Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter IX

One afternoon, as Laurent was leaving his office to run and meet Therese who was expecting him, his chief gave him to understand that in future he was forbidden to absent himself. He had taken too many holidays already, and the authorities had decided to dismiss him if he again went out in office hours.

Riveted to his chair, he remained in despair until eventide. He had to earn his living, and dared not lose his place. At night the wrathful countenance of Therese was a torture to him, and he was unable to find an opportunity to explain to her how it was he had broken his word. At length, as Camille was putting up the shutters, he briskly approached the young woman, to murmur in an undertone:

“We shall be unable to see one another any more. My chief refuses to give me permission to go out.”

Camille came into the shop, and Laurent was obliged to withdraw without giving any further information, leaving Therese under the disagreeable influence of this abrupt and unpleasant announcement. Exasperated at anyone daring to interfere with her delectation, she passed a sleepless night, arranging extravagant plans for a meeting with her sweetheart. The following Thursday, she spoke with Laurent for a minute at the most. Their anxiety was all the keener as they did not know where to meet for the purpose of consulting and coming to an understanding. The young woman, on this occasion, gave her sweetheart another appointment which for the second time he failed to keep, and she then had but one fixed idea — to see him at any cost.

For a fortnight Laurent was unable to speak to Therese alone, and he then felt how necessary this woman had become to his existence. Far from experiencing any uneasiness, as formerly, at the kisses which his ladylove showered on him, he now sought her embraces with the obstinacy of a famished animal. A sanguineous passion had lurked in his muscles, and now that his sweetheart was taken from him, this passion burst out in blind violence. He was madly in love. This thriving brutish nature seemed unconscious in everything. He obeyed his instincts, permitting the will of his organism to lead him.

A year before, he would have burst into laughter, had he been told he would become the slave of a woman, to the point of risking his tranquillity. The hidden forces of lust that had brought about this result had been secretly proceeding within him, to end by casting him, bound hand and foot, into the arms of Therese. At this hour, he was in dread lest he should omit to be prudent. He no longer dared go of an evening to the shop in the Arcade of the Pont Neuf lest he should commit some folly. He no longer belonged to himself. His ladylove, with her feline suppleness, her nervous flexibility, had glided, little by little, into each fibre of his body. This woman was as necessary to his life as eating and drinking.

He would certainly have committed some folly, had he not received a letter from Therese, asking him to remain at home the following evening. His sweetheart promised him to call about eight o’clock.

On quitting the office, he got rid of Camille by saying he was tired, and should go to bed at once. Therese, after dinner, also played her part. She mentioned a customer who had moved without paying her, and acting the indignant creditor who would listen to nothing, declared that she intended calling on her debtor with the view of asking for payment of the money that was due. The customer now lived at Batignolles. Madame Raquin and Camille considered this a long way to go, and thought it doubtful whether the journey would have a satisfactory result; but they expressed no surprise, and allowed Therese to set out on her errand in all tranquillity.

The young woman ran to the Port aux Vins, gliding over the slippery pavement, and knocking up against the passers-by, in her hurry to reach her destination. Beads of perspiration covered her face, and her hands were burning. Anyone might have taken her for a drunken woman. She rapidly ascended the staircase of the hotel, and on reaching the sixth floor, out of breath, and with wandering eyes, she perceived Laurent, who was leaning over the banister awaiting her.

She entered the garret, which was so small that she could barely turn round in it, and tearing off her hat with one hand leant against the bedstead in a faint. Through the lift-up window in the roof, which was wide open, the freshness of the evening fell upon the burning couch.

The couple remained some time in this wretched little room, as though at the bottom of a hole. All at once, Therese heard a clock in the neighbourhood strike ten. She felt as if she would have liked to have been deaf. Nevertheless, she looked for her hat which she fastened to her hair with a long pin, and then seating herself, slowly murmured:

“I must go.”

Laurent fell on his knees before her, and took her hands.

“Good-bye, till we see each other again,” said she, without moving.

“No, not till we see each other again!” he exclaimed, “that is too indefinite. When will you come again?”

She looked him full in the face.

“Do you wish me to be frank with you?” she inquired. “Well, then, to tell you the truth, I think I shall come no more. I have no pretext, and I cannot invent one.”

“Then we must say farewell,” he remarked.

“No, I will not do that!” she answered.

She pronounced these words in terrified anger. Then she added more gently, without knowing what she was saying, and without moving from her chair:

“I am going.”

Laurent reflected. He was thinking of Camille.

“I wish him no harm,” said he at length, without pronouncing the name: “but really he is too much in our way. Couldn’t you get rid of him, send him on a journey somewhere, a long way off?”

“Ah! yes, send him on a journey!” resumed the young woman, nodding her head. “And do you imagine a man like that would consent to travel? There is only one journey, that from which you never return. But he will bury us all. People who are at their last breath, never die.”

Then came a silence which was broken by Laurent who remarked:

“I had a day dream. Camille met with an accident and died, and I became your husband. Do you understand?”

“Yes, yes,” answered Therese, shuddering.

Then, abruptly bending over the face of Laurent, she smothered it with kisses, and bursting into sobs, uttered these disjoined sentences amidst her tears:

“Don’t talk like that, for if you do, I shall lack the strength to leave you. I shall remain here. Give me courage rather. Tell me we shall see one another again. You have need of me, have you not? Well, one of these days we shall find a way to live together.”

“Then come back, come back to-morrow,” said Laurent.

“But I cannot return,” she answered. “I have told you. I have no pretext.”

She wrung her hands and continued:

“Oh! I do not fear the scandal. If you like, when I get back, I will tell Camille you are my sweetheart, and return here. I am trembling for you. I do not wish to disturb your life. I want to make you happy.”

The prudent instincts of the young man were awakened.

“You are right,” said he. “We must not behave like children. Ah! if your husband were to die!”

“If my husband were to die,” slowly repeated Therese.

“We would marry,” he continued, “and have nothing more to fear. What a nice, gentle life it would be!”

The young woman stood up erect. Her cheeks were pale, and she looked at her sweetheart with a clouded brow, while her lips were twitching.

“Sometimes people die,” she murmured at last. “Only it is dangerous for those who survive.”

Laurent did not reply.

“You see,” she continued, “all the methods that are known are bad.”

“You misunderstood me,” said he quietly. “I am not a fool, I wish to love you in peace. I was thinking that accidents happen daily, that a foot may slip, a tile may fall. You understand. In the latter event, the wind alone is guilty.”

He spoke in a strange voice. Then he smiled, and added in a caressing tone:

“Never mind, keep quiet. We will love one another fondly, and live happily. As you are unable to come here, I will arrange matters. Should we remain a few months without seeing one another, do not forget me, and bear in mind that I am labouring for your felicity.”

As Therese opened the door to leave, he seized her in his arms.

“You are mine, are you not?” he continued. “You swear to belong to me, at any hour, when I choose.”

“Yes!” exclaimed the young woman. “I am yours, do as you please with me.”

For a moment they remained locked together and mute. Then Therese tore herself roughly away, and, without turning her head, quitted the garret and went downstairs. Laurent listened to the sound of her footsteps fading away.

When he heard the last of them, he returned to his wretched room, and went to bed. The sheets were still warm. Without closing the window, he lay on his back, his arms bare, his hands open, exposed to the fresh air. And he reflected, with his eyes on the dark blue square that the window framed in the sky.

He turned the same idea over in his head until daybreak. Previous to the visit of Therese, the idea of murdering Camille had not occurred to him. He had spoken of the death of this man, urged to do so by the facts, irritated at the thought that he would be unable to meet his sweetheart any more. And it was thus that a new corner of his unconscious nature came to be revealed.

Now that he was more calm, alone in the middle of the peaceful night, he studied the murder. The idea of death, blurted out in despair between a couple of kisses, returned implacable and keen. Racked by insomnia, and unnerved by the visit of Therese, he calculated the disadvantages and the advantages of his becoming an assassin.

All his interests urged him to commit the crime. He said to himself that as his father, the Jeufosse peasant, could not make up his mind to die, he would perhaps have to remain a clerk another ten years, eating in cheap restaurants, and living in a garret. This idea exasperated him. On the other hand, if Camille were dead, he would marry Therese, he would inherit from Madame Raquin, resign his clerkship, and saunter about in the sun. Then, he took pleasure in dreaming of this life of idleness; he saw himself with nothing to do, eating and sleeping, patiently awaiting the death of his father. And when the reality arose in the middle of his dream, he ran up against Camille, and clenched his fists to knock him down.

Laurent desired Therese; he wanted her for himself alone, to have her always within reach. If he failed to make the husband disappear, the woman would escape him. She had said so: she could not return. He would have eloped with her, carried her off somewhere, but then both would die of hunger. He risked less in killing the husband. There would be no scandal. He would simply push a man away to take his place. In his brutal logic of a peasant, he found this method excellent and natural. His innate prudence even advised this rapid expedient.

He grovelled on his bed, in perspiration, flat on his stomach, with his face against the pillow, and he remained there breathless, stifling, seeing lines of fire pass along his closed eyelids. He asked himself how he would kill Camille. Then, unable to breathe any more, he turned round at a bound to resume his position on his back, and with his eyes wide open, received full in the face, the puffs of cold air from the window, seeking in the stars, in the bluish square of sky, a piece of advice about murder, a plan of assassination.

And he found nothing. As he had told his ladylove, he was neither a child nor a fool. He wanted neither a dagger nor poison. What he sought was a subtle crime, one that could be accomplished without danger; a sort of sinister suffocation, without cries and without terror, a simple disappearance. Passion might well stir him, and urge him forward; all his being imperiously insisted on prudence. He was too cowardly, too voluptuous to risk his tranquillity. If he killed, it would be for a calm and happy life.

Little by little slumber overcame him. Fatigued and appeased, he sank into a sort of gentle and uncertain torpor. As he fell asleep, he decided he would await a favourable opportunity, and his thoughts, fleeting further and further away, lulled him to rest with the murmur:

“I will kill him, I will kill him.”

Five minutes later, he was at rest, breathing with serene regularity.

Therese returned home at eleven o’clock, with a burning head, and her thoughts strained, reaching the Arcade of the Pont Neuf unconscious of the road she had taken. It seemed to her that she had just come downstairs from her visit to Laurent, so full were her ears of the words she had recently heard. She found Madame Raquin and Camille anxious and attentive; but she answered their questions sharply, saying she had been on a fools’ errand, and had waited an hour on the pavement for an omnibus.

When she got into bed, she found the sheets cold and damp. Her limbs, which were still burning, shuddered with repugnance. Camille soon fell asleep, and for a long time Therese watched his wan face reposing idiotically on the pillow, with his mouth wide open. Therese drew away from her husband. She felt a desire to drive her clenched fist into that mouth.

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