The days wore on. October began with magnificent weather — a sultry autumn in which the fervid heat of summer was prolonged, with a cloudless sky. Then the weather changed, fierce winds began to blow, and a last storm channeled gullies in the hillsides. And to the melancholy household at La Souleiade the approach of winter seemed to have brought an infinite sadness.
It was a new hell. There were no more violent quarrels between Pascal and Clotilde. The doors were no longer slammed. Voices raised in dispute no longer obliged Martine to go continually upstairs to listen outside the door. They scarcely spoke to each other now; and not a single word had been exchanged between them regarding the midnight scene, although weeks had passed since it had taken place. He, through an inexplicable scruple, a strange delicacy of which he was not himself conscious, did not wish to renew the conversation, and to demand the answer which he expected — a promise of faith in him and of submission. She, after the great moral shock which had completely transformed her, still reflected, hesitated, struggled, fighting against herself, putting off her decision in order not to surrender, in her instinctive rebelliousness. And the misunderstanding continued, in the midst of the mournful silence of the miserable house, where there was no longer any happiness.
During all this time Pascal suffered terribly, without making any complaint. He had sunk into a dull distrust, imagining that he was still being watched, and that if they seemed to leave him at peace it was only in order to concoct in secret the darkest plots. His uneasiness increased, even, and he expected every day some catastrophe to happen — the earth suddenly to open and swallow up his papers, La Souleiade itself to be razed to the ground, carried away bodily, scattered to the winds.
The persecution against his thought, against his moral and intellectual life, in thus hiding itself, and so rendering him helpless to defend himself, became so intolerable to him that he went to bed every night in a fever. He would often start and turn round suddenly, thinking he was going to surprise the enemy behind him engaged in some piece of treachery, to find nothing there but the shadow of his own fears. At other times, seized by some suspicion, he would remain on the watch for hours together, hidden, behind his blinds, or lying in wait in a passage; but not a soul stirred, he heard nothing but the violent beating of his heart. His fears kept him in a state of constant agitation; he never went to bed at night without visiting every room; he no longer slept, or, if he did, he would waken with a start at the slightest noise, ready to defend himself.
And what still further aggravated Pascal’s sufferings was the constant, the ever more bitter thought that the wound was inflicted upon him by the only creature he loved in the world, the adored Clotilde, whom for twenty years he had seen grow in beauty and in grace, whose life had hitherto bloomed like a beautiful flower, perfuming his. She, great God! for whom his heart was full of affection, whom he had never analyzed, she, who had become his joy, his courage, his hope, in whose young life he lived over again. When she passed by, with her delicate neck, so round, so fresh, he was invigorated, bathed in health and joy, as at the coming of spring.
His whole life, besides, explained this invasion, this subjugation of his being by the young girl who had entered into his heart while she was still a little child, and who, as she grew up, had gradually taken possession of the whole place. Since he had settled at Plassans, he had led a blest existence, wrapped up in his books, far from women. The only passion he was ever known to have had, was his love for the lady who had died, whose finger tips he had never kissed. He had not lived; he had within him a reserve of youthfulness, of vigor, whose surging flood now clamored rebelliously at the menace of approaching age. He would have become attached to an animal, a stray dog that he had chanced to pick up in the street, and that had licked his hand. And it was this child whom he loved, all at once become an adorable woman, who now distracted him, who tortured him by her hostility.
Pascal, so gay, so kind, now became insupportably gloomy and harsh. He grew angry at the slightest word; he would push aside the astonished Martine, who would look up at him with the submissive eyes of a beaten animal. From morning till night he went about the gloomy house, carrying his misery about with him, with so forbidding a countenance that no one ventured to speak to him.
He never took Clotilde with him now on his visits, but went alone. And thus it was that he returned home one afternoon, his mind distracted because of an accident which had happened; having on his conscience, as a physician, the death of a man.
He had gone to give a hypodermic injection to Lafouasse, the tavern keeper, whose ataxia had within a short time made such rapid progress that he regarded him as doomed. But, notwithstanding, Pascal still fought obstinately against the disease, continuing the treatment, and as ill luck would have it, on this day the little syringe had caught up at the bottom of the vial an impure particle, which had escaped the filter. Immediately a drop of blood appeared; to complete his misfortune, he had punctured a vein. He was at once alarmed, seeing the tavern keeper turn pale and gasp for breath, while large drops of cold perspiration broke out upon his face. Then he understood; death came as if by a stroke of lightning, the lips turning blue, the face black. It was an embolism; he had nothing to blame but the insufficiency of his preparations, his still rude method. No doubt Lafouasse had been doomed. He could not, perhaps, have lived six months longer, and that in the midst of atrocious sufferings, but the brutal fact of this terrible death was none the less there, and what despairing regret, what rage against impotent and murderous science, and what a shock to his faith! He returned home, livid, and did not make his appearance again until the following day, after having remained sixteen hours shut up in his room, lying in a semi-stupor on the bed, across which he had thrown himself, dressed as he was.
On the afternoon of this day Clotilde, who was sitting beside him in the study, sewing, ventured to break the oppressive silence. She looked up, and saw him turning over the leaves of a book wearily, searching for some information which he was unable to find.
“Master, are you ill? Why do you not tell me, if you are. I would take care of you.”
He kept his eyes bent upon the book, and muttered:
“What does it matter to you whether I am ill or not? I need no one to take care of me.”
She resumed, in a conciliating voice:
“If you have troubles, and can tell them to me, it would perhaps be a relief to you to do so. Yesterday you came in looking so sad. You must not allow yourself to be cast down in that way. I have spent a very anxious night. I came to your door three times to listen, tormented by the idea that you were suffering.”
Gently as she spoke, her words were like the cut of a whip. In his weak and nervous condition a sudden access of rage made him push away the book and rise up trembling.
“So you spy upon me, then. I cannot even retire to my room without people coming to glue their ears to the walls. Yes, you listen even to the beatings of my heart. You watch for my death, to pillage and burn everything here.”
His voice rose and all his unjust suffering vented itself in complaints and threats.
“I forbid you to occupy yourself about me. Is there nothing else that you have to say to me? Have you reflected? Can you put your hand in mine loyally, and say to me that we are in accord?”
She did not answer. She only continued to look at him with her large clear eyes, frankly declaring that she would not surrender yet, while he, exasperated more and more by this attitude, lost all self-control.
“Go away, go away,” he stammered, pointing to the door. “I do not wish you to remain near me. I do not wish to have enemies near me. I do not wish you to remain near me to drive me mad!”
She rose, very pale, and went at once out of the room, without looking behind, carrying her work with her.
During the month which followed, Pascal took refuge in furious and incessant work. He now remained obstinately, for whole days at a time, alone in the study, sometimes passing even the nights there, going over old documents, to revise all his works on heredity. It seemed as if a sort of frenzy had seized him to assure himself of the legitimacy of his hopes, to force science to give him the certainty that humanity could be remade — made a higher, a healthy humanity. He no longer left the house, he abandoned his patients even, and lived among his papers, without air or exercise. And after a month of this overwork, which exhausted him without appeasing his domestic torments, he fell into such a state of nervous exhaustion that illness, for some time latent, declared itself at last with alarming violence.
Pascal, when he rose in the morning, felt worn out with fatigue, wearier and less refreshed than he had been on going to bed the night before. He constantly had pains all over his body; his limbs failed him, after five minutes’ walk; the slightest exertion tired him; the least movement caused him intense pain. At times the floor seemed suddenly to sway beneath his feet. He had a constant buzzing in his ears, flashes of light dazzled his eyes. He took a loathing for wine, he had no longer any appetite, and his digestion was seriously impaired. Then, in the midst of the apathy of his constantly increasing idleness he would have sudden fits of aimless activity. The equilibrium was destroyed, he had at times outbreaks of nervous irritability, without any cause. The slightest emotion brought tears to his eyes. Finally, he would shut himself up in his room, and give way to paroxysms of despair so violent that he would sob for hours at a time, without any immediate cause of grief, overwhelmed simply by the immense sadness of things.
In the early part of December Pascal had a severe attack of neuralgia. Violent pains in the bones of the skull made him feel at times as if his head must split. Old Mme. Rougon, who had been informed of his illness, came to inquire after her son. But she went straight to the kitchen, wishing to have a talk with Martine first. The latter, with a heart-broken and terrified air, said to her that monsieur must certainly be going mad; and she told her of his singular behavior, the continual tramping about in his room, the locking of all the drawers, the rounds which he made from the top to the bottom of the house, until two o’clock in the morning. Tears filled her eyes and she at last hazarded the opinion that monsieur must be possessed with a devil, and that it would be well to notify the cure of St. Saturnin.
“So good a man,” she said, “a man for whom one would let one’s self be cut in pieces! How unfortunate it is that one cannot get him to go to church, for that would certainly cure him at once.”
Clotilde, who had heard her grandmother’s voice, entered at this moment. She, too, wandered through the empty rooms, spending most of her time in the deserted apartment on the ground floor. She did not speak, however, but only listened with her thoughtful and expectant air.
“Ah, goodday! It is you, my dear. Martine tells me that Pascal is possessed with a devil. That is indeed my opinion also; only the devil is called pride. He thinks that he knows everything. He is Pope and Emperor in one, and naturally it exasperates him when people don’t agree with him.”
She shrugged her shoulders with supreme disdain.
“As for me, all that would only make me laugh if it were not so sad. A fellow who knows nothing about anything; who has always been wrapped up in his books; who has not lived. Put him in a drawing-room, and he would know as little how to act as a new-born babe. And as for women, he does not even know what they are.”
Forgetting to whom she was speaking, a young girl and a servant, she lowered her voice, and said confidentially:
“Well, one pays for being too sensible, too. Neither a wife nor a sweetheart nor anything. That is what has finally turned his brain.”
Clotilde did not move. She only lowered her eyelids slowly over her large thoughtful eyes; then she raised them again, maintaining her impenetrable countenance, unwilling, unable, perhaps, to give expression to what was passing within her. This was no doubt all still confused, a complete evolution, a great change which was taking place, and which she herself did not clearly understand.
“He is upstairs, is he not?” resumed Felicite. “I have come to see him, for this must end; it is too stupid.”
And she went upstairs, while Martine returned to her saucepans, and Clotilde went to wander again through the empty house.
Upstairs in the study Pascal sat seemingly in a stupor, his face bent over a large open book. He could no longer read, the words danced before his eyes, conveying no meaning to his mind. But he persisted, for it was death to him to lose his faculty for work, hitherto so powerful. His mother at once began to scold him, snatching the book from him, and flinging it upon a distant table, crying that when one was sick one should take care of one’s self. He rose with a quick, angry movement, about to order her away as he had ordered Clotilde. Then, by a last effort of the will, he became again deferential.
“Mother, you know that I have never wished to dispute with you. Leave me, I beg of you.”
She did not heed him, but began instead to take him to task about his continual distrust. It was he himself who had given himself a fever, always fancying that he was surrounded by enemies who were setting traps for him, and watching him to rob him. Was there any common sense in imagining that people were persecuting him in that way? And then she accused him of allowing his head to be turned by his discovery, his famous remedy for curing every disease. That was as much as to think himself equal to the good God; which only made it all the more cruel when he found out how mistaken he was. And she mentioned Lafouasse, the man whom he had killed — naturally, she could understand that that had not been very pleasant for him; indeed there was cause enough in it to make him take to his bed.
Pascal, still controlling himself, very pale and with eyes cast on the ground, contented himself with repeating:
“Mother, leave me, I beg of you.”
“No, I won’t leave you,” she cried with the impetuosity which was natural to her, and which her great age had in no wise diminished. “I have come precisely to stir you up a little, to rid you of this fever which is consuming you. No, this cannot continue. I don’t wish that we should again become the talk of the whole town on your account. I wish you to take care of yourself.”
He shrugged his shoulders, and said in a low voice, as if speaking to himself, with an uneasy look, half of conviction, half of doubt:
“I am not ill.”
But Felicite, beside herself, burst out, gesticulating violently:
“Not ill! not ill! Truly, there is no one like a physician for not being able to see himself. Why, my poor boy, every one that comes near you is shocked by your appearance. You are becoming insane through pride and fear!”
This time Pascal raised his head quickly, and looked her straight in the eyes, while she continued:
“This is what I had to tell you, since it seems that no one else would undertake the task. You are old enough to know what you ought to do. You should make an effort to shake off all this; you should think of something else; you should not let a fixed idea take possession of you, especially when you belong to a family like ours. You know it; have sense, and take care of yourself.”
He grew paler than before, looking fixedly at her still, as if he were sounding her, to know what there was of her in him. And he contented himself with answering:
“You are right, mother. I thank you.”
When he was again alone, he dropped into his seat before the table, and tried once more to read his book. But he could not succeed, any more than before, in fixing his attention sufficiently to understand the words, whose letters mingled confusedly together before his eyes. And his mother’s words buzzed in his ears; a vague terror, which had some time before sprung up within him, grew and took shape, haunting him now as an immediate and clearly defined danger. He who two months before had boasted triumphantly of not belonging to the family, was he about to receive the most terrible of contradictions? Ah, this egotistic joy, this intense joy of not belonging to it, was it to give place to the terrible anguish of being struck in his turn? Was he to have the humiliation of seeing the taint revive in him? Was he to be dragged down to the horror of feeling himself in the clutches of the monster of heredity? The sublime idea, the lofty certitude which he had of abolishing suffering, of strengthening man’s will, of making a new and a higher humanity, a healthy humanity, was assuredly only the beginning of the monomania of vanity. And in his bitter complaint of being watched, in his desire to watch the enemies who, he thought, were obstinately bent on his destruction, were easily to be recognized the symptoms of the monomania of suspicion. So then all the diseases of the race were to end in this terrible case — madness within a brief space, then general paralysis, and a dreadful death.
From this day forth Pascal was as if possessed. The state of nervous exhaustion into which overwork and anxiety had thrown him left him an unresisting prey to this haunting fear of madness and death. All the morbid sensations which he felt, his excessive fatigue on rising, the buzzing in his ears, the flashes of light before his eyes, even his attacks of indigestion and his paroxysms of tears, were so many infallible symptoms of the near insanity with which he believed himself threatened. He had completely lost, in his own case, the keen power of diagnosis of the observant physician, and if he still continued to reason about it, it was only to confound and pervert symptoms, under the influence of the moral and physical depression into which he had fallen. He was no longer master of himself; he was mad, so to say, to convince himself hour by hour that he must become so.
All the days of this pale December were spent by him in going deeper and deeper into his malady. Every morning he tried to escape from the haunting subject, but he invariably ended by shutting himself in the study to take up again, in spite of himself, the tangled skein of the day before.
The long study which he had made of heredity, his important researches, his works, completed the poisoning of his peace, furnishing him with ever renewed causes of disquietude. To the question which he put to himself continually as to his own hereditary case, the documents were there to answer it by all possible combinations. They were so numerous that he lost himself among them now. If he had deceived himself, if he could not set himself apart, as a remarkable case of variation, should he place himself under the head of reversional heredity, passing over one, two, or even three generations? Or was his case rather a manifestation of larvated heredity, which would bring anew proof to the support of his theory of the germ plasm, or was it simply a singular case of hereditary resemblance, the sudden apparition of some unknown ancestor at the very decline of life?
From this moment he never rested, giving himself up completely to the investigation of his case, searching his notes, rereading his books. And he studied himself, watching the least of his sensations, to deduce from them the facts on which he might judge himself. On the days when his mind was most sluggish, or when he thought he experienced particular phenomena of vision, he inclined to a predominance of the original nervous lesion; while, if he felt that his limbs were affected, his feet heavy and painful, he imagined he was suffering the indirect influence of some ancestor come from outside. Everything became confused, until at last he could recognize himself no longer, in the midst of the imaginary troubles which agitated his disturbed organism. And every evening the conclusion was the same, the same knell sounded in his brain — heredity, appalling heredity, the fear of becoming mad.
In the early part of January Clotilde was an involuntary spectator of a scene which wrung her heart. She was sitting before one of the windows of the study, reading, concealed by the high back of her chair, when she saw Pascal, who had been shut up in his room since the day before, entering. He held open before his eyes with both hands a sheet of yellow paper, in which she recognized the genealogical tree. He was so completely absorbed, his gaze was so fixed, that she might have come forward without his observing her. He spread the tree upon the table, continuing to look at it for a long time, with the terrified expression of interrogation which had become habitual to him, which gradually changed to one of supplication, the tears coursing down his cheeks.
Why, great God! would not the tree answer him, and tell him what ancestor he resembled, in order that he might inscribe his case on his own leaf, beside the others? If he was to become mad, why did not the tree tell him so clearly, which would have calmed him, for he believed that his suffering came only from his uncertainty? Tears clouded his vision, yet still he looked, he exhausted himself in this longing to know, in which his reason must finally give way.
Clotilde hastily concealed herself as she saw him walk over to the press, which he opened wide. He seized the envelopes, threw them on the table, and searched among them feverishly. It was the scene of the terrible night of the storm that was beginning over again, the gallop of nightmares, the procession of phantoms, rising at his call from this heap of old papers. As they passed by, he addressed to each of them a question, an ardent prayer, demanding the origin of his malady, hoping for a word, a whisper which should set his doubts at rest. First, it was only an indistinct murmur, then came words and fragments of phrases.
“Is it you — is it you — is it you — oh, old mother, the mother of us all — who are to give me your madness? Is it you, inebriate uncle, old scoundrel of an uncle, whose drunkenness I am to pay for? Is it you, ataxic nephew, or you, mystic nephew, or yet you, idiot niece, who are to reveal to me the truth, showing me one of the forms of the lesion from which I suffer? Or is it rather you, second cousin, who hanged yourself; or you, second cousin, who committed murder; or you, second cousin, who died of rottenness, whose tragic ends announce to me mine — death in a cell, the horrible decomposition of being?”
And the gallop continued, they rose and passed by with the speed of the wind. The papers became animate, incarnate, they jostled one another, they trampled on one another, in a wild rush of suffering humanity.
“Ah, who will tell me, who will tell me, who will tell me? — Is it he who died mad? he who was carried off by phthisis? he who was killed by paralysis? she whose constitutional feebleness caused her to die in early youth? — Whose is the poison of which I am to die? What is it, hysteria, alcoholism, tuberculosis, scrofula? And what is it going to make of me, an ataxic or a madman? A madman. Who was it said a madman? They all say it — a madman, a madman, a madman!”
Sobs choked Pascal. He let his dejected head fall among the papers, he wept endlessly, shaken by shuddering sobs. And Clotilde, seized by a sort of awe, feeling the presence of the fate which rules over races, left the room softly, holding her breath; for she knew that it would mortify him exceedingly if he knew that she had been present.
Long periods of prostration followed. January was very cold. But the sky remained wonderfully clear, a brilliant sun shone in the limpid blue; and at La Souleiade, the windows of the study facing south formed a sort of hothouse, preserving there a delightfully mild temperature. They did not even light a fire, for the room was always filled with a flood of sunshine, in which the flies that had survived the winter flew about lazily. The only sound to be heard was the buzzing of their wings. It was a close and drowsy warmth, like a breath of spring that had lingered in the old house baked by the heat of summer.
Pascal, still gloomy, dragged through the days there, and it was there, too, that he overheard one day the closing words of a conversation which aggravated his suffering. As he never left his room now before breakfast, Clotilde had received Dr. Ramond this morning in the study, and they were talking there together in an undertone, sitting beside each other in the bright sunshine.
It was the third visit which Ramond had made during the last week. Personal reasons, the necessity, especially, of establishing definitely his position as a physician at Plassans, made it expedient for him not to defer his marriage much longer: and he wished to obtain from Clotilde a decisive answer. On each of his former visits the presence of a third person had prevented him from speaking. As he desired to receive her answer from herself directly he had resolved to declare himself to her in a frank conversation. Their intimate friendship, and the discretion and good sense of both, justified him in taking this step. And he ended, smiling, looking into her eyes:
“I assure you, Clotilde, that it is the most reasonable of denouements. You know that I have loved you for a long time. I have a profound affection and esteem for you. That alone might perhaps not be sufficient, but, in addition, we understand each other perfectly, and we should be very happy together, I am convinced of it.”
She did not cast down her eyes; she, too, looked at him frankly, with a friendly smile. He was, in truth, very handsome, in his vigorous young manhood.
“Why do you not marry Mlle. Leveque, the lawyer’s daughter?” she asked. “She is prettier and richer than I am, and I know that she would gladly accept you. My dear friend, I fear that you are committing a folly in choosing me.”
He did not grow impatient, seeming still convinced of the wisdom of his determination.
“But I do not love Mlle. Leveque, and I do love you. Besides, I have considered everything, and I repeat that I know very well what I am about. Say yes; you can take no better course.”
Then she grew very serious, and a shadow passed over her face, the shadow of those reflections, of those almost unconscious inward struggles, which kept her silent for days at a time. She did not see clearly yet, she still struggled against herself, and she wished to wait.
“Well, my friend, since you are really serious, do not ask me to give you an answer to-day; grant me a few weeks longer. Master is indeed very ill. I am greatly troubled about him; and you would not like to owe my consent to a hasty impulse. I assure you, for my part, that I have a great deal of affection for you, but it would be wrong to decide at this moment; the house is too unhappy. It is agreed, is it not? I will not make you wait long.”
And to change the conversation she added:
“Yes, I am uneasy about master. I wished to see you, in order to tell you so. The other day I surprised him weeping violently, and I am certain the fear of becoming mad haunts him. The day before yesterday, when you were talking to him, I saw that you were examining him. Tell me frankly, what do you think of his condition? Is he in any danger?”
“Not the slightest!” exclaimed Dr. Ramond. “His system is a little out of order, that is all. How can a man of his ability, who has made so close a study of nervous diseases, deceive himself to such an extent? It is discouraging, indeed, if the clearest and most vigorous minds can go so far astray. In his case his own discovery of hypodermic injections would be excellent. Why does he not use them with himself?”
And as the young girl replied, with a despairing gesture, that he would not listen to her, that he would not even allow her to speak to him now, Ramond said:
“Well, then, I will speak to him.”
It was at this moment that Pascal came out of his room, attracted by the sound of voices. But on seeing them both so close to each other, so animated, so youthful, and so handsome in the sunshine — clothed with sunshine, as it were — he stood still in the doorway. He looked fixedly at them, and his pale face altered.
Ramond had a moment before taken Clotilde’s hand, and he was holding it in his.
“It is a promise, is it not? I should like the marriage to take place this summer. You know how much I love you, and I shall eagerly await your answer.”
“Very well,” she answered. “Before a month all will be settled.”
A sudden giddiness made Pascal stagger. Here now was this boy, his friend, his pupil, who had introduced himself into his house to rob him of his treasure! He ought to have expected this denouement, yet the sudden news of a possible marriage surprised him, overwhelmed him like an unforeseen catastrophe that had forever ruined his life. This girl whom he had fashioned, whom he had believed his own, she would leave him, then, without regret, she would leave him to die alone in his solitude. Only the day before she had made him suffer so intensely that he had asked himself whether he should not part from her and send her to her brother, who was always writing for her. For an instant he had even decided on this separation, for the good of both. Yet to find her here suddenly, with this man, to hear her promise to give him an answer, to think that she would marry, that she would soon leave him, this stabbed him to the heart.
At the sound of his heavy step as he came forward, the two young people turned round in some embarrassment.
“Why, master, we were just talking about you,” said Ramond gaily. “Yes, to be frank with you, we were conspiring. Come, why do you not take care of yourself? There is nothing serious the matter with you; you would be on your feet again in a fortnight if you did.”
Pascal, who had dropped into a chair, continued to look at them. He had still the power to control himself, and his countenance gave no evidence of the wound which he had just received. He would assuredly die of it, and no one would suspect the malady which had carried him off. But it was a relief to him to be able to give vent to his feelings, and he declared violently that he would not take even so much as a glass of tisane.
“Take care of myself!” he cried; “what for? Is it not all over with my old carcass?”
Ramond insisted, with a good-tempered smile.
“You are sounder than any of us. This is a trifling disturbance, and you know that you have the remedy in your own hands. Use your hypodermic injection.”
Pascal did not allow him to finish. This filled the measure of his rage. He angrily asked if they wished him to kill himself, as he had killed Lafouasse. His injections! A pretty invention, of which he had good reason to be proud. He abjured medicine, and he swore that he would never again go near a patient. When people were no longer good for anything they ought to die; that would be the best thing for everybody. And that was what he was going to try to do, so as to have done with it all.
“Bah! bah!” said Ramond at last, resolving to take his leave, through fear of exciting him still further; “I will leave you with Clotilde; I am not at all uneasy, Clotilde will take care of you.”
But Pascal had on this morning received the final blow. He took to his bed toward evening, and remained for two whole days without opening the door of his room. It was in vain that Clotilde, at last becoming alarmed, knocked loudly at the door. There was no answer. Martine went in her turn and begged monsieur, through the keyhole, at least to tell her if he needed anything. A deathlike silence reigned; the room seemed to be empty.
Then, on the morning of the third day, as the young girl by chance turned the knob, the door yielded; perhaps it had been unlocked for hours. And she might enter freely this room in which she had never set foot: a large room, rendered cold by its northern exposure, in which she saw a small iron bed without curtains, a shower bath in a corner, a long black wooden table, a few chairs, and on the table, on the floor, along the walls, an array of chemical apparatus, mortars, furnaces, machines, instrument cases. Pascal, up and dressed, was sitting on the edge of his bed, in trying to arrange which he had exhausted himself.
“Don’t you want me to nurse you, then?” she asked with anxious tenderness, without venturing to advance into the room.
“Oh, you can come in,” he said with a dejected gesture. “I won’t beat you. I have not the strength to do that now.”
And from this day on he tolerated her about him, and allowed her to wait on him. But he had caprices still. He would not let her enter the room when he was in bed, possessed by a sort of morbid shame; then he made her send him Martine. But he seldom remained in bed, dragging himself about from chair to chair, in his utter inability to do any kind of work. His malady continued to grow worse, until at last he was reduced to utter despair, tortured by sick headaches, and without the strength, as he said, to put one foot before the other, convinced every morning that he would spend the night at the Tulettes, a raving maniac. He grew thin; his face, under its crown of white hair — which he still cared for through a last remnant of vanity — acquired a look of suffering, of tragic beauty. And although he allowed himself to be waited on, he refused roughly all remedies, in the distrust of medicine into which he had fallen.
Clotilde now devoted herself to him entirely. She gave up everything else; at first she attended low mass, then she left off going to church altogether. In her impatience for some certain happiness, she felt as if she were taking a step toward that end by thus devoting all her moments to the service of a beloved being whom she wished to see once more well and happy. She made a complete sacrifice of herself, she sought to find happiness in the happiness of another; and all this unconsciously, solely at the impulse of her woman’s heart, in the midst of the crisis through which she was still passing, and which was modifying her character profoundly, without her knowledge. She remained silent regarding the disagreement which separated them. The idea did not again occur to her to throw herself on his neck, crying that she was his, that he might return to life, since she gave herself to him. In her thoughts she grieved to see him suffer; she was only an affectionate girl, who took care of him, as any female relative would have done. And her attentions were very pure, very delicate, occupying her life so completely that her days now passed swiftly, exempt from tormenting thoughts of the Beyond, filled with the one wish of curing him.
But where she had a hard battle to fight was in prevailing upon him to use his hypodermic injections upon himself. He flew into a passion, disowned his discovery, and called himself an imbecile. She too cried out. It was she now who had faith in science, who grew indignant at seeing him doubt his own genius. He resisted for a long time; then yielding to the empire which she had acquired over him, he consented, simply to avoid the affectionate dispute which she renewed with him every morning. From the very first he experienced great relief from the injections, although he refused to acknowledge it. His mind became clearer, and he gradually gained strength. Then she was exultant, filled with enthusiastic pride in him. She vaunted his treatment, and became indignant because he did not admire himself, as an example of the miracles which he was able to work. He smiled; he was now beginning to see clearly into his own condition. Ramond had spoken truly, his illness had been nothing but nervous exhaustion. Perhaps he would get over it after all.
“Ah, it is you who are curing me, little girl,” he would say, not wishing to confess his hopes. “Medicines, you see, act according to the hand that gives them.”
The convalescence was slow, lasting through the whole of February. The weather remained clear and cold; there was not a single day in which the study was not flooded with warm, pale sunshine. There were hours of relapse, however, hours of the blackest melancholy, in which all the patient’s terrors returned; when his guardian, disconsolate, was obliged to sit at the other end of the room, in order not to irritate him still more. He despaired anew of his recovery. He became again bitter and aggressively ironical.
It was on one of those bad days that Pascal, approaching a window, saw his neighbor, M. Bellombre, the retired professor, making the round of his garden to see if his fruit trees were well covered with blossoms. The sight of the old man, so neat and so erect, with the fine placidity of the egoist, on whom illness had apparently never laid hold, suddenly put Pascal beside himself.
“Ah!” he growled, “there is one who will never overwork himself, who will never endanger his health by worrying!”
And he launched forth into an ironical eulogy on selfishness. To be alone in the world, not to have a friend, to have neither wife nor child, what happiness! That hard-hearted miser, who for forty years had had only other people’s children to cuff, who lived aloof from the world, without even a dog, with a deaf and dumb gardener older than himself, was he not an example of the greatest happiness possible on earth? Without a responsibility, without a duty, without an anxiety, other than that of taking care of his dear health! He was a wise man, he would live a hundred years.
“Ah, the fear of life! that is cowardice which is truly the best wisdom. To think that I should ever have regretted not having a child of my own! Has any one a right to bring miserable creatures into the world? Bad heredity should be ended, life should be ended. The only honest man is that old coward there!”
M. Bellombre continued peacefully making the round of his pear trees in the March sunshine. He did not risk a too hasty movement; he economized his fresh old age. If he met a stone in his path, he pushed it aside with the end of his cane, and then walked tranquilly on.
“Look at him! Is he not well preserved; is he not handsome? Have not all the blessings of heaven been showered down upon him? He is the happiest man I know.”
Clotilde, who had listened in silence, suffered from the irony of Pascal, the full bitterness of which she divined. She, who usually took M. Bellombre’s part, felt a protest rise up within her. Tears came to her eyes, and she answered simply in a low voice:
“Yes; but he is not loved.”
These words put a sudden end to the painful scene. Pascal, as if he had received an electric shock, turned and looked at her. A sudden rush of tenderness brought tears to his eyes also, and he left the room to keep from weeping.
The days wore on in the midst of these alternations of good and bad hours. He recovered his strength but slowly, and what put him in despair was that whenever he attempted to work he was seized by a profuse perspiration. If he had persisted, he would assuredly have fainted. So long as he did not work he felt that his convalescence was making little progress. He began to take an interest again, however, in his accustomed investigations. He read over again the last pages that he had written, and, with this reawakening of the scientist in him, his former anxieties returned. At one time he fell into a state of such depression, that the house and all it contained ceased to exist for him. He might have been robbed, everything he possessed might have been taken and destroyed, without his even being conscious of the disaster. Now he became again watchful, from time to time he would feel his pocket, to assure himself that the key of the press was there.
But one morning when he had overslept himself, and did not leave his room until eleven o’clock, he saw Clotilde in the study, quietly occupied in copying with great exactness in pastel a branch of flowering almond. She looked up, smiling; and taking a key that was lying beside her on the desk, she offered it to him, saying:
Surprised, not yet comprehending, he looked at the object which she held toward him.
“What is that?” he asked.
“It is the key of the press, which you must have dropped from your pocket yesterday, and which I picked up here this morning.”
Pascal took it with extraordinary emotion. He looked at it, and then at Clotilde. Was it ended, then? She would persecute him no more. She was no longer eager to rob everything, to burn everything. And seeing her still smiling, she also looking moved, an immense joy filled his heart.
He caught her in his arms, crying:
“Ah, little girl, if we might only not be too unhappy!”
Then he opened a drawer of his table and threw the key into it, as he used to do formerly.
From this time on he gained strength, and his convalescence progressed more rapidly. Relapses were still possible, for he was still very weak. But he was able to write, and this made the days less heavy. The sun, too, shone more brightly, the study being so warm at times that it became necessary to half close the shutters. He refused to see visitors, barely tolerated Martine, and had his mother told that he was sleeping, when she came at long intervals to inquire for him. He was happy only in this delightful solitude, nursed by the rebel, the enemy of yesterday, the docile pupil of to-day. They would often sit together in silence for a long time, without feeling any constraint. They meditated, or lost themselves in infinitely sweet reveries.
One day, however, Pascal seemed very grave. He was now convinced that his illness had resulted from purely accidental causes, and that heredity had had no part in it. But this filled him none the less with humility.
“My God!” he murmured, “how insignificant we are! I who thought myself so strong, who was so proud of my sane reason! And here have I barely escaped being made insane by a little trouble and overwork!”
He was silent, and sank again into thought. After a time his eyes brightened, he had conquered himself. And in a moment of reason and courage, he came to a resolution.
“If I am getting better,” he said, “it is especially for your sake that I am glad.”
Clotilde, not understanding, looked up and said:
“How is that?”
“Yes, on account of your marriage. Now you will be able to fix the day.”
She still seemed surprised.
“Ah, true — my marriage!”
“Shall we decide at once upon the second week in June?”
“Yes, the second week in June; that will do very well.”
They spoke no more; she fixed her eyes again on the piece of sewing on which she was engaged, while he, motionless, and with a grave face, sat looking into space.
Last updated Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 17:34