In the heat of the glowing July afternoon, the room, with blinds carefully closed, was full of a great calm. From the three windows, through the cracks of the old wooden shutters, came only a few scattered sunbeams which, in the midst of the obscurity, made a soft brightness that bathed surrounding objects in a diffused and tender light. It was cool here in comparison with the overpowering heat that was felt outside, under the fierce rays of the sun that blazed upon the front of the house.
Standing before the press which faced the windows, Dr. Pascal was looking for a paper that he had come in search of. With doors wide open, this immense press of carved oak, adorned with strong and handsome mountings of metal, dating from the last century, displayed within its capacious depths an extraordinary collection of papers and manuscripts of all sorts, piled up in confusion and filling every shelf to overflowing. For more than thirty years the doctor had thrown into it every page he wrote, from brief notes to the complete texts of his great works on heredity. Thus it was that his searches here were not always easy. He rummaged patiently among the papers, and when he at last found the one he was looking for, he smiled.
For an instant longer he remained near the bookcase, reading the note by a golden sunbeam that came to him from the middle window. He himself, in this dawnlike light, appeared, with his snow-white hair and beard, strong and vigorous; although he was near sixty, his color was so fresh, his features were so finely cut, his eyes were still so clear, and he had so youthful an air that one might have taken him, in his close-fitting, maroon velvet jacket, for a young man with powdered hair.
“Here, Clotilde,” he said at last, “you will copy this note. Ramond would never be able to decipher my diabolical writing.”
And he crossed the room and laid the paper beside the young girl, who stood working at a high desk in the embrasure of the window to the right.
“Very well, master,” she answered.
She did not even turn round, so engrossed was her attention with the pastel which she was at the moment rapidly sketching in with broad strokes of the crayon. Near her in a vase bloomed a stalk of hollyhocks of a singular shade of violet, striped with yellow. But the profile of her small round head, with its short, fair hair, was clearly distinguishable; an exquisite and serious profile, the straight forehead contracted in a frown of attention, the eyes of an azure blue, the nose delicately molded, the chin firm. Her bent neck, especially, of a milky whiteness, looked adorably youthful under the gold of the clustering curls. In her long black blouse she seemed very tall, with her slight figure, slender throat, and flexible form, the flexible slenderness of the divine figures of the Renaissance. In spite of her twenty-five years, she still retained a childlike air and looked hardly eighteen.
“And,” resumed the doctor, “you will arrange the press a little. Nothing can be found there any longer.”
“Very well, master,” she repeated, without raising her head; “presently.”
Pascal had turned round to seat himself at his desk, at the other end of the room, before the window to the left. It was a plain black wooden table, and was littered also with papers and pamphlets of all sorts. And silence again reigned in the peaceful semi-obscurity, contrasting with the overpowering glare outside. The vast apartment, a dozen meters long and six wide, had, in addition to the press, only two bookcases, filled with books. Antique chairs of various kinds stood around in disorder, while for sole adornment, along the walls, hung with an old salon Empire paper of a rose pattern, were nailed pastels of flowers of strange coloring dimly visible. The woodwork of three folding-doors, the door opening on the hall and two others at opposite ends of the apartment, the one leading to the doctor’s room, the other to that of the young girl, as well as the cornice of the smoke-darkened ceiling, dated from the time of Louis XV.
An hour passed without a sound, without a breath. Then Pascal, who, as a diversion from his work, had opened a newspaper —Le Temps— which had lain forgotten on the table, uttered a slight exclamation:
“Why! your father has been appointed editor of the Epoque, the prosperous republican journal which has the publishing of the papers of the Tuileries.”
This news must have been unexpected by him, for he laughed frankly, at once pleased and saddened, and in an undertone he continued:
“My word! If things had been invented, they could not have been finer. Life is a strange thing. This is a very interesting article.”
Clotilde made no answer, as if her thoughts were a hundred leagues away from what her uncle was saying. And he did not speak again, but taking his scissors after he had read the article, he cut it out and pasted it on a sheet of paper, on which he made some marginal notes in his large, irregular handwriting. Then he went back to the press to classify this new document in it. But he was obliged to take a chair, the shelf being so high that he could not reach it notwithstanding his tall stature.
On this high shelf a whole series of enormous bundles of papers were arranged in order, methodically classified. Here were papers of all sorts: sheets of manuscript, documents on stamped paper, articles cut out of newspapers, arranged in envelopes of strong blue paper, each of which bore on the outside a name written in large characters. One felt that these documents were tenderly kept in view, taken out continually, and carefully replaced; for of the whole press, this corner was the only one kept in order.
When Pascal, mounted on the chair, had found the package he was looking for, one of the bulkiest of the envelopes, on which was written the name “Saccard,” he added to it the new document, and then replaced the whole under its corresponding alphabetical letter. A moment later he had forgotten the subject, and was complacently straightening a pile of papers that were falling down. And when he at last jumped down off the chair, he said:
“When you are arranging the press, Clotilde, don’t touch the packages at the top; do you hear?”
“Very well, master,” she responded, for the third time, docilely.
He laughed again, with the gaiety that was natural to him.
“That is forbidden.”
“I know it, master.”
And he closed the press with a vigorous turn of the key, which he then threw into a drawer of his writing table. The young girl was sufficiently acquainted with his researches to keep his manuscripts in some degree of order; and he gladly employed her as his secretary; he made her copy his notes when some confrere and friend, like Dr. Ramond asked him to send him some document. But she was not a savante; he simply forbade her to read what he deemed it useless that she should know.
At last, perceiving her so completely absorbed in her work, his attention was aroused.
“What is the matter with you, that you don’t open your lips?” he said. “Are you so taken up with the copying of those flowers that you can’t speak?”
This was another of the labors which he often intrusted to her — to make drawings, aquarelles, and pastels, which he afterward used in his works as plates. Thus, for the past five years he had been making some curious experiments on a collection of hollyhocks; he had obtained a whole series of new colorings by artificial fecundations. She made these sorts of copies with extraordinary minuteness, an exactitude of design and of coloring so extreme that he marveled unceasingly at the conscientiousness of her work, and he often told her that she had a “good, round, strong, clear little headpiece.”
But, this time, when he approached her to look over her shoulder, he uttered a cry of comic fury.
“There you are at your nonsense! Now you are off in the clouds again! Will you do me the favor to tear that up at once?”
She straightened herself, her cheeks flushed, her eyes aglow with the delight she took in her work, her slender fingers stained with the red and blue crayon that she had crushed.
And in this “master,” so tender, so caressingly submissive, this term of complete abandonment by which she called him, in order to avoid using the words godfather or uncle, which she thought silly, there was, for the first time, a passionate accent of revolt, the revindication of a being recovering possession of and asserting itself.
For nearly two hours she had been zealously striving to produce an exact and faithful copy of the hollyhocks, and she had just thrown on another sheet a whole bunch of imaginary flowers, of dream-flowers, extravagant and superb. She had, at times, these abrupt shiftings, a need of breaking away in wild fancies in the midst of the most precise of reproductions. She satisfied it at once, falling always into this extraordinary efflorescence of such spirit and fancy that it never repeated itself; creating roses, with bleeding hearts, weeping tears of sulphur, lilies like crystal urns, flowers without any known form, even, spreading out starry rays, with corollas floating like clouds. To-day, on a groundwork dashed in with a few bold strokes of black crayon, it was a rain of pale stars, a whole shower of infinitely soft petals; while, in a corner, an unknown bloom, a bud, chastely veiled, was opening.
“Another to nail there!” resumed the doctor, pointing to the wall, on which there was already a row of strangely curious pastels. “But what may that represent, I ask you?”
She remained very grave, drawing back a step, the better to contemplate her work.
“I know nothing about it; it is beautiful.”
At this moment appeared Martine, the only servant, become the real mistress of the house, after nearly thirty years of service with the doctor. Although she had passed her sixtieth year, she, too, still retained a youthful air as she went about, silent and active, in her eternal black gown and white cap that gave her the look of a nun, with her small, white, calm face, and lusterless eyes, the light in which seemed to have been extinguished.
Without speaking, she went and sat down on the floor before an easy-chair, through a rent in the old covering of which the hair was escaping, and drawing from her pocket a needle and a skein of worsted, she set to work to mend it. For three days past she had been waiting for an hour’s time to do this piece of mending, which haunted her.
“While you are about it, Martine,” said Pascal jestingly, taking between both his hands the mutinous head of Clotilde, “sew me fast, too, this little noodle, which sometimes wanders off into the clouds.”
Martine raised her pale eyes, and looked at her master with her habitual air of adoration?
“Why does monsieur say that?”
“Because, my good girl, in very truth, I believe it is you who have stuffed this good little round, clear, strong headpiece full of notions of the other world, with all your devoutness.”
The two women exchanged a glance of intelligence.
“Oh, monsieur! religion has never done any harm to any one. And when people have not the same ideas, it is certainly better not to talk about them.”
An embarrassed silence followed; this was the one difference of opinion which, at times, brought about disagreements among these three united beings who led so restricted a life. Martine was only twenty-nine, a year older than the doctor, when she entered his house, at the time when he made his debut as a physician at Plassans, in a bright little house of the new town. And thirteen years later, when Saccard, a brother of Pascal, sent him his daughter Clotilde, aged seven, after his wife’s death and at the moment when he was about to marry again, it was she who brought up the child, taking it to church, and communicating to it a little of the devout flame with which she had always burned; while the doctor, who had a broad mind, left them to their joy of believing, for he did not feel that he had the right to interdict to any one the happiness of faith; he contented himself later on with watching over the young girl’s education and giving her clear and sound ideas about everything. For thirteen years, during which the three had lived this retired life at La Souleiade, a small property situated in the outskirts of the town, a quarter of an hour’s walk from St. Saturnin, the cathedral, his life had flowed happily along, occupied in secret great works, a little troubled, however, by an ever increasing uneasiness — the collision, more and more violent, every day, between their beliefs.
Pascal took a few turns gloomily up and down the room. Then, like a man who did not mince his words, he said:
“See, my dear, all this phantasmagoria of mystery has turned your pretty head. Your good God had no need of you; I should have kept you for myself alone; and you would have been all the better for it.”
But Clotilde, trembling with excitement, her clear eyes fixed boldly upon his, held her ground.
“It is you, master, who would be all the better, if you did not shut yourself up in your eyes of flesh. That is another thing, why do you not wish to see?”
And Martine came to her assistance, in her own style.
“Indeed, it is true, monsieur, that you, who are a saint, as I say everywhere, should accompany us to church. Assuredly, God will save you. But at the bare idea that you should not go straight to paradise, I tremble all over.”
He paused, for he had before him, in open revolt, those two whom he had been accustomed to see submissive at his feet, with the tenderness of women won over by his gaiety and his goodness. Already he opened his mouth, and was going to answer roughly, when the uselessness of the discussion became apparent to him.
“There! Let us have peace. I would do better to go and work. And above all, let no one interrupt me!”
With hasty steps he gained his chamber, where he had installed a sort of laboratory, and shut himself up in it. The prohibition to enter it was formal. It was here that he gave himself up to special preparations, of which he spoke to no one. Almost immediately the slow and regular sound of a pestle grinding in a mortar was heard.
“Come,” said Clotilde, smiling, “there he is, at his devil’s cookery, as grandmother says.”
And she tranquilly resumed her copying of the hollyhocks. She completed the drawing with mathematical precision, she found the exact tone of the violet petals, striped with yellow, even to the most delicate discoloration of the shades.
“Ah!” murmured Martine, after a moment, again seated on the ground, and occupied in mending the chair, “what a misfortune for a good man like that to lose his soul wilfully. For there is no denying it; I have known him now for thirty years, and in all that time he has never so much as spoken an unkind word to any one. A real heart of gold, who would take the bit from his own mouth. And handsome, too, and always well, and always gay, a real blessing! It is a murder that he does not wish to make his peace with the good God. We will force him to do it, mademoiselle, will we not?”
Clotilde, surprised at hearing her speak so long at one time on the subject, gave her word with a grave air.
“Certainly, Martine, it is a promise. We will force him.”
Silence reigned again, broken a moment afterward by the ringing of the bell attached to the street door below. It had been attached to the door so that they might have notice when any one entered the house, too vast for the three persons who inhabited it. The servant appeared surprised, and grumbled a few words under her breath. Who could have come in such heat as this? She rose, opened the door, and went and leaned over the balustrade; then she returned, saying:
“It is Mme. Felicite.”
Old Mme. Rougon entered briskly. In spite of her eighty years, she had mounted the stairs with the activity of a young girl; she was still the brown, lean, shrill grasshopper of old. Dressed elegantly now in black silk, she might still be taken, seen from behind, thanks to the slenderness of her figure, for some coquette, or some ambitious woman following her favorite pursuit. Seen in front, her eyes still lighted up her withered visage with their fires, and she smiled with an engaging smile when she so desired.
“What! is it you, grandmother?” cried Clotilde, going to meet her. “Why, this sun is enough to bake one.”
Felicite, kissing her on the forehead, laughed, saying:
“Oh, the sun is my friend!”
Then, moving with short, quick steps, she crossed the room, and turned the fastening of one of the shutters.
“Open the shutters a little! It is too gloomy to live in the dark in this way. At my house I let the sun come in.”
Through the opening a jet of hot light, a flood of dancing sparks entered. And under the sky, of the violet blue of a conflagration, the parched plain could be seen, stretching away in the distance, as if asleep or dead in the overpowering, furnace-like heat, while to the right, above the pink roofs, rose the belfry of St. Saturnin, a gilded tower with arises that, in the blinding light, looked like whitened bones.
“Yes,” continued Felicite, “I think of going shortly to the Tulettes, and I wished to know if Charles were here, to take him with me. He is not here — I see that — I will take him another day.”
But while she gave this pretext for her visit, her ferret-like eyes were making the tour of the apartment. Besides, she did not insist, speaking immediately afterward of her son Pascal, on hearing the rhythmical noise of the pestle, which had not ceased in the adjoining chamber.
“Ah! he is still at his devil’s cookery! Don’t disturb him, I have nothing to say to him.”
Martine, who had resumed her work on the chair, shook her head, as if to say that she had no mind to disturb her master, and there was silence again, while Clotilde wiped her fingers, stained with crayon, on a cloth, and Felicite began to walk about the room with short steps, looking around inquisitively.
Old Mme. Rougon would soon be two years a widow. Her husband who had grown so corpulent that he could no longer move, had succumbed to an attack of indigestion on the 3d of September, 1870, on the night of the day on which he had learned of the catastrophe of Sedan. The ruin of the government of which he flattered himself with being one of the founders, seemed to have crushed him. Thus, Felicite affected to occupy herself no longer with politics, living, thenceforward, like a dethroned queen, the only surviving power of a vanished world. No one was unaware that the Rougons, in 1851, had saved Plassans from anarchy, by causing the coup d’etat of the 2d of December to triumph there, and that, a few years later, they had won it again from the legitimist and republican candidates, to give it to a Bonapartist deputy. Up to the time of the war, the Empire had continued all-powerful in the town, so popular that it had obtained there at the plebiscite an overwhelming majority. But since the disasters the town had become republican, the quarter St. Marc had returned to its secret royalist intrigues, while the old quarter and the new town had sent to the chamber a liberal representative, slightly tinged with Orleanism, and ready to take sides with the republic, if it should triumph. And, therefore, it was that Felicite, like the intelligent woman she was, had withdrawn her attention from politics, and consented to be nothing more than the dethroned queen of a fallen government.
But this was still an exalted position, surrounded by a melancholy poetry. For sixteen years she had reigned. The tradition of her two salons, the yellow salon, in which the coup d’etat had matured, and the green salon, later the neutral ground on which the conquest of Plassans was completed, embellished itself with the reflection of the vanished past, and was for her a glorious history. And besides, she was very rich. Then, too, she had shown herself dignified in her fall, never uttering a regret or a complaint, parading, with her eighty years, so long a succession of fierce appetites, of abominable maneuvers, of inordinate gratifications, that she became august through them. Her only happiness, now, was to enjoy in peace her large fortune and her past royalty, and she had but one passion left — to defend her past, to extend its fame, suppressing everything that might tarnish it later. Her pride, which lived on the double exploit of which the inhabitants still spoke, watched with jealous care, resolved to leave in existence only creditable documents, those traditions which caused her to be saluted like a fallen queen when she walked through the town.
She went to the door of the chamber and listened to the persistent noise of the pestle, which did not cease. Then, with an anxious brow, she returned to Clotilde.
“Good Heavens! What is he making? You know that he is doing himself the greatest harm with his new drug. I was told, the other day, that he came near killing one of his patients.”
“Oh, grandmother!” cried the young girl.
But she was now launched.
“Yes, exactly. The good wives say many other things, besides! Why, go question them, in the faubourg! They will tell you that he grinds dead men’s bones in infants’ blood.”
This time, while even Martine protested, Clotilde, wounded in her affection, grew angry.
“Oh, grandmother, do not repeat such abominations! Master has so great a heart that he thinks only of making every one happy!”
Then, when she saw that they were both angry, Felicite, comprehending that she had gone too far, resumed her coaxing manner.
“But, my kitten, it is not I who say those frightful things. I repeat to you the stupid reports they spread, so that you may comprehend that Pascal is wrong to pay no heed to public opinion. He thinks he has found a new remedy — nothing could be better! and I will even admit that he will be able to cure everybody, as he hopes. Only, why affect these mysterious ways; why not speak of the matter openly; why, above all, try it only on the rabble of the old quarter and of the country, instead of, attempting among the well-to-do people of the town, striking cures which would do him honor? No, my child, you see your uncle has never been able to act like other people.”
She had assumed a grieved tone, lowering her voice, to display the secret wound of her heart.
“God be thanked! it is not men of worth who are wanting in our family; my other sons have given me satisfaction enough. Is it not so? Your Uncle Eugene rose high enough, minister for twelve years, almost emperor! And your father himself handled many a million, and had a part in many a one of the great works which have made Paris a new city. Not to speak at all of your brother, Maxime, so rich, so distinguished, nor of your cousin, Octave Mouret, one of the kings of the new commerce, nor of our dear Abbe Mouret, who is a saint! Well, then, why does Pascal, who might have followed in the footsteps of them all, persist in living in his hole, like an eccentric old fool?”
And as the young girl was again going to protest, she closed her mouth, with a caressing gesture of her hand.
“No, no, let me finish. I know very well that Pascal is not a fool, that he has written remarkable works, that his communications to the Academy of Medicine have even won for him a reputation among savants. But what does that count for, compared to what I have dreamed of for him? Yes, all the best practice of the town, a large fortune, the decoration — honors, in short, and a position worthy of the family. My word! I used to say to him when he was a child: ‘But where do you come from? You are not one of us!’ As for me, I have sacrificed everything for the family; I would let myself be hacked to pieces, that the family might always be great and glorious!”
She straightened her small figure, she seemed to grow tall with the one passion that had formed the joy and pride of her life. But as she resumed her walk, she was startled by suddenly perceiving on the floor the copy of the Temps, which the doctor had thrown there, after cutting out the article, to add it to the Saccard papers, and the light from the open window, falling full upon the sheet, enlightened her, no doubt, for she suddenly stopped walking, and threw herself into a chair, as if she at last knew what she had come to learn.
“Your father has been appointed editor of the Epoque,” she said abruptly.
“Yes,” answered Clotilde tranquilly, “master told me so; it was in the paper.”
With an anxious and attentive expression, Felicite looked at her, for this appointment of Saccard, this rallying to the republic, was something of vast significance. After the fall of the empire he had dared return to France, notwithstanding his condemnation as director of the Banque Universelle, the colossal fall of which had preceded that of the government. New influences, some incredible intrigue must have placed him on his feet again, for not only had he received his pardon, but he was once more in a position to undertake affairs of considerable importance, launched into journalism, having his share again of all the good things going. And the recollection came to her of the quarrels of other days between him and his brother Eugene Rougon, whom he had so often compromised, and whom, by an ironical turn of events, he was perhaps going to protect, now that the former minister of the Empire was only a simple deputy, resigned to the single role of standing by his fallen master with the obstinacy with which his mother stood by her family. She still obeyed docilely the orders of her eldest son, the genius, fallen though he was; but Saccard, whatever he might do, had also a part in her heart, from his indomitable determination to succeed, and she was also proud of Maxime, Clotilde’s brother, who had taken up his quarters again, after the war, in his mansion in the Avenue of the Bois de Boulogne, where he was consuming the fortune left him by his wife, Louise de Mareuil, become prudent, with the wisdom of a man struck in a vital part, and trying to cheat the paralysis which threatened him.
“Editor of the Epoque,” she repeated; “it is really the position of a minister which your father has won. And I forgot to tell you, I have written again to your brother, to persuade him to come and see us. That would divert him, it would do him good. Then, there is that child, that poor Charles —”
She did not continue. This was another of the wounds from which her pride bled; a son whom Maxime had had when seventeen by a servant, and who now, at the age of fifteen, weak of intellect, a half-idiot, lived at Plassans, going from the house of one to that of another, a burden to all.
She remained silent a moment longer, waiting for some remark from Clotilde, some transition by which she might come to the subject she wished to touch upon. When she saw that the young girl, occupied in arranging the papers on her desk, was no longer listening, she came to a sudden decision, after casting a glance at Martine, who continued mending the chair, as if she were deaf and dumb.
“Your uncle cut the article out of the Temps, then?”
Clotilde smiled calmly.
“Yes, master put it away among his papers. Ah! how many notes he buries in there! Births, deaths, the smallest event in life, everything goes in there. And the genealogical tree is there also, our famous genealogical tree, which he keeps up to date!”
The eyes of old Mme. Rougon flamed. She looked fixedly at the young girl.
“You know them, those papers?”
“Oh, no, grandmother; master has never spoken to me of them; and he has forbidden me to touch them.”
But she did not believe her.
“Come! you have them under your hands, you must have read them.”
Very simple, with her calm rectitude, Clotilde answered, smilingly again.
“No, when master forbids me to do anything, it is because he has his reasons, and I do not do it.”
“Well, my child,” cried Felicite vehemently, dominated by her passion, “you, whom Pascal loves tenderly, and whom he would listen to, perhaps, you ought to entreat him to burn all that, for if he should chance to die, and those frightful things which he has in there were to be found, we should all be dishonored!”
Ah, those abominable papers! she saw them at night, in her nightmares, revealing in letters of fire, the true histories, the physiological blemishes of the family, all that wrong side of her glory which she would have wished to bury forever with the ancestors already dead! She knew how it was that the doctor had conceived the idea of collecting these documents at the beginning of his great studies on heredity; how he had found himself led to take his own family as an example, struck by the typical cases which he saw in it, and which helped to support laws discovered by him. Was it not a perfectly natural field of observation, close at hand and with which he was thoroughly familiar? And with the fine, careless justness of the scientist, he had been accumulating for the last thirty years the most private data, collecting and classifying everything, raising this genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts, of which the voluminous papers, crammed full of proofs, were only the commentary.
“Ah, yes,” continued Mme. Rougon hotly, “to the fire, to the fire with all those papers that would tarnish our name!”
And as the servant rose to leave the room, seeing the turn the conversation was taking, she stopped her by a quick gesture.
“No, no, Martine; stay! You are not in the way, since you are now one of the family.”
Then, in a hissing voice:
“A collection of falsehoods, of gossip, all the lies that our enemies, enraged by our triumph, hurled against us in former days! Think a little of that, my child. Against all of us, against your father, against your mother, against your brother, all those horrors!”
“But how do you know they are horrors, grandmother?”
She was disconcerted for a moment.
“Oh, well; I suspect it! Where is the family that has not had misfortunes which might be injuriously interpreted? Thus, the mother of us all, that dear and venerable Aunt Dide, your great-grandmother, has she not been for the past twenty-one years in the madhouse at the Tulettes? If God has granted her the grace of allowing her to live to the age of one hundred and four years, he has also cruelly afflicted her in depriving her of her reason. Certainly, there is no shame in that; only, what exasperates me — what must not be — is that they should say afterward that we are all mad. And, then, regarding your grand-uncle Macquart, too, deplorable rumors have been spread. Macquart had his faults in past days, I do not seek to defend him. But to-day, is he not living very reputably on his little property at the Tulettes, two steps away from our unhappy mother, over whom he watches like a good son? And listen! one last example. Your brother, Maxime, committed a great fault when he had by a servant that poor little Charles, and it is certain, besides, that the unhappy child is of unsound mind. No matter. Will it please you if they tell you that your nephew is degenerate; that he reproduces from four generations back, his great-great-grandmother the dear woman to whom we sometimes take him, and with whom he likes so much to be? No! there is no longer any family possible, if people begin to lay bare everything — the nerves of this one, the muscles of that. It is enough to disgust one with living!”
Clotilde, standing in her long black blouse, had listened to her grandmother attentively. She had grown very serious; her arms hung by her sides, her eyes were fixed upon the ground. There was silence for a moment; then she said slowly:
“It is science, grandmother.”
“Science!” cried Felicite, trotting about again. “A fine thing, their science, that goes against all that is most sacred in the world! When they shall have demolished everything they will have advanced greatly! They kill respect, they kill the family, they kill the good God!”
“Oh! don’t say that, madame!” interrupted Martine, in a grieved voice, her narrow devoutness wounded. “Do not say that M. Pascal kills the good God!”
“Yes, my poor girl, he kills him. And look you, it is a crime, from the religious point of view, to let one’s self be damned in that way. You do not love him, on my word of honor! No, you do not love him, you two who have the happiness of believing, since you do nothing to bring him back to the right path. Ah! if I were in your place, I would split that press open with a hatchet. I would make a famous bonfire with all the insults to the good God which it contains!”
She had planted herself before the immense press and was measuring it with her fiery glance, as if to take it by assault, to sack it, to destroy it, in spite of the withered and fragile thinness of her eighty years. Then, with a gesture of ironical disdain:
“If, even with his science, he could know everything!”
Clotilde remained for a moment absorbed in thought, her gaze lost in vacancy. Then she said in an undertone, as if speaking to herself:
“It is true, he cannot know everything. There is always something else below. That is what irritates me; that is what makes us quarrel: for I cannot, like him, put the mystery aside. I am troubled by it, so much so that I suffer cruelly. Below, what wills and acts in the shuddering darkness, all the unknown forces —”
Her voice had gradually become lower and now dropped to an indistinct murmur.
Then Martine, whose face for a moment past had worn a somber expression, interrupted in her turn:
“If it was true, however, mademoiselle, that monsieur would be damned on account of those villainous papers, tell me, ought we to let it happen? For my part, look you, if he were to tell me to throw myself down from the terrace, I would shut my eyes and throw myself, because I know that he is always right. But for his salvation! Oh! if I could, I would work for that, in spite of him. In every way, yes! I would force him; it is too cruel to me to think that he will not be in heaven with us.”
“You are quite right, my girl,” said Felicite approvingly. “You, at least, love your master in an intelligent fashion.”
Between the two, Clotilde still seemed irresolute. In her, belief did not bend to the strict rule of dogma; the religious sentiment did not materialize in the hope of a paradise, of a place of delights, where she was to meet her own again. It was in her simply a need of a beyond, a certainty that the vast world does not stop short at sensation, that there is a whole unknown world, besides, which must be taken into account. But her grandmother, who was so old, this servant, who was so devoted, shook her in her uneasy affection for her uncle. Did they not love him better, in a more enlightened and more upright fashion, they who desired him to be without a stain, freed from his manias as a scientist, pure enough to be among the elect? Phrases of devotional books recurred to her; the continual battle waged against the spirit of evil; the glory of conversions effected after a violent struggle. What if she set herself to this holy task; what if, after all, in spite of himself, she should be able to save him! And an exaltation gradually gained her spirit, naturally inclined to adventurous enterprises.
“Certainly,” she said at last, “I should be very happy if he would not persist in his notion of heaping up all those scraps of paper, and if he would come to church with us.”
Seeing her about to yield, Mme. Rougon cried out that it was necessary to act, and Martine herself added the weight of all her real authority. They both approached the young girl, and began to instruct her, lowering their voices as if they were engaged in a conspiracy, whence was to result a miraculous benefit, a divine joy with which the whole house would be perfumed. What a triumph if they reconciled the doctor with God! and what sweetness, afterward, to live altogether in the celestial communion of the same faith!
“Well, then, what must I do?” asked Clotilde, vanquished, won over.
But at this moment the doctor’s pestle was heard in the silence, with its continued rhythm. And the victorious Felicite, who was about to speak, turned her head uneasily, and looked for a moment at the door of the adjoining chamber. Then, in an undertone, she said:
“Do you know where the key of the press is?”
Clotilde answered only with an artless gesture, that expressed all her repugnance to betray her master in this way.
“What a child you are! I swear to you that I will take nothing; I will not even disturb anything. Only as we are alone and as Pascal never reappears before dinner, we might assure ourselves of what there is in there, might we not? Oh! nothing but a glance, on my word of honor.”
The young girl stood motionless, unwilling, still, to give her consent.
“And then, it may be that I am mistaken; no doubt there are none of those bad things there that I have told you of.”
This was decisive; she ran to take the key from the drawer, and she herself opened wide the press.
“There, grandmother, the papers are up there.”
Martine had gone, without a word, to station herself at the door of the doctor’s chamber, her ear on the alert, listening to the pestle, while Felicite, as if riveted to the spot by emotion, regarded the papers. At last, there they were, those terrible documents, the nightmare that had poisoned her life! She saw them, she was going to touch them, to carry them away! And she reached up, straining her little legs, in the eagerness of her desire.
“It is too high, my kitten,” she said. “Help me; give them to me!”
“Oh! not that, grandmother! Take a chair!”
Felicite took a chair, and mounted slowly upon it. But she was still too short. By an extraordinary effort she raised herself, lengthening her stature until she was able to touch the envelopes of strong blue paper with the tips of her fingers; and her fingers traveled over them, contracting nervously, scratching like claws. Suddenly there was a crash — it was a geological specimen, a fragment of marble that had been on a lower shelf, and that she had just thrown down.
Instantly the pestle stopped, and Martine said in a stifled voice:
“Take care; here he comes!”
But Felicite, grown desperate, did not hear, did not let go her hold when Pascal entered hastily. He had supposed that some accident had happened, that some one had fallen, and he stood stupefied at what he saw — his mother on the chair, her arm still in the air, while Martine had withdrawn to one side, and Clotilde, very pale, stood waiting, without turning her head. When he comprehended the scene, he himself became as white as a sheet. A terrible anger arose within him.
Old Mme. Rougon, however, troubled herself in no wise. When she saw that the opportunity was lost, she descended from the chair, without making any illusion whatever to the task at which he had surprised her.
“Oh, it is you! I do not wish to disturb you. I came to embrace Clotilde. But here I have been talking for nearly two hours, and I must run away at once. They will be expecting me at home; they won’t know what has become of me at this hour. Good-by until Sunday.”
She went away quite at her ease, after smiling at her son, who stood before her silent and respectful. It was an attitude that he had long since adopted, to avoid an explanation which he felt must be cruel, and which he had always feared. He knew her, he was willing to pardon her everything, in his broad tolerance as a scientist, who made allowance for heredity, environment, and circumstances. And, then, was she not his mother? That ought to have sufficed, for, in spite of the frightful blows which his researches inflicted upon the family, he preserved a great affection for those belonging to him.
When his mother was no longer there, his anger burst forth, and fell upon Clotilde. He had turned his eyes away from Martine, and fixed them on the young girl, who did not turn hers away, however, with a courage which accepted the responsibility of her act.
“You! you!” he said at last.
He seized her arm, and pressed it until she cried. But she continued to look him full in the face, without quailing before him, with the indomitable will of her individuality, of her selfhood. She was beautiful and provoking, with her tall, slender figure, robed in its black blouse; and her exquisite, youthful fairness, her straight forehead, her finely cut nose, her firm chin, took on something of a warlike charm in her rebellion.
“You, whom I have made, you who are my pupil, my friend, my other mind, to whom I have given a part of my heart and of my brain! Ah, yes! I should have kept you entirely for myself, and not have allowed your stupid good God to take the best part of you!”
“Oh, monsieur, you blaspheme!” cried Martine, who had approached him, in order to draw upon herself a part of his anger.
But he did not even see her. Only Clotilde existed for him. And he was as if transfigured, stirred up by so great a passion that his handsome face, crowned by his white hair, framed by his white beard, flamed with youthful passion, with an immense tenderness that had been wounded and exasperated.
“You, you!” he repeated in a trembling voice.
“Yes, I! Why then, master, should I not love you better than you love me? And why, if I believe you to be in peril, should I not try to save you? You are greatly concerned about what I think; you would like well to make me think as you do!”
She had never before defied him in this way.
“But you are a little girl; you know nothing!”
“No, I am a soul, and you know no more about souls than I do!”
He released her arm, and waved his hand vaguely toward heaven, and then a great silence fell — a silence full of grave meaning, of the uselessness of the discussion which he did not wish to enter upon. Thrusting her aside rudely, he crossed over to the middle window and opened the blinds, for the sun was declining, and the room was growing dark. Then he returned.
But she, feeling a need of air and space, went to the open window. The burning rain of sparks had ceased, and there fell now, from on high, only the last shiver of the overheated and paling sky; and from the still burning earth ascended warm odors, with the freer respiration of evening. At the foot of the terrace was the railroad, with the outlying dependencies of the station, of which the buildings were to be seen in the distance; then, crossing the vast arid plain, a line of trees marked the course of the Viorne, beyond which rose the hills of Sainte-Marthe, red fields planted with olive trees, supported on terraces by walls of uncemented stones and crowned by somber pine woods — broad amphitheaters, bare and desolate, corroded by the heats of summer, of the color of old baked brick, which this fringe of dark verdure, standing out against the background of the sky, bordered above. To the left opened the gorges of the Seille, great yellow stones that had broken away from the soil, and lay in the midst of blood-colored fields, dominated by an immense band of rocks like the wall of a gigantic fortress; while to the right, at the very entrance to the valley through which flowed the Viorne, rose, one above another, the discolored pink-tiled roofs of the town of Plassans, the compact and confused mass of an old town, pierced by the tops of ancient elms, and dominated by the high tower of St. Saturnin, solitary and serene at this hour in the limpid gold of sunset.
“Ah, my God!” said Clotilde slowly, “one must be arrogant, indeed, to imagine that one can take everything in one’s hand and know everything!”
Pascal had just mounted on the chair to assure himself that not one of his packages was missing. Then he took up the fragment of marble, and replaced it on the shelf, and when he had again locked the press with a vigorous turn of the hand, he put the key into his pocket.
“Yes,” he replied; “try not to know everything, and above all, try not to bewilder your brain about what we do not know, what we shall doubtless never know!”
Martine again approached Clotilde, to lend her her support, to show her that they both had a common cause. And now the doctor perceived her, also, and felt that they were both united in the same desire for conquest. After years of secret attempts, it was at last open war; the savant saw his household turn against his opinions, and menace them with destruction. There is no worse torture than to have treason in one’s own home, around one; to be trapped, dispossessed, crushed, by those whom you love, and who love you!
Suddenly this frightful idea presented itself to him.
“And yet both of you love me!” he cried.
He saw their eyes grow dim with tears; he was filled with an infinite sadness, on this tranquil close of a beautiful day. All his gaiety, all his kindness of heart, which came from his intense love of life, were shaken by it.
“Ah, my dear! and you, my poor girl,” he said, “you are doing this for my happiness, are you not? But, alas, how unhappy we are going to be!”
Last updated Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 17:34