abandoned me after three days of passion, and the change is killing me.’
He described to the Prince, under an assumed name, the actions and character of Mathilde.
‘Do not go on,’ said Korasoff: ‘to give you confidence in your physician, I am going to cut short your confidences. This young woman’s husband possesses an enormous fortune, or, what is more likely, she herself belongs to the highest nobility of the place. She must be proud of something.’
Julien nodded his head, he had no longer the heart to speak.
‘Very good,’ said the Prince, ‘here are three medicines, all rather bitter, which you are going to take without delay:
‘First: You must every day see Madame —— what do you call her?’
‘Madame de Dubois.’
‘What a name!’ said the Prince, with a shout of laughter; ‘but forgive me, to you it is sublime. It is essential that you see Madame de Dubois every day; above all do not appear to her cold and cross; remember the great principle of your age: be the opposite to what people expect of you. Show yourself precisely as you were a week before you were honoured with her favours.’
‘Ah! I was calm then,’ cried Julien, in desperation, ‘I thought that I pitied her . . . ’
‘The moth singes its wings in the flame of the candle,’ the Prince continued, ‘a metaphor as old as the world.
‘First of all: you will see her every day.
‘Secondly: you will pay court to a woman of her acquaintance, but without any appearance of passion, you understand? I do not conceal from you, yours is a difficult part to play: you have to act, and if she discovers that you are acting, you are doomed.’
‘She is so clever, and I am not! I am doomed,’ said Julien sadly.
‘No, you are only more in love than I thought. Madame de Dubois is profoundly taken up with herself, like all women who have received from heaven either too high a rank or too much money. She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so does not know you. During the two or three amorous impulses to which she has yielded in your favour, by a great effort of imagination, she beheld in you the hero of her dreams and not yourself as you really are . . .
‘But what the devil, these are the elements, my dear Sorel, are you still a schoolboy? .. .
‘Egad! Come into this shop; look at that charming black cravat; you would say it was made by John Anderson, of Burlington Street; do me the pleasure of buying it, and of throwing right away that dreadful black rope which you have round your neck.
‘And now,’ the Prince went on as they left the shop of the first hosier in Strasbourg, ‘who are the friends of Madame de Dubois? Good God, what a name! Do not be angry, my dear Sorel, I cannot help it . . . To whom will you pay court?’
‘To a prude of prudes, the daughter of an enormously rich stocking-merchant. She has the loveliest eyes in the world, which please me vastly; she certainly occupies the first place in the district; but amid all her grandeur she blushes and loses her head entirely if anyone refers to trade and a shop. And unfortunately for her, her father was one of the best-known tradesmen in Strasbourg.’
‘So that if one mentions industry,’ said the Prince, with a laugh, ‘you may be sure that your fair one is thinking of herself and not of you. The weakness is divine and most useful, it will prevent you from ever doing anything foolish in her fair eyes. Your success is assured.’
Julien was thinking of Madame la Marechale de Fervaques, who often came to the Hotel de La Mole. She was a beautiful foreigner who had married the Marshal a year before his death. Her whole life seemed to have no other object than to make people forget that she was the daughter of an industrial, and in order to count for something in Paris she had set herself at the head of the forces of virtue.
Julien admired the Prince sincerely; what would he not have given to have his absurd affectations! The conversation between the friends was endless; Korasoff was in raptures: never had a Frenchman given him so long a hearing. ‘And so I have succeeded at last,’ the Prince said to himself with delight, ‘in making my voice heard when I give lessons to my masters!
‘It is quite understood,’ he repeated to Julien for the tenth time, ‘not a vestige of passion when you are talking to the young beauty, the Strasbourg stocking-merchant’s daughter, in the presence of Madame de Dubois. On the contrary, burning passion when you write. Reading a well-written love letter is a prude’s supreme pleasure; it is a momentary relaxation. She is not acting a part, she dares to listen to her heart; and so, two letters daily.’
‘Never, never!’ said Julien, losing courage; ‘I would let myself be brayed in a mortar sooner than compose three sentences; I am a corpse, my dear fellow, expect nothing more of me. Leave me to die by the roadside.’
‘And who said anything about composing phrases? I have in my hold-all six volumes of love letters in manuscript. There are specimens for every kind of woman, I have a set for the most rigid virtue. Didn’t Kalisky make love on Richmond Terrace, you know, a few miles out of London, to the prettiest Quakeress in the whole of England?’
Julien was less wretched when he parted from his friend at two o’clock in the morning.
Next day the Prince sent for a copyist, and two days later Julien had fifty-three love letters carefully numbered, intended to cope with the most sublime and melancholy virtue.
‘There would be fifty-four,’ said the Prince, ‘only Kalisky was shown the door; but what does it matter to you, being ill-treated by the stocking-merchant’s daughter, since you are seeking to influence only the heart of Madame de Dubois?’
Every day they went out riding: the Prince was madly taken with Julien. Not knowing what token to give him of his sudden affection, he ended by offering him the hand of one of his cousins, a wealthy heiress in Moscow; ‘and once you are married,’ he explained, ‘my influence and the Cross you are wearing will make you a Colonel in two years.’
‘But this Cross was not given me by Napoleon, quite the reverse.’
‘What does that matter,’ said the Prince, ‘didn’t he invent it? It is still the first decoration by far in Europe.’
Julien was on the point of accepting; but duty recalled him to the eminent personage; on parting from Korasoff, he promised to write. He received the reply to the secret note that he had brought, and hastened to Paris; but he had barely been by himself for two days on end, before the thought of leaving France and Mathilde seemed to him a punishment worse than death itself. ‘I shall not wed the millions that Korasoff offers me,’ he told himself, ‘but I shall follow his advice.
‘After all, the art of seduction is his business; he has thought of nothing else for more than fifteen years, for he is now thirty. One cannot say that he is lacking in intelligence; he is shrewd and cautious; enthusiasm, poetry are impossible in such a nature: he is calculating; all the more reason why he should not be mistaken.
‘There is no help for it, I am going to pay court to Madame de Fervaques.
‘She will bore me a little, perhaps, but I shall gaze into those lovely eyes which are so like the eyes that loved me best in the world.
‘She is foreign; that is a fresh character to be studied.
‘I am mad, I am going under, I must follow the advice of a friend, and pay no heed to myself.’