Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter IV

One day out of seven, on the Thursday evening, the Raquin family received their friends. They lit a large lamp in the dining-room, and put water on the fire to make tea. There was quite a set out. This particular evening emerged in bold relief from the others. It had become one of the customs of the family, who regarded it in the light of a middle-class orgie full of giddy gaiety. They did not retire to rest until eleven o’clock at night.

At Paris Madame Raquin had found one of her old friends, the commissary of police Michaud, who had held a post at Vernon for twenty years, lodging in the same house as the mercer. A narrow intimacy had thus been established between them; then, when the widow had sold her business to go and reside in the house beside the river, they had little by little lost sight of one another. Michaud left the provinces a few months later, and came to live peacefully in Paris, Rue de Seine, on his pension of 1,500 francs. One rainy day, he met his old friend in the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, and the same evening dined with the family.

The Thursday receptions began in this way: the former commissary of police got into the habit of calling on the Raquins regularly once a week. After a while he came accompanied by his son Olivier, a great fellow of thirty, dry and thin, who had married a very little woman, slow and sickly. This Olivier held the post of head clerk in the section of order and security at the Prefecture of Police, worth 3,000 francs a year, which made Camille feel particularly jealous. From the first day he made his appearance, Therese detested this cold, rigid individual, who imagined he honoured the shop in the arcade by making a display of his great shrivelled-up frame, and the exhausted condition of his poor little wife.

Camille introduced another guest, an old clerk at the Orleans Railway, named Grivet, who had been twenty years in the service of the company, where he now held the position of head clerk, and earned 2,100 francs a year. It was he who gave out the work in the office where Camille had found employment, and the latter showed him certain respect. Camille, in his day dreams, had said to himself that Grivet would one day die, and that he would perhaps take his place at the end of a decade or so. Grivet was delighted at the welcome Madame Raquin gave him, and he returned every week with perfect regularity. Six months later, his Thursday visit had become, in his way of thinking, a duty: he went to the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, just as he went every morning to his office, that is to say mechanically, and with the instinct of a brute.

From this moment, the gatherings became charming. At seven o’clock Madame Raquin lit the fire, set the lamp in the centre of the table, placed a box of dominoes beside it, and wiped the tea service which was in the sideboard. Precisely at eight o’clock old Michaud and Grivet met before the shop, one coming from the Rue de Seine, and the other from the Rue Mazarine. As soon as they entered, all the family went up to the first floor. There, in the dining-room, they seated themselves round the table waiting for Olivier Michaud and his wife who always arrived late. When the party was complete, Madame Raquin poured out the tea. Camille emptied the box of dominoes on the oilcloth table cover, and everyone became deeply interested in their hands. Henceforth nothing could be heard but the jingle of dominoes. At the end of each game, the players quarrelled for two or three minutes, then mournful silence was resumed, broken by the sharp clanks of the dominoes.

Therese played with an indifference that irritated Camille. She took Francois, the great tabby cat that Madame Raquin had brought from Vernon, on her lap, caressing it with one hand, whilst she placed her dominoes with the other. These Thursday evenings were a torture to her. Frequently she complained of being unwell, of a bad headache, so as not to play, and remain there doing nothing, and half asleep. An elbow on the table, her cheek resting on the palm of her hand, she watched the guests of her aunt and husband through a sort of yellow, smoky mist coming from the lamp. All these faces exasperated her. She looked from one to the other in profound disgust and secret irritation.

Old Michaud exhibited a pasty countenance, spotted with red blotches, one of those death-like faces of an old man fallen into second childhood; Grivet had the narrow visage, the round eyes, the thin lips of an idiot. Olivier, whose bones were piercing his cheeks, gravely carried a stiff, insignificant head on a ridiculous body; as to Suzanne, the wife of Olivier, she was quite pale, with expressionless eyes, white lips, and a soft face. And Therese could not find one human being, not one living being among these grotesque and sinister creatures, with whom she was shut up; sometimes she had hallucinations, she imagined herself buried at the bottom of a tomb, in company with mechanical corpses, who, when the strings were pulled, moved their heads, and agitated their legs and arms. The thick atmosphere of the dining-room stifled her; the shivering silence, the yellow gleams of the lamp penetrated her with vague terror, and inexpressible anguish.

Below, to the door of the shop, they had fixed a bell whose sharp tinkle announced the entrance of customers. Therese had her ear on the alert; and when the bell rang, she rapidly ran downstairs quite relieved, delighted at being able to quit the dining-room. She slowly served the purchaser, and when she found herself alone, she sat down behind the counter where she remained as long as possible, dreading going upstairs again, and in the enjoyment of real pleasure at no longer having Grivet and Olivier before her eyes. The damp air of the shop calmed the burning fever of her hands, and she again fell into the customary grave reverie.

But she could not remain like this for long. Camille became angry at her absence. He failed to comprehend how anyone could prefer the shop to the dining-room on a Thursday evening, and he leant over the banister, to look for his wife.

“What’s the matter?” he would shout. “What are you doing there? Why don’t you come up? Grivet has the devil’s own luck. He has just won again.”

The young woman rose painfully, and ascending to the dining-room resumed her seat opposite old Michaud, whose pendent lips gave heartrending smiles. And, until eleven o’clock, she remained oppressed in her chair, watching Francois whom she held in her arms, so as to avoid seeing the cardboard dolls grimacing around her.

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