Abbe Mouret's Transgression, by Émile Zola

Book ii


Through calico curtains, carefully drawn across the two large windows, a pale white light like that of breaking day filtered into the room. It was a lofty and spacious room, fitted up with old Louis XV. furniture, the woodwork painted white, the upholstery showing a pattern of red flowers on a leafy ground. On the piers above the doors on either side of the alcove were faded paintings still displaying the rosy flesh of flying Cupids, whose games it was now impossible to follow. The wainscoting with oval panels, the folding doors, the rounded ceiling (once sky-blue and framed with scrolls, medallions, and bows of flesh-coloured ribbons), had all faded to the softest grey. Opposite the windows the large alcove opened beneath banks of clouds which plaster Cupids drew aside, leaning over, and peeping saucily towards the bed. And like the windows, the alcove was curtained with coarsely hemmed calico, whose simplicity seemed strange in this room where lingered a perfume of whilom luxury and voluptuousness.

Seated near a pier table, on which a little kettle bubbled over a spirit-lamp, Albine intently watched the alcove curtains. She was gowned in white, her hair gathered up in an old lace kerchief, her hands drooping wearily, as she kept watch with the serious mien of youthful womanhood. A faint breathing, like that of a slumbering child, could be heard in the deep silence. But she grew restless after a few minutes, and could not restrain herself from stepping lightly towards the alcove and raising one of the curtains. On the edge of the big bed lay Serge, apparently asleep, with his head resting on his bent arm. During his illness his hair had lengthened, and his beard had grown. He looked very white, with sunken eyes and pallid lips.

Moved by the sight Albine was about to let the curtain fall again. But Serge faintly murmured, ‘I am not asleep.’

He lay perfectly still with his head on his arm, without stirring even a finger, as if overwhelmed by delightful weariness. His eyes had slowly opened, and his breath blew lightly on one of his hands, raising the golden down on his fair skin.

‘I heard you,’ he murmured again. ‘You were walking very gently.’*

* From this point in the original Serge and Albine thee and thou one another; but although this tutoiement has some bearing on the development of the story, it was impossible to preserve it in an English translation. — ED.

His voice enchanted her. She went up to his bed and crouched beside it to bring her face on a level with his own. ‘How are you?’ she asked, and then continued: ‘Oh! you are well now. Do you know, I used to cry the whole way home when I came back from over yonder with bad news of you. They told me you were delirious, and that if your dreadful fever did spare your life, it would destroy your reason. Oh, didn’t I kiss your uncle Pascal when he brought you here to recruit your health!’

Then she tucked in his bed-clothes like a young mother.

‘Those burnt-up rocks over yonder, you see, were no good to you. You need trees, and coolness, and quiet. The doctor hasn’t even told a soul that he was hiding you away here. That’s a secret between himself and those who love you. He thought you were lost. Nobody will ever disturb you, you may be sure of that! Uncle Jeanbernat is smoking his pipe by his lettuce bed. The others will get news of you on the sly. Even the doctor isn’t coming back any more. I am to be your doctor now. You don’t want any more physic, it seems. What you now want is to be loved; do you see?’

He did not seem to hear her, his brain as yet was void. His eyes, although his head remained motionless, wandered inquiringly round the room, and it struck her that he was wondering where he might be.

‘This is my room,’ she said. ‘I have given it to you. Isn’t it a pretty one? I took the finest pieces of furniture out of the lumber attic, and then I made those calico curtains to prevent the daylight from dazzling me. And you’re not putting me out a bit. I shall sleep on the second floor. There are three or four empty rooms there.’

Still he looked anxious.

‘You’re alone?’ he asked.

‘Yes; why do you ask that?’

He made no answer, but muttered wearily: ‘I have been dreaming, I am always dreaming. I hear bells ringing, and they tire me.’

And after a pause he went on: ‘Go and shut the door, bolt it; I want you to be alone, quite alone.’

When she came back, bringing a chair with her, and sat down by his pillow, he looked as gleeful as a child, and kept on saying: ‘Nobody can come in now. I shall not hear those bells any more. When you are talking to me, it rests me.’

‘Would you like something to drink?’ she asked.

He made a sign that he was not thirsty. He looked at Albine’s hands as if so astonished, so delighted to see them, that with a smile she laid one on the edge of his pillow. Then he let his head glide down, and rested his cheek against that small, cool hand, saying, with a light laugh: ‘Ah! it’s as soft as silk. It is just as if it were sending a cool breeze through my hair. Don’t take it away, please.’

Then came another long spell of silence. They gazed on one another with loving kindliness — Albine calmly scanning herself in the convalescent’s eyes, Serge apparently listening to some faint whisper from the small, cool hand.

‘Your hand is so nice,’ he said once more. ‘You can’t fancy what good it does me. It seems to steal inside me, and take away all the pain in my limbs. It’s as if I were being soothed all over, relieved, cured.’

He gently rubbed his cheek against it, with growing animation, as if he were at last coming back to life.

‘You won’t give me anything nasty to drink, will you? You won’t worry me with all sorts of physic? Your hand is quite enough for me. I have come here for you to put it there under my head.’

‘Dear Serge,’ said Albine softly, ‘how you must have suffered.’

‘Suffered! yes, yes; but it’s a long time ago. I slept badly, I had such frightful dreams. If I could, I would tell you all about it.’

He closed his eyes for a moment and strove hard to remember.

‘I can see nothing but darkness,’ he stammered. ‘It is very odd, I have just come back from a long journey. I don’t even know now where I started from. I had fever, I know, a fever that raced through my veins like a wild beast. That was it — now I remember. The whole time I had a nightmare, in which I seemed to be crawling along an endless underground passage; and every now and then I had an attack of intolerable pain, and then the passage would be suddenly walled up. A shower of stones fell from overhead, the side walls closed in, and there I stuck, panting, mad to get on; and then I bored into the obstacle and battered away with feet and fists, and skull, despairing of ever being able to get through the ever increasing mound of rubbish. At other times, I only had to touch it with my finger and it vanished: I could then walk freely along the widened gallery, weary only from the pangs of my attack.’

Albine tried to lay a hand upon his lips.

‘No,’ said he, ‘it doesn’t tire me to talk. I can whisper to you here, you see. I feel as if I were thinking and you could hear me. The queerest point about that underground journey of mine was that I hadn’t the faintest idea of turning back again; I got obstinate, although I had the thought before me that it would take me thousands of years to clear away a single heap of wreckage. It seemed a fated task, which I had to fulfil under pain of the greatest misfortunes. So, with my knees all bruised, and my forehead bumping against the hard rock, I set myself to work with all my might, so that I might get to the end as quickly as possible. The end? What was it? . . . Ah! I do not know, I do not know.’

He closed his eyes and pondered dreamily. Then, with a careless pout, he again sank upon Albine’s hand and said laughing: ‘How silly of me! I am a child.’

But the girl, to ascertain if he were wholly hers, questioned him and led him back to the confused recollections he had tried to summon up. He could remember nothing, however; he was truly in a happy state of childhood. He fancied that he had been born the day before.

‘Oh! I am not strong enough yet,’ he said. ‘My furthest recollection is of a bed which burned me all over, my head rolled about on a pillow like a pan of live coals, and my feet wore away with perpetual rubbing against each other. I was very bad, I know. It seemed as if I were having my body changed, as if I were being taken all to pieces, and put together again like some broken machine.’

He laughed at this simile, and continued: ‘I shall be all new again. My illness has given me a fine cleaning. But what was it you were asking me? No, nobody was there. I was suffering all by myself at the bottom of a black hole. Nobody, nobody. And beyond that, nothing — I can see nothing. . . . Let me be your child, will you? You shall teach me to walk. I can see nothing else but you now. I care for nothing but you. . . . I can’t remember, I tell you. I came, you took me, and that is all.’

And restfully, pettingly, he said once more: ‘How warm your hand is now! it is as nice as the sun. Don’t let us talk any more. It makes me hot.’

A quivering silence fell from the blue ceiling of the large room. The spirit lamp had just gone out, and from the kettle came a finer and finer thread of steam. Albine and Serge, their heads side by side upon the pillow, gazed at the large calico curtains drawn across the windows. Serge’s eyes, especially, were attracted to them as to the very source of light, in which he sought to steep himself, as in diluted sunshine fitted to his weakness. He could tell that the sun lay behind that yellower gleam upon one corner of the curtain, and that sufficed to make him feel himself again. Meanwhile a far-off rustle of leaves came upon his listening ear, and against the right-hand window the clean-cut greenish shadow of a lofty bough brought him disturbing thoughts of the forest which he could feel to be near him.

‘Would you like me to open the curtains?’ asked Albine, misunderstanding his steady gaze.

‘No, no,’ he hastily replied.

‘It’s a fine day; you would see the sunlight and the trees.’

‘No, please don’t. . . . I don’t want to see anything outside. That bough there tires me with its waving and its rising, as if it was alive. Leave your hand here, I will go to sleep. All is white now. It’s so nice.’

And then he calmly fell asleep, while Albine watched beside him and breathed upon his face to make his slumber cool.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02