Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XIX

In the meanwhile, the secret work of Therese and Laurent was productive of results. The former had assumed a woeful and despairing demeanour which at the end of a few days alarmed Madame Raquin. When the old mercer inquired what made her niece so sad, the young woman played the part of an inconsolable widow with consummate skill. She spoke in a vague manner of feeling weary, depressed, of suffering from her nerves, without making any precise complaint. When pressed by her aunt with questions, she replied that she was well, that she could not imagine what it was that made her so low-spirited, and that she shed tears without knowing why.

Then, the constant choking fits of sobbing, the wan, heartrending smiles, the spells of crushing silence full of emptiness and despair, continued.

The sight of this young woman who was always giving way to her grief, who seemed to be slowly dying of some unknown complaint, ended by seriously alarming Madame Raquin. She had, now, no one in the whole world but her niece, and she prayed the Almighty every night to preserve her this relative to close her eyes. A little egotism was mingled with this final love of her old age. She felt herself affected in the slight consolations that still assisted her to live, when it crossed her mind that she might die alone in the damp shop in the arcade. From that time, she never took her eyes off her niece, and it was with terror that she watched her sadness, wondering what she could do to cure her of her silent despair.

Under these grave circumstances, she thought she ought to take the advice of her old friend Michaud. One Thursday evening, she detained him in the shop, and spoke to him of her alarm.

“Of course,” answered the old man, with that frank brutality he had acquired in the performance of his former functions, “I have noticed for some time past that Therese has been looking sour, and I know very well why her face is quite yellow and overspread with grief.”

“You know why!” exclaimed the widow. “Speak out at once. If we could only cure her!”

“Oh! the treatment is simple,” resumed Michaud with a laugh. “Your niece finds life irksome because she had been alone for nearly two years. She wants a husband; you can see that in her eyes.”

The brutal frankness of the former commissary, gave Madame Raquin a painful shock. She fancied that the wound Therese had received through the fatal accident at Saint–Ouen, was still as fresh, still as cruel at the bottom of her heart. It seemed to her that her son, once dead, Therese could have no thought for a husband, and here was Michaud affirming, with a hearty laugh, that Therese was out of sorts because she wanted one.

“Marry her as soon as you can,” said he, as he took himself off, “if you do not wish to see her shrivel up entirely. That is my advice, my dear lady, and it is good, believe me.”

Madame Raquin could not, at first, accustom herself to the thought that her son was already forgotten. Old Michaud had not even pronounced the name of Camille, and had made a joke of the pretended illness of Therese. The poor mother understood that she alone preserved at the bottom of her heart, the living recollection of her dear child, and she wept, for it seemed to her that Camille had just died a second time.

Then, when she had had a good cry, and was weary of mourning, she thought, in spite of herself, of what Michaud had said, and became familiar with the idea of purchasing a little happiness at the cost of a marriage which, according to her delicate mind, was like killing her son again.

Frequently, she gave way to feelings of cowardice when she came face to face with the dejected and broken-down Therese, amidst the icy silence of the shop. She was not one of those dry, rigid persons who find bitter delight in living a life of eternal despair. Her character was full of pliancy, devotedness, and effusion, which contributed to make up her temperament of a stout and affable good lady, and prompted her to live in a state of active tenderness.

Since her niece no longer spoke, and remained there pale and feeble, her own life became intolerable, while the shop seemed to her like a tomb. What she required was to find some warm affection beside her, some liveliness, some caresses, something sweet and gay which would help her to wait peacefully for death. It was these unconscious desires that made her accept the idea of marrying Therese again; she even forgot her son a little. In the existence of the tomb that she was leading, came a sort of awakening, something like a will, and fresh occupation for the mind. She sought a husband for her niece, and this search gave her matter for consideration.

The choice of a husband was an important business. The poor old lady thought much more of her own comfort than of Therese. She wished to marry her niece in order to be happy herself, for she had keen misgivings lest the new husband of the young woman should come and trouble the last hours of her old age. The idea that she was about to introduce a stranger into her daily existence terrified her. It was this thought alone that stopped her, that prevented her from talking openly with her niece about matrimony.

While Therese acted the comedy of weariness and dejection with that perfect hypocrisy she had acquired by her education, Laurent took the part of a sensible and serviceable man. He was full of little attentions for the two women, particularly for Madame Raquin, whom he overwhelmed with delicate attention. Little by little he made himself indispensable in the shop; it was him alone who brought a little gaiety into this black hole. When he did not happen to be there of an evening, the old mercer searched round her, ill at ease, as if she missed something, being almost afraid to find herself face to face with the despairing Therese.

But Laurent only occasionally absented himself to better prove his power. He went to the shop daily, on quitting his office, and remained there until the arcade was closed at night. He ran the errands, and handed Madame Raquin, who could only walk with difficulty, the small articles she required. Then he seated himself and chatted. He had acquired the gentle penetrating voice of an actor which he employed to flatter the ears and heart of the good old lady. In a friendly way, he seemed particularly anxious about the health of Therese, like a tender-hearted man who feels for the sufferings of others. On repeated occasions, he took Madame Raquin to one side, and terrified her by appearing very much alarmed himself at the changes and ravages he said he perceived on the face of the young woman.

“We shall soon lose her,” he murmured in a tearful voice. “We cannot conceal from ourselves that she is extremely ill. Ah! alas, for our poor happiness, and our nice tranquil evenings!”

Madame Raquin listened to him with anguish. Laurent even had the audacity to speak of Camille.

“You see,” said he to the mercer, “the death of my poor friend has been a terrible blow to her. She had been dying for the last two years, since that fatal day when she lost Camille. Nothing will console her, nothing will cure her. We must be resigned.”

These impudent falsehoods made the old lady shed bitter tears. The memory of her son troubled and blinded her. Each time the name of Camille was pronounced, she gave way, bursting into sobs. She would have embraced the person who mentioned her poor boy. Laurent had noticed the trouble, and outburst of tender feeling that this name produced. He could make her weep at will, upset her with such emotion that she failed to distinguish the clear aspect of things; and he took advantage of this power to always hold her pliant and in pain in his hand, as it were.

Each evening in spite of the secret revolt of his trembling inner being, he brought the conversation to bear on the rare qualities, on the tender heart and mind of Camille, praising his victim with most shameless impudence. At moments, when he found the eyes of Therese fixed with a strange expression on his own, he shuddered, and ended by believing all the good he had been saying about the drowned man. Then he held his tongue, suddenly seized with atrocious jealousy, fearing that the young widow loved the man he had flung into the water, and whom he now lauded with the conviction of an enthusiast.

Throughout the conversation Madame Raquin was in tears, and unable to distinguish anything around her. As she wept, she reflected that Laurent must have a loving and generous heart. He alone remembered her son, he alone still spoke of him in a trembling and affected voice. She dried her eyes, gazing at the young man with infinite tenderness, and feeling that she loved him as her own child.

One Thursday evening, Michaud and Grivet were already in the dining-room, when Laurent coming in, approached Therese, and with gentle anxiety inquired after her health. He seated himself for a moment beside her, performing for the edification of the persons present, his part of an alarmed and affectionate friend. As the young couple sat close together, exchanging a few words, Michaud, who was observing them, bent down, and said in a low voice to the old mercer, as he pointed to Laurent:

“Look, there is the husband who will suit your niece. Arrange this marriage quickly. We will assist you if it be necessary.”

This remark came as a revelation to Madame Raquin. She saw, at once, all the advantages she would derive, personally, from the union of Therese and Laurent. The marriage would tighten the bonds already connecting her and her niece with the friend of her son, with that good-natured fellow who came to amuse them in the evening.

In this manner, she would not be introducing a stranger into her home, she would not run the risk of unhappiness. On the contrary, while giving Therese a support, she added another joy to her old age, she found a second son in this young man who for three years had shown her such filial affection.

Then it occurred to her that Therese would be less faithless to the memory of Camille by marrying Laurent. The religion of the heart is peculiarly delicate. Madame Raquin, who would have wept to see a stranger embrace the young widow, felt no repulsion at the thought of giving her to the comrade of her son.

Throughout the evening, while the guests played at dominoes, the old mercer watched the couple so tenderly, that they guessed the comedy had succeeded, and that the denouement was at hand. Michaud, before withdrawing, had a short conversation in an undertone with Madame Raquin. Then, he pointedly took the arm of Laurent saying he would accompany him a bit of the way. As Laurent went off, he exchanged a rapid glance with Therese, a glance full of urgent enjoinment.

Michaud had undertaken to feel the ground. He found the young man very much devoted to the two ladies, but exceedingly astonished at the idea of a marriage between Therese and himself. Laurent added, in an unsteady tone of voice, that he loved the widow of his poor friend as a sister, and that it would seem to him a perfect sacrilege to marry her. The former commissary of police insisted, giving numerous good reasons with a view to obtaining his consent. He even spoke of devotedness, and went so far as to tell the young man that it was clearly his duty to give a son to Madame Raquin and a husband to Therese.

Little by little Laurent allowed himself to be won over, feigning to give way to emotion, to accept the idea of this marriage as one fallen from the clouds, dictated by feelings of devotedness and duty, as old Michaud had said. When the latter had obtained a formal answer in the affirmative, he parted with his companion, rubbing his hands, for he fancied he had just gained a great victory. He prided himself on having had the first idea of this marriage which would convey to the Thursday evenings all their former gaiety.

While Michaud was talking with Laurent, slowly following the quays, Madame Raquin had an almost identical conversation with Therese. At the moment when her niece, pale and unsteady in gait, as usual, was about to retire to rest, the old mercer detained her an instant. She questioned her in a tender tone, imploring her to be frank, and confess the cause of the trouble that overwhelmed her. Then, as she only obtained vague replies, she spoke of the emptiness of widowhood, and little by little came to talk in a more precise manner of the offer of a second marriage, concluding by asking Therese, plainly, whether she had not a secret desire to marry again.

Therese protested, saying that such a thought had never entered her mind, and that she intended remaining faithful to Camille. Madame Raquin began to weep. Pleading against her heart, she gave her niece to understand that despair should not be eternal; and, finally, in response to an exclamation of the young woman saying she would never replace Camille, Madame Raquin abruptly pronounced the name of Laurent. Then she enlarged with a flood of words on the propriety and advantages of such an union. She poured out her mind, repeating aloud all she had been thinking during the evening, depicting with naive egotism, the picture of her final days of happiness, between her two dear children. Therese, resigned and docile, listened to her with bowed head, ready to give satisfaction to her slightest wish.

“I love Laurent as a brother,” said she grievously, when her aunt had ceased speaking. “But, as you desire it, I will endeavour to love him as a husband. I wish to make you happy. I had hoped that you would have allowed me to weep in peace, but I will dry my tears, as it is a question of your happiness.”

She kissed the old lady, who remained surprised and frightened at having been the first to forget her son. As Madame Raquin went to bed, she sobbed bitterly, accusing herself of having less strength than Therese, and of desiring, out of egotism, a marriage that the young widow accepted by simple abnegation.

The following morning, Michaud and his old friend had a short conversation in the arcade, before the door of the shop, where they communicated to one another the result of their efforts, and agreed to hurry matters on by forcing the young people to become affianced the same evening.

At five o’clock, Michaud was already in the shop when Laurent entered. As soon as the young man had seated himself, the former commissary of police said in his ear:

“She accepts.”

This blunt remark was overheard by Therese who remained pale, with her eyes impudently fixed on Laurent. The two sweethearts looked at each other for a few seconds as if consulting. Both understood that they must accept the position without hesitation, and finish the business at one stroke. Laurent, rising, went and took the hand of Madame Raquin, who made every effort to restrain her tears.

“Dear mother,” said he smiling, “I was talking about your felicity, last night, with M. Michaud. Your children wish to make you happy.”

The poor old lady, on hearing herself called “dear mother,” allowed her tears to flow. She quietly seized the hand of Therese and placed it in that of Laurent, unable to utter a single word.

The two sweethearts shivered on feeling their skins touch, and remained with their burning fingers pressed together, in a nervous clasp. After a pause, the young man, in a hesitating tone, resumed:

“Therese, shall we give your aunt a bright and peaceful existence?”

“Yes,” feebly replied the young woman, “we have a duty to perform.”

Then Laurent, becoming very pale, turned towards Madame Raquin, and added:

“When Camille fell into the water, he shouted out to me: ‘Save my wife, I entrust her to you.’ I believe I am acting in accordance with his last wish in marrying Therese.”

Therese, on hearing these words, let go the hand of Laurent. She had received a shock like a blow in the chest. The impudence of her sweetheart overwhelmed her. She observed him with a senseless look, while Madame Raquin, half stifled by sobs, stammered:

“Yes, yes, my friend, marry her, make her happy; my son, from the depth of his tomb, will thank you.”

Laurent, feeling himself giving way, leant on the back of a chair, while Michaud, who was himself moved to tears, pushed him towards Therese with the remark:

“Kiss one another. It will be your betrothal.”

When the lips of the young man came in contact with the cheeks of the widow, he experienced a peculiarly uncomfortable feeling, while the latter abruptly drew back, as if the two kisses of her sweetheart burnt her. This was the first caress he had given her in the presence of witnesses. All her blood rushed to her face, and she felt herself red and burning.

After this crisis, the two murderers breathed. Their marriage was decided on. At last they approached the goal they had so long had in view. Everything was settled the same evening. The Thursday following, the marriage was announced to Grivet, as well as to Olivier and his wife. Michaud, in communicating the news to them, did not conceal his delight. He rubbed his hands, repeating as he did so:

“It was I who thought of it. It is I who have married them. You will see what a nice couple they’ll make!”

Suzanne silently embraced Therese. This poor creature, who was half dead, and as white as a sheet, had formed a friendship for the rigid and sombre young widow. She showed her a sort of childlike affection mingled with a kind of respectful terror. Olivier complimented the aunt and niece, while Grivet hazarded a few spicy jokes that met with middling success. Altogether the company were delighted, enchanted, and declared that everything was for the best; in reality all they thought about was the wedding feast.

Therese and Laurent were clever enough to maintain a suitable demeanour, by simply displaying tender and obliging friendship to one another. They gave themselves an air of accomplishing an act of supreme devotedness. Nothing in their faces betrayed a suspicion of the terror and desire that disturbed them. Madame Raquin watched the couple with faint smiles, and a look of feeble, but grateful goodwill.

A few formalities required fulfilling. Laurent had to write to his father to ask his consent to the marriage. The old peasant of Jeufosse who had almost forgotten that he had a son at Paris, answered him, in four lines, that he could marry, and go and get hanged if he chose. He gave him to understand that being resolved never to give him a sou, he left him master of his body, and authorised him to be guilty of all imaginable follies. A permission accorded in such terms, caused Laurent singular anxiety.

Madame Raquin, after reading the letter of this unnatural father, in a transport of kind-heartedness, acted very foolishly. She made over to her niece the 40,000 francs and more, that she possessed, stripping herself entirely for the young couple, on whose affection she relied, with the desire of being indebted to them for all her happiness.

Laurent brought nothing into the community, and he even gave it to be understood that he did not always intend to remain in his present employment, but would perhaps take up painting again. In any case, the future of the little family was assured; the interest on the money put aside added to the profit on the mercery business, would be sufficient to keep three persons comfortably. As a matter of fact it was only just sufficient to make them happy.

The preparations for the marriage were hurried on, the formalities being abridged as much as possible, and at last the welcome day arrived.

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