Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXX

A time came when Madame Raquin, in order to escape the sufferings she endured, thought of starving herself to death. She had reached the end of her courage, she could no longer support the martyrdom that the presence of the two murderers imposed on her, she longed to find supreme relief in death. Each day her anguish grew more keen, when Therese embraced her, and when Laurent took her in his arms to carry her along like a child. She determined on freeing herself from these clasps and caresses that caused her such horrible disgust. As she had not sufficient life left within her to permit of her avenging her son, she preferred to be entirely dead, and to leave naught in the hands of the assassins but a corpse that could feel nothing, and with which they could do as they pleased.

For two days she refused all nourishment, employing her remaining strength to clench her teeth or to eject anything that Therese succeeded in introducing into her mouth. Therese was in despair. She was asking herself at the foot of which post she should go to weep and repent, when her aunt would be no longer there. She kept up an interminable discourse to prove to Madame Raquin that she should live. She wept, she even became angry, bursting into her former fits of rage, opening the jaw of the paralysed woman as you open that of an animal which resists. Madame Raquin held out, and an odious scene ensued.

Laurent remained absolutely neutral and indifferent. He was astonished at the efforts of Therese to prevent the impotent old woman committing suicide. Now that the presence of the old lady had become useless to them he desired her death. He would not have killed her, but as she wished to die, he did not see the use of depriving her of the means to do so.

“But, let her be!” he shouted to his wife. “It will be a good riddance. We shall, perhaps, be happier when she is no longer here.”

This remark repeated several times in the hearing of Madame Raquin, caused her extraordinary emotion. She feared that the hope expressed by Laurent might be realised, and that after her death the couple would enjoy calm and happiness. And she said to herself that it would be cowardly to die, that she had no right to go away before she had seen the end of the sinister adventure. Then, only, could she descend into darkness, to say to Camille:

“You are avenged.”

The idea of suicide became oppressive, when she all at once reflected that she would sink into the grave ignorant as to what had happened to the two murderers of her son. There, she would lie in the cold and silent earth, eternally tormented by uncertainty concerning the punishment of her tormentors. To thoroughly enjoy the slumber of death, she must be hushed to rest by the sweet delight of vengeance, she must carry away with her a dream of satisfied hatred, a dream that would last throughout eternity. So she took the food her niece presented to her, and consented to live on.

Apart from this, it was easy for her to perceive that the climax could not be far off. Each day the position of the married couple became more strained and unbearable. A crash that would smash everything was imminent. At every moment, Therese and Laurent started up face to face in a more threatening manner. It was no longer at nighttime, alone, that they suffered from their intimacy; entire days were passed amidst anxiety and harrowing shocks. It was one constant scene of pain and terror. They lived in a perfect pandemonium, fighting, rendering all they did and said bitter and cruel, seeking to fling one another to the bottom of the abyss which they felt beneath their feet, and falling into it together.

Ideas of separation had, indeed, occurred to both of them. Each had thought of flight, of seeking some repose far from this Arcade of the Pont Neuf where the damp and filth seemed adapted to their desolated life. But they dared not, they could not run away. It seemed impossible for them to avoid reviling each other, to avoid remaining there to suffer and cause pain. They proved obstinate in their hatred and cruelty. A sort of repulsion and attraction separated and kept them together at the same time. They behaved in the identical manner of two persons who, after quarrelling, wish to part, and who, nevertheless, continue returning to shout out fresh insults at one another.

Moreover, material obstacles stood in the way of flight. What were they to do with the impotent woman? What could be said to the Thursday evening guests? If they fled, these people would, perhaps, suspect something. At this thought, they imagined they were being pursued and dragged to the guillotine. So they remained where they were through cowardice, wretchedly dragging out their lives amidst the horror of their surroundings.

During the morning and afternoon, when Laurent was absent, Therese went from the dining-room to the shop in anxiety and trouble, at a loss to know what to do to fill up the void in her existence that daily became more pronounced. When not kneeling at the feet of Madame Raquin or receiving blows and insults from her husband, she had no occupation. As soon as she was seated alone in the shop, she became dejected, watching with a doltish expression, the people passing through the dirty, dark gallery. She felt ready to die of sadness in the middle of this gloomy vault, which had the odour of a cemetery, and ended by begging Suzanne to come and pass entire days with her, in the hope that the presence of this poor, gentle, pale creature might calm her.

Suzanne accepted her offer with delight; she continued to feel a sort of respectful friendship for Therese, and had long desired to come and work with her, while Olivier was at his office. Bringing her embroidery with her, she took the vacant chair of Madame Raquin behind the counter.

From that day Therese rather neglected her aunt. She went upstairs less frequently to weep on her knees and kiss the deathlike face of the invalid. She had something else to do. She made efforts to listen with interest to the dilatory gossip of Suzanne, who spoke of her home, and of the trivialities of her monotonous life. This relieved Therese of her own thoughts. Sometimes she caught herself paying attention to nonsense that brought a bitter smile to her face.

By degrees, she lost all her customers. Since her aunt had been confined to her armchair upstairs, she had let the shop go from bad to worse, abandoning the goods to dust and damp. A smell of mildew hung in the atmosphere, spiders came down from the ceiling, the floor was but rarely swept.

But what put the customers to flight was the strange way in which Therese sometimes welcomed them. When she happened to be upstairs, receiving blows from Laurent or agitated by a shock of terror, and the bell at the shop door tinkled imperiously, she had to go down, barely taking time to do up her hair or brush away the tears. On such occasions she served the persons awaiting her roughly; sometimes she even spared herself the trouble of serving, answering from the top of the staircase, that she no longer kept what was asked for. This kind of off-hand behaviour, was not calculated to retain custom.

The little work-girls of the quarter, who were used to the sweet amiability of Madame Raquin, were driven away by the harshness and wild looks of Therese. When the latter took Suzanne with her to keep her company, the defection became complete. To avoid being disturbed in their gossip, the two young woman managed to drive away the few remaining purchasers who visited the shop. Henceforth, the mercery business ceased to bring in a sou towards the household expenses, and it became necessary to encroach on the capital of forty thousand francs and more.

Sometimes, Therese absented herself the entire afternoon. No one knew where she went. Her reason for having Suzanne with her was no doubt partly for the purpose of securing company but also to mind the shop, while she was away. When she returned in the evening, worn out, her eyelids heavy with exhaustion, it was to find the little wife of Olivier still behind the counter, bowed down, with a vague smile on her lips, in the same attitude as she had left her five hours previously.

Therese had a bad fright about five months after her marriage to Laurent. She found out she was pregnant and detested the thought of having a child of Laurent’s. She had the fear that she would give birth to a drowned body. She thought that she could feel inside herself a soft, decomposing corpse. No matter what, she had to rid herself of this child. She did not tell Laurent. One day she cruelly provoked him and turned her stomach towards him, hoping to receive a kick. He kicked her and she let him go on kicking her in the stomach until she thought she would die. The next day her wish was fulfilled and she had a miscarriage.

Laurent also led a frightful existence. The days seemed insupportably long; each brought the same anguish, the same heavy weariness which overwhelmed him at certain hours with crushing monotony and regularity. He dragged on his life, terrified every night by the recollections of the day, and the expectation of the morrow. He knew that henceforth, all his days would resemble one another, and bring him equal suffering. And he saw the weeks, months and years gloomily and implacably awaiting him, coming one after the other to fall upon him and gradually smother him.

When there is no hope in the future, the present appears atrociously bitter. Laurent no longer resisted, he became lumpish, abandoning himself to the nothingness that was already gaining possession of his being. Idleness was killing him. In the morning he went out, without knowing where to go, disgusted at the thought of doing what he had done on the previous day, and compelled, in spite of himself, to do it again. He went to his studio by habit, by mania.

This room, with its grey walls, whence he could see naught but a bare square of sky, filled him with mournful sadness. He grovelled on the divan heavy in thought and with pendent arms. He dared not touch a brush. He had made fresh attempts at painting, but only to find on each occasion, the head of Camille appear jeering on the canvas. So as not to go out of his mind, he ended by throwing his colour-box into a corner, and imposing the most absolute idleness on himself. This obligatory laziness weighed upon him terribly.

In the afternoon, he questioned himself in distress to find out what he should do. For half an hour, he remained on the pavement in the Rue Mazarine, thinking and hesitating as to how he could divert himself. He rejected the idea of returning to the studio, and invariably decided on going down the Rue Guenegaud, to walk along the quays. And, until evening, he went along, dazed and seized with sudden shudders whenever he looked at the Seine. Whether in his studio or in the streets, his dejection was the same. The following day he began again. He passed the morning on his divan, and dragged himself along the quays in the afternoon. This lasted for months, and might last for years.

Occasionally Laurent reflected that he had killed Camille so as to do nothing ever afterwards, and now that he did nothing, he was quite astonished to suffer so much. He would have liked to force himself to be happy. He proved to his own satisfaction, that he did wrong to suffer, that he had just attained supreme felicity, consisting in crossing his arms, and that he was an idiot not to enjoy this bliss in peace. But his reasoning exploded in the face of facts. He was constrained to confess, at the bottom of his heart, that this idleness rendered his anguish the more cruel, by leaving him every hour of his life to ponder on the despair and deepen its incurable bitterness. Laziness, that brutish existence which had been his dream, proved his punishment. At moments, he ardently hoped for some occupation to draw him from his thoughts. Then he lost all energy, relapsing beneath the weight of implacable fatality that bound his limbs so as to more surely crush him.

In truth, he only found some relief when beating Therese, at night. This brutality alone relieved him of his enervated anguish.

But his keenest suffering, both physical and moral, came from the bite Camille had given him in the neck. At certain moments, he imagined that this scar covered the whole of his body. If he came to forget the past, he all at once fancied he felt a burning puncture, that recalled the murder both to his frame and mind.

When under the influence of emotion, he could not stand before a looking-glass without noticing this phenomenon which he had so frequently remarked and which always terrified him; the blood flew to his neck, purpling the scar, which then began to gnaw the skin.

This sort of wound that lived upon him, which became active, flushed, and biting at the slightest trouble, frightened and tortured him. He ended by believing that the teeth of the drowned man had planted an insect there which was devouring him. The part of his neck where the scar appeared, seemed to him to no longer belong to his body; it was like foreign flesh that had been stuck in this place, a piece of poisoned meat that was rotting his own muscles.

In this manner, he carried the living and devouring recollection of his crime about with him everywhere. When he beat Therese, she endeavoured to scratch the spot, and sometimes dug her nails into it making him howl with pain. She generally pretended to sob, as soon as she caught sight of the bite, so as to make it more insufferable to Laurent. All her revenge for his brutality, consisted in martyrising him in connection with this bite.

While shaving, he had frequently been tempted to give himself a gash in the neck, so as to make the marks of the teeth of the drowned man disappear. When, standing before the mirror, he raised his chin and perceived the red spot beneath the white lather, he at once flew into a rage, and rapidly brought the razor to his neck, to cut right into the flesh. But the sensations of the cold steel against his skin always brought him to his senses, and caused him to feel so faint that he was obliged to seat himself, and wait until he had recovered sufficient courage to continue shaving.

He only issued from his torpor at night to fall into blind and puerile fits of anger. When tired of quarreling with Therese and beating her, he would kick the walls like a child, and look for something he could break. This relieved him.

He had a particular dislike for the tabby cat Francois who, as soon as he appeared, sought refuge on the knees of Madame Raquin. If Laurent had not yet killed the animal, it was because he dared not take hold of him. The cat looked at him with great round eyes that were diabolical in their fixedness. He wondered what these eyes which never left him, wanted; and he ended by having regular fits of terror, and imagining all sorts of ridiculous things.

When at table — at no matter what moment, in the middle of a quarrel or of a long silence — he happened, all at once, to look round, and perceive Francois examining him with a harsh, implacable stare, he turned pale and lost his head. He was on the point of saying to the cat:

“Heh! Why don’t you speak? Tell me what it is you want with me.”

When he could crush his paw or tail, he did so in affrighted joy, the mewing of the poor creature giving him vague terror, as though he heard a human cry of pain. Laurent, in fact, was afraid of Francois, particularly since the latter passed his time on the knees of the impotent old lady, as if in the centre of an impregnable fortress, whence he could with impunity set his eyes on his enemy. The murderer of Camille established a vague resemblance between this irritated animal and the paralysed woman, saying to himself that the cat, like Madame Raquin, must know about the crime and would denounce him, if he ever found a tongue.

At last, one night, Francois looked at Laurent so fixedly, that the latter, irritated to the last pitch, made up his mind to put an end to the annoyance. He threw the window of the dining-room wide open, and advancing to where the cat was seated, grasped him by the skin at the back of the neck. Madame Raquin understood, and two big tears rolled down her cheeks. The cat began to swear, and stiffen himself, endeavouring to turn round and bite the hand that grasped him. But Laurent held fast. He whirled the cat round two or three times in the air, and then sent him flying with all the strength of his arm, against the great dark wall opposite. Francois went flat against it, and breaking his spine, fell upon the glass roof of the arcade. All night the wretched beast dragged himself along the gutter mewing hoarsely, while Madame Raquin wept over him almost as much as she had done over Camille. Therese had an atrocious attack of hysterics, while the wailing of the cat sounded sinisterly, in the gloom below the windows.

Laurent soon had further cause for anxiety. He became alarmed at a certain change he observed in the attitude of his wife.

Therese became sombre and taciturn. She no longer lavished effusions of repentance and grateful kisses on Madame Raquin. In presence of the paralysed woman, she resumed her manner of frigid cruelty and egotistic indifference. It seemed as though she had tried remorse, and finding no relief had turned her attention to another remedy. Her sadness was no doubt due to her inability to calm her life.

She observed the impotent old woman with a kind of disdain, as a useless thing that could no longer even serve her for consolation. She now only bestowed on her the necessary attention to prevent her dying of hunger. From this moment she dragged herself about the house in silence and dejection. She multiplied her absences from the shop, going out as frequently as three and four times a week.

It was this change in her mode of life, that surprised and alarmed Laurent. He fancied that her remorse had taken another form, and was now displayed by this mournful weariness he noticed in her. This weariness seemed to him more alarming than the chattering despair she had overwhelmed him with previously. She no longer spoke, she no longer quarrelled with him, she seemed to consign everything to the depths of her being. He would rather have heard her exhausting her endurance than see her keep in this manner to herself. He feared that one day she would be choking with anguish, and to obtain relief, would go and relate everything to a priest or an examining magistrate.

Then these numerous absences of Therese had frightful significance in his eyes. He thought she went to find a confidant outside, that she was preparing her treason. On two occasions he tried to follow her, and lost her in the streets. He then prepared to watch her again. A fixed idea got into his head: Therese, driven to extremities by suffering, was about to make disclosures, and he must gag her, he must arrest her confession in her throat.

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