But on the following day their disquietude all returned. They were now obliged to go in debt. Martine obtained on credit bread, wine, and a little meat, much to her shame, be it said, forced as she was to maneuver and tell lies, for no one was ignorant of the ruin that had overtaken the house. The doctor had indeed thought of mortgaging La Souleiade, but only as a last resource. All he now possessed was this property, which was worth twenty thousand francs, but for which he would perhaps not get fifteen thousand, if he should sell it; and when these should be spent black want would be before them, the street, without even a stone of their own on which to lay their heads. Clotilde therefore begged Pascal to wait and not to take any irrevocable step so long as things were not utterly desperate.
Three or four days passed. It was the beginning of September, and the weather unfortunately changed; terrible storms ravaged the entire country; a part of the garden wall was blown down, and as Pascal was unable to rebuild it, the yawning breach remained. Already they were beginning to be rude at the baker’s . And one morning the old servant came home with the meat from the butcher’s in tears, saying that he had given her the refuse. A few days more and they would be unable to obtain anything on credit. It had become absolutely necessary to consider how they should find the money for their small daily expenses.
One Monday morning, the beginning of another week of torture, Clotilde was very restless. A struggle seemed to be going on within her, and it was only when she saw Pascal refuse at breakfast his share of a piece of beef which had been left over from the day before that she at last came to a decision. Then with a calm and resolute air, she went out after breakfast with Martine, after quietly putting into the basket of the latter a little package — some articles of dress which she was giving her, she said.
When she returned two hours later she was very pale. But her large eyes, so clear and frank, were shining. She went up to the doctor at once and made her confession.
“I must ask your forgiveness, master, for I have just been disobeying you, and I know that I am going to pain you greatly.”
“Why, what have you been doing?” he asked uneasily, not understanding what she meant.
Slowly, without removing her eyes from him, she drew from her pocket an envelope, from which she took some bank-notes. A sudden intuition enlightened him, and he cried:
“Ah, my God! the jewels, the presents I gave you!”
And he, who was usually so good-tempered and gentle, was convulsed with grief and anger. He seized her hands in his, crushing with almost brutal force the fingers which held the notes.
“My God! what have you done, unhappy girl? It is my heart that you have sold, both our hearts, that had entered into those jewels, which you have given with them for money! The jewels which I gave you, the souvenirs of our divinest hours, your property, yours only, how can you wish me to take them back, to turn them to my profit? Can it be possible — have you thought of the anguish that this would give me?”
“And you, master,” she answered gently, “do you think that I could consent to our remaining in the unhappy situation in which we are, in want of everything, while I had these rings and necklaces and earrings laid away in the bottom of a drawer? Why, my whole being would rise in protest. I should think myself a miser, a selfish wretch, if I had kept them any longer. And, although it was a grief for me to part with them — ah, yes, I confess it, so great a grief that I could hardly find the courage to do it — I am certain that I have only done what I ought to have done as an obedient and loving woman.”
And as he still grasped her hands, tears came to her eyes, and she added in the same gentle voice and with a faint smile:
“Don’t press so hard; you hurt me.”
Then repentant and deeply moved, Pascal, too, wept.
“I am a brute to get angry in this way. You acted rightly; you could not do otherwise. But forgive me; it was hard for me to see you despoil yourself. Give me your hands, your poor hands, and let me kiss away the marks of my stupid violence.”
He took her hands again in his tenderly; he covered them with kisses; he thought them inestimably precious, so delicate and bare, thus stripped of their rings. Consoled now, and joyous, she told him of her escapade — how she had taken Martine into her confidence, and how both had gone to the dealer who had sold him the corsage of point d’Alencon, and how after interminable examining and bargaining the woman had given six thousand francs for all the jewels. Again he repressed a gesture of despair — six thousand francs! when the jewels had cost him more than three times that amount — twenty thousand francs at the very least.
“Listen,” he said to her at last; “I will take this money, since, in the goodness of your heart, you have brought it to me. But it is clearly understood that it is yours. I swear to you that I will, for the future, be more miserly than Martine herself. I will give her only the few sous that are absolutely necessary for our maintenance, and you will find in the desk all that may be left of this sum, if I should never be able to complete it and give it back to you entire.”
He clasped her in an embrace that still trembled with emotion. Presently, lowering his voice to a whisper, he said:
“And did you sell everything, absolutely everything?”
Without speaking, she disengaged herself a little from his embrace, and put her fingers to her throat, with her pretty gesture, smiling and blushing. Finally, she drew out the slender chain on which shone the seven pearls, like milky stars. Then she put it back again out of sight.
He, too, blushed, and a great joy filled his heart. He embraced her passionately.
“Ah!” he cried, “how good you are, and how I love you!”
But from this time forth the recollection of the jewels which had been sold rested like a weight upon his heart; and he could not look at the money in his desk without pain. He was haunted by the thought of approaching want, inevitable want, and by a still more bitter thought — the thought of his age, of his sixty years which rendered him useless, incapable of earning a comfortable living for a wife; he had been suddenly and rudely awakened from his illusory dream of eternal love to the disquieting reality. He had fallen unexpectedly into poverty, and he felt himself very old — this terrified him and filled him with a sort of remorse, of desperate rage against himself, as if he had been guilty of a crime. And this embittered his every hour; if through momentary forgetfulness he permitted himself to indulge in a little gaiety his distress soon returned with greater poignancy than ever, bringing with it a sudden and inexplicable sadness. He did not dare to question himself, and his dissatisfaction with himself and his suffering increased every day.
Then a frightful revelation came to him. One morning, when he was alone, he received a letter bearing the Plassans postmark, the superscription on which he examined with surprise, not recognizing the writing. This letter was not signed; and after reading a few lines he made an angry movement as if to tear it up and throw it away; but he sat down trembling instead, and read it to the end. The style was perfectly courteous; the long phrases rolled on, measured and carefully worded, like diplomatic phrases, whose only aim is to convince. It was demonstrated to him with a superabundance of arguments that the scandal of La Souleiade had lasted too long already. If passion, up to a certain point, explained the fault, yet a man of his age and in his situation was rendering himself contemptible by persisting in wrecking the happiness of the young relative whose trustfulness he abused. No one was ignorant of the ascendency which he had acquired over her; it was admitted that she gloried in sacrificing herself for him; but ought he not, on his side, to comprehend that it was impossible that she should love an old man, that what she felt was merely pity and gratitude, and that it was high time to deliver her from this senile love, which would finally leave her with a dishonored name! Since he could not even assure her a small fortune, the writer hoped he would act like an honorable man, and have the strength to separate from her, through consideration for her happiness, if it were not yet too late. And the letter concluded with the reflection that evil conduct was always punished in the end.
From the first sentence Pascal felt that this anonymous letter came from his mother. Old Mme. Rougon must have dictated it; he could hear in it the very inflections of her voice. But after having begun the letter angry and indignant, he finished it pale and trembling, seized by the shiver which now passed through him continually and without apparent cause. The letter was right, it enlightened him cruelly regarding the source of his mental distress, showing him that it was remorse for keeping Clotilde with him, old and poor as he was. He got up and walked over to a mirror, before which he stood for a long time, his eyes gradually filling with tears of despair at sight of his wrinkles and his white beard. The feeling of terror which arose within him, the mortal chill which invaded his heart, was caused by the thought that separation had become necessary, inevitable. He repelled the thought, he felt that he would never have the strength for a separation, but it still returned; he would never now pass a single day without being assailed by it, without being torn by the struggle between his love and his reason until the terrible day when he should become resigned, his strength and his tears exhausted. In his present weakness, he trembled merely at the thought of one day having this courage. And all was indeed over, the irrevocable had begun; he was filled with fear for Clotilde, so young and so beautiful, and all there was left him now was the duty of saving her from himself.
Then, haunted by every word, by every phrase of the letter, he tortured himself at first by trying to persuade himself that she did not love him, that all she felt for him was pity and gratitude. It would make the rupture more easy to him, he thought, if he were once convinced that she sacrificed herself, and that in keeping her with him longer he was only gratifying his monstrous selfishness. But it was in vain that he studied her, that he subjected her to proofs, she remained as tender and devoted as ever, making the dreaded decision still more difficult. Then he pondered over all the causes that vaguely, but ceaselessly urged their separation. The life which they had been leading for months past, this life without ties or duties, without work of any sort, was not good. He thought no longer of himself, he considered himself good for nothing now but to go away and bury himself out of sight in some remote corner; but for her was it not an injurious life, a life which would deteriorate her character and weaken her will? And suddenly he saw himself in fancy dying, leaving her alone to perish of hunger in the streets. No, no! this would be a crime; he could not, for the sake of the happiness of his few remaining days, bequeath to her this heritage of shame and misery.
One morning Clotilde went for a walk in the neighborhood, from which she returned greatly agitated, pale and trembling, and as soon as she was upstairs in the workroom, she almost fainted in Pascal’s arms, faltering:
“Oh, my God! oh, my God! those women!”
Terrified, he pressed her with questions.
“Come, tell me! What has happened?”
A flush mounted to her face. She flung her arms around his neck and hid her head on his shoulder.
“It was those women! Reaching a shady spot, I was closing my parasol, and I had the misfortune to throw down a child. And they all rose against me, crying out such things, oh, such things — things that I cannot repeat, that I could not understand!”
She burst into sobs. He was livid; he could find nothing to say to her; he kissed her wildly, weeping like herself. He pictured to himself the whole scene; he saw her pursued, hooted at, reviled. Presently he faltered:
“It is my fault, it is through me you suffer. Listen, we will go away from here, far, far away, where we shall not be known, where you will be honored, where you will be happy.”
But seeing him weep, she recovered her calmness by a violent effort. And drying her tears, she said:
“Ah! I have behaved like a coward in telling you all this. After promising myself that I would say nothing of it to you. But when I found myself at home again, my anguish was so great that it all came out. But you see now it is all over, don’t grieve about it. I love you.”
She smiled, and putting her arms about him she kissed him in her turn, trying to soothe his despair.
“I love you. I love you so dearly that it will console me for everything. There is only you in the world, what matters anything that is not you? You are so good; you make me so happy!”
But he continued to weep, and she, too, began to weep again, and there was a moment of infinite sadness, of anguish, in which they mingled their kisses and their tears.
Pascal, when she left him alone for an instant, thought himself a wretch. He could no longer be the cause of misfortune to this child, whom he adored. And on the evening of the same day an event took place which brought about the solution hitherto sought in vain, with the fear of finding it. After dinner Martine beckoned him aside, and gave him a letter, with all sorts of precautions, saying:
“I met Mme. Felicite, and she charged me to give you this letter, monsieur, and she told me to tell you that she would have brought it to you herself, only that regard for her reputation prevented her from returning here. She begs you to send her back M. Maxime’s letter, letting her know mademoiselle’s answer.”
It was, in fact, a letter from Maxime, and Mme. Felicite, glad to have received it, used it as a new means of conquering her son, after having waited in vain for misery to deliver him up to her, repentant and imploring. As neither Pascal nor Clotilde had come to demand aid or succor from her, she had once more changed her plan, returning to her old idea of separating them; and, this time, the opportunity seemed to her decisive. Maxime’s letter was a pressing one; he urged his grandmother to plead his cause with his sister. Ataxia had declared itself; he was able to walk now only leaning on his servant’s arm. His solitude terrified him, and he urgently entreated his sister to come to him. He wished to have her with him as a rampart against his father’s abominable designs; as a sweet and upright woman after all, who would take care of him. The letter gave it to be understood that if she conducted herself well toward him she would have no reason to repent it; and ended by reminding the young girl of the promise she had made him, at the time of his visit to Plassans, to come to him, if the day ever arrived when he really needed her.
Pascal turned cold. He read the four pages over again. Here an opportunity to separate presented itself, acceptable to him and advantageous for Clotilde, so easy and so natural that they ought to accept it at once; yet, in spite of all his reasoning he felt so weak, so irresolute still that his limbs trembled under him, and he was obliged to sit down for a moment. But he wished to be heroic, and controlling himself, he called to his companion.
“Here!” he said, “read this letter which your grandmother has sent me.”
Clotilde read the letter attentively to the end without a word, without a sign. Then she said simply:
“Well, you are going to answer it, are you not? I refuse.”
He was obliged to exercise a strong effort of self-control to avoid uttering a great cry of joy, as he pressed her to his heart. As if it were another person who spoke, he heard himself saying quietly:
“You refuse — impossible! You must reflect. Let us wait till to-morrow to give an answer; and let us talk it over, shall we?”
Surprised, she cried excitedly:
“Part from each other! and why? And would you really consent to it? What folly! we love each other, and you would have me leave you and go away where no one cares for me! How could you think of such a thing? It would be stupid.”
He avoided touching on this side of the question, and hastened to speak of promises made — of duty.
“Remember, my dear, how greatly affected you were when I told you that Maxime was in danger. And think of him now, struck down by disease, helpless and alone, calling you to his side. Can you abandon him in that situation? You have a duty to fulfil toward him.”
“A duty?” she cried. “Have I any duties toward a brother who has never occupied himself with me? My only duty is where my heart is.”
“But you have promised. I have promised for you. I have said that you were rational, and you are not going to belie my words.”
“Rational? It is you who are not rational. It is not rational to separate when to do so would make us both die of grief.”
And with an angry gesture she closed the discussion, saying:
“Besides, what is the use of talking about it? There is nothing simpler; it is only necessary to say a single word. Answer me. Are you tired of me? Do you wish to send me away?”
He uttered a cry.
“Send you away! I! Great God!”
“Then it is all settled. If you do not send me away I shall remain.”
She laughed now, and, running to her desk, wrote in red pencil across her brother’s letter two words —“I refuse;” then she called Martine and insisted upon her taking the letter back at once. Pascal was radiant; a wave of happiness so intense inundated his being that he let her have her way. The joy of keeping her with him deprived him even of his power of reasoning.
But that very night, what remorse did he not feel for having been so cowardly! He had again yielded to his longing for happiness. A deathlike sweat broke out upon him when he saw her in imagination far away; himself alone, without her, without that caressing and subtle essence that pervaded the atmosphere when she was near; her breath, her brightness, her courageous rectitude, and the dear presence, physical and mental, which had now become as necessary to his life as the light of day itself. She must leave him, and he must find the strength to die of it. He despised himself for his want of courage, he judged the situation with terrible clear-sightedness. All was ended. An honorable existence and a fortune awaited her with her brother; he could not carry his senile selfishness so far as to keep her any longer in the misery in which he was, to be scorned and despised. And fainting at the thought of all he was losing, he swore to himself that he would be strong, that he would not accept the sacrifice of this child, that he would restore her to happiness and to life, in her own despite.
And now the struggle of self-abnegation began. Some days passed; he had demonstrated to her so clearly the rudeness of her “I refuse,” on Maxime’s letter, that she had written a long letter to her grandmother, explaining to her the reasons for her refusal. But still she would not leave La Souleiade. As Pascal had grown extremely parsimonious, in his desire to trench as little as possible on the money obtained by the sale of the jewels, she surpassed herself, eating her dry bread with merry laughter. One morning he surprised her giving lessons of economy to Martine. Twenty times a day she would look at him intently and then throw herself on his neck and cover his face with kisses, to combat the dreadful idea of a separation, which she saw always in his eyes. Then she had another argument. One evening after dinner he was seized with a palpitation of the heart, and almost fainted. This surprised him; he had never suffered from the heart, and he believed it to be simply a return of his old nervous trouble. Since his great happiness he had felt less strong, with an odd sensation, as if some delicate hidden spring had snapped within him. Greatly alarmed, she hurried to his assistance. Well! now he would no doubt never speak again of her going away. When one loved people, and they were ill, one stayed with them to take care of them.
The struggle thus became a daily, an hourly one. It was a continual assault made by affection, by devotion, by self-abnegation, in the one desire for another’s happiness. But while her kindness and tenderness made the thought of her departure only the more cruel for Pascal, he felt every day more and more strongly the necessity for it. His resolution was now taken. But he remained at bay, trembling and hesitating as to the means of persuading her. He pictured to himself her despair, her tears; what should he do? how should he tell her? how could they bring themselves to give each other a last embrace, never to see each other again? And the days passed, and he could think of nothing, and he began once more to accuse himself of cowardice.
Sometimes she would say jestingly, with a touch of affectionate malice:
“Master, you are too kind-hearted not to keep me.”
But this vexed him; he grew excited, and with gloomy despair answered:
“No, no! don’t talk of my kindness. If I were really kind you would have been long ago with your brother, leading an easy and honorable life, with a bright and tranquil future before you, instead of obstinately remaining here, despised, poor, and without any prospect, to be the sad companion of an old fool like me! No, I am nothing but a coward and a dishonorable man!”
She hastily stopped him. And it was in truth his kindness of heart, above all, that bled, that immense kindness of heart which sprang from his love of life, which he diffused over persons and things, in his continual care for the happiness of every one and everything. To be kind, was not this to love her, to make her happy, at the price of his own happiness? This was the kindness which it was necessary for him to exercise, and which he felt that he would one day exercise, heroic and decisive. But like the wretch who has resolved upon suicide, he waited for the opportunity, the hour, and the means, to carry out his design. Early one morning, on going into the workroom, Clotilde was surprised to see Dr. Pascal seated at his table. It was many weeks since he had either opened a book or touched a pen.
“Why! you are working?” she said.
Without raising his head he answered absently:
“Yes; this is the genealogical tree that I had not even brought up to date.”
She stood behind him for a few moments, looking at him writing. He was completing the notices of Aunt Dide, of Uncle Macquart, and of little Charles, writing the dates of their death. Then, as he did not stir, seeming not to know that she was there, waiting for the kisses and the smiles of other mornings, she walked idly over to the window and back again.
“So you are in earnest,” she said, “you are really working?”
“Certainly; you see I ought to have noted down these deaths last month. And I have a heap of work waiting there for me.”
She looked at him fixedly, with that steady inquiring gaze with which she sought to read his thoughts.
“Very well, let us work. If you have papers to examine, or notes to copy, give them to me.”
And from this day forth he affected to give himself up entirely to work. Besides, it was one of his theories that absolute rest was unprofitable, that it should never be prescribed, even to the overworked. As the fish lives in the water, so a man lives only in the external medium which surrounds him, the sensations which he receives from it transforming themselves in him into impulses, thoughts, and acts; so that if there were absolute rest, if he continued to receive sensations without giving them out again, digested and transformed, an engorgement would result, a malaise, an inevitable loss of equilibrium. For himself he had always found work to be the best regulator of his existence. Even on the mornings when he felt ill, if he set to work he recovered his equipoise. He never felt better than when he was engaged on some long work, methodically planned out beforehand, so many pages to so many hours every morning, and he compared this work to a balancing-pole, which enabled him to maintain his equilibrium in the midst of daily miseries, weaknesses, and mistakes. So that he attributed entirely to the idleness in which he had been living for some weeks past, the palpitation which at times made him feel as if he were going to suffocate. If he wished to recover his health he had only to take up again his great work.
And Pascal spent hours developing and explaining these theories to Clotilde, with a feverish and exaggerated enthusiasm. He seemed to be once more possessed by the love of knowledge and study in which, up to the time of his sudden passion for her, he had spent his life exclusively. He repeated to her that he could not leave his work unfinished, that he had still a great deal to do, if he desired to leave a lasting monument behind him. His anxiety about the envelopes seemed to have taken possession of him again; he opened the large press twenty times a day, taking them down from the upper shelf and enriching them by new notes. His ideas on heredity were already undergoing a transformation; he would have liked to review the whole, to recast the whole, to deduce from the family history, natural and social, a vast synthesis, a resume, in broad strokes, of all humanity. Then, besides, he reviewed his method of treatment by hypodermic injections, with the purpose of amplifying it — a confused vision of a new therapeutics; a vague and remote theory based on his convictions and his personal experience of the beneficent dynamic influence of work.
Now every morning, when he seated himself at his table, he would lament:
“I shall not live long enough; life is too short.”
He seemed to feel that he must not lose another hour. And one morning he looked up abruptly and said to his companion, who was copying a manuscript at his side:
“Listen well, Clotilde. If I should die —”
“What an idea!” she protested, terrified.
“If I should die,” he resumed, “listen to me well — close all the doors immediately. You are to keep the envelopes, you, you only. And when you have collected all my other manuscripts, send them to Ramond. These are my last wishes, do you hear?”
But she refused to listen to him.
“No, no!” she cried hastily, “you talk nonsense!”
“Clotilde, swear to me that you will keep the envelopes, and that you will send all my other papers to Ramond.”
At last, now very serious, and her eyes filled with tears, she gave him the promise he desired. He caught her in his arms, he, too, deeply moved, and lavished caresses upon her, as if his heart had all at once reopened to her. Presently he recovered his calmness, and spoke of his fears. Since he had been trying to work they seemed to have returned. He kept constant watch upon the press, pretending to have observed Martine prowling about it. Might they not work upon the fanaticism of this girl, and urge her to a bad action, persuading her that she was securing her master’s eternal welfare? He had suffered so much from suspicion! In the dread of approaching solitude his former tortures returned — the tortures of the scientist, who is menaced and persecuted by his own, at his own fireside, in his very flesh, in the work of his brain.
One evening, when he was again discussing this subject with Clotilde, he said unthinkingly:
“You know that when you are no longer here —”
She turned very pale and, as he stopped with a start, she cried:
“Oh, master, master, you have not given up that dreadful idea, then? I can see in your eyes that you are hiding something from me, that you have a thought which you no longer share with me. But if I go away and you should die, who will be here then to protect your work?”
Thinking that she had become reconciled, to the idea of her departure, he had the strength to answer gaily:
“Do you suppose that I would allow myself to die without seeing you once more. I will write to you, of course. You must come back to close my eyes.”
Now she burst out sobbing, and sank into a chair.
“My God! Can it be! You wish that to-morrow we should be together no longer, we who have never been separated!”
From this day forth Pascal seemed more engrossed than ever in his work. He would sit for four or five hours at a time, whole mornings and afternoons, without once raising his head. He overacted his zeal. He would allow no one to disturb him, by so much as a word. And when Clotilde would leave the room on tiptoe to give an order downstairs or to go on some errand, he would assure himself by a furtive glance that she was gone, and then let his head drop on the table, with an air of profound dejection. It was a painful relief from the extraordinary effort which he compelled himself to make when she was present; to remain at his table, instead of going over and taking her in his arms and covering her face with sweet kisses. Ah, work! how ardently he called on it as his only refuge from torturing thoughts. But for the most part he was unable to work; he was obliged to feign attention, keeping his eyes fixed upon the page, his sorrowful eyes that grew dim with tears, while his mind, confused, distracted, filled always with one image, suffered the pangs of death. Was he then doomed to see work fail now its effect, he who had always considered it of sovereign power, the creator and ruler of the world? Must he then throw away his pen, renounce action, and do nothing in future but exist? And tears would flow down his white beard; and if he heard Clotilde coming upstairs again he would seize his pen quickly, in order that she might find him as she had left him, buried seemingly in profound meditation, when his mind was now only an aching void.
It was now the middle of September; two weeks that had seemed interminable had passed in this distressing condition of things, without bringing any solution, when one morning Clotilde was greatly surprised by seeing her grandmother, Felicite, enter. Pascal had met his mother the day before in the Rue de la Banne, and, impatient to consummate the sacrifice, and not finding in himself the strength to make the rupture, he had confided in her, in spite of his repugnance, and begged her to come on the following day. As it happened, she had just received another letter from Maxime, a despairing and imploring letter.
She began by explaining her presence.
“Yes, it is I, my dear, and you can understand that only very weighty reasons could have induced me to set my foot here again. But, indeed, you are getting crazy; I cannot allow you to ruin your life in this way, without making a last effort to open your eyes.”
She then read Maxime’s letter in a tearful voice. He was nailed to an armchair. It seemed he was suffering from a form of ataxia, rapid in its progress and very painful. Therefore he requested a decided answer from his sister, hoping still that she would come, and trembling at the thought of being compelled to seek another nurse. This was what he would be obliged to do, however, if they abandoned him in his sad condition. And when she had finished reading the letter she hinted that it would be a great pity to let Maxime’s fortune pass into the hands of strangers; but, above all, she spoke of duty; of the assistance one owed to a relation, she, too, affecting to believe that a formal promise had been given.
“Come, my dear, call upon your memory. You told him that if he should ever need you, you would go to him; I can hear you saying it now. Was it not so, my son?”
Pascal, his face pale, his head slightly bent, had kept silence since his mother’s entrance, leaving her to act. He answered only by an affirmative nod.
Then Felicite went over all the arguments that he himself had employed to persuade Clotilde — the dreadful scandal, to which insult was now added; impending want, so hard for them both; the impossibility of continuing the life they were leading. What future could they hope for, now that they had been overtaken by poverty? It was stupid and cruel to persist longer in her obstinate refusal.
Clotilde, standing erect and with an impenetrable countenance, remained silent, refusing even to discuss the question. But as her grandmother tormented her to give an answer, she said at last:
“Once more, I have no duty whatever toward my brother; my duty is here. He can dispose of his fortune as he chooses; I want none of it. When we are too poor, master shall send away Martine and keep me as his servant.”
Old Mme. Rougon wagged her chin.
“Before being his servant it would be better if you had begun by being his wife. Why have you not got married? It would have been simpler and more proper.”
And Felicite reminded her how she had come one day to urge this marriage, in order to put an end to gossip, and how the young girl had seemed greatly surprised, saying that neither she nor the doctor had thought of it, but that, notwithstanding, they would get married later on, if necessary, for there was no hurry.
“Get married; I am quite willing!” cried Clotilde. “You are right, grandmother.”
And turning to Pascal:
“You have told me a hundred times that you would do whatever I wished. Marry me; do you hear? I will be your wife, and I will stay here. A wife does not leave her husband.”
But he answered only by a gesture, as if he feared that his voice would betray him, and that he should accept, in a cry of gratitude, the eternal bond which she had proposed to him. His gesture might signify a hesitation, a refusal. What was the good of this marriage in extremis, when everything was falling to pieces?
“Those are very fine sentiments, no doubt,” returned Felicite. “You have settled it all in your own little head. But marriage will not give you an income; and, meantime, you are a great expense to him; you are the heaviest of his burdens.”
The effect which these words had upon Clotilde was extraordinary. She turned violently to Pascal, her cheeks crimson, her eyes filled with tears.
“Master, master! is what grandmother has just said true? Has it come to this, that you regret the money I cost you here?”
Pascal grew still paler; he remained motionless, in an attitude of utter dejection. But in a far-away voice, as if he were talking to himself, he murmured:
“I have so much work to do! I should like to go over my envelopes, my manuscripts, my notes, and complete the work of my life. If I were alone perhaps I might be able to arrange everything. I would sell La Souleiade, oh! for a crust of bread, for it is not worth much. I should shut myself and my papers in a little room. I should work from morning till night, and I should try not to be too unhappy.”
But he avoided her glance; and, agitated as she was, these painful and stammering utterances were not calculated to satisfy her. She grew every moment more and more terrified, for she felt that the irrevocable word was about to be spoken.
“Look at me, master, look me in the face. And I conjure you, be brave, choose between your work and me, since you say, it seems, that you send me away that you may work the better.”
The moment for the heroic falsehood had come. He lifted his head and looked her bravely in the face, and with the smile of a dying man who desires death, recovering his voice of divine goodness, he said:
“How excited you get! Can you not do your duty quietly, like everybody else? I have a great deal of work to do, and I need to be alone; and you, dear, you ought to go to your brother. Go then, everything is ended.”
There was a terrible silence for the space of a few seconds. She looked at him earnestly, hoping that he would change his mind. Was he really speaking the truth? was he not sacrificing himself in order that she might be happy? For a moment she had an intuition that this was the case, as if some subtle breath, emanating from him, had warned her of it.
“And you are sending me away forever? You will not permit me to come back to-morrow?”
But he held out bravely; with another smile he seemed to answer that when one went away like this it was not to come back again on the following day. She was now completely bewildered; she knew not what to think. It might be possible that he had chosen work sincerely; that the man of science had gained the victory over the lover. She grew still paler, and she waited a little longer, in the terrible silence; then, slowly, with her air of tender and absolute submission, she said:
“Very well, master, I will go away whenever you wish, and I will not return until you send for me.”
The die was cast. The irrevocable was accomplished. Each felt that neither would attempt to recall the decision that had been made; and, from this instant, every minute that passed would bring nearer the separation.
Felicite, surprised at not being obliged to say more, at once desired to fix the time for Clotilde’s departure. She applauded herself for her tenacity; she thought she had gained the victory by main force. It was now Friday, and it was settled that Clotilde should leave on the following Sunday. A despatch was even sent to Maxime.
For the past three days the mistral had been blowing. But on this evening its fury was redoubled, and Martine declared, in accordance with the popular belief, that it would last for three days longer. The winds at the end of September, in the valley of the Viorne, are terrible. So that the servant took care to go into every room in the house to assure herself that the shutters were securely fastened. When the mistral blew it caught La Souleiade slantingly, above the roofs of the houses of Plassans, on the little plateau on which the house was built. And now it raged and beat against the house, shaking it from garret to cellar, day and night, without a moment’s cessation. The tiles were blown off, the fastenings of the windows were torn away, while the wind, entering the crevices, moaned and sobbed wildly through the house; and the doors, if they were left open for a moment, through forgetfulness, slammed to with a noise like the report of a cannon. They might have fancied they were sustaining a siege, so great were the noise and the discomfort.
It was in this melancholy house shaken by the storm that Pascal, on the following day, helped Clotilde to make her preparations for her departure. Old Mme. Rougon was not to return until Sunday, to say good-by. When Martine was informed of the approaching separation, she stood still in dumb amazement, and a flash, quickly extinguished, lighted her eyes; and as they sent her out of the room, saying that they would not require her assistance in packing the trunks, she returned to the kitchen and busied herself in her usual occupations, seeming to ignore the catastrophe which was about to revolutionize their household of three. But at Pascal’s slightest call she would run so promptly and with such alacrity, her face so bright and so cheerful, in her zeal to serve him, that she seemed like a young girl. Pascal did not leave Clotilde for a moment, helping her, desiring to assure himself that she was taking with her everything she could need. Two large trunks stood open in the middle of the disordered room; bundles and articles of clothing lay about everywhere; twenty times the drawers and the presses had been visited. And in this work, this anxiety to forget nothing, the painful sinking of the heart which they both felt was in some measure lessened. They forgot for an instant — he watching carefully to see that no space was lost, utilizing the hat-case for the smaller articles of clothing, slipping boxes in between the folds of the linen; while she, taking down the gowns, folded them on the bed, waiting to put them last in the top tray. Then, when a little tired they stood up and found themselves again face to face, they would smile at each other at first; then choke back the sudden tears that started at the recollection of the impending and inevitable misfortune. But though their hearts bled they remained firm. Good God! was it then true that they were to be no longer together? And then they heard the wind, the terrible wind, which threatened to blow down the house.
How many times during this last day did they not go over to the window, attracted by the storm, wishing that it would sweep away the world. During these squalls the sun did not cease to shine, the sky remained constantly blue, but a livid blue, windswept and dusty, and the sun was a yellow sun, pale and cold. They saw in the distance the vast white clouds rising from the roads, the trees bending before the blast, looking as if they were flying all in the same direction, at the same rate of speed; the whole country parched and exhausted by the unvarying violence of the wind that blew ceaselessly, with a roar like thunder. Branches were snapped and whirled out of sight; roofs were lifted up and carried so far away that they were never afterward found. Why could not the mistral take them all up together and carry them off to some unknown land, where they might be happy? The trunks were almost packed when Pascal went to open one of the shutters that the wind had blown to, but so fierce a gust swept in through the half open window that Clotilde had to go to his assistance. Leaning with all their weight, they were able at last to turn the catch. The articles of clothing in the room were blown about, and they gathered up in fragments a little hand mirror which had fallen from a chair. Was this a sign of approaching death, as the women of the faubourg said?
In the evening, after a mournful dinner in the bright dining-room, with its great bouquets of flowers, Pascal said he would retire early. Clotilde was to leave on the following morning by the ten o’clock train, and he feared for her the long journey — twenty hours of railway traveling. But when he had retired he was unable to sleep. At first he thought it was the wind that kept him awake. The sleeping house was full of cries, voices of entreaty and voices of anger, mingled together, accompanied by endless sobbing. Twice he got up and went to listen at Clotilde’s door, but he heard nothing. He went downstairs to close a door that banged persistently, like misfortune knocking at the walls. Gusts blew through the dark rooms, and he went to bed again, shivering and haunted by lugubrious visions.
At six o’clock Martine, fancying she heard her master knocking for her on the floor of his room, went upstairs. She entered the room with the alert and excited expression which she had worn for the past two days; but she stood still, astonished and uneasy, when she saw him lying, half-dressed, across his bed, haggard, biting the pillow to stifle his sobs. He got out of bed and tried to finish dressing himself, but a fresh attack seized him, and, his head giddy and his heart palpitating to suffocation, recovering from a momentary faintness, he faltered in agonized tones:
“No, no, I cannot; I suffer too much. I would rather die, die now —”
He recognized Martine, and abandoning himself to his grief, his strength totally gone, he made his confession to her:
“My poor girl, I suffer too much, my heart is breaking. She is taking away my heart with her, she is taking away my whole being. I cannot live without her. I almost died last night. I would be glad to die before her departure, not to have the anguish of seeing her go away. Oh, my God! she is going away, and I shall have her no longer, and I shall be left alone, alone, alone!”
The servant, who had gone upstairs so gaily, turned as pale as wax, and a hard and bitter look came into her face. For a moment she watched him clutching the bedclothes convulsively, uttering hoarse cries of despair, his face pressed against the coverlet. Then, by a violent effort, she seemed to make up her mind.
“But, monsieur, there is no sense in making trouble for yourself in this way. It is ridiculous. Since that is how it is, and you cannot do without mademoiselle, I shall go and tell her what a state you have let yourself get into.”
At these words he got up hastily, staggering still, and, leaning for support on the back of a chair, he cried:
“I positively forbid you to do so, Martine!”
“A likely thing that I should listen to you, seeing you like that! To find you some other time half dead, crying your eyes out! No, no! I shall go to mademoiselle and tell her the truth, and compel her to remain with us.”
But he caught her angrily by the arm and held her fast.
“I command you to keep quiet, do you hear? Or you shall go with her! Why did you come in? It was this wind that made me ill. That concerns no one.”
Then, yielding to a good-natured impulse, with his usual kindness of heart, he smiled.
“My poor girl, see how you vex me? Let me act as I ought, for the happiness of others. And not another word; you would pain me greatly.”
Martine’s eyes, too, filled with tears. It was just in time that they made peace, for Clotilde entered almost immediately. She had risen early, eager to see Pascal, hoping doubtless, up to the last moment, that he would keep her. Her own eyelids were heavy from want of sleep, and she looked at him steadily as she entered, with her inquiring air. But he was still so discomposed that she began to grow uneasy.
“No, indeed, I assure you, I would even have slept well but for the mistral. I was just telling you so, Martine, was I not?”
The servant confirmed his words by an affirmative nod. And Clotilde, too, submitted, saying nothing of the night of anguish and mental conflict she had spent while he, on his side, had been suffering the pangs of death. Both of the women now docilely obeyed and aided him, in his heroic self-abnegation.
“What,” he continued, opening his desk, “I have something here for you. There! there are seven hundred francs in that envelope.”
And in spite of her exclamations and protestations he persisted in rendering her an account. Of the six thousand francs obtained by the sale of the jewels two hundred only had been spent, and he had kept one hundred to last till the end of the month, with the strict economy, the penuriousness, which he now displayed. Afterward he would no doubt sell La Souleiade, he would work, he would be able to extricate himself from his difficulties. But he would not touch the five thousand francs which remained, for they were her property, her own, and she would find them again in the drawer.
“Master, master, you are giving me a great deal of pain —”
“I wish it,” he interrupted, “and it is you who are trying to break my heart. Come, it is half-past seven, I will go and cord your trunks since they are locked.”
When Martine and Clotilde were alone and face to face they looked at each other for a moment in silence. Ever since the commencement of the new situation, they had been fully conscious of their secret antagonism, the open triumph of the young mistress, the half concealed jealousy of the old servant about her adored master. Now it seemed that the victory remained with the servant. But in this final moment their common emotion drew them together.
“Martine, you must not let him eat like a poor man. You promise me that he shall have wine and meat every day?”
“Have no fear, mademoiselle.”
“And the five thousand francs lying there, you know belong to him. You are not going to let yourselves starve to death, I suppose, with those there. I want you to treat him very well.”
“I tell you that I will make it my business to do so, mademoiselle, and that monsieur shall want for nothing.”
There was a moment’s silence. They were still regarding each other.
“And watch him, to see that he does not overwork himself. I am going away very uneasy; he has not been well for some time past. Take good care of him.”
“Make your mind easy, mademoiselle, I will take care of him.”
“Well, I give him into your charge. He will have only you now; and it is some consolation to me to know that you love him dearly. Love him with all your strength. Love him for us both.”
“Yes, mademoiselle, as much as I can.”
Tears came into their eyes; Clotilde spoke again.
“Will you embrace me, Martine?”
“Oh, mademoiselle, very gladly.”
They were in each other’s arms when Pascal reentered the room. He pretended not to see them, doubtless afraid of giving way to his emotion. In an unnaturally loud voice he spoke of the final preparations for Clotilde’s departure, like a man who had a great deal on his hands and was afraid that the train might be missed. He had corded the trunks, a man had taken them away in a little wagon, and they would find them at the station. But it was only eight o’clock, and they had still two long hours before them. Two hours of mortal anguish, spent in unoccupied and weary waiting, during which they tasted a hundred times over the bitterness of parting. The breakfast took hardly a quarter of an hour. Then they got up, to sit down again. Their eyes never left the clock. The minutes seemed long as those of a death watch, throughout the mournful house.
“How the wind blows!” said Clotilde, as a sudden gust made all the doors creak.
Pascal went over to the window and watched the wild flight of the storm-blown trees.
“It has increased since morning,” he said. “Presently I must see to the roof, for some of the tiles have been blown away.”
Already they had ceased to be one household. They listened in silence to the furious wind, sweeping everything before it, carrying with it their life.
Finally Pascal looked for a last time at the clock, and said simply:
“It is time, Clotilde.”
She rose from the chair on which she had been sitting. She had for an instant forgotten that she was going away, and all at once the dreadful reality came back to her. Once more she looked at him, but he did not open his arms to keep her. It was over; her hope was dead. And from this moment her face was like that of one struck with death.
At first they exchanged the usual commonplaces.
“You will write to me, will you not?”
“Certainly, and you must let me hear from you as often as possible.”
“Above all, if you should fall ill, send for me at once.”
“I promise you that I will do so. But there is no danger. I am very strong.”
Then, when the moment came in which she was to leave this dear house, Clotilde looked around with unsteady gaze; then she threw herself on Pascal’s breast, she held him for an instant in her arms, faltering:
“I wish to embrace you here, I wish to thank you. Master, it is you who have made me what I am. As you have often told me, you have corrected my heredity. What should I have become amid the surroundings in which Maxime has grown up? Yes, if I am worth anything, it is to you alone I owe it, you, who transplanted me into this abode of kindness and affection, where you have brought me up worthy of you. Now, after having taken me and overwhelmed me with benefits, you send me away. Be it as you will, you are my master, and I will obey you. I love you, in spite of all, and I shall always love you.”
He pressed her to his heart, answering:
“I desire only your good, I am completing my work.”
When they reached the station, Clotilde vowed to herself that she would one day come back. Old Mme. Rougon was there, very gay and very brisk, in spite of her eighty-and-odd years. She was triumphant now; she thought she would have her son Pascal at her mercy. When she saw them both stupefied with grief she took charge of everything; got the ticket, registered the baggage, and installed the traveler in a compartment in which there were only ladies. Then she spoke for a long time about Maxime, giving instructions and asking to be kept informed of everything. But the train did not start; there were still five cruel minutes during which they remained face to face, without speaking to each other. Then came the end, there were embraces, a great noise of wheels, and waving of handkerchiefs.
Suddenly Pascal became aware that he was standing alone upon the platform, while the train was disappearing around a bend in the road. Then, without listening to his mother, he ran furiously up the slope, sprang up the stone steps like a young man, and found himself in three minutes on the terrace of La Souleiade. The mistral was raging there — a fierce squall which bent the secular cypresses like straws. In the colorless sky the sun seemed weary of the violence of the wind, which for six days had been sweeping over its face. And like the wind-blown trees Pascal stood firm, his garments flapping like banners, his beard and hair blown about and lashed by the storm. His breath caught by the wind, his hands pressed upon his heart to quiet its throbbing, he saw the train flying in the distance across the bare plain, a little train which the mistral seemed to sweep before it like a dry branch.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15