Plassans is a sub-prefecture with about ten thousand inhabitants. Built on a plateau overlooking the Viorne, and resting on the north side against the Garrigues hills, one of the last spurs of the Alps, the town is situated, as it were, in the depths of a cul-desac. In 1851 it communicated with the adjoining country by two roads only, the Nice road, which runs down to the east, and the Lyons road, which rises to the west, the one continuing the other on almost parallel lines. Since that time a railway has been built which passes to the south of the town, below the hill which descends steeply from the old ramparts to the river. At the present day, on coming out of the station on the right bank of the little torrent, one can see, by raising one’s head, the first houses of Plassans, with their gardens disposed in terrace fashion. It is, however, only after an uphill walk lasting a full quarter of an hour that one reaches these houses.
About twenty years ago, owing, no doubt, to deficient means of communication, there was no town that had more completely retained the pious and aristocratic character of the old Provencal cities. Plassans then had, and has even now, a whole district of large mansions built in the reigns of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., a dozen churches, Jesuit and Capuchin houses, and a considerable number of convents. Class distinctions were long perpetuated by the town’s division into various districts. There were three of them, each forming, as it were, a separate and complete locality, with its own churches, promenades, customs, and landscapes.
The district of the nobility, called Saint–Marc, after the name of one of its parish churches, is a sort of miniature Versailles, with straight streets overgrown with grass, and large square houses which conceal extensive gardens. It extends to the south along the edge of the plateau. Some of the mansions built on the declivity itself have a double row of terraces whence one can see the whole valley of the Viorne, a most charming vista much vaunted in that part of the country. Then on the north-west, the old quarter, formed of the original town, rears its narrow, tortuous lanes bordered with tottering hovels. The Town–Hall, the Civil Court, the Market, and the Gendarmerie barracks are situated here. This, the most populous part of the Plassans, is inhabited by working-men and shop-keepers, all the wretched, toiling, common folk. The new town forms a sort of parallelogram to the north-east; the well-to-do, those who have slowly amassed a fortune, and those engaged in the liberal professions, here occupy houses set out in straight lines and coloured a light yellow. This district, which is embellished by the Sub–Prefecture, an ugly plaster building decorated with rose-mouldings, numbered scarcely five or six streets in 1851; it is of quite recent formation, and it is only since the construction of the railway that it has been growing in extent.
One circumstance which even at the present time tends to divide Plassans into three distinct independent parts is that the limits of the districts are clearly defined by the principal thoroughfares. The Cours Sauvaire and the Rue de Rome, which is, as it were, a narrow extension of the former, run from west to east, from the Grand’-Porte to the Porte de Rome, thus cutting the town into two portions, and dividing the quarter of the nobility from the others. The latter are themselves parted by the Rue de la Banne. This street, the finest in the locality, starts from the extremity of the Cours Sauvaire, and ascends northwards, leaving the black masses of the old quarter on its left, and the light-yellow houses of the new town on its right. It is here, about half-way along the street, that stands the Sub–Prefecture, in the rear of a small square planted with sickly trees; the people of Plassans are very proud of this edifice.
As if to keep more isolated and shut up within itself, the town is belted with old ramparts, which only serve to increase its gloom and render it more confined. These ridiculous fortifications, preyed upon by ivy and crowned with wild gillyflowers, are about as high and as thick as the walls of a convent, and could be demolished by gunshot. They have several openings, the principal of which, the Porte de Rome and the Grand’-Porte, afford access to the Nice road and the Lyons road, at the other end of town. Until 1853 these openings were furnished with huge wooden two-leaved gates, arched at the top, and strengthened with bars of iron. These gates were double-locked at eleven o’clock in summer, and ten o’clock in winter. The town having thus shot its bolts like a timid girl, went quietly to sleep. A keeper, who lived in a little cell in one of the inner corners of each gateway, was authorised to admit belated persons. But it was necessary to stand parleying a long time. The keeper would not let people in until, by the light of his lantern, he had carefully scrutinised their faces through a peep-hole. If their looks displeased him they had to sleep outside. This custom of locking the gates every evening was highly characteristic of the spirit of the town, which was a commingling of cowardice, egotism, routine, exclusiveness, and devout longing for a cloistered life. Plassans, when it had shut itself up, would say to itself, “I am at home,” with the satisfaction of some pious bourgeois, who, assured of the safety of his cash-box, and certain that no noise will disturb him, duly says his prayers and retires gladly to bed. No other town, I believe, has so long persisted in thus incarcerating itself like a nun.
The population of Plassans is divided into three groups, corresponding with the same number of districts. Putting aside the functionaries — the sub-prefect, the receiver of taxes, the mortgage commissioner, and the postmaster, who are all strangers to the locality, where they are objects of envy rather than of esteem, and who live after their own fashion — the real inhabitants, those who were born there and have every intention of ending their days there, feel too much respect for traditional usages and established boundaries not to pen themselves of their own accord in one or other of the town’s social divisions.
The nobility virtually cloister themselves. Since the fall of Charles X. they scarcely ever go out, and when they do they are eager to return to their large dismal mansions, and walk along furtively as though they were in a hostile country. They do not visit anyone, nor do they even receive each other. Their drawing-rooms are frequented by a few priests only. They spend the summer in the chateaux which they possess in the environs; in the winter, they sit round their firesides. They are, as it were, dead people weary of life. And thus the gloomy silence of a cemetery hangs over their quarter of the town. The doors and windows are carefully barricaded; one would think their mansions were so many convents shut off from all the tumult of the world. At rare intervals an abbe, whose measured tread adds to the gloomy silence of these sealed houses, passes by and glides like a shadow through some half-opened doorway.
The well-to-do people, the retired tradesmen, the lawyers and notaries, all those of the little easy-going, ambitious world that inhabits the new town, endeavour to infuse some liveliness into Plassans. They go to the parties given by the sub-prefect, and dream of giving similar entertainments. They eagerly seek popularity, call a workman “my good fellow,” chat with the peasants about the harvest, read the papers, and walk out with their wives on Sundays. Theirs are the enlightened minds of the district, they are the only persons who venture to speak disparagingly of the ramparts; in fact, they have several times demanded of the authorities the demolition of those old walls, relics of a former age. At the same time, the most sceptical among them experience a shock of delight whenever a marquis or a count deigns to honour them with a stiff salutation. Indeed, the dream of every citizen of the new town is to be admitted to a drawing-room of the Saint–Marc quarter. They know very well that their ambition is not attainable, and it is this which makes them proclaim all the louder that they are freethinkers. But they are freethinkers in words only; firm friends of the authorities, they are ready to rush into the arms of the first deliverer at the slightest indication of popular discontent.
The group which toils and vegetates in the old quarter is not so clearly defined as the others. The labouring classes are here in a majority; but retail dealers and even a few wholesale traders are to be found among them. As a matter of fact, Plassans is far from being a commercial centre; there is only just sufficient trade to dispose of the products of the country — oil, wine, and almonds. As for industrial labour, it is represented almost entirely by three or four evil-smelling tanyards, a felt hat manufactory, and some soap-boiling works, which last are relegated to a corner of the Faubourg. This little commercial and industrial world, though it may on high days and holidays visit the people of the new district, generally takes up its quarters among the operatives of the old town. Merchants, retail traders, and artisans have common interests which unite them together. On Sundays only, the masters make themselves spruce and foregather apart. On the other hand, the labouring classes, which constitute scarcely a fifth of the population, mingle with the idlers of the district.
It is only once a week, and during the fine weather, that the three districts of Plassans come together face to face. The whole town repairs to the Cours Sauvaire on Sunday after vespers; even the nobility venture thither. Three distinct currents flow along this sort of boulevard planted with rows of plane-trees. The well-to-do citizens of the new quarter merely pass along before quitting the town by the Grand’-Porte and taking the Avenue du Mail on the right, where they walk up and down till nightfall. Meantime, the nobility and the lower classes share the Cours Sauvaire between them. For more than a century past the nobility have selected the walk on the south side, which is bordered with large mansions, and is the first to escape the heat of the sun; the lower classes have to rest content with the walk on the north, where the cafes, inns, and tobacconists’ shops are located. The people and the nobility promenade the whole afternoon, walking up and down the Cours without anyone of either party thinking of changing sides. They are only separated by a distance of some seven or eight yards, yet it is as if they were a thousand leagues away from each other, for they scrupulously follow those two parallel lines, as though they must not come in contact here below. Even during the revolutionary periods each party kept to its own side. This regulation walk on Sunday and the locking of the town gates in the evening are analogous instances which suffice to indicate the character of the ten thousand people inhabiting the town.
Here, amidst these surroundings, until the year 1848, there vegetated an obscure family that enjoyed little esteem, but whose head, Pierre Rougon, subsequently played an important part in life owing to certain circumstances.
Pierre Rougon was the son of a peasant. His mother’s family, the Fouques, owned, towards the end of the last century, a large plot of ground in the Faubourg, behind the old cemetery of Saint–Mittre; this ground was subsequently joined to the Jas–Meiffren. The Fouques were the richest market-gardeners in that part of the country; they supplied an entire district of Plassans with vegetables. However, their name died out a few years before the Revolution. Only one girl, Adelaide, remained; born in 1768, she had become an orphan at the age of eighteen. This girl, whose father had died insane, was a long, lank, pale creature, with a scared look and strange ways which one might have taken for shyness so long as she was a little girl. As she grew up, however, she became still stranger; she did certain things which were inexplicable even to the cleverest folk of the Faubourg, and from that time it was rumoured that she was cracked like her father.
She had scarcely been an orphan six months, in possession of a fortune which rendered her an eagerly sought heiress, when it transpired that she had married a young gardener named Rougon, a rough-hewn peasant from the Basses–Alpes. This Rougon, after the death of the last of the male Fouques, who had engaged him for a term, had remained in the service of the deceased’s daughter. From the situation of salaried servant he ascended rapidly to the enviable position of husband. This marriage was a first shock to public opinion. No one could comprehend why Adelaide preferred this poor fellow, coarse, heavy, vulgar, scarce able to speak French, to those other young men, sons of well-to-do farmers, who had been seen hovering round her for some time. And, as provincial people do not allow anything to remain unexplained, they made sure there was some mystery at the bottom of this affair, alleging even that the marriage of the two young people had become an absolute necessity. But events proved the falsity of the accusation. More than a year went by before Adelaide had a son. The Faubourg was annoyed; it could not admit that it was wrong, and determined to penetrate the supposed mystery; accordingly all the gossips kept a watch upon the Rougons. They soon found ample matter for tittle-tattle. Rougon died almost suddenly, fifteen months after his marriage, from a sunstroke received one afternoon while he was weeding a bed of carrots.
Scarcely a year then elapsed before the young widow caused unheard-of scandal. It became known, as an indisputable fact, that she had a lover. She did not appear to make any secret of it; several persons asserted that they had heard her use endearing terms in public to poor Rougon’s successor. Scarcely a year of widowhood and a lover already! Such a disregard of propriety seemed monstrous out of all reason. And the scandal was heightened by Adelaide’s strange choice. At that time there dwelt at the end of the Impasse Saint–Mittre, in a hovel the back of which abutted on the Fouques’ land, a man of bad repute, who was generally referred to as “that scoundrel Macquart.” This man would vanish for weeks and then turn up some fine evening, sauntering about with his hands in his pockets and whistling as though he had just come from a short walk. And the women sitting at their doorsteps as he passed: “There’s that scoundrel Macquart! He has hidden his bales and his gun in some hollow of the Viorne.” The truth was, Macquart had no means, and yet ate and drank like a happy drone during his short sojourns in the town. He drank copiously and with fierce obstinacy. Seating himself alone at a table in some tavern, he would linger there evening after evening, with his eyes stupidly fixed on his glass, neither seeing nor hearing anything around him. When the landlord closed his establishment, he would retire with a firm step, with his head raised, as if he were kept yet more erect by inebriation. “Macquart walks so straight, he’s surely dead drunk,” people used to say, as they saw him going home. Usually, when he had had no drink, he walked with a slight stoop and shunned the gaze of curious people with a kind of savage shyness.
Since the death of his father, a journeyman tanner who had left him as sole heritage the hovel in the Impasse Saint–Mittre, he had never been known to have either relatives or friends. The proximity of the frontiers and the neighbouring forests of the Seille had turned this singular, lazy fellow into a combination of smuggler and poacher, one of those suspicious-looking characters of whom passers-by observe: “I shouldn’t care to meet that man at midnight in a dark wood.” Tall, with a formidable beard and lean face, Macquart was the terror of the good women of the Faubourg of Plassans; they actually accused him of devouring little children raw. Though he was hardly thirty years old, he looked fifty. Amidst his bushy beard and the locks of hair which hung over his face in poodle fashion, one could only distinguish the gleam of his brown eyes, the furtive sorrowful glance of a man of vagrant instincts, rendered vicious by wine and a pariah life. Although no crimes had actually been brought home to him, no theft or murder was ever perpetrated in the district without suspicion at once falling upon him.
And it was this ogre, this brigand, this scoundrel Macquart, whom Adelaide had chosen! In twenty months she had two children by him, first a boy and then a girl. There was no question of marriage between them. Never had the Faubourg beheld such audacious impropriety. The stupefaction was so great, the idea of Macquart having found a young and wealthy mistress so completely upset the gossips, that they even spoke gently of Adelaide. “Poor thing! She’s gone quite mad,” they would say. “If she had any relatives she would have been placed in confinement long ago.” And as they never knew anything of the history of those strange amours, they accused that rogue Macquart of having taken advantage of Adelaide’s weak mind to rob her of her money.
The legitimate son, little Pierre Rougon, grew up with his mother’s other offspring. The latter, Antoine and Ursule, the young wolves as they were called in the district, were kept at home by Adelaide, who treated them as affectionately as her first child. She did not appear to entertain a very clear idea of the position in life reserved for these two poor creatures. To her they were the same in every respect as her first-born. She would sometimes go out holding Pierre with one hand and Antoine with the other, never noticing how differently the two little fellows were already regarded.
It was a strange home. For nearly twenty years everyone lived there after his or her fancy, the children like the mother. Everything went on free from control. In growing to womanhood, Adelaide had retained the strangeness which had been taken for shyness when she was fifteen. It was not that she was insane, as the people of the Faubourg asserted, but there was a lack of equilibrium between her nerves and her blood, a disorder of the brain and heart which made her lead a life out of the ordinary, different from that of the rest of the world. She was certainly very natural, very consistent with herself; but in the eyes of the neighbours her consistency became pure insanity. She seemed desirous of making herself conspicuous, it was thought she was wickedly determined to turn things at home from bad to worse, whereas with great naivete she simply acted according to the impulses of her nature.
Ever since giving birth to her first child she had been subject to nervous fits which brought on terrible convulsions. These fits recurred periodically, every two or three months. The doctors whom she consulted declared they could do nothing for her, that age would weaken the severity of the attacks. They simply prescribed a dietary regimen of underdone meat and quinine wine. However, these repeated shocks led to cerebral disorder. She lived on from day to day like a child, like a fawning animal yielding to its instincts. When Macquart was on his rounds, she passed her time in lazy, pensive idleness. All she did for her children was to kiss and play with them. Then as soon as her lover returned she would disappear.
Behind Macquart’s hovel there was a little yard, separated from the Fouques’ property by a wall. One morning the neighbours were much astonished to find in this wall a door which had not been there the previous evening. Before an hour had elapsed, the entire Faubourg had flocked to the neighbouring windows. The lovers must have worked the whole night to pierce the opening and place the door there. They could now go freely from one house to the other. The scandal was revived, everyone felt less pity for Adelaide, who was certainly the disgrace of the suburb; she was reproached more wrathfully for that door, that tacit, brutal admission of her union, than even for her two illegitimate children. “People should at least study appearances,” the most tolerant women would say. But Adelaide did not understand what was meant by studying appearances. She was very happy, very proud of her door; she had assisted Macquart to knock the stones from the wall and had even mixed the mortar so that the work might proceed the quicker; and she came with childish delight to inspect the work by daylight on the morrow — an act which was deemed a climax of shamelessness by three gossips who observed her contemplating the masonry. From that date, whenever Macquart reappeared, it was thought, as no one then ever saw the young woman, that she was living with him in the hovel of the Impasse Saint–Mittre.
The smuggler would come very irregularly, almost always unexpectedly, to Plassans. Nobody ever knew what life the lovers led during the two or three days he spent there at distant intervals. They used to shut themselves up; the little dwelling seemed uninhabited. Then, as the gossips had declared that Macquart had simply seduced Adelaide in order to spend her money, they were astonished, after a time, to see him still lead his wonted life, ever up hill and down dale and as badly equipped as previously. Perhaps the young woman loved him all the more for seeing him at rare intervals, perhaps he had disregarded her entreaties, feeling an irresistible desire for a life of adventure. The gossips invented a thousand fables, without succeeding in giving any reasonable explanation of a connection which had originated and continued in so strange a manner. The hovel in the Impasse Saint–Mittre remained closed and preserved its secrets. It was merely guessed that Macquart had probably acquired the habit of beating Adelaide, although the sound of a quarrel never issued from the house. However, on several occasions she was seen with her face black and blue, and her hair torn away. At the same time, she did not display the least dejection or grief, nor did she seek in any way to hide her bruises. She smiled, and seemed happy. No doubt she allowed herself to be beaten without breathing a word. This existence lasted for more than fifteen years.
At times when Adelaide returned home she would find her house upside down, but would not take the least notice of it. She was utterly ignorant of the practical meaning of life, of the proper value of things and the necessity for order. She let her children grow up like those plum-trees which sprout along the highways at the pleasure of the rain and sun. They bore their natural fruits like wild stock which has never known grafting or pruning. Never was nature allowed such complete sway, never did such mischievous creatures grow up more freely under the sole influence of instinct. They rolled among the vegetables, passed their days in the open air playing and fighting like good-for-nothing urchins. They stole provisions from the house and pillaged the few fruit-trees in the enclosure; they were the plundering, squalling, familiar demons of this strange abode of lucid insanity. When their mother was absent for days together, they would make such an uproar, and hit upon such diabolical devices for annoying people, that the neighbours had to threaten them with a whipping. Moreover, Adelaide did not inspire them with much fear; if they were less obnoxious to other people when she was at home, it was because they made her their victim, shirking school five or six times a week and doing everything they could to receive some punishment which would allow them to squall to their hearts’ content. But she never beat them, nor even lost her temper; she lived on very well, placidly, indolently, in a state of mental abstraction amidst all the uproar. At last, indeed, this uproar became indispensable to her, to fill the void in her brain. She smiled complacently when she heard anyone say, “Her children will beat her some day, and it will serve her right.” To all remarks, her utter indifference seemed to reply, “What does it matter?” She troubled even less about her property than about her children. The Fouques’ enclosure, during the many years that this singular existence lasted would have become a piece of waste ground if the young woman had not luckily entrusted the cultivation of her vegetables to a clever market-gardener. This man, who was to share the profits with her, robbed her impudently, though she never noticed it. This circumstance had its advantages, however; for, in order to steal the more, the gardener drew as much as possible from the land, which in the result almost doubled in value.
Pierre, the legitimate son, either from secret instinct or from his knowledge of the different manner in which he and the others were regarded by the neighbours, domineered over his brother and sister from an early age. In their quarrels, although he was much weaker than Antoine, he always got the better of the contest, beating the other with all the authority of a master. With regard to Ursule, a poor, puny, wan little creature, she was handled with equal roughness by both the boys. Indeed, until they were fifteen or sixteen, the three children fraternally beat each other without understanding their vague, mutual hatred, without realising how foreign they were to one another. It was only in youth that they found themselves face to face with definite, self-conscious personalities.
At sixteen, Antoine was a tall fellow, a blend of Macquart’s and Adelaide’s failings. Macquart, however, predominated in him, with his love of vagrancy, his tendency to drunkenness, and his brutish savagery. At the same time, under the influence of Adelaide’s nervous nature, the vices which in the father assumed a kind of sanguinary frankness were in the son tinged with an artfulness full of hypocrisy and cowardice. Antoine resembled his mother by his total want of dignified will, by his effeminate voluptuous egotism, which disposed him to accept any bed of infamy provided he could lounge upon it at his ease and sleep warmly in it. People said of him: “Ah! the brigand! He hasn’t even the courage of his villainy like Macquart; if ever he commits a murder, it will be with pin pricks.” Physically, Antoine inherited Adelaide’s thick lips only; his other features resembled those of the smuggler, but they were softer and more prone to change of expression.
In Ursule, on the other hand, physical and moral resemblance to the mother predominated. There was a mixture of certain characteristics in her also; but born the last, at a time when Adelaide’s love was warmer than Macquart’s, the poor little thing seemed to have received with her sex a deeper impress of her mother’s temperament. Moreover, hers was not a fusion of the two natures, but rather a juxtaposition, a remarkably close soldering. Ursule was whimsical, and displayed at times the shyness, the melancholy, and the transports of a pariah; then she would often break out into nervous fits of laughter, and muse lazily, like a woman unsound both in head and heart. Her eyes, which at times had a scared expression like those of Adelaide, were as limpid as crystal, similar to those of kittens doomed to die of consumption.
In presence of those two illegitimate children Pierre seemed a stranger; to one who had not penetrated to the roots of his being he would have appeared profoundly dissimilar. Never did child’s nature show a more equal balance of the characteristics of its parents. He was the exact mean between the peasant Rougon and the nervous Adelaide. Paternal grossness was attenuated by the maternal influence. One found in him the first phase of that evolution of temperaments which ultimately brings about the amelioration or deterioration of a race. Although he was still a peasant, his skin was less coarse, his face less heavy, his intellect more capacious and more supple. In him the defects of his father and his mother had advantageously reacted upon each other. If Adelaide’s nature, rendered exquisitely sensitive by her rebellious nerves, had combated and lessened Rougon’s full-bodied ponderosity, the latter had successfully prevented the young woman’s tendency to cerebral disorder from being implanted in the child. Pierre knew neither the passions nor the sickly ravings of Macquart’s young whelps. Very badly brought up, unruly and noisy, like all children who are not restrained during their infancy, he nevertheless possessed at bottom such sense and intelligence as would always preserve him from perpetrating any unproductive folly. His vices, his laziness, his appetite for indulgence, lacked the instinctiveness which characterised Antoine’s; he meant to cultivate and gratify them honourably and openly. In his plump person of medium height, in his long pale face, in which the features derived from his father had acquired some of the maternal refinement, one could already detect signs of sly and crafty ambition and insatiable desire, with the hardness of heart and envious hatred of a peasant’s son whom his mother’s means and nervous temperament had turned into a member of the middle classes.
When, at the age of seventeen, Pierre observed and was able to understand Adelaide’s disorders and the singular position of Antoine and Ursule, he seemed neither sorry nor indignant, but simply worried as to the course which would best serve his own interests. He was the only one of the three children who had pursued his studies with any industry. When a peasant begins to feel the need of instruction he most frequently becomes a fierce calculator. At school Pierre’s playmates roused his first suspicions by the manner in which they treated and hooted his brother. Later on he came to understand the significance of many looks and words. And at last he clearly saw that the house was being pillaged. From that time forward he regarded Antoine and Ursule as shameless parasites, mouths that were devouring his own substance. Like the people of the Faubourg, he thought that his mother was a fit subject for a lunatic asylum, and feared she would end by squandering all her money, if he did not take steps to prevent it. What gave him the finishing stroke was the dishonesty of the gardener who cultivated the land. At this, in one day, the unruly child was transformed into a thrifty, selfish lad, hurriedly matured, as regards his instincts, by the strange improvident life which he could no longer bear to see around him without a feeling of anguish. Those vegetables, from the sale of which the market-gardener derived the largest profits, really belonged to him; the wine which his mother’s offspring drank, the bread they ate, also belonged to him. The whole house, the entire fortune, was his by right; according to his boorish logic, he alone, the legitimate son, was the heir. And as his riches were in danger, as everybody was greedily gnawing at his future fortune, he sought a means of turning them all out — mother, brother, sister, servants — and of succeeding immediately to his inheritance.
The conflict was a cruel one; the lad knew that he must first strike his mother. Step by step, with patient tenacity, he executed a plan whose every detail he had long previously thought out. His tactics were to appear before Adelaide like a living reproach — not that he flew into a passion, or upbraided her for her misconduct; but he had acquired a certain manner of looking at her, without saying a word, which terrified her. Whenever she returned from a short sojourn in Macquart’s hovel she could not turn her eyes on her son without a shudder. She felt his cold glances, as sharp as steel blades pierce her deeply and pitilessly. The severe, taciturn demeanour of the child of the man whom she had so soon forgotten strangely troubled her poor disordered brain. She would fancy at times that Rougon had risen from the dead to punish her for her dissoluteness. Every week she fell into one of those nervous fits which were shattering her constitution. She was left to struggle until she recovered consciousness, after which she would creep about more feebly than ever. She would also often sob the whole night long, holding her head in her hands, and accepting the wounds that Pierre dealt her with resignation, as if they had been the strokes of an avenging deity. At other times she repudiated him; she would not acknowledge her own flesh and blood in that heavy-faced lad, whose calmness chilled her own feverishness so painfully. She would a thousand times rather have been beaten than glared at like that. Those implacable looks, which followed her everywhere, threw her at last into such unbearable torments that on several occasions she determined to see her lover no more. As soon, however, as Macquart returned she forgot her vows and hastened to him. The conflict with her son began afresh, silent and terrible, when she came back home. At the end of a few months she fell completely under his sway. She stood before him like a child doubtful of her behaviour and fearing that she deserves a whipping. Pierre had skilfully bound her hand and foot, and made a very submissive servant of her, without opening his lips, without once entering into difficult and compromising explanations.
When the young man felt that his mother was in his power, that he could treat her like a slave, he began, in his own interest, to turn her cerebral weakness and the foolish terror with which his glances inspired her to his own advantage. His first care, as soon as he was master at home, was to dismiss the market-gardener and replace him by one of his own creatures. Then he took upon himself the supreme direction of the household, selling, buying, and holding the cash-box. On the other hand, he made no attempt to regulate Adelaide’s actions, or to correct Antoine and Ursule for their laziness. That mattered little to him, for he counted upon getting rid of these people as soon as an opportunity presented itself. He contented himself with portioning out their bread and water. Then, having already got all the property in his own hands, he awaited an event which would permit him to dispose of it as he pleased.
Circumstances proved singularly favourable. He escaped the conscription on the ground of being a widow’s eldest son. But two years later Antoine was called out. His bad luck did not affect him much; he counted on his mother purchasing a substitute for him. Adelaide, in fact, wished to save him from serving; Pierre, however, who held the money, turned a deaf ear to her. His brother’s compulsory departure would be a lucky event for him, and greatly assist the accomplishment of his plans. When his mother mentioned the matter to him, he gave her such a look that she did not venture to pursue it. His glance plainly signified, “Do you wish, then, to ruin me for the sake of your illegitimate offspring?” Forthwith she selfishly abandoned Antoine, for before everything else she sought her own peace and quietness. Pierre, who did not like violent measures, and who rejoiced at being able to eject his brother without a disturbance, then played the part of a man in despair: the year had been a bad one, money was scarce, and to raise any he would be compelled to sell a portion of the land, which would be the beginning of their ruin. Then he pledged his word of honour to Antoine that he would buy him out the following year, though he meant to do nothing of the kind. Antoine then went off, duped, and half satisfied.
Pierre got rid of Ursule in a still more unexpected manner. A journeyman hatter of the Faubourg, named Mouret, conceived a real affection for the girl, whom he thought as white and delicate as any young lady from the Saint–Marc quarter. He married her. On his part it was a love match, free from all sordid motives. As for Ursule, she accepted the marriage in order to escape a home where her eldest brother rendered life intolerable. Her mother, absorbed in her own courses, and using her remaining energy to defend her own particular interests, regarded the matter with absolute indifference. She was even glad of Ursule’s departure from the house, hoping that Pierre, now that he had no further cause for dissatisfaction, would let her live in peace after her own fashion. No sooner had the young people been married than Mouret perceived that he would have to quit Plassans, if he did not wish to hear endless disparaging remarks about his wife and his mother-inlaw. Taking Ursule with him, he accordingly repaired to Marseilles, where he worked at his trade. It should be mentioned that he had not asked for one sou of dowry. When Pierre, somewhat surprised by this disinterestedness, commenced to stammer out some explanations, Mouret closed his mouth by saying that he preferred to earn his wife’s bread. Nevertheless the worthy son of the peasant remained uneasy; Mouret’s indifference seemed to him to conceal some trap.
Adelaide now remained to be disposed of. Nothing in the world would have induced Pierre to live with her any longer. She was compromising him; it was with her that he would have liked to make a start. But he found himself between two very embarrassing alternatives: to keep her, and thus, in a measure, share her disgrace, and bind a fetter to his feet which would arrest him in his ambitious flight; or to turn her out, with the certainty of being pointed at as a bad son, which would have robbed him of the reputation for good nature which he desired. Knowing that he would be in want of everybody, he desired to secure an untarnished name throughout Plassans. There was but one method to adopt, namely, to induce Adelaide to leave of her own accord. Pierre neglected nothing to accomplish this end. He considered his mother’s misconduct a sufficient excuse for his own hard-heartedness. He punished her as one would chastise a child. The tables were turned. The poor woman cowered under the stick which, figuratively, was constantly held over her. She was scarcely forty-two years old, and already had the stammerings of terror, and vague, pitiful looks of an old woman in her dotage. Her son continued to stab her with his piercing glances, hoping that she would run away when her courage was exhausted. The unfortunate woman suffered terribly from shame, restrained desire and enforced cowardice, receiving the blows dealt her with passive resignation, and nevertheless returning to Macquart with the determination to die on the spot rather than submit. There were nights when she would have got out of bed, and thrown herself into the Viorne, if with her weak, nervous, nature she had not felt the greatest fear of death. On several occasions she thought of running away and joining her lover on the frontier. It was only because she did not know whither to go that she remained in the house, submitting to her son’s contemptuous silence and secret brutality. Pierre divined that she would have left long ago if she had only had a refuge. He was waiting an opportunity to take a little apartment for her somewhere, when a fortuitous occurrence, which he had not ventured to anticipate, abruptly brought about the realisation of his desires. Information reached the Faubourg that Macquart had just been killed on the frontier by a shot from a custom-house officer, at the moment when he was endeavouring to smuggle a load of Geneva watches into France. The story was true. The smuggler’s body was not even brought home, but was interred in the cemetery of a little mountain village. Adelaide’s grief plunged her into stupor. Her son, who watched her curiously, did not see her shed a tear. Macquart had made her sole legatee. She inherited his hovel in the Impasse Saint–Mittre, and his carbine, which a fellow-smuggler, braving the balls of the custom-house officers, loyally brought back to her. On the following day she retired to the little house, hung the carbine above the mantelpiece, and lived there estranged from all the world, solitary and silent.
Pierre was at last sole master of the house. The Fouques’ land belonged to him in fact, if not in law. He never thought of establishing himself on it. It was too narrow a field for his ambition. To till the ground and cultivate vegetables seemed to him boorish, unworthy of his faculties. He was in a hurry to divest himself of everything recalling the peasant. With his nature refined by his mother’s nervous temperament, he felt an irresistible longing for the enjoyments of the middle classes. In all his calculations, therefore, he had regarded the sale of the Fouques’ property as the final consummation. This sale, by placing a round sum of money in his hands, would enable him to marry the daughter of some merchant who would take him into partnership. At this period the wars of the First Empire were greatly thinning the ranks of eligible young men. Parents were not so fastidious as previously in the choice of a son-inlaw. Pierre persuaded himself that money would smooth all difficulties, and that the gossip of the Faubourg would be overlooked; he intended to pose as a victim, as an honest man suffering from a family disgrace, which he deplored, without being soiled by it or excusing it.
For several months already he had cast his eyes on a certain Felicite Puech, the daughter of an oil-dealer. The firm of Puech & Lacamp, whose warehouses were in one of the darkest lanes of the old quarter, was far from prosperous. It enjoyed but doubtful credit in the market, and people talked vaguely of bankruptcy. It was precisely in consequence of these evil reports that Pierre turned his batteries in this direction. No well-to-do trader would have given him his daughter. He meant to appear on the scene at the very moment when old Puech should no longer know which way to turn; he would then purchase Felicite of him, and re-establish the credit of the house by his own energy and intelligence. It was a clever expedient for ascending the first rung of the social ladder, for raising himself above his station. Above all things, he wished to escape from that frightful Faubourg where everybody reviled his family, and to obliterate all these foul legends, by effacing even the very name of the Fouques’ enclosure. For that reason the filthy streets of the old quarter seemed to him perfect paradise. There, only, he would be able to change his skin.
The moment which he had been awaiting soon arrived. The firm of Puech and Lacamp seemed to be at the last gasp. The young man then negotiated the match with prudent skill. He was received, if not as a deliverer, at least as a necessary and acceptable expedient. The marriage agreed upon, he turned his attention to the sale of the ground. The owner of the Jas–Meiffren, desiring to enlarge his estate, had made him repeated offers. A low, thin, party-wall alone separated the two estates. Pierre speculated on the eagerness of his wealthy neighbour, who, to gratify his caprice, offered as much as fifty thousand francs for the land. It was double its value. Pierre, whoever, with the craftiness of a peasant, pulled a long face, and said that he did not care to sell; that his mother would never consent to get rid of the property where the Fouques had lived from father to son for nearly two centuries. But all the time that he was seemingly holding back he was really making preparations for the sale. Certain doubts had arisen in his mind. According to his own brutal logic, the property belonged to him; he had the right to dispose of it as he chose. Beneath this assurance, however, he had vague presentiments of legal complications. So he indirectly consulted a lawyer of the Faubourg.
He learnt some fine things from him. According to the lawyer, his hands were completely tied. His mother alone could alienate the property, and he doubted whether she would. But what he did not know, what came as a heavy blow to him, was that Ursule and Antoine, those young wolves, had claims on the estate. What! they would despoil him, rob him, the legitimate child! The lawyer’s explanations were clear and precise, however; Adelaide, it is true, had married Rougon under the common property system; but as the whole fortune consisted of land, the young woman, according to law, again came into possession of everything at her husband’s death. Moreover, Macquart and Adelaide had duly acknowledged their children when declaring their birth for registration, and thus these children were entitled to inherit from their mother. For sole consolation, Pierre learnt that the law reduced the share of illegitimate children in favour of the others. This, however, did not console him at all. He wanted to have everything. He would not have shared ten sous with Ursule and Antoine.
This vista of the intricacies of the Code opened up a new horizon, which he scanned with a singularly thoughtful air. He soon recognised that a shrewd man must always keep the law on his side. And this is what he devised without consulting anyone, even the lawyer, whose suspicions he was afraid of arousing. He knew how to turn his mother round his finger. One fine morning he took her to a notary and made her sign a deed of sale. Provided she were left the hovel in the Impasse Saint–Mittre, Adelaide would have sold all Plassans. Besides, Pierre assured her an annual income of six hundred francs, and made the most solemn promises to watch over his brother and sister. This oath satisfied the good woman. She recited, before the notary, the lesson which it had pleased her son to teach her. On the following day the young man made her place her name at the foot of a document in which she acknowledged having received fifty thousand francs as the price of the property. This was his stroke of genius, the act of a rogue. He contented himself with telling his mother, who was a little surprised at signing such a receipt when she had not seen a centime of the fifty thousand francs, that it was a pure formality of no consequence whatever. As he slipped the paper into his pocket, he thought to himself, “Now, let the young wolves ask me to render an account. I will tell them the old woman has squandered everything. They will never dare to go to law with me about it.” A week afterwards, the party-wall no longer existed: a plough had turned up the vegetable beds; the Fouques’ enclosure, in accordance with young Rougon’s wish, was about to become a thing of the past. A few months later, the owner of the Jas–Meiffren even had the old market-gardener’s house, which was falling to pieces, pulled down.
When Pierre had secured the fifty thousand francs he married Felicite Puech with as little delay as possible. Felicite was a short, dark woman, such as one often meets in Provence. She looked like one of those brown, lean, noisy grasshoppers, which in their sudden leaps often strike their heads against the almond-trees. Thin, flat-breasted, with pointed shoulders and a face like that of a pole-cat, her features singularly sunken and attenuated, it was not easy to tell her age; she looked as near fifteen as thirty, although she was in reality only nineteen, four years younger than her husband. There was much feline slyness in the depths of her little black eyes, which suggested gimlet holes. Her low, bumpy forehead, her slightly depressed nose with delicate quivering nostrils, her thin red lips and prominent chin, parted from her cheeks by strange hollows, all suggested the countenance of an artful dwarf, a living mask of intrigue, an active, envious ambition. With all her ugliness, however, Felicite possessed a sort of gracefulness which rendered her seductive. People said of her that she could be pretty or ugly as she pleased. It would depend on the fashion in which she tied her magnificent hair; but it depended still more on the triumphant smile which illumined her golden complexion when she thought she had got the better of somebody. Born under an evil star, and believing herself ill-used by fortune, she was generally content to appear an ugly creature. She did not, however, intend to abandon the struggle, for she had vowed that she would some day make the whole town burst with envy, by an insolent display of happiness and luxury. Had she been able to act her part on a more spacious stage, where full play would have been allowed her ready wit, she would have quickly brought her dream to pass. Her intelligence was far superior to that of the girls of her own station and education. Evil tongues asserted that her mother, who had died a few years after she was born, had, during the early period of her married life, been familiar with the Marquis de Carnavant, a young nobleman of the Saint–Marc quarter. In fact, Felicite had the hands and feet of a marchioness, and, in this respect, did not appear to belong to that class of workers from which she was descended.
Her marriage with Pierre Rougon, that semi-peasant, that man of the Faubourg, whose family was in such bad odour, kept the old quarter in a state of astonishment for more than a month. She let people gossip, however, receiving the stiff congratulations of her friends with strange smiles. Her calculations had been made; she had chosen Rougon for a husband as one would choose an accomplice. Her father, in accepting the young man, had merely had eyes for the fifty thousand francs which were to save him from bankruptcy. Felicite, however, was more keen-sighted. She looked into the future, and felt that she would be in want of a robust man, even if he were somewhat rustic, behind whom she might conceal herself, and whose limbs she would move at will. She entertained a deliberate hatred for the insignificant little exquisites of provincial towns, the lean herd of notaries’ clerks and prospective barristers, who stand shivering with cold while waiting for clients. Having no dowry, and despairing of ever marrying a rich merchant’s son, she by far preferred a peasant whom she could use as a passive tool, to some lank graduate who would overwhelm her with his academical superiority, and drag her about all her life in search of hollow vanities. She was of opinion that the woman ought to make the man. She believed herself capable of carving a minister out of a cow-herd. That which had attracted her in Rougon was his broad chest, his heavy frame, which was not altogether wanting in elegance. A man thus built would bear with ease and sprightliness the mass of intrigues which she dreamt of placing on his shoulders. However, while she appreciated her husband’s strength and vigour, she also perceived that he was far from being a fool; under his coarse flesh she had divined the cunning suppleness of his mind. Still she was a long way from really knowing her Rougon; she thought him far stupider than he was. A few days after her marriage, as she was by chance fumbling in the drawer of a secretaire, she came across the receipt for fifty thousand francs which Adelaide had signed. At sight of it she understood things, and felt rather frightened; her own natural average honesty rendered her hostile to such expedients. Her terror, however, was not unmixed with admiration; Rougon became in her eyes a very smart fellow.
The young couple bravely sought to conquer fortune. The firm of Puech & Lacamp was not, after all, so embarrassed as Pierre had thought. Its liabilities were small, it was merely in want of ready-money. In the provinces, traders adopt prudent courses to save them from serious disasters. Puech & Lacamp were prudent to an excessive degree; they never risked a thousand crowns without the greatest fear, and thus their house, a veritable hole, was an unimportant one. The fifty thousand francs that Pierre brought into it sufficed to pay the debts and extend the business. The beginnings were good. During three successive years the olive harvest was an abundant one. Felicite, by a bold stroke which absolutely frightened both Pierre and old Puech, made them purchase a considerable quantity of oil, which they stored in their warehouse. During the following years, as the young woman had foreseen, the crops failed, and a considerable rise in prices having set in, they realised large profits by selling out their stock.
A short time after this haul, Puech & Lacamp retired from the firm, content with the few sous they had just secured, and ambitious of living on their incomes.
The young couple now had sole control of the business, and thought that they had at last laid the foundation of their fortune. “You have vanquished my ill-luck,” Felicite would sometimes say to her husband.
One of the rare weaknesses of her energetic nature was to believe herself stricken by misfortune. Hitherto, so she asserted, nothing had been successful with either herself or her father, in spite of all their efforts. Goaded by her southern superstition, she prepared to struggle with fate as one struggles with somebody who is endeavouring to strangle one. Circumstances soon justified her apprehensions in a singular manner. Ill-luck returned inexorably. Every year some fresh disaster shook Rougon’s business. A bankruptcy resulted in the loss of a few thousand francs; his estimates of crops proved incorrect, through the most incredible circumstances; the safest speculations collapsed miserably. It was a truceless, merciless combat.
“You see I was born under an unlucky star!” Felicite would bitterly exclaim.
And yet she still struggled furiously, not understanding how it was that she, who had shown such keen scent in a first speculation, could now only give her husband the most deplorable advice.
Pierre, dejected and less tenacious than herself, would have gone into liquidation a score of times had it not been for his wife’s firm obstinacy. She longed to be rich. She perceived that her ambition could only be attained by fortune. As soon as they possessed a few hundred thousand francs they would be masters of the town. She would get her husband appointed to an important post, and she would govern. It was not the attainment of honours which troubled her; she felt herself marvellously well armed for such a combat. But she could do nothing to get together the first few bags of money which were needed. Though the ruling of men caused her no apprehensions, she felt a sort of impotent rage at the thought of those inert, white, cold, five-franc pieces over which her intriguing spirit had no power, and which obstinately resisted her.
The battle lasted for more than thirty years. The death of Puech proved another heavy blow. Felicite, who had counted upon an inheritance of about forty thousand francs, found that the selfish old man, in order to indulge himself in his old age, had sunk all his money in a life annuity. The discovery made her quite ill. She was gradually becoming soured, she was growing more lean and harsh. To see her, from morning till night, whirling round the jars of oil, one would have thought she believed that she could stimulate the sales by continually flitting about like a restless fly. Her husband, on the contrary, became heavier; misfortune fattened him, making him duller and more indolent. These thirty years of combat did not, however, bring him to ruin. At each annual stock-taking they managed to make both ends meet fairly well; if they suffered any loss during one season, they recouped themselves the next. However, it was precisely this living from hand to mouth which exasperated Felicite. She would, by far, have preferred a big failure. They would then, perhaps, have been able to commence life over again, instead of obstinately persisting in their petty business, working themselves to death to gain the bare necessaries of life. During one third of a century they did not save fifty thousand francs.
It should be mentioned that, from the very first years of their married life, they had a numerous family, which in the long run became a heavy burden to them. In the course of five years, from 1811 to 1815, Felicite gave birth to three boys. Then during the four ensuing years she presented her husband with two girls. These had but an indifferent welcome; daughters are a terrible embarrassment when one has no dowry to give them.
However, the young woman did not regard this troop of children as the cause of their ruin. On the contrary, she based on her sons’ heads the building of the fortune which was crumbling in her own hands. They were hardly ten years old before she discounted their future careers in her dreams. Doubting whether she would ever succeed herself, she centred in them all her hopes of overcoming the animosity of fate. They would provide satisfaction for her disappointed vanity, they would give her that wealthy, honourable position which she had hitherto sought in vain. From that time forward, without abandoning the business struggle, she conceived a second plan for obtaining the gratification of her domineering instincts. It seemed to her impossible that, amongst her three sons, there should not be a man of superior intellect, who would enrich them all. She felt it, she said. Accordingly, she nursed the children with a fervour in which maternal severity was blended with an usurer’s solicitude. She amused herself by fattening them as though they constituted a capital which, later on, would return a large interest.
“Enough!” Pierre would sometimes exclaim, “all children are ungrateful. You are spoiling them, you are ruining us.”
When Felicite spoke of sending them to college, he got angry. Latin was a useless luxury, it would be quite sufficient if they went through the classes of a little neighbouring school The young woman, however, persisted in her design. She possessed certain elevated instincts which made her take a great pride in surrounding herself with accomplished children; moreover, she felt that her sons must never remain as illiterate as her husband, if she wished to see them become prominent men. She fancied them all three in Paris in high positions, which she did not clearly define. When Rougon consented, and the three youngsters had entered the eighth class, Felicite felt the most lively satisfaction she had ever experienced. She listened with delight as they talked of their professors and their studies. When she heard her eldest son make one of his brothers decline Rosa, a rose, it sounded like delicious music to her. It is only fair to add that her delight was not tarnished by any sordid calculations. Even Rougon felt the satisfaction which an illiterate man experiences on perceiving his sons grow more learned than himself. Then the fellowship which grew up between their sons and those of the local big-wigs completed the parents’ gratification. The youngsters were soon on familiar terms with the sons of the Mayor and the Sub–Prefect, and even with two or three young noblemen whom the Saint–Marc quarter had deigned to send to the Plassans College. Felicite was at a loss how to repay such an honour. The education of the three lads weighed seriously on the budget of the Rougon household.
Until the boys had taken their degrees, their parents, who kept them at college at enormous sacrifices, lived in hopes of their success. When they had obtained their diplomas Felicite wished to continue her work, and even persuaded her husband to send the three to Paris. Two of them devoted themselves to the study of law, and the third passed through the School of Medicine. Then, when they were men, and had exhausted the resources of the Rougon family and were obliged to return and establish themselves in the provinces, their parents’ disenchantment began. They idled about and grew fat. And Felicite again felt all the bitterness of her ill-luck. Her sons were failing her. They had ruined her, and did not return any interest on the capital which they represented. This last blow of fate was the heaviest, as it fell on her ambition and her maternal vanity alike. Rougon repeated to her from morning till night, “I told you so!” which only exasperated her the more.
One day, as she was bitterly reproaching her eldest son with the large amount of money expended on his education, he said to her with equal bitterness, “I will repay you later on if I can. But as you had no means, you should have brought us up to a trade. We are out of our element, we are suffering more than you.”
Felicite understood the wisdom of these words. From that time she ceased to accuse her children, and turned her anger against fate, which never wearied of striking her. She started her old complaints afresh, and bemoaned more and more the want of means which made her strand, as it were, in port. Whenever Rougon said to her, “Your sons are lazy fellows, they will eat up all we have,” she sourly replied, “Would to God I had more money to give them; if they do vegetate, poor fellows, it’s because they haven’t got a sou to bless themselves with.”
At the beginning of the year 1848, on the eve of the Revolution of February, the three young Rougons held very precarious positions at Plassans. They presented most curious and profoundly dissimilar characteristics, though they came of the same stock. They were in reality superior to their parents. The race of the Rougons was destined to become refined through its female side. Adelaide had made Pierre a man of moderate enterprise, disposed to low ambitions; Felicite had inspired her sons with a higher intelligence, with a capacity for greater vices and greater virtues.
At the period now referred to the eldest, Eugene, was nearly forty years old. He was a man of middle height, slightly bald, and already disposed to obesity. He had his father’s face, a long face with broad features; beneath his skin one could divine the fat to which were due the flabby roundness of his features, and his yellowish, waxy complexion. Though his massive square head still recalled the peasant, his physiognomy was transfigured, lit up from within as it were, when his drooping eyelids were raised and his eyes awoke to life. In the son’s case, the father’s ponderousness had turned to gravity. This big fellow, Eugene, usually preserved a heavy somnolent demeanour. At the same time, certain of his heavy, languid movements suggested those of a giant stretching his limbs pending the time for action. By one of those alleged freaks of nature, of which, however, science is now commencing to discover the laws, if physical resemblance to Pierre was perfect in Eugene, Felicite on her side seemed to have furnished him with his brains. He offered an instance of certain moral and intellectual qualities of maternal origin being embedded in the coarse flesh he had derived from his father. He cherished lofty ambitions, possessed domineering instincts, and showed singular contempt for trifling expedients and petty fortunes.
He was a proof that Plassans was perhaps not mistaken in suspecting that Felicite had some blue blood in her veins. The passion for indulgence, which became formidably developed in the Rougons, and was, in fact, the family characteristic, attained in his case its highest pitch; he longed for self-gratification, but in the form of mental enjoyment such as would gratify his burning desire for domination. A man such as this was never intended to succeed in a provincial town. He vegetated there for fifteen years, his eyes turned towards Paris, watching his opportunities. On his return home he had entered his name on the rolls, in order to be independent of his parents. After that he pleaded from time to time, earning a bare livelihood, without appearing to rise above average mediocrity. At Plassans his voice was considered thick, his movements heavy. He generally wandered from the question at issue, rambled, as the wiseacres expressed it. On one occasion particularly, when he was pleading in a case for damages, he so forgot himself as to stray into a political disquisition, to such a point that the presiding judge interfered, whereupon he immediately sat down with a strange smile. His client was condemned to pay a considerable sum of money, a circumstance which did not, however, seem to cause Eugene the least regret for his irrelevant digression. He appeared to regard his speeches as mere exercises which would be of use to him later on. It was this that puzzled and disheartened Felicite. She would have liked to see her son dictating the law to the Civil Court of Plassans. At last she came to entertain a very unfavourable opinion of her first-born. To her mind this lazy fellow would never be the one to shed any lustre on the family. Pierre, on the contrary, felt absolute confidence in him, not that he had more intuition than his wife, but because external appearances sufficed him, and he flattered himself by believing in the genius of a son who was his living image. A month prior to the Revolution of February, 1848, Eugene became restless; some special inspiration made him anticipate the crisis. From that time forward he seemed to feel out of his element at Plassans. He would wander about the streets like a distressed soul. At last he formed a sudden resolution, and left for Paris, with scarcely five hundred francs in his pocket.
Aristide, the youngest son, was, so to speak, diametrically opposed to Eugene. He had his mother’s face, and a covetousness and slyness of character prone to trivial intrigues, in which his father’s instincts predominated. Nature has need of symmetry. Short, with a pitiful countenance suggesting the knob of a stick carved into a Punch’s head, Aristide ferretted and fumbled everywhere, without any scruples, eager only to gratify himself. He loved money as his eldest brother loved power. While Eugene dreamed of bending a people to his will, and intoxicated himself with visions of future omnipotence, the other fancied himself ten times a millionaire, installed in a princely mansion, eating and drinking to his heart’s content, and enjoying life to the fullest possible extent. Above all things, he longed to make a rapid fortune. When he was building his castles in the air, they would rise in his mind as if by magic; he would become possessed of tons of gold in one night. These visions agreed with his indolence, as he never troubled himself about the means, considering those the best which were the most expeditious. In his case the race of the Rougons, of those coarse, greedy peasants with brutish appetites, had matured too rapidly; every desire for material indulgence was found in him, augmented threefold by hasty education, and rendered the more insatiable and dangerous by the deliberate way in which the young man had come to regard their realisation as his set purpose. In spite of her keen feminine intuition, Felicite preferred this son; she did not perceive the greater affinity between herself and Eugene; she excused the follies and indolence of her youngest son under the pretext that he would some day be the superior genius of the family, and that such a man was entitled to live a disorderly life until his intellectual strength should be revealed.
Aristide subjected her indulgence to a rude test. In Paris he led a low, idle life; he was one of those students who enter their names at the taverns of the Quartier Latin. He did not remain there, however, more than two years; his father, growing apprehensive, and seeing that he had not yet passed a single examination, kept him at Plassans and spoke of finding a wife for him, hoping that domestic responsibility would make him more steady. Aristide let himself be married. He had no very clear idea of his own ambitions at this time; provincial life did not displease him; he was battening in his little town — eating, sleeping, and sauntering about. Felicite pleaded his cause so earnestly that Pierre consented to board and lodge the newly-married couple, on condition that the young man should turn his attention to the business. From that time, however, Aristide led a life of ease and idleness. He spent his days and the best part of his nights at the club, again and again slipping out of his father’s office like a schoolboy to go and gamble away the few louis that his mother gave him clandestinely.
It is necessary to have lived in the depths of the French provinces to form an idea of the four brutifying years which the young fellow spent in this fashion. In every little town there is a group of individuals who thus live on their parents, pretending at times to work, but in reality cultivating idleness with a sort of religious zeal. Aristide was typical of these incorrigible drones. For four years he did little but play ecarte. While he passed his time at the club, his wife, a fair-complexioned nerveless woman, helped to ruin the Rougon business by her inordinate passion for showy gowns and her formidable appetite, a rather remarkable peculiarity in so frail a creature. Angele, however, adored sky-blue ribbons and roast beef. She was the daughter of a retired captain who was called Commander Sicardot, a good-hearted old gentleman, who had given her a dowry of ten thousand francs — all his savings. Pierre, in selecting Angele for his son had considered that he had made an unexpected bargain, so lightly did he esteem Aristide. However, that dowry of ten thousand francs, which determined his choice, ultimately became a millstone round his neck. His son, who was already a cunning rogue, deposited the ten thousand francs with his father, with whom he entered into partnership, declining, with the most sincere professions of devotion, to keep a single copper.
“We have no need of anything,” he said; “you will keep my wife and myself, and we will reckon up later on.”
Pierre was short of money at the time, and accepted, not, however, without some uneasiness at Aristide’s disinterestedness. The latter calculated that it would be years before his father would have ten thousand francs in ready money to repay him, so that he and his wife would live at the paternal expense so long as the partnership could not be dissolved. It was an admirable investment for his few bank-notes. When the oil-dealer understood what a foolish bargain he had made he was not in a position to rid himself of Aristide; Angele’s dowry was involved in speculations which were turning out unfavourably. He was exasperated, stung to the heart, at having to provide for his daughter-inlaw’s voracious appetite and keep his son in idleness. Had he been able to buy them out of the business he would twenty times have shut his doors on those bloodsuckers, as he emphatically expressed it. Felicite secretly defended them; the young man, who had divined her dreams of ambition, would every evening describe to her the elaborate plans by which he would shortly make a fortune. By a rare chance she had remained on excellent terms with her daughter-inlaw. It must be confessed that Angele had no will of her own — she could be moved and disposed of like a piece of furniture.
Meantime Pierre became enraged whenever his wife spoke to him of the success their youngest son would ultimately achieve; he declared that he would really bring them to ruin. During the four years that the young couple lived with him he stormed in this manner, wasting his impotent rage in quarrels, without in the least disturbing the equanimity of Aristide and Angele. They were located there, and there they intended to remain like blocks of wood. At last Pierre met with a stroke of luck which enabled him to return the ten thousand francs to his son. When, however, he wanted to reckon up accounts with him, Aristide interposed so much chicanery that he had to let the couple go without deducting a copper for their board and lodging. They installed themselves but a short distance off, in a part of the old quarter called the Place Saint–Louis. The ten thousand francs were soon consumed. They had everything to get for their new home. Moreover Aristide made no change in his mode of living as long as any money was left in the house. When he had reached the last hundred-franc note he felt rather nervous. He was seen prowling about the town in a suspicious manner. He no longer took his customary cup of coffee at the club; he watched feverishly whilst play was going on, without touching a card. Poverty made him more spiteful than he would otherwise have been. He bore the blow for a long time, obstinately refusing to do anything in the way of work.
In 1840 he had a son, little Maxime, whom his grandmother Felicite fortunately sent to college, paying his fees clandestinely. That made one mouth less at home; but poor Angele was dying of hunger, and her husband was at last compelled to seek a situation. He secured one at the Sub–Prefecture. He remained there nearly ten years, and only attained a salary of eighteen hundred francs per annum. From that time forward it was with ever increasing malevolence and rancour that he hungered for the enjoyments of which he was deprived. His lowly position exasperated him; the paltry hundred and fifty francs which he received every month seemed to him an irony of fate. Never did man burn with such desire for self-gratification. Felicite, to whom he imparted his sufferings, was by no means grieved to see him so eager. She thought his misery would stimulate his energies. At last, crouching in ambush as it were, with his ears wide open, he began to look about him like a thief seeking his opportunity. At the beginning of 1848, when his brother left for Paris, he had a momentary idea of following him. But Eugene was a bachelor; and he, Aristide, could not take his wife so far without money. So he waited, scenting a catastrophe, and ready to fall on the first prey that might come within his reach.
The other son, Pascal, born between Eugene and Aristide, did not appear to belong to the family. He was one of those frequent cases which give the lie to the laws of heredity. During the evolution of a race nature often produces some one being whose every element she derives from her own creative powers. Nothing in the moral or physical constitution of Pascal recalled the Rougons. Tall, with a grave and gentle face, he had an uprightness of mind, a love of study, a retiring modesty which contrasted strangely with the feverish ambitions and unscrupulous intrigues of his relatives. After acquitting himself admirably of his medical studies in Paris, he had retired, by preference, to Plassans, notwithstanding the offers he received from his professors. He loved a quiet provincial life; he maintained that for a studious man such a life was preferable to the excitement of Paris. Even at Plassans he did not exert himself to extend his practice. Very steady, and despising fortune, he contented himself with the few patients sent him by chance. All his pleasures were centred in a bright little house in the new town, where he shut himself up, lovingly devoting his whole time to the study of natural history. He was particularly fond of physiology. It was known in the town that he frequently purchased dead bodies from the hospital grave-digger, a circumstance which rendered him an object of horror to delicate ladies and certain timid gentlemen. Fortunately, they did not actually look upon him as a sorcerer; but his practice diminished, and he was regarded as an eccentric character, to whom people of good society ought not to entrust even a finger-tip, for fear of being compromised. The mayor’s wife was one day heard to say: “I would sooner die than be attended by that gentleman. He smells of death.”
From that time, Pascal was condemned. He seemed to rejoice at the mute terror which he inspired. The fewer patients he had, the more time he could devote to his favourite sciences. As his fees were very moderate, the poorer people remained faithful to him; he earned just enough to live, and lived contentedly, a thousand leagues away from the rest of the country, absorbed in the pure delight of his researches and discoveries. From time to time he sent a memoir to the Academie des Sciences at Paris. Plassans did not know that this eccentric character, this gentleman who smelt of death was well-known and highly-esteemed in the world of science. When people saw him starting on Sundays for an excursion among the Garrigues hills, with a botanist’s bag hung round his neck and a geologist’s hammer in his hand, they would shrug their shoulders and institute a comparison between him and some other doctor of the town who was noted for his smart cravat, his affability to the ladies, and the delicious odour of violets which his garments always diffused. Pascal’s parents did not understand him any better than other people. When Felicite saw him adopting such a strange, unpretentious mode of life she was stupefied, and reproached him for disappointing her hopes. She, who tolerated Aristide’s idleness because she thought it would prove fertile, could not view without regret the slow progress of Pascal, his partiality for obscurity and contempt for riches, his determined resolve to lead a life of retirement. He was certainly not the child who would ever gratify her vanities.
“But where do you spring from?” she would sometimes say to him. “You are not one of us. Look at your brothers, how they keep their eyes open, striving to profit by the education we have given them, whilst you waste your time on follies and trifles. You make a very poor return to us, who have ruined ourselves for your education. No, you are certainly not one of us.”
Pascal, who preferred to laugh whenever he was called upon to feel annoyed, replied cheerfully, but not without a sting of irony: “Oh, you need not be frightened, I shall never drive you to the verge of bankruptcy; when any of you are ill, I will attend you for nothing.”
Moreover, though he never displayed any repugnance to his relatives, he very rarely saw them, following in this wise his natural instincts. Before Aristide obtained a situation at the Sub–Prefecture, Pascal had frequently come to his assistance. For his part he had remained a bachelor. He had not the least suspicion of the grave events that were preparing. For two or three years he had been studying the great problem of heredity, comparing the human and animal races together, and becoming absorbed in the strange results which he obtained. Certain observations which he had made with respect to himself and his relatives had been, so to say, the starting-point of his studies. The common people, with their natural intuition, so well understood that he was quite different from the other Rougons, that they invariably called him Monsieur Pascal, without ever adding his family name.
Three years prior to the Revolution of 1848 Pierre and Felicite retired from business. Old age was coming on apace; they were both past fifty and were weary enough of the struggle. In face of their ill fortune, they were afraid of being ultimately ruined if they obstinately persisted in the fight. Their sons, by disappointing their expectations, had dealt them the final blow. Now that they despaired of ever being enriched by them, they were anxious to make some little provision for old age. They retired with forty thousand francs at the utmost. This sum provided an annual income of two thousand francs, just sufficient to live in a small way in the provinces. Fortunately, they were by themselves, having succeeded in marrying their daughters Marthe and Sidonie, the former of whom resided at Marseilles and the latter in Paris.
After they had settled their affairs they would much have liked to take up their abode in the new town, the quarter of the retired traders, but they dared not do so. Their income was too small; they were afraid that they would cut but a poor figure there. So, as a sort of compromise, they took apartments in the Rue de la Banne, the street which separates the old quarter from the new one. As their abode was one of the row of houses bordering the old quarter, they still lived among the common people; nevertheless, they could see the town of the richer classes from their windows, so that they were just on the threshold of the promised land.
Their apartments, situated on the second floor, consisted of three large rooms — dining-room, drawing-room, and bedroom. The first floor was occupied by the owner of the house, a stick and umbrella manufacturer, who had a shop on the ground floor. The house, which was narrow and by no means deep, had only two storeys. Felicite moved into it with a bitter pang. In the provinces, to live in another person’s house is an avowal of poverty. Every family of position at Plassans has a house of its own, landed property being very cheap there. Pierre kept the purse-strings well tied; he would not hear of any embellishments. The old furniture, faded, worn, damaged though it was, had to suffice, without even being repaired. Felicite, however, who keenly felt the necessity for this parsimony, exerted herself to give fresh polish to all the wreckage; she herself knocked nails into some of the furniture which was more dilapidated than the rest, and darned the frayed velvet of the arm-chairs.
The dining-room, which, like the kitchen, was at the back of the house, was nearly bare; a table and a dozen chairs were lost in the gloom of this large apartment, whose window faced the grey wall of a neighbouring building. As no strangers ever went into the bedroom, Felicite had stowed all her useless furniture there; thus, besides a bedstead, wardrobe, secretaire, and wash-stand, it contained two cradles, one perched atop of the other, a sideboard whose doors were missing, and an empty bookcase, venerable ruins which the old woman could not make up her mind to part with. All her cares, however, were bestowed upon the drawing-room, and she almost succeeded in making it comfortable and decent. The furniture was covered with yellowish velvet with satin flowers; in the middle stood a round table with a marble top, while a couple of pier tables, surmounted by mirrors, leant against the walls at either end of the room. There was even a carpet, which just covered the middle of the floor, and a chandelier in a white muslin cover which the flies had spotted with black specks. On the walls hung six lithographs representing the great battles of Napoleon I. Moreover, the furniture dated from the first years of the Empire. The only embellishment that Felicite could obtain was to have the walls hung with orange-hued paper covered with large flowers. Thus the drawing room had a strange yellow glow, which filled it with an artificial dazzling light. The furniture, the paper, and the window curtains were yellow; the carpet and even the marble table-tops showed touches of yellow. However, when the curtains were drawn the colours harmonised fairly well and the drawing-room looked almost decent.
But Felicite had dreamed of quite a different kind of luxury. She regarded with mute despair this ill-concealed misery. She usually occupied the drawing-room, the best apartment in the house, and the sweetest and bitterest of her pastimes was to sit at one of the windows which overlooked the Rue de la Banne and gave her a side view of the square in front of the Sub–Prefecture. That was the paradise of her dreams. That little, neat, tidy square, with its bright houses, seemed to her a Garden of Eden. She would have given ten years of her life to possess one of those habitations. The house at the left-hand corner, in which the receiver of taxes resided, particularly tempted her. She contemplated it with eager longing. Sometimes, when the windows of this abode were open, she could catch a glimpse of rich furniture and tasteful elegance which made her burn with envy.
At this period the Rougons passed through a curious crisis of vanity and unsatiated appetite. The few proper feelings which they had once entertained had become embittered. They posed as victims of evil fortune, not with resignation, however, for they seemed still more keenly determined that they would not die before they had satisfied their ambitions. In reality, they did not abandon any of their hopes, notwithstanding their advanced age. Felicite professed to feel a presentiment that she would die rich. However, each day of poverty weighed them down the more. When they recapitulated their vain attempts — when they recalled their thirty years’ struggle, and the defection of their children — when they saw their airy castles end in this yellow drawing-room, whose shabbiness they could only conceal by drawing the curtains, they were overcome with bitter rage. Then, as a consolation, they would think of plans for making a colossal fortune, seeking all sorts of devices. Felicite would fancy herself the winner of the grand prize of a hundred thousand francs in some lottery, while Pierre pictured himself carrying out some wonderful speculation. They lived with one sole thought — that of making a fortune immediately, in a few hours — of becoming rich and enjoying themselves, if only for a year. Their whole beings tended to this, stubbornly, without a pause. And they still cherished some faint hopes with regard to their sons, with that peculiar egotism of parents who cannot bear to think that they have sent their children to college without deriving some personal advantage from it.
Felicite did not appear to have aged; she was still the same dark little woman, ever on the move, buzzing about like a grasshopper. Any person walking behind her on the pavement would have thought her a girl of fifteen, from the lightness of her step and the angularity of her shoulders and waist. Even her face had scarcely undergone any change; it was simply rather more sunken, rather more suggestive of the snout of a pole-cat.
As for Pierre Rougon, he had grown corpulent, and had become a highly respectable looking citizen, who only lacked a decent income to make him a very dignified individual. His pale, flabby face, his heaviness, his languid manner, seemed redolent of wealth. He had one day heard a peasant who did not know him say: “Ah! he’s some rich fellow, that fat old gentleman there. He’s no cause to worry about his dinner!” This was a remark which stung him to the heart, for he considered it cruel mockery to be only a poor devil while possessing the bulk and contented gravity of a millionaire. When he shaved on Sundays in front of a small five-sou looking-glass hanging from the fastening of a window, he would often think that in a dress coat and white tie he would cut a far better figure at the Sub–Prefect’s than such or such a functionary of Plassans. This peasant’s son, who had grown sallow from business worries, and corpulent from a sedentary life, whose hateful passions were hidden beneath naturally placid features, really had that air of solemn imbecility which gives a man a position in an official salon. People imagined that his wife held a rod over him, but they were mistaken. He was as self-willed as a brute. Any determined expression of extraneous will would drive him into a violent rage. Felicite was far too supple to thwart him openly; with her light fluttering nature she did not attack obstacles in front. When she wished to obtain something from her husband, or drive him the way she thought best, she would buzz round him in her grasshopper fashion, stinging him on all sides, and returning to the charge a hundred times until he yielded almost unconsciously. He felt, moreover, that she was shrewder than he, and tolerated her advice fairly patiently. Felicite, more useful than the coach fly, would sometimes do all the work while she was thus buzzing round Pierre’s ears. Strange to say, the husband and wife never accused each other of their ill-success. The only bone of contention between them was the education lavished on their children.
The Revolution of 1848 found all the Rougons on the lookout, exasperated by their bad luck, and disposed to lay violent hands on fortune if ever they should meet her in a byway. They were a family of bandits lying in wait, ready to rifle and plunder. Eugene kept an eye on Paris; Aristide dreamed of strangling Plassans; the mother and father, perhaps the most eager of the lot, intended to work on their own account, and reap some additional advantage from their sons’ doings. Pascal alone, that discreet wooer of science, led the happy, indifferent life of a lover in his bright little house in the new town.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02