Then came a period of idyllic happiness. Clotilde was the spring, the tardy rejuvenation that came to Pascal in his declining years. She came, bringing to him, with her love, sunshine and flowers. Their rapture lifted them above the earth; and all this youth she bestowed on him after his thirty years of toil, when he was already weary and worn probing the frightful wounds of humanity. He revived in the light of her great shining eyes, in the fragrance of her pure breath. He had faith again in life, in health, in strength, in the eternal renewal of nature.
On the morning after her avowal it was ten o’clock before Clotilde left her room. In the middle of the workroom she suddenly came upon Martine and, in her radiant happiness, with a burst of joy that carried everything before it, she rushed toward her, crying:
“Martine, I am not going away! Master and I— we love each other.”
The old servant staggered under the blow. Her poor worn face, nunlike under its white cap and with its look of renunciation, grew white in the keenness of her anguish. Without a word, she turned and fled for refuge to her kitchen, where, leaning her elbows on her chopping-table, and burying her face in her clasped hands, she burst into a passion of sobs.
Clotilde, grieved and uneasy, followed her. And she tried to comprehend and to console her.
“Come, come, how foolish you are! What possesses you? Master and I will love you all the same; we will always keep you with us. You are not going to be unhappy because we love each other. On the contrary, the house is going to be gay now from morning till night.”
But Martine only sobbed all the more desperately.
“Answer me, at least. Tell me why you are angry and why you cry. Does it not please you then to know that master is so happy, so happy! See, I will call master and he will make you answer.”
At this threat the old servant suddenly rose and rushed into her own room, which opened out of the kitchen, slamming the door behind her. In vain the young girl called and knocked until she was tired; she could obtain no answer. At last Pascal, attracted by the noise, came downstairs, saying:
“Why, what is the matter?”
“Oh, it is that obstinate Martine! Only fancy, she began to cry when she knew that we loved each other. And she has barricaded herself in there, and she will not stir.”
She did not stir, in fact. Pascal, in his turn, called and knocked. He scolded; he entreated. Then, one after the other, they began all over again. Still there was no answer. A deathlike silence reigned in the little room. And he pictured it to himself, this little room, religiously clean, with its walnut bureau, and its monastic bed furnished with white hangings. No doubt the servant had thrown herself across this bed, in which she had slept alone all her woman’s life, and was burying her face in the bolster to stifle her sobs.
“Ah, so much the worse for her?” said Clotilde at last, in the egotism of her joy, “let her sulk!”
Then throwing her arms around Pascal, and raising to his her charming face, still glowing with the ardor of self-surrender, she said:
“Master, I will be your servant to-day.”
He kissed her on the eyes with grateful emotion; and she at once set about preparing the breakfast, turning the kitchen upside down. She had put on an enormous white apron, and she looked charming, with her sleeves rolled up, showing her delicate arms, as if for some great undertaking. There chanced to be some cutlets in the kitchen which she cooked to a turn. She added some scrambled eggs, and she even succeeded in frying some potatoes. And they had a delicious breakfast, twenty times interrupted by her getting up in her eager zeal, to run for the bread, the water, a forgotten fork. If he had allowed her, she would have waited upon him on her knees. Ah! to be alone, to be only they two in this large friendly house, and to be free to laugh and to love each other in peace.
They spent the whole afternoon in sweeping and putting things in order. He insisted upon helping her. It was a play; they amused themselves like two merry children. From time to time, however, they went back to knock at Martine’s door to remonstrate with her. Come, this was foolish, she was not going to let herself starve! Was there ever seen such a mule, when no one had said or done anything to her! But only the echo of their knocks came back mournfully from the silent room. Not the slightest sound, not a breath responded. Night fell, and they were obliged to make the dinner also, which they ate, sitting beside each other, from the same plate. Before going to bed, they made a last attempt, threatening to break open the door, but their ears, glued to the wood, could not catch the slightest sound. And on the following day, when they went downstairs and found the door still hermetically closed, they began to be seriously uneasy. For twenty-four hours the servant had given no sign of life.
Then, on returning to the kitchen after a moment’s absence, Clotilde and Pascal were stupefied to see Martine sitting at her table, picking some sorrel for the breakfast. She had silently resumed her place as servant.
“But what was the matter with you?” cried Clotilde. “Will you speak now?”
She lifted up her sad face, stained by tears. It was very calm, however, and it expressed now only the resigned melancholy of old age. She looked at the young girl with an air of infinite reproach; then she bent her head again without speaking.
“Are you angry with us, then?”
And as she still remained silent, Pascal interposed:
“Are you angry with us, my good Martine?”
Then the old servant looked up at him with her former look of adoration, as if she loved him sufficiently to endure all and to remain in spite of all. At last she spoke.
“No, I am angry with no one. The master is free. It is all right, if he is satisfied.”
A new life began from this time. Clotilde, who in spite of her twenty-five years had still remained childlike, now, under the influence of love, suddenly bloomed into exquisite womanhood. Since her heart had awakened, the serious and intelligent boy that she had looked like, with her round head covered with its short curls, had given place to an adorable woman, altogether womanly, submissive and tender, loving to be loved. Her great charm, notwithstanding her learning picked up at random from her reading and her work, was her virginal naivete, as if her unconscious awaiting of love had made her reserve the gift of her whole being to be utterly absorbed in the man whom she should love. No doubt she had given her love as much through gratitude and admiration as through tenderness; happy to make him happy; experiencing a profound joy in being no longer only a little girl to be petted, but something of his very own which he adored, a precious possession, a thing of grace and joy, which he worshiped on bended knees. She still had the religious submissiveness of the former devotee, in the hands of a master mature and strong, from whom she derived consolation and support, retaining, above and beyond affection, the sacred awe of the believer in the spiritual which she still was. But more than all, this woman, so intoxicated with love, was a delightful personification of health and gaiety; eating with a hearty appetite; having something of the valor of her grandfather the soldier; filling the house with her swift and graceful movements, with the bloom of her satin skin, the slender grace of her neck, of all her young form, divinely fresh.
And Pascal, too, had grown handsome again under the influence of love, with the serene beauty of a man who had retained his vigor, notwithstanding his white hairs. His countenance had no longer the sorrowful expression which it had worn during the months of grief and suffering through which he had lately passed; his eyes, youthful still, had recovered their brightness, his features their smiling grace; while his white hair and beard grew thicker, in a leonine abundance which lent him a youthful air. He had kept himself, in his solitary life as a passionate worker, so free from vice and dissipation that he found now within him a reserve of life and vigor eager to expend itself at last. There awoke within him new energy, a youthful impetuosity that broke forth in gestures and exclamations, in a continual need of expansion, of living. Everything wore a new and enchanting aspect to him; the smallest glimpse of sky moved him to wonder; the perfume of a simple flower threw him into an ecstasy; an everyday expression of affection, worn by use, touched him to tears, as if it had sprung fresh from the heart and had not been hackneyed by millions of lips. Clotilde’s “I love you,” was an infinite caress, whose celestial sweetness no human being had ever before known. And with health and beauty he recovered also his gaiety, that tranquil gaiety which had formerly been inspired by his love of life, and which now threw sunshine over his love, over everything that made life worth living.
They two, blooming youth and vigorous maturity, so healthy, so gay, so happy, made a radiant couple. For a whole month they remained in seclusion, not once leaving La Souleiade. The place where both now liked to be was the spacious workroom, so intimately associated with their habits and their past affection. They would spend whole days there, scarcely working at all, however. The large carved oak press remained with closed doors; so, too, did the bookcases. Books and papers lay undisturbed upon the tables. Like a young married couple they were absorbed in their one passion, oblivious of their former occupations, oblivious of life. The hours seemed all too short to enjoy the charm of being together, often seated in the same large antique easy-chair, happy in the depths of this solitude in which they secluded themselves, in the tranquillity of this lofty room, in this domain which was altogether theirs, without luxury and without order, full of familiar objects, brightened from morning till night by the returning gaiety of the April sunshine. When, seized with remorse, he would talk about working, she would link her supple arms through his and laughingly hold him prisoner, so that he should not make himself ill again with overwork. And downstairs, they loved, too, the dining-room, so gay with its light panels relieved by blue bands, its antique mahogany furniture, its large flower pastels, its brass hanging lamp, always shining. They ate in it with a hearty appetite and they left it, after each meal, only to go upstairs again to their dear solitude.
Then when the house seemed too small, they had the garden, all La Souleiade. Spring advanced with the advancing sun, and at the end of April the roses were beginning to bloom. And what a joy was this domain, walled around, where nothing from the outside world could trouble them! Hours flew by unnoted, as they sat on the terrace facing the vast horizon and the shady banks of the Viorne, and the slopes of Sainte-Marthe, from the rocky bars of the Seille to the valley of Plassans in the dusty distance. There was no shade on the terrace but that of the two secular cypresses planted at its two extremities, like two enormous green tapers, which could be seen three leagues away. At times they descended the slope for the pleasure of ascending the giant steps, and climbing the low walls of uncemented stones which supported the plantations, to see if the stunted olive trees and the puny almonds were budding. More often there were delightful walks under the delicate needles of the pine wood, steeped in sunshine and exhaling a strong odor of resin; endless walks along the wall of inclosure, from behind which the only sound they could hear was, at rare intervals, the grating noise of some cart jolting along the narrow road to Les Fenouilleres; and they spent delightful hours in the old threshing yard, where they could see the whole horizon, and where they loved to stretch themselves, tenderly remembering their former tears, when, loving each other unconsciously to themselves, they had quarreled under the stars. But their favorite retreat, where they always ended by losing themselves, was the quincunx of tall plane trees, whose branches, now of a tender green, looked like lacework. Below, the enormous box trees, the old borders of the French garden, of which now scarcely a trace remained, formed a sort of labyrinth of which they could never find the end. And the slender stream of the fountain, with its eternal crystalline murmur, seemed to sing within their hearts. They would sit hand in hand beside the mossy basin, while the twilight fell around them, their forms gradually fading into the shadow of the trees, while the water which they could no longer see, sang its flutelike song.
Up to the middle of May Pascal and Clotilde secluded themselves in this way, without even crossing the threshold of their retreat. One morning he disappeared and returned an hour later, bringing her a pair of diamond earrings which he had hurried out to buy, remembering this was her birthday. She adored jewels, and the gift astonished and delighted her. From this time not a week passed in which he did not go out once or twice in this way to bring her back some present. The slightest excuse was sufficient for him — a fete, a wish, a simple pleasure. He brought her rings, bracelets, a necklace, a slender diadem. He would take out the other jewels and please himself by putting them all upon her in the midst of their laughter. She was like an idol, seated on her chair, covered with gold — a band of gold on her hair, gold on her bare arms and on her bare throat, all shining with gold and precious stones. Her woman’s vanity was delightfully gratified by this. She allowed herself to be adored thus, to be adored on bended knees, like a divinity, knowing well that this was only an exalted form of love. She began at last to scold a little, however; to make prudent remonstrances; for, in truth, it was an absurdity to bring her all these gifts which she must afterward shut up in a drawer, without ever wearing them, as she went nowhere.
They were forgotten after the hour of joy and gratitude which they gave her in their novelty was over. But he would not listen to her, carried away by a veritable mania for giving; unable, from the moment the idea of giving her an article took possession of him, to resist the desire of buying it. It was a munificence of the heart; an imperious desire to prove to her that he thought of her always; a pride in seeing her the most magnificent, the happiest, the most envied of women; a generosity more profound even, which impelled him to despoil himself of everything, of his money, of his life. And then, what a delight, when he saw he had given her a real pleasure, and she threw herself on his neck, blushing, thanking him with kisses. After the jewels, it was gowns, articles of dress, toilet articles. Her room was littered, the drawers were filled to overflowing.
One morning she could not help getting angry. He had brought her another ring.
“Why, I never wear them! And if I did, my fingers would be covered to the tips. Be reasonable, I beg of you.”
“Then I have not given you pleasure?” he said with confusion.
She threw her arms about his neck, and assured him with tears in her eyes that she was very happy. He was so good to her! He was so unwearied in his devotion to her! And when, later in the morning, he ventured to speak of making some changes in her room, of covering the walls with tapestry, of putting down a carpet, she again remonstrated.
“Oh! no, no! I beg of you. Do not touch my old room, so full of memories, where I have grown up, where I told you I loved you. I should no longer feel myself at home in it.”
Downstairs, Martine’s obstinate silence condemned still more strongly these excessive and useless expenses. She had adopted a less familiar attitude, as if, in the new situation, she had fallen from her role of housekeeper and friend to her former station of servant. Toward Clotilde, especially, she changed, treating her like a young lady, like a mistress to whom she was less affectionate but more obedient than formerly. Two or three times, however, she had appeared in the morning with her face discolored and her eyes sunken with weeping, answering evasively when questioned, saying that nothing was the matter, that she had taken cold. And she never made any remark about the gifts with which the drawers were filled. She did not even seem to see them, arranging them without a word either of praise or dispraise. But her whole nature rebelled against this extravagant generosity, of which she could never have conceived the possibility. She protested in her own fashion; exaggerating her economy and reducing still further the expenses of the housekeeping, which she now conducted on so narrow a scale that she retrenched even in the smallest expenses. For instance, she took only two-thirds of the milk which she had been in the habit of taking, and she served sweet dishes only on Sundays. Pascal and Clotilde, without venturing to complain, laughed between themselves at this parsimony, repeating the jests which had amused them for ten years past, saying that after dressing the vegetables she strained them in the colander, in order to save the butter for future use.
But this quarter she insisted upon rendering an account. She was in the habit of going every three months to Master Grandguillot, the notary, to receive the fifteen hundred francs income, of which she disposed afterward according to her judgment, entering the expenses in a book which the doctor had years ago ceased to verify. She brought it to him now and insisted upon his looking over it. He excused himself, saying that it was all right.
“The thing is, monsieur,” she said, “that this time I have been able to put some money aside. Yes, three hundred francs. Here they are.”
He looked at her in amazement. Generally she just made both ends meet. By what miracle of stinginess had she been able to save such a sum?
“Ah! my poor Martine,” he said at last, laughing, “that is the reason, then, that we have been eating so many potatoes of late. You are a pearl of economy, but indeed you must treat us a little better in the future.”
This discreet reproach wounded her so profoundly that she allowed herself at last to say:
“Well, monsieur, when there is so much extravagance on the one hand, it is well to be prudent on the other.”
He understood the allusion, but instead of being angry, he was amused by the lesson.
“Ah, ah! it is you who are examining my accounts! But you know very well, Martine, that I, too, have my savings laid by.”
He alluded to the money which he still received occasionally from his patients, and which he threw into a drawer of his writing-desk. For more than sixteen years past he had put into this drawer every year about four thousand francs, which would have amounted to a little fortune if he had not taken from it, from day to day, without counting them, considerable sums for his experiments and his whims. All the money for the presents came out of this drawer, which he now opened continually. He thought that it would never be empty; he had been so accustomed to take from it whatever he required that it had never occurred to him to fear that he would ever come to the bottom of it.
“One may very well have a little enjoyment out of one’s savings,” he said gayly. “Since it is you who go to the notary’s, Martine, you are not ignorant that I have my income apart.”
Then she said, with the colorless voice of the miser who is haunted by the dread of an impending disaster:
“And what would you do if you hadn’t it?”
Pascal looked at her in astonishment, and contented himself with answering with a shrug, for the possibility of such a misfortune had never even entered his mind. He fancied that avarice was turning her brain, and he laughed over the incident that evening with Clotilde.
In Plassans, too, the presents were the cause of endless gossip. The rumor of what was going on at La Souleiade, this strange and sudden passion, had spread, no one could tell how, by that force of expansion which sustains curiosity, always on the alert in small towns. The servant certainly had not spoken, but her air was perhaps sufficient; words perhaps had dropped from her involuntarily; the lovers might have been watched over the walls. And then came the buying of the presents, confirming the reports and exaggerating them. When the doctor, in the early morning, scoured the streets and visited the jeweler’s and the dressmaker’s, eyes spied him from the windows, his smallest purchases were watched, all the town knew in the evening that he had given her a silk bonnet, a bracelet set with sapphires. And all this was turned into a scandal. This uncle in love with his niece, committing a young man’s follies for her, adorning her like a holy Virgin. The most extraordinary stories began to circulate, and people pointed to La Souleiade as they passed by.
But old Mme. Rougon was, of all persons, the most bitterly indignant. She had ceased going to her son’s house when she learned that Clotilde’s marriage with Dr. Ramond had been broken off. They had made sport of her. They did nothing to please her, and she wished to show how deep her displeasure was. Then a full month after the rupture, during which she had understood nothing of the pitying looks, the discreet condolences, the vague smiles which met her everywhere, she learned everything with a suddenness that stunned her. She, who, at the time of Pascal’s illness, in her mortification at the idea of again becoming the talk of the town through that ugly story, had raised such a storm! It was far worse this time; the height of scandal, a love affair for people to regale themselves with. The Rougon legend was again in peril; her unhappy son was decidedly doing his best to find some way to destroy the family glory won with so much difficulty. So that in her anger she, who had made herself the guardian of this glory, resolving to purify the legend by every means in her power, put on her hat one morning and hurried to La Souleiade with the youthful vivacity of her eighty years.
Pascal, whom the rupture with his mother enchanted, was fortunately not at home, having gone out an hour before to look for a silver buckle which he had thought of for a belt. And Felicite fell upon Clotilde as the latter was finishing her toilet, her arms bare, her hair loose, looking as fresh and smiling as a rose.
The first shock was rude. The old lady unburdened her mind, grew indignant, spoke of the scandal they were giving. Suddenly her anger vanished. She looked at the young girl, and she thought her adorable. In her heart she was not surprised at what was going on. She laughed at it, all she desired was that it should end in a correct fashion, so as to silence evil tongues. And she cried with a conciliating air:
“Get married then! Why do you not get married?”
Clotilde remained silent for a moment, surprised. She had not thought of marriage. Then she smiled again.
“No doubt we will get married, grandmother. But later on, there is no hurry.”
Old Mme. Rougon went away, obliged to be satisfied with this vague promise.
It was at this time that Pascal and Clotilde ceased to seclude themselves. Not through any spirit of bravado, not because they wished to answer ugly rumors by making a display of their happiness, but as a natural amplification of their joy; their love had slowly acquired the need of expansion and of space, at first beyond the house, then beyond the garden, into the town, as far as the whole vast horizon. It filled everything; it took in the whole world.
The doctor then tranquilly resumed his visits, and he took the young girl with him. They walked together along the promenades, along the streets, she on his arm, in a light gown, with flowers in her hat, he buttoned up in his coat with his broad-brimmed hat. He was all white; she all blond. They walked with their heads high, erect and smiling, radiating such happiness that they seemed to walk in a halo. At first the excitement was extraordinary. The shopkeepers came and stood at their doors, the women leaned out of the windows, the passers-by stopped to look after them. People whispered and laughed and pointed to them. Then they were so handsome; he superb and triumphant, she so youthful, so submissive, and so proud, that an involuntary indulgence gradually gained on every one. People could not help defending them and loving them, and they ended by smiling on them in a delightful contagion of tenderness. A charm emanated from them which brought back all hearts to them. The new town, with its bourgeois population of functionaries and townspeople who had grown wealthy, was the last conquest. But the Quartier St. Marc, in spite of its austerity, showed itself at once kind and discreetly tolerant when they walked along its deserted grass-worn sidewalks, beside the antique houses, now closed and silent, which exhaled the evaporated perfume of the loves of other days. But it was the old quarter, more especially, that promptly received them with cordiality, this quarter of which the common people, instinctively touched, felt the grace of the legend, the profound myth of the couple, the beautiful young girl supporting the royal and rejuvenated master. The doctor was adored here for his goodness, and his companion quickly became popular, and was greeted with tokens of admiration and approval as soon as she appeared. They, meantime, if they had seemed ignorant of the former hostility, now divined easily the forgiveness and the indulgent tenderness which surrounded them, and this made them more beautiful; their happiness charmed the entire town.
One afternoon, as Pascal and Clotilde turned the corner of the Rue de la Banne, they perceived Dr. Ramond on the opposite side of the street. It had chanced that they had learned the day before that he had asked and had obtained the hand of Mlle. Leveque, the advocate’s daughter. It was certainly the most sensible course he could have taken, for his business interests made it advisable that he should marry, and the young girl, who was very pretty and very rich, loved him. He, too, would certainly love her in time. Therefore Clotilde joyfully smiled her congratulations to him as a sincere friend. Pascal saluted him with an affectionate gesture. For a moment Ramond, a little moved by the meeting, stood perplexed. His first impulse seemed to have been to cross over to them. But a feeling of delicacy must have prevented him, the thought that it would be brutal to interrupt their dream, to break in upon this solitude a deux, in which they moved, even amid the elbowings of the street. And he contented himself with a friendly salutation, a smile in which he forgave them their happiness. This was very pleasant for all three.
At this time Clotilde amused herself for several days by painting a large pastel representing the tender scene of old King David and Abishag, the young Shunammite. It was a dream picture, one of those fantastic compositions into which her other self, her romantic self, put her love of the mysterious. Against a background of flowers thrown on the canvas, flowers that looked like a shower of stars, of barbaric richness, the old king stood facing the spectator, his hand resting on the bare shoulder of Abishag. He was attired sumptuously in a robe heavy with precious stones, that fell in straight folds, and he wore the royal fillet on his snowy locks. But she was more sumptuous still, with only the lilylike satin of her skin, her tall, slender figure, her round, slender throat, her supple arms, divinely graceful. He reigned over, he leaned, as a powerful and beloved master, on this subject, chosen from among all others, so proud of having been chosen, so rejoiced to give to her king the rejuvenating gift of her youth. All her pure and triumphant beauty expressed the serenity of her submission, the tranquillity with which she gave herself, before the assembled people, in the full light of day. And he was very great and she was very fair, and there radiated from both a starry radiance.
Up to the last moment Clotilde had left the faces of the two figures vaguely outlined in a sort of mist. Pascal, standing behind her, jested with her to hide his emotion, for he fancied he divined her intention. And it was as he thought; she finished the faces with a few strokes of the crayon — old King David was he, and she was Abishag, the Shunammite. But they were enveloped in a dreamlike brightness, it was themselves deified; the one with hair all white, the other with hair all blond, covering them like an imperial mantle, with features lengthened by ecstasy, exalted to the bliss of angels, with the glance and the smile of immortal youth.
“Ah, dear!” he cried, “you have made us too beautiful; you have wandered off again to dreamland — yes, as in the days, do you remember, when I used to scold you for putting there all the fantastic flowers of the Unknown?”
And he pointed to the walls, on which bloomed the fantastic parterre of the old pastels, flowers not of the earth, grown in the soil of paradise.
But she protested gayly.
“Too beautiful? We could not be too beautiful! I assure you it is thus that I picture us to myself, thus that I see us; and thus it is that we are. There! see if it is not the pure reality.”
She took the old fifteenth century Bible which was beside her, and showed him the simple wood engraving.
“You see it is exactly the same.”
He smiled gently at this tranquil and extraordinary affirmation.
“Oh, you laugh, you look only at the details of the picture. It is the spirit which it is necessary to penetrate. And look at the other engravings, it is the same theme in all — Abraham and Hagar, Ruth and Boaz. And you see they are all handsome and happy.”
Then they ceased to laugh, leaning over the old Bible whose pages she turned with her white fingers, he standing behind her, his white beard mingling with her blond, youthful tresses.
Suddenly he whispered to her softly:
“But you, so young, do you never regret that you have chosen me — me, who am so old, as old as the world?”
She gave a start of surprise, and turning round looked at him.
“You old! No, you are young, younger than I!”
And she laughed so joyously that he, too, could not help smiling. But he insisted a little tremulously:
“You do not answer me. Do you not sometimes desire a younger lover, you who are so youthful?”
She put up her lips and kissed him, saying in a low voice:
“I have but one desire, to be loved — loved as you love me, above and beyond everything.”
The day on which Martine saw the pastel nailed to the wall, she looked at it a moment in silence, then she made the sign of the cross, but whether it was because she had seen God or the devil, no one could say. A few days before Easter she had asked Clotilde if she would not accompany her to church, and the latter having made a sign in the negative, she departed for an instant from the deferential silence which she now habitually maintained. Of all the new things which astonished her in the house, what most astonished her was the sudden irreligiousness of her young mistress. So she allowed herself to resume her former tone of remonstrance, and to scold her as she used to do when she was a little girl and refused to say her prayers. “Had she no longer the fear of the Lord before her, then? Did she no longer tremble at the idea of going to hell, to burn there forever?”
Clotilde could not suppress a smile.
“Oh, hell! you know that it has never troubled me a great deal. But you are mistaken if you think I am no longer religious. If I have left off going to church it is because I perform my devotions elsewhere, that is all.”
Martine looked at her, open-mouthed, not comprehending her. It was all over; mademoiselle was indeed lost. And she never again asked her to accompany her to St. Saturnin. But her own devotion increased until it at last became a mania. She was no longer to be met, as before, with the eternal stocking in her hand which she knitted even when walking, when not occupied in her household duties. Whenever she had a moment to spare, she ran to church and remained there, repeating endless prayers. One day when old Mme. Rougon, always on the alert, found her behind a pillar, an hour after she had seen her there before, Martine excused herself, blushing like a servant who had been caught idling, saying:
“I was praying for monsieur.”
Meanwhile Pascal and Clotilde enlarged still more their domain, taking longer and longer walks every day, extending them now outside the town into the open country. One afternoon, as they were going to La Seguiranne, they were deeply moved, passing by the melancholy fields where the enchanted gardens of Le Paradou had formerly extended. The vision of Albine rose before them. Pascal saw her again blooming like the spring, in the rejuvenation which this living flower had brought him too, feeling the pressure of this pure arm against his heart. Never could he have believed, he who had already thought himself very old when he used to enter this garden to give a smile to the little fairy within, that she would have been dead for years when life, the good mother, should bestow upon him the gift of so fresh a spring, sweetening his declining years. And Clotilde, having felt the vision rise before them, lifted up her face to his in a renewed longing for tenderness. She was Albine, the eternal lover. He kissed her on the lips, and though no word had been uttered, the level fields sown with corn and oats, where Le Paradou had once rolled its billows of luxuriant verdure, thrilled in sympathy.
Pascal and Clotilde were now walking along the dusty road, through the bare and arid country. They loved this sun-scorched land, these fields thinly planted with puny almond trees and dwarf olives, these stretches of bare hills dotted with country houses, that showed on them like pale patches accentuated by the dark bars of the secular cypresses. It was like an antique landscape, one of those classic landscapes represented in the paintings of the old schools, with harsh coloring and well balanced and majestic lines. All the ardent sunshine of successive summers that had parched this land flowed through their veins, and lent them a new beauty and animation, as they walked under the sky forever blue, glowing with the clear flame of eternal love. She, protected from the sun by her straw hat, bloomed and luxuriated in this bath of light like a tropical flower, while he, in his renewed youth, felt the burning sap of the soil ascend into his veins in a flood of virile joy.
This walk to La Seguiranne had been an idea of the doctor’s, who had learned through Aunt Dieudonne of the approaching marriage of Sophie to a young miller of the neighborhood; and he desired to see if every one was well and happy in this retired corner. All at once they were refreshed by a delightful coolness as they entered the avenue of tall green oaks. On either side the springs, the mothers of these giant shade trees, flowed on in their eternal course. And when they reached the house of the shrew they came, as chance would have it, upon the two lovers, Sophie and her miller, kissing each other beside the well; for the girl’s aunt had just gone down to the lavatory behind the willows of the Viorne. Confused, the couple stood in blushing silence. But the doctor and his companion laughed indulgently, and the lovers, reassured, told them that the marriage was set for St. John’s Day, which was a long way off, to be sure, but which would come all the same. Sophie, saved from the hereditary malady, had improved in health and beauty, and was growing as strong as one of the trees that stood with their feet in the moist grass beside the springs, and their heads bare to the sunshine. Ah, the vast, glowing sky, what life it breathed into all created things! She had but one grief, and tears came to her eyes when she spoke of her brother Valentin, who perhaps would not live through the week. She had had news of him the day before; he was past hope. And the doctor was obliged to prevaricate a little to console her, for he himself expected hourly the inevitable termination. When he and his companion left La Seguiranne they returned slowly to Plassans, touched by this happy, healthy love saddened by the chill of death.
In the old quarter a woman whom Pascal was attending informed him that Valentin had just died. Two of the neighbors were obliged to take away La Guiraude, who, half-crazed, clung, shrieking, to her son’s body. The doctor entered the house, leaving Clotilde outside. At last, they again took their way to La Souleiade in silence. Since Pascal had resumed his visits he seemed to make them only through professional duty; he no longer became enthusiastic about the miracles wrought by his treatment. But as far as Valentin’s death was concerned, he was surprised that it had not occurred before; he was convinced that he had prolonged the patient’s life for at least a year. In spite of the extraordinary results which he had obtained at first, he knew well that death was the inevitable end. That he had held it in check for months ought then to have consoled him and soothed his remorse, still unassuaged, for having involuntarily caused the death of Lafouasse, a few weeks sooner than it would otherwise have occurred. But this did not seem to be the case, and his brow was knitted in a frown as they returned to their beloved solitude. But there a new emotion awaited him; sitting under the plane trees, whither Martine had sent him, he saw Sarteur, the hatter, the inmate of the Tulettes whom he had been so long treating by his hypodermic injections, and the experiment so zealously continued seemed to have succeeded. The injections of nerve substance had evidently given strength to his will, since the madman was here, having left the asylum that morning, declaring that he no longer had any attacks, that he was entirely cured of the homicidal mania that impelled him to throw himself upon any passer-by to strangle him. The doctor looked at him as he spoke. He was a small dark man, with a retreating forehead and aquiline features, with one cheek perceptibly larger than the other. He was perfectly quiet and rational, and filled with so lively a gratitude that he kissed his saviour’s hands. The doctor could not help being greatly affected by all this, and he dismissed the man kindly, advising him to return to his life of labor, which was the best hygiene, physical and moral. Then he recovered his calmness and sat down to table, talking gaily of other matters.
Clotilde looked at him with astonishment and even with a little indignation.
“What is the matter, master?” she said. “You are no longer satisfied with yourself.”
“Oh, with myself I am never satisfied!” he answered jestingly. “And with medicine, you know — it is according to the day.”
It was on this night that they had their first quarrel. She was angry with him because he no longer had any pride in his profession. She returned to her complaint of the afternoon, reproaching him for not taking more credit to himself for the cure of Sarteur, and even for the prolongation of Valentin’s life. It was she who now had a passion for his fame. She reminded him of his cures; had he not cured himself? Could he deny the efficacy of his treatment? A thrill ran through him as he recalled the great dream which he had once cherished — to combat debility, the sole cause of disease; to cure suffering humanity; to make a higher, and healthy humanity; to hasten the coming of happiness, the future kingdom of perfection and felicity, by intervening and giving health to all! And he possessed the liquor of life, the universal panacea which opened up this immense hope!
Pascal was silent for a moment. Then he murmured:
“It is true. I cured myself, I have cured others, and I still think that my injections are efficacious in many cases. I do not deny medicine. Remorse for a deplorable accident, like that of Lafouasse, does not render me unjust. Besides, work has been my passion, it is in work that I have up to this time spent my energies; it was in wishing to prove to myself the possibility of making decrepit humanity one day strong and intelligent that I came near dying lately. Yes, a dream, a beautiful dream!”
“No, no! a reality, the reality of your genius, master.”
Then, lowering his voice almost to a whisper, he breathed this confession:
“Listen, I am going to say to you what I would say to no one else in the world, what I would not say to myself aloud. To correct nature, to interfere, in order to modify it and thwart it in its purpose, is this a laudable task? To cure the individual, to retard his death, for his personal pleasure, to prolong his existence, doubtless to the injury of the species, is not this to defeat the aims of nature? And have we the right to desire a stronger, a healthier humanity, modeled after our idea of health and strength? What have we to do in the matter? Why should we interfere in this work of life, neither the means nor the end of which are known to us? Perhaps everything is as it ought to be. Perhaps we should risk killing love, genius, life itself. Remember, I make the confession to you alone; but doubt has taken possession of me, I tremble at the thought of my twentieth century alchemy. I have come to believe that it is greater and wiser to allow evolution to take its course.”
He paused; then he added so softly that she could scarcely hear him:
“Do you know that instead of nerve-substance I often use only water with my patients. You no longer hear me grinding for days at a time. I told you that I had some of the liquor in reserve. Water soothes them, this is no doubt simply a mechanical effect. Ah! to soothe, to prevent suffering — that indeed I still desire! It is perhaps my greatest weakness, but I cannot bear to see any one suffer. Suffering puts me beside myself, it seems a monstrous and useless cruelty of nature. I practise now only to prevent suffering.”
“Then, master,” she asked, in the same indistinct murmur, “if you no longer desire to cure, do you still think everything must be told? For the frightful necessity of displaying the wounds of humanity had no other excuse than the hope of curing them.”
“Yes, yes, it is necessary to know, in every case, and to conceal nothing; to tell everything regarding things and individuals. Happiness is no longer possible in ignorance; certainty alone makes life tranquil. When people know more they will doubtless accept everything. Do you not comprehend that to desire to cure everything, to regenerate everything is a false ambition inspired by our egotism, a revolt against life, which we declare to be bad, because we judge it from the point of view of self-interest? I know that I am more tranquil, that my intellect has broadened and deepened ever since I have held evolution in respect. It is my love of life which triumphs, even to the extent of not questioning its purpose, to the extent of confiding absolutely in it, of losing myself in it, without wishing to remake it according to my own conception of good and evil. Life alone is sovereign, life alone knows its aim and its end. I can only try to know it in order to live it as it should be lived. And this I have understood only since I have possessed your love. Before I possessed it I sought the truth elsewhere, I struggled with the fixed idea of saving the world. You have come, and life is full; the world is saved every hour by love, by the immense and incessant labor of all that live and love throughout space. Impeccable life, omnipotent life, immortal life!”
They continued to talk together in low tones for some time longer, planning an idyllic life, a calm and healthful existence in the country. It was in this simple prescription of an invigorating environment that the experiments of the physician ended. He exclaimed against cities. People could be well and happy only in the country, in the sunshine, on the condition of renouncing money, ambition, even the proud excesses of intellectual labor. They should do nothing but live and love, cultivate the soil, and bring up their children.
Last updated Sunday, December 27, 2015 at 17:34