Ten days later the household had fallen back into its former state of unhappiness. Pascal and Clotilde remained entire afternoons without exchanging a word; and there were continual outbursts of ill-humor. Even Martine was constantly out of temper. The home of these three had again become a hell.
Then suddenly the condition of affairs was still further aggravated. A Capuchin monk of great sanctity, such as often pass through the towns of the South, came to Plassans to conduct a mission. The pulpit of St. Saturnin resounded with his bursts of eloquence. He was a sort of apostle, a popular and fiery orator, a florid speaker, much given to the use of metaphors. And he preached on the nothingness of modern science with an extraordinary mystical exaltation, denying the reality of this world, and disclosing the unknown, the mysteries of the Beyond. All the devout women of the town were full of excitement about his preaching.
On the very first evening on which Clotilde, accompanied by Martine, attended the sermon, Pascal noticed her feverish excitement when she returned. On the following day her excitement increased, and she returned home later, having remained to pray for an hour in a dark corner of a chapel. From this time she was never absent from the services, returning languid, and with the luminous eyes of a seer; and the Capuchin’s burning words haunted her; certain of his images stirred her to ecstasy. She grew irritable, and she seemed to have conceived a feeling of anger and contempt for every one and everything around her.
Pascal, filled with uneasiness, determined to have an explanation with Martine. He came down early one morning as she was sweeping the dining-room.
“You know that I leave you and Clotilde free to go to church, if that pleases you,” he said. “I do not believe in oppressing any one’s conscience. But I do not wish that you should make her sick.”
The servant, without stopping in her work, said in a low voice:
“Perhaps the sick people are those who don’t think that they are sick.”
She said this with such an air of conviction that he smiled.
“Yes,” he returned; “I am the sick soul whose conversion you pray for; while both of you are in possession of health and of perfect wisdom. Martine, if you continue to torment me and to torment yourselves, as you are doing, I shall grow angry.”
He spoke in so furious and so harsh a voice that the servant stopped suddenly in her sweeping, and looked him full in the face. An infinite tenderness, an immense desolation passed over the face of the old maid cloistered in his service. And tears filled her eyes and she hurried out of the room stammering:
“Ah, monsieur, you do not love us.”
Then Pascal, filled with an overwhelming sadness, gave up the contest. His remorse increased for having shown so much tolerance, for not having exercised his authority as master, in directing Clotilde’s education and bringing up. In his belief that trees grew straight if they were not interfered with, he had allowed her to grow up in her own way, after teaching her merely to read and write. It was without any preconceived plan, while aiding him in making his researches and correcting his manuscripts, and simply by the force of circumstances, that she had read everything and acquired a fondness for the natural sciences. How bitterly he now regretted his indifference! What a powerful impulse he might have given to this clear mind, so eager for knowledge, instead of allowing it to go astray, and waste itself in that desire for the Beyond, which Grandmother Felicite and the good Martine favored. While he had occupied himself with facts, endeavoring to keep from going beyond the phenomenon, and succeeding in doing so, through his scientific discipline, he had seen her give all her thoughts to the unknown, the mysterious. It was with her an obsession, an instinctive curiosity which amounted to torture when she could not satisfy it. There was in her a longing which nothing could appease, an irresistible call toward the unattainable, the unknowable. Even when she was a child, and still more, later, when she grew up, she went straight to the why and the how of things, she demanded ultimate causes. If he showed her a flower, she asked why this flower produced a seed, why this seed would germinate. Then, it would be the mystery of birth and death, and the unknown forces, and God, and all things. In half a dozen questions she would drive him into a corner, obliging him each time to acknowledge his fatal ignorance; and when he no longer knew what to answer her, when he would get rid of her with a gesture of comic fury, she would give a gay laugh of triumph, and go to lose herself again in her dreams, in the limitless vision of all that we do not know, and all that we may believe. Often she astounded him by her explanations. Her mind, nourished on science, started from proved truths, but with such an impetus that she bounded at once straight into the heaven of the legends. All sorts of mediators passed there, angels and saints and supernatural inspirations, modifying matter, endowing it with life; or, again, it was only one single force, the soul of the world, working to fuse things and beings in a final kiss of love in fifty centuries more. She had calculated the number of them, she said.
For the rest, Pascal had never before seen her so excited. For the past week, during which she had attended the Capuchin’s mission in the cathedral, she had spent the days visibly in the expectation of the sermon of the evening; and she went to hear it with the rapt exaltation of a girl who is going to her first rendezvous of love. Then, on the following day, everything about her declared her detachment from the exterior life, from her accustomed existence, as if the visible world, the necessary actions of every moment, were but a snare and a folly. She retired within herself in the vision of what was not. Thus she had almost completely given up her habitual occupations, abandoning herself to a sort of unconquerable indolence, remaining for hours at a time with her hands in her lap, her gaze lost in vacancy, rapt in the contemplation of some far-off vision. Now she, who had been so active, so early a riser, rose late, appearing barely in time for the second breakfast, and it could not have been at her toilet that she spent these long hours, for she forgot her feminine coquetry, and would come down with her hair scarcely combed, negligently attired in a gown buttoned awry, but even thus adorable, thanks to her triumphant youth. The morning walks through La Souleiade that she had been so fond of, the races from the top to the bottom of the terraces planted with olive and almond trees, the visits to the pine grove balmy with the odor of resin, the long sun baths in the hot threshing yard, she indulged in no more; she preferred to remain shut up in her darkened room, from which not a movement was to be heard. Then, in the afternoon, in the work room, she would drag herself about languidly from chair to chair, doing nothing, tired and disgusted with everything that had formerly interested her.
Pascal was obliged to renounce her assistance; a paper which he gave her to copy remained three days untouched on her desk. She no longer classified anything; she would not have stooped down to pick up a paper from the floor. More than all, she abandoned the pastels, copies of flowers from nature that she had been making, to serve as plates to a work on artificial fecundations. Some large red mallows, of a new and singular coloring, faded in their vase before she had finished copying them. And yet for a whole afternoon she worked enthusiastically at a fantastic design of dream flowers, an extraordinary efflorescence blooming in the light of a miraculous sun, a burst of golden spike-shaped rays in the center of large purple corollas, resembling open hearts, whence shot, for pistils, a shower of stars, myriads of worlds streaming into the sky, like a milky way.
“Ah, my poor girl,” said the doctor to her on this day, “how can you lose your time in such conceits! And I waiting for the copy of those mallows that you have left to die there. And you will make yourself ill. There is no health, nor beauty, even, possible outside reality.”
Often now she did not answer, intrenching herself behind her fierce convictions, not wishing to dispute. But doubtless he had this time touched her beliefs to the quick.
“There is no reality,” she answered sharply.
The doctor, amused by this bold philosophy from this big child, laughed.
“Yes, I know,” he said; “our senses are fallible. We know this world only through our senses, consequently it is possible that the world does not exist. Let us open the door to madness, then; let us accept as possible the most absurd chimeras, let us live in the realm of nightmare, outside of laws and facts. For do you not see that there is no longer any law if you suppress nature, and that the only thing that gives life any interest is to believe in life, to love it, and to put all the forces of our intelligence to the better understanding of it?”
She made a gesture of mingled indifference and bravado, and the conversation dropped. Now she was laying large strokes of blue crayon on the pastel, bringing out its flaming splendor in strong relief on the background of a clear summer night.
But two days later, in consequence of a fresh discussion, matters went still further amiss. In the evening, on leaving the table, Pascal went up to the study to write, while she remained out of doors, sitting on the terrace. Hours passed by, and he was surprised and uneasy, when midnight struck, that he had not yet heard her return to her room. She would have had to pass through the study, and he was very certain that she had not passed unnoticed by him. Going downstairs, he found that Martine was asleep; the vestibule door was not locked, and Clotilde must have remained outside, oblivious of the flight of time. This often happened to her on these warm nights, but she had never before remained out so late.
The doctor’s uneasiness increased when he perceived on the terrace the chair, now vacant, in which the young girl had been sitting. He had expected to find her asleep in it. Since she was not there, why had she not come in. Where could she have gone at such an hour? The night was beautiful: a September night, still warm, with a wide sky whose dark, velvety expanse was studded with stars; and from the depths of this moonless sky the stars shone so large and bright that they lighted the earth with a pale, mysterious radiance. He leaned over the balustrade of the terrace, and examined the slope and the stone steps which led down to the railroad; but there was not a movement. He saw nothing but the round motionless tops of the little olive trees. The idea then occurred to him that she must certainly be under the plane trees beside the fountain, whose murmuring waters made perpetual coolness around. He hurried there, and found himself enveloped in such thick darkness that he, who knew every tree, was obliged to walk with outstretched hands to avoid stumbling. Then he groped his way through the dark pine grove, still without meeting any one. And at last he called in a muffled voice:
The darkness remained silent and impenetrable.
“Clotilde! Clotilde!” he cried again, in a louder voice. Not a sound, not a breath. The very echoes seemed asleep. His cry was drowned in the infinitely soft lake of blue shadows. And then he called her with all the force of his lungs. He returned to the plane trees. He went back to the pine grove, beside himself with fright, scouring the entire domain. Then, suddenly, he found himself in the threshing yard.
At this cool and tranquil hour, the immense yard, the vast circular paved court, slept too. It was so many years since grain had been threshed here that grass had sprung up among the stones, quickly scorched a russet brown by the sun, resembling the long threads of a woolen carpet. And, under the tufts of this feeble vegetation, the ancient pavement did not cool during the whole summer, smoking from sunset, exhaling in the night the heat stored up from so many sultry noons.
The yard stretched around, bare and deserted, in the cooling atmosphere, under the infinite calm of the sky, and Pascal was crossing it to hurry to the orchard, when he almost fell over a form that he had not before observed, extended at full length upon the ground. He uttered a frightened cry.
“What! Are you here?”
Clotilde did not deign even to answer. She was lying on her back, her hands clasped under the back of her neck, her face turned toward the sky; and in her pale countenance, only her large shining eyes were visible.
“And here I have been tormenting myself and calling you for an hour past! Did you not hear me shouting?”
She at last unclosed her lips.
“Then that is very senseless! Why did you not answer me?”
But she fell back into her former silence, refusing all explanation, and with a stubborn brow kept her gaze fixed steadily on the sky.
“There, come in and go to bed, naughty child. You will tell me to-morrow.”
She did not stir, however; he begged her ten times over to go into the house, but she would not move. He ended by sitting down beside her on the short grass, through which penetrated the warmth of the pavement beneath.
“But you cannot sleep out of doors. At least answer me. What are you doing here?”
“I am looking.”
And from her large eyes, fixed and motionless, her gaze seemed to mount up among the stars. She seemed wholly absorbed in the contemplation of the pure starry depths of the summer sky.
“Ah, master!” she continued, in a low monotone; “how narrow and limited is all that you know compared to what there is surely up there. Yes, if I did not answer you it was because I was thinking of you, and I was filled with grief. You must not think me bad.”
In her voice there was a thrill of such tenderness that it moved him profoundly. He stretched himself on the grass beside her, so that their elbows touched, and they went on talking.
“I greatly fear, my dear, that your griefs are not rational. It gives you pain to think of me. Why so?”
“Oh, because of things that I should find it hard to explain to you; I am not a savante. You have taught me much, however, and I have learned more myself, being with you. Besides, they are things that I feel. Perhaps I might try to tell them to you, as we are all alone here, and the night is so beautiful.”
Her full heart overflowed, after hours of meditation, in the peaceful confidence of the beautiful night. He did not speak, fearing to disturb her, but awaited her confidences in silence.
“When I was a little girl and you used to talk to me about science, it seemed to me that you were speaking to me of God, your words burned so with faith and hope. Nothing seemed impossible to you. With science you were going to penetrate the secret of the world, and make the perfect happiness of humanity a reality. According to you, we were progressing with giant strides. Each day brought its discovery, its certainty. Ten, fifty, a hundred years more, perhaps, and the heavens would open and we should see truth face to face. Well, the years pass, and nothing opens, and truth recedes.”
“You are an impatient girl,” he answered simply. “If ten centuries more be necessary we must only wait for them to pass.”
“It is true. I cannot wait. I need to know; I need to be happy at once, and to know everything at once, and to be perfectly and forever happy. Oh, that is what makes me suffer, not to be able to reach at a bound complete knowledge, not to be able to rest in perfect felicity, freed from scruples and doubts. Is it living to advance with tortoiselike pace in the darkness, not to be able to enjoy an hour’s tranquillity, without trembling at the thought of the coming anguish? No, no! All knowledge and all happiness in a single day? Science has promised them to us, and if she does not give them to us, then she fails in her engagements.”
Then he, too, began to grow heated.
“But what you are saying is folly, little girl. Science is not revelation. It marches at its human pace, its very effort is its glory. And then it is not true that science has promised happiness.”
She interrupted him hastily.
“How, not true! Open your books up there, then. You know that I have read them. Do they not overflow with promises? To read them one would think we were marching on to the conquest of earth and heaven. They demolish everything, and they swear to replace everything — and that by pure reason, with stability and wisdom. Doubtless I am like the children. When I am promised anything I wish that it shall be given me at once. My imagination sets to work, and the object must be very beautiful to satisfy me. But it would have been easy not to have promised anything. And above all, at this hour, in view of my eager and painful longing, it would be very ill done to tell me that nothing has been promised me.”
He made a gesture, a simple gesture of protestation and impatience, in the serene and silent night.
“In any case,” she continued, “science has swept away all our past beliefs. The earth is bare, the heavens are empty, and what do you wish that I should become, even if you acquit science of having inspired the hopes I have conceived? For I cannot live without belief and without happiness. On what solid ground shall I build my house when science shall have demolished the old world, and while she is waiting to construct the new? All the ancient city has fallen to pieces in this catastrophe of examination and analysis; and all that remains of it is a mad population vainly seeking a shelter among its ruins, while anxiously looking for a solid and permanent refuge where they may begin life anew. You must not be surprised, then, at our discouragement and our impatience. We can wait no longer. Since tardy science has failed in her promises, we prefer to fall back on the old beliefs, which for centuries have sufficed for the happiness of the world.”
“Ah! that is just it,” he responded in a low voice; “we are just at the turning point, at the end of the century, fatigued and exhausted with the appalling accumulation of knowledge which it has set moving. And it is the eternal need for falsehood, the eternal need for illusion which distracts humanity, and throws it back upon the delusive charm of the unknown. Since we can never know all, what is the use of trying to know more than we know already? Since the truth, when we have attained it, does not confer immediate and certain happiness, why not be satisfied with ignorance, the darkened cradle in which humanity slept the deep sleep of infancy? Yes, this is the aggressive return of the mysterious, it is the reaction against a century of experimental research. And this had to be; desertions were to be expected, since every need could not be satisfied at once. But this is only a halt; the onward march will continue, up there, beyond our view, in the illimitable fields of space.”
For a moment they remained silent, still motionless on their backs, their gaze lost among the myriads of worlds shining in the dark sky. A falling star shot across the constellation of Cassiopeia, like a flaming arrow. And the luminous universe above turned slowly on its axis, in solemn splendor, while from the dark earth around them arose only a faint breath, like the soft, warm breath of a sleeping woman.
“Tell me,” he said, in his good-natured voice, “did your Capuchin turn your head this evening, then?”
“Yes,” she answered frankly; “he says from the pulpit things that disturb me. He preaches against everything you have taught me, and it is as if the knowledge which I owe to you, transformed into a poison, were consuming me. My God! What is going to become of me?”
“My poor child! It is terrible that you should torture yourself in this way! And yet I had been quite tranquil about you, for you have a well-balanced mind — you have a good, little, round, clear, solid headpiece, as I have often told you. You will soon calm down. But what confusion in the brains of others, at the end of the century, if you, who are so sane, are troubled! Have you not faith, then?”
She answered only by a heavy sigh.
“Assuredly, viewed from the standpoint of happiness, faith is a strong staff for the traveler to lean upon, and the march becomes easy and tranquil when one is fortunate enough to possess it.”
“Oh, I no longer know whether I believe or not!” she cried. “There are days when I believe, and there are other days when I side with you and with your books. It is you who have disturbed me; it is through you I suffer. And perhaps all my suffering springs from this, from my revolt against you whom I love. No, no! tell me nothing; do not tell me that I shall soon calm down. At this moment that would only irritate me still more. I know well that you deny the supernatural. The mysterious for you is only the inexplicable. Even you concede that we shall never know all; and therefore you consider that the only interest life can have is the continual conquest over the unknown, the eternal effort to know more. Ah, I know too much already to believe. You have already succeeded but too well in shaking my faith, and there are times when it seems to me that this will kill me.”
He took her hand that lay on the still warm grass, and pressed it hard.
“No, no; it is life that frightens you, little girl. And how right you are in saying that happiness consists in continual effort. For from this time forward tranquil ignorance is impossible. There is no halt to be looked for, no tranquillity in renunciation and wilful blindness. We must go on, go on in any case with life, which goes on always. Everything that is proposed, a return to the past, to dead religions, patched up religions arranged to suit new wants, is a snare. Learn to know life, then; to love it, live it as it ought to be lived — that is the only wisdom.”
But she shook off his hand angrily. And her voice trembled with vexation.
“Life is horrible. How do you wish me to live it tranquil and happy? It is a terrible light that your science throws upon the world. Your analysis opens up all the wounds of humanity to display their horror. You tell everything; you speak too plainly; you leave us nothing but disgust for people and for things, without any possible consolation.”
He interrupted her with a cry of ardent conviction.
“We tell everything. Ah, yes; in order to know everything and to remedy everything!”
Her anger rose, and she sat erect.
“If even equality and justice existed in your nature — but you acknowledge it yourself, life is for the strongest, the weak infallibly perishes because he is weak — there are no two beings equal, either in health, in beauty, or intelligence; everything is left to haphazard meeting, to the chance of selection. And everything falls into ruin, when grand and sacred justice ceases to exist.”
“It is true,” he said, in an undertone, as if speaking to himself, “there is no such thing as equality. No society based upon it could continue to exist. For centuries, men thought to remedy evil by character. But that idea is being exploded, and now they propose justice. Is nature just? I think her logical, rather. Logic is perhaps a natural and higher justice, going straight to the sum of the common labor, to the grand final labor.”
“Then it is justice,” she cried, “that crushes the individual for the happiness of the race, that destroys an enfeebled species to fatten the victorious species. No, no; that is crime. There is in that only foulness and murder. He was right this evening in the church. The earth is corrupt, science only serves to show its rottenness. It is on high that we must all seek a refuge. Oh, master, I entreat you, let me save myself, let me save you!”
She burst into tears, and the sound of her sobs rose despairingly on the stillness of the night. He tried in vain to soothe her, her voice dominated his.
“Listen to me, master. You know that I love you, for you are everything to me. And it is you who are the cause of all my suffering. I can scarcely endure it when I think that we are not in accord, that we should be separated forever if we were both to die to-morrow. Why will you not believe?”
He still tried to reason with her.
“Come, don’t be foolish, my dear —”
But she threw herself on her knees, she seized him by the hands, she clung to him with a feverish force. And she sobbed louder and louder, in such a clamor of despair that the dark fields afar off were startled by it.
“Listen to me, he said it in the church. You must change your life and do penance; you must burn everything belonging to your past errors — your books, your papers, your manuscripts. Make this sacrifice, master, I entreat it of you on my knees. And you will see the delightful existence we shall lead together.”
At last he rebelled.
“No, this is too much. Be silent!”
“If you listen to me, master, you will do what I wish. I assure you that I am horribly unhappy, even in loving you as I love you. There is something wanting in our affection. So far it has been profound but unavailing, and I have an irresistible longing to fill it, oh, with all that is divine and eternal. What can be wanting to us but God? Kneel down and pray with me!”
With an abrupt movement he released himself, angry in his turn.
“Be silent; you are talking nonsense. I have left you free, leave me free.”
“Master, master! it is our happiness that I desire! I will take you far, far away. We will go to some solitude to live there in God!”
“Be silent! No, never!”
Then they remained for a moment confronting each other, mute and menacing. Around them stretched La Souleiade in the deep silence of the night, with the light shadows of its olive trees, the darkness of its pine and plane trees, in which the saddened voice of the fountain was singing, and above their heads it seemed as if the spacious sky, studded with stars, shuddered and grew pale, although the dawn was still far off.
Clotilde raised her arm as if to point to this infinite, shuddering sky; but with a quick gesture Pascal seized her hand and drew it down toward the earth in his. And no word further was spoken; they were beside themselves with rage and hate. The quarrel was fierce and bitter.
She drew her hand away abruptly, and sprang backward, like some proud, untamable animal, rearing; then she rushed quickly through the darkness toward the house. He heard the patter of her little boots on the stones of the yard, deadened afterward by the sand of the walk. He, on his side, already grieved and uneasy, called her back in urgent tones. But she ran on without answering, without hearing. Alarmed, and with a heavy heart, he hurried after her, and rounded the clump of plane trees just in time to see her rush into the house like a whirlwind. He darted in after her, ran up the stairs, and struck against the door of her room, which she violently bolted. And here he stopped and grew calm, by a strong effort resisting the desire to cry out, to call her again, to break in the door so as to see her once more, to convince her, to have her all to himself. For a moment he remained motionless, chilled by the deathlike silence of the room, from which not the faintest sound issued. Doubtless she had thrown herself on the bed, and was stifling her cries and her sobs in the pillow. He determined at last to go downstairs again and close the hall door, and then he returned softly and listened, waiting for some sound of moaning. And day was breaking when he went disconsolately to bed, choking back his tears.
Thenceforward it was war without mercy. Pascal felt himself spied upon, trapped, menaced. He was no longer master of his house; he had no longer any home. The enemy was always there, forcing him to be constantly on his guard, to lock up everything. One after the other, two vials of nerve-substance which he had compounded were found in fragments, and he was obliged to barricade himself in his room, where he could be heard pounding for days together, without showing himself even at mealtime. He no longer took Clotilde with him on his visiting days, because she discouraged his patients by her attitude of aggressive incredulity. But from the moment he left the house, the doctor had only one desire — to return to it quickly, for he trembled lest he should find his locks forced, and his drawers rifled on his return. He no longer employed the young girl to classify and copy his notes, for several of them had disappeared, as if they had been carried away by the wind. He did not even venture to employ her to correct his proofs, having ascertained that she had cut out of an article an entire passage, the sentiment of which offended her Catholic belief. And thus she remained idle, prowling about the rooms, and having an abundance of time to watch for an occasion which would put in her possession the key of the large press. This was her dream, the plan which she revolved in her mind during her long silence, while her eyes shone and her hands burned with fever — to have the key, to open the press, to take and burn everything in an auto da fe which would be pleasing to God. A few pages of manuscript, forgotten by him on a corner of the table, while he went to wash his hands and put on his coat, had disappeared, leaving behind only a little heap of ashes in the fireplace. He could no longer leave a scrap of paper about. He carried away everything; he hid everything. One evening, when he had remained late with a patient, as he was returning home in the dusk a wild terror seized him at the faubourg, at sight of a thick black smoke rising up in clouds that darkened the heavens. Was it not La Souleiade that was burning down, set on fire by the bonfire made with his papers? He ran toward the house, and was reassured only on seeing in a neighboring field a fire of roots burning slowly.
But how terrible are the tortures of the scientist who feels himself menaced in this way in the labors of his intellect! The discoveries which he has made, the writings which he has counted upon leaving behind him, these are his pride, they are creatures of his blood — his children — and whoever destroys, whoever burns them, burns a part of himself. Especially, in this perpetual lying in wait for the creatures of his brain, was Pascal tortured by the thought that the enemy was in his house, installed in his very heart, and that he loved her in spite of everything, this creature whom he had made what she was. He was left disarmed, without possible defense; not wishing to act, and having no other resources than to watch with vigilance. On all sides the investment was closing around him. He fancied he felt the little pilfering hands stealing into his pockets. He had no longer any tranquillity, even with the doors closed, for he feared that he was being robbed through the crevices.
“But, unhappy child,” he cried one day, “I love but you in the world, and you are killing me! And yet you love me, too; you act in this way because you love me, and it is abominable. It would be better to have done with it all at once, and throw ourselves into the river with a stone tied around our necks.”
She did not answer, but her dauntless eyes said ardently that she would willingly die on the instant, if it were with him.
“And if I should suddenly die to-night, what would happen to-morrow? You would empty the press, you would empty the drawers, you would make a great heap of all my works and burn them! You would, would you not? Do you know that that would be a real murder, as much as if you assassinated some one? And what abominable cowardice, to kill the thoughts!”
“No,” she said at last, in a low voice; “to kill evil, to prevent it from spreading and springing up again!”
All their explanations only served to kindle anew their anger. And they had terrible ones. And one evening, when old Mme. Rougon had chanced in on one of these quarrels, she remained alone with Pascal, after Clotilde had fled to hide herself in her room. There was silence for a moment. In spite of the heartbroken air which she had assumed, a wicked joy shone in the depths of her sparkling eyes.
“But your unhappy house is a hell!” she cried at last.
The doctor avoided an answer by a gesture. He had always felt that his mother backed the young girl, inflaming her religious faith, utilizing this ferment of revolt to bring trouble into his house. He was not deceived. He knew perfectly well that the two women had seen each other during the day, and that he owed to this meeting, to a skilful embittering of Clotilde’s mind, the frightful scene at which he still trembled. Doubtless his mother had come to learn what mischief had been wrought, and to see if the denouement was not at last at hand.
“Things cannot go on in this way,” she resumed. “Why do you not separate since you can no longer agree. You ought to send her to her brother Maxime. He wrote to me not long since asking her again.”
He straightened himself, pale and determined.
“To part angry with each other? Ah, no, no! that would be an eternal remorse, an incurable wound. If she must one day go away, I wish that we may be able to love each other at a distance. But why go away? Neither of us complains of the other.”
Felicite felt that she had been too hasty. Therefore she assumed her hypocritical, conciliating air.
“Of course, if it pleases you both to quarrel, no one has anything to say in the matter. Only, my poor friend, permit me, in that case, to say that I think Clotilde is not altogether in the wrong. You force me to confess that I saw her a little while ago; yes, it is better that you should know, notwithstanding my promise to be silent. Well, she is not happy; she makes a great many complaints, and you may imagine that I scolded her and preached complete submission to her. But that does not prevent me from being unable to understand you myself, and from thinking that you do everything you can to make yourself unhappy.”
She sat down in a corner of the room, and obliged him to sit down with her, seeming delighted to have him here alone, at her mercy. She had already, more than once before, tried to force him to an explanation in this way, but he had always avoided it. Although she had tortured him for years past, and he knew her thoroughly, he yet remained a deferential son, he had sworn never to abandon this stubbornly respectful attitude. Thus, the moment she touched certain subjects, he took refuge in absolute silence.
“Come,” she continued; “I can understand that you should not wish to yield to Clotilde; but to me? How if I were to entreat you to make me the sacrifice of all those abominable papers which are there in the press! Consider for an instant if you should die suddenly, and those papers should fall into strange hands. We should all be disgraced. You would not wish that, would you? What is your object, then? Why do you persist in so dangerous a game? Promise me that you will burn them.”
He remained silent for a time, but at last he answered:
“Mother, I have already begged of you never to speak on that subject. I cannot do what you ask.”
“But at least,” she cried, “give me a reason. Any one would think our family was as indifferent to you as that drove of oxen passing below there. Yet you belong to it. Oh, I know you do all you can not to belong to it! I myself am sometimes astonished at you. I ask myself where you can have come from. But for all that, it is very wicked of you to run this risk, without stopping to think of the grief you are causing to me, your mother. It is simply wicked.”
He grew still paler, and yielding for an instant to his desire to defend himself, in spite of his determination to keep silent, he said:
“You are hard; you are wrong. I have always believed in the necessity, the absolute efficacy of truth. It is true that I tell the truth about others and about myself, and it is because I believe firmly that in telling the truth I do the only good possible. In the first place, those papers are not intended for the public; they are only personal notes which it would be painful to me to part with. And then, I know well that you would not burn only them — all my other works would also be thrown into the fire. Would they not? And that is what I do not wish; do you understand? Never, while I live, shall a line of my writing be destroyed here.”
But he already regretted having said so much, for he saw that she was urging him, leading him on to the cruel explanation she desired.
“Then finish, and tell me what it is that you reproach us with. Yes, me, for instance; what do you reproach me with? Not with having brought you up with so much difficulty. Ah, fortune was slow to win! If we enjoy a little happiness now, we have earned it hard. Since you have seen everything, and since you put down everything in your papers, you can testify with truth that the family has rendered greater services to others than it has ever received. On two occasions, but for us, Plassans would have been in a fine pickle. And it is perfectly natural that we should have reaped only ingratitude and envy, to the extent that even to-day the whole town would be enchanted with a scandal that should bespatter us with mud. You cannot wish that, and I am sure that you will do justice to the dignity of my attitude since the fall of the Empire, and the misfortunes from which France will no doubt never recover.”
“Let France rest, mother,” he said, speaking again, for she had touched the spot where she knew he was most sensitive. “France is tenacious of life, and I think she is going to astonish the world by the rapidity of her convalescence. True, she has many elements of corruption. I have not sought to hide them, I have rather, perhaps, exposed them to view. But you greatly misunderstand me if you imagine that I believe in her final dissolution, because I point out her wounds and her lesions. I believe in the life which ceaselessly eliminates hurtful substances, which makes new flesh to fill the holes eaten away by gangrene, which infallibly advances toward health, toward constant renovation, amid impurities and death.”
He was growing excited, and he was conscious of it, and making an angry gesture, he spoke no more. His mother had recourse to tears, a few little tears which came with difficulty, and which were quickly dried. And the fears which saddened her old age returned to her, and she entreated him to make his peace with God, if only out of regard for the family. Had she not given an example of courage ever since the downfall of the Empire? Did not all Plassans, the quarter of St. Marc, the old quarter and the new town, render homage to the noble attitude she maintained in her fall? All she asked was to be helped; she demanded from all her children an effort like her own. Thus she cited the example of Eugene, the great man who had fallen from so lofty a height, and who resigned himself to being a simple deputy, defending until his latest breath the fallen government from which he had derived his glory. She was also full of eulogies of Aristide, who had never lost hope, who had reconquered, under the new government, an exalted position, in spite of the terrible and unjust catastrophe which had for a moment buried him under the ruins of the Union Universelle. And would he, Pascal, hold himself aloof, would he do nothing that she might die in peace, in the joy of the final triumph of the Rougons, he who was so intelligent, so affectionate, so good? He would go to mass, would he not, next Sunday? and he would burn all those vile papers, only to think of which made her ill. She entreated, commanded, threatened. But he no longer answered her, calm and invincible in his attitude of perfect deference. He wished to have no discussion. He knew her too well either to hope to convince her or to venture to discuss the past with her.
“Why!” she cried, when she saw that he was not to be moved, “you do not belong to us. I have always said so. You are a disgrace to us.”
He bent his head and said:
“Mother, when you reflect you will forgive me.”
On this day Felicite was beside herself with rage when she went away; and when she met Martine at the door of the house, in front of the plane trees, she unburdened her mind to her, without knowing that Pascal, who had just gone into his room, heard all. She gave vent to her resentment, vowing, in spite of everything, that she would in the end succeed in obtaining possession of the papers and destroying them, since he did not wish to make the sacrifice. But what turned the doctor cold was the manner in which Martine, in a subdued voice, soothed her. She was evidently her accomplice. She repeated that it was necessary to wait; not to do anything hastily; that mademoiselle and she had taken a vow to get the better of monsieur, by not leaving him an hour’s peace. They had sworn it. They would reconcile him with the good God, because it was not possible that an upright man like monsieur should remain without religion. And the voices of the two women became lower and lower, until they finally sank to a whisper, an indistinct murmur of gossiping and plotting, of which he caught only a word here and there; orders given, measures to be taken, an invasion of his personal liberty. When his mother at last departed, with her light step and slender, youthful figure, he saw that she went away very well satisfied.
Then came a moment of weakness, of utter despair. Pascal dropped into a chair, and asked himself what was the use of struggling, since the only beings he loved allied themselves against him. Martine, who would have thrown herself into the fire at a word from him, betraying him in this way for his good! And Clotilde leagued with this servant, plotting with her against him in holes and corners, seeking her aid to set traps for him! Now he was indeed alone; he had around him only traitresses, who poisoned the very air he breathed. But these two still loved him. He might perhaps have succeeded in softening them, but when he knew that his mother urged them on, he understood their fierce persistence, and he gave up the hope of winning them back. With the timidity of a man who had spent his life in study, aloof from women, notwithstanding his secret passion, the thought that they were there to oppose him, to attempt to bend him to their will, overwhelmed him. He felt that some one of them was always behind him. Even when he shut himself up in his room, he fancied that they were on the other side of the wall; and he was constantly haunted by the idea that they would rob him of his thought, if they could perceive it in his brain, before he should have formulated it.
This was assuredly the period in his life in which Dr. Pascal was most unhappy. To live constantly on the defensive, as he was obliged to do, crushed him, and it seemed to him as if the ground on which his house stood was no longer his, as if it was receding from beneath his feet. He now regretted keenly that he had not married, and that he had no children. Had not he himself been afraid of life? And had he not been well punished for his selfishness? This regret for not having children now never left him. His eyes now filled with tears whenever he met on the road bright-eyed little girls who smiled at him. True, Clotilde was there, but his affection for her was of a different kind — crossed at present by storms — not a calm, infinitely sweet affection, like that for a child with which he might have soothed his lacerated heart. And then, no doubt what he desired in his isolation, feeling that his days were drawing to an end, was above all, continuance; in a child he would survive, he would live forever. The more he suffered, the greater the consolation he would have found in bequeathing this suffering, in the faith which he still had in life. He considered himself indemnified for the physiological defects of his family. But even the thought that heredity sometimes passes over a generation, and that the disorders of his ancestors might reappear in a child of his did not deter him; and this unknown child, in spite of the old corrupt stock, in spite of the long succession of execrable relations, he desired ardently at certain times: as one desires unexpected gain, rare happiness, the stroke of fortune which is to console and enrich forever. In the shock which his other affections had received, his heart bled because it was too late.
One sultry night toward the end of September, Pascal found himself unable to sleep. He opened one of the windows of his room; the sky was dark, some storm must be passing in the distance, for there was a continuous rumbling of thunder. He could distinguish vaguely the dark mass of the plane trees, which occasional flashes of lightning detached, in a dull green, from the darkness. His soul was full of anguish; he lived over again the last unhappy days, days of fresh quarrels, of torture caused by acts of treachery, by suspicions, which grew stronger every day, when a sudden recollection made him start. In his fear of being robbed, he had finally adopted the plan of carrying the key of the large press in his pocket. But this afternoon, oppressed by the heat, he had taken off his jacket, and he remembered having seen Clotilde hang it up on a nail in the study. A sudden pang of terror shot through him, sharp and cold as a steel point; if she had felt the key in the pocket she had stolen it. He hastened to search the jacket which he had a little before thrown upon a chair; the key was not here. At this very moment he was being robbed; he had the clear conviction of it. Two o’clock struck. He did not again dress himself, but, remaining in his trousers only, with his bare feet thrust into slippers, his chest bare under his unfastened nightshirt, he hastily pushed open the door, and rushed into the workroom, his candle in his hand.
“Ah! I knew it,” he cried. “Thief! Assassin!”
It was true; Clotilde was there, undressed like himself, her bare feet covered by canvas slippers, her legs bare, her arms bare, her shoulders bare, clad only in her chemise and a short skirt. Through caution, she had not brought a candle. She had contented herself with opening one of the window shutters, and the continual lightning flashes of the storm which was passing southward in the dark sky, sufficed her, bathing everything in a livid phosphorescence. The old press, with its broad sides, was wide open. Already she had emptied the top shelf, taking down the papers in armfuls, and throwing them on the long table in the middle of the room, where they lay in a confused heap. And with feverish haste, fearing lest she should not have the time to burn them, she was making them up into bundles, intending to hide them, and send them afterward to her grandmother, when the sudden flare of the candle, lighting up the room, caused her to stop short in an attitude of surprise and resistance.
“You rob me; you assassinate me!” repeated Pascal furiously.
She still held one of the bundles in her bare arms. He wished to take it away from her, but she pressed it to her with all her strength, obstinately resolved upon her work of destruction, without showing confusion or repentance, like a combatant who has right upon his side. Then, madly, blindly, he threw himself upon her, and they struggled together. He clutched her bare flesh so that he hurt her.
“Kill me!” she gasped. “Kill me, or I shall destroy everything!”
He held her close to him, with so rough a grasp that she could scarcely breathe, crying:
“When a child steals, it is punished!”
A few drops of blood appeared and trickled down her rounded shoulder, where an abrasion had cut the delicate satin skin. And, on the instant, seeing her so breathless, so divine, in her virginal slender height, with her tapering limbs, her supple arms, her slim body with its slender, firm throat, he released her. By a last effort he tore the package from her.
“And you shall help me to put them all up there again, by Heaven! Come here: begin by arranging them on the table. Obey me, do you hear?”
She approached, and helped him to arrange the papers, subjugated, crushed by this masculine grasp, which had entered into her flesh, as it were. The candle which flared up in the heavy night air, lighted them; and the distant rolling of the thunder still continued, the window facing the storm seeming on fire.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02