Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XVI

A fortnight passed. The bitterness of the first hours was softening; each day brought additional tranquillity and calm; life resumed its course with weary languidness, and with the monotonous intellectual insensibility which follows great shocks. At the commencement, Laurent and Therese allowed themselves to drift into this new existence which was transforming them; within their beings was proceeding a silent labour which would require analysing with extreme delicacy if one desired to mark all its phases.

It was not long before Laurent came every night to the shop as formerly. But he no longer dined there, he no longer made the place a lounge during the entire evening. He arrived at half-past nine, and remained until he had put up the shutters. It seemed as if he was accomplishing a duty in placing himself at the service of the two women. If he happened occasionally to neglect the tiresome job, he apologised with the humility of a valet the following day. On Thursdays he assisted Madame Raquin to light the fire, to do the honours of the house, and displayed all kinds of gentle attentions that charmed the old mercer.

Therese peacefully watched the activity of his movements round about her. The pallidness of her face had departed. She appeared in better health, more smiling and gentle. It was only rarely that her lips, becoming pinched in a nervous contraction, produced two deep pleats which conveyed to her countenance a strange expression of grief and fright.

The two sweethearts no longer sought to see one another in private. Not once did they suggest a meeting, nor did they ever furtively exchange a kiss. The murder seemed to have momentarily appeased their warmth. In killing Camille, they had succeeded in satisfying their passion. Their crime appeared to have given them a keen pleasure that sickened and disgusted them of their embraces.

They had a thousand facilities for enjoying the freedom that had been their dream, and the attainment of which had urged them on to murder. Madame Raquin, impotent and childish, ceased to be an obstacle. The house belonged to them. They could go abroad where they pleased. But love did not trouble them, its fire had died out. They remained there, calmly talking, looking at one another without reddening and without a thrill. They even avoided being alone. In their intimacy, they found nothing to say, and both were afraid that they appeared too cold. When they exchanged a pressure of the hand, they experienced a sort of discomfort at the touch of their skins.

Both imagined they could explain what made them so indifferent and alarmed when face to face with one another. They put the coldness of their attitude down to prudence. Their calm, according to them, was the result of great caution on their part. They pretended they desired this tranquillity, and somnolence of their hearts. On the other hand, they regarded the repugnance, the uncomfortable feeling experienced as a remains of terror, as the secret dread of punishment. Sometimes, forcing themselves to hope, they sought to resume the burning dreams of other days, and were quite astonished to find they had no imagination.

Then, they clung to the idea of their forthcoming marriage. They fancied that having attained their end, without a single fear to trouble them, delivered over to one another, their passion would burn again, and they would taste the delights that had been their dream. This prospect brought them calm, and prevented them descending to the void hollowed out beneath them. They persuaded themselves they loved one another as in the past, and they awaited the moment when they were to be perfectly happy bound together for ever.

Never had Therese possessed so placid a mind. She was certainly becoming better. All her implacable, natural will was giving way. She felt happy at night, alone in her bed; no longer did she find the thin face, and piteous form of Camille at her side to exasperate her. She imagined herself a little girl, a maid beneath the white curtains, lying peacefully amidst the silence and darkness. Her spacious, and slightly cold room rather pleased her, with its lofty ceiling, its obscure corners, and its smack of the cloister.

She even ended by liking the great black wall which rose up before her window. Every night during one entire summer, she remained for hours gazing at the grey stones in this wall, and at the narrow strips of starry sky cut out by the chimneys and roofs. She only thought of Laurent when awakened with a start by nightmare. Then, sitting up, trembling, with dilated eyes, and pressing her nightdress to her, she said to herself that she would not experience these sudden fears, if she had a man lying beside her. She thought of her sweetheart as of a dog who would have guarded and protected her.

Of a daytime, in the shop, she took an interest in what was going on outside; she went out at her own instigation, and no longer lived in sullen revolt, occupied with thoughts of hatred and vengeance. It worried her to sit musing. She felt the necessity of acting and seeing. From morning to night, she watched the people passing through the arcade. The noise, and going and coming diverted her. She became inquisitive and talkative, in a word a woman, for hitherto she had only displayed the actions and ideas of a man.

From her point of observation, she remarked a young man, a student, who lived at an hotel in the neighbourhood, and who passed several times daily before the shop. This youth had a handsome, pale face, with the long hair of a poet, and the moustache of an officer. Therese thought him superior looking. She was in love with him for a week, in love like a schoolgirl. She read novels, she compared the young man to Laurent, and found the latter very coarse and heavy. Her reading revealed to her romantic scenes that, hitherto, she had ignored. She had only loved with blood and nerves, as yet, and she now began to love with her head. Then, one day, the student disappeared. No doubt he had moved. In a few hours Therese had forgotten him.

She now subscribed to a circulating library, and conceived a passion for the heroes of all the stories that passed under her eyes. This sudden love for reading had great influence on her temperament. She acquired nervous sensibility which caused her to laugh and cry without any motive. The equilibrium which had shown a tendency to be established in her, was upset. She fell into a sort of vague meditation. At moments, she became disturbed by thoughts of Camille, and she dreamt of Laurent and fresh love, full of terror and distrust. She again became a prey to anguish. At one moment she sought for the means of marrying her sweetheart at that very instant, at another she had an idea of running away never to see him again.

The novels, which spoke to her of chastity and honour, placed a sort of obstacle between her instincts and her will. She remained the ungovernable creature who had wanted to struggle with the Seine and who had thrown herself violently into illicit love; but she was conscious of goodness and gentleness, she understood the putty face and lifeless attitude of the wife of Olivier, and she knew it was possible to be happy without killing one’s husband. Then, she did not see herself in a very good light, and lived in cruel indecision.

Laurent, on his side, passed through several different phases of love and fever. First of all he enjoyed profound tranquility; he seemed as if relieved of an enormous weight. At times he questioned himself with astonishment, fancying he had had a bad dream. He asked himself whether it was really true that he had flung Camille into the water, and had seen his corpse on the slab at the Morgue.

The recollection of his crime caused him strange surprise; never could he have imagined himself capable of murder. He so prudent, so cowardly, shuddered at the mere thought, ice-like beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead when he reflected that the authorities might have discovered his crime and guillotined him. Then he felt the cold knife on his neck. So long as he had acted, he had gone straight before him, with the obstinacy and blindness of a brute. Now, he turned round, and at the sight of the gulf he had just cleared, grew faint with terror.

“Assuredly, I must have been drunk,” thought he; “that woman must have intoxicated me with caresses. Good heavens! I was a fool and mad! I risked the guillotine in a business like that. Fortunately it passed off all right. But if it had to be done again, I would not do it.”

Laurent lost all his vigor. He became inactive, and more cowardly and prudent than ever. He grew fat and flabby. No one who had studied this great body, piled up in a lump, apparently without bones or muscles, would ever have had the idea of accusing the man of violence and cruelty.

He resumed his former habits. For several months, he proved himself a model clerk, doing his work with exemplary brutishness. At night, he took his meal at a cheap restaurant in the Rue Saint–Victor, cutting his bread into thin slices, masticating his food slowly, making his repast last as long as possible. When it was over, he threw himself back against the wall and smoked his pipe. Anyone might have taken him for a stout, good-natured father. In the daytime, he thought of nothing; at night, he reposed in heavy sleep free from dreams. With his face fat and rosy, his belly full, his brain empty, he felt happy.

His frame seemed dead, and Therese barely entered his mind. Occasionally he thought of her as one thinks of a woman one has to marry later on, in the indefinite future. He patiently awaited the time for his marriage, forgetful of the bride, and dreaming of the new position he would then enjoy. He would leave his office, he would paint for amusement, and saunter about hither and thither. These hopes brought him night after night, to the shop in the arcade, in spite of the vague discomfort he experienced on entering the place.

One Sunday, with nothing to do and being bored, he went to see his old school friend, the young painter he had lived with for a time. The artist was working on a picture of a nude Bacchante sprawled on some drapery. The model, lying with her head thrown back and her torso twisted sometimes laughed and threw her bosom forward, stretching her arms. As Laurent smoked his pipe and chatted with his friend, he kept his eyes on the model. He took the woman home with him that evening and kept her as his mistress for many months. The poor girl fell in love with him. Every morning she went off and posed as a model all day. Then she came back each evening. She didn’t cost Laurent a penny, keeping herself out of her own earnings. Laurent never bothered to find out about her, where she went, what she did. She was a steadying influence in his life, a useful and necessary thing. He never wondered if he loved her and he never considered that he was being unfaithful to Therese. He simply felt better and happier.

In the meanwhile the period of mourning that Therese had imposed on herself, had come to an end, and the young woman put on light-coloured gowns. One evening, Laurent found her looking younger and handsomer. But he still felt uncomfortable in her presence. For some time past, she seemed to him feverish, and full of strange capriciousness, laughing and turning sad without reason. This unsettled demeanour alarmed him, for he guessed, in part, what her struggles and troubles must be like.

He began to hesitate, having an atrocious dread of risking his tranquillity. He was now living peacefully, in wise contentment, and he feared to endanger the equilibrium of his life, by binding himself to a nervous woman, whose passion had already driven him crazy. But he did not reason these matters out, he felt by instinct all the anguish he would be subjected to, if he made Therese his wife.

The first shock he received, and one that roused him in his sluggishness, was the thought that he must at length begin to think of his marriage. It was almost fifteen months since the death of Camille. For an instant, Laurent had the idea of not marrying at all, of jilting Therese. Then he said to himself that it was no good killing a man for nothing. In recalling the crime, and the terrible efforts he had made to be the sole possessor of this woman who was now troubling him, he felt that the murder would become useless and atrocious should he not marry her. Besides, was he not bound to Therese by a bond of blood and horror? Moreover, he feared his accomplice; perhaps, if he failed to marry her, she would go and relate everything to the judicial authorities out of vengeance and jealousy. With these ideas beating in his head the fever settled on him again.

Now, one Sunday the model did not return; no doubt she had found a warmer and more comfortable place to lodge. Laurent was only moderately upset, but he felt a sudden gap in his life without a woman lying beside him at night. In a week his passions rebelled and he began spending entire evenings at the shop again. He watched Therese who was still palpitating from the novels which she read.

After a year of indifferent waiting they both were again tormented by desire. One evening while shutting up the shop, Laurent spoke to Therese in the passage.

“Do you want me to come to your room to-night,” he asked passionately.

She started with fear. “No, let’s wait. Let’s be prudent.”

“It seems to me that I’ve already waited a long time,” he went on. “I’m sick of waiting.”

Therese, her hands and face burning hot, looked at him wildly. She seemed to hesitate, and then said quickly:

“Let’s get married.”

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