Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXIV

In accordance with the hopes of old Michaud, when doing his best to bring about the marriage of Therese and Laurent, the Thursday evenings resumed their former gaiety, as soon as the wedding was over.

These evenings were in great peril at the time of the death of Camille. The guests came, in fear, into this house of mourning; each week they were trembling with anxiety, lest they should be definitely dismissed.

The idea that the door of the shop would no doubt at last be closed to them, terrified Michaud and Grivet, who clung to their habits with the instinct and obstinacy of brutes. They said to themselves that the old woman and young widow would one day go and weep over the defunct at Vernon or elsewhere, and then, on Thursday nights, they would not know what to do. In the mind’s eye they saw themselves wandering about the arcade in a lamentable fashion, dreaming of colossal games at dominoes.

Pending the advent of these bad times, they timidly enjoyed their final moments of happiness, arriving with an anxious, sugary air at the shop, and repeating to themselves, on each occasion, that they would perhaps return no more. For over a year they were beset with these fears. In face of the tears of Madame Raquin and the silence of Therese, they dared not make themselves at ease and laugh. They felt they were no longer at home as in the time of Camille; it seemed, so to say, that they were stealing every evening they passed seated at the dining-room table. It was in these desperate circumstances that the egotism of Michaud urged him to strike a masterly stroke by finding a husband for the widow of the drowned man.

On the Thursday following the marriage, Grivet and Michaud made a triumphant entry into the dining-room. They had conquered. The dining-room belonged to them again. They no longer feared dismissal. They came there as happy people, stretching out their legs, and cracking their former jokes, one after the other. It could be seen from their delighted and confident attitude that, in their idea, a revolution had been accomplished. All recollection of Camille had been dispelled. The dead husband, the spectre that cast a chill over everyone, had been driven away by the living husband. The past and its joys were resuscitated. Laurent took the place of Camille, all cause for sadness disappeared, the guests could now laugh without grieving anyone; and, indeed, it was their duty to laugh to cheer up this worthy family who were good enough to receive them.

Henceforth, Grivet and Michaud, who for nearly eighteen months had visited the house under the pretext of consoling Madame Raquin, could set their little hypocrisy aside, and frankly come and doze opposite one another to the sharp ring of the dominoes.

And each week brought a Thursday evening, each week those lifeless and grotesque heads which formerly had exasperated Therese, assembled round the table. The young woman talked of showing these folk the door; their bursts of foolish laughter and silly reflections irritated her. But Laurent made her understand that such a step would be a mistake; it was necessary that the present should resemble the past as much as possible; and, above all, they must preserve the friendship of the police, of those idiots who protected them from all suspicion. Therese gave way. The guests were well received, and they viewed with delight a future full of a long string of warm Thursday evenings.

It was about this time that the lives of the couple became, in a way, divided in two.

In the morning, when day drove away the terror of night, Laurent hastily dressed himself. But he only recovered his ease and egotistic calm when in the dining-room, seated before an enormous bowl of coffee and milk, which Therese prepared for him. Madame Raquin, who had become even more feeble and could barely get down to the shop, watched him eating with a maternal smile. He swallowed the toast, filled his stomach and little by little became tranquillised. After the coffee, he drank a small glass of brandy which completely restored him. Then he said “good-bye” to Madame Raquin and Therese, without ever kissing them, and strolled to his office.

Spring was at hand; the trees along the quays were becoming covered with leaves, with light, pale green lacework. The river ran with caressing sounds below; above, the first sunny rays of the year shed gentle warmth. Laurent felt himself another man in the fresh air; he freely inhaled this breath of young life descending from the skies of April and May; he sought the sun, halting to watch the silvery reflection streaking the Seine, listening to the sounds on the quays, allowing the acrid odours of early day to penetrate him, enjoying the clear, delightful morn.

He certainly thought very little about Camille. Sometimes he listlessly contemplated the Morgue on the other side of the water, and his mind then reverted to his victim, like a man of courage might think of a silly fright that had come over him. With stomach full, and face refreshed, he recovered his thick-headed tranquillity. He reached his office, and passed the whole day gaping, and awaiting the time to leave. He was a mere clerk like the others, stupid and weary, without an idea in his head, save that of sending in his resignation and taking a studio. He dreamed vaguely of a new existence of idleness, and this sufficed to occupy him until evening.

Thoughts of the shop in the arcade never troubled him. At night, after longing for the hour of release since the morning, he left his office with regret, and followed the quays again, secretly troubled and anxious. However slowly he walked, he had to enter the shop at last, and there terror awaited him.

Therese experienced the same sensations. So long as Laurent was not beside her, she felt at ease. She had dismissed her charwoman, saying that everything was in disorder, and the shop and apartment filthy dirty. She all at once had ideas of tidiness. The truth was that she felt the necessity of moving about, of doing something, of exercising her stiff limbs. She went hither and thither all the morning, sweeping, dusting, cleaning the rooms, washing up the plates and dishes, doing work that would have disgusted her formerly. These household duties kept her on her feet, active and silent, until noon, without allowing her time to think of aught else than the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and the greasy plates.

On the stroke of twelve, she went to the kitchen to prepare lunch. At table, Madame Raquin was pained to see her always rising to fetch the dishes; she was touched and annoyed at the activity displayed by her niece; she scolded her, and Therese replied that it was necessary to economise. When the meal was over, the young woman dressed, and at last decided to join her aunt behind the counter. There, sleep overtook her; worn out by her restless nights, she dozed off, yielding to the voluptuous feeling of drowsiness that gained her, as soon as she sat down.

These were only light spells of heaviness, replete with vague charm that calmed her nerves. The thoughts of Camille left her; she enjoyed that tranquil repose of invalids who are all at once freed from pain. She felt relieved in body, her mind free, she sank into a gentle and repairing state of nothingness. Deprived of these few calm moments, she would have broken down under the tension of her nervous system. These spells of somnolence gave her strength to suffer again, and become terrified the ensuing night. As a matter of fact she did not sleep, she barely closed her lids, and was lost in a dream of peace. When a customer entered, she opened her eyes, served the few sous worth of articles asked for, and fell back into the floating reverie.

In this manner she passed three or four hours of perfect happiness, answering her aunt in monosyllables, and yielding with real enjoyment to these moments of unconsciousness which relieved her of her thoughts, and completely overcame her. She barely, at long intervals, cast a glance into the arcade, and was particularly at her ease in cloudy weather, when it was dark and she could conceal her lassitude in the gloom.

The damp and disgusting arcade, crossed by a lot of wretched drenched pedestrians, whose umbrellas dripped upon the tiles, seemed to her like an alley in a low quarter, a sort of dirty, sinister corridor, where no one would come to seek and trouble her. At moments, when she saw the dull gleams of light that hung around her, when she smelt the bitter odour of the dampness, she imagined she had just been buried alive, that she was underground, at the bottom of a common grave swarming with dead. And this thought consoled and appeased her, for she said to herself that she was now in security, that she was about to die and would suffer no more.

But sometimes she had to keep her eyes open; Suzanne paid her a visit, and remained embroidering near the counter all the afternoon. The wife of Olivier, with her putty face and slow movements, now pleased Therese, who experienced strange relief in observing this poor, broken-up creature, and had made a friend of her. She loved to see her at her side, smiling with her faint smile, more dead than alive, and bringing into the shop the stuffy odour of the cemetery. When the blue eyes of Suzanne, transparent as glass, rested fixedly on those of Therese, the latter experienced a beneficent chill in the marrow of her bones.

Therese remained thus until four o’clock, when she returned to the kitchen, and there again sought fatigue, preparing dinner for Laurent with febrile haste. But when her husband appeared on the threshold she felt a tightening in the throat, and all her being once more became a prey to anguish.

Each day, the sensations of the couple were practically the same. During the daytime, when they were not face to face, they enjoyed delightful hours of repose; at night, as soon as they came together, both experienced poignant discomfort.

The evenings, nevertheless, were calm. Therese and Laurent, who shuddered at the thought of going to their room, sat up as long as possible. Madame Raquin, reclining in a great armchair, was placed between them, and chatted in her placid voice. She spoke of Vernon, still thinking of her son, but avoiding to mention him from a sort of feeling of diffidence for the others; she smiled at her dear children, and formed plans for their future. The lamp shed its faint gleams on her white face, and her words sounded particularly sweet in the silence and stillness of the room.

The murderers, one seated on each side of her, silent and motionless, seemed to be attentively listening to what she said. In truth they did not attempt to follow the sense of the gossip of the good old lady. They were simply pleased to hear this sound of soft words which prevented them attending the crash of their own thoughts. They dared not cast their eyes on one another, but looked at Madame Raquin to give themselves countenances. They never breathed a word about going to bed; they would have remained there until morning, listening to the affectionate nonsense of the former mercer, amid the appeasement she spread around her, had she not herself expressed the desire to retire. It was only then that they quitted the dining-room and entered their own apartment in despair, as if casting themselves to the bottom of an abyss.

But they soon had much more preference for the Thursday gatherings, than for these family evenings. When alone with Madame Raquin, they were unable to divert their thoughts; the feeble voice of their aunt, and her tender gaiety, did not stifle the cries that lacerated them. They could feel bedtime coming on, and they shuddered when their eyes caught sight of the door of their room. Awaiting the moment when they would be alone, became more and more cruel as the evening advanced. On Thursday night, on the contrary, they were giddy with folly, one forgot the presence of the other, and they suffered less. Therese ended by heartily longing for the reception days. Had Michaud and Grivet not arrived, she would have gone and fetched them. When strangers were in the dining-room, between herself and Laurent, she felt more calm. She would have liked to always have guests there, to hear a noise, something to divert her, and detach her from her thoughts. In the presence of other people, she displayed a sort of nervous gaiety. Laurent also recovered his previous merriment, returning to his coarse peasant jests, his hoarse laughter, his practical jokes of a former canvas dauber. Never had these gatherings been so gay and noisy.

It was thus that Laurent and Therese could remain face to face, once a week, without shuddering.

But they were soon beset with further anxiety. Paralysis was little by little gaining on Madame Raquin, and they foresaw the day when she would be riveted to her armchair, feeble and doltish. The poor old lady already began to stammer fragments of disjointed phrases; her voice was growing weaker, and her limbs were one by one losing their vitality. She was becoming a thing. It was with terror that Therese and Laurent observed the breaking up of this being who still separated them, and whose voice drew them from their bad dreams. When the old mercer lost her intelligence, and remained stiff and silent in her armchair, they would find themselves alone, and in the evening would no longer be able to escape the dreadful face to face conversation. Then their terror would commence at six o’clock instead of midnight. It would drive them mad.

They made every effort to give Madame Raquin that health which had become so necessary to them. They called in doctors, and bestowed on the patient all sorts of little attentions. Even this occupation of nurses caused them to forget, and afforded them an appeasement that encouraged them to double in zeal. They did not wish to lose a third party who rendered their evenings supportable; and they did not wish the dining-room and the whole house to become a cruel and sinister spot like their room.

Madame Raquin was singularly touched at the assiduous care they took of her. She applauded herself, amid tears, at having united them, and at having abandoned to them her forty thousand francs. Never, since the death of her son, had she counted on so much affection in her final moments. Her old age was quite softened by the tenderness of her dear children. She did not feel the implacable paralysis which, in spite of all, made her more and more rigid day by day.

Nevertheless, Therese and Laurent continued to lead their double existence. In each of them there were like two distinct beings: a nervous, terrified being who shuddered as soon as dusk set in, and a torpid forgetful being, who breathed at ease when the sun rose. They lived two lives, crying out in anguish when alone, and peacefully smiling in company. Never did their faces, in public, show the slightest trace of the sufferings that had reached them in private. They appeared calm and happy, and instinctively concealed their troubles.

To see them so tranquil in the daytime, no one would have suspected the hallucinations that tortured them every night. They would have been taken for a couple blessed by heaven, and living in the enjoyment of full felicity. Grivet gallantly called them the “turtle-doves.” When he jested about their fatigued looks, Laurent and Therese barely turned pale, and even succeeded in forcing on a smile. They became accustomed to the naughty jokes of the old clerk.

So long as they remained in the dining-room, they were able to keep their terror under control. The mind could not imagine the frightful change that came over them, as soon as they were shut up in their bedroom. On the Thursday night, particularly, this transformation was so violently brutal, that it seemed as if accomplished in a supernatural world. The drama in the bedroom, by its strangeness, by its savage passion, surpassed all belief, and remained deeply concealed within their aching beings. Had they spoken of it, they would have been taken for mad.

“How happy those sweethearts are!” frequently remarked old Michaud. “They hardly say a word, but that does not prevent them thinking. I bet they devour one another with kisses when we have gone.”

Such was the opinion of the company. Therese and Laurent came to be spoken of as a model couple. All the tenants in the Arcade of the Pont Neuf extolled the affection, the tranquil happiness, the everlasting honeymoon of the married pair. They alone knew that the corpse of Camille slept between them; they alone felt, beneath the calm exterior of their faces, the nervous contractions that, at night, horribly distorted their features, and changed the placid expression of their physiognomies into hideous masks of pain.

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