It was not until after breakfast, at about one o’clock, that Clotilde received the despatch. On this day it had chanced that she had quarreled with her brother Maxime, who, taking advantage of his privileges as an invalid, had tormented her more and more every day by his unreasonable caprices and his outbursts of ill temper. In short, her visit to him had not proved a success. He found that she was too simple and too serious to cheer him; and he had preferred, of late, the society of Rose, the fair-haired young girl, with the innocent look, who amused him. So that when his sister told him that their uncle had sent for her, and that she was going away, he gave his approval at once, and although he asked her to return as soon as she should have settled her affairs at home, he did so only with the desire of showing himself amiable, and he did not press the invitation.
Clotilde spent the afternoon in packing her trunks. In the feverish excitement of so sudden a decision she had thought of nothing but the joy of her return. But after the hurry of dinner was over, after she had said good-by to her brother, after the interminable drive in a hackney coach along the avenue of the Bois de Boulogne to the Lyons railway station, when she found herself in the ladies’ compartment, starting on the long journey on a cold and rainy November night, already rolling away from Paris, her excitement began to abate, and reflections forced their way into her mind and began to trouble her. Why this brief and urgent despatch: “I await you; start this evening.” Doubtless it was the answer to her letter; but she knew how greatly Pascal had desired that she should remain in Paris, where he thought she was happy, and she was astonished at his hasty summons. She had not expected a despatch, but a letter, arranging for her return a few weeks later. There must be something else, then; perhaps he was ill and felt a desire, a longing to see her again at once. And from this time forward this fear seized her with the force of a presentiment, and grew stronger and stronger, until it soon took complete possession of her.
All night long the rain beat furiously against the windows of the train while they were crossing the plains of Burgundy, and did not cease until they reached Macon. When they had passed Lyons the day broke. Clotilde had Pascal’s letters with her, and she had waited impatiently for the daylight that she might read again carefully these letters, the writing of which had seemed changed to her. And noticing the unsteady characters, the breaks in the words, she felt a chill at her heart. He was ill, very ill — she had become certain of this now, by a divination in which there was less of reasoning than of subtle prescience. And the rest of the journey seemed terribly long, for her anguish increased in proportion as she approached its termination. And worse than all, arriving at Marseilles at half-past twelve, there was no train for Plassans until twenty minutes past three. Three long hours of waiting! She breakfasted at the buffet in the railway station, eating hurriedly, as if she was afraid of missing this train; then she dragged herself into the dusty garden, going from bench to bench in the pale, mild sunshine, among omnibuses and hackney coaches. At last she was once more in the train, which stopped at every little way station. When they were approaching Plassans she put her head out of the window eagerly, longing to see the town again after her short absence of two months. It seemed to her as if she had been away for twenty years, and that everything must be changed. When the train was leaving the little station of Sainte-Marthe her emotion reached its height when, leaning out, she saw in the distance La Souleiade with the two secular cypresses on the terrace, which could be seen three leagues off.
It was five o’clock, and twilight was already falling. The train stopped, and Clotilde descended. But it was a surprise and a keen grief to her not to see Pascal waiting for her on the platform. She had been saying to herself since they had left Lyons: “If I do not see him at once, on the arrival of the train, it will be because he is ill.” He might be in the waiting-room, however, or with a carriage outside. She hurried forward, but she saw no one but Father Durieu, a driver whom the doctor was in the habit of employing. She questioned him eagerly. The old man, a taciturn Provencal, was in no haste to answer. His wagon was there, and he asked her for the checks for her luggage, wishing to see about the trunks before anything else. In a trembling voice she repeated her question:
“Is everybody well, Father Durieu?”
And she was obliged to put question after question to him before she succeeded in eliciting the information that it was Martine who had told him, at about six o’clock the day before, to be at the station with his wagon, in time to meet the train. He had not seen the doctor, no one had seen him, for two months past. It might very well be since he was not here that he had been obliged to take to his bed, for there was a report in the town that he was not very well.
“Wait until I get the luggage, mademoiselle,” he ended, “there is room for you on the seat.”
“No, Father Durieu, it would be too long to wait. I will walk.”
She ascended the slope rapidly. Her heart was so tightened that she could scarcely breathe. The sun had sunk behind the hills of Sainte-Marthe, and a fine mist was falling from the chill gray November sky, and as she took the road to Les Fenouilleres she caught another glimpse of La Souleiade, which struck a chill to her heart — the front of the house, with all its shutters closed, and wearing a look of abandonment and desolation in the melancholy twilight.
But Clotilde received the final and terrible blow when she saw Ramond standing at the hall door, apparently waiting for her. He had indeed been watching for her, and had come downstairs to break the dreadful news gently to her. She arrived out of breath; she had crossed the quincunx of plane trees near the fountain to shorten the way, and on seeing the young man there instead of Pascal, whom she had in spite of everything expected to see, she had a presentiment of overwhelming ruin, of irreparable misfortune. Ramond was pale and agitated, notwithstanding the effort he made to control his feelings. At the first moment he could not find a word to say, but waited to be questioned. Clotilde, who was herself suffocating, said nothing. And they entered the house thus; he led her to the dining-room, where they remained for a few seconds, face to face, in mute anguish.
“He is ill, is he not?” she at last faltered.
“Yes,” he said, “he is ill.”
“I knew it at once when I saw you,” she replied. “I knew when he was not here that he must be ill. He is very ill, is he not?” she persisted.
As he did not answer but grew still paler, she looked at him fixedly. And on the instant she saw the shadow of death upon him; on his hands that still trembled, that had assisted the dying man; on his sad face; in his troubled eyes, which still retained the reflection of the death agony; in the neglected and disordered appearance of the physician who, for twelve hours, had maintained an unavailing struggle against death.
She gave a loud cry:
“He is dead!”
She tottered, and fell fainting into the arms of Ramond, who with a great sob pressed her in a brotherly embrace. And thus they wept on each other’s neck.
When he had seated her in a chair, and she was able to speak, he said:
“It was I who took the despatch you received to the telegraph office yesterday, at half-past ten o’clock. He was so happy, so full of hope! He was forming plans for the future — a year, two years of life. And this morning, at four o’clock, he had the first attack, and he sent for me. He saw at once that he was doomed, but he expected to last until six o’clock, to live long enough to see you again. But the disease progressed too rapidly. He described its progress to me, minute by minute, like a professor in the dissecting room. He died with your name upon his lips, calm, but full of anguish, like a hero.”
Clotilde listened, her eyes drowned in tears which flowed endlessly. Every word of the relation of this piteous and stoical death penetrated her heart and stamped itself there. She reconstructed every hour of the dreadful day. She followed to its close its grand and mournful drama. She would live it over in her thoughts forever.
But her despairing grief overflowed when Martine, who had entered the room a moment before, said in a harsh voice:
“Ah, mademoiselle has good reason to cry! for if monsieur is dead, mademoiselle is to blame for it.”
The old servant stood apart, near the door of her kitchen, in such a passion of angry grief, because they had taken her master from her, because they had killed him, that she did not even try to find a word of welcome or consolation for this child whom she had brought up. And without calculating the consequences of her indiscretion, the grief or the joy which she might cause, she relieved herself by telling all she knew.
“Yes, if monsieur has died, it is because mademoiselle went away.”
From the depths of her overpowering grief Clotilde protested. She had expected to see Martine weeping with her, like Ramond, and she was surprised to feel that she was an enemy.
“Why, it was he who would not let me stay, who insisted upon my going away,” she said.
“Oh, well! mademoiselle must have been willing to go or she would have been more clear-sighted. The night before your departure I found monsieur half-suffocated with grief; and when I wished to inform mademoiselle, he himself prevented me; he had such courage. Then I could see it all, after mademoiselle had gone. Every night it was the same thing over again, and he could hardly keep from writing to you to come back. In short, he died of it, that is the pure truth.”
A great light broke in on Clotilde’s mind, making her at the same time very happy and very wretched. Good God! what she had suspected for a moment, was then true. Afterward she had been convinced, seeing Pascal’s angry persistence, that he was speaking the truth; that between her and work he had chosen work sincerely, like a man of science with whom love of work has gained the victory over the love of woman. And yet he had not spoken the truth; he had carried his devotion, his self-forgetfulness to the point of immolating himself to what he believed to be her happiness. And the misery of things willed that he should have been mistaken, that he should have thus consummated the unhappiness of both.
Clotilde again protested wildly:
“But how could I have known? I obeyed; I put all my love in my obedience.”
“Ah,” cried Martine again, “it seems to me that I should have guessed.”
Ramond interposed gently. He took Clotilde’s hands once more in his, and explained to her that grief might indeed have hastened the fatal issue, but that the master had unhappily been doomed for some time past. The affection of the heart from which he had suffered must have been of long standing — a great deal of overwork, a certain part of heredity, and, finally, his late absorbing love, and the poor heart had broken.
“Let us go upstairs,” said Clotilde simply. “I wish to see him.”
Upstairs in the death-chamber the blinds were closed, shutting out even the melancholy twilight. On a little table at the foot of the bed burned two tapers in two candlesticks. And they cast a pale yellow light on Pascal’s form extended on the bed, the feet close together, the hands folded on the breast. The eyes had been piously closed. The face, of a bluish hue still, but already looking calm and peaceful, framed by the flowing white hair and beard, seemed asleep. He had been dead scarcely an hour and a half, yet already infinite serenity, eternal silence, eternal repose, had begun.
Seeing him thus, at the thought that he no longer heard her, that he no longer saw her, that she was alone now, that she was to kiss him for the last time, and then lose him forever, Clotilde, in an outburst of grief, threw herself upon the bed, and in broken accents of passionate tenderness cried:
“Oh, master, master, master —”
She pressed her lips to the dead man’s forehead, and, feeling it still warm with life, she had a momentary illusion: she fancied that he felt this last caress, so cruelly awaited. Did he not smile in his immobility, happy at last, and able to die, now that he felt her here beside him? Then, overcome by the dreadful reality, she burst again into wild sobs.
Martine entered, bringing a lamp, which she placed on a corner of the chimney-piece, and she heard Ramond, who was watching Clotilde, disquieted at seeing her passionate grief, say:
“I shall take you away from the room if you give way like this. Consider that you have some one else to think of now.”
The servant had been surprised at certain words which she had overheard by chance during the day. Suddenly she understood, and she turned paler even than before, and on her way out of the room, she stopped at the door to hear more.
“The key of the press is under his pillow,” said Ramond, lowering his voice; “he told me repeatedly to tell you so. You know what you have to do?”
Clotilde made an effort to remember and to answer.
“What I have to do? About the papers, is it not? Yes, yes, I remember; I am to keep the envelopes and to give you the other manuscripts. Have no fear, I am quite calm, I will be very reasonable. But I will not leave him; I will spend the night here very quietly, I promise you.”
She was so unhappy, she seemed so resolved to watch by him, to remain with him, until he should be taken away, that the young physician allowed her to have her way.
“Well, I will leave you now. They will be expecting me at home. Then there are all sorts of formalities to be gone through — to give notice at the mayor’s office, the funeral, of which I wish to spare you the details. Trouble yourself about nothing. Everything will be arranged to-morrow when I return.”
He embraced her once more and then went away. And it was only then that Martine left the room, behind him, and locking the hall door she ran out into the darkness.
Clotilde was now alone in the chamber; and all around and about her, in the unbroken silence, she felt the emptiness of the house. Clotilde was alone with the dead Pascal. She placed a chair at the head of the bed and sat there motionless, alone. On arriving, she had merely removed her hat: now, perceiving that she still had on her gloves, she took them off also. But she kept on her traveling dress, crumpled and dusty, after twenty hours of railway travel. No doubt Father Durieu had brought the trunks long ago, and left them downstairs. But it did not occur to her, nor had she the strength to wash herself and change her clothes, but remained sitting, overwhelmed with grief, on the chair into which she had dropped. One regret, a great remorse, filled her to the exclusion of all else. Why had she obeyed him? Why had she consented to leave him? If she had remained she had the ardent conviction that he would not have died. She would have lavished so much love, so many caresses upon him, that she would have cured him. If one was anxious to keep a beloved being from dying one should remain with him and, if necessary, give one’s heart’s blood to keep him alive. It was her own fault if she had lost him, if she could not now with a caress awaken him from his eternal sleep. And she thought herself imbecile not to have understood; cowardly, not to have devoted herself to him; culpable, and to be forever punished for having gone away when plain common sense, in default of feeling, ought to have kept her here, bound, as a submissive and affectionate subject, to the task of watching over her king.
The silence had become so complete, so profound, that Clotilde lifted her eyes for a moment from Pascal’s face to look around the room. She saw only vague shadows — the two tapers threw two yellow patches on the high ceiling. At this moment she remembered the letters he had written to her, so short, so cold; and she comprehended his heroic sacrifice, the torture it had been to him to silence his heart, desiring to immolate himself to the end. What strength must he not have required for the accomplishment of the plan of happiness, sublime and disastrous, which he had formed for her. He had resolved to pass out of her life in order to save her from his old age and his poverty; he wished her to be rich and free, to enjoy her youth, far away from him; this indeed was utter self-effacement, complete absorption in the love of another. And she felt a profound gratitude, a sweet solace in the thought, mingled with a sort of angry bitterness against evil fortune. Then, suddenly, the happy years of her childhood and her long youth spent beside him who had always been so kind and so good-humored, rose before her — how he had gradually won her affection, how she had felt that she was his, after the quarrels which had separated them for a time, and with what a transport of joy she had at last given herself to him.
Seven o’clock struck. Clotilde started as the clear tones broke the profound silence. Who was it that had spoken? Then she remembered, and she looked at the clock. And when the last sound of the seven strokes, each of which had fallen like a knell upon her heart, had died away, she turned her eyes again on the motionless face of Pascal, and once more she abandoned herself to her grief.
It was in the midst of this ever-increasing prostration that Clotilde, a few minutes later, heard a sudden sound of sobbing. Some one had rushed into the room; she looked round and saw her Grandmother Felicite. But she did not stir, she did not speak, so benumbed was she with grief. Martine, anticipating the orders which Clotilde would undoubtedly have given her, had hurried to old Mme. Rougon’s, to give her the dreadful news; and the latter, dazed at first by the suddenness of the catastrophe, and afterward greatly agitated, had hurried to the house, overflowing with noisy grief. She burst into tears at sight of her son, and then embraced Clotilde, who returned her kiss, as in a dream. And from this instant the latter, without emerging from the overwhelming grief in which she isolated herself, felt that she was no longer alone, hearing a continual stir and bustle going on around her. It was Felicite crying, coming in and going out on tiptoe, setting things in order, spying about, whispering, dropping into a chair, to get up again a moment afterward, after saying that she was going to die in it. At nine o’clock she made a last effort to persuade her granddaughter to eat something. Twice already she had lectured her in a low voice; she came now again to whisper to her:
“Clotilde, my dear, I assure you you are wrong. You must keep up your strength or you will never be able to hold out.”
But the young woman, with a shake of her head, again refused.
“Come, you breakfasted at the buffet at Marseilles, I suppose, but you have eaten nothing since. Is that reasonable? I do not wish you to fall ill also. Martine has some broth. I have told her to make a light soup and to roast a chicken. Go down and eat a mouthful, only a mouthful, and I will remain here.”
With the same patient gesture Clotilde again refused. At last she faltered:
“Do not ask me, grandmother, I entreat you. I could not; it would choke me.”
She did not speak again, falling back into her former state of apathy. She did not sleep, however, her wide open eyes were fixed persistently on Pascal’s face. For hours she sat there, motionless, erect, rigid, as if her spirit were far away with the dead. At ten o’clock she heard a noise; it was Martine bringing up the lamp. Toward eleven Felicite, who was sitting watching in an armchair, seemed to grow restless, got up and went out of the room, and came back again. From this forth there was a continual coming and going as of impatient footsteps prowling around the young woman, who was still awake, her large eyes fixed motionless on Pascal. Twelve o’clock struck, and one persistent thought alone pierced her weary brain, like a nail, and prevented sleep — why had she obeyed him? If she had remained she would have revived him with her youth, and he would not have died. And it was not until a little before one that she felt this thought, too, grow confused and lose itself in a nightmare. And she fell into a heavy sleep, worn out with grief and fatigue.
When Martine had announced to Mme. Rougon the unexpected death of her son Pascal, in the shock which she received there was as much of anger as of grief. What! her dying son had not wished to see her; he had made this servant swear not to inform her of his illness! This thought sent the blood coursing swiftly through her veins, as if the struggle between them, which had lasted during his whole life, was to be continued beyond the grave. Then, when after hastily dressing herself she had hurried to La Souleiade, the thought of the terrible envelopes, of all the manuscripts piled up in the press, had filled her with trembling rage. Now that Uncle Macquart and Aunt Dide were dead, she no longer feared what she called the abomination of the Tulettes; and even poor little Charles, in dying, had carried with him one of the most humiliating of the blots on the family. There remained only the envelopes, the abominable envelopes, to menace the glorious Rougon legend which she had spent her whole life in creating, which was the sole thought of her old age, the work to the triumph of which she had persistently devoted the last efforts of her wily and active brain. For long years she had watched these envelopes, never wearying, beginning the struggle over again, when he had thought her beaten, always alert and persistent. Ah! if she could only succeed in obtaining possession of them and destroying them! It would be the execrable past destroyed, effaced; it would be the glory of her family, so hardly won, at last freed from all fear, at last shining untarnished, imposing its lie upon history. And she saw herself traversing the three quarters of Plassans, saluted by every one, bearing herself as proudly as a queen, mourning nobly for the fallen Empire. So that when Martine informed her that Clotilde had come, she quickened her steps as she approached La Souleiade, spurred by the fear of arriving too late.
But as soon as she was installed in the house, Felicite at once regained her composure. There was no hurry, they had the whole night before them. She wished, however, to win over Martine without delay, and she knew well how to influence this simple creature, bound up in the doctrines of a narrow religion. Going down to the kitchen, then, to see the chicken roasting, she began by affecting to be heartbroken at the thought of her son dying without having made his peace with the Church. She questioned the servant, pressing her for particulars. But the latter shook her head disconsolately — no, no priest had come, monsieur had not even made the sign of the cross. She, only, had knelt down to say the prayers for the dying, which certainly could not be enough for the salvation of a soul. And yet with what fervor she had prayed to the good God that monsieur might go straight to Paradise!
With her eyes fixed on the chicken turning on the spit, before a bright fire, Felicite resumed in a lower voice, with an absorbed air:
“Ah, my poor girl, what will most prevent him from going to Paradise are the abominable papers which the unhappy man has left behind him up there in the press. I cannot understand why it is that lightning from heaven has not struck those papers before this and reduced them to ashes. If they are allowed to leave this house it will be ruin and disgrace and eternal perdition!”
Martine listened, very pale.
“Then madame thinks it would be a good work to destroy them, a work that would assure the repose of monsieur’s soul?”
“Great God! Do I believe it! Why, if I had those dreadful papers in my hands, I would throw every one of them into the fire. Oh, you would not need then to put on any more sticks; with the manuscripts upstairs alone you would have fuel enough to roast three chickens like that.”
The servant took a long spoon and began to baste the fowl. She, too, seemed now to reflect.
“Only we haven’t got them. I even overheard some words on the subject, which I may repeat to madame. It was when mademoiselle went upstairs. Dr. Raymond spoke to her about the papers, asking her if she remembered some orders which she had received, before she went away, no doubt; and she answered that she remembered, that she was to keep the envelopes and to give him all the other manuscripts.”
Felicite trembled; she could not restrain a terrified movement. Already she saw the papers slipping out of her reach; and it was not the envelopes only which she desired, but all the manuscripts, all that unknown, suspicious, and secret work, from which nothing but scandal could come, according to the obtuse and excitable mind of the proud old bourgeoise.
“But we must act!” she cried, “act immediately, this very night! To-morrow it may be too late.”
“I know where the key of the press is,” answered Martine in a low voice. “The doctor told mademoiselle.”
Felicite immediately pricked up her ears.
“The key; where is it?”
“Under the pillow, under monsieur’s head.”
In spite of the bright blaze of the fire of vine branches the air seemed to grow suddenly chill, and the two old women were silent. The only sound to be heard was the drip of the chicken juice falling into the pan.
But after Mme. Rougon had eaten a hasty and solitary dinner she went upstairs again with Martine. Without another word being spoken they understood each other, it was decided that they would use all possible means to obtain possession of the papers before daybreak. The simplest was to take the key from under the pillow. Clotilde would no doubt at last fall asleep — she seemed too exhausted not to succumb to fatigue. All they had to do was to wait. They set themselves to watch, then, going back and forth on tiptoe between the study and the bedroom, waiting for the moment when the young woman’s large motionless eyes should close in sleep. One of them would go to see, while the other waited impatiently in the study, where a lamp burned dully on the table. This was repeated every fifteen minutes until midnight. The fathomless eyes, full of gloom and of an immense despair, did not close. A little before midnight Felicite installed herself in an armchair at the foot of the bed, resolved not to leave the spot until her granddaughter should have fallen asleep. From this forth she did not take her eyes off Clotilde, and it filled her with a sort of fear to remark that the girl scarcely moved her eyelids, looking with that inconsolable fixity which defies sleep. Then she herself began to feel sleep stealing over her. Exasperated, trembling with nervous impatience, she could remain where she was no longer. And she went to rejoin the servant, who was watching in the study.
“It is useless; she will not sleep,” she said in a stifled and trembling voice. “We must find some other way.”
It had indeed occurred to her to break open the press.
But the old oaken boards were strong, the old iron held firmly. How could they break the lock — not to speak of the noise they would make and which would certainly be heard in the adjoining room?
She stood before the thick doors, however, and felt them with her fingers, seeking some weak spot.
“If I only had an instrument,” she said.
Martine, less eager, interrupted her, objecting: “Oh, no, no, madame! We might be surprised! Wait, I will go again and see if mademoiselle is asleep now.”
She went to the bedroom on tiptoe and returned immediately, saying:
“Yes, she is asleep. Her eyes are closed, and she does not stir.”
Then both went to look at her, holding their breath and walking with the utmost caution, so that the boards might not creak. Clotilde had indeed just fallen asleep: and her stupor seemed so profound that the two old women grew bold. They feared, however, that they might touch and waken her, for her chair stood close beside the bed. And then, to put one’s hand under a dead man’s pillow to rob him was a terrible and sacrilegious act, the thought of which filled them with terror. Might it not disturb his repose? Might he not move at the shock? The thought made them turn pale.
Felicite had advanced with outstretched hand, but she drew back, stammering:
“I am too short. You try, Martine.”
The servant in her turn approached the bed. But she was seized with such a fit of trembling that she was obliged to retreat lest she should fall.
“No, no, I cannot!” she said. “It seems to me that monsieur is going to open his eyes.”
And trembling and awe-struck they remained an instant longer in the lugubrious chamber full of the silence and the majesty of death, facing Pascal, motionless forever, and Clotilde, overwhelmed by the grief of her widowhood. Perhaps they saw, glorifying that mute head, guarding its work with all its weight, the nobility of a life spent in honorable labor. The flame of the tapers burned palely. A sacred awe filled the air, driving them from the chamber.
Felicite, who was so brave, who had never in her life flinched from anything, not even from bloodshed, fled as if she was pursued, saying:
“Come, come, Martine, we will find some other way; we will go look for an instrument.”
In the study they drew a breath of relief. Felicite looked in vain among the papers on Pascal’s work-table for the genealogical tree, which she knew was usually there. She would so gladly have begun her work of destruction with this. It was there, but in her feverish excitement she did not perceive it.
Her desire drew her back again to the press, and she stood before it, measuring it and examining it with eager and covetous look. In spite of her short stature, in spite of her eighty-odd years, she displayed an activity and an energy that were truly extraordinary.
“Ah!” she repeated, “if I only had an instrument!”
And she again sought the crevice in the colossus, the crack into which she might introduce her fingers, to break it open. She imagined plans of assault, she thought of using force, and then she fell back on stratagem, on some piece of treachery which would open to her the doors, merely by breathing upon them.
Suddenly her glance kindled; she had discovered the means.
“Tell me, Martine; there is a hook fastening one of the doors, is there not?”
“Yes, madame; it catches in a ring above the middle shelf. See, it is about the height of this molding.”
Felicite made a triumphant gesture.
“Have you a gimlet — a large gimlet? Give me a gimlet!”
Martine went down into her kitchen and brought back the tool that had been asked.
“In that way, you see, we shall make no noise,” resumed the old woman, setting herself to her task.
With a strength which one would not have suspected in her little hands, withered by age, she inserted the gimlet, and made a hole at the height indicated by the servant. But it was too low; she felt the point, after a time, entering the shelf. A second attempt brought the instrument in direct contact with the iron hook. This time the hole was too near. And she multiplied the holes to right and left, until finally she succeeded in pushing the hook out of the ring. The bolt of the lock slipped, and both doors opened.
“At last!” cried Felicite, beside herself.
Then she remained motionless for a moment, her ear turned uneasily toward the bedroom, fearing that she had wakened Clotilde. But silence reigned throughout the dark and sleeping house. There came from the bedroom only the august peace of death; she heard nothing but the clear vibration of the clock; Clotilde fell asleep near one. And the press yawned wide open, displaying the papers with which it overflowed, heaped up on its three shelves. Then she threw herself upon it, and the work of destruction began, in the midst of the sacred obscurity of the infinite repose of this funereal vigil.
“At last!” she repeated, in a low voice, “after thirty years of waiting. Let us hurry — let us hurry. Martine, help me!”
She had already drawn forward the high chair of the desk, and mounted on it at a bound, to take down, first of all, the papers on the top shelf, for she remembered that the envelopes were there. But she was surprised not to see the thick blue paper wrappers; there was nothing there but bulky manuscripts, the doctor’s completed but unpublished works, works of inestimable value, all his researches, all his discoveries, the monument of his future fame, which he had left in Ramond’s charge. Doubtless, some days before his death, thinking that only the envelopes were in danger, and that no one in the world would be so daring as to destroy his other works, he had begun to classify and arrange the papers anew, and removed the envelopes out of sight.
“Ah, so much the worse!” murmured Felicite; “let us begin anywhere; there are so many of them that if we wish to get through we must hurry. While I am up here, let us clear these away forever. Here, catch Martine!”
And she emptied the shelf, throwing the manuscripts, one by one, into the arms of the servant, who laid them on the table with as little noise as possible. Soon the whole heap was on it, and Felicite sprang down from the chair.
“To the fire! to the fire! We shall lay our hands on the others, and too, by and by, on those I am looking for. These can go into it, meantime. It will be a good riddance, at any rate, a fine clearance, yes, indeed! To the fire, to the fire with them all, even to the smallest scrap of paper, even to the most illegible scrawl, if we wish to be certain of destroying the contamination of evil.”
She herself, fanatical and fierce, in her hatred of the truth, in her eagerness to destroy the testimony of science, tore off the first page of one of the manuscripts, lighted it at the lamp, and then threw this burning brand into the great fireplace, in which there had not been a fire for perhaps twenty years, and she fed the fire, continuing to throw on it the rest of the manuscript, piece by piece. The servant, as determined as herself, came to her assistance, taking another enormous notebook, which she tore up leaf by leaf. From this forth the fire did not cease to burn, filling the wide fireplace with a bright blaze, with tongues of flame that seemed to die away from time to time, only to burn up more brightly than ever when fresh fuel fed them. The fire grew larger, the heap of ashes rose higher and higher — a thick bed of blackened leaves among which ran millions of sparks. But it was a long, a never-ending task; for when several pages were thrown on at a time, they would not burn; it was necessary to move them and turn them over with the tongs; the best way was to stir them up and then wait until they were in a blaze, before adding more. The women soon grew skilful at their task, and the work progressed at a rapid rate.
In her haste to get a fresh armful of papers Felicite stumbled against a chair.
“Oh, madame, take care,” said Martine. “Some one might come!”
“Come? who should come? Clotilde? She is too sound asleep, poor girl. And even if any one should come, once it is finished, I don’t care; I won’t hide myself, you may be sure; I shall leave the empty press standing wide open; I shall say aloud that it is I who have purified the house. When there is not a line of writing left, ah, good heavens! I shall laugh at everything else!”
For almost two hours the fireplace blazed. They went back to the press and emptied the two other shelves, and now there remained only the bottom, which was heaped with a confusion of papers. Little by little, intoxicated by the heat of the bonfire, out of breath and perspiring, they gave themselves up to the savage joy of destruction. They stooped down, they blackened their hands, pushing in the partially consumed fragments, with gestures so violent, so feverishly excited, that their gray locks fell in disorder over their shoulders. It was like a dance of witches, feeding a hellish fire for some abominable act — the martyrdom of a saint, the burning of written thought in the public square; a whole world of truth and hope destroyed. And the blaze of this fire, which at moments made the flame of the lamp grow pale, lighted up the vast apartment, and made the gigantic shadows of the two women dance upon the ceiling.
But as she was emptying the bottom of the press, after having burned, handful by handful, the papers with which it had been filled, Felicite uttered a stifled cry of triumph.
“Ah, here they are! To the fire! to the fire!”
She had at last come upon the envelopes. Far back, behind the rampart formed by the notes, the doctor had hidden the blue paper wrappers. And then began a mad work of havoc, a fury of destruction; the envelopes were gathered up in handfuls and thrown into the flames, filling the fireplace with a roar like that of a conflagration.
“They are burning, they are burning! They are burning at last! Here is another, Martine, here is another. Ah, what a fire, what a glorious fire!”
But the servant was becoming uneasy.
“Take care, madame, you are going to set the house on fire. Don’t you hear that roar?”
“Ah! what does that matter? Let it all burn. They are burning, they are burning; what a fine sight! Three more, two more, and, see, now the last is burning!”
She laughed with delight, beside herself, terrible to see, when some fragment of lighted soot fell down. The roar was becoming more and more fierce; the chimney, which was never swept, had caught fire. This seemed to excite her still more, while the servant, losing her head, began to scream and run about the room.
Clotilde slept beside the dead Pascal, in the supreme calm of the bedroom, unbroken save by the light vibration of the clock striking the hours. The tapers burned with a tall, still flame, the air was motionless. And yet, in the midst of her heavy, dreamless sleep, she heard, as in a nightmare, a tumult, an ever-increasing rush and roar. And when she opened her eyes she could not at first understand. Where was she? Why this enormous weight that crushed her heart? She came back to reality with a start of terror — she saw Pascal, she heard Martine’s cries in the adjoining room, and she rushed out, in alarm, to learn their cause.
But at the threshold Clotilde took in the whole scene with cruel distinctness — the press wide open and completely empty; Martine maddened by her fear of fire; Felicite radiant, pushing into the flames with her foot the last fragments of the envelopes. Smoke and flying soot filled the study, where the roaring of the fire sounded like the hoarse gasping of a murdered man — the fierce roar which she had just heard in her sleep.
And the cry which sprang from her lips was the same cry that Pascal himself had uttered on the night of the storm, when he surprised her in the act of stealing his papers.
She precipitated herself toward the fireplace, and, in spite of the dreadful roaring of the flames, in spite of the falling pieces of soot, at the risk of setting her hair on fire, and of burning her hands, she gathered up the leaves which remained yet unconsumed and bravely extinguished them, pressing them against her. But all this was very little, only some debris; not a complete page remained, not even a few fragments of the colossal labor, of the vast and patient work of a lifetime, which the fire had destroyed there in two hours. And with growing anger, in a burst of furious indignation, she cried:
“You are thieves, assassins! It is a wicked murder which you have just committed. You have profaned death, you have slain the mind, you have slain genius.”
Old Mme. Rougon did not quail. She advanced, on the contrary, feeling no remorse, her head erect, defending the sentence of destruction pronounced and executed by her.
“It is to me you are speaking, to your grandmother. Is there nothing, then, that you respect? I have done what I ought to have done, what you yourself wished to do with us before.”
“Before, you had made me mad; but since then I have lived, I have loved, I have understood, and it is life that I defend. Even if it be terrible and cruel, the truth ought to be respected. Besides, it was a sacred legacy bequeathed to my protection, the last thoughts of a dead man, all that remained of a great mind, and which I should have obliged every one to respect. Yes, you are my grandmother; I am well aware of it, and it is as if you had just burned your son!”
“Burn Pascal because I have burned his papers!” cried Felicite. “Do you not know that I would have burned the town to save the honor of our family!”
She continued to advance, belligerent and victorious; and Clotilde, who had laid on the table the blackened fragments rescued by her from the burning flames, protected them with her body, fearing that her grandmother would throw them back again into the fire. She regarded the two women scornfully; she did not even trouble herself about the fire in the fireplace, which fortunately went out of itself, while Martine extinguished with the shovel the burning soot and the last flames of the smoldering ashes.
“You know very well, however,” continued the old woman, whose little figure seemed to grow taller, “that I have had only one ambition, one passion in life — to see our family rich and powerful. I have fought, I have watched all my life, I have lived as long as I have done, only to put down ugly stories and to leave our name a glorious one. Yes, I have never despaired; I have never laid down my arms; I have been continually on the alert, ready to profit by the slightest circumstance. And all I desired to do I have done, because I have known how to wait.”
And she waved her hand toward the empty press and the fireplace, where the last sparks were dying out.
“Now it is ended, our honor is safe; those abominable papers will no longer accuse us, and I shall leave behind me nothing to be feared. The Rougons have triumphed.”
Clotilde, in a frenzy of grief, raised her arm, as if to drive her out of the room. But she left it of her own accord, and went down to the kitchen to wash her blackened hands and to fasten up her hair. The servant was about to follow her when, turning her head, she saw her young mistress’ gesture, and she returned.
“Oh! as for me, mademoiselle, I will go away the day after to-morrow, when monsieur shall be in the cemetery.”
There was a moment’s silence.
“But I am not sending you away, Martine. I know well that it is not you who are most to blame. You have lived in this house for thirty years. Remain, remain with me.”
The old maid shook her gray head, looking very pale and tired.
“No, I have served monsieur; I will serve no one after monsieur.”
Clotilde looked embarrassed, hesitated a moment, and remained silent. But Martine understood; she too seemed to reflect for an instant, and then she said distinctly:
“I know what you would say, but — no!”
And she went on to settle her account, arranging the affair like a practical woman who knew the value of money.
“Since I have the means, I will go and live quietly on my income somewhere. As for you, mademoiselle, I can leave you, for you are not poor. M. Ramond will explain to you to-morrow how an income of four thousand francs was saved for you out of the money at the notary’s . Meantime, here is the key of the desk, where you will find the five thousand francs which monsieur left there. Oh? I know that there will be no trouble between us. Monsieur did not pay me for the last three months; I have papers from him which prove it. In addition, I advanced lately almost two hundred francs out of my own pocket, without his knowing where the money came from. It is all written down; I am not at all uneasy; mademoiselle will not wrong me by a centime. The day after to-morrow, when monsieur is no longer here, I will go away.”
Then she went down to the kitchen, and Clotilde, in spite of the fanaticism of this woman, which had made her take part in a crime, felt inexpressibly sad at this desertion. When she was gathering up the fragments of the papers, however, before returning to the bedroom, she had a thrill of joy, on suddenly seeing the genealogical tree, which the two women had not perceived, lying unharmed on the table. It was the only entire document saved from the wreck. She took it and locked it, with the half-consumed fragments, in the bureau in the bedroom.
But when she found herself again in this august chamber a great emotion took possession of her. What supreme calm, what immortal peace, reigned here, beside the savage destruction that had filled the adjoining room with smoke and ashes. A sacred serenity pervaded the obscurity; the two tapers burned with a pure, still, unwavering flame. Then she saw that Pascal’s face, framed in his flowing white hair and beard, had become very white. He slept with the light falling upon him, surrounded by a halo, supremely beautiful. She bent down, kissed him again, felt on her lips the cold of the marble face, with its closed eyelids, dreaming its dream of eternity. Her grief at not being able to save the work which he had left to her care was so overpowering that she fell on her knees and burst into a passion of sobs. Genius had been violated; it seemed to her as if the world was about to be destroyed in this savage destruction of a whole life of labor.
Last updated Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 17:34