In the study Clotilde was buttoning her dress, holding her child, whom she had been nursing, still in her lap. It was after lunch, about three o’clock on a hot sunny day at the end of August, and through the crevices of the carefully closed shutters only a few scattered sunbeams entered, piercing the drowsy and warm obscurity of the vast apartment. The rest and peace of the Sunday seemed to enter and diffuse itself in the room with the last sounds of the distant vesper bell. Profound silence reigned in the empty house in which the mother and child were to remain alone until dinner time, the servant having asked permission to go see a cousin in the faubourg.
For an instant Clotilde looked at her child, now a big boy of three months. She had been wearing mourning for Pascal for almost ten months — a long and simple black gown, in which she looked divinely beautiful, with her tall, slender figure and her sad, youthful face surrounded by its aureole of fair hair. And although she could not smile, it filled her with sweet emotion to see the beautiful child, so plump and rosy, with his mouth still wet with milk, whose gaze had been arrested by the sunbeam full of dancing motes. His eyes were fixed wonderingly on the golden brightness, the dazzling miracle of light. Then sleep came over him, and he let his little, round, bare head, covered thinly with fair hair, fall back on his mother’s arm.
Clotilde rose softly and laid him in the cradle, which stood beside the table. She remained leaning over him for an instant to assure herself that he was asleep; then she let down the curtain in the already darkened room. Then she busied herself with supple and noiseless movements, walking with so light a step that she scarcely touched the floor, in putting away some linen which was on the table. Twice she crossed the room in search of a little missing sock. She was very silent, very gentle, and very active. And now, in the solitude of the house, she fell into a reverie and all the past year arose before her.
First, after the dreadful shock of the funeral, came the departure of Martine, who had obstinately kept to her determination of going away at once, not even remaining for the customary week, bringing to replace her the young cousin of a baker in the neighborhood — a stout brunette, who fortunately proved very neat and faithful. Martine herself lived at Sainte-Marthe, in a retired corner, so penuriously that she must be still saving even out of her small income. She was not known to have any heir. Who, then, would profit by this miserliness? In ten months she had not once set foot in La Souleiade — monsieur was not there, and she had not even the desire to see monsieur’s son.
Then in Clotilde’s reverie rose the figure of her grandmother Felicite. The latter came to see her from time to time with the condescension of a powerful relation who is liberal-minded enough to pardon all faults when they have been cruelly expiated. She would come unexpectedly, kiss the child, moralize, and give advice, and the young mother had adopted toward her the respectful attitude which Pascal had always maintained. Felicite was now wholly absorbed in her triumph. She was at last about to realize a plan that she had long cherished and maturely deliberated, which would perpetuate by an imperishable monument the untarnished glory of the family. The plan was to devote her fortune, which had become considerable, to the construction and endowment of an asylum for the aged, to be called Rougon Asylum. She had already bought the ground, a part of the old mall outside the town, near the railway station; and precisely on this Sunday, at five o’clock, when the heat should have abated a little, the first stone was to be laid, a really solemn ceremony, to be honored by the presence of all the authorities, and of which she was to be the acknowledged queen, before a vast concourse of people.
Clotilde felt, besides, some gratitude toward her grandmother, who had shown perfect disinterestedness on the occasion of the opening of Pascal’s will. The latter had constituted the young woman his sole legatee; and the mother, who had a right to a fourth part, after declaring her intention to respect her son’s wishes, had simply renounced her right to the succession. She wished, indeed, to disinherit all her family, bequeathing to them glory only, by employing her large fortune in the erection of this asylum, which was to carry down to future ages the revered and glorious name of the Rougons; and after having, for more than half a century, so eagerly striven to acquire money, she now disdained it, moved by a higher and purer ambition. And Clotilde, thanks to this liberality, had no uneasiness regarding the future — the four thousand francs income would be sufficient for her and her child. She would bring him up to be a man. She had sunk the five thousand francs that she had found in the desk in an annuity for him; and she owned, besides, La Souleiade, which everybody advised her to sell. True, it cost but little to keep it up, but what a sad and solitary life she would lead in that great deserted house, much too large for her, where she would be lost. Thus far, however, she had not been able to make up her mind to leave it. Perhaps she would never be able to do so.
Ah, this La Souleiade! all her love, all her life, all her memories were centered in it. It seemed to her at times as if Pascal were living here still, for she had changed nothing of their former manner of living. The furniture remained in the same places, the hours were the same, the habits the same. The only change she had made was to lock his room, into which only she went, as into a sanctuary, to weep when she felt her heart too heavy. And although indeed she felt very lonely, very lost, at each meal in the bright dining-room downstairs, in fancy she heard there the echoes of their laughter, she recalled the healthy appetite of her youth; when they two had eaten and drank so gaily, rejoicing in their existence. And the garden, too, the whole place was bound up with the most intimate fibers of her being, for she could not take a step in it that their united images did not appear before her — on the terrace; in the slender shadow of the great secular cypresses, where they had so often contemplated the valley of the Viorne, closed in by the ridges of the Seille and the parched hills of Sainte-Marthe; the stone steps among the puny olive and almond trees, which they had so often challenged each other to run up in a trial of speed, like boys just let loose from school; and there was the pine grove, too, the warm, embalsamed shade, where the needles crackled under their feet; the vast threshing yard, carpeted with soft grass, where they could see the whole sky at night, when the stars were coming out; and above all there were the giant plane trees, whose delightful shade they had enjoyed every day in summer, listening to the soothing song of the fountain, the crystal clear song which it had sung for centuries. Even to the old stones of the house, even to the earth of the grounds, there was not an atom at La Souleiade in which she did not feel a little of their blood warmly throbbing, with which she did not feel a little of their life diffused and mingled.
But she preferred to spend her days in the workroom, and here it was that she lived over again her best hours. There was nothing new in it but the cradle. The doctor’s table was in its place before the window to the left — she could fancy him coming in and sitting down at it, for his chair had not even been moved. On the long table in the center, among the old heap of books and papers, there was nothing new but the cheerful note of the little baby linen, which she was looking over. The bookcases displayed the same rows of volumes; the large oaken press seemed to guard within its sides the same treasure, securely shut in. Under the smoky ceiling the room was still redolent of work, with its confusion of chairs, the pleasant disorder of this common workroom, filled with the caprices of the girl and the researches of the scientist. But what most moved her to-day was the sight of her old pastels hanging against the wall, the copies which she had made of living flowers, scrupulously exact copies, and of dream flowers of an imaginary world, whither her wild fancy sometimes carried her.
Clotilde had just finished arranging the little garments on the table when, lifting her eyes, she perceived before her the pastel of old King David, with his hand resting on the shoulder of Abishag the young Shunammite. And she, who now never smiled, felt her face flush with a thrill of tender and pleasing emotion. How they had loved each other, how they had dreamed of an eternity of love the day on which she had amused herself painting this proud and loving allegory! The old king, sumptuously clad in a robe hanging in straight folds, heavy with precious stones, wore the royal bandeau on his snowy locks; but she was more sumptuous still, with only her tall slender figure, her delicate round throat, and her supple arms, divinely graceful. Now he was gone, he was sleeping under the ground, while she, her pure and triumphant beauty concealed by her black robes, had only her child to express the love she had given him before the assembled people, in the full light of day.
Then Clotilde sat down beside the cradle. The slender sunbeams lengthened, crossing the room from end to end, the heat of the warm afternoon grew oppressive in the drowsy obscurity made by the closed shutters, and the silence of the house seemed more profound than before. She set apart some little waists, she sewed on some tapes with slow-moving needle, and gradually she fell into a reverie in the warm deep peacefulness of the room, in the midst of the glowing heat outside. Her thoughts first turned to her pastels, the exact copies and the fantastic dream flowers; she said to herself now that all her dual nature was to be found in that passion for truth, which had at times kept her a whole day before a flower in order to copy it with exactness, and in her need of the spiritual, which at other times took her outside the real, and carried her in wild dreams to the paradise of flowers such as had never grown on earth. She had always been thus. She felt that she was in reality the same to-day as she had been yesterday, in the midst of the flow of new life which ceaselessly transformed her. And then she thought of Pascal, full of gratitude that he had made her what she was. In days past when, a little girl, he had removed her from her execrable surroundings and taken her home with him, he had undoubtedly followed the impulses of his good heart, but he had also undoubtedly desired to try an experiment with her, to see how she would grow up in the different environment, in an atmosphere of truthfulness and affection. This had always been an idea of his. It was an old theory of his which he would have liked to test on a large scale: culture through environment, complete regeneration even, the improvement, the salvation of the individual, physically as well as morally. She owed to him undoubtedly the best part of her nature; she guessed how fanciful and violent she might have become, while he had made her only enthusiastic and courageous.
In this retrospection she was clearly conscious of the gradual change that had taken place within her. Pascal had corrected her heredity, and she lived over again the slow evolution, the struggle between the fantastic and the real in her. It had begun with her outbursts of anger as a child, a ferment of rebellion, a want of mental balance that had caused her to indulge in most hurtful reveries. Then came her fits of extreme devotion, the need of illusion and falsehood, of immediate happiness in the thought that the inequalities and injustices of this wicked world would he compensated by the eternal joys of a future paradise. This was the epoch of her struggles with Pascal, of the torture which she had caused him, planning to destroy the work of his genius. And at this point her nature had changed; she had acknowledged him for her master. He had conquered her by the terrible lesson of life which he had given her on the night of the storm. Then, environment had acted upon her, evolution had proceeded rapidly, and she had ended by becoming a well-balanced and rational woman, willing to live life as it ought to be lived, satisfied with doing her work in the hope that the sum of the common labor would one day free the world from evil and pain. She had loved, she was a mother now, and she understood.
Suddenly she remembered the night which they had spent in the threshing yard. She could still hear her lamentation under the stars — the cruelty of nature, the inefficacy of science, the wickedness of humanity, and the need she felt of losing herself in God, in the Unknown. Happiness consisted in self-renunciation. Then she heard him repeat his creed — the progress of reason through science, truths acquired slowly and forever the only possible good, the belief that the sum of these truths, always augmenting, would finally confer upon man incalculable power and peace, if not happiness. All was summed up in his ardent faith in life. As he expressed it, it was necessary to march with life, which marched always. No halt was to be expected, no peace in immobility and renunciation, no consolation in turning back. One must keep a steadfast soul, the only ambition to perform one’s work, modestly looking for no other reward of life than to have lived it bravely, accomplishing the task which it imposes. Evil was only an accident not yet explained, humanity appearing from a great height like an immense wheel in action, working ceaselessly for the future. Why should the workman who disappeared, having finished his day’s work, abuse the work because he could neither see nor know its end? Even if it were to have no end why should he not enjoy the delight of action, the exhilarating air of the march, the sweetness of sleep after the fatigue of a long and busy day? The children would carry on the task of the parents; they were born and cherished only for this, for the task of life which is transmitted to them, which they in their turn will transmit to others. All that remained, then, was to be courageously resigned to the grand common labor, without the rebellion of the ego, which demands personal happiness, perfect and complete.
She questioned herself, and she found that she did not experience that anguish which had filled her formerly at the thought of what was to follow death. This anxiety about the Beyond no longer haunted her until it became a torture. Formerly she would have liked to wrest by force from heaven the secrets of destiny. It had been a source of infinite grief to her not to know why she existed. Why are we born? What do we come on earth to do? What is the meaning of this execrable existence, without equality, without justice, which seemed to her like a fevered dream? Now her terror was calmed; she could think of these things courageously. Perhaps it was her child, the continuation of herself, which now concealed from her the horror of her end. But her regular life contributed also to this, the thought that it was necessary to live for the effort of living, and that the only peace possible in this world was in the joy of the accomplishment of this effort. She repeated to herself a remark of the doctor, who would often say when he saw a peasant returning home with a contented look after his day’s work: “There is a man whom anxiety about the Beyond will not prevent from sleeping.” He meant to say that this anxiety troubles and perverts only excitable and idle brains. If all performed their healthful task, all would sleep peacefully at night. She herself had felt the beneficent power of work in the midst of her sufferings and her grief. Since he had taught her to employ every one of her hours; since she had been a mother, especially, occupied constantly with her child, she no longer felt a chill of horror when she thought of the Unknown. She put aside without an effort disquieting reveries; and if she still felt an occasional fear, if some of her daily griefs made her sick at heart, she found comfort and unfailing strength in the thought that her child was this day a day older, that he would be another day older on the morrow, that day by day, page by page, his work of life was being accomplished. This consoled her delightfully for all her miseries. She had a duty, an object, and she felt in her happy serenity that she was doing surely what she had been sent here to do.
Yet, even at this very moment she knew that the mystic was not entirely dead within her. In the midst of the profound silence she heard a slight noise, and she raised her head. Who was the divine mediator that had passed? Perhaps the beloved dead for whom she mourned, and whose presence near her she fancied she could divine. There must always be in her something of the childlike believer she had always been, curious about the Unknown, having an instinctive longing for the mysterious. She accounted to herself for this longing, she even explained it scientifically. However far science may extend the limits of human knowledge, there is undoubtedly a point which it cannot pass; and it was here precisely that Pascal placed the only interest in life — in the effort which we ceaselessly make to know more — there was only one reasonable meaning in life, this continual conquest of the unknown. Therefore, she admitted the existence of undiscovered forces surrounding the world, an immense and obscure domain, ten times larger than the domain already won, an infinite and unexplored realm through which future humanity would endlessly ascend. Here, indeed, was a field vast enough for the imagination to lose itself in. In her hours of reverie she satisfied in it the imperious need which man seems to have for the spiritual, a need of escaping from the visible world, of interrogating the Unknown, of satisfying in it the dream of absolute justice and of future happiness. All that remained of her former torture, her last mystic transports, were there appeased. She satisfied there that hunger for consoling illusions which suffering humanity must satisfy in order to live. But in her all was happily balanced. At this crisis, in an epoch overburdened with science, disquieted at the ruins it has made, and seized with fright in the face of the new century, wildly desiring to stop and to return to the past, Clotilde kept the happy mean; in her the passion for truth was broadened by her eagerness to penetrate the Unknown. If sectarian scientists shut out the horizon to keep strictly to the phenomenon, it was permitted to her, a good, simple creature, to reserve the part that she did not know, that she would never know. And if Pascal’s creed was the logical deduction from the whole work, the eternal question of the Beyond, which she still continued to put to heaven, reopened the door of the infinite to humanity marching ever onward. Since we must always learn, while resigning ourselves never to know all, was it not to will action, life itself, to reserve the Unknown — an eternal doubt and an eternal hope?
Another sound, as of a wing passing, the light touch of a kiss upon her hair, this time made her smile. He was surely here; and her whole being went out toward him, in the great flood of tenderness with which her heart overflowed. How kind and cheerful he was, and what a love for others underlay his passionate love of life! Perhaps he, too, had been only a dreamer, for he had dreamed the most beautiful of dreams, the final belief in a better world, when science should have bestowed incalculable power upon man — to accept everything, to turn everything to our happiness, to know everything and to foresee everything, to make nature our servant, to live in the tranquillity of intelligence satisfied. Meantime faith in life, voluntary and regular labor, would suffice for health. Evil was only the unexplained side of things; suffering would one day be assuredly utilized. And regarding from above the enormous labor of the world, seeing the sum total of humanity, good and bad — admirable, in spite of everything, for their courage and their industry — she now regarded all mankind as united in a common brotherhood, she now felt only boundless indulgence, an infinite pity, and an ardent charity. Love, like the sun, bathes the earth, and goodness is the great river at which all hearts drink.
Clotilde had been plying her needle for two hours, with the same regular movement, while her thoughts wandered away in the profound silence. But the tapes were sewed on the little waists, she had even marked some new wrappers, which she had bought the day before. And, her sewing finished, she rose to put the linen away. Outside the sun was declining, and only slender and oblique sunbeams entered through the crevices of the shutters. She could not see clearly, and she opened one of the shutters, then she forgot herself for a moment, at the sight of the vast horizon suddenly unrolled before her. The intense heat had abated, a delicious breeze was blowing, and the sky was of a cloudless blue. To the left could be distinguished even the smallest clumps of pines, among the blood-colored ravines of the rocks of the Seille, while to the right, beyond the hills of Sainte-Marthe, the valley of the Viorne stretched away in the golden dust of the setting sun. She looked for a moment at the tower of St. Saturnin, all golden also, dominating the rose-colored town; and she was about to leave the window when she saw a sight that drew her back and kept her there, leaning on her elbow for a long time still.
Beyond the railroad a multitude of people were crowded together on the old mall. Clotilde at once remembered the ceremony. She knew that her Grandmother Felicite was going to lay the first stone of the Rougon Asylum, the triumphant monument destined to carry down to future ages the glory of the family. Vast preparations had been going on for a week past. There was talk of a silver hod and trowel, which the old lady was to use herself, determined to figure to triumph, with her eighty-two years. What swelled her heart with regal pride was that on this occasion she made the conquest of Plassans for the third time, for she compelled the whole town, all the three quarters, to range themselves around her, to form an escort for her, and to applaud her as a benefactress. For, of course, there had to be present lady patronesses, chosen from among the noblest ladies of the Quartier St. Marc; a delegation from the societies of working-women of the old quarter, and, finally, the most distinguished residents of the new town, advocates, notaries, physicians, without counting the common people, a stream of people dressed in their Sunday clothes, crowding there eagerly, as to a festival. And in the midst of this supreme triumph she was perhaps most proud — she, one of the queens of the Second Empire, the widow who mourned with so much dignity the fallen government — in having conquered the young republic itself, obliging it, in the person of the sub-prefect, to come and salute her and thank her. At first there had been question only of a discourse of the mayor; but it was known with certainty, since the previous day, that the sub-prefect also would speak. From so great a distance Clotilde could distinguish only a moving crowd of black coats and light dresses, under the scorching sun. Then there was a distant sound of music, the music of the amateur band of the town, the sonorous strains of whose brass instruments were borne to her at intervals on the breeze.
She left the window and went and opened the large oaken press to put away in it the linen that had remained on the table. It was in this press, formerly so full of the doctor’s manuscripts, and now empty, that she kept the baby’s wardrobe. It yawned open, vast, seemingly bottomless, and on the large bare shelves there was nothing but the baby linen, the little waists, the little caps, the little socks, all the fine clothing, the down of the bird still in the nest. Where so many thoughts had been stored up, where a man’s unremitting labor for thirty years had accumulated in an overflowing heap of papers, there was now only a baby’s clothing, only the first garments which would protect it for an hour, as it were, and which very soon it could no longer use. The vastness of the antique press seemed brightened and all refreshed by them.
When Clotilde had arranged the wrappers and the waists upon a shelf, she perceived a large envelope containing the fragments of the documents which she had placed there after she had rescued them from the fire. And she remembered a request which Dr. Ramond had come only the day before to make her — that she would see if there remained among this debris any fragment of importance having a scientific interest. He was inconsolable for the loss of the precious manuscripts which the master had bequeathed to him. Immediately after the doctor’s death he had made an attempt to write from memory his last talk, that summary of vast theories expounded by the dying man with so heroic a serenity; but he could recall only parts of it. He would have needed complete notes, observations made from day to day, the results obtained, and the laws formulated. The loss was irreparable, the task was to be begun over again, and he lamented having only indications; he said that it would be at least twenty years before science could make up the loss, and take up and utilize the ideas of the solitary pioneer whose labors a wicked and imbecile catastrophe had destroyed.
The genealogical tree, the only document that had remained intact, was attached to the envelope, and Clotilde carried the whole to the table beside the cradle. After she had taken out the fragments, one by one, she found, what she had been already almost certain of, that not a single entire page of manuscript remained, not a single complete note having any meaning. There were only fragments of documents, scraps of half-burned and blackened paper, without sequence or connection. But as she examined them, these incomplete phrases, these words half consumed by fire, assumed for her an interest which no one else could have understood. She remembered the night of the storm, and the phrases completed themselves, the beginning of a word evoked before her persons and histories. Thus her eye fell on Maxime’s name, and she reviewed the life of this brother who had remained a stranger to her, and whose death, two months before, had left her almost indifferent. Then, a half-burned scrap containing her father’s name gave her an uneasy feeling, for she believed that her father had obtained possession of the fortune and the house on the avenue of Bois de Boulogne through the good offices of his hairdresser’s niece, the innocent Rose, repaid, no doubt, by a generous percentage. Then she met with other names, that of her uncle Eugene, the former vice emperor, now dead, the cure of Saint-Eutrope, who, she had been told yesterday, was dying of consumption. And each fragment became animated in this way; the execrable family lived again in these scraps, these black ashes, where were now only disconnected words.
Then Clotilde had the curiosity to unfold the genealogical tree and spread it out upon the table. A strong emotion gained on her; she was deeply affected by these relics; and when she read once more the notes added in pencil by Pascal, a few moments before his death, tears rose to her eyes. With what courage he had written down the date of his death! And what despairing regret for life one divined in the trembling words announcing the birth of the child! The tree ascended, spread out its branches, unfolded its leaves, and she remained for a long time contemplating it, saying to herself that all the work of the master was to be found here in the classified records of this family tree. She could still hear certain of his words commenting on each hereditary case, she recalled his lessons. But the children, above all, interested her; she read again and again the notes on the leaves which bore their names. The doctor’s colleague in Noumea, to whom he had written for information about the child born of the marriage of the convict Etienne, had at last made up his mind to answer; but the only information he gave was in regard to the sex — it was a girl, he said, and she seemed to be healthy. Octave Mouret had come near losing his daughter, who had always been very frail, while his little boy continued to enjoy superb health. But the chosen abode of vigorous health and of extraordinary fecundity was still the house of Jean, at Valqueyras, whose wife had had two children in three years and was about to have a third. The nestlings throve in the sunshine, in the heart of a fertile country, while the father sang as he guided his plow, and the mother at home cleverly made the soup and kept the children in order. There was enough new vitality and industry there to make another family, a whole race. Clotilde fancied at this moment that she could hear Pascal’s cry: “Ah, our family! what is it going to be, in what kind of being will it end?” And she fell again into a reverie, looking at the tree sending its latest branches into the future. Who could tell whence the healthy branch would spring? Perhaps the great and good man so long awaited was germinating there.
A slight cry drew Clotilde from her reflections. The muslin curtain of the cradle seemed to become animate. It was the child who had wakened up and was moving about and calling to her. She at once took him out of the cradle and held him up gaily, that he might bathe in the golden light of the setting sun. But he was insensible to the beauty of the closing day; his little vacant eyes, still full of sleep, turned away from the vast sky, while he opened wide his rosy and ever hungry mouth, like a bird opening its beak. And he cried so loud, he had wakened up so ravenous, that she decided to nurse him again. Besides, it was his hour; it would soon be three hours since she had last nursed him.
Clotilde sat down again beside the table. She took him on her lap, but he was not very good, crying louder and louder, growing more and more impatient; and she looked at him with a smile while she unfastened her dress, showing her round, slender throat. Already the child knew, and raising himself he felt with his lips for the breast. When she placed it in his mouth he gave a little grunt of satisfaction; he threw himself upon her with the fine, voracious appetite of a young gentleman who was determined to live. At first he had clutched the breast with his little free hand, as if to show that it was his, to defend it and to guard it. Then, in the joy of the warm stream that filled his throat he raised his little arm straight up, like a flag. And Clotilde kept her unconscious smile, seeing him so healthy, so rosy, and so plump, thriving so well on the nourishment he drew from her. During the first few weeks she had suffered from a fissure, and even now her breast was sensitive; but she smiled, notwithstanding, with that peaceful look which mothers wear, happy in giving their milk as they would give their blood.
When she had unfastened her dress, showing her bare throat and breast, in the solitude and silence of the study, another of her mysteries, one of her sweetest and most hidden secrets, was revealed at the same time — the slender necklace with the seven pearls, the seven fine, milky stars which the master had put around her neck on a day of misery, in his mania for giving. Since it had been there no one else had seen it. It seemed as if she guarded it with as much modesty as if it were a part of her flesh, so simple, so pure, so childlike. And all the time the child was nursing she alone looked at it in a dreamy reverie, moved by the tender memory of the kisses whose warm perfume it still seemed to keep.
A burst of distant music seemed to surprise Clotilde. She turned her head and looked across the fields gilded by the oblique rays of the sun. Ah, yes! the ceremony, the laying of the corner stone yonder! Then she turned her eyes again on the child, and she gave herself up to the delight of seeing him with so fine an appetite. She had drawn forward a little bench, to raise one of her knees, resting her foot upon it, and she leaned one shoulder against the table, beside the tree and the blackened fragments of the envelopes. Her thoughts wandered away in an infinitely sweet reverie, while she felt the best part of herself, the pure milk, flowing softly, making more and more her own the dear being she had borne. The child had come, the redeemer, perhaps. The bells rang, the three wise men had set out, followed by the people, by rejoicing nature, smiling on the infant in its swaddling clothes. She, the mother, while he drank life in long draughts, was dreaming already of his future. What would he be when she should have made him tall and strong, giving herself to him entirely? A scientist, perhaps, who would reveal to the world something of the eternal truth; or a great captain, who would confer glory on his country; or, still better, one of those shepherds of the people who appease the passions and bring about the reign of justice. She saw him, in fancy, beautiful, good and powerful. Hers was the dream of every mother — the conviction that she had brought the expected Messiah into the world; and there was in this hope, in this obstinate belief, which every mother has in the certain triumph of her child, the hope which itself makes life, the belief which gives humanity the ever renewed strength to live still.
What would the child be? She looked at him, trying to discover whom he resembled. He had certainly his father’s brow and eyes, there was something noble and strong in the breadth of the head. She saw a resemblance to herself, too, in his fine mouth and his delicate chin. Then, with secret uneasiness, she sought a resemblance to the others, the terrible ancestors, all those whose names were there inscribed on the tree, unfolding its growth of hereditary leaves. Was it this one, or this, or yet this other, whom he would resemble? She grew calm, however, she could not but hope, her heart swelled with eternal hope. The faith in life which the master had implanted in her kept her brave and steadfast. What did misery, suffering and wickedness matter! Health was in universal labor, in the effort made, in the power which fecundates and which produces. The work was good when the child blessed love. Then hope bloomed anew, in spite of the open wounds, the dark picture of human shame. It was life perpetuated, tried anew, life which we can never weary of believing good, since we live it so eagerly, with all its injustice and suffering.
Clotilde had glanced involuntarily at the ancestral tree spread out beside her. Yes, the menace was there — so many crimes, so much filth, side by side with so many tears, and so much patient goodness; so extraordinary a mixture of the best and the most vile, a humanity in little, with all its defects and all its struggles. It was a question whether it would not be better that a thunderbolt should come and destroy all this corrupt and miserable ant-hill. And after so many terrible Rougons, so many vile Macquarts, still another had been born. Life did not fear to create another of them, in the brave defiance of its eternity. It continued its work, propagated itself according to its laws, indifferent to theories, marching on in its endless labor. Even at the risk of making monsters, it must of necessity create, since, in spite of all it creates, it never wearies of creating in the hope, no doubt, that the healthy and the good will one day come. Life, life, which flows like a torrent, which continues its work, beginning it over and over again, without pause, to the unknown end! life in which we bathe, life with its infinity of contrary currents, always in motion, and vast as a boundless sea!
A transport of maternal fervor thrilled Clotilde’s heart, and she smiled, seeing the little voracious mouth drinking her life. It was a prayer, an invocation, to the unknown child, as to the unknown God! To the child of the future, to the genius, perhaps, that was to be, to the Messiah that the coming century awaited, who would deliver the people from their doubt and their suffering! Since the nation was to be regenerated, had he not come for this work? He would make the experiment anew, he would raise up walls, give certainty to those who were in doubt, he would build the city of justice, where the sole law of labor would insure happiness. In troublous times prophets were to be expected — at least let him not be the Antichrist, the destroyer, the beast foretold in the Apocalypse — who would purge the earth of its wickedness, when this should become too great. And life would go on in spite of everything, only it would be necessary to wait for other myriads of years before the other unknown child, the benefactor, should appear.
But the child had drained her right breast, and, as he was growing angry, Clotilde turned him round and gave him the left. Then she began to smile, feeling the caress of his greedy little lips. At all events she herself was hope. A mother nursing, was she not the image of the world continued and saved? She bent over, she looked into his limpid eyes, which opened joyously, eager for the light. What did the child say to her that she felt her heart beat more quickly under the breast which he was draining? To what cause would he give his blood when he should be a man, strong with all the milk which he would have drunk? Perhaps he said nothing to her, perhaps he already deceived her, and yet she was so happy, so full of perfect confidence in him.
Again there was a distant burst of music. This must be the apotheosis, the moment when Grandmother Felicite, with her silver trowel, laid the first stone of the monument to the glory of the Rougons. The vast blue sky, gladdened by the Sunday festivities, rejoiced. And in the warm silence, in the solitary peace of the workroom, Clotilde smiled at the child, who was still nursing, his little arm held straight up in the air, like a signal flag of life.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02