Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXV

At the expiration of four months, Laurent thought of taking advantage of the profit he had calculated on deriving from his marriage. He would have abandoned his wife, and fled from the spectre of Camille, three days after the wedding, had not his interest detained him at the shop in the arcade. He accepted his nights of terror, he remained in the anguish that was choking him, so as not to be deprived of the benefit of his crime.

If he parted from Therese, he would again be plunged in poverty, and be forced to retain his post; by remaining with her, he would, on the contrary, be able to satisfy his inclination for idleness, and to live liberally, doing nothing, on the revenue Madame Raquin had placed in the name of his wife. Very likely he would have fled with the 40,000 francs, had he been able to realise them; but the old mercer, on the advice of Michaud, had shown the prudence to protect the interests of her niece in the marriage contract.

Laurent, in this manner, found himself attached to Therese by a powerful bond. As a set-off against his atrocious nights, he determined at least to be kept in blissful laziness, well fed, warmly clothed, and provided with the necessary cash in his pocket to satisfy his whims. At this price alone, would he consent to sleep with the corpse of the drowned man.

One evening, he announced to Madame Raquin and his wife that he had sent in his resignation, and would quit his office at the end of a fortnight. Therese gave a gesture of anxiety. He hastened to add that he intended taking a small studio where he would go on with his painting. He spoke at length about the annoyance of his employment, and the broad horizons that Art opened to him. Now that he had a few sous and could make a bid for success, he wished to see whether he was not capable of great achievements.

The speech he made on this subject simply concealed a ferocious desire to resume his former studio life. Therese sat with pinched lips without replying; she had no idea of allowing Laurent to squander the small fortune that assured her liberty. When her husband pressed her with questions in view of obtaining her consent, she answered curtly, giving him to understand that if he left his office, he would no longer be earning any money, and would be living entirely at her expense.

But, as she spoke, Laurent observed her so keenly, that he troubled her, and arrested on her lips the refusal she was about to utter. She fancied she read in the eyes of her accomplice, this menacing threat:

“If you do not consent, I shall reveal everything.”

She began to stammer, and Madame Raquin exclaimed that the desire of her dear son was no more than what was just, and that they must give him the means to become a man of talent. The good lady spoilt Laurent as she had spoilt Camille. Quite mollified by the caresses the young man lavished on her, she belonged to him, and never failed to take his part.

It was therefore decided that Laurent should have a studio, and receive one hundred francs a month pocket-money. The budget of the family was arranged in this way: the profits realised in the mercery business would pay the rent of the shop and apartment, and the balance would almost suffice for the daily expenses of the family; Laurent would receive the rent of his studio and his one hundred francs a month, out of the two thousand and a few hundred francs income from the funded money, the remainder going into the general purse. In that way the capital would remain intact. This arrangement somewhat tranquillised Therese, who nevertheless made her husband swear that he would never go beyond the sum allowed him. But as to that matter, she said to herself that Laurent could not get possession of the 40,000 francs without her signature, and she was thoroughly determined that she would never place her name to any document.

On the morrow, Laurent took a small studio in the lower part of the Rue Mazarine, which his eye had been fixed on for a month. He did not mean to leave his office without having a refuge where he could quietly pass his days far away from Therese. At the end of the fortnight, he bade adieu to his colleagues. Grivet was stupefied at his departure. A young man, said he, who had such a brilliant future before him, a young man who in the space of four years, had reached a salary that he, Grivet, had taken twenty years to attain! Laurent stupefied him still more, when he told him he was going to give his whole time to painting.

At last the artist installed himself in his studio, which was a sort of square loft about seven or eight yards long by the same breadth. The ceiling which inclined abruptly in a rapid slope, was pierced by a large window conveying a white raw light to the floor and blackish walls. The sounds in the street did not ascend so high. This silent, wan room, opening above on the sky, resembled a hole, or a vault dug out of grey clay. Laurent furnished the place anywise; he brought a couple of chairs with holes in the rush seats, a table that he set against the wall so that it might not slip down, an old kitchen dresser, his colour-box and easel; all the luxury in the place consisted of a spacious divan which he purchased for thirty francs from a second-hand dealer.

He remained a fortnight without even thinking of touching his brushes. He arrived between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, smoked, stretched himself on the divan, and awaited noon, delighted that it was morning, and that he had many hours of daylight before him. At twelve he went to lunch. As soon as the meal was over, he hastened back, to be alone, and get away from the pale face of Therese. He next went through the process of digestion, sleeping spread out on the divan until evening. His studio was an abode of peace where he did not tremble. One day his wife asked him if she might visit this dear refuge. He refused, and as, notwithstanding his refusal, she came and knocked at the door, he refrained from opening to her, telling her in the evening that he had spent the day at the Louvre Museum. He was afraid that Therese might bring the spectre of Camille with her.

Idleness ended by weighing heavily on his shoulders, so he purchased a canvas and colours, and set to work. As he had not sufficient money to pay models, he resolved to paint according to fancy, without troubling about nature, and he began the head of a man.

But at this time, he did not shut himself up so much as he had done; he worked for two or three hours every morning and passed the afternoon strolling hither and thither in Paris and its vicinity. It was opposite the Institut, on his return from one of these long walks, that he knocked up against his old college friend, who had met with a nice little success, thanks to the good fellowship of his comrades, at the last Salon.

“What, is it you?” exclaimed the painter. “Ah! my poor Laurent, I hardly recognise you. You have lost flesh.”

“I am married,” answered Laurent in an embarrassed tone.

“Married, you!” said the other. “Then I am not surprised to see you look so funny: and what are you doing now?”

“I have taken a small studio,” replied Laurent; “and I paint a little, in the morning.”

Then, in a feverish voice, he briefly related the story of his marriage, and explained his future plans. His friend observed him with an air of astonishment that troubled and alarmed him. The truth was that the painter no longer found in the husband of Therese, the coarse, common fellow he had known formerly. It seemed to him that Laurent was acquiring a gentlemanly bearing; his face had grown thinner, and had taken the pale tint of good taste, while his whole frame looked more upright and supple.

“But you are becoming a handsome chap,” the artist could not refrain from exclaiming. “You are dressed like an ambassador, in the latest style. Who’s your model?”

Laurent, who felt the weight of the examination he was undergoing, did not dare to abruptly take himself off.

“Will you come up to my studio for a moment?” he at last asked his friend, who showed no signs of leaving him.

“Willingly,” answered the latter.

The painter, who could not understand the change he noticed in his old comrade, was anxious to visit his studio. He had no idea of climbing five floors to gaze on the new pictures of Laurent, which assuredly would disgust him; he merely wished to satisfy his curiosity.

When he had reached the studio, and had glanced at the canvases hanging against the walls, his astonishment redoubled. They comprised five studies, two heads of women, and three of men painted with real vigour. They looked thick and substantial, each part being dashed off with magnificent dabs of colour on a clear grey background. The artist quickly approached, and was so astounded that he did not even seek to conceal his amazement.

“Did you do those?” he inquired of Laurent.

“Yes,” replied the latter. “They are studies that I intend to utilise in a large picture I am preparing.”

“Come, no humbug, are you really the author of those things?”

“Eh! Yes. Why should I not be the author of them?”

The painter did not like to answer what he thought, which was as follows:

“Because those canvases are the work of an artist, and you have never been anything but a vile bungler.”

For a long time, he remained before the studies in silence. Certainly they were clumsy, but they were original, and so powerfully executed that they indicated a highly developed idea of art. They were life-like. Never had this friend of Laurent seen rough painting so full of high promise. When he had examined all the canvases, he turned to the author of them and said:

“Well, frankly, I should never have thought you capable of painting like that. Where the deuce did you learn to have talent? It is not usually a thing that one acquires.”

And he considered Laurent, whose voice appeared to him more gentle, while every gesture he made had a sort of elegance. The artist had no idea of the frightful shock this man had received, and which had transformed him, developing in him the nerves of a woman, along with keen, delicate sensations. No doubt a strange phenomenon had been accomplished in the organism of the murderer of Camille. It is difficult for analysis to penetrate to such depths. Laurent had, perhaps, become an artist as he had become afraid, after the great disorder that had upset his frame and mind.

Previously, he had been half choked by the fulness of his blood, blinded by the thick vapour of breath surrounding him. At present, grown thin, and always shuddering, his manner had become anxious, while he experienced the lively and poignant sensations of a man of nervous temperament. In the life of terror that he led, his mind had grown delirious, ascending to the ecstasy of genius. The sort of moral malady, the neurosis wherewith all his being was agitated, had developed an artistic feeling of peculiar lucidity. Since he had killed, his frame seemed lightened, his distracted mind appeared to him immense; and, in this abrupt expansion of his thoughts, he perceived exquisite creations, the reveries of a poet passing before his eyes. It was thus that his gestures had suddenly become elegant, that his works were beautiful, and were all at once rendered true to nature, and life-like.

The friend did not seek further to fathom the mystery attending this birth of the artist. He went off carrying his astonishment along with him. But before he left, he again gazed at the canvases and said to Laurent:

“I have only one thing to reproach you with: all these studies have a family likeness. The five heads resemble each other. The women, themselves, have a peculiarly violent bearing that gives them the appearance of men in disguise. You will understand that if you desire to make a picture out of these studies, you must change some of the physiognomies; your personages cannot all be brothers, or brothers and sisters, it would excite hilarity.”

He left the studio, and on the landing merrily added:

“Really, my dear boy, I am very pleased to have seen you. Henceforth, I shall believe in miracles. Good heavens! How highly respectable you do look!”

As he went downstairs, Laurent returned to the studio, feeling very much upset. When his friend had remarked that all his studies of heads bore a family likeness, he had abruptly turned round to conceal his paleness. The fact was that he had already been struck by this fatal resemblance. Slowly entering the room, he placed himself before the pictures, and as he contemplated them, as he passed from one to the other, ice-like perspiration moistened his back.

“He is quite right,” he murmured, “they all resemble one another. They resemble Camille.”

He retired a step or two, and seated himself on the divan, unable to remove his eyes from the studies of heads. The first was an old man with a long white beard; and under this white beard, the artist traced the lean chin of Camille. The second represented a fair young girl, who gazed at him with the blue eyes of his victim. Each of the other three faces presented a feature of the drowned man. It looked like Camille with the theatrical make-up of an old man, of a young girl, assuming whatever disguise it pleased the painter to give him, but still maintaining the general expression of his own countenance.

There existed another terrible resemblance among these heads: they all appeared suffering and terrified, and seemed as though overburdened with the same feeling of horror. Each of them had a slight wrinkle to the left of the mouth, which drawing down the lips, produced a grimace. This wrinkle, which Laurent remembered having noticed on the convulsed face of the drowned man, marked them all with a sign of vile relationship.

Laurent understood that he had taken too long a look at Camille at the Morgue. The image of the drowned man had become deeply impressed on his mind; and now, his hand, without his being conscious of it, never failed to draw the lines of this atrocious face which followed him everywhere.

Little by little, the painter, who was allowing himself to fall back on the divan, fancied he saw the faces become animated. He had five Camilles before him, five Camilles whom his own fingers had powerfully created, and who, by terrifying peculiarity were of various ages and of both sexes. He rose, he lacerated the pictures and threw them outside. He said to himself that he would die of terror in his studio, were he to people it with portraits of his victim.

A fear had just come over him: he dreaded that he would no more be able to draw a head without reproducing that of the drowned man. He wished to ascertain, at once, whether he were master of his own hand. He placed a white canvas on his easel; and, then, with a bit of charcoal, sketched out a face in a few lines. The face resembled Camille. Laurent swiftly effaced this drawing and tried another.

For an hour he struggled against futility, which drove along his fingers. At each fresh attempt, he went back to the head of the drowned man. He might indeed assert his will, and avoid the lines he knew so well. In spite of himself, he drew those lines, he obeyed his muscles and his rebellious nerves. He had first of all proceeded rapidly with his sketches; he now took pains to pass the stick of charcoal slowly over the canvas. The result was the same: Camille, grimacing and in pain, appeared ceaselessly.

The artist sketched the most different heads successively: the heads of angels, of virgins with aureoles, of Roman warriors with their helmets, of fair, rosy children, of old bandits seamed with scars; and the drowned man always, always reappeared; he became, in turn, angel, virgin, warrior, child and bandit.

Then, Laurent plunged into caricature: he exaggerated the features, he produced monstrous profiles, he invented grotesque heads, but only succeeded in rendering the striking portrait of his victim more horrible. He finished by drawing animals, dogs and cats; but even the dogs and cats vaguely resembled Camille.

Laurent then became seized with sullen rage. He smashed the canvas with his fist, thinking in despair of his great picture. Now, he must put that idea aside; he was convinced that, in future, he would draw nothing but the head of Camille, and as his friend had told him, faces all alike would cause hilarity. He pictured to himself what his work would have been, and perceived upon the shoulders of his personages, men and women, the livid and terrified face of the drowned man. The strange picture he thus conjured up, appeared to him atrociously ridiculous and exasperated him.

He no longer dared to paint, always dreading that he would resuscitate his victim at the least stroke of his brush. If he desired to live peacefully in his studio he must never paint there. This thought that his fingers possessed the fatal and unconscious faculty of reproducing without end the portrait of Camille, made him observe his hand in terror. It seemed to him that his hand no longer belonged to him.

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