Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXIX

Matters now took a different aspect. Therese, driven into a corner by fright, not knowing which way to turn for a consoling thought, began to weep aloud over the drowned man, in the presence of Laurent.

She abruptly became depressed, her overstrained nerves relaxed, her unfeeling and violent nature softened. She had already felt compassionate in the early days of her second marriage, and this feeling now returned, as a necessary and fatal reaction.

When the young woman had struggled with all her nervous energy against the spectre of Camille, when she had lived in sullen irritation for several months up in arms against her sufferings, seeking to get the better of them by efforts of will, she all at once experienced such extraordinary lassitude that she yielded vanquished. Then, having become a woman again, even a little girl, no longer feeling the strength to stiffen herself, to stand feverishly erect before her terror, she plunged into pity, into tears and regret, in the hope of finding some relief. She sought to reap advantage from her weakness of body and mind. Perhaps the drowned man, who had not given way to her irritation, would be more unbending to her tears.

Her remorse was all calculation. She thought that this would no doubt be the best way to appease and satisfy Camille. Like certain devotees, who fancy they will deceive the Almighty, and secure pardon by praying with their lips, and assuming the humble attitude of penitence, Therese displayed humility, striking her chest, finding words of repentance, without having anything at the bottom of her heart save fear and cowardice. Besides, she experienced a sort of physical pleasure in giving way in this manner, in feeling feeble and undone, in abandoning herself to grief without resistance.

She overwhelmed Madame Raquin with her tearful despair. The paralysed woman became of daily use to her. She served as a sort of praying-desk, as a piece of furniture in front of which Therese could fearlessly confess her faults and plead for forgiveness. As soon as she felt inclined to cry, to divert herself by sobbing, she knelt before the impotent old lady, and there, wailing and choking, performed to her alone a scene of remorse which weakened but relieved her.

“I am a wretch,” she stammered, “I deserve no mercy. I deceived you, I drove your son to his death. Never will you forgive me. And yet, if you only knew how I am rent by remorse, if you only knew how I suffer, perhaps you would have pity. No, no pity for me. I should like to die here at your feet, overwhelmed by shame and grief.”

She spoke in this manner for hours together, passing from despair to hope, condemning and then pardoning herself; she assumed the voice, brief and plaintive in turn, of a little sick girl; she flattened herself on the ground and drew herself up again, acting upon all the ideas of humility and pride, of repentance and revolt that entered her head. Sometimes even, forgetting she was on her knees before Madame Raquin, she continued her monologue as in a dream. When she had made herself thoroughly giddy with her own words, she rose staggering and dazed, to go down to the shop in a calmer frame of mind, no longer fearing to burst into sobs before her customers. When she again felt inclined for remorse, she ran upstairs and knelt at the feet of the impotent woman. This scene was repeated ten times a day.

Therese never reflected that her tears, and display of repentance must impose ineffable anguish on her aunt. The truth was that if she had desired to invent a torment to torture Madame Raquin, it would not have been possible to have found a more frightful one than the comedy of remorse she performed before her. The paralysed woman could see the egotism concealed beneath these effusions of grief. She suffered horribly from these long monologues which she was compelled to listen to at every instant, and which always brought the murder of Camille before her eyes. She could not pardon, she never departed from the implacable thought of vengeance that her impotency rendered more keen, and all day long she had to listen to pleas for pardon, and to humble and cowardly prayers.

She would have liked to give an answer; certain sentences of her niece brought crushing refusals to her lips, but she had to remain mute and allow Therese to plead her cause without once interrupting her. The impossibility of crying out and stopping her ears caused her inexpressible torture. The words of the young woman entered her mind, slow and plaintive, as an irritating ditty. At first, she fancied the murderers inflicted this kind of torture on her out of sheer diabolical cruelty. Her sole means of defence was to close her eyes, as soon as her niece knelt before her, then although she heard, she did not see her.

Therese, at last, had the impudence to kiss her aunt. One day, in a fit of repentance, she feigned she had perceived a gleam of mercy in the eyes of the paralysed woman; and she dragged herself along on her knees, she raised herself up, exclaiming in a distracted tone:

“You forgive me! You forgive me!”

Then she kissed the forehead and cheeks of the poor old creature, who was unable to throw her head backward so as to avoid the embrace. The cold skin on which Therese placed her lips, caused her violent disgust. She fancied this disgust, like the tears of remorse, would be an excellent remedy to appease her nerves; and she continued to kiss the impotent old woman daily, by way of penitence, and also to relieve herself.

“Oh! How good you are!” she sometimes exclaimed. “I can see my tears have touched you. Your eyes are full of pity. I am saved.”

Then she smothered her with caresses, placing the head of the infirm old lady on her knees, kissing her hands, smiling at her happily, and attending to all her requirements with a display of passionate affection. After a time, she believed in the reality of this comedy, she imagined she had obtained the pardon of Madame Raquin, and spoke of nothing but the delight she experienced at having secured her pardon.

This was too much for the paralysed woman. It almost killed her. At the kisses of her niece, she again felt that sensation of bitter repugnance and rage which came over her, morning and night, when Laurent took her in his arms to lift her up, or lay her down. She was obliged to submit to the disgusting caresses of the wretch who had betrayed and killed her son. She could not even use her hand to wipe away the kisses that this woman left on her cheeks; and, for hours and hours together, she felt these kisses burning her.

She became the doll of the murderers of Camille, a doll that they dressed, that they turned to right and left, and that they made use of according to their requirements and whims. She remained inert in their hands, as if she had been a lay-figure, and yet she lived, and became excited and indignant at the least contact with Therese or Laurent.

What particularly exasperated her was the atrocious mockery of the young woman, who pretended she perceived expressions of mercy in her eyes, when she would have liked to have brought down fire from heaven on the head of the criminal. She frequently made supreme efforts to utter a cry of protestation, and loaded her looks with hatred. But Therese, who found it answered her purpose to repeat twenty times a day that she was pardoned, redoubled her caresses, and would see nothing. So the paralysed woman had to accept the thanks and effusions that her heart repelled. Henceforth, she lived in a state of bitter but powerless irritation, face to face with her yielding niece who displayed adorable acts of tenderness to recompense her for what she termed her heavenly goodness.

When Therese knelt before Madame Raquin, in the presence of her husband, he brutally brought her to her feet.

“No acting,” said he. “Do I weep, do I prostrate myself? You do all this to trouble me.”

The remorse of Therese caused him peculiar agitation. His suffering increased now that his accomplice dragged herself about him, with eyes red by weeping, and supplicating lips. The sight of this living example of regret redoubled his fright and added to his uneasiness. It was like an everlasting reproach wandering through the house. Then he feared that repentance would one day drive his wife to reveal everything. He would have preferred her to remain rigid and threatening, bitterly defending herself against his accusations. But she had changed her tactics. She now readily recognised the share she had taken in the crime. She even accused herself. She had become yielding and timid, and starting from this point implored redemption with ardent humility. This attitude irritated Laurent, and every evening the quarrels of the couple became more afflicting and sinister.

“Listen to me,” said Therese to her husband, “we are very guilty. We must repent if we wish to enjoy tranquillity. Look at me. Since I have been weeping I am more peaceable. Imitate me. Let us say together that we are justly punished for having committed a horrible crime.”

“Bah!” roughly answered Laurent, “you can say what you please. I know you are deucedly clever and hypocritical. Weep, if that diverts you. But I must beg you not to worry me with your tears.”

“Ah!” said she, “you are bad. You reject remorse. You are cowardly. You acted as a traitor to Camille.”

“Do you mean to say that I alone am guilty?” he inquired.

“No,” she replied, “I do not say that. I am guilty, more guilty than you are. I ought to have saved my husband from your hands. Oh! I am aware of all the horror of my fault. But I have sought pardon, and I have succeeded, Laurent, whereas you continue to lead a disconsolate life. You have not even had the feeling to spare my poor aunt the sight of your vile anger. You have never even addressed a word of regret to her.”

And she embraced Madame Raquin, who shut her eyes. She hovered round her, raising the pillow that propped up her head, and showing her all kinds of attention. Laurent was infuriated.

“Oh, leave her alone,” he cried. “Can’t you see that your services, and the very sight of you are odious to her. If she could lift her hand she would slap your face.”

The slow and plaintive words of his wife, and her attitudes of resignation, gradually drove him into blinding fits of anger. He understood her tactics; she no longer wished to be at one with him, but to set herself apart wrapped in her regret, so as to escape the clasp of the drowned man. And, at moments, he said to himself that she had perhaps taken the right path, that tears might cure her of her terror, and he shuddered at the thought of having to suffer, and contend with fright alone.

He also would have liked to repent, or at least to have performed the comedy of repentance, to see what effect it would have. Unable to find the sobs and necessary words, he flung himself into violence again, stirring up Therese so as to irritate her and lead her back with him to furious madness. But the young woman took care to remain inert, to answer his cries of anger by tearful submission, and to meet his coarseness by a proportionate display of humility and repentance. Laurent was thus gradually driven to fury. To crown his irritation, Therese always ended with the panegyric of Camille so as to display the virtues of the victim.

“He was good,” said she, “and we must have been very cruel to assail such a warm-hearted man who had never a bad thought.”

“He was good, yes, I know,” jeered Laurent. “You mean to say he was a fool. You must have forgotten! You pretended you were irritated at the slightest thing he said, that he could not open his mouth without letting out some stupidity.”

“Don’t jeer,” said Therese. “It only remains for you to insult the man you murdered. You know nothing about the feelings of a woman, Laurent; Camille loved me and I loved him.”

“You loved him! Ah! Really what a capital idea,” exclaimed Laurent. “And no doubt it was because you loved your husband, that you took me as a sweetheart. I remember one day when we were together, that you told me Camille disgusted you, when you felt the end of your fingers enter his flesh as if it were soft clay. Oh! I know why you loved me. You required more vigorous arms than those of that poor devil.”

“I loved him as a sister,” answered Therese. “He was the son of my benefactress. He had all the delicate feelings of a feeble man. He showed himself noble and generous, serviceable and loving. And we killed him, good God! good God!”

She wept, and swooned away. Madame Raquin cast piercing glances at her, indignant to hear the praise of Camille sung by such a pair of lips. Laurent who was unable to do anything against this overflow of tears, walked to and fro with furious strides, searching in his head for some means to stifle the remorse of Therese.

All the good he heard said of his victim ended by causing him poignant anxiety. Now and again he let himself be caught by the heartrending accents of his wife. He really believed in the virtues of Camille, and his terror redoubled. But what tried his patience beyond measure was the comparison that the widow of the drowned man never failed to draw between her first and second husband, and which was all to the advantage of the former.

“Well! Yes,” she cried, “he was better than you. I would sooner he were alive now, and you in his place underground.”

Laurent first of all shrugged his shoulders.

“Say what you will,” she continued, becoming animated, “although I perhaps failed to love him in his lifetime, yet I remember all his good qualities now, and do love him. Yes, I love him and hate you, do you hear? For you are an assassin.”

“Will you hold your tongue?” yelled Laurent.

“And he is a victim,” she went on, notwithstanding the threatening attitude of her husband, “an upright man killed by a rascal. Oh! I am not afraid of you. You know well enough that you are a miserable wretch, a brute of a man without a heart, and without a soul. How can you expect me to love you, now that you are reeking with the blood of Camille? Camille was full of tenderness for me, and I would kill you, do you hear, if that could bring him to life again, and give me back his love.”

“Will you hold your tongue, you wretch?” shouted Laurent.

“Why should I hold my tongue?” she retorted. “I am speaking the truth. I would purchase forgiveness at the price of your blood. Ah! How I weep, and how I suffer! It is my own fault if a scoundrel, such as you, murdered my husband. I must go, one of these nights, and kiss the ground where he rests. That will be my final rapture.”

Laurent, beside himself, rendered furious by the atrocious pictures that Therese spread out before his eyes, rushed upon her, and threw her down, menacing her with his uplifted fist.

“That’s it,” she cried, “strike me, kill me! Camille never once raised his hand to me, but you are a monster.”

And Laurent, spurred on by what she said, shook her with rage, beat her, bruised her body with his clenched fists. In two instances he almost strangled her. Therese yielded to his blows. She experienced keen delight in being struck, delivering herself up, thrusting her body forward, provoking her husband in every way, so that he might half kill her again. This was another remedy for her suffering. She slept better at night when she had been thoroughly beaten in the evening. Madame Raquin enjoyed exquisite pleasure, when Laurent dragged her niece along the floor in this way, belabouring her with thumps and kicks.

The existence of the assassin had become terrible since the day when Therese conceived the infernal idea of feeling remorse and of mourning Camille aloud. From that moment the wretch lived everlastingly with his victim. At every hour, he had to listen to his wife praising and regretting her first husband. The least incident became a pretext: Camille did this, Camille did that, Camille had such and such qualities, Camille loved in such and such a way.

It was always Camille! Ever sad remarks bewailing his death. Therese had recourse to all her spitefulness to render this torture, which she inflicted on Laurent so as to shield her own self, as cruel as possible. She went into details, relating a thousand insignificant incidents connected with her youth, accompanied by sighs and expressions of regret, and in this manner, mingled the remembrance of the drowned man with every action of her daily life.

The corpse which already haunted the house, was introduced there openly. It sat on the chairs, took its place at table, extended itself on the bed, making use of the various articles of furniture, and of the objects lying about hither and thither. Laurent could touch nothing, not a fork, not a brush, without Therese making him feel that Camille had touched it before him.

The murderer being ceaselessly thrust, so to say, against the man he had killed, ended by experiencing a strange sensation that very nearly drove him out of his mind. By being so constantly compared to Camille, by making use of the different articles Camille had used, he imagined he was Camille himself, that he was identical with his victim. Then, with his brain fit to burst, he blew at his wife to make her hold her tongue, so as to no longer hear the words that drove him frantic. All their quarrels now ended in blows.

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