For an instant Pascal looked at the papers, the heap of which seemed enormous, lying thus in disorder on the long table that stood in the middle of the room. In the confusion several of the blue paper envelopes had burst open, and their contents had fallen out — letters, newspaper clippings, documents on stamped paper, and manuscript notes.
He was already mechanically beginning to seek out the names written on the envelopes in large characters, to classify the packages again, when, with an abrupt gesture, he emerged from the somber meditation into which he had fallen. And turning to Clotilde who stood waiting, pale, silent, and erect, he said:
“Listen to me; I have always forbidden you to read these papers, and I know that you have obeyed me. Yes, I had scruples of delicacy. It is not that you are an ignorant girl, like so many others, for I have allowed you to learn everything concerning man and woman, which is assuredly bad only for bad natures. But to what end disclose to you too early these terrible truths of human life? I have therefore spared you the history of our family, which is the history of every family, of all humanity; a great deal of evil and a great deal of good.”
He paused as if to confirm himself in his resolution and then resumed quite calmly and with supreme energy:
“You are twenty-five years old; you ought to know. And then the life we are leading is no longer possible. You live and you make me live in a constant nightmare, with your ecstatic dreams. I prefer to show you the reality, however execrable it may be. Perhaps the blow which it will inflict upon you will make of you the woman you ought to be. We will classify these papers again together, and read them, and learn from them a terrible lesson of life!”
Then, as she still continued motionless, he resumed:
“Come, we must be able to see well. Light those other two candles there.”
He was seized by a desire for light, a flood of light; he would have desired the blinding light of the sun; and thinking that the light of the three candles was not sufficient, he went into his room for a pair of three-branched candelabra which were there. The nine candles were blazing, yet neither of them, in their disorder — he with his chest bare, she with her left shoulder stained with blood, her throat and arms bare — saw the other. It was past two o’clock, but neither of them had any consciousness of the hour; they were going to spend the night in this eager desire for knowledge, without feeling the need of sleep, outside time and space. The mutterings of the storm, which, through the open window, they could see gathering, grew louder and louder.
Clotilde had never before seen in Pascal’s eyes the feverish light which burned in them now. He had been overworking himself for some time past, and his mental sufferings made him at times abrupt, in spite of his good-natured complacency. But it seemed as if an infinite tenderness, trembling with fraternal pity, awoke within him, now that he was about to plunge into the painful truths of existence; and it was something emanating from himself, something very great and very good which was to render innocuous the terrible avalanche of facts which was impending. He was determined that he would reveal everything, since it was necessary that he should do so in order to remedy everything. Was not this an unanswerable, a final argument for evolution, the story of these beings who were so near to them? Such was life, and it must be lived. Doubtless she would emerge from it like the steel tempered by the fire, full of tolerance and courage.
“They are setting you against me,” he resumed; “they are making you commit abominable acts, and I wish to restore your conscience to you. When you know, you will judge and you will act. Come here, and read with me.”
She obeyed. But these papers, about which her grandmother had spoken so angrily, frightened her a little; while a curiosity that grew with every moment awoke within her. And then, dominated though she was by the virile authority which had just constrained and subjugated her, she did not yet yield. But might she not listen to him, read with him? Did she not retain the right to refuse or to give herself afterward? He spoke at last.
“Will you come?”
“Yes, master, I will.”
He showed her first the genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquarts. He did not usually lock it in the press, but kept it in the desk in his room, from which he had taken it when he went there for the candelabra. For more than twenty years past he had kept it up to date, inscribing the births, deaths, marriages, and other important events that had taken place in the family, making brief notes in each case, in accordance with his theory of heredity.
It was a large sheet of paper, yellow with age, with folds cut by wear, on which was drawn boldly a symbolical tree, whose branches spread and subdivided into five rows of broad leaves; and each leaf bore a name, and contained, in minute handwriting, a biography, a hereditary case.
A scientist’s joy took possession of the doctor at sight of this labor of twenty years, in which the laws of heredity established by him were so clearly and so completely applied.
“Look, child! You know enough about the matter, you have copied enough of my notes to understand. Is it not beautiful? A document so complete, so conclusive, in which there is not a gap? It is like an experiment made in the laboratory, a problem stated and solved on the blackboard. You see below, the trunk, the common stock, Aunt Dide; then the three branches issuing from it, the legitimate branch, Pierre Rougon, and the two illegitimate branches, Ursule Macquart and Antoine Macquart; then, new branches arise, and ramify, on one side, Maxime, Clotilde, and Victor, the three children of Saccard, and Angelique, the daughter of Sidonie Rougon; on the other, Pauline, the daughter of Lisa Macquart, and Claude, Jacques, Etienne, and Anna, the four children of Gervaise, her sister; there, at the extremity, is Jean, their brother, and here in the middle, you see what I call the knot, the legitimate issue and the illegitimate issue, uniting in Marthe Rougon and her cousin Francois Mouret, to give rise to three new branches, Octave, Serge, and Desiree Mouret; while there is also the issue of Ursule and the hatter Mouret; Silvere, whose tragic death you know; Helene and her daughter Jean; finally, at the top are the latest offshoots, our poor Charles, your brother Maxime’s son, and two other children, who are dead, Jacques Louis, the son of Claude Lantier, and Louiset, the son of Anna Coupeau. In all five generations, a human tree which, for five springs already, five springtides of humanity, has sent forth shoots, at the impulse of the sap of eternal life.”
He became more and more animated, pointing out each case on the sheet of old yellow paper, as if it were an anatomical chart.
“And as I have already said, everything is here. You see in direct heredity, the differentiations, that of the mother, Silvere, Lisa, Desiree, Jacques, Louiset, yourself; that of the father, Sidonie, Francois, Gervaise, Octave, Jacques, Louis. Then there are the three cases of crossing: by conjugation, Ursule, Aristide, Anna, Victor; by dissemination, Maxime, Serge, Etienne; by fusion, Antoine, Eugene, Claude. I even noted a fourth case, a very remarkable one, an even cross, Pierre and Pauline; and varieties are established, the differentiation of the mother, for example, often accords with the physical resemblance of the father; or, it is the contrary which takes place, so that, in the crossing, the physical and mental predominance remains with one parent or the other, according to circumstances. Then here is indirect heredity, that of the collateral branches. I have but one well established example of this, the striking personal resemblance of Octave Mouret to his uncle Eugene Rougon. I have also but one example of transmission by influence, Anna, the daughter of Gervaise and Coupeau, who bore a striking resemblance, especially in her childhood, to Lantier, her mother’s first lover. But what I am very rich in is in examples of reversion to the original stock — the three finest cases, Marthe, Jeanne, and Charles, resembling Aunt Dide; the resemblance thus passing over one, two, and three generations. This is certainly exceptional, for I scarcely believe in atavism; it seems to me that the new elements brought by the partners, accidents, and the infinite variety of crossings must rapidly efface particular characteristics, so as to bring back the individual to the general type. And there remains variation — Helene, Jean, Angelique. This is the combination, the chemical mixture in which the physical and mental characteristics of the parents are blended, without any of their traits seeming to reappear in the new being.”
There was silence for a moment. Clotilde had listened to him with profound attention, wishing to understand. And he remained absorbed in thought, his eyes still fixed on the tree, in the desire to judge his work impartially. He then continued in a low tone, as if speaking to himself:
“Yes, that is as scientific as possible. I have placed there only the members of the family, and I had to give an equal part to the partners, to the fathers and mothers come from outside, whose blood has mingled with ours, and therefore modified it. I had indeed made a mathematically exact tree, the father and the mother bequeathing themselves, by halves, to the child, from generation to generation, so that in Charles, for example, Aunt Dide’s part would have been only a twelfth — which would be absurd, since the physical resemblance is there complete. I have therefore thought it sufficient to indicate the elements come from elsewhere, taking into account marriages and the new factor which each introduced. Ah! these sciences that are yet in their infancy, in which hypothesis speaks stammeringly, and imagination rules, these are the domain of the poet as much as of the scientist. Poets go as pioneers in the advance guard, and they often discover new countries, suggesting solutions. There is there a borderland which belongs to them, between the conquered, the definitive truth, and the unknown, whence the truth of to-morrow will be torn. What an immense fresco there is to be painted, what a stupendous human tragedy, what a comedy there is to be written with heredity, which is the very genesis of families, of societies, and of the world!”
His eyes fixed on vacancy, he remained for a time lost in thought. Then, with an abrupt movement, he came back to the envelopes and, pushing the tree aside, said:
“We will take it up again presently; for, in order that you may understand now, it is necessary that events should pass in review before you, and that you should see in action all these actors ticketed here, each one summed up in a brief note. I will call for the envelopes, you will hand them to me one by one, and I will show you the papers in each, and tell you their contents, before putting it away again up there on the shelf. I will not follow the alphabetical order, but the order of events themselves. I have long wished to make this classification. Come, look for the names on the envelopes; Aunt Dide first.”
At this moment the edge of the storm which lighted up the sky caught La Souleiade slantingly, and burst over the house in a deluge of rain. But they did not even close the window. They heard neither the peals of thunder nor the ceaseless beating of the rain upon the roof. She handed him the envelope bearing the name of Aunt Dide in large characters; and he took from it papers of all sorts, notes taken by him long ago, which he proceeded to read.
“Hand me Pierre Rougon. Hand me Ursule Macquart. Hand me Antoine Macquart.”
Silently she obeyed him, her heart oppressed by a dreadful anguish at all she was hearing. And the envelopes were passed on, displayed their contents, and were piled up again in the press.
First was the foundress of the family, Adelaide Fouque, the tall, crazy girl, the first nervous lesion giving rise to the legitimate branch, Pierre Rougon, and to the two illegitimate branches, Ursule and Antoine Macquart, all that bourgeois and sanguinary tragedy, with the coup d’etat of December, 1854, for a background, the Rougons, Pierre and Felicite, preserving order at Plassans, bespattering with the blood of Silvere their rising fortunes, while Adelaide, grown old, the miserable Aunt Dide, was shut up in the Tulettes, like a specter of expiation and of waiting.
Then like a pack of hounds, the appetites were let loose. The supreme appetite of power in Eugene Rougon, the great man, the disdainful genius of the family, free from base interests, loving power for its own sake, conquering Paris in old boots with the adventurers of the coming Empire, rising from the legislative body to the senate, passing from the presidency of the council of state to the portfolio of minister; made by his party, a hungry crowd of followers, who at the same time supported and devoured him; conquered for an instant by a woman, the beautiful Clorinde, with whom he had been imbecile enough to fall in love, but having so strong a will, and burning with so vehement a desire to rule, that he won back power by giving the lie to his whole life, marching to his triumphal sovereignty of vice emperor.
With Aristide Saccard, appetite ran to low pleasures, the whole hot quarry of money, luxury, women — a devouring hunger which left him homeless, at the time when millions were changing hands, when the whirlwind of wild speculation was blowing through the city, tearing down everywhere to construct anew, when princely fortunes were made, squandered, and remade in six months; a greed of gold whose ever increasing fury carried him away, causing him, almost before the body of his wife Angele was cold in death, to sell his name, in order to have the first indispensable thousand francs, by marrying Renee. And it was Saccard, too, who, a few years later, put in motion the immense money-press of the Banque Universelle. Saccard, the never vanquished; Saccard, grown more powerful, risen to be the clever and daring grand financier, comprehending the fierce and civilizing role that money plays, fighting, winning, and losing battles on the Bourse, like Napoleon at Austerlitz and Waterloo; engulfing in disaster a world of miserable people; sending forth into the unknown realms of crime his natural son Victor, who disappeared, fleeing through the dark night, while he himself, under the impassable protection of unjust nature, was loved by the adorable Mme. Caroline, no doubt in recompense of all the evil he had done.
Here a tall, spotless lily had bloomed in this compost, Sidonie Rougon, the sycophant of her brother, the go-between in a hundred suspicious affairs, giving birth to the pure and divine Angelique, the little embroiderer with fairylike fingers who worked into the gold of the chasubles the dream of her Prince Charming, so happy among her companions the saints, so little made for the hard realities of life, that she obtained the grace of dying of love, on the day of her marriage, at the first kiss of Felicien de Hautecoeur, in the triumphant peal of bells ringing for her splendid nuptials.
The union of the two branches, the legitimate and the illegitimate, took place then, Marthe Rougon espousing her cousin Francois Mouret, a peaceful household slowly disunited, ending in the direst catastrophes — a sad and gentle woman taken, made use of, and crushed in the vast machine of war erected for the conquest of a city; her three children torn from her, she herself leaving her heart in the rude grasp of the Abbe Faujas. And the Rougons saved Plassans a second time, while she was dying in the glare of the conflagration in which her husband was being consumed, mad with long pent-up rage and the desire for revenge.
Of the three children, Octave Mouret was the audacious conqueror, the clear intellect, resolved to demand from the women the sovereignty of Paris, fallen at his debut into the midst of a corrupt bourgeois society, acquiring there a terrible sentimental education, passing from the capricious refusal of one woman to the unresisting abandonment of another, remaining, fortunately, active, laborious, and combative, gradually emerging, and improved even, from the low plotting, the ceaseless ferment of a rotten society that could be heard already cracking to its foundations. And Octave Mouret, victorious, revolutionized commerce; swallowed up the cautious little shops that carried on business in the old-fashioned way; established in the midst of feverish Paris the colossal palace of temptation, blazing with lights, overflowing with velvets, silks, and laces; won fortunes exploiting woman; lived in smiling scorn of woman until the day when a little girl, the avenger of her sex, the innocent and wise Denise, vanquished him and held him captive at her feet, groaning with anguish, until she did him the favor, she who was so poor, to marry him in the midst of the apotheosis of his Louvre, under the golden shower of his receipts.
There remained the two other children, Serge Mouret and Desiree Mouret, the latter innocent and healthy, like some happy young animal; the former refined and mystical, who was thrown into the priesthood by a nervous malady hereditary in his family, and who lived again the story of Adam, in the Eden of Le Paradou. He was born again to love Albine, and to lose her, in the bosom of sublime nature, their accomplice; to be recovered, afterward by the Church, to war eternally with life, striving to kill his manhood, throwing on the body of the dead Albine the handful of earth, as officiating priest, at the very time when Desiree, the sister and friend of animals, was rejoicing in the midst of the swarming life of her poultry yard.
Further on there opened a calm glimpse of gentle and tragic life, Helene Mouret living peacefully with her little girl, Jeanne, on the heights of Passy, overlooking Paris, the bottomless, boundless human sea, in face of which was unrolled this page of love: the sudden passion of Helene for a stranger, a physician, brought one night by chance to the bedside of her daughter; the morbid jealousy of Jeanne — the instinctive jealousy of a loving girl — disputing her mother with love, her mother already so wasted by her unhappy passion that the daughter died because of her fault; terrible price of one hour of desire in the entire cold and discreet life of a woman, poor dead child, lying alone in the silent cemetery, in face of eternal Paris.
With Lisa Macquart began the illegitimate branch; appearing fresh and strong in her, as she displayed her portly, prosperous figure, sitting at the door of her pork shop in a light colored apron, watching the central market, where the hunger of a people muttered, the age-long battle of the Fat and the Lean, the lean Florent, her brother-in-law, execrated, and set upon by the fat fishwomen and the fat shopwomen, and whom even the fat pork-seller herself, honest, but unforgiving, caused to be arrested as a republican who had broken his ban, convinced that she was laboring for the good digestion of all honest people.
From this mother sprang the sanest, the most human of girls, Pauline Quenu, the well-balanced, the reasonable, the virgin; who, knowing everything, accepted the joy of living in so ardent a love for others that, in spite of the revolt of her youthful heart, she resigned to her friend her cousin and betrothed, Lazare, and afterward saved the child of the disunited household, becoming its true mother; always triumphant, always gay, notwithstanding her sacrificed and ruined life, in her monotonous solitude, facing the great sea, in the midst of a little world of sufferers groaning with pain, but who did not wish to die.
Then came Gervaise Macquart with her four children: bandy-legged, pretty, and industrious Gervaise, whom her lover Lantier turned into the street in the faubourg, where she met the zinc worker Coupeau, the skilful, steady workman whom she married, and with whom she lived so happily at first, having three women working in her laundry, but afterward sinking with her husband, as was inevitable, to the degradation of her surroundings. He, gradually conquered by alcohol, brought by it to madness and death; she herself perverted, become a slattern, her moral ruin completed by the return of Lantier, living in the tranquil ignominy of a household of three, thenceforward the wretched victim of want, her accomplice, to which she at last succumbed, dying one night of starvation.
Her eldest son, Claude, had the unhappy genius of a great painter struck with madness, the impotent madness of feeling within him the masterpiece to which his fingers refused to give shape; a giant wrestler always defeated, a crucified martyr to his work, adoring woman, sacrificing his wife Christine, so loving and for a time so beloved, to the increate, divine woman of his visions, but whom his pencil was unable to delineate in her nude perfection, possessed by a devouring passion for producing, an insatiable longing to create, a longing so torturing when it could not be satisfied, that he ended it by hanging himself.
Jacques brought crime, the hereditary taint being transmuted in him into an instinctive appetite for blood, the young and fresh blood from the gashed throat of a woman, the first comer, the passer-by in the street: a horrible malady against which he struggled, but which took possession of him again in the course of his amour with the submissive and sensual Severine, whom a tragic story of assassination caused to live in constant terror, and whom he stabbed one evening in an excess of frenzy, maddened by the sight of her white throat. Then this savage human beast rushed among the trains filing past swiftly, and mounted the snorting engine of which he was the engineer, the beloved engine which was one day to crush him to atoms, and then, left without a guide, to rush furiously off into space braving unknown disasters.
Etienne, in his turn driven out, arrived in the black country on a freezing night in March, descended into the voracious pit, fell in love with the melancholy Catherine, of whom a ruffian robbed him; lived with the miners their gloomy life of misery and base promiscuousness, until one day when hunger, prompting rebellion, sent across the barren plain a howling mob of wretches who demanded bread, tearing down and burning as they went, under the menace of the guns of the band that went off of themselves, a terrible convulsion announcing the end of the world. The avenging blood of the Maheus was to rise up later; of Alzire dead of starvation, Maheu killed by a bullet, Zacharie killed by an explosion of fire-damp, Catherine under the ground. La Maheude alone survived to weep her dead, descending again into the mine to earn her thirty sons, while Etienne, the beaten chief of the band, haunted by the dread of future demands, went away on a warm April morning, listening to the secret growth of the new world whose germination was soon to dazzle the earth.
Nana then became the avenger; the girl born among the social filth of the faubourgs; the golden fly sprung from the rottenness below, that was tolerated and concealed, carrying in the fluttering of its wings the ferment of destruction, rising and contaminating the aristocracy, poisoning men only by alighting upon them, in the palaces through whose windows it entered; the unconscious instrument of ruin and death — fierce flame of Vandeuvres, the melancholy fate of Foucarmont, lost in the Chinese waters, the disaster of Steiner, reduced to live as an honest man, the imbecility of La Faloise and the tragic ruin of the Muffats, and the white corpse of Georges, watched by Philippe, come out of prison the day before, when the air of the epoch was so contaminated that she herself was infected, and died of malignant smallpox, caught at the death-bed of her son Louiset, while Paris passed beneath her windows, intoxicated, possessed by the frenzy of war, rushing to general ruin.
Lastly comes Jean Macquart, the workman and soldier become again a peasant, fighting with the hard earth, which exacts that every grain of corn shall be purchased with a drop of sweat, fighting, above all, with the country people, whom covetousness and the long and difficult battle with the soil cause to burn with the desire, incessantly stimulated, of possession. Witness the Fouans, grown old, parting with their fields as if they were parting with their flesh; the Buteaus in their eager greed committing parricide, to hasten the inheritance of a field of lucern; the stubborn Francoise dying from the stroke of a scythe, without speaking, rather than that a sod should go out of the family — all this drama of simple natures governed by instinct, scarcely emerged from primitive barbarism — all this human filth on the great earth, which alone remains immortal, the mother from whom they issue and to whom they return again, she whom they love even to crime, who continually remakes life, for its unknown end, even with the misery and the abomination of the beings she nourishes. And it was Jean, too, who, become a widower and having enlisted again at the first rumor of war, brought the inexhaustible reserve, the stock of eternal rejuvenation which the earth keeps; Jean, the humblest, the staunchest soldier at the final downfall, swept along in the terrible and fatal storm which, from the frontier to Sedan, in sweeping away the Empire, threatened to sweep away the country; always wise, circumspect, firm in his hope, loving with fraternal affection his comrade Maurice, the demented child of the people, the holocaust doomed to expiation, weeping tears of blood when inexorable destiny chose himself to hew off this rotten limb, and after all had ended — the continual defeats, the frightful civil war, the lost provinces, the thousands of millions of francs to pay — taking up the march again, notwithstanding, returning to the land which awaited him, to the great and difficult task of making a new France.
Pascal paused; Clotilde had handed him all the packages, one by one, and he had gone over them all, laid bare the contents of all, classified them anew, and placed them again on the top shelf of the press. He was out of breath, exhausted by his swift course through all this humanity, while, without voice, without movement, the young girl, stunned by this overflowing torrent of life, waited still, incapable of thought or judgment. The rain still beat furiously upon the dark fields. The lightning had just struck a tree in the neighborhood, that had split with a terrible crash. The candles flared up in the wind that came in from the open window.
“Ah!” he resumed, pointing to the papers again, “there is a world in itself, a society, a civilization, the whole of life is there, with its manifestations, good and bad, in the heat and labor of the forge which shapes everything. Yes, our family of itself would suffice as an example to science, which will perhaps one day establish with mathematical exactness the laws governing the diseases of the blood and nerves that show themselves in a race, after a first organic lesion, and that determine, according to environment, the sentiments, desires, and passions of each individual of that race, all the human, natural and instinctive manifestations which take the names of virtues and vices. And it is also a historical document, it relates the story of the Second Empire, from the coup d’etat to Sedan; for our family spring from the people, they spread themselves through the whole of contemporary society, invaded every place, impelled by their unbridled appetites, by that impulse, essentially modern, that eager desire that urges the lower classes to enjoyment, in their ascent through the social strata. We started, as I have said, from Plassans, and here we are now arrived once more at Plassans.”
He paused again, and then resumed in a low, dreamy voice:
“What an appalling mass stirred up! how many passions, how many joys, how many sufferings crammed into this colossal heap of facts! There is pure history: the Empire founded in blood, at first pleasure-loving and despotic, conquering rebellious cities, then gliding to a slow disintegration, dissolving in blood — in such a sea of blood that the entire nation came near being swamped in it. There are social studies: wholesale and retail trade, prostitution, crime, land, money, the bourgeoisie, the people — that people who rot in the sewer of the faubourgs, who rebel in the great industrial centers, all that ever-increasing growth of mighty socialism, big with the new century. There are simple human studies: domestic pages, love stories, the struggle of minds and hearts against unjust nature, the destruction of those who cry out under their too difficult task, the cry of virtue immolating itself, victorious over pain, There are fancies, flights of the imagination beyond the real: vast gardens always in bloom, cathedrals with slender, exquisitely wrought spires, marvelous tales come down from paradise, ideal affections remounting to heaven in a kiss. There is everything: the good and the bad, the vulgar and the sublime, flowers, mud, blood, laughter, the torrent of life itself, bearing humanity endlessly on!”
He took up again the genealogical tree which had remained neglected on the table, spread it out and began to go over it once more with his finger, enumerating now the members of the family who were still living: Eugene Rougon, a fallen majesty, who remained in the Chamber, the witness, the impassible defender of the old world swept away at the downfall of the Empire. Aristide Saccard, who, after having changed his principles, had fallen upon his feet a republican, the editor of a great journal, on the way to make new millions, while his natural son Victor, who had never reappeared, was living still in the shade, since he was not in the galleys, cast forth by the world into the future, into the unknown, like a human beast foaming with the hereditary virus, who must communicate his malady with every bite he gives. Sidonie Rougon, who had for a time disappeared, weary of disreputable affairs, had lately retired to a sort of religious house, where she was living in monastic austerity, the treasurer of the Marriage Fund, for aiding in the marriage of girls who were mothers. Octave Mouret, proprietor of the great establishment Au Bonheur des Dames, whose colossal fortune still continued increasing, had had, toward the end of the winter, a third child by his wife Denise Baudu, whom he adored, although his mind was beginning to be deranged again. The Abbe Mouret, cure at St. Eutrope, in the heart of a marshy gorge, lived there in great retirement, and very modestly, with his sister Desiree, refusing all advancement from his bishop, and waiting for death like a holy man, rejecting all medicines, although he was already suffering from consumption in its first stage. Helene Mouret was living very happily in seclusion with her second husband, M. Rambaud, on the little estate which they owned near Marseilles, on the seashore; she had had no child by her second husband. Pauline Quenu was still at Bonneville at the other extremity of France, in face of the vast ocean, alone with little Paul, since the death of Uncle Chanteau, having resolved never to marry, in order to devote herself entirely to the son of her cousin Lazare, who had become a widower and had gone to America to make a fortune. Etienne Lantier, returning to Paris after the strike at Montsou, had compromised himself later in the insurrection of the Commune, whose principles he had defended with ardor; he had been condemned to death, but his sentence being commuted was transported and was now at Noumea. It was even said that he had married immediately on his arrival there, and that he had had a child, the sex of which, however, was not known with certainty. Finally, Jean Macquart, who had received his discharge after the Bloody Week, had settled at Valqueyras, near Plassans, where he had had the good fortune to marry a healthy girl, Melanie Vial, the daughter of a well-to-do peasant, whose lands he farmed, and his wife had borne him a son in May.
“Yes, it is true,” he resumed, in a low voice; “races degenerate. There is here a veritable exhaustion, rapid deterioration, as if our family, in their fury of enjoyment, in the gluttonous satisfaction of their appetites, had consumed themselves too quickly. Louiset, dead in infancy; Jacques Louis, a half imbecile, carried off by a nervous disease; Victor returned to the savage state, wandering about in who knows what dark places; our poor Charles, so beautiful and so frail; these are the latest branches of the tree, the last pale offshoots into which the puissant sap of the larger branches seems to have been unable to mount. The worm was in the trunk, it has ascended into the fruit, and is devouring it. But one must never despair; families are a continual growth. They go back beyond the common ancestor, into the unfathomable strata of the races that have lived, to the first being; and they will put forth new shoots without end, they will spread and ramify to infinity, through future ages. Look at our tree; it counts only five generations. It has not so much importance as a blade of grass, even, in the human forest, vast and dark, of which the peoples are the great secular oaks. Think only of the immense roots which spread through the soil; think of the continual putting forth of new leaves above, which mingle with other leaves of the ever-rolling sea of treetops, at the fructifying, eternal breath of life. Well, hope lies there, in the daily reconstruction of the race by the new blood which comes from without. Each marriage brings other elements, good or bad, of which the effect is, however, to prevent certain and progressive regeneration. Breaches are repaired, faults effaced, an equilibrium is inevitably re-established at the end of a few generations, and it is the average man that always results; vague humanity, obstinately pursuing its mysterious labor, marching toward its unknown end.”
He paused, and heaved a deep sigh.
“Ah! our family, what is it going to become; in what being will it finally end?”
He continued, not now taking into account the survivors whom he had just named; having classified these, he knew what they were capable of, but he was full of keen curiosity regarding the children who were still infants. He had written to a confrere in Noumea for precise information regarding the wife whom Etienne had lately married there, and the child which she had had, but he had heard nothing, and he feared greatly that on that side the tree would remain incomplete. He was more fully furnished with documents regarding the two children of Octave Mouret, with whom he continued to correspond; the little girl was growing up puny and delicate, while the little boy, who strongly resembled his mother, had developed superbly, and was perfectly healthy. His strongest hope, besides these, was in Jean’s children, the eldest of whom was a magnificent boy, full of the youthful vigor of the races that go back to the soil to regenerate themselves. Pascal occasionally went to Valqueyras, and he returned happy from that fertile spot, where the father, quiet and rational, was always at his plow, the mother cheerful and simple, with her vigorous frame, capable of bearing a world. Who knew what sound branch was to spring from that side? Perhaps the wise and puissant of the future were to germinate there. The worst of it, for the beauty of his tree, was that all these little boys and girls were still so young that he could not classify them. And his voice grew tender as he spoke of this hope of the future, these fair-haired children, in the unavowed regret for his celibacy.
Still contemplating the tree spread out before him, he cried:
“And yet it is complete, it is decisive. Look! I repeat to you that all hereditary cases are to be found there. To establish my theory, I had only to base it on the collection of these facts. And indeed, the marvelous thing is that there you can put your finger on the cause why creatures born of the same stock can appear radically different, although they are only logical modifications of common ancestors. The trunk explains the branches, and these explain the leaves. In your father Saccard and your Uncle Eugene Rougon, so different in their temperaments and their lives, it is the same impulse which made the inordinate appetites of the one and the towering ambition of the other. Angelique, that pure lily, is born from the disreputable Sidonie, in the rapture which makes mystics or lovers, according to the environment. The three children of the Mourets are born of the same breath which makes of the clever Octave the dry goods merchant, a millionaire; of the devout Serge, a poor country priest; of the imbecile Desiree, a beautiful and happy girl. But the example is still more striking in the children of Gervaise; the neurosis passes down, and Nana sells herself; Etienne is a rebel; Jacques, a murderer; Claude, a genius; while Pauline, their cousin german, near by, is victorious virtue — virtue which struggles and immolates itself. It is heredity, life itself which makes imbeciles, madmen, criminals and great men. Cells abort, others take their place, and we have a scoundrel or a madman instead of a man of genius, or simply an honest man. And humanity rolls on, bearing everything on its tide.”
Then in a new shifting of his thought, growing still more animated, he continued:
“And animals — the beast that suffers and that loves, which is the rough sketch, as it were, of man — all the animals our brothers, that live our life, yes, I would have put them in the ark, I would give them a place among our family, show them continually mingling with us, completing our existence. I have known cats whose presence was the mysterious charm of the household; dogs that were adored, whose death was mourned, and left in the heart an inconsolable grief. I have known goats, cows, and asses of very great importance, and whose personality played such a part that their history ought to be written. And there is our Bonhomme, our poor old horse, that has served us for a quarter of a century. Do you not think that he has mingled his life with ours, and that henceforth he is one of the family? We have modified him, as he has influenced us a little; we shall end by being made in the same image, and this is so true that now, when I see him, half blind, with wandering gaze, his legs stiff with rheumatism, I kiss him on both cheeks as if he were a poor old relation who had fallen to my charge. Ah, animals, all creeping and crawling things, all creatures that lament, below man, how large a place in our sympathies it would be necessary to give them in a history of life!”
This was a last cry in which Pascal gave utterance to his passionate tenderness for all created beings. He had gradually become more and more excited, and had so come to make this confession of his faith in the continuous and victorious work of animated nature. And Clotilde, who thus far had not spoken, pale from the catastrophe in which her plans had ended, at last opened her lips to ask:
“Well, master, and what am I here?”
She placed one of her slender fingers on the leaf of the tree on which she saw her name written. He had always passed this leaf by. She insisted.
“Yes, I; what am I? Why have you not read me my envelope?”
For a moment he remained silent, as if surprised at the question.
“Why? For no reason. It is true, I have nothing to conceal from you. You see what is written here? ‘Clotilde, born in 1847. Selection of the mother. Reversional heredity, with moral and physical predominance of the maternal grandfather.’ Nothing can be clearer. Your mother has predominated in you; you have her fine intelligence, and you have also something of her coquetry, at times of her indolence and of her submissiveness. Yes, you are very feminine, like her. Without your being aware of it, I would say that you love to be loved. Besides, your mother was a great novel reader, an imaginative being who loved to spend whole days dreaming over a book; she doted on nursery tales, had her fortune told by cards, consulted clairvoyants; and I have always thought that your concern about spiritual matters, your anxiety about the unknown, came from that source. But what completed your character by giving you a dual nature, was the influence of your grandfather, Commandant Sicardot. I knew him; he was not a genius, but he had at least a great deal of uprightness and energy. Frankly, if it were not for him, I do not believe that you would be worth much, for the other influences are hardly good. He has given you the best part of your nature, combativeness, pride, and frankness.”
She had listened to him with attention. She nodded slightly, to signify that it was indeed so, that she was not offended, although her lips trembled visibly at these new details regarding her people and her mother.
“Well,” she resumed, “and you, master?”
This time he did not hesitate.
“Oh, I!” he cried, “what is the use of speaking of me? I do not belong to the family. You see what is written here. ‘Pascal, born in 1813. Individual variation. Combination in which the physical and moral characters of the parents are blended, without any of their traits seeming to appear in the new being.’ My mother has told me often enough that I did not belong to it, that in truth she did not know where I could have come from.”
Those words came from him like a cry of relief, of involuntary joy.
“And the people make no mistake in the matter. Have you ever heard me called Pascal Rougon in the town? No; people always say simply Dr. Pascal. It is because I stand apart. And it may not be very affectionate to feel so, but I am delighted at it, for there are in truth inheritances too heavy to bear. It is of no use that I love them all. My heart beats none the less joyously when I feel myself another being, different from them, without any community with them. Not to be of them, my God! not to be of them! It is a breath of pure air; it is what gives me the courage to have them all here, to put them, in all their nakedness, in their envelopes, and still to find the courage to live!”
He stopped, and there was silence for a time. The rain had ceased, the storm was passing away, the thunderclaps sounded more and more distant, while from the refreshed fields, still dark, there came in through the open window a delicious odor of moist earth. In the calm air the candles were burning out with a tall, tranquil flame.
“Ah!” said Clotilde simply, with a gesture of discouragement, “what are we to become finally?”
She had declared it to herself one night, in the threshing yard; life was horrible, how could one live peaceful and happy? It was a terrible light that science threw on the world. Analysis searched every wound of humanity, in order to expose its horror. And now he had spoken still more bluntly; he had increased the disgust which she had for persons and things, pitilessly dissecting her family. The muddy torrent had rolled on before her for nearly three hours, and she had heard the most dreadful revelations, the harsh and terrible truth about her people, her people who were so dear to her, whom it was her duty to love; her father grown powerful through pecuniary crimes; her brother dissolute; her grandmother unscrupulous, covered with the blood of the just; the others almost all tainted, drunkards, ruffians, murderers, the monstrous blossoming of the human tree.
The blow had been so rude that she could not yet recover from it, stunned as she was by the revelation of her whole family history, made to her in this way at a stroke. And yet the lesson was rendered innocuous, so to say, by something great and good, a breath of profound humanity which had borne her through it. Nothing bad had come to her from it. She felt herself beaten by a sharp sea wind, the storm wind which strengthens and expands the lungs. He had revealed everything, speaking freely even of his mother, without judging her, continuing to preserve toward her his deferential attitude, as a scientist who does not judge events. To tell everything in order to know everything, in order to remedy everything, was not this the cry which he had uttered on that beautiful summer night?
And by the very excess of what he had just revealed to her, she remained shaken, blinded by this too strong light, but understanding him at last, and confessing to herself that he was attempting in this an immense work. In spite of everything, it was a cry of health, of hope in the future. He spoke as a benefactor who, since heredity made the world, wished to fix its laws, in order to control it, and to make a new and happy world. Was there then only mud in this overflowing stream, whose sluices he had opened? How much gold had passed, mingled with the grass and the flowers on its borders? Hundreds of beings were still flying swiftly before her, and she was haunted by good and charming faces, delicate girlish profiles, by the serene beauty of women. All passion bled there, hearts swelled with every tender rapture. They were numerous, the Jeannes, the Angeliques, the Paulines, the Marthes, the Gervaises, the Helenes. They and others, even those who were least good, even terrible men, the worst of the band, showed a brotherhood with humanity.
And it was precisely this breath which she had felt pass, this broad current of sympathy, that he had introduced naturally into his exact scientific lesson. He did not seem to be moved; he preserved the impersonal and correct attitude of the demonstrator, but within him what tender suffering, what a fever of devotion, what a giving up of his whole being to the happiness of others? His entire work, constructed with such mathematical precision, was steeped in this fraternal suffering, even in its most cruel ironies. Had he not just spoken of the animals, like an elder brother of the wretched living beings that suffer? Suffering exasperated him; his wrath was because of his too lofty dream, and he had become harsh only in his hatred of the factitious and the transitory; dreaming of working, not for the polite society of a time, but for all humanity in the gravest hours of its history. Perhaps, even, it was this revolt against the vulgarity of the time which had made him throw himself, in bold defiance, into theories and their application. And the work remained human, overflowing as it was with an infinite pity for beings and things.
Besides, was it not life? There is no absolute evil. Most often a virtue presents itself side by side with a defect. No man is bad to every one, each man makes the happiness of some one; so that, when one does not view things from a single standpoint only, one recognizes in the end the utility of every human being. Those who believe in God should say to themselves that if their God does not strike the wicked dead, it is because he sees his work in its totality, and that he cannot descend to the individual. Labor ends to begin anew; the living, as a whole, continue, in spite of everything, admirable in their courage and their industry; and love of life prevails over all.
This giant labor of men, this obstinacy in living, is their excuse, is redemption. And then, from a great height the eye saw only this continual struggle, and a great deal of good, in spite of everything, even though there might be a great deal of evil. One shared the general indulgence, one pardoned, one had only an infinite pity and an ardent charity. The haven was surely there, waiting those who have lost faith in dogmas, who wish to understand the meaning of their lives, in the midst of the apparent iniquity of the world. One must live for the effort of living, for the stone to be carried to the distant and unknown work, and the only possible peace in the world is in the joy of making this effort.
Another hour passed; the entire night had flown by in this terrible lesson of life, without either Pascal or Clotilde being conscious of where they were, or of the flight of time. And he, overworked for some time past, and worn out by the life of suspicion and sadness which he had been leading, started nervously, as if he had suddenly awakened.
“Come, you know all; do you feel your heart strong, tempered by the truth, full of pardon and of hope? Are you with me?”
But, still stunned by the frightful moral shock which she had received, she too, started, bewildered. Her old beliefs had been so completely overthrown, so many new ideas were awakening within her, that she did not dare to question herself, in order to find an answer. She felt herself seized and carried away by the omnipotence of truth. She endured it without being convinced.
“Master,” she stammered, “master —”
And they remained for a moment face to face, looking at each other. Day was breaking, a dawn of exquisite purity, far off in the vast, clear sky, washed by the storm. Not a cloud now stained the pale azure tinged with rose color. All the cheerful sounds of awakening life in the rain-drenched fields came in through the window, while the candles, burned down to the socket, paled in the growing light.
“Answer; are you with me, altogether with me?”
For a moment he thought she was going to throw herself on his neck and burst into tears. A sudden impulse seemed to impel her. But they saw each other in their semi-nudity. She, who had not noticed it before, was now conscious that she was only half dressed, that her arms were bare, her shoulders bare, covered only by the scattered locks of her unbound hair, and on her right shoulder, near the armpit, on lowering her eyes, she perceived again the few drops of blood of the bruise which he had given her, when he had grasped her roughly, in struggling to master her. Then an extraordinary confusion took possession of her, a certainty that she was going to be vanquished, as if by this grasp he had become her master, and forever. This sensation was prolonged; she was seized and drawn on, without the consent of her will, by an irresistible impulse to submit.
Abruptly Clotilde straightened herself, struggling with herself, wishing to reflect and to recover herself. She pressed her bare arms against her naked throat. All the blood in her body rushed to her skin in a rosy blush of shame. Then, in her divine and slender grace, she turned to flee.
“Master, master, let me go — I will see —”
With the swiftness of alarmed maidenhood, she took refuge in her chamber, as she had done once before. He heard her lock the door hastily, with a double turn of the key. He remained alone, and he asked himself suddenly, seized by infinite discouragement and sadness, if he had done right in speaking, if the truth would germinate in this dear and adored creature, and bear one day a harvest of happiness.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02