Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XVII

Laurent left the arcade with a strained mind. Therese had filled him with the old longing lusts again. He walked along with his hat in his hand, so as to get the fresh air full in his face.

On reaching the door of his hotel in the Rue Saint–Victor, he was afraid to go upstairs, and remain alone. A childish, inexplicable, unforeseen terror made him fear he would find a man hidden in his garret. Never had he experienced such poltroonery. He did not even seek to account for the strange shudder that ran through him. He entered a wine-shop and remained an hour there, until midnight, motionless and silent at a table, mechanically absorbing great glasses of wine. Thinking of Therese, his anger raged at her refusal to have him in her room that very night. He felt that with her he would not have been afraid.

When the time came for closing the shop, he was obliged to leave. But he went back again to ask for matches. The office of the hotel was on the first floor. Laurent had a long alley to follow and a few steps to ascend, before he could take his candle. This alley, this bit of staircase which was frightfully dark, terrified him. Habitually, he passed boldly through the darkness. But on this particular night he had not even the courage to ring. He said to himself that in a certain recess, formed by the entrance to the cellar, assassins were perhaps concealed, who would suddenly spring at his throat as he passed along.

At last he pulled the bell, and lighting a match, made up his mind to enter the alley. The match went out. He stood motionless, breathless, without the courage to run away, rubbing lucifers against the damp wall in such anxiety that his hand trembled. He fancied he heard voices, and the sound of footsteps before him. The matches broke between his fingers; but he succeeded in striking one. The sulphur began to boil, to set fire to the wood, with a tardiness that increased his distress. In the pale bluish light of the sulphur, in the vacillating glimmer, he fancied he could distinguish monstrous forms. Then the match crackled, and the light became white and clear.

Laurent, relieved, advanced with caution, careful not to be without a match. When he had passed the entrance to the cellar, he clung to the opposite wall where a mass of darkness terrified him. He next briskly scaled the few steps separating him from the office of the hotel, and thought himself safe when he held his candlestick. He ascended to the other floors more gently, holding aloft his candle, lighting all the corners before which he had to pass. The great fantastic shadows that come and go, in ascending a staircase with a light, caused him vague discomfort, as they suddenly rose and disappeared before him.

As soon as he was upstairs, and had rapidly opened his door and shut himself in, his first care was to look under his bed, and make a minute inspection of the room to see that nobody was concealed there. He closed the window in the roof thinking someone might perhaps get in that way, and feeling more calm after taking these measures, he undressed, astonished at his cowardice. He ended by laughing and calling himself a child. Never had he been afraid, and he could not understand this sudden fit of terror.

He went to bed. When he was in the warmth beneath the bedclothes, he again thought of Therese, whom fright had driven from his mind. Do what he would, obstinately close his eyes, endeavour to sleep, he felt his thoughts at work commanding his attention, connecting one with the other, to ever point out to him the advantage he would reap by marrying as soon as possible. Ever and anon he would turn round, saying to himself:

“I must not think any more; I shall have to get up at eight o’clock to-morrow morning to go to my office.”

And he made an effort to slip off to sleep. But the ideas returned one by one. The dull labour of his reasoning began again; and he soon found himself in a sort of acute reverie that displayed to him in the depths of his brain, the necessity for his marriage, along with the arguments his desire and prudence advanced in turn, for and against the possession of Therese.

Then, seeing he was unable to sleep, that insomnia kept his body in a state of irritation, he turned on his back, and with his eyes wide open, gave up his mind to the young woman. His equilibrium was upset, he again trembled with violent fever, as formerly. He had an idea of getting up, and returning to the Arcade of the Pont Neuf. He would have the iron gate opened, and Therese would receive him. The thought sent his blood racing.

The lucidity of his reverie was astonishing. He saw himself in the streets walking rapidly beside the houses, and he said to himself:

“I will take this Boulevard, I will cross this Square, so as to arrive there quicker.”

Then the iron gate of the arcade grated, he followed the narrow, dark, deserted corridor, congratulating himself at being able to go up to Therese without being seen by the dealer in imitation jewelry. Next he imagined he was in the alley, in the little staircase he had so frequently ascended. He inhaled the sickly odour of the passage, he touched the sticky walls, he saw the dirty shadow that hung about there. And he ascended each step, breathless, and with his ear on the alert. At last he scratched against the door, the door opened, and Therese stood there awaiting him.

His thoughts unfolded before him like real scenes. With his eyes fixed on darkness, he saw. When at the end of his journey through the streets, after entering the arcade, and climbing the little staircase, he thought he perceived Therese, ardent and pale, he briskly sprang from his bed, murmuring:

“I must go there. She’s waiting for me.”

This abrupt movement drove away the hallucination. He felt the chill of the tile flooring, and was afraid. For a moment he stood motionless on his bare feet, listening. He fancied he heard a sound on the landing. And he reflected that if he went to Therese, he would again have to pass before the door of the cellar below. This thought sent a cold shiver down his back. Again he was seized with fright, a sort of stupid crushing terror. He looked distrustfully round the room, where he distinguished shreds of whitish light. Then gently, with anxious, hasty precautions, he went to bed again, and there huddling himself together, hid himself, as if to escape a weapon, a knife that threatened him.

The blood had flown violently to his neck, which was burning him. He put his hand there, and beneath his fingers felt the scar of the bite he had received from Camille. He had almost forgotten this wound and was terrified when he found it on his skin, where it seemed to be gnawing into his flesh. He rapidly withdrew his hand so as not to feel the scar, but he was still conscious of its being there boring into and devouring his neck. Then, when he delicately scratched it with his nail, the terrible burning sensation increased twofold. So as not to tear the skin, he pressed his two hands between his doubled-up knees, and he remained thus, rigid and irritated, with the gnawing pain in his neck, and his teeth chattering with fright.

His mind now settled on Camille with frightful tenacity. Hitherto the drowned man had not troubled him at night. And behold the thought of Therese brought up the spectre of her husband. The murderer dared not open his eyes, afraid of perceiving his victim in a corner of the room. At one moment, he fancied his bedstead was being shaken in a peculiar manner. He imagined Camille was beneath it, and that it was he who was tossing him about in this way so as to make him fall and bite him. With haggard look and hair on end, he clung to his mattress, imagining the jerks were becoming more and more violent.

Then, he perceived the bed was not moving, and he felt a reaction. He sat up, lit his candle, and taxed himself with being an idiot. He next swallowed a large glassful of water to appease his fever.

“I was wrong to drink at that wine-shop,” thought he. “I don’t know what is the matter with me to-night. It’s silly. I shall be worn out to-morrow at my office. I ought to have gone to sleep at once, when I got into bed, instead of thinking of a lot of things. That is what gave me insomnia. I must get to sleep at once.”

Again he blew out the light. He buried his head in the pillow, feeling slightly refreshed, and thoroughly determined not to think any more, and to be no more afraid. Fatigue began to relax his nerves.

He did not fall into his usual heavy, crushing sleep, but glided lightly into unsettled slumber. He simply felt as if benumbed, as if plunged into gentle and delightful stupor. As he dozed, he could feel his limbs. His intelligence remained awake in his deadened frame. He had driven away his thoughts, he had resisted the vigil. Then, when he became appeased, when his strength failed and his will escaped him, his thoughts returned quietly, one by one, regaining possession of his faltering being.

His reverie began once more. Again he went over the distance separating him from Therese: he went downstairs, he passed before the cellar at a run, and found himself outside the house; he took all the streets he had followed before, when he was dreaming with his eyes open; he entered the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, ascended the little staircase and scratched at the door. But instead of Therese, it was Camille who opened the door, Camille, just as he had seen him at the Morgue, looking greenish, and atrociously disfigured. The corpse extended his arms to him, with a vile laugh, displaying the tip of a blackish tongue between its white teeth.

Laurent shrieked, and awoke with a start. He was bathed in perspiration. He pulled the bedclothes over his eyes, swearing and getting into a rage with himself. He wanted to go to sleep again. And he did so as before, slowly.

The same feeling of heaviness overcame him, and as soon as his will had again escaped in the languidness of semi-slumber, he set out again. He returned where his fixed idea conducted him; he ran to see Therese, and once more it was the drowned man who opened the door.

The wretch sat up terrified. He would have given anything in the world to be able to drive away this implacable dream. He longed for heavy sleep to crush his thoughts. So long as he remained awake, he had sufficient energy to expel the phantom of his victim; but as soon as he lost command of his mind it led him to the acme of terror.

He again attempted to sleep. Then came a succession of delicious spells of drowsiness, and abrupt, harrowing awakenings. In his furious obstinacy, he still went to Therese, but only to always run against the body of Camille. He performed the same journey more than ten times over. He started all afire, followed the same itinerary, experienced the same sensations, accomplished the same acts, with minute exactitude; and more than ten times over, he saw the drowned man present himself to be embraced, when he extended his arms to seize and clasp his love.

This same sinister catastrophe which awoke him on each occasion, gasping and distracted, did not discourage him. After an interval of a few minutes, as soon as he had fallen asleep again, forgetful of the hideous corpse awaiting him, he once more hurried away to seek the young woman.

Laurent passed an hour a prey to these successive nightmares, to these bad dreams that followed one another ceaselessly, without any warning, and he was struck with more acute terror at each start they gave him.

The last of these shocks proved so violent, so painful that he determined to get up, and struggle no longer. Day was breaking. A gleam of dull, grey light was entering at the window in the roof which cut out a pale grey square in the sky.

Laurent slowly dressed himself, with a feeling of sullen irritation, exasperated at having been unable to sleep, exasperated at allowing himself to be caught by a fright which he now regarded as childish. As he drew on this trousers he stretched himself, he rubbed his limbs, he passed his hands over his face, harassed and clouded by a feverish night. And he repeated:

“I ought not to have thought of all that, I should have gone to sleep. Had I done so, I should be fresh and well-disposed now.”

Then it occurred to him that if he had been with Therese, she would have prevented him being afraid, and this idea brought him a little calm. At the bottom of his heart he dreaded passing other nights similar to the one he had just gone through.

After splashing some water in his face, he ran the comb through his hair, and this bit of toilet while refreshing his head, drove away the final vestiges of terror. He now reasoned freely, and experienced no other inconvenience from his restless night, than great fatigue in all his limbs.

“I am not a poltroon though,” he said to himself as he finished dressing. “I don’t care a fig about Camille. It’s absurd to think that this poor devil is under my bed. I shall, perhaps, have the same idea, now, every night. I must certainly marry as soon as possible. When Therese has me in her arms, I shall not think much about Camille. She will kiss me on the neck, and I shall cease to feel the atrocious burn that troubles me at present. Let me examine this bite.”

He approached his glass, extended his neck and looked. The scar presented a rosy appearance. Then, Laurent, perceiving the marks of the teeth of his victim, experienced a certain emotion. The blood flew to his head, and he now observed a strange phenomenon. The ruby flood rushing to the scar had turned it purple, it became raw and sanguineous, standing out quite red against the fat, white neck. Laurent at the same time felt a sharp pricking sensation, as if needles were being thrust into the wound, and he hurriedly raised the collar of his shirt again.

“Bah!” he exclaimed, “Therese will cure that. A few kisses will suffice. What a fool I am to think of these matters!”

He put on his hat, and went downstairs. He wanted to be in the open air and walk. Passing before the door of the cellar, he smiled. Nevertheless, he made sure of the strength of the hook fastening the door. Outside, on the deserted pavement, he moved along with short steps in the fresh matutinal air. It was then about five o’clock.

Laurent passed an atrocious day. He had to struggle against the overpowering drowsiness that settled on him in the afternoon at his office. His heavy, aching head nodded in spite of himself, but he abruptly brought it up, as soon as he heard the step of one of his chiefs. This struggle, these shocks completed wearing out his limbs, while causing him intolerable anxiety.

In the evening, notwithstanding his lassitude, he went to see Therese, only to find her feverish, extremely low-spirited, and as weary as himself.

“Our poor Therese has had a bad night,” Madame Raquin said to him, as soon as he had seated himself. “It seems she was suffering from nightmare, and terrible insomnia. I heard her crying out on several occasions. This morning she was quite ill.”

Therese, while her aunt was speaking, looked fixedly at Laurent. No doubt, they guessed their common terror, for a nervous shudder ran over their countenances. Until ten o’clock they remained face to face with one another, talking of commonplace matters, but still understanding each other, and mutually imploring themselves with their eyes, to hasten the moment when they could unite against the drowned man.

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