Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXI

Laurent carefully closed the door behind him, and for a moment or two stood leaning against it, gazing round the apartment in anxiety and embarrassment.

A clear fire burned on the hearth, sending large sheets of light dancing on ceiling and walls. The room was thus lit-up by bright vacillating gleams, that in a measure annulled the effects of the lamp placed on a table in their midst. Madame Raquin had done her best to convey a coquettish aspect to the apartment. It was one mass of white, and perfumed throughout, as if to serve as a nest for young, fresh love. The good lady, moreover, had taken pleasure in adding a few bits of lace to the bed, and in filling the vases on the chimney-piece with bunches of roses. Gentle warmth and pleasant fragrance reigned over all, and not a sound broke the silence, save the crackling and little sharp reports of the wood aglow on the hearth.

Therese was seated on a low chair to the right of the chimney, staring fixedly at the bright flames, with her chin in her hand. She did not turn her head when Laurent entered. Clothed in a petticoat and linen night-jacket bordered with lace, she looked snowy white in the bright light of the fire. Her jacket had become disarranged, and part of her rosy shoulder appeared, half hidden by a tress of raven hair.

Laurent advanced a few paces without speaking, and took off his coat and waistcoat. When he stood in his shirt sleeves, he again looked at Therese, who had not moved, and he seemed to hesitate. Then, perceiving the bit of shoulder, he bent down quivering, to press his lips to it. The young woman, abruptly turning round, withdrew her shoulder, and in doing so, fixed on Laurent such a strange look of repugnance and horror, that he shrank back, troubled and ill at ease, as if himself seized with terror and disgust.

Laurent then seated himself opposite Therese, on the other side of the chimney, and they remained thus, silent and motionless, for fully five minutes. At times, tongues of reddish flame escaped from the wood, and then the faces of the murderers were touched with fleeting gleams of blood.

It was more than a couple of years since the two sweethearts had found themselves shut up alone in this room. They had arranged no love-meetings since the day when Therese had gone to the Rue Saint–Victor to convey to Laurent the idea of murder. Prudence had kept them apart. Barely had they, at long intervals, ventured on a pressure of the hand, or a stealthy kiss. After the murder of Camille, they had restrained their passion, awaiting the nuptial night. This had at last arrived, and now they remained anxiously face to face, overcome with sudden discomfort.

They had but to stretch forth their arms to clasp one another in a passionate embrace, and their arms remained lifeless, as if worn out with fatigue. The depression they had experienced during the daytime, now oppressed them more and more. They observed one another with timid embarrassment, pained to remain so silent and cold. Their burning dreams ended in a peculiar reality: it sufficed that they should have succeeded in killing Camille, and have become married, it sufficed that the lips of Laurent should have grazed the shoulder of Therese, for their lust to be satisfied to the point of disgust and horror.

In despair, they sought to find within them a little of that passion which formerly had devoured them. Their frames seemed deprived of muscles and nerves, and their embarrassment and anxiety increased. They felt ashamed of remaining so silent and gloomy face to face with one another. They would have liked to have had the strength to squeeze each other to death, so as not to pass as idiots in their own eyes.

What! they belonged one to the other, they had killed a man, and played an atrocious comedy in order to be able to love in peace, and they sat there, one on either side of a mantelshelf, rigid, exhausted, their minds disturbed and their frames lifeless! Such a denouement appeared to them horribly and cruelly ridiculous. It was then that Laurent endeavoured to speak of love, to conjure up the remembrances of other days, appealing to his imagination for a revival of his tenderness.

“Therese,” he said, “don’t you recall our afternoons in this room? Then I came in by that door, but today I came in by this one. We are free now. We can make love in peace.”

He spoke in a hesitating, spiritless manner, and the young woman, huddled up on her low chair, continued gazing dreamily at the flame without listening. Laurent went on:

“Remember how I used to dream of staying a whole night with you? I dreamed of waking up in the morning to your kisses, now it can come true.”

Therese all at once started as though surprised to hear a voice stammering in her ears. Turning towards Laurent, on whose countenance the fire, at this moment, cast a broad reddish reflection, she gazed at his sanguinary face, and shuddered.

The young man, more troubled and anxious, resumed:

“We have succeeded, Therese; we have broken through all obstacles, and we belong to one another. The future is ours, is it not? A future of tranquil happiness, of satisfied love. Camille is no longer here —— ”

Laurent ceased speaking. His throat had suddenly become dry, and he was choking, unable to continue. On hearing the name of Camille, Therese received a violent shock. The two murderers contemplated one another, stupefied, pale, and trembling. The yellow gleams of light from the fire continued to dance on ceiling and walls, the soft odour of roses lingered in the air, the crackling of the wood broke the silence with short, sharp reports.

Remembrances were abandoned. The spectre of Camille which had been evoked, came and seated itself between the newly married pair, in front of the flaming fire. Therese and Laurent recognised the cold, damp smell of the drowned man in the warm air they were breathing. They said to themselves that a corpse was there, close to them, and they examined one another without daring to move. Then all the terrible story of their crime was unfolded in their memory. The name of their victim sufficed to fill them with thoughts of the past, to compel them to go through all the anguish of the murder over again. They did not open their lips, but looked at one another, and both at the same time were troubled with the same nightmare, both with their eyes broached the same cruel tale.

This exchange of terrified looks, this mute narration they were about to make to themselves of the murder, caused them keen and intolerable apprehension. The strain on their nerves threatened an attack, they might cry out, perhaps fight. Laurent, to drive away his recollections, violently tore himself from the ecstasy of horror that enthralled him in the gaze of Therese. He took a few strides in the room; he removed his boots and put on slippers; then, returning to his former place, he sat down at the chimney corner, and tried to talk on matters of indifference.

Therese, understanding what he desired, strove to answer his questions. They chatted about the weather, endeavouring to force on a commonplace conversation. Laurent said the room was warm, and Therese replied that, nevertheless, a draught came from under the small door on the staircase, and both turned in that direction with a sudden shudder. The young man hastened to speak about the roses, the fire, about everything he saw before him. The young woman, with an effort, rejoined in monosyllables, so as not to allow the conversation to drop. They had drawn back from one another, and were giving themselves easy airs, endeavouring to forget whom they were, treating one another as strangers brought together by chance.

But, in spite of themselves, by a strange phenomenon, whilst they uttered these empty phrases, they mutually guessed the thoughts concealed in their banal words. Do what they would, they both thought of Camille. Their eyes continued the story of the past. They still maintained by looks a mute discourse, apart from the conversation they held aloud, which ran haphazard. The words they cast here and there had no signification, being disconnected and contradictory; all their intelligence was bent on the silent exchange of their terrifying recollections.

When Laurent spoke of the roses, or of the fire, of one thing or another, Therese was perfectly well aware that he was reminding her of the struggle in the skiff, of the dull fall of Camille; and, when Therese answered yes or no to an insignificant question, Laurent understood that she said she remembered or did not remember a detail of the crime. They charted it in this manner open-heartedly without needing words, while they spoke aloud of other matters.

Moreover, unconscious of the syllables they pronounced, they followed their secret thoughts sentence by sentence; they might abruptly have continued their confidences aloud, without ceasing to understand each other. This sort of divination, this obstinacy of their memory in presenting to themselves without pause, the image of Camille, little by little drove them crazy. They thoroughly well perceived that they guessed the thoughts of one another, and that if they did not hold their tongues, the words would rise of themselves to their mouths, to name the drowned man, and describe the murder. Then they closely pinched their lips and ceased their conversation.

In the overwhelming silence that ensued, the two murderers continued to converse about their victim. It appeared to them that their eyes mutually penetrated their flesh, and buried clear, keen phrases in their bodies. At moments, they fancied they heard themselves speaking aloud. Their senses changed. Sight became a sort of strange and delicate hearing. They so distinctly read their thoughts upon their countenances, that these thoughts took a peculiarly piercing sound that agitated all their organism. They could not have understood one another better, had they shouted in a heartrending voice:

“We have killed Camille, and his corpse is there, extended between us, making our limbs like ice.”

And the terrible confidence continued, more manifest, more resounding, in the calm moist air of the room.

Laurent and Therese had commenced the mute narration from the day of their first interview in the shop. Then the recollections had come one by one in order; they had related their hours of love, their moments of hesitation and anger, the terrible incident of the murder. It was then that they pinched their lips, ceasing to talk of one thing and another, in fear lest they should all at once name Camille without desiring to do so.

But their thoughts failing to cease, had then led them into great distress, into the affrighted period of expectancy following the crime. They thus came to think of the corpse of the drowned man extended on a slab at the Morgue. Laurent, by a look, told Therese all the horror he had felt, and the latter, driven to extremities, compelled by a hand of iron to part her lips, abruptly continued the conversation aloud:

“You saw him at the Morgue?” she inquired of Laurent without naming Camille.

Laurent looked as if he expected this question. He had been reading it for a moment on the livid face of the young woman.

“Yes,” answered he in a choking voice.

The murderers shivered, and drawing nearer the fire, extended their hands towards the flame as if an icy puff of wind had suddenly passed through the warm room. For an instant they maintained silence, coiled up like balls, cowering on their chairs. Then Therese, in a hollow voice, resumed:

“Did he seem to have suffered much?”

Laurent could not answer. He made a terrified gesture as if to put aside some hideous vision, and rising went towards the bed. Then, returning violently with open arms, he advanced towards Therese.

“Kiss me,” said he, extending his neck.

Therese had risen, looking quite pale in her nightdress, and stood half thrown back, with her elbow resting on the marble mantelpiece. She gazed at the neck of her husband. On the white skin she had just caught sight of a pink spot. The rush of blood to the head, increased the size of this spot, turning it bright red.

“Kiss me, kiss me,” repeated Laurent, his face and neck scarlet.

The young woman threw her head further back, to avoid an embrace, and pressing the tip of her finger on the bite Camille had given her husband, addressed him thus:

“What have you here? I never noticed this wound before.”

It seemed to Laurent as if the finger of Therese was boring a hole in his throat. At the contact of this finger, he suddenly started backward, uttering a suppressed cry of pain.

“That,” he stammered, “that —— ”

He hesitated, but he could not lie, and in spite of himself, he told the truth.

“That is the bite Camille gave me. You know, in the boat. It is nothing. It has healed. Kiss me, kiss me.”

And the wretch craned his neck which was burning him. He wanted Therese to kiss the scar, convinced that the lips of this woman would appease the thousand pricks lacerating his flesh, and with raised chin he presented his extended neck for the embrace. Therese, who was almost lying back on the marble chimney-piece, gave a supreme gesture of disgust, and in a supplicating voice exclaimed:

“Oh! no, not on that part. There is blood.”

She sank down on the low chair, trembling, with her forehead between her hands. Laurent remained where he stood for a moment, looking stupid. Then, all at once, with the clutch of a wild beast, he grasped the head of Therese in his two great hands, and by force brought her lips to the bite he had received from Camille on his neck. For an instant he kept, he crushed, this head of a woman against his skin. Therese had given way, uttering hollow groans. She was choking on the neck of Laurent. When she had freed herself from his hands, she violently wiped her mouth, and spat in the fire. She had not said a word.

Laurent, ashamed of his brutality, began walking slowly from the bed to the window. Suffering alone — the horrible burn — had made him exact a kiss from Therese, and when her frigid lips met the scorching scar, he felt the pain more acutely. This kiss obtained by violence had just crushed him. The shock had been so painful, that for nothing in the world would he have received another.

He cast his eyes upon the woman with whom he was to live, and who sat shuddering, doubled up before the fire, turning her back to him; and he repeated to himself that he no longer loved this woman, and that she no longer loved him.

For nearly an hour Therese maintained her dejected attitude, while Laurent silently walked backward and forward. Both inwardly acknowledged, with terror, that their passion was dead, that they had killed it in killing Camille. The embers on the hearth were gently dying out; a sheet of bright, clear fire shone above the ashes. Little by little, the heat of the room had become stifling; the flowers were fading, making the thick air sickly, with their heavy odour.

Laurent, all at once, had an hallucination. As he turned round, coming from the window to the bed, he saw Camille in a dark corner, between the chimney and wardrobe. The face of his victim looked greenish and distorted, just as he had seen it on the slab at the Morgue. He remained glued to the carpet, fainting, leaning against a piece of furniture for support. At a hollow rattle in his throat, Therese raised her head.

“There, there!” exclaimed Laurent in a terrified tone.

With extended arm, he pointed to the dark corner where he perceived the sinister face of Camille. Therese, infected by his terror, went and pressed against him.

“It is his portrait,” she murmured in an undertone, as if the face of her late husband could hear her.

“His portrait?” repeated Laurent, whose hair stood on end.

“Yes, you know, the painting you did,” she replied. “My aunt was to have removed it to her room. No doubt she forgot to take it down.”

“Really; his portrait,” said he.

The murderer had some difficulty in recognising the canvas. In his trouble he forgot that it was he who had drawn those clashing strokes, who had spread on those dirty tints that now terrified him. Terror made him see the picture as it was, vile, wretchedly put together, muddy, displaying the grimacing face of a corpse on a black ground. His own work astonished and crushed him by its atrocious ugliness; particularly the two eyes which seemed floating in soft, yellowish orbits, reminding him exactly of the decomposed eyes of the drowned man at the Morgue. For a moment, he remained breathless, thinking Therese was telling an untruth to allay his fears. Then he distinguished the frame, and little by little became calm.

“Go and take it down,” said he in a very low tone to the young woman.

“Oh! no, I’m afraid,” she answered with a shiver.

Laurent began to tremble again. At moments the frame of the picture disappeared, and he only saw the two white eyes giving him a long, steady look.

“I beg you to go and unhook it,” said he, beseeching his companion.

“No, no,” she replied.

“We will turn it face to the wall, and then it will not frighten us,” he suggested.

“No,” said she, “I cannot do it.”

The murderer, cowardly and humble, thrust the young woman towards the canvas, hiding behind her, so as to escape the gaze of the drowned man. But she escaped, and he wanted to brazen the matter out. Approaching the picture, he raised his hand in search of the nail, but the portrait gave such a long, crushing, ignoble look, that Laurent after seeking to stare it out, found himself vanquished, and started back overpowered, murmuring as he did so:

“No, you are right, Therese, we cannot do it. Your aunt shall take it down to-morrow.”

He resumed his walk up and down, with bowed head, feeling the portrait was staring at him, following him with its eyes. At times, he could not prevent himself casting a side glance at the canvas; and, then, in the depth of the darkness, he still perceived the dull, deadened eyes of the drowned man. The thought that Camille was there, in a corner, watching him, present on his wedding night, examining Therese and himself, ended by driving him mad with terror and despair.

One circumstance, which would have brought a smile to the lips of anyone else, made him completely lose his head. As he stood before the fire, he heard a sort of scratching sound. He turned pale, imagining it came from the portrait, that Camille was descending from his frame. Then he discovered that the noise was at the small door opening on the staircase, and he looked at Therese who also showed signs of fear.

“There is someone on the staircase,” he murmured. “Who can be coming that way?”

The young woman gave no answer. Both were thinking of the drowned man, and their temples became moist with icy perspiration. They sought refuge together at the end of the room, expecting to see the door suddenly open, and the corpse of Camille fall on the floor. As the sound continued, but more sharply and irregularly, they thought their victim must be tearing away the wood with his nails to get in. For the space of nearly five minutes, they dared not stir. Finally, a mewing was heard, and Laurent advancing, recognised the tabby cat belonging to Madame Raquin, which had been accidentally shut up in the room, and was endeavouring to get out by clawing at the door.

Francois, frightened by Laurent, sprang upon a chair at a bound. With hair on end and stiffened paws, he looked his new master in the face, in a harsh and cruel manner. The young man did not like cats, and Francois almost terrified him. In this moment of excitement and alarm, he imagined the cat was about to fly in his face to avenge Camille. He fancied the beast must know everything, that there were thoughts in his strangely dilated round eyes. The fixed gaze of the animal caused Laurent to lower his lids. As he was about to give Francois a kick, Therese exclaimed:

“Don’t hurt him.”

This sentence produced a strange impression on Laurent, and an absurd idea got into his head.

“Camille has entered into this cat,” thought he. “I shall have to kill the beast. It looks like a human being.”

He refrained from giving the kick, being afraid of hearing Francois speak to him with the voice of Camille. Then he said to himself that this animal knew too much, and that he should have to throw it out of the window. But he had not the pluck to accomplish his design. Francois maintained a fighting attitude. With claws extended, and back curved in sullen irritation, he followed the least movement of his enemy with superb tranquillity. The metallic sparkle of his eyes troubled Laurent, who hastened to open the dining-room door, and the cat fled with a shrill mew.

Therese had again seated herself before the extinguished fire. Laurent resumed his walk from bed to window. It was thus that they awaited day-light. They did not think of going to bed; their hearts were thoroughly dead. They had but one, single desire: to leave the room they were in, and where they were choking. They experienced a real discomfort in being shut up together, and in breathing the same atmosphere. They would have liked someone to be there to interrupt their privacy, to drag them from the cruel embarrassment in which they found themselves, sitting one before the other without opening their lips, and unable to resuscitate their love. Their long silences tortured them, silence loaded with bitter and despairing complaints, with mute reproaches, which they distinctly heard in the tranquil air.

Day came at last, a dirty, whitish dawn, bringing penetrating cold with it. When the room had filled with dim light, Laurent, who was shivering, felt calmer. He looked the portrait of Camille straight in the face, and saw it as it was, commonplace and puerile. He took it down, and shrugging his shoulders, called himself a fool. Therese had risen from the low chair, and was tumbling the bed about for the purpose of deceiving her aunt, so as to make her believe they had passed a happy night.

“Look here,” Laurent brutally remarked to her, “I hope we shall sleep well to-night! There must be an end to this sort of childishness.”

Therese cast a deep, grave glance at him.

“You understand,” he continued. “I did not marry for the purpose of passing sleepless nights. We are just like children. It was you who disturbed me with your ghostly airs. To-night you will try to be gay, and not frighten me.”

He forced himself to laugh without knowing why he did so.

“I will try,” gloomily answered the young woman.

Such was the wedding night of Therese and Laurent.

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