Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter VII

The two sweethearts from the commencement found their intrigue necessary, inevitable and quite natural. At their first interview they conversed familiarly, kissing one another without embarrassment, and without a blush, as if their intimacy had dated back several years. They lived quite at ease in their new situation, with a tranquillity and an independence that were perfect.

They made their appointments. Therese being unable to go out, it was arranged that Laurent should come to see her. In a clear, firm voice the young woman explained to him the plan she had conceived. The interview would take place in the nuptial chamber. The sweetheart would pass by the passage which ran into the arcade, and Therese would open the door on the staircase to him. During this time, Camille would be at his office, and Madame Raquin below, in the shop. This was a daring arrangement that ought to succeed.

Laurent accepted. There was a sort of brutal temerity in his prudence, the temerity of a man with big fists. Choosing a pretext, he obtained permission from his chief to absent himself for a couple of hours, and hastened to the Arcade of the Pont Neuf.

The dealer in imitation jewelry was seated just opposite the door of the passage, and he had to wait until she was busy, until some young work-girl came to purchase a ring or a brooch made of brass. Then, rapidly entering the passage, he ascended the narrow, dark staircase, leaning against the walls which were clammy with damp. He stumbled against the stone steps, and each time he did so, he felt a red-hot iron piercing his chest. A door opened, and on the threshold, in the midst of a gleam of white light he perceived Therese, who closing the door after him, threw her arms about his neck.

Laurent was astonished to find his sweetheart handsome. He had never seen her before as she appeared to him then. Therese, supple and strong, pressed him in her arms, flinging her head backward, while on her visage coursed ardent rays of light and passionate smiles. This face seemed as if transfigured, with its moist lips and sparkling eyes. It now had a fond caressing look. It radiated. She was beautiful with the strong beauty born of passionate abandon.

When Laurent parted from her, after his initial visit, he staggered like a drunken man, and the next day, on recovering his cunning prudent calm, he asked himself whether he should return to this young woman whose kisses gave him the fever. First of all he positively decided to keep to himself. Then he had a cowardly feeling. He sought to forget, to avoid seeing Therese, and yet she always seemed to be there, implacably extending her arms. The physical suffering that this spectacle caused him became intolerable.

He gave way. He arranged another meeting, and returned to the Arcade of the Pont Neuf.

From that day forth, Therese entered into his life. He did not yet accept her, although he bore with her. He had his hours of terror, his moments of prudence, and, altogether this intrigue caused him disagreeable agitation. But his discomfort and his fears disappeared. The meetings continued and multiplied.

Therese experienced no hesitation. She went straight where her passion urged her to go. This woman whom circumstances had bowed down, and who had at length drawn herself up erect, now revealed all her being and explained her life.

“Oh! if you only knew,” said she, “how I have suffered. I was brought up in the tepid damp room of an invalid. I slept in the same bed as Camille. At night I got as far away from him as I could, to avoid the sickly odour of his body. He was naughty and obstinate. He would not take his physic unless I shared it with him. To please my aunt I was obliged to swallow a dose of every drug. I don’t know how it is I have survived. They made me ugly. They robbed me of the only thing I possessed, and it is impossible for you to love me as I love you.”

She broke off and wept, and after kissing Laurent, continued with bitter hatred:

“I do not wish them any harm. They brought me up, they received me, and shielded me from misery. But I should have preferred abandonment to their hospitality. I had a burning desire for the open air. When quite young, my dream was to rove barefooted along the dusty roads, holding out my hand for charity, living like a gipsy. I have been told that my mother was a daughter of the chief of a tribe in Africa. I have often thought of her, and I understood that I belonged to her by blood and instinct. I should have liked to have never parted from her, and to have crossed the sand slung at her back.

“Ah! what a childhood! I still feel disgust and rebellion, when I recall the long days I passed in the room where Camille was at death’s door. I sat bent over the fire, stupidly watching the infusions simmer, and feeling my limbs growing stiff. And I could not move. My aunt scolded me if I made a noise. Later on, I tasted profound joy in the little house beside the river; but I was already half feeble, I could barely walk, and when I tried to run I fell down. Then they buried me alive in this vile shop.”

After a pause, she resumed:

“You will hardly credit how bad they have made me. They have turned me into a liar and a hypocrite. They have stifled me with their middle-class gentleness, and I can hardly understand how it is that there is still blood in my veins. I have lowered my eyes, and given myself a mournful, idiotic face like theirs. I have led their deathlike life. When you saw me I looked like a blockhead, did I not? I was grave, overwhelmed, brutalised. I no longer had any hope. I thought of flinging myself into the Seine.

“But previous to this depression, what nights of anger I had. Down there at Vernon, in my frigid room, I bit my pillow to stifle my cries. I beat myself, taxed myself with cowardice. My blood was on the boil, and I would have lacerated my body. On two occasions, I wanted to run away, to go straight before me, towards the sun; but my courage failed. They had turned me into a docile brute with their tame benevolence and sickly tenderness. Then I lied, I always lied. I remained there quite gentle, quite silent, dreaming of striking and biting.”

After a silence, she continued:

“I do not know why I consented to marry Camille. I did not protest, from a feeling of a sort of disdainful indifference. I pitied the child. When I played with him, I felt my fingers sink into the flesh of his limbs as into damp clay. I took him because my aunt offered him to me, and because I never intended to place any restraint on my actions on his account.

“I found my husband just the same little suffering boy whose bed I had shared when I was six years old. He was just as frail, just as plaintive, and he still had that insipid odour of a sick child that had been so repugnant to me previously. I am relating all this so that you may not be jealous. I was seized with a sort of disgust. I remembered the physic I had drank. I got as far away from him as the bed would allow, and I passed terrible nights. But you, you —— ”

Therese drew herself up, bending backward, her fingers imprisoned in the massive hands of Laurent, gazing at his broad shoulders, and enormous neck.

“You, I love you,” she continued. “I loved you from the day Camille pushed you into the shop. You have perhaps no esteem for me, because I gave way at once. Truly, I know not how it happened. I am proud. I am passionate. I would have liked to have beaten you, the first day, when you kissed me. I do not know how it was I loved you; I hated you rather. The sight of you irritated me, and made me suffer. When you were there, my nerves were strained fit to snap. My head became quite empty. I was ready to commit a crime.

“Oh! how I suffered! And I sought this suffering. I waited for you to arrive. I loitered round your chair, so as to move in your breath, to drag my clothes over yours. It seemed as though your blood cast puffs of heat on me as I passed, and it was this sort of burning cloud in which you were enveloped, that attracted me, and detained me beside you in spite of my secret revolt. You remember when you were painting here: a fatal power attracted me to your side, and I breathed your air with cruel delight. I know I seemed to be begging for kisses, I felt ashamed of my bondage, I felt I should fall, if you were to touch me. But I gave way to my cowardice, I shivered with cold, waiting until you chose to take me in your arms.”

When Therese ceased speaking, she was quivering, as though proud at being avenged. In this bare and chilly room were enacted scenes of burning lust, sinister in their brutality.

On her part Therese seemed to revel in daring. The only precaution she would take when expecting her lover was to tell her aunt she was going upstairs to rest. But then, when he was there she never bothered about avoiding noise, walking about and talking. At first this terrified Laurent.

“For God’s sake,” he whispered, “don’t make so much noise. Madame Raquin will hear.”

Therese would laugh. “Who cares, you are always so worried. She is at her counter and won’t leave. She is too afraid of being robbed. Besides, you can hide.”

Laurent’s passion had not yet stifled his native peasant caution, but soon he grew used to the risks of these meetings, only a few yards from the old woman.

One day, fearing her niece was ill, Madame Raquin climbed the stairs. Therese never bothered to bolt the bedroom door.

At the sound of the woman’s heavy step on the wooden stairs, Laurent became frantic. Therese laughed as she saw him searching for his waistcoat and hat. She grabbed his arm and pushed him down at the foot of the bed. With perfect self-possession she whispered:

“Stay there. Don’t move.”

She threw all his clothes that were lying about over him and covered them with a white petticoat she had taken off. Without losing her calm, she lay down, half-naked, with her hair loose.

When Madame Raquin quietly opened the door and tiptoed to the bed the younger woman pretended to be asleep. Laurent, under all the clothes was in a panic.

“Therese,” asked the old lady with some concern, “are you all right, my dear?”

Therese, opening her eyes and yawning, answered that she had a terrible migraine. She begged her aunt to let her sleep some more. The old lady left the room as quietly as she had entered it.

“So you see,” Therese said triumphantly, “there is no reason to worry. These people are not in love. They are blind.”

At other times Therese seemed quite mad, wandering in her mind. She would see the cat, sitting motionless and dignified, looking at them. “Look at Francois,” she said to Laurent. “You’d think he understands and is planning to tell Camille everything to-night. He knows a thing or two about us. Wouldn’t it be funny if one day, in the shop, he just started talking.”

This idea was delightful to Therese but Laurent felt a shudder run through him as he looked at the cat’s big green eyes. Therese’s hold on him was not total and he was scared. He got up and put the cat out of the room.

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