BOOK TWO : Chapter 35 - A Storm
My God, give me mediocrity!
He was completely absorbed; he made only a half-hearted response to the keen affection that she showed for him. He remained taciturn and sombre. Never had he appeared so great, so adorable in the eyes of Mathilde. She feared some subtle refinement of his pride which would presently upset the whole position.
Almost every morning, she saw the abbe Pirard come to the Hotel. Through his agency might not Julien have penetrated to some extent into her father’s intentions? Might not the Marquis himself, in a moment of caprice, have written to him? After so great a happiness, how was she to account for Julien’s air of severity? She dared not question him.
Dared not! She, Mathilde! There was, from that moment, in her feeling for Julien, something vague, unaccountable, almost akin to terror. That sere heart felt all the passion that is possible in one brought up amid all that excess of civilisation which Paris admires.
Early next morning, Julien was in the abbe Pirard’s presbytery. A pair of post-horses arrived in the courtyard drawing a dilapidated chaise, hired at the nearest post.
‘Such an equipage is no longer in keeping,’ the stern abbe told him, with a cantankerous air. ‘Here are twenty thousand francs, of which M. de La Mole makes you a present; he expects you to spend them within the year, but to try and make yourself as little ridiculous as possible.’ (In so large a sum, bestowed on a young man, the priest saw only an occasion of sin.)
‘The Marquis adds: “M. Julien de La Vernaye will have received this money from his father, whom there is no use in my identifying more precisely. M. de La Vernaye will doubtless think it proper to make a present to M. Sorel, carpenter at Verrieres, who looked after him in his childhood . . . ” I will undertake this part of the commission,’ the abbe went on; ‘I have at last made M. de La Mole decide to compromise with that abbe de Frilair, who is such a Jesuit. His position is unquestionably too strong for us. The implicit recognition of your noble birth by that man who governs Besancon will be one of the implied conditions of the arrangement.’
Julien was no longer able to control his enthusiasm, he embraced the abbe, he saw himself recognised.
‘Fie!’ said M. Pirard, and thrust him away; ‘what is the meaning of this worldly vanity? As for Sorel and his sons, I shall offer them, in my name, an annual pension of five hundred francs, which will be paid to each of them separately, so long as I am satisfied with them.’
Julien was by this time cold and stiff. He thanked the abbe, but in the vaguest terms and without binding himself to anything. ‘Can it indeed be possible,’ he asked himself, ‘that I am the natural son of some great nobleman, banished among our mountains by the terrible Napoleon?’ Every moment this idea seemed to him less improbable . . . ‘My hatred for my father would be a proof . . . I should no longer be a monster!’
A few days after this monologue, the Fifteenth Regiment of Hussars, one of the smartest in the Army, was drawn up in order of battle on the parade ground of Strasbourg. M. le Chevalier de La Vernaye was mounted upon the finest horse in Alsace, which had cost him six thousand francs. He had joined as Lieutenant, without having ever been a Second Lieutenant, save on the muster-roll of a Regiment of which he had never even heard.
His impassive air, his severe and almost cruel eyes, his pallor, his unalterable coolness won him a reputation from the first day. In a short time, his perfect and entirely measured courtesy, his skill with the pistol and sabre, which he made known without undue affectation, removed all temptation to joke audibly at his expense. After five or six days of hesitation, the general opinion of the Regiment declared itself in his favour. ‘This young man has everything,’ said the older officers who were inclined to banter, ‘except youth.’
From Strasbourg, Julien wrote to M. Chelan, the former cure of Verrieres, who was now reaching the extreme limits of old age:
‘You will have learned with a joy, of which I have no doubt, of the events that have led my family to make me rich. Here are five hundred francs which I beg you to distribute without display, and with no mention of my name, among the needy, who are poor now as I was once, and whom you are doubtless assisting as in the past you assisted me.’
Julien was intoxicated with ambition and not with vanity; he still applied a great deal of his attention to his outward appearance. His horses, his uniforms, the liveries of his servants were kept up with a nicety which would have done credit to the punctiliousness of a great English nobleman. Though only just a Lieutenant, promoted by favour and after two days’ service, he was already calculating that, in order to be Commander in Chief at thirty, at latest, like all the great Generals, he would need at three and twenty to be something more than Lieutenant. He could think of nothing but glory and his son.
It was in the midst of the transports of the most frenzied ambition that he was interrupted by a young footman from the Hotel de La Mole, who arrived with a letter.
‘All is lost,’ Mathilde wrote to him; ‘hasten here as quickly as possible, sacrifice everything, desert if need be. As soon as you arrive, wait for me in a cab, outside the little gate of the garden, No. — Rue ——. I shall come out to speak to you; perhaps I may be able to let you into the garden. All is lost, and, I fear, beyond hope of repair; count upon me, you will find me devoted and steadfast in adversity. I love you.’
In a few minutes, Julien obtained leave from his Colonel, and left Strasbourg at a gallop; but the fearful anxiety which was devouring him did not allow him to continue this method of travel farther than Metz. He flung himself into a post-chaise; and it was with an almost incredible rapidity that he arrived at the appointed place, outside the little gate of the garden of the Hotel de La Mole. The gate was flung open, and in a moment, Mathilde, forgetting all self-respect, threw herself into his arms. Fortunately, it was but five o’clock in the morning and the street was still deserted.
‘All is lost; my father, dreading my tears, went away on Thursday night. Where? No one knows. Here is his letter; read it.’ And she got into the cab with Julien.
‘I could forgive everything, except the plan of seducing you because you are rich. That, unhappy girl, is the appalling truth. I give you my word of honour that I will never consent to a marriage with that man. I promise him an income of ten thousand livres if he consents to live abroad, beyond the frontiers of France, or better still in America. Read the letter which I have received in reply to a request for information. The shameless scoundrel had himself invited me to write to Madame de Renal. Never will I read a line from you about the man. I have a horror of Paris and of you. I request you to cloak with the greatest secrecy what must shortly happen. Renounce honestly a vile fellow, and you will regain a father.’
‘Where is Madame de Renal’s letter?’ said Julien coldly. ‘Here it is. I did not wish to show it to you until you were prepared.’
‘What I owe to the sacred cause of religion and morals obliges me, Sir, to the painful step which I take in addressing you; a rule, which admits of no relaxation, orders me at this moment to do harm to my neighbour, but in order to avoid a greater scandal. The grief which I feel must be overborne by a sense of duty. It is only too true, Sir, the conduct of the person with regard to whom you ask me to tell the whole truth may have seemed inexplicable or indeed honourable. It may have been thought expedient to conceal or to disguise a part of the truth, prudence required this as well as religion. But that conduct, which you desire to know, has been in fact extremely reprehensible, and more so than I can say. Poor and avaricious, it is by the aid of the most consummate hypocrisy, and by the seduction of a weak and unhappy woman, that this man has sought to make a position for himself and to become somebody. It is a part of my painful duty to add that I am obliged to believe that M. J—— has no religious principles. I am bound in conscience to think that one of his avenues to success in a household is to seek to seduce the woman who has most influence there. Cloaked by a show of disinterestedness and by phrases from novels, his great and sole object is to contrive to secure control over the master of the house and over his fortune. He leaves in his wake misery and undying regret,’ etc., etc., etc.
This letter, extremely long and half obliterated by tears, was certainly in the hand of Madame de Renal; it was even written with greater care than usual.
‘I cannot blame M. de La Mole,’ said Julien when he had finished reading it; ‘he is just and prudent. What father would give his beloved daughter to such a man! Farewell!’
Julien sprang out of the cab, and ran to his post-chaise which had drawn up at the end of the street. Mathilde, whom he seemed to have forgotten, followed him for a little way; but the sight of the tradesmen who were coming to the doors of their shops, and to whom she was known, forced her to retire in haste into the garden.
Julien had set off for Verrieres. On this rapid journey, he was unable to write to Mathilde as he had intended, his hand traced nothing more than an illegible scrawl on the paper.
He arrived at Verrieres on a Sunday morning. He entered the shop of the local gunsmith, who congratulated him effusively on his recent access to fortune. It was the talk of the town.
Julien had some difficulty in making him understand that he required a brace of pistols. The gunsmith, at his request, loaded the pistols.
The three bells sounded; this is a signal well known in French villages, which, after the various peals of the morning, announces that mass is just about to begin.
Julien entered the new church of Verrieres. All the tall windows of the building were screened by crimson curtains. He found himself standing a few yards behind Madame de Renal’s bench. He had the impression that she was praying with fervour. The sight of this woman who had loved him so dearly made Julien’s arm tremble so violently that he could not at first carry out his design. ‘I cannot,’ he said to himself; ‘I am physically incapable of it.’
At that moment, the young clerk who was serving mass rang the bell for the Elevation. Madame de Renal bowed her head which for a moment was almost entirely concealed by the folds of her shawl. Her aspect was less familiar to Julien; he fired a shot at her with one pistol and missed her, he fired a second shot; she fell.