Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXVI

The crisis threatening Madame Raquin took place. The paralysis, which for several months had been creeping along her limbs, always ready to strangle her, at last took her by the throat and linked her body. One evening, while conversing peacefully with Therese and Laurent, she remained in the middle of a sentence with her mouth wide open: she felt as if she was being throttled. When she wanted to cry out and call for help, she could only splutter a few hoarse sounds. Her hands and feet were rigid. She found herself struck dumb, and powerless to move.

Therese and Laurent rose from their chairs, terrified at this stroke, which had contorted the old mercer in less than five seconds. When she became rigid, and fixed her supplicating eyes on them, they pressed her with questions in order to ascertain the cause of her suffering. Unable to reply, she continued gazing at them in profound anguish.

They then understood that they had nothing but a corpse before them, a corpse half alive that could see and hear, but could not speak to them. They were in despair at this attack. At the bottom of their hearts, they cared little for the suffering of the paralysed woman. They mourned over themselves, who in future would have to live alone, face to face.

From this day the life of the married couple became intolerable. They passed the most cruel evenings opposite the impotent old lady, who no longer lulled their terror with her gentle, idle chatter. She reposed in an armchair, like a parcel, a thing, while they remained alone, one at each end of the table, embarrassed and anxious. This body no longer separated them; at times they forgot it, confounding it with the articles of furniture.

They were now seized with the same terror as at night. The dining-room became, like the bedroom, a terrible spot, where the spectre of Camille arose, causing them to suffer an extra four or five hours daily. As soon as twilight came, they shuddered, lowering the lamp-shade so as not to see one another, and endeavouring to persuade themselves that Madame Raquin was about to speak and thus remind them of her presence. If they kept her with them, if they did not get rid of her, it was because her eyes were still alive, and they experienced a little relief in watching them move and sparkle.

They always placed the impotent old lady in the bright beam of the lamp, so as to thoroughly light up her face and have it always before them. This flabby, livid countenance would have been a sight that others could not have borne, but Therese and Laurent experienced such need for company, that they gazed upon it with real joy.

This face looked like that of a dead person in the centre of which two living eyes had been fixed. These eyes alone moved, rolling rapidly in their orbits. The cheeks and mouth maintained such appalling immobility that they seemed as though petrified. When Madame Raquin fell asleep and lowered her lids, her countenance, which was then quite white and mute, was really that of a corpse. Therese and Laurent, who no longer felt anyone with them, then made a noise until the paralysed woman raised her eyelids and looked at them. In this manner they compelled her to remain awake.

They regarded her as a distraction that drew them from their bad dreams. Since she had been infirm, they had to attend to her like a child. The care they lavished on her forced them to scatter their thoughts. In the morning Laurent lifted her up and bore her to her armchair; at night he placed her on her bed again. She was still heavy, and he had to exert all his strength to raise her delicately in his arms, and carry her. It was also he who rolled her armchair along. The other attentions fell to Therese. She dressed and fed the impotent old lady, and sought to understand her slightest wish.

For a few days Madame Raquin preserved the use of her hands. She could write on a slate, and in this way asked for what she required; then the hands withered, and it became impossible for her to raise them or hold a pencil. From that moment her eyes were her only language, and it was necessary for her niece to guess what she desired. The young woman devoted herself to the hard duties of sick-nurse, which gave her occupation for body and mind that did her much good.

So as not to remain face to face, the married couple rolled the armchair of the poor old lady into the dining-room, the first thing in the morning. They placed her between them, as if she were necessary to their existence. They caused her to be present at their meals, and at all their interviews. When she signified the desire to retire to her bedroom, they feigned not to understand. She was only of use to interrupt their private conversations, and had no right to live apart.

At eight o’clock, Laurent went to his studio, Therese descended to the shop, while the paralyzed woman remained alone in the dining-room until noon; then, after lunch, she found herself without company again until six o’clock. Frequently, during the day, her niece ran upstairs, and, hovering round her, made sure she did not require anything. The friends of the family were at a loss for sufficiently laudatory phrases wherein to extol the virtues of Therese and Laurent.

The Thursday receptions continued, the impotent old lady being present, as in the past. Her armchair was advanced to the table, and from eight o’clock till eleven she kept her eyes open, casting penetrating glances from one to another of her guests in turn. On the first few of these evenings, old Michaud and Grivet felt some embarrassment in the presence of the corpse of their old friend. They did not know what countenance to put on. They only experienced moderate sorrow, and they were inquiring in their minds in what measure it would be suitable to display their grief. Should they speak to this lifeless form? Should they refrain from troubling about it? Little by little, they decided to treat Madame Raquin as though nothing had happened to her. They ended by feigning to completely ignore her condition. They chatted with her, putting questions and giving the answers, laughing both for her and for themselves, and never permitting the rigid expression on the countenance to baffle them.

It was a strange sight: these men who appeared to be speaking sensibly to a statue, just as little girls talk to their dolls. The paralysed woman sat rigid and mute before them, while they babbled, multiplying their gestures in exceedingly animated conversations with her. Michaud and Grivet prided themselves on their correct attitude. In acting as they did, they believed they were giving proof of politeness; they, moreover, avoided the annoyance of the customary condolences. They fancied that Madame Raquin must feel flattered to find herself treated as a person in good health; and, from that moment, it became possible for them to be merry in her presence, without the least scruple.

Grivet had contracted a mania. He affirmed that Madame Raquin and himself understood one another perfectly; and that she could not look at him without him at once comprehending what she desired. This was another delicate attention. Only Grivet was on every occasion in error. He frequently interrupted the game of dominoes, to observe the infirm woman whose eyes were quietly following the game, and declare that she wanted such or such a thing. On further inquiry it was found that she wanted nothing at all, or that she wanted something entirely different. This did not discourage Grivet, who triumphantly exclaimed:

“Just as I said!” And he began again a few moments later.

It was quite another matter when the impotent old lady openly expressed a desire; Therese, Laurent, and the guests named one object after another that they fancied she might wish for. Grivet then made himself remarkable by the clumsiness of his offers. He mentioned, haphazard, everything that came into his head, invariably offering the contrary to what Madame Raquin desired. But this circumstance did not prevent him repeating:

“I can read in her eyes as in a book. Look, she says I am right. Is it not so, dear lady? Yes, yes.”

Nevertheless, it was no easy matter to grasp the wishes of the poor old woman. Therese alone possessed this faculty. She communicated fairly well with this walled-up brain, still alive, but buried in a lifeless frame. What was passing within this wretched creature, just sufficiently alive to be present at the events of life, without taking part in them? She saw and heard, she no doubt reasoned in a distinct and clear manner. But she was without gesture and voice to express the thoughts originating in her mind. Her ideas were perhaps choking her, and yet she could not raise a hand, nor open her mouth, even though one of her movements or words should decide the destiny of the world.

Her mind resembled those of the living buried by mistake, who awaken in the middle of the night in the earth, three or four yards below the surface of the ground. They shout, they struggle, and people pass over them without hearing their atrocious lamentations.

Laurent frequently gazed at Madame Raquin, his lips pressed together, his hands stretched out on his knees, putting all his life into his sparkling and swiftly moving eyes. And he said to himself:

“Who knows what she may be thinking of all alone? Some cruel drama must be passing within this inanimate frame.”

Laurent made a mistake. Madame Raquin was happy, happy at the care and affection bestowed on her by her dear children. She had always dreamed of ending in this gentle way, amidst devotedness and caresses. Certainly she would have been pleased to have preserved her speech, so as to be able to thank the friends who assisted her to die in peace. But she accepted her condition without rebellion. The tranquil and retired life she had always led, the sweetness of her character, prevented her feeling too acutely the suffering of being mute and unable to make a movement. She had entered second childhood. She passed days without weariness, gazing before her, and musing on the past. She even tasted the charm of remaining very good in her armchair, like a little girl.

Each day the sweetness and brightness of her eyes became more penetrating. She had reached the point of making them perform the duties of a hand or mouth, in asking for what she required and in expressing her thanks. In this way she replaced the organs that were wanting, in a most peculiar and charming manner. Her eyes, in the centre of her flabby and grimacing face, were of celestial beauty.

Since her twisted and inert lips could no longer smile, she smiled with adorable tenderness, by her looks; moist beams and rays of dawn issued from her orbits. Nothing was more peculiar than those eyes which laughed like lips in this lifeless countenance. The lower part of the face remained gloomy and wan, while the upper part was divinely lit up. It was particularly for her beloved children that she placed all her gratitude, all the affection of her soul into a simple glance. When Laurent took her in his arms, morning and night, to carry her, she thanked him lovingly by looks full of tender effusion.

She lived thus for weeks, awaiting death, fancying herself sheltered from any fresh misfortune. She thought she had already received her share of suffering. But she was mistaken. One night she was crushed by a frightful blow.

Therese and Laurent might well place her between them, in the full light, but she was no longer sufficiently animated to separate and defend them against their anguish. When they forgot that she was there and could hear and see them, they were seized with folly. Perceiving Camille, they sought to drive him away. Then, in unsteady tones, they allowed the truth to escape them, uttering words that revealed everything to Madame Raquin. Laurent had a sort of attack, during which he spoke like one under the influence of hallucination, and the paralysed woman abruptly understood.

A frightful contraction passed over her face, and she experienced such a shock that Therese thought she was about to bound to her feet and shriek, but she fell backward, rigid as iron. This shock was all the more terrible as it seemed to galvanise a corpse. Sensibility which had for a moment returned, disappeared; the impotent woman remained more crushed and wan than before. Her eyes, usually so gentle, had become dark and harsh, resembling pieces of metal.

Never had despair fallen more rigorously on a being. The sinister truth, like a flash of flame, scorched the eyes of the paralysed woman and penetrated within her with the concussion of a shaft of lightning. Had she been able to rise, to utter the cry of horror that ascended to her throat, and curse the murderers of her son, she would have suffered less. But, after hearing and understanding everything, she was forced to remain motionless and mute, inwardly preserving all the glare of her grief.

It seemed to her that Therese and Laurent had bound her, riveted her to her armchair to prevent her springing up, and that they took atrocious pleasure in repeating to her, after gagging her to stifle her cries —

“We have killed Camille!”

Terror and anguish coursed furiously in her body unable to find an issue. She made superhuman efforts to raise the weight crushing her, to clear her throat and thus give passage to her flood of despair. In vain did she strain her final energy; she felt her tongue cold against her palate, she could not tear herself from death. Cadaverous impotence held her rigid. Her sensations resembled those of a man fallen into lethargy, who is being buried, and who, bound by the bonds of his own frame, hears the deadened sound of the shovels of mould falling on his head.

The ravages to which her heart was subjected, proved still more terrible. She felt a blow inwardly that completely undid her. Her entire life was afflicted: all her tenderness, all her goodness, all her devotedness had just been brutally upset and trampled under foot. She had led a life of affection and gentleness, and in her last hours, when about to carry to the grave a belief in the delight of a calm life, a voice shouted to her that all was falsehood and all crime.

The veil being rent, she perceived apart from the love and friendship which was all she had hitherto been able to see, a frightful picture of blood and shame. She would have cursed the Almighty had she been able to shout out a blasphemy. Providence had deceived her for over sixty years, by treating her as a gentle, good little girl, by amusing her with lying representations of tranquil joy. And she had remained a child, senselessly believing in a thousand silly things, and unable to see life as it really is, dragging along in the sanguinary filth of passions. Providence was bad; it should have told her the truth before, or have allowed her to continue in her innocence and blindness. Now, it only remained for her to die, denying love, denying friendship, denying devotedness. Nothing existed but murder and lust.

What! Camille had been killed by Therese and Laurent, and they had conceived the crime in shame! For Madame Raquin, there was such a fathomless depth in this thought, that she could neither reason it out, nor grasp it clearly. She experienced but one sensation, that of a horrible disaster; it seemed to her that she was falling into a dark, cold hole. And she said to herself:

“I shall be smashed to pieces at the bottom.”

After the first shock, the crime appeared to her so monstrous that it seemed impossible. Then, when convinced of the misbehaviour and murder, by recalling certain little incidents which she had formerly failed to understand, she was afraid of going out of her mind. Therese and Laurent were really the murderers of Camille: Therese whom she had reared, Laurent whom she had loved with the devoted and tender affection of a mother. These thoughts revolved in her head like an immense wheel, accompanied by a deafening noise.

She conjectured such vile details, fathomed such immense hypocrisy, assisting in thought at a double vision so atrocious in irony, that she would have liked to die, mechanical and implacable, pounded her brain with the weight and ceaseless action of a millstone. She repeated to herself:

“It is my children who have killed my child.”

And she could think of nothing else to express her despair.

In the sudden change that had come over her heart, she no longer recognised herself. She remained weighed down by the brutal invasion of ideas of vengeance that drove away all the goodness of her life. When she had been thus transformed, all was dark inwardly; she felt the birth of a new being within her frame, a being pitiless and cruel, who would have liked to bite the murderers of her son.

When she had succumbed to the overwhelming stroke of paralysis, when she understood that she could not fly at the throats of Therese and Laurent, whom she longed to strangle, she resigned herself to silence and immobility, and great tears fell slowly from her eyes. Nothing could be more heartrending than this mute and motionless despair. Those tears coursing, one by one, down this lifeless countenance, not a wrinkle of which moved, that inert, wan face which could not weep with its features, and whose eyes alone sobbed, presented a poignant spectacle.

Therese was seized with horrified pity.

“We must put her to bed,” said she to Laurent, pointing to her aunt.

Laurent hastened to roll the paralysed woman into her bedroom. Then, as he stooped down to take her in his arms, Madame Raquin hoped that some powerful spring would place her on her feet; and she attempted a supreme effort. The Almighty would not permit Laurent to press her to his bosom; she fully anticipated he would be struck down if he displayed such monstrous impudence. But no spring came into action, and heaven reserved its lightning. Madame Raquin remained huddled up and passive like a bundle of linen. She was grasped, raised and carried along by the assassin; she experienced the anguish of feeling herself feeble and abandoned in the arms of the murderer of Camille. Her head rolled on to the shoulder of Laurent, whom she observed with eyes increased in volume by horror.

“You may look at me,” he murmured. “Your eyes will not eat me.”

And he cast her brutally on the bed. The impotent old lady fell unconscious on the mattress. Her last thought had been one of terror and disgust. In future, morning and night, she would have to submit to the vile pressure of the arms of Laurent.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02