Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XI

Sometimes on a Sunday, when the weather was fine, Camille forced Therese to go out with him, for a walk in the Champs Elysees. The young woman would have preferred to remain in the damp obscurity of the arcade, for the exercise fatigued her, and it worried her to be on the arm of her husband, who dragged her along the pavement, stopping before the shop windows, expressing his astonishment, making reflections, and then falling into ridiculous spells of silence.

But Camille insisted on these Sunday outings, which gave him the satisfaction of showing off his wife. When he met a colleague, particularly one of his chiefs, he felt quite proud to exchange bows with him, in the company of Madame. Besides, he walked for the sake of walking, and he did so almost in silence, stiff and deformed in his Sunday clothes, dragging along his feet, and looking silly and vain. It made Therese suffer to be seen arm in arm with such a man.

On these walking-out days, Madame Raquin accompanied her children to the end of the arcade, where she embraced them as if they were leaving on a journey, giving them endless advice, accompanied by fervent prayers.

“Particularly, beware of accidents,” she would say. “There are so many vehicles in the streets of Paris! Promise me not to get in a crowd.”

At last she allowed them to set out, but she followed them a considerable distance with her eyes, before returning to the shop. Her lower limbs were becoming unwieldy which prohibited her taking long walks.

On other occasions, but more rarely, the married couple went out of Paris, as far as Saint–Ouen or Asnieres, where they treated themselves to a dish of fried fish in one of the restaurants beside the river. These were regarded as days of great revelry which were spoken of a month beforehand. Therese engaged more willingly, almost with joy, in these excursions which kept her in the open air until ten or eleven o’clock at night. Saint–Ouen, with its green isles, reminded her of Vernon, and rekindled all the wild love she had felt for the Seine when a little girl.

She seated herself on the gravel, dipped her hands in the water, feeling full of life in the burning heat of the sun, attenuated by the fresh puffs of breeze in the shade. While she tore and soiled her frock on the stones and clammy ground, Camille neatly spread out his pocket-handkerchief and sank down beside her with endless precautions. Latterly the young couple almost invariably took Laurent with them. He enlivened the excursion by his laughter and strength of a peasant.

One Sunday, Camille, Therese and Laurent left for Saint–Ouen after breakfast, at about eleven o’clock. The outing had been projected a long time, and was to be the last of the season. Autumn approached, and the cold breezes at night, began to make the air chilly.

On this particular morning, the sky maintained all its blue serenity. It proved warm in the sun and tepid in the shade. The party decided that they must take advantage of the last fine weather.

Hailing a passing cab they set out, accompanied by the pitiful expressions of uneasiness, and the anxious effusions of the old mercer. Crossing Paris, they left the vehicle at the fortifications, and gained Saint–Ouen on foot. It was noon. The dusty road, brightly lit up by the sun, had the blinding whiteness of snow. The air was intensely warm, heavy and pungent. Therese, on the arm of Camille, walked with short steps, concealing herself beneath her umbrella, while her husband fanned his face with an immense handkerchief. Behind them came Laurent, who had the sun streaming fiercely on the back of his neck, without appearing to notice it. He whistled and kicked the stones before him as he strolled along. Now and again there was a fierce glint in his eyes as he watched Therese’s swinging hips.

On reaching Saint–Ouen, they lost no time in looking for a cluster of trees, a patch of green grass in the shade. Crossing the water to an island, they plunged into a bit of underwood. The fallen leaves covered the ground with a russety bed which cracked beneath their feet with sharp, quivering sounds. Innumerable trunks of trees rose up erect, like clusters of small gothic columns; the branches descended to the foreheads of the three holiday makers, whose only view was the expiring copper-like foliage, and the black and white stems of the aspens and oaks. They were in the wilderness, in a melancholy corner, in a narrow clearing that was silent and fresh. All around them they heard the murmur of the Seine.

Camille having selected a dry spot, seated himself on the ground, after lifting up the skirt of his frock coat; while Therese, amid a loud crumpling of petticoats, had just flung herself among the leaves. Laurent lay on his stomach with his chin resting on the ground.

They remained three hours in this clearing, waiting until it became cooler, to take a run in the country before dinner. Camille talked about his office, and related silly stories; then, feeling fatigued, he let himself fall backward and went to sleep with the rim of his hat over his eyes. Therese had closed her eyelids some time previously, feigning slumber.

Laurent, who felt wide awake, and was tired of his recumbent position, crept up behind her and kissed her shoe and ankle. For a month his life had been chaste and this walk in the sun had set him on fire. Here he was, in a hidden retreat, and unable to hold to his breast the woman who was really his. Her husband might wake up and all his prudent calculations would be ruined by this obstacle of a man. So he lay, flat on the ground, hidden by his lover’s skirts, trembling with exasperation as he pressed kiss after kiss upon the shoe and white stocking. Therese made no movement. Laurent thought she was asleep.

He rose to his feet and stood with his back to a tree. Then he perceived that the young woman was gazing into space with her great, sparkling eyes wide open. Her face, lying between her arms, with her hands clasped above her head, was deadly pale, and wore an expression of frigid rigidity. Therese was musing. Her fixed eyes resembled dark, unfathomable depths, where naught was visible save night. She did not move, she did not cast a glance at Laurent, who stood erect behind her.

Her sweetheart contemplated her, and was almost affrighted to see her so motionless and mute. He would have liked to have bent forward, and closed those great open eyes with a kiss. But Camille lay asleep close at hand. This poor creature, with his body twisted out of shape, displaying his lean proportions, was gently snoring. Under the hat, half concealing his face, could be seen his mouth contorted into a silly grimace in his slumber. A few short reddish hairs on a bony chin sullied his livid skin, and his head being thrown backward, his thin wrinkled neck appeared, with Adam’s apple standing out prominently in brick red in the centre, and rising at each snore. Camille, spread out on the ground in this fashion, looked contemptible and vile.

Laurent who looked at him, abruptly raised his heel. He was going to crush his face at one blow.

Therese restrained a cry. She went a shade paler than before, closed her eyes and turned her head away as if to avoid being bespattered with blood.

Laurent, for a few seconds, remained with his heel in the air, above the face of the slumbering Camille. Then slowly, straightening his leg, he moved a few paces away. He reflected that this would be a form of murder such as an idiot would choose. This pounded head would have set all the police on him. If he wanted to get rid of Camille, it was solely for the purpose of marrying Therese. It was his intention to bask in the sun, after the crime, like the murderer of the wagoner, in the story related by old Michaud.

He went as far as the edge of the water, and watched the running river in a stupid manner. Then, he abruptly turned into the underwood again. He had just arranged a plan. He had thought of a mode of murder that would be convenient, and without danger to himself.

He awoke the sleeper by tickling his nose with a straw. Camille sneezed, got up, and pronounced the joke a capital one. He liked Laurent on account of his tomfoolery, which made him laugh. He now roused his wife, who kept her eyes closed. When she had risen to her feet, and shaken her skirt, which was all crumpled, and covered with dry leaves, the party quitted the clearing, breaking the small branches they found in their way.

They left the island, and walked along the roads, along the byways crowded with groups in Sunday finery. Between the hedges ran girls in light frocks; a number of boating men passed by singing; files of middle-class couples, of elderly persons, of clerks and shopmen with their wives, walked the short steps, besides the ditches. Each roadway seemed like a populous, noisy street. The sun alone maintained its great tranquility. It was descending towards the horizon, casting on the reddened trees and white thoroughfares immense sheets of pale light. Penetrating freshness began to fall from the quivering sky.

Camille had ceased giving his arm to Therese. He was chatting with Laurent, laughing at the jests, at the feats of strength of his friend, who leapt the ditches and raised huge stones above his head. The young woman, on the other side of the road, advanced with her head bent forward, stooping down from time to time to gather an herb. When she had fallen behind, she stopped and observed her sweetheart and husband in the distance.

“Heh! Aren’t you hungry?” shouted Camille at her.

“Yes,” she replied.

“Then, come on!” said he.

Therese was not hungry; but felt tired and uneasy. She was in ignorance as to the designs of Laurent, and her lower limbs were trembling with anxiety.

The three, returning to the riverside, found a restaurant, where they seated themselves at table on a sort of terrace formed of planks in an indifferent eating-house reeking with the odour of grease and wine. This place resounded with cries, songs, and the clatter of plates and dishes. In each private room and public saloon, were parties talking in loud voices, and the thin partitions gave vibrating sonority to all this riot. The waiters, ascending to the upper rooms, caused the staircase to shake.

Above, on the terrace, the puffs of air from the river drove away the smell of fat. Therese, leaning over the balustrade, observed the quay. To right and left, extended two lines of wine-shops and shanties of showmen. Beneath the arbours in the gardens of the former, amid the few remaining yellow leaves, one perceived the white tablecloths, the dabs of black formed by men’s coats, and the brilliant skirts of women. People passed to and fro, bareheaded, running, and laughing; and with the bawling noise of the crowd, was mingled the lamentable strains of the barrel organs. An odour of dust and frying food hung in the calm air.

Below Therese, some tarts from the Latin Quarter were dancing in a ring on a patch of worn turf singing an infantine roundelay. With hats fallen on their shoulders, and hair unbound, they held one another by the hands, playing like little children. They still managed to find a small thread of fresh voice, and their pale countenances, ruffled by brutal caresses, became tenderly coloured with virgin-like blushes, while their great impure eyes filled with moisture. A few students, smoking clean clay pipes, who were watching them as they turned round, greeted them with ribald jests.

And beyond, on the Seine, on the hillocks, descended the serenity of night, a sort of vague bluish mist, which bathed the trees in transparent vapour.

“Heh! Waiter!” shouted Laurent, leaning over the banister, “what about this dinner?”

Then, changing his mind, he turned to Camille and said:

“I say, Camille, let us go for a pull on the river before sitting down to table. It will give them time to roast the fowl. We shall be bored to death waiting an hour here.”

“As you like,” answered Camille carelessly. “But Therese is hungry.”

“No, no, I can wait,” hastened to say the young woman, at whom Laurent was fixedly looking.

All three went downstairs again. Passing before the rostrum where the lady cashier was seated, they retained a table, and decided on a menu, saying they would return in an hour. As the host let out pleasure boats, they asked him to come and detach one. Laurent selected a skiff, which appeared so light that Camille was terrified by its fragility.

“The deuce,” said he, “we shall have to be careful not to move about in this, otherwise we shall get a famous ducking.”

The truth was that the clerk had a horrible dread of the water. At Vernon, his sickly condition did not permit him, when a child, to go and dabble in the Seine. Whilst his schoolfellows ran and threw themselves into the river, he lay abed between a couple of warm blankets. Laurent had become an intrepid swimmer, and an indefatigable oarsman. Camille had preserved that terror for deep water which is inherent in women and children. He tapped the end of the boat with his foot to make sure of its solidity.

“Come, get in,” cried Laurent with a laugh, “you’re always trembling.”

Camille stepped over the side, and went staggering to seat himself at the stern. When he felt the planks under him, he was at ease, and joked to show his courage.

Therese had remained on the bank, standing grave and motionless beside her sweetheart, who held the rope. He bent down, and rapidly murmured in an undertone:

“Be careful. I am going to pitch him in the river. Obey me. I answer for everything.”

The young woman turned horribly pale. She remained as if riveted to the ground. She was rigid, and her eyes had opened wider.

“Get into the boat,” Laurent murmured again.

She did not move. A terrible struggle was passing within her. She strained her will with all her might, to avoid bursting into sobs, and falling to the ground.

“Ah! ah!” cried Camille. “Laurent, just look at Therese. It’s she who is afraid. She’ll get in; no, she won’t get in.”

He had now spread himself out on the back seat, his two arms on the sides of the boat, and was showing off with fanfaronade. The chuckles of this poor man were like cuts from a whip to Therese, lashing and urging her on. She abruptly sprang into the boat, remaining in the bows. Laurent grasped the skulls. The skiff left the bank, advancing slowly towards the isles.

Twilight came. Huge shadows fell from the trees, and the water ran black at the edges. In the middle of the river were great, pale, silver trails. The boat was soon in full steam. There, all the sounds of the quays softened; the singing, and the cries came vague and melancholy, with sad languidness. The odour of frying and dust had passed away. The air freshened. It turned cold.

Laurent, resting on his skulls, allowed the boat to drift along in the current.

Opposite, rose the great reddish mass of trees on the islands. The two sombre brown banks, patched with grey, were like a couple of broad bands stretching towards the horizon. The water and sky seemed as if cut from the same whitish piece of material. Nothing looks more painfully calm than an autumn twilight. The sun rays pale in the quivering air, the old trees cast their leaves. The country, scorched by the ardent beams of summer, feels death coming with the first cold winds. And, in the sky, there are plaintive sighs of despair. Night falls from above, bringing winding sheets in its shade.

The party were silent. Seated at the bottom of the boat drifting with the stream, they watched the final gleams of light quitting the tall branches. They approached the islands. The great russety masses grew sombre; all the landscape became simplified in the twilight; the Seine, the sky, the islands, the slopes were naught but brown and grey patches which faded away amidst milky fog.

Camille, who had ended by lying down on his stomach, with his head over the water, dipped his hands in the river.

“The deuce! How cold it is!” he exclaimed. “It would not be pleasant to go in there head foremost.”

Laurent did not answer. For an instant he had been observing the two banks of the river with uneasiness. He advanced his huge hands to his knees, tightly compressing his lips. Therese, rigid and motionless, with her head thrown slightly backward, waited.

The skiff was about to enter a small arm of the river, that was sombre and narrow, penetrating between two islands. Behind one of these islands could be distinguished the softened melody of a boating party who seemed to be ascending the Seine. Up the river in the distance, the water was free.

Then Laurent rose and grasped Camille round the body. The clerk burst into laughter.

“Ah, no, you tickle me,” said he, “none of those jokes. Look here, stop; you’ll make me fall over.”

Laurent grasped him tighter, and gave a jerk. Camille turning round, perceived the terrifying face of his friend, violently agitated. He failed to understand. He was seized with vague terror. He wanted to shout, and felt a rough hand seize him by the throat. With the instinct of an animal on the defensive, he rose to his knees, clutching the side of the boat, and struggled for a few seconds.

“Therese! Therese!” he called in a stifling, sibilant voice.

The young woman looked at him, clinging with both hands to the seat. The skiff creaked and danced upon the river. She could not close her eyes, a frightful contraction kept them wide open riveted on the hideous struggle. She remained rigid and mute.

“Therese! Therese!” again cried the unfortunate man who was in the throes of death.

At this final appeal, Therese burst into sobs. Her nerves had given way. The attack she had been dreading, cast her to the bottom of the boat, where she remained doubled up in a swoon, and as if dead.

Laurent continued tugging at Camille, pressing with one hand on his throat. With the other hand he ended by tearing his victim away from the side of the skiff, and held him up in the air, in his powerful arms, like a child. As he bent down his head, his victim, mad with rage and terror, twisted himself round, and reaching forward with his teeth, buried them in the neck of his aggressor. And when the murderer, restraining a yell of pain, abruptly flung the clerk into the river, the latter carried a piece of his flesh away with him.

Camille fall into the water with a shriek. He returned to the surface two or three times, uttering cries that were more and more hollow.

Laurent, without losing a second, raised the collar of his coat to hide his wound. Then seizing the unconscious Therese in his arms, he capsized the skiff with his foot, as he fell into the Seine with the young woman, whom he supported on the surface, whilst calling in a lamentable voice for help.

The boating party he had heard singing behind the point of the island, understanding that an accident had happened, advanced with long, rapid strokes of the oars, and rescued the immerged couple. While Therese was laid on a bench, Laurent gave vent to his despair at the death of his friend. Plunging into the water again, he searched for Camille in places where he knew he was not to be found, and returned in tears, wringing his hands, and tearing his hair, while the boating party did their best to calm and console him.

“It is all my fault,” he exclaimed. “I ought never to have allowed that poor fellow to dance and move about as he did. At a certain moment we all three found ourselves on one side of the boat, and we capsized. As we fell into the water, he shouted out to me to save his wife.”

In accordance with what usually happens under similar circumstances, three or four young fellows among the boating party, maintained that they had witnessed the accident.

“We saw you well enough,” said they. “And, then, hang it all, a boat is not so firm as a dancing floor. Ah! the poor little woman, it’ll be a nice awakening for her.”

They took their oars, and towing the capsized skiff behind them, conducted Therese and Laurent to the restaurant, where the dinner was ready to be served.

The restaurant keeper and his wife were worthy people who placed their wardrobe at the service of the drenched pair. When Therese recovered consciousness, she had a nervous attack, and burst into heartrending sobs. It became necessary to put her to bed. Nature assisted the sinister comedy that had just been performed.

As soon as the young woman became calmer, Laurent entrusting her to the care of the host and his wife, set out to return to Paris, where he wished to arrive alone to break the frightful intelligence to Madame Raquin, with all possible precautions. The truth was that he feared the nervous feverish excitement of Therese, and preferred to give her time to reflect, and learn her part.

It was the boating men who sat down to the dinner prepared for Camille.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06