Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXIII

Little by little, Laurent became furiously mad, and resolved to drive Camille from his bed. He had first of all slept with his clothes on, then he had avoided touching Therese. In rage and despair, he wanted, at last, to take his wife in his arms, and crush the spectre of his victim rather than leave her to it. This was a superb revolt of brutality.

The hope that the kisses of Therese would cure him of his insomnia, had alone brought him into the room of the young woman. When he had found himself there, in the position of master, he had become a prey to such atrocious attacks, that it had not even occurred to him to attempt the cure. And he had remained overwhelmed for three weeks, without remembering that he had done everything to obtain Therese, and now that she was in his possession, he could not touch her without increased suffering.

His excessive anguish drew him from this state of dejection. In the first moment of stupor, amid the strange discouragement of the wedding-night, he had forgotten the reasons that had urged him to marry. But his repeated bad dreams had aroused in him a feeling of sullen irritation, which triumphed over his cowardice, and restored his memory. He remembered he had married in order to drive away nightmare, by pressing his wife closely to his breast. Then, one night, he abruptly took Therese in his arms, and, at the risk of passing over the corpse of the drowned man, drew her violently to him.

The young woman, who was also driven to extremes, would have cast herself into the fire had she thought that flames would have purified her flesh, and delivered her from her woe. She returned Laurent his advances, determined to be either consumed by the caresses of this man, or to find relief in them.

And they clasped one another in a hideous embrace. Pain and horror took the place of love. When their limbs touched, it was like falling on live coal. They uttered a cry, pressing still closer together, so as not to leave room for the drowned man. But they still felt the shreds of Camille, which were ignobly squeezed between them, freezing their skins in parts, whilst in others they were burning hot.

Their kisses were frightfully cruel. Therese sought the bite that Camille had given in the stiff, swollen neck of Laurent, and passionately pressed her lips to it. There was the raw sore; this wound once healed, and the murderers would sleep in peace. The young woman understood this, and she endeavoured to cauterise the bad place with the fire of her caresses. But she scorched her lips, and Laurent thrust her violently away, giving a dismal groan. It seemed to him that she was pressing a red-hot iron to his neck. Therese, half mad, came back. She wanted to kiss the scar again. She experienced a keenly voluptuous sensation in placing her mouth on this piece of skin wherein Camille had buried his teeth.

At one moment she thought of biting her husband in the same place, of tearing away a large piece of flesh, of making a fresh and deeper wound, that would remove the trace of the old one. And she said to herself that she would no more turn pale when she saw the marks of her own teeth. But Laurent shielded his neck from her kisses. The smarting pain he experienced was too acute, and each time his wife presented her lips, he pushed her back. They struggled in this manner with a rattling in their throats, writhing in the horror of their caresses.

They distinctly felt that they only increased their suffering. They might well strain one another in these terrible clasps, they cried out with pain, they burnt and bruised each other, but were unable to calm their frightfully excited nerves. Each strain rendered their disgust more intense. While exchanging these ghastly embraces, they were a prey to the most terrible hallucinations, imagining that the drowned man was dragging them by the heels, and violently jerking the bedstead.

For a moment they let one another go, feeling repugnance and invincible nervous agitation. Then they determined not to be conquered. They clasped each other again in a fresh embrace, and once more were obliged to separate, for it seemed as if red-hot bradawls were entering their limbs. At several intervals they attempted in this way to overcome their disgust, by tiring, by wearing out their nerves. And each time their nerves became irritated and strained, causing them such exasperation, that they would perhaps have died of enervation had they remained in the arms of one another. This battle against their own bodies excited them to madness, and they obstinately sought to gain the victory. Finally, a more acute crisis exhausted them. They received a shock of such incredible violence that they thought they were about to have a fit.

Cast back one on each side of the bed, burning and bruised, they began to sob. And amidst their tears, they seemed to hear the triumphant laughter of the drowned man, who again slid, chuckling, under the sheet. They had been unable to drive him from the bed and were vanquished. Camille gently stretched himself between them, whilst Laurent deplored his want of power to thrust him away, and Therese trembled lest the corpse should have the idea of taking advantage of the victory to press her, in his turn, in his arms, in the quality of legitimate master.

They had made a supreme effort. In face of their defeat, they understood that, in future, they dared not exchange the smallest kiss. What they had attempted, in order to drive away their terror, had plunged them into greater fright. And, as they felt the chill of the corpse, which was now to separate them for ever, they shed bitter tears, asking themselves, with anguish, what would become of them.

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