Theresa Raquin, by Émile Zola

Chapter XXVII

A shock of terror alone had made the married pair speak, and avow their crime in the presence of Madame Raquin. Neither one nor the other was cruel; they would have avoided such a revelation out of feelings of humanity, had not their own security already made it imperative on their part to maintain silence.

On the ensuing Thursday, they felt particularly anxious. In the morning, Therese inquired of Laurent whether he considered it prudent to leave the paralysed woman in the dining-room during the evening. She knew all and might give the alarm.

“Bah!” replied Laurent, “it is impossible for her to raise her little finger. How can she babble?”

“She will perhaps discover a way to do so,” answered Therese. “I have noticed an implacable thought in her eyes since the other evening.”

“No,” said Laurent. “You see, the doctor told me it was absolutely all over with her. If she ever speaks again it will be in the final death-rattle. She will not last much longer, you may be sure. It would be stupid to place an additional load on our conscience by preventing her being present at the gathering this evening.”

Therese shuddered.

“You misunderstand me,” she exclaimed. “Oh! You are right. There has been enough crime. I meant to say that we might shut our aunt up in her own room, pretending she was not well, and was sleeping.”

“That’s it,” replied Laurent, “and that idiot Michaud would go straight into the room to see his old friend, notwithstanding. It would be a capital way to ruin us.”

He hesitated. He wanted to appear calm, and anxiety gave a tremor to his voice.

“It will be best to let matters take their course,” he continued. “These people are as silly as geese. The mute despair of the old woman will certainly teach them nothing. They will never have the least suspicion of the thing, for they are too far away from the truth. Once the ordeal is over, we shall be at ease as to the consequences of our imprudence. All will be well, you will see.”

When the guests arrived in the evening, Madame Raquin occupied her usual place, between the stove and table. Therese and Laurent feigned to be in good spirits, concealing their shudders and awaiting, in anguish, the incident that was bound to occur. They had brought the lamp-shade very low down, so that the oilcloth table covering alone was lit up.

The guests engaged in the usual noisy, common-place conversation that invariably preceded the first game of dominoes. Grivet and Michaud did not fail to address the usual questions to the paralysed woman, on the subject of her health, and to give excellent answers to them, as was their custom. After which, the company, without troubling any further about the poor old lady, plunged with delight into the game.

Since Madame Raquin had become aware of the horrible secret, she had been awaiting this evening with feverish impatience. She had gathered together all her remaining strength to denounce the culprits. Up to the last moment, she feared she would not be present at the gathering; she thought Laurent would make her disappear, perhaps kill her, or at least shut her up in her own apartment. When she saw that her niece and nephew allowed her to remain in the dining-room, she experienced lively joy at the thought of attempting to avenge her son.

Aware that her tongue was powerless, she resorted to a new kind of language. With astonishing power of will, she succeeded, in a measure, in galvanising her right hand, in slightly raising it from her knee, where it always lay stretched out, inert; she then made it creep little by little up one of the legs of the table before her, and thus succeeded in placing it on the oilcloth table cover. Then, she feebly agitated the fingers as if to attract attention.

When the players perceived this lifeless hand, white and nerveless, before them, they were exceedingly surprised. Grivet stopped short, with his arm in the air, at the moment when he was about to play the double-six. Since the impotent woman had been struck down, she had never moved her hands.

“Hey! Just look, Therese,” cried Michaud. “Madame Raquin is agitating her fingers. She probably wants something.”

Therese could not reply. Both she and Laurent had been following the exertion of the paralysed woman, and she was now looking at the hand of her aunt, which stood out wan in the raw light of the lamp, like an avenging hand that was about to speak. The two murderers waited, breathless.

“Of course,” said Grivet, “she wants something. Oh! We thoroughly understand one another. She wants to play dominoes. Eh! Isn’t it so, dear lady?”

Madame Raquin made a violent sign indicating that she wanted nothing of the kind. She extended one finger, folded up the others with infinite difficulty, and began to painfully trace letters on the table cover. She had barely indicated a stroke or two, when Grivet again exclaimed in triumph:

“I understand; she says I do right to play the double-six.”

The impotent woman cast a terrible glance at the old clerk, and returned to the word she wished to write. But Grivet interrupted her at every moment, declaring it was needless, that he understood, and he then brought out some stupidity. Michaud at last made him hold his tongue.

“The deuce! Allow Madame Raquin to speak,” said he. “Speak, my old friend.”

And he gazed at the oilcloth table cover as if he had been listening. But the fingers of the paralysed woman were growing weary. They had begun the word more than ten times over, and now, in tracing this word, they wandered to right and left. Michaud and Olivier bent forward, and being unable to read, forced the impotent old lady to resume the first letters.

“Ah! Bravo!” exclaimed Olivier, all at once, “I can read it, this time. She has just written your name, Therese. Let me see: ‘Therese and —— ’ Complete the sentence, dear lady.”

Therese almost shrieked in anguish. She watched the finger of her aunt gliding over the oilcloth, and it seemed to her that this finger traced her name, and the confession of her crime in letters of fire. Laurent had risen violently, with half a mind to fling himself on the paralysed woman and break her arm. When he saw this hand return to life to reveal the murder of Camille, he thought all was lost, and already felt the weight and frigidity of the knife on the nape of his neck.

Madame Raquin still wrote, but in a manner that became more and more hesitating.

“This is perfect. I can read it very well indeed,” resumed Olivier after an instant, and with his eyes on the married pair. “Your aunt writes your two names: ‘Therese and Laurent.’”

The old lady made sign after sign in the affirmative, casting crushing glances on the murderers. Then she sought to complete the sentence, but her fingers had stiffened, the supreme will that galvanised them, escaped her. She felt the paralysis slowly descending her arm and again grasping her wrist. She hurried on, and traced another word.

Old Michaud read out in a loud voice:

Therese and Laurent have ——

And Olivier inquired:

“What have your dear children?”

The murderers, seized with blind terror, were on the point of completing the sentence aloud. They contemplated the avenging hand with fixed and troubled eyes, when, all at once this hand became convulsed, and flattened out on the table. It slipped down and fell on the knee of the impotent woman like a lump of inanimate flesh and bone. The paralysis had returned and arrested the punishment. Michaud and Olivier sat down again disappointed, while Therese and Laurent experienced such keen joy that they felt like fainting under the influence of the sudden rush of blood that beat in their bosoms.

Grivet who felt vexed at not having been believed on trust, thought the moment had arrived to regain his infallibility, by completing the unfinished sentence. While every one was endeavouring to supply the missing words, he exclaimed:

“It is quite clear. I can read the whole phrase in the eyes of the lady. It is not necessary for her to write on the table to make me understand; a mere look suffices. She means to say:

“Therese and Laurent have been very kind to me.”

Grivet, on this occasion, had cause to be proud of his imagination, for all the company were of his opinion; and the guests began to sing the praises of the married couple, who were so good for the poor lady.

“It is certain,” old Michaud gravely remarked, “that Madame Raquin wishes to bear testimony to the tender affection her children lavish on her, and this does honour to the whole family.”

Then, taking up his dominoes again, he added:

“Come, let us continue. Where were we? Grivet was about to play the double-six, I think.”

Grivet played the double six, and the stupid, monotonous game went on.

The paralysed woman, cut up by frightful despair, looked at her hand, which had just betrayed her. She felt it as heavy as lead, now; never would she be able to raise it again. Providence would not permit Camille to be avenged. It withdrew from his mother the only means she had of making known the crime to which he had fallen a victim. And the wretched woman said to herself that she was now only fit to go and join her child underground. She lowered her lids, feeling herself, henceforth, useless, and with the desire of imagining herself already in the darkness of the tomb.

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