Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter V

One Thursday, Camille, on returning from his office, brought with him a great fellow with square shoulders, whom he pushed in a familiar manner into the shop.

“Mother,” he said to Madame Raquin, pointing to the newcomer, “do you recognise this gentleman?”

The old mercer looked at the strapping blade, seeking among her recollections and finding nothing, while Therese placidly observed the scene.

“What!” resumed Camille, “you don’t recognise Laurent, little Laurent, the son of daddy Laurent who owns those beautiful fields of corn out Jeufosse way. Don’t you remember? I went to school with him; he came to fetch me of a morning on leaving the house of his uncle, who was our neighbour, and you used to give him slices of bread and jam.”

All at once Madame Raquin recollected little Laurent, whom she found very much grown. It was quite ten years since she had seen him. She now did her best to make him forget her lapse of memory in greeting him, by recalling a thousand little incidents of the past, and by adopting a wheedling manner towards him that was quite maternal. Laurent had seated himself. With a peaceful smile on his lips, he replied to the questions addressed to him in a clear voice, casting calm and easy glances around him.

“Just imagine,” said Camille, “this joker has been employed at the Orleans–Railway-Station for eighteen months, and it was only to-night that we met and recognised one another — the administration is so vast, so important!”

As the young man made this remark, he opened his eyes wider, and pinched his lips, proud to be a humble wheel in such a large machine. Shaking his head, he continued:

“Oh! but he is in a good position. He has studied. He already earns 1,500 francs a year. His father sent him to college. He had read for the bar, and learnt painting. That is so, is it not, Laurent? You’ll dine with us?”

“I am quite willing,” boldly replied the other.

He got rid of his hat and made himself comfortable in the shop, while Madame Raquin ran off to her stewpots. Therese, who had not yet pronounced a word, looked at the new arrival. She had never seen such a man before. Laurent, who was tall and robust, with a florid complexion, astonished her. It was with a feeling akin to admiration, that she contemplated his low forehead planted with coarse black hair, his full cheeks, his red lips, his regular features of sanguineous beauty. For an instant her eyes rested on his neck, a neck that was thick and short, fat and powerful. Then she became lost in the contemplation of his great hands which he kept spread out on his knees: the fingers were square; the clenched fist must be enormous and would fell an ox.

Laurent was a real son of a peasant, rather heavy in gait, with an arched back, with movements that were slow and precise, and an obstinate tranquil manner. One felt that his apparel concealed round and well-developed muscles, and a body of thick hard flesh. Therese examined him with curiosity, glancing from his fists to his face, and experienced little shivers when her eyes fell on his bull-like neck.

Camille spread out his Buffon volumes, and his serials at 10 centimes the number, to show his friend that he also studied. Then, as if answering an inquiry he had been making of himself for some minutes, he said to Laurent:

“But, surely you must know my wife? Don’t you remember that little cousin who used to play with us at Vernon?”

“I had no difficulty in recognising Madame,” answered Laurent, looking Therese full in the face.

This penetrating glance troubled the young woman, who, nevertheless, gave a forced smile, and after exchanging a few words with Laurent and her husband, hurried away to join her aunt, feeling ill at ease.

As soon as they had seated themselves at table, and commenced the soup, Camille thought it right to be attentive to his friend.

“How is your father?” he inquired.

“Well, I don’t know,” answered Laurent. “We are not on good terms; we ceased corresponding five years ago.”

“Bah!” exclaimed the clerk, astonished at such a monstrosity.

“Yes,” continued the other, “the dear man has ideas of his own. As he is always at law with his neighbours, he sent me to college, in the fond hope that later on, he would find in me an advocate who would win him all his actions. Oh! daddy Laurent has naught but useful ambitions; he even wants to get something out of his follies.”

“And you wouldn’t be an advocate?” inquired Camille, more and more astonished.

“Faith, no,” answered his friend with a smile. “For a couple of years I pretended to follow the classes, so as to draw the allowance of 1,200 francs which my father made me. I lived with one of my college chums, who is a painter, and I set about painting also. It amused me. The calling is droll, and not at all fatiguing. We smoked and joked all the livelong day.”

The Raquin family opened their eyes in amazement.

“Unfortunately,” continued Laurent, “this could not last. My father found out that I was telling him falsehoods. He stopped my 100 francs a month, and invited me to return and plough the land with him. I then tried to paint pictures on religious subjects which proved bad business. As I could plainly see that I was going to die of hunger, I sent art to the deuce and sought employment. My father will die one of these days, and I am waiting for that event to live and do nothing.”

Laurent spoke in a tranquil tone. In a few words he had just related a characteristic tale that depicted him at full length. In reality he was an idle fellow, with the appetite of a full-blooded man for everything, and very pronounced ideas as to easy and lasting employment. The only ambition of this great powerful frame was to do nothing, to grovel in idleness and satiation from hour to hour. He wanted to eat well, sleep well, to abundantly satisfy his passions, without moving from his place, without running the risk of the slightest fatigue.

The profession of advocate had terrified him, and he shuddered at the idea of tilling the soil. He had plunged into art, hoping to find therein a calling suitable to an idle man. The paint-brush struck him as being an instrument light to handle, and he fancied success easy. His dream was a life of cheap sensuality, a beautiful existence full of houris, of repose on divans, of victuals and intoxication.

The dream lasted so long as daddy Laurent sent the crown pieces. But when the young man, who was already thirty, perceived the wolf at the door, he began to reflect. Face to face with privations, he felt himself a coward. He would not have accepted a day without bread, for the utmost glory art could bestow. As he had said himself, he sent art to the deuce, as soon as he recognised that it would never suffice to satisfy his numerous requirements. His first efforts had been below mediocrity; his peasant eyes caught a clumsy, slovenly view of nature; his muddy, badly drawn, grimacing pictures, defied all criticism.

But he did not seem to have an over-dose of vanity for an artist; he was not in dire despair when he had to put aside his brushes. All he really regretted was the vast studio of his college chum, where he had been voluptuously grovelling for four or five years. He also regretted the women who came to pose there. Nevertheless he found himself at ease in his position as clerk; he lived very well in a brutish fashion, and he was fond of this daily task, which did not fatigue him, and soothed his mind. Still one thing irritated him: the food at the eighteen sous ordinaries failed to appease the gluttonous appetite of his stomach.

As Camille listened to his friend, he contemplated him with all the astonishment of a simpleton. This feeble man was dreaming, in a childish manner, of this studio life which his friend had been alluding to, and he questioned Laurent on the subject.

“So,” said he, “there were lady models who posed before you in the nude?”

“Oh! yes,” answered Laurent with a smile, and looking at Therese, who had turned deadly pale.

“You must have thought that very funny,” continued Camille, laughing like a child. “It would have made me feel most awkward. I expect you were quite scandalised the first time it happened.”

Laurent had spread out one of his great hands and was attentively looking at the palm. His fingers gave slight twitches, and his cheeks became flushed.

“The first time,” he answered, as if speaking to himself, “I fancy I thought it quite natural. This devilish art is exceedingly amusing, only it does not bring in a sou. I had a red-haired girl as model who was superb, firm white flesh, gorgeous bust, hips as wide as . . . ”

Laurent, raising his head, saw Therese mute and motionless opposite, gazing at him with ardent fixedness. Her dull black eyes seemed like two fathomless holes, and through her parted lips could be perceived the rosy tint of the inside of her mouth. She seemed as if overpowered by what she heard, and lost in thought. She continued listening.

Laurent looked from Therese to Camille, and the former painter restrained a smile. He completed his phrase by a broad voluptuous gesture, which the young woman followed with her eyes. They were at dessert, and Madame Raquin had just run downstairs to serve a customer.

When the cloth was removed Laurent, who for some minutes had been thoughtful, turned to Camille.

“You know,” he blurted out, “I must paint your portrait.”

This idea delighted Madame Raquin and her son, but Therese remained silent.

“It is summer-time,” resumed Laurent, “and as we leave the office at four o’clock, I can come here, and let you give me a sitting for a couple of hours in the evening. The picture will be finished in a week.”

“That will be fine,” answered Camille, flushed with joy. “You shall dine with us. I will have my hair curled, and put on my black frock coat.”

Eight o’clock struck. Grivet and Michaud made their entry. Olivier and Suzanne arrived behind them.

When Camille introduced his friend to the company, Grivet pinched his lips. He detested Laurent whose salary, according to his idea, had risen far too rapidly. Besides, the introduction of a new-comer was quite an important matter, and the guests of the Raquins could not receive an individual unknown to them, without some display of coldness.

Laurent behaved very amicably. He grasped the situation, and did his best to please the company, so as to make himself acceptable to them at once. He related anecdotes, enlivened the party by his merry laughter, and even won the friendship of Grivet.

That evening Therese made no attempt to go down to the shop. She remained seated on her chair until eleven o’clock, playing and talking, avoiding the eyes of Laurent, who for that matter did not trouble himself about her. The sanguineous temperament of this strapping fellow, his full voice and jovial laughter, troubled the young woman and threw her into a sort of nervous anguish.

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