Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XIII

The following morning, Laurent awoke fresh and fit. He had slept well. The cold air entering by the open window, whipped his sluggish blood. He had no clear recollection of the scenes of the previous day, and had it not been for the burning sensation at his neck, he might have thought that he had retired to rest after a calm evening.

But the bite Camille had given him stung as if his skin had been branded with a red-hot iron. When his thoughts settled on the pain this gash caused him, he suffered cruelly. It seemed as though a dozen needles were penetrating little by little into his flesh.

He turned down the collar of his shirt, and examined the wound in a wretched fifteen sous looking-glass hanging against the wall. It formed a red hole, as big as a penny piece. The skin had been torn away, displaying the rosy flesh, studded with dark specks. Streaks of blood had run as far as the shoulder in thin threads that had dried up. The bite looked a deep, dull brown colour against the white skin, and was situated under the right ear. Laurent scrutinised it with curved back and craned neck, and the greenish mirror gave his face an atrocious grimace.

Satisfied with his examination, he had a thorough good wash, saying to himself that the wound would be healed in a few days. Then he dressed, and quietly repaired to his office, where he related the accident in an affected tone of voice. When his colleagues had read the account in the newspapers, he became quite a hero. During a whole week the clerks at the Orleans Railway had no other subject of conversation: they were all proud that one of their staff should have been drowned. Grivet never ceased his remarks on the imprudence of adventuring into the middle of the Seine, when it was so easy to watch the running water from the bridges.

Laurent retained a feeling of intense uneasiness. The decease of Camille had not been formally proved. The husband of Therese was indeed dead, but the murderer would have liked to have found his body, so as to obtain a certificate of death. The day following the accident, a fruitless search had been made for the corpse of the drowned man. It was thought that it had probably gone to the bottom of some hole near the banks of the islands, and men were actively dragging the Seine to get the reward.

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. He had made up his mind to attend to the business himself. Notwithstanding that his heart rose with repugnance, notwithstanding the shudders that sometimes ran through his frame, for over a week he went and examined the countenance of all the drowned persons extended on the slabs.

When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. Laurent at first only caught sight of the wan ensemble of stones and walls, spotted with dabs of russet and black formed by the clothes and corpses. A melodious sound of running water broke the silence.

Little by little he distinguished the bodies, and went from one to the other. It was only the drowned that interested him. When several human forms were there, swollen and blued by the water, he looked at them eagerly, seeking to recognise Camille. Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. Laurent hesitated; he looked at the corpses, endeavouring to discover the lean body of his victim. But all the drowned were stout. He saw enormous stomachs, puffy thighs, and strong round arms. He did not know what to do. He stood there shuddering before those greenish-looking rags, which seemed like mocking him, with their horrible wrinkles.

One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Each time Laurent fancied he recognised Camille, he felt a burning sensation in the heart. He ardently desired to find the body of his victim, and he was seized with cowardice when he imagined it before him. His visits to the Morgue filled him with nightmare, with shudders that set him panting for breath. But he shook off his fear, taxing himself with being childish, when he wished to be strong. Still, in spite of himself, his frame revolted, disgust and terror gained possession of his being, as soon as ever he found himself in the dampness, and unsavoury odour of the hall.

When there were no drowned persons on the back row of slabs, he breathed at ease; his repugnance was not so great. He then became a simple spectator, who took strange pleasure in looking death by violence in the face, in its lugubriously fantastic and grotesque attitudes. This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him.

Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness.

Each morning, while Laurent was there, he heard behind him the coming and going of the public who entered and left.

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had been burnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

There came persons of small independent means, old men who were thin and shrivelled-up, idlers who entered because they had nothing to do, and who looked at the bodies in a silly manner with the pouts of peaceful, delicate-minded men. Women were there in great numbers: young work-girls, all rosy, with white linen, and clean petticoats, who tripped along briskly from one end of the glazed partition to the other, opening great attentive eyes, as if they were before the dressed shop window of a linendraper. There were also women of the lower orders looking stupefied, and giving themselves lamentable airs; and well-dressed ladies, carelessly dragging their silk gowns along the floor.

On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the latter standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet.

She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

At moments, bands of lads arrived — young people between twelve and fifteen, who leant with their hands against the glass, nudging one another with their elbows, and making brutal observations.

At the end of a week, Laurent became disheartened. At night he dreamt of the corpses he had seen in the morning. This suffering, this daily disgust which he imposed on himself, ended by troubling him to such a point, that he resolved to pay only two more visits to the place. The next day, on entering the Morgue, he received a violent shock in the chest. Opposite him, on a slab, Camille lay looking at him, extended on his back, his head raised, his eyes half open.

The murderer slowly approached the glass, as if attracted there, unable to detach his eyes from his victim. He did not suffer; he merely experienced a great inner chill, accompanied by slight pricks on his skin. He would have thought that he would have trembled more violently. For fully five minutes, he stood motionless, lost in unconscious contemplation, engraving, in spite of himself, in his memory, all the horrible lines, all the dirty colours of the picture he had before his eyes.

Camille was hideous. He had been a fortnight in the water. His face still appeared firm and rigid; the features were preserved, but the skin had taken a yellowish, muddy tint. The thin, bony, and slightly tumefied head, wore a grimace. It was a trifle inclined on one side, with the hair sticking to the temples, and the lids raised, displaying the dull globes of the eyes. The twisted lips were drawn to a corner of the mouth in an atrocious grin; and a piece of blackish tongue appeared between the white teeth. This head, which looked tanned and drawn out lengthwise, while preserving a human appearance, had remained all the more frightful with pain and terror.

The body seemed a mass of ruptured flesh; it had suffered horribly. You could feel that the arms no longer held to their sockets; and the clavicles were piercing the skin of the shoulders. The ribs formed black bands on the greenish chest; the left side, ripped open, was gaping amidst dark red shreds. All the torso was in a state of putrefaction. The extended legs, although firmer, were daubed with dirty patches. The feet dangled down.

Laurent gazed at Camille. He had never yet seen the body of a drowned person presenting such a dreadful aspect. The corpse, moreover, looked pinched. It had a thin, poor appearance. It had shrunk up in its decay, and the heap it formed was quite small. Anyone might have guessed that it belonged to a clerk at 1,200 francs a year, who was stupid and sickly, and who had been brought up by his mother on infusions. This miserable frame, which had grown to maturity between warm blankets, was now shivering on a cold slab.

When Laurent could at last tear himself from the poignant curiosity that kept him motionless and gaping before his victim, he went out and begun walking rapidly along the quay. And as he stepped out, he repeated:

“That is what I have done. He is hideous.”

A smell seemed to be following him, the smell that the putrefying body must be giving off.

He went to find old Michaud, and told him he had just recognized Camille lying on one of the slabs in the Morgue. The formalities were performed, the drowned man was buried, and a certificate of death delivered. Laurent, henceforth at ease, felt delighted to be able to bury his crime in oblivion, along with the vexatious and painful scenes that had followed it.

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