Antoine Macquart had returned to Plassans after the fall of the first Napoleon. He had had the incredible good fortune to escape all the final murderous campaigns of the Empire. He had moved from barracks to barracks, dragging on his brutifying military life. This mode of existence brought his natural vices to full development. His idleness became deliberate; his intemperance, which brought him countless punishments, became, to his mind, a veritable religious duty. But that which above all made him the worst of scapegraces was the supercilious disdain which he entertained for the poor devils who had to earn their bread.
“I’ve got money waiting for me at home,” he often said to his comrades; “when I’ve served my time, I shall be able to live like a gentleman.”
This belief, together with his stupid ignorance, prevented him from rising even to the grade of corporal.
Since his departure he had never spent a day’s furlough at Plassans, his brother having invented a thousand pretexts to keep him at a distance. He was therefore completely ignorant of the adroit manner in which Pierre had got possession of their mother’s fortune. Adelaide, with her profound indifference, did not even write to him three times to tell him how she was going on. The silence which generally greeted his numerous requests for money did not awaken the least suspicion in him; Pierre’s stinginess sufficed to explain the difficulty he experienced in securing from time to time a paltry twenty-franc piece. This, however, only increased his animosity towards his brother, who left him to languish in military service in spite of his formal promise to purchase his discharge. He vowed to himself that on his return home he would no longer submit like a child, but would flatly demand his share of the fortune to enable him to live as he pleased. In the diligence which conveyed him home he dreamed of a delightful life of idleness. The shattering of his castles in the air was terrible. When he reached the Faubourg, and could no longer even recognise the Fouques’ plot of ground, he was stupefied. He was compelled to ask for his mother’s new address. There a terrible scene occurred. Adelaide calmly informed him of the sale of the property. He flew into a rage, and even raised his hand against her.
The poor woman kept repeating: “Your brother has taken everything; it is understood that he will take care of you.”
At last he left her and ran off to see Pierre, whom he had previously informed of his return, and who was prepared to receive him in such a way as to put an end to the matter at the first word of abuse.
“Listen,” the oil-dealer said to him, affecting distant coldness; “don’t rouse my anger, or I’ll turn you out. As a matter of fact, I don’t know you. We don’t bear the same name. It’s quite misfortune enough for me that my mother misconducted herself, without having her offspring coming here and insulting me. I was well disposed towards you, but since you are insolent I shall do nothing for you, absolutely nothing.”
Antoine was almost choking with rage.
“And what about my money,” he cried; “will you give it up, you thief, or shall I have to drag you before the judges?”
Pierre shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ve got no money of yours,” he replied, more calmly than ever. “My mother disposed of her fortune as she thought proper. I am certainly not going to poke my nose into her business. I willingly renounced all hope of inheritance. I am quite safe from your foul accusations.”
And as his brother, exasperated by this composure, and not knowing what to think, muttered something, Pierre thrust Adelaide’s receipt under his nose. The reading of this scrap of paper completed Antoine’s dismay.
“Very well,” he said, in a calmer voice, “I know now what I have to do.”
The truth was, however, he did not know what to do. His inability to hit upon any immediate expedient for obtaining his share of the money and satisfying his desire of revenge increased his fury. He went back to his mother and subjected her to a disgraceful cross-examination. The wretched woman could do nothing but again refer him to Pierre.
“Do you think you are going to make me run to and fro like a shuttle?” he cried, insolently. “I’ll soon find out which of you two has the hoard. You’ve already squandered it, perhaps?”
And making an allusion to her former misconduct he asked her if there were still not some low fellow to whom she gave her last sous? He did not even spare his father, that drunkard Macquart, as he called him, who must have lived on her till the day of his death, and who left his children in poverty. The poor woman listened with a stupefied air; big tears rolled down her cheeks. She defended herself with the terror of a child, replying to her son’s questions as though he were a judge; she swore that she was living respectably, and reiterated with emphasis that she had never had a sou of the money, that Pierre had taken everything. Antoine almost came to believe it at last.
“Ah! the scoundrel!” he muttered; “that’s why he wouldn’t purchase my discharge.”
He had to sleep at his mother’s house, on a straw mattress flung in a corner. He had returned with his pockets perfectly empty, and was exasperated at finding himself destitute of resources, abandoned like a dog in the streets, without hearth or home, while his brother, as he thought, was in a good way of business, and living on the fat of the land. As he had no money to buy clothes with, he went out on the following day in his regimental cap and trousers. He had the good fortune to find, at the bottom of a cupboard, an old yellowish velveteen jacket, threadbare and patched, which had belonged to Macquart. In this strange attire he walked about the town, relating his story to everyone, and demanding justice.
The people whom he went to consult received him with a contempt which made him shed tears of rage. Provincial folks are inexorable towards fallen families. In the general opinion it was only natural that the Rougon–Macquarts should seek to devour each other; the spectators, instead of separating them, were more inclined to urge them on. Pierre, however, was at that time already beginning to purify himself of his early stains. People laughed at his roguery; some even went so far as to say that he had done quite right, if he really had taken possession of the money, and that it would be a good lesson to the dissolute folks of the town.
Antoine returned home discouraged. A lawyer had advised him, in a scornful manner, to wash his dirty linen at home, though not until he had skilfully ascertained whether Antoine possessed the requisite means to carry on a lawsuit. According to this man, the case was very involved, the pleadings would be very lengthy, and success was doubtful. Moreover, it would require money, and plenty of it.
Antoine treated his mother yet more harshly that evening. Not knowing on whom else to wreak his vengeance, he repeated his accusation of the previous day; he kept the wretched woman up till midnight, trembling with shame and fright. Adelaide having informed him that Pierre made her an allowance, he now felt certain that his brother had pocketed the fifty thousand francs. But, in his irritation, he still affected to doubt it, and did not cease to question the poor woman, again and again reproaching her with misconduct.
Antoine soon found out that, alone and without resources, he could not successfully carry on a contest with his brother. He then endeavoured to gain Adelaide to his cause; an accusation lodged by her might have serious consequences. But, at Antoine’s first suggestion of it, the poor, lazy, lethargic creature firmly refused to bring trouble on her eldest son.
“I am an unhappy woman,” she stammered; “it is quite right of you to get angry. But I should feel too much remorse if I caused one of my sons to be sent to prison. No; I’d rather let you beat me.”
He saw that he would get nothing but tears out of her, and contented himself with saying that she was justly punished, and that he had no pity for her. In the evening, upset by the continual quarrels which her son had sought with her, Adelaide had one of those nervous attacks which kept her as rigid as if she had been dead. The young man threw her on her bed, and then began to rummage the house to see if the wretched woman had any savings hidden away. He found about forty francs. He took possession of them, and, while his mother still lay there, rigid and scarce able to breathe, he quietly took the diligence to Marseilles.
He had just bethought himself that Mouret, the journeyman hatter who had married his sister Ursule, must be indignant at Pierre’s roguery, and would no doubt be willing to defend his wife’s interests. But he did not find in him the man he expected. Mouret plainly told him that he had become accustomed to look upon Ursule as an orphan, and would have no contentions with her family at any price. Their affairs were prospering. Antoine was received so coldly that he hastened to take the diligence home again. But, before leaving, he was anxious to revenge himself for the secret contempt which he read in the workman’s eyes; and, observing that his sister appeared rather pale and dejected, he said to her husband, in a slyly cruel way, as he took his departure: “Have a care, my sister was always sickly, and I find her much changed for the worse; you may lose her altogether.”
The tears which rushed to Mouret’s eyes convinced him that he had touched a sore wound. But then those work-people made too great a display of their happiness.
When he was back again in Plassans, Antoine became the more menacing from the conviction that his hands were tied. During a whole month he was seen all over the place. He paraded the streets, recounting his story to all who would listen to him. Whenever he succeeded in extorting a franc from his mother, he would drink it away at some tavern, where he would revile his brother, declaring that the rascal should shortly hear from him. In places like these, the good-natured fraternity which reigns among drunkards procured him a sympathetic audience; all the scum of the town espoused his cause, and poured forth bitter imprecations against that rascal Rougon, who left a brave soldier to starve; the discussion generally terminating with an indiscriminate condemnation of the rich. Antoine, the better to revenge himself, continued to march about in his regimental cap and trousers and his old yellow velvet jacket, although his mother had offered to purchase some more becoming clothes for him. But no; he preferred to make a display of his rags, and paraded them on Sundays in the most frequented parts of the Cours Sauvaire.
One of his most exquisite pleasures was to pass Pierre’s shop ten times a day. He would enlarge the holes in his jacket with his fingers, slacken his step, and sometimes stand talking in front of the door, so as to remain longer in the street. On these occasions, too, he would bring one of his drunken friends and gossip to him; telling him about the theft of the fifty thousand francs, accompanying his narrative with loud insults and menaces, which could be heard by everyone in the street, and taking particular care that his abuse should reach the furthest end of the shop.
“He’ll finish by coming to beg in front of our house,” Felicite used to say in despair.
The vain little woman suffered terribly from this scandal. She even at this time felt some regret at ever having married Rougon; his family connections were so objectionable. She would have given all she had in the world to prevent Antoine from parading his rags. But Pierre, who was maddened by his brother’s conduct, would not allow his name to be mentioned. When his wife tried to convince him that it would perhaps be better to free himself from all annoyance by giving Antoine a little money: “No, nothing; not a sou,” he cried with rage. “Let him starve!”
He confessed, however, at last that Antoine’s demeanour was becoming intolerable. One day, Felicite, desiring to put an end to it, called to “that man,” as she styled him with a disdainful curl on her lip. “That man” was in the act of calling her a foul name in the middle of the street, where he stood with one of his friends, even more ragged than himself. They were both drunk.
“Come, they want us in there,” said Antoine to his companion in a jeering tone.
But Felicite drew back, muttering: “It’s you alone we wish to speak to.”
“Bah!” the young man replied, “my friend’s a decent fellow. You needn’t mind him hearing. He’ll be my witness.”
The witness sank heavily on a chair. He did not take off his hat, but began to stare around him, with the maudlin, stupid grin of drunkards and coarse people who know that they are insolent. Felicite was so ashamed that she stood in front of the shop door in order that people outside might not see what strange company she was receiving. Fortunately her husband came to the rescue. A violent quarrel ensued between him and his brother. The latter, after stammering insults, reiterated his old grievances twenty times over. At last he even began to cry, and his companion was near following his example. Pierre had defended himself in a very dignified manner.
“Look here,” he said at last, “you’re unfortunate, and I pity you. Although you have cruelly insulted me, I can’t forget that we are children of the same mother. If I give you anything, however, you must understand I give it you out of kindness, and not from fear. Would you like a hundred francs to help you out of your difficulties?”
This abrupt offer of a hundred francs dazzled Antoine’s companion. He looked at the other with an air of delight, which clearly signified: “As the gentleman offers a hundred francs, it is time to leave off abusing him.” But Antoine was determined to speculate on his brother’s favourable disposition. He asked him whether he took him for a fool; it was his share, ten thousand francs, that he wanted.
“You’re wrong, you’re wrong,” stuttered his friend.
At last, as Pierre, losing all patience, was threatening to turn them both out, Antoine lowered his demands and contented himself with claiming one thousand francs. They quarrelled for another quarter of an hour over this amount. Finally, Felicite interfered. A crowd was gathering round the shop.
“Listen,” she said, excitedly; “my husband will give you two hundred francs. I’ll undertake to buy you a suit of clothes, and hire a room for a year for you.”
Rougon got angry at this. But Antoine’s comrade cried, with transports of delight: “All right, it’s settled, then; my friend accepts.”
Antoine did, in fact, declare, in a surly way, that he would accept. He felt he would not be able to get any more. It was arranged that the money and clothes should be sent to him on the following day, and that a few days later, as soon as Felicite should have found a room for him, he would take up his quarters there. As they were leaving, the young man’s sottish companion became as respectful as he had previously been insolent. He bowed to the company more than a dozen times, in an awkward and humble manner, muttering many indistinct thanks, as if the Rougons’ gifts had been intended for himself.
A week later Antoine occupied a large room in the old quarter, in which Felicite, exceeding her promises, had placed a bed, a table, and some chairs, on the young man formally undertaking not to molest them in future. Adelaide felt no regret at her son leaving her; the short stay he had made with her had condemned her to bread and water for more than three months. However, Antoine had soon eaten and drunk the two hundred francs he received from Pierre. He never for a moment thought of investing them in some little business which would have helped him to live. When he was again penniless, having no trade, and being, moreover, unwilling to work, he again sought to slip a hand into the Rougons’ purse. Circumstances were not the same as before, however, and he failed to intimidate them. Pierre even took advantage of this opportunity to turn him out, and forbade him ever to set foot in his house again. It was of no avail for Antoine to repeat his former accusations. The townspeople, who were acquainted with his brother’s munificence from the publicity which Felicite had given to it, declared him to be in the wrong, and called him a lazy, idle fellow. Meantime his hunger was pressing. He threatened to turn smuggler like his father, and perpetrate some crime which would dishonour his family. At this the Rougons shrugged their shoulders; they knew he was too much of a coward to risk his neck. At last, blindly enraged against his relatives in particular and society in general, Antoine made up his mind to seek some work.
In a tavern of the Faubourg he made the acquaintance of a basket-maker who worked at home. He offered to help him. In a short time he learnt to plait baskets and hampers — a coarse and poorly-paid kind of labour which finds a ready market. He was very soon able to work on his own account. This trade pleased him, as it was not over laborious. He could still indulge his idleness, and that was what he chiefly cared for. He would only take to his work when he could no longer do otherwise; then he would hurriedly plait a dozen baskets and go and sell them in the market. As long as the money lasted he lounged about, visiting all the taverns and digesting his drink in the sunshine. Then, when he had fasted a whole day, he would once more take up his osier with a low growl and revile the wealthy who lived in idleness. The trade of a basket-maker, when followed in such a manner, is a thankless one. Antoine’s work would not have sufficed to pay for his drinking bouts if he had not contrived a means of procuring his osier at low cost. He never bought any at Plassans, but used to say that he went each month to purchase a stock at a neighbouring town, where he pretended it was sold cheaper. The truth, however, was that he supplied himself from the osier-grounds of the Viorne on dark nights. A rural policeman even caught him once in the very act, and Antoine underwent a few days’ imprisonment in consequence. It was from that time forward that he posed in the town as a fierce Republican. He declared that he had been quietly smoking his pipe by the riverside when the rural policeman arrested him. And he added: “They would like to get me out of the way because they know what my opinions are. But I’m not afraid of them, those rich scoundrels.”
At last, at the end of ten years of idleness, Antoine considered that he had been working too hard. His constant dream was to devise some expedient by which he might live at his ease without having to do anything. His idleness would never have rested content with bread and water; he was not like certain lazy persons who are willing to put up with hunger provided they can keep their hands in their pockets. He liked good feeding and nothing to do. He talked at one time of taking a situation as servant in some nobleman’s house in the Saint–Marc quarter. But one of his friends, a groom, frightened him by describing the exacting ways of his masters. Finally Macquart, sick of his baskets, and seeing the time approach when he would be compelled to purchase the requisite osier, was on the point of selling himself as an army substitute and resuming his military life, which he preferred a thousand times to that of an artisan, when he made the acquaintance of a woman, an acquaintance which modified his plans.
Josephine Gavaudan, who was known throughout the town by the familiar diminutive of Fine, was a tall, strapping wench of about thirty. With a square face of masculine proportions, and a few terribly long hairs about her chin and lips, she was cited as a doughty woman, one who could make the weight of her fist felt. Her broad shoulders and huge arms consequently inspired the town urchins with marvellous respect; and they did not even dare to smile at her moustache. Notwithstanding all this, Fine had a faint voice, weak and clear like that of a child. Those who were acquainted with her asserted that she was as gentle as a lamb, in spite of her formidable appearance. As she was very hard-working, she might have put some money aside if she had not had a partiality for liqueurs. She adored aniseed, and very often had to be carried home on Sunday evenings.
On week days she would toil with the stubbornness of an animal. She had three or four different occupations; she sold fruit or boiled chestnuts in the market, according to the season; went out charring for a few well-to-do people; washed up plates and dishes at houses when parties were given, and employed her spare time in mending old chairs. She was more particularly known in the town as a chair-mender. In the South large numbers of straw-bottomed chairs are used.
Antoine Macquart formed an acquaintance with Fine at the market. When he went to sell his baskets in the winter he would stand beside the stove on which she cooled her chestnuts and warm himself. He was astonished at her courage, he who was frightened of the least work. By degrees he discerned, beneath the apparent roughness of this strapping creature, signs of timidity and kindliness. He frequently saw her give handfuls of chestnuts to the ragged urchins who stood in ecstasy round her smoking pot. At other times, when the market inspector hustled her, she very nearly began to cry, apparently forgetting all about her heavy fists. Antoine at last decided that she was exactly the woman he wanted. She would work for both and he would lay down the law at home. She would be his beast of burden, an obedient, indefatigable animal. As for her partiality for liqueurs, he regarded this as quite natural. After well weighing the advantages of such an union, he declared himself to Fine, who was delighted with his proposal. No man had ever yet ventured to propose to her. Though she was told that Antoine was the most worthless of vagabonds, she lacked the courage to refuse matrimony. The very evening of the nuptials the young man took up his abode in his wife’s lodgings in the Rue Civadiere, near the market. These lodgings, consisting of three rooms, were much more comfortably furnished than his own, and he gave a sigh of satisfaction as he stretched himself out on the two excellent mattresses which covered the bedstead.
Everything went on very well for the first few days. Fine attended to her various occupations as in the past; Antoine, seized with a sort of marital self-pride which astonished even himself, plaited in one week more baskets than he had ever before done in a month. On the first Sunday, however, war broke out. The couple had a goodly sum of money in the house, and they spent it freely. During the night, when they were both drunk, they beat each other outrageously, without being able to remember on the morrow how it was that the quarrel had commenced. They had remained on most affectionate terms until about ten o’clock, when Antoine had begun to beat Fine brutally, whereupon the latter, growing exasperated and forgetting her meekness, had given him back as much as she received. She went to work again bravely on the following day, as though nothing had happened. But her husband, with sullen rancour, rose late and passed the remainder of the day smoking his pipe in the sunshine.
From that time forward the Macquarts adopted the kind of life which they were destined to lead in the future. It became, as it were, tacitly understood between them that the wife should toil and moil to keep her husband. Fine, who had an instinctive liking for work, did not object to this. She was as patient as a saint, provided she had had no drink, thought it quite natural that her husband should remain idle, and even strove to spare him the most trifling labour. Her little weakness, aniseed, did not make her vicious, but just. On the evenings when she had forgotten herself in the company of a bottle of her favourite liqueur, if Antoine tried to pick a quarrel with her, she would set upon him with might and main, reproaching him with his idleness and ingratitude. The neighbours grew accustomed to the disturbances which periodically broke out in the couple’s room. The two battered each other conscientiously; the wife slapped like a mother chastising a naughty child; but the husband, treacherous and spiteful as he was, measured his blows, and, on several occasions, very nearly crippled the unfortunate woman.
“You’ll be in a fine plight when you’ve broken one of my arms or legs,” she would say to him. “Who’ll keep you then, you lazy fellow?”
Excepting for these turbulent scenes, Antoine began to find his new mode of existence quite endurable. He was well clothed, and ate and drank his fill. He had laid aside the basket work altogether; sometimes, when he was feeling over-bored, he would resolve to plait a dozen baskets for the next market day; but very often he did not even finish the first one. He kept, under a couch, a bundle of osier which he did not use up in twenty years.
The Macquarts had three children, two girls and a boy. Lisa,[*] born the first, in 1827, one year after the marriage, remained but little at home. She was a fine, big, healthy, full-blooded child, greatly resembling her mother. She did not, however, inherit the latter’s animal devotion and endurance. Macquart had implanted in her a most decided longing for ease and comfort. While she was a child she would consent to work for a whole day in return for a cake. When she was scarcely seven years old, the wife of the postmaster, who was a neighbour of the Macquarts, took a liking to her. She made a little maid of her. And when she lost her husband in 1839, and went to live in Paris, she took Lisa with her. The parents had almost given her their daughter.
[*] The pork-butcher’s wife in Le Ventre de Paris (The
Fat and the Thin).
The second girl, Gervaise,[*] born the following year, was a cripple from birth. Her right thigh was smaller than the left and showed signs of curvature, a curious hereditary result of the brutality which her mother had to endure during her fierce drunken brawls with Macquart. Gervaise remained puny, and Fine, observing her pallor and weakness, put her on a course of aniseed, under the pretext that she required something to strengthen her. But the poor child became still more emaciated. She was a tall, lank girl, whose frocks, invariably too large, hung round her as if they had nothing under them. Above a deformed and puny body she had a sweet little doll-like head, a tiny round face, pale and exquisitely delicate. Her infirmity almost became graceful. Her body swayed gently at every step with a sort of rhythmical swing.
[*] The chief female character in L’Assommoir (The Dramshop).
The Macquarts’ son, Jean,[*] was born three years later. He was a robust child, in no respect recalling Gervaise. Like the eldest girl, he took after his mother, without having any physical resemblance to her. He was the first to import into the Rougon–Macquart stock a fat face with regular features, which showed all the coldness of a grave yet not over-intelligent nature. This boy grew up with the determination of some day making an independent position for himself. He attended school diligently, and tortured his dull brain to force a little arithmetic and spelling into it. After that he became an apprentice, repeating much the same efforts with a perseverance that was the more meritorious as it took him a whole day to learn what others acquired in an hour.
[*] Figures prominently in La Terre (The Earth) and La
Debacle (The Downfall).
As long as these poor little things remained a burden to the house, Antoine grumbled. They were useless mouths that lessened his own share. He vowed, like his brother, that he would have no more children, those greedy creatures who bring their parents to penury. It was something to hear him bemoan his lot when they sat five at table, and the mother gave the best morsels to Jean, Lisa, and Gervaise.
“That’s right,” he would growl; “stuff them, make them burst!”
Whenever Fine bought a garment or a pair of boots for them, he would sulk for days together. Ah! if he had only known, he would never had had that pack of brats, who compelled him to limit his smoking to four sous’ worth of tobacco a day, and too frequently obliged him to eat stewed potatoes for dinner, a dish which he heartily detested.
Later on, however, as soon as Jean and Gervaise earned their first francs, he found some good in children after all. Lisa was no longer there. He lived upon the earnings of the two others without compunction, as he had already lived upon their mother. It was a well-planned speculation on his part. As soon as little Gervaise was eight years old, she went to a neighbouring dealer’s to crack almonds; she there earned ten sous a day, which her father pocketed right royally, without even a question from Fine as to what became of the money. The young girl was next apprenticed to a laundress, and as soon as she received two francs a day for her work, the two francs strayed in a similar manner into Macquart’s hands. Jean, who had learnt the trade of a carpenter, was likewise despoiled on pay-days, whenever Macquart succeeded in catching him before he had handed the money to his mother. If the money escaped Macquart, which sometimes happened, he became frightfully surly. He would glare at his wife and children for a whole week, picking a quarrel for nothing, although he was, as yet, ashamed to confess the real cause of his irritations. On the next pay-day, however, he would station himself on the watch, and as soon as he had succeeded in pilfering the youngster’s earnings, he disappeared for days together.
Gervaise, beaten and brought up in the streets among all the lads of the neighbourhood, became a mother when she was fourteen years of age. The father of her child was not eighteen years old. He was a journeyman tanner named Lantier. At first Macquart was furious, but he calmed down somewhat when he learnt that Lantier’s mother, a worthy woman, was willing to take charge of the child. He kept Gervaise, however; she was then already earning twenty-five sous a day, and he therefore avoided all question of marriage. Four years later she had a second child, which was likewise taken in by Lantier’s mother. This time Macquart shut his eyes altogether. And when Fine timidly suggested that it was time to come to some understanding with the tanner, in order to end a state of things which made people chatter, he flatly declared that his daughter should not leave him, and that he would give her to her lover later on, “when he was worthy of her, and had enough money to furnish a home.”
This was a fine time for Antoine Macquart. He dressed like a gentleman, in frock-coats and trousers of the finest cloth. Cleanly shaved, and almost fat, he was no longer the emaciated ragged vagabond who had been wont to frequent the taverns. He dropped into cafes, read the papers, and strolled on the Cours Sauvaire. He played the gentleman as long as he had any money in his pocket. At times of impecuniosity he remained at home, exasperated at being kept in his hovel and prevented from taking his customary cup of coffee. On such occasions he would reproach the whole human race with his poverty, making himself ill with rage and envy, until Fine, out of pity, would often give him the last silver coin in the house so that he might spend his evening at the cafe. This dear fellow was fiercely selfish. Gervaise, who brought home as much as sixty francs a month, wore only thin cotton frocks, while he had black satin waistcoats made for him by one of the best tailors in Plassans.
Jean, the big lad who earned three or four francs a day, was perhaps robbed even more impudently. The cafe where his father passed entire days was just opposite his master’s workshop, and while he had plane or saw in hand he could see “Monsieur” Macquart on the other side of the way, sweetening his coffee or playing piquet with some petty annuitant. It was his money that the lazy old fellow was gambling away. He, Jean, never stepped inside a cafe, he never had so much as five sous to pay for a drink. Antoine treated him like a little girl, never leaving him a centime, and always demanding an exact account of the manner in which he had employed his time. If the unfortunate lad, led away by some of his mates, wasted a day somewhere in the country, on the banks of the Viorne, or on the slopes of Garrigues, his father would storm and raise his hand, and long bear him a grudge on account of the four francs less that he received at the end of the fortnight. He thus held his son in a state of dependence, sometimes even looking upon the sweethearts whom the young carpenter courted as his own. Several of Gervaise’s friends used to come to the Macquarts’ house, work-girls from sixteen to eighteen years of age, bold and boisterous girls who, on certain evenings, filled the room with youth and gaiety. Poor Jean, deprived of all pleasure, ever kept at home by the lack of money, looked at these girls with longing eyes; but the childish life which he was compelled to lead had implanted invincible shyness in him; in playing with his sister’s friends, he was hardly bold enough to touch them with the tips of his fingers. Macquart used to shrug his shoulders with pity.
“What a simpleton!” he would mutter, with an air of ironical superiority.
And it was he who would kiss the girls, when his wife’s back was turned. He carried his attentions even further with a little laundress whom Jean pursued rather more earnestly than the others. One fine evening he stole her almost from his arms. The old rogue prided himself on his gallantry.
There are some men who live upon their mistresses. Antoine Macquart lived on his wife and children with as much shamelessness and impudence. He did not feel the least compunction in pillaging the home and going out to enjoy himself when the house was bare. He still assumed a supercilious air, returning from the cafe only to rail against the poverty and wretchedness that awaited him at home. He found the dinner detestable, he called Gervaise a blockhead, and declared that Jean would never be a man. Immersed in his own selfish indulgence, he rubbed his hands whenever he had eaten the best piece in the dish; and then he smoked his pipe, puffing slowly, while the two poor children, overcome with fatigue, went to sleep with their heads resting on the table. Thus Macquart passed his days in lazy enjoyment. It seemed to him quite natural that he should be kept in idleness like a girl, to sprawl about on the benches of some tavern, or stroll in the cool of the day along the Cours or the Mail. At last he went so far as to relate his amorous escapades in the presence of his son, who listened with glistening eyes. The children never protested, accustomed as they were to see their mother humble herself before her husband.
Fine, that strapping woman who drubbed him soundly when they were both intoxicated, always trembled before him when she was sober, and allowed him to rule despotically at home. He robbed her in the night of the coppers which she had earned during the day at the market, but she never dared to protest, except by veiled rebukes. Sometimes, when he had squandered the week’s money in advance, he accused her, poor thing, who worked herself to death, of being stupid and not knowing how to manage. Fine, as gentle as a lamb, replied, in her soft, clear voice, which contrasted so strangely with her big figure, that she was no longer twenty years old, and that money was becoming hard to earn. In order to console herself, she would buy a pint of aniseed, and drink little glassfuls of it with her daughter of an evening, after Antoine had gone back to the cafe. That was their dissipation. Jean went to bed, while the two women remained at the table, listening attentively in order to remove the bottle and glasses at the first sound.
When Macquart was late, they often became intoxicated by the many “nips” they thus thoughtlessly imbibed. Stupefied and gazing at each other with vague smiles, this mother and daughter would end by stuttering. Red patches appeared on Gervaise’s cheeks; her delicate doll-like face assumed a look of maudlin beatitude. Nothing could be more heart-rending than to see this wretched, pale child, aglow with drink and wearing the idiotic smile of a confirmed sot about her moist lips. Fine, huddled up on her chair, became heavy and drowsy. They sometimes forgot to keep watch, or even lacked the strength to remove the bottle and glasses when Antoine’s footsteps were heard on the stairs. On these occasions blows were freely exchanged among the Macquarts. Jean had to get up to separate his father and mother and make his sister go to bed, as otherwise she would have slept on the floor.
Every political party numbers its grotesques and its villains. Antoine Macquart, devoured by envy and hatred, and meditating revenge against society in general, welcomed the Republic as a happy era when he would be allowed to fill his pockets from his neighbour’s cash-box, and even strangle the neighbour if the latter manifested any displeasure. His cafe life and all the newspaper articles he had read without understanding them had made him a terrible ranter who enunciated the strangest of political theories. It is necessary to have heard one of those malcontents who ill digest what they read, haranguing the company in some provincial taproom, in order to conceive the degree of hateful folly at which Macquart had arrived. As he talked a good deal, had seen active service, and was naturally regarded as a man of energy and spirit, he was much sought after and listened to by simpletons. Although he was not the chief of any party, he had succeeded in collecting round him a small group of working-men who took his jealous ravings for expressions of honest and conscientious indignation.
Directly after the Revolution of February ‘48, he persuaded himself that Plassans was his own, and, as he strolled along the streets, the jeering manner in which he regarded the little retail traders who stood terrified at their shop doors clearly signified: “Our day has come, my little lambs; we are going to lead you a fine dance!” He had grown insolent beyond belief; he acted the part of a victorious despot to such a degree that he ceased to pay for his drinks at the cafe, and the landlord, a simpleton who trembled whenever Antoine rolled his eyes, dared not present his bill. The number of cups of coffee he consumed during this period was incalculable; sometimes he invited his friends, and shouted for hours together that the people were dying of hunger, and that the rich ought to share their wealth with them. He himself would never have given a sou to a beggar.
That which chiefly converted him into a fierce Republican was the hope of at last being able to revenge himself on the Rougons, who had openly ranged themselves on the side of the reactionary party. Ah, what a triumph if he could only hold Pierre and Felicite at his mercy! Although the latter had not succeeded over well in business, they had at last become gentlefolks, while he, Macquart, had still remained a working-man. That exasperated him. Perhaps he was still more mortified because one of their sons was a barrister, another a doctor, and the third a clerk, while his son Jean merely worked at a carpenter’s shop, and his daughter Gervaise at a washerwoman’s. When he compared the Macquarts with the Rougons, he was still more ashamed to see his wife selling chestnuts in the market, and mending the greasy old straw-seated chairs of the neighbourhood in the evening. Pierre, after all, was but his brother, and had no more right than himself to live fatly on his income. Moreover, this brother was actually playing the gentleman with money stolen from him. Whenever Macquart touched upon this subject, he became fiercely enraged; he clamoured for hours together, incessantly repeating his old accusations, and never wearying of exclaiming: “If my brother was where he ought to be, I should be the moneyed man at the present time!”
And when anyone asked him where his brother ought to be, he would reply, “At the galleys!” in a formidable voice.
His hatred further increased when the Rougons had gathered the Conservatives round them, and thus acquired a certain influence in Plassans. The famous yellow drawing-room became, in his hare-brained chatter at the cafe, a cave of bandits, an assembly of villains who every evening swore on their daggers that they would murder the people. In order to incite the starvelings against Pierre, Macquart went so far as to circulate a report that the retired oil-dealer was not so poor as he pretended, but that he concealed his treasures through avarice and fear of robbery. His tactics thus tended to rouse the poor people by a repetition of absurdly ridiculous tales, which he often came to believe in himself. His personal animosity and his desire for revenge were ill concealed beneath his professions of patriotism; but he was heard so frequently, and he had such a loud voice, that no one would have dared to doubt the genuineness of his convictions.
At bottom, all the members of this family had the same brutish passions. Felicite, who clearly understood that Macquart’s wild theories were simply the fruit of restrained rage and embittered envy, would much have liked to purchase his silence. Unfortunately, she was short of money, and did not dare to interest him in the dangerous game which her husband was playing. Antoine now injured them very much among the well-to-do people of the new town. It sufficed that he was a relation of theirs. Granoux and Roudier often scornfully reproached them for having such a man in their family. Felicite consequently asked herself with anguish how they could manage to cleanse themselves of such a stain.
It seemed to her monstrous and indecent that Monsieur Rougon should have a brother whose wife sold chestnuts, and who himself lived in crapulous idleness. She at last even trembled for the success of their secret intrigues, so long as Antoine seemingly took pleasure in compromising them. When the diatribes which he levelled at the yellow drawing-room were reported to her, she shuddered at the thought that he was capable of becoming desperate and ruining all their hopes by force of scandal.
Antoine knew what consternation his demeanour must cause the Rougons, and it was solely for the purpose of exhausting their patience that he from day to day affected fiercer opinions. At the cafe he frequented he used to speak of “my brother Pierre” in a voice which made everybody turn round; and if he happened to meet some reactionary from the yellow drawing-room in the street, he would mutter some low abuse which the worthy citizen, amazed at such audacity, would repeat to the Rougons in the evening, as though to make them responsible for his disagreeable encounter.
One day Granoux arrived in a state of fury.
“Really,” he exclaimed, when scarcely across the threshold, “it’s intolerable; one can’t move a step without being insulted.” Then, addressing Pierre, he added: “When one has a brother like yours, sir, one should rid society of him. I was just quietly walking past the Sub–Prefecture, when that rascal passed me muttering something in which I could clearly distinguish the words ‘old rogue.’”
Felicite turned pale, and felt it necessary to apologise to Granoux, but he refused to accept any excuses, and threatened to leave altogether. The marquis, however, exerted himself to arrange matters.
“It is very strange,” he said, “that the wretched fellow should have called you an old rogue. Are you sure that he intended the insult for you?”
Granoux was perplexed; he admitted at last, however, that Antoine might have muttered: “So you are again going to that old rogue’s?”
At this Monsieur de Carnavant stroked his chin to conceal the smile which rose to his lips in spite of himself.
Then Rougon, with superb composure, replied: “I thought as much; the ‘old rogue’ was no doubt intended for me. I’ve very glad that this misunderstanding is now cleared up. Gentlemen, pray avoid the man in question, whom I formally repudiate.”
Felicite, however, did not take matters so coolly; every fresh scandal caused by Macquart made her more and more uneasy; she would sometimes pass the whole night wondering what those gentlemen must think of the matter.
A few months before the Coup d’Etat, the Rougons received an anonymous letter, three pages of foul insults, in which they were warned that if their party should ever triumph, the scandalous story of Adelaide’s amours would be published in some newspaper, together with an account of the robbery perpetrated by Pierre, when he had compelled his mother, driven out of her senses by debauchery, to sign a receipt for fifty thousand francs. This letter was a heavy blow for Rougon himself. Felicite could not refrain from reproaching her husband with his disreputable family; for the husband and wife never for a moment doubted that this letter was Antoine’s work.
“We shall have to get rid of the blackguard at any price,” said Pierre in a gloomy tone. “He’s becoming too troublesome by far.”
In the meantime, Macquart, resorting to his former tactics, looked round among his own relatives for accomplices who would join him against the Rougons. He had counted upon Aristide at first, on reading his terrible articles in the “Independant.” But the young man, in spite of all his jealous rage, was not so foolish as to make common cause with such a fellow as his uncle. He never even minced matters with him, but invariably kept him at a distance, a circumstance which induced Antoine to regard him suspiciously. In the taverns, where Macquart reigned supreme, people went so far as to say the journalist was paid to provoke disturbances.
Baffled on this side, Macquart had no alternative but to sound his sister Ursule’s children. Ursule had died in 1839, thus fulfilling her brother’s evil prophecy. The nervous affection which she had inherited from her mother had turned into slow consumption, which gradually killed her. She left three children; a daughter, eighteen years of age, named Helene, who married a clerk, and two boys, the elder, Francois, a young man of twenty-three, and the younger, a sickly little fellow scarcely six years old, named Silvere. The death of his wife, whom he adored, proved a thunderbolt to Mouret. He dragged on his existence for another year, neglecting his business and losing all the money he had saved. Then, one morning, he was found hanging in a cupboard where Ursule’s dresses were still suspended. His elder son, who had received a good commercial training, took a situation in the house of his uncle Rougon, where he replaced Aristide, who had just left.
Rougon, in spite of his profound hatred for the Macquarts, gladly welcomed this nephew, whom he knew to be industrious and sober. He was in want of a youth whom he could trust, and who would help him to retrieve his affairs. Moreover, during the time of Mouret’s prosperity, he had learnt to esteem the young couple, who knew how to make money, and thus he had soon become reconciled with his sister. Perhaps he thought he was making Francois some compensation by taking him into his business; having robbed the mother, he would shield himself from remorse by giving employment to the son; even rogues make honest calculations sometimes. It was, however, a good thing for him. If the house of Rougon did not make a fortune at this time, it was certainly through no fault of that quiet, punctilious youth, Francois, who seemed born to pass his life behind a grocer’s counter, between a jar of oil and a bundle of dried cod-fish. Although he physically resembled his mother, he inherited from his father a just if narrow mind, with an instinctive liking for a methodical life and the safe speculations of a small business.
Three months after his arrival, Pierre, pursuing his system of compensation, married him to his young daughter Marthe,[*] whom he did not know how to dispose of. The two young people fell in love with each other quite suddenly, in a few days. A peculiar circumstance had doubtless determined and enhanced their mutual affection. There was a remarkably close resemblance between them, suggesting that of brother and sister. Francois inherited, through Ursule, the face of his grandmother Adelaide. Marthe’s case was still more curious; she was an equally exact portrait of Adelaide, although Pierre Rougon had none of his mother’s features distinctly marked; the physical resemblance had, as it were, passed over Pierre, to reappear in his daughter. The similarity between husband and wife went, however, no further than their faces; if the worthy son of a steady matter-of-fact hatter was distinguishable in Francois, Marthe showed the nervousness and mental weakness of her grandmother. Perhaps it was this combination of physical resemblance and moral dissimilarity which threw the young people into each other’s arms. From 1840 to 1844 they had three children. Francois remained in his uncle’s employ until the latter retired. Pierre had desired to sell him the business, but the young man knew what small chance there was of making a fortune in trade at Plassans; so he declined the offer and repaired to Marseilles, where he established himself with his little savings.
[*] Both Francois and Marthe figure largely in The Conquest
Macquart soon had to abandon all hope of dragging this big industrious fellow into his campaign against the Rougons; whereupon, with all the spite of a lazybones, he regarded him as a cunning miser. He fancied, however, that he had discovered the accomplice he was seeking in Mouret’s second son, a lad of fifteen years of age. Young Silvere had never even been to school at the time when Mouret was found hanging among his wife’s skirts. His elder brother, not knowing what to do with him, took him also to his uncle’s. The latter made a wry face on beholding the child; he had no intention of carrying his compensation so far as to feed a useless mouth. Thus Silvere, to whom Felicite also took a dislike, was growing up in tears, like an unfortunate little outcast, when his grandmother Adelaide, during one of the rare visits she paid the Rougons, took pity on him, and expressed a wish to have him with her. Pierre was delighted; he let the child go, without even suggesting an increase of the paltry allowance that he made Adelaide, and which henceforward would have to suffice for two.
Adelaide was then nearly seventy-five years of age. Grown old while leading a cloistered existence, she was no longer the lanky ardent girl who formerly ran to embrace the smuggler Macquart. She had stiffened and hardened in her hovel in the Impasse Saint–Mittre, that dismal silent hole where she lived entirely alone on potatoes and dry vegetables, and which she did not leave once in the course of a month. On seeing her pass, you might have thought her to be one of those delicately white old nuns with automatic gait, whom the cloister has kept apart from all the concerns of this world. Her pale face, always scrupulously girt with a white cap, looked like that of a dying woman; a vague, calm countenance it was, wearing an air of supreme indifference. Prolonged taciturnity had made her dumb; the darkness of her dwelling and the continual sight of the same objects had dulled her glance and given her eyes the limpidity of spring water. Absolute renunciation, slow physical and moral death, had little by little converted this crazy amorosa into a grave matron. When, as often happened, a blank stare came into her eyes, and she gazed before her without seeing anything, one could detect utter, internal void through those deep bright cavities.
Nothing now remained of her former voluptuous ardour but weariness of the flesh and a senile tremor of the hands. She had once loved like a she-wolf, but was now wasted, already sufficiently worn out for the grave. There had been strange workings of her nerves during her long years of chastity. A dissolute life would perhaps have wrecked her less than the slow hidden ravages of unsatisfied fever which had modified her organism.
Sometimes, even now, this moribund, pale old woman, who seemed to have no blood left in her, was seized with nervous fits like electric shocks, which galvanised her, and for an hour brought her atrocious intensity of life. She would lie on her bed rigid, with her eyes open; then hiccoughs would come upon her and she would writhe and struggle, acquiring the frightful strength of those hysterical madwomen whom one has to tie down in order to prevent them from breaking their heads against a wall. This return to former vigour, these sudden attacks, gave her a terrible shock. When she came to again, she would stagger about with such a scared, stupefied look, that the gossips of the Faubourg used to say: “She’s been drinking, the crazy old thing!”
Little Silvere’s childish smile was for her the last pale ray which brought some warmth to her frozen limbs. Weary of solitude, and frightened at the thought of dying alone in one of her fits, she had asked to have the child. With the little fellow running about near her, she felt secure against death. Without relinquishing her habits of taciturnity, or seeking to render her automatic movements more supple, she conceived inexpressible affection for him. Stiff and speechless, she would watch him playing for hours together, listening with delight to the intolerable noise with which he filled the old hovel. That tomb had resounded with uproar ever since Silvere had been running about it, bestriding broomsticks, knocking up against the doors, and shouting and crying. He brought Adelaide back to the world, as it were; she looked after him with the most adorable awkwardness; she who, in her youth, had neglected the duties of a mother, now felt the divine pleasures of maternity in washing his face, dressing him, and watching over his sickly life. It was a reawakening of love, a last soothing passion which heaven had granted to this woman who had been so ravaged by the want of some one to love; the touching agony of a heart that had lived amidst the most acute desires, and which was now dying full of love for a child.
She was already too far gone to pour forth the babble of good plump grandmothers; she adored the child in secret with the bashfulness of a young girl, without knowing how to fondle him. Sometimes she took him on her knees, and gazed at him for a long time with her pale eyes. When the little one, frightened by her mute white visage, began to cry, she seemed perplexed by what she had done, and quickly put him down upon the floor without even kissing him. Perhaps she recognised in him a faint resemblance to Macquart the poacher.
Silvere grew up, ever tete-a-tete with Adelaide. With childish cajolery he used to call her aunt Dide, a name which ultimately clung to the old woman; the word “aunt” employed in this way is simply a term of endearment in Provence. The child entertained singular affection, not unmixed with respectful terror, for his grandmother. During her nervous fits, when he was quite a little boy, he ran away from her, crying, terrified by her disfigured countenance; and he came back very timidly after the attack, ready to run away again, as though the old woman were disposed to beat him. Later on, however, when he was twelve years old, he would stop there bravely and watch in order that she might not hurt herself by falling off the bed. He stood for hours holding her tightly in his arms to subdue the rude shocks which distorted her. During intervals of calmness he would gaze with pity on her convulsed features and withered frame, over which her skirts lay like a shroud. These hidden dramas, which recurred every month, this old woman as rigid as a corpse, this child bent over her, silently watching for the return of consciousness, made up amidst the darkness of the hovel a strange picture of mournful horror and broken-hearted tenderness.
When aunt Dide came round, she would get up with difficulty, and set about her work in the hovel without even questioning Silvere. She remembered nothing, and the child, from a sort of instinctive prudence, avoided the least allusion to what had taken place. These recurring fits, more than anything else, strengthened Silvere’s deep attachment for his grandmother. In the same manner as she adored him without any garrulous effusiveness, he felt a secret, almost bashful, affection for her. While he was really very grateful to her for having taken him in and brought him up, he could not help regarding her as an extraordinary creature, a prey to some strange malady, whom he ought to pity and respect. No doubt there was not sufficient life left in Adelaide; she was too white and too stiff for Silvere to throw himself on her neck. Thus they lived together amidst melancholy silence, in the depths of which they felt the tremor of boundless love.
The sad, solemn atmosphere, which he had breathed from childhood, gave Silvere a strong heart, in which gathered every form of enthusiasm. He early became a serious, thoughtful little man, seeking instruction with a kind of stubbornness. He only learnt a little spelling and arithmetic at the school of the Christian Brothers, which he was compelled to leave when he was but twelve years old, on account of his apprenticeship. He never acquired the first rudiments of knowledge. However, he read all the odd volumes which fell into his hands, and thus provided himself with strange equipment; he had some notions of a multitude of subjects, ill-digested notions, which he could never classify distinctly in his head. When he was quite young, he had been in the habit of playing in the workshop of a master wheelwright, a worthy man named Vian, who lived at the entrance of the blind-alley in front of the Aire Saint–Mittre where he stored his timber. Silvere used to jump up on the wheels of the tilted carts undergoing repair, and amuse himself by dragging about the heavy tools which his tiny hands could scarcely lift. One of his greatest pleasures, too, was to assist the workmen by holding some piece of wood for them, or bringing them the iron-work which they required. When he had grown older he naturally became apprenticed to Vian. The latter had taken a liking to the little fellow who was always kicking about his heels, and asked Adelaide to let him come, refusing to take anything for his board and lodging. Silvere eagerly accepted, already foreseeing the time when he would be able to make his poor aunt Dide some return for all she had spent upon him.
In a short time he became an excellent workman. He cherished, however, much higher ambitions. Having once seen, at a coachbuilder’s at Plassans, a fine new carriage, shining with varnish, he vowed that he would one day build carriages himself. He remembered this carriage as a rare and unique work of art, an ideal towards which his aspirations should tend. The tilted carts at which he worked in Vian’s shop, those carts which he had lovingly cherished, now seemed unworthy of his affections. He began to attend the local drawing-school, where he formed a connection with a youngster who had left college, and who lent him an old treatise on geometry. He plunged into this study without a guide, racking his brains for weeks together in order to grasp the simplest problem in the world. In this matter he gradually became one of those learned workmen who can hardly sign their name and yet talk about algebra as though it were an intimate friend.
Nothing unsettles the mind so much as this desultory kind of education, which reposes on no firm basis. Most frequently such scraps of knowledge convey an absolutely false idea of the highest truths, and render persons of limited intellect insufferably stupid. In Silvere’s case, however, his scraps of stolen knowledge only augmented his liberal aspirations. He was conscious of horizons which at present remained closed to him. He formed for himself divine conceptions of things beyond his reach, and lived on, regarding in a deep, innocent, religious way the noble thoughts and grand conceptions towards which he was raising himself, but which he could not as yet comprehend. He was one of the simple-minded, one whose simplicity was divine, and who had remained on the threshold of the temple, kneeling before the tapers which from a distance he took for stars.
The hovel in the Impasse Saint–Mittre consisted, in the first place, of a large room into which the street door opened. The only pieces of furniture in this room, which had a stone floor, and served both as a kitchen and a dining-room, were some straw-seated chairs, a table on trestles, and an old coffer which Adelaide had converted into a sofa, by spreading a piece of woollen stuff over the lid. In the left hand corner of the large fireplace stood a plaster image of the Holy Virgin, surrounded by artificial flowers; she is the traditional good mother of all old Provencal women, however irreligious they may be. A passage led from the room into a yard situated at the rear of the house; in this yard there was a well. Aunt Dide’s bedroom was on the left side of the passage; it was a little apartment containing an iron bedstead and one chair; Silvere slept in a still smaller room on the right hand side, just large enough for a trestle bedstead; and he had been obliged to plan a set of shelves, reaching up to the ceiling, to keep by him all those dear odd volumes which he saved his sous to purchase from a neighbouring general dealer. When he read at night-time, he would hang his lamp on a nail at the head of the bed. If his grandmother had an attack, he merely had to leap out at the first gasp to be at her side in a moment.
The young man led the life of a child. He passed his existence in this lonely spot. Like his father, he felt a dislike for taverns and Sunday strolling. His mates wounded his delicate susceptibilities by their coarse jokes. He preferred to read, to rack his rain over some simple geometrical problem. Since aunt Dide had entrusted him with the little household commissions she did not go out at all, but ceased all intercourse even with her family. The young man sometimes thought of her forlornness; he reflected that the poor old woman lived but a few steps from the children who strove to forget her, as though she were dead; and this made him love her all the more, for himself and for the others. When he at times entertained a vague idea that aunt Dide might be expiating some former transgressions, he would say to himself: “I was born to pardon her.”
A nature such as Silvere’s, ardent yet self-restrained, naturally cherished the most exalted republican ideas. At night, in his little hovel, Silvere would again and again read a work of Rousseau’s which he had picked up at the neighbouring dealer’s among a number of old locks. The reading of this book kept him awake till daylight. Amidst his dream of universal happiness so dear to the poor, the words liberty, equality, fraternity, rang in his ears like those sonorous sacred calls of the bells, at the sound of which the faithful fall upon their knees. When, therefore, he learnt that the Republic had just been proclaimed in France he fancied that the whole world would enjoy a life of celestial beatitude. His knowledge, though imperfect, made him see farther than other workmen; his aspirations did not stop at daily bread; but his extreme ingenuousness, his complete ignorance of mankind, kept him in the dreamland of theory, a Garden of Eden where universal justice reigned. His paradise was for a long time a delightful spot in which he forgot himself.
When he came to perceive that things did not go on quite satisfactorily in the best of republics he was sorely grieved, and indulged in another dream, that of compelling men to be happy even by force. Every act which seemed to him prejudicial to the interest of the people roused him to revengeful indignation. Though he was as gentle as a child, he cherished the fiercest political animosity. He would not have killed a fly, and yet he was for ever talking of a call to arms. Liberty was his passion, an unreasoning, absolute passion, to which he gave all the feverish ardour of his blood. Blinded by enthusiasm, he was both too ignorant and too learned to be tolerant, and would not allow for men’s weaknesses; he required an ideal government of perfect justice and perfect liberty. It was at this period that Antoine Macquart thought of setting him against the Rougons. He fancied that this young enthusiast would work terrible havoc if he were only exasperated to the proper pitch. This calculation was not altogether devoid of shrewdness.
Such being Antoine’s scheme, he tried to induce Silvere to visit him, by professing inordinate admiration for the young man’s ideas. But he very nearly compromised the whole matter at the outset. He had a way of regarding the triumph of the Republic as a question of personal interest, as an era of happy idleness and endless junketing, which chilled his nephew’s purely moral aspirations. However, he perceived that he was on the wrong track, and plunged into strange bathos, a string of empty but high-sounding words, which Silvere accepted as a satisfactory proof of his civism. Before long the uncle and the nephew saw each other two or three times a week. During their long discussions, in which the fate of the country was flatly settled, Antoine endeavoured to persuade the young man that the Rougons’ drawing-room was the chief obstacle to the welfare of France. But he again made a false move by calling his mother “old jade” in Silvere’s presence. He even repeated to him the early scandals about the poor woman. The young man blushed for shame, but listened without interruption. He had not asked his uncle for this information; he felt heart-broken by such confidences, which wounded his feeling of respectful affection for aunt Dide. From that time forward he lavished yet more attention upon his grandmother, greeting her always with pleasant smiles and looks of forgiveness. However, Macquart felt that he had acted foolishly, and strove to take advantage of Silvere’s affection for Adelaide by charging the Rougons with her forlornness and poverty. According to him, he had always been the best of sons, whereas his brother had behaved disgracefully; Pierre had robbed his mother, and now, when she was penniless, he was ashamed of her. He never ceased descanting on this subject. Silvere thereupon became indignant with his uncle Pierre, much to the satisfaction of his uncle Antoine.
The scene was much the same every time the young man called. He used to come in the evening, while the Macquarts were at dinner. The father would be swallowing some potato stew with a growl, picking out the pieces of bacon, and watching the dish when it passed into the hands of Jean and Gervaise.
“You see, Silvere,” he would say with a sullen rage which was ill-concealed beneath his air of cynical indifference, “more potatoes, always potatoes! We never eat anything else now. Meat is only for rich people. It’s getting quite impossible to make both ends meet with children who have the devil’s appetite and their own too.”
Gervaise and Jean bent over their plates, no longer even daring to cut some bread. Silvere, who in his dream lived in heaven, did not grasp the situation. In a calm voice he pronounced these storm-laden words:
“But you should work, uncle.”
“Ah! yes,” sneered Macquart, stung to the quick. “You want me to work, eh! To let those beggars, the rich folk, continue to prey upon me. I should earn probably twenty sous a day, and ruin my constitution. It’s worth while, isn’t it?”
“Everyone earns what he can,” the young man replied. “Twenty sous are twenty sous; and it all helps in a home. Besides, you’re an old soldier, why don’t you seek some employment?”
Fine would then interpose, with a thoughtlessness of which she soon repented.
“That’s what I’m always telling him,” said she. “The market inspector wants an assistant; I mentioned my husband to him, and he seems well disposed towards us.”
But Macquart interrupted her with a fulminating glance. “Eh! hold your tongue,” he growled with suppressed anger. “Women never know what they’re talking about! Nobody would have me; my opinions are too well-known.”
Every time he was offered employment he displayed similar irritation. He did not cease, however, to ask for situations, though he always refused such as were found for him, assigning the most extraordinary reasons. When pressed upon the point he became terrible.
If Jean were to take up a newspaper after dinner he would at once exclaim: “You’d better go to bed. You’ll be getting up late tomorrow, and that’ll be another day lost. To think of that young rascal coming home with eight francs short last week! However, I’ve requested his master not give him his money in future; I’ll call for it myself.”
Jean would go to bed to avoid his father’s recriminations. He had but little sympathy with Silvere; politics bored him, and he thought his cousin “cracked.” When only the women remained, if they unfortunately started some whispered converse after clearing the table, Macquart would cry: “Now, you idlers! Is there nothing that requires mending? we’re all in rags. Look here, Gervaise, I was at your mistress’s today, and I learnt some fine things. You’re a good-for-nothing, a gad-about.”
Gervaise, now a grown girl of more than twenty, coloured up at thus being scolded in the presence of Silvere, who himself felt uncomfortable. One evening, having come rather late, when his uncle was not at home, he had found the mother and daughter intoxicated before an empty bottle. From that time he could never see his cousin without recalling the disgraceful spectacle she had presented, with the maudlin grin and large red patches on her poor, pale, puny face. He was not less shocked by the nasty stories that circulated with regard to her. He sometimes looked at her stealthily, with the timid surprise of a schoolboy in the presence of a disreputable character.
When the two women had taken up their needles, and were ruining their eyesight in order to mend his old shirts, Macquart, taking the best seat, would throw himself back with an air of delicious comfort, and sip and smoke like a man who relishes his laziness. This was the time when the old rogue generally railed against the wealthy for living on the sweat of the poor man’s brow. He was superbly indignant with the gentlemen of the new town, who lived so idly, and compelled the poor to keep them in luxury. The fragments of communistic notions which he culled from the newspapers in the morning became grotesque and monstrous on falling from his lips. He would talk of a time near at hand when no one would be obliged to work. He always, however, kept his fiercest animosity for the Rougons. He never could digest the potatoes he had eaten.
“I saw that vile creature Felicite buying a chicken in the market this morning,” he would say. “Those robbers of inheritances must eat chicken, forsooth!”
“Aunt Dide,” interposed Silvere, “says that uncle Pierre was very kind to you when you left the army. Didn’t he spend a large sum of money in lodging and clothing you?”
“A large sum of money!” roared Macquart in exasperation; “your grandmother is mad. It was those thieves who spread those reports themselves, so as to close my mouth. I never had anything.”
Fine again foolishly interfered, reminding him that he had received two hundred francs, besides a suit of clothes and a year’s rent. Antoine thereupon shouted to her to hold her tongue, and continued, with increasing fury: “Two hundred francs! A fine thing! I want my due, ten thousand francs. Ah! yes, talk of the hole they shoved me into like a dog, and the old frock-coat which Pierre gave me because he was ashamed to wear it any longer himself, it was so dirty and ragged!”
He was not speaking the truth; but, seeing the rage that he was in, nobody ventured to protest any further. Then, turning towards Silvere: “It’s very stupid of you to defend them!” he added. “They robbed your mother, who, good woman, would be alive now if she had had the means of taking care of herself.”
“Oh! you’re not just, uncle,” the young man said; “my mother did not die for want of attention, and I’m certain my father would never have accepted a sou from his wife’s family!”
“Pooh! don’t talk to me! your father would have taken the money just like anybody else. We were disgracefully plundered, and it’s high time we had our rights.”
Then Macquart, for the hundredth time, began to recount the story of the fifty thousand francs. His nephew, who knew it by heart, and all the variations with which he embellished it, listened to him rather impatiently.
“If you were a man,” Antoine would say in conclusion, “you would come some day with me, and we would kick up a nice row at the Rougons. We would not leave without having some money given us.”
Silvere, however, grew serious, and frankly replied: “If those wretches robbed us, so much the worse for them. I don’t want their money. You see, uncle, it’s not for us to fall on our relatives. If they’ve done wrong, well, one of these days they’ll be severely punished for it.”
“Ah! what a big simpleton you are!” the uncle cried. “When we have the upper hand, you’ll see whether I sha’n’t settle my own little affairs myself. God cares a lot about us indeed! What a foul family ours is! Even if I were starving to death, not one of those scoundrels would throw me a dry crust.”
Whenever Macquart touched upon this subject, he proved inexhaustible. He bared all his bleeding wounds of envy and covetousness. He grew mad with rage when he came to think that he was the only unlucky one in the family, and was forced to eat potatoes, while the others had meat to their heart’s content. He would pass all his relations in review, even his grand-nephews, and find some grievance and reason for threatening every one of them.
“Yes, yes,” he repeated bitterly, “they’d leave me to die like a dog.”
Gervaise, without raising her head or ceasing to ply her needle, would sometimes say timidly: “Still, father, cousin Pascal was very kind to us, last year, when you were ill.”
“He attended you without charging a sou,” continued Fine, coming to her daughter’s aid, “and he often slipped a five-franc piece into my hand to make you some broth.”
“He! he’d have killed me if I hadn’t had a strong constitution!” Macquart retorted. “Hold your tongues, you fools! You’d let yourselves be twisted about like children. They’d all like to see me dead. When I’m ill again, I beg you not to go and fetch my nephew, for I didn’t feel at all comfortable in his hands. He’s only a twopenny-halfpenny doctor, and hasn’t got a decent patient in all his practice.”
When once Macquart was fully launched, he could not stop. “It’s like that little viper, Aristide,” he would say, “a false brother, a traitor. Are you taken in by his articles in the ‘Independant,’ Silvere? You would be a fine fool if you were. They’re not even written in good French; I’ve always maintained that this contraband Republican is in league with his worthy father to humbug us. You’ll see how he’ll turn his coat. And his brother, the illustrious Eugene, that big blockhead of whom the Rougons make such a fuss! Why, they’ve got the impudence to assert that he occupies a good position in Paris! I know something about his position; he’s employed at the Rue de Jerusalem; he’s a police spy.”
“Who told you so? You know nothing about it,” interrupted Silvere, whose upright spirit at last felt hurt by his uncle’s lying accusations.
“Ah! I know nothing about it? Do you think so? I tell you he is a police spy. You’ll be shorn like a lamb one of these days, with your benevolence. You’re not manly enough. I don’t want to say anything against your brother Francois; but, if I were in your place, I shouldn’t like the scurvy manner in which he treats you. He earns a heap of money at Marseilles, and yet he never sends you a paltry twenty-franc pierce for pocket money. If ever you become poor, I shouldn’t advise you to look to him for anything.”
“I’ve no need of anybody,” the young man replied in a proud and slightly injured tone of voice. “My own work suffices for aunt Dide and myself. You’re cruel, uncle.”
“I only say what’s true, that’s all. I should like to open your eyes. Our family is a disreputable lot; it’s sad but true. Even that little Maxime, Aristide’s son, that little nine-year-old brat, pokes his tongue out at me when me meets me. That child will some day beat his own mother, and a good job too! Say what you like, all those folks don’t deserve their luck; but it’s always like this in families, the good ones suffer while the bad ones make their fortunes.”
All this dirty linen, which Macquart washed with such complacency before his nephew, profoundly disgusted the young man. He would have liked to soar back into his dream. As soon as he began to show unmistakable signs of impatience, Antoine would employ strong expedients to exasperate him against their relatives.
“Defend them! Defend them!” he would say, appearing to calm down. “I, for my part, have arranged to have nothing more to do with them. I only mention the matter out of pity for my poor mother, whom all that gang treat in a most revolting manner.”
“They are wretches!” Silvere murmured.
“Oh! you don’t know, you don’t understand. These Rougons pour all sorts of insults and abuse on the good woman. Aristide has forbidden his son even to recognise her. Felicite talks of having her placed in a lunatic asylum.”
The young man, as white as a sheet, abruptly interrupted his uncle: “Enough!” he cried. “I don’t want to know any more about it. There will have to be an end to all this.”
“I’ll hold my tongue, since it annoys you,” the old rascal replied, feigning a good-natured manner. “Still, there are some things that you ought not to be ignorant of, unless you want to play the part of a fool.”
Macquart, while exerting himself to set Silvere against the Rougons, experienced the keenest pleasure on drawing tears of anguish from the young man’s eyes. He detested him, perhaps, more than he did the others, and this because he was an excellent workman and never drank. He brought all his instincts of refined cruelty into play, in order to invent atrocious falsehoods which should sting the poor lad to the heart; then he revelled in his pallor, his trembling hands and his heart-rending looks, with the delight of some evil spirit who measures his stabs and finds that he has struck his victim in the right place. When he thought that he had wounded and exasperated Silvere sufficiently, he would at last touch upon politics.
“I’ve been assured,” he would say, lowering his voice, “that the Rougons are preparing some treachery.”
“Treachery?” Silvere asked, becoming attentive.
“Yes, one of these nights they are going to seize all the good citizens of the town and throw them into prison.”
The young man was at first disposed to doubt it, but his uncle gave precise details; he spoke of lists that had been drawn up, he mentioned the persons whose names were on these lists, he indicated in what manner, at what hour, and under what circumstances the plot would be carried into effect. Silvere gradually allowed himself to be taken in by this old woman’s tale, and was soon raving against the enemies of the Republic.
“It’s they that we shall have to reduce to impotence if they persist in betraying the country!” he cried. “And what do they intend to do with the citizens whom they arrest?”
“What do they intend to do with them? Why, they will shoot them in the lowest dungeons of the prison, of course,” replied Macquart, with a hoarse laugh. And as the young man, stupefied with horror, looked at him without knowing what to say: “This will not be the first lot to be assassinated there,” he continued. “You need only go and prowl about the Palais de Justice of an evening to hear the shots and groans.”
“Oh, the wretches!” Silvere murmured.
Thereupon uncle and nephew launched out into high politics. Fine and Gervaise, on finding them hotly debating things, quietly went to bed without attracting their attention. Then the two men remained together till midnight, commenting on the news from Paris and discussing the approaching and inevitable struggle. Macquart bitterly denounced the men of his own party, Silvere dreamed his dream of ideal liberty aloud, and for himself only. Strange conversations these were, during which the uncle poured out many a little nip for himself, and from which the nephew emerged quite intoxicated with enthusiasm. Antoine, however, never succeeded in obtaining from the young Republican any perfidious suggestion or play of warfare against the Rougons. In vain he tried to goad him on; he seldom heard him suggest aught but an appeal to eternal justice, which sooner or later would punish the evil-doers.
The ingenuous youth did indeed speak warmly of taking up arms and massacring the enemies of the Republic; but, as soon as these enemies strayed out of his dream or became personified in his uncle Pierre or any other person of his acquaintance, he relied upon heaven to spare him the horror of shedding blood. It is very probable that he would have ceased visiting Macquart, whose jealous fury made him so uncomfortable, if he had not tasted the pleasure of being able to speak freely of his dear Republic there. In the end, however, his uncle exercised decisive influence over his destiny; he irritated his nerves by his everlasting diatribes, and succeeded in making him eager for an armed struggle, the conquest of universal happiness by violence.
When Silvere reached his sixteenth year, Macquart had him admitted into the secret society of the Montagnards, a powerful association whose influence extended throughout Southern France. From that moment the young Republican gazed with longing eyes at the smuggler’s carbine, which Adelaide had hung over her chimney-piece. Once night, while his grandmother was asleep, he cleaned and put it in proper condition. Then he replaced it on its nail and waited, indulging in brilliant reveries, fancying gigantic epics, Homeric struggles, and knightly tournaments, whence the defenders of liberty would emerge victorious and acclaimed by the whole world.
Macquart meantime was not discouraged. He said to himself that he would be able to strangle the Rougons alone if he could ever get them into a corner. His envious rage and slothful greed were increased by certain successive accidents which compelled him to resume work. In the early part of 1850 Fine died, almost suddenly, from inflammation of the lungs, which she had caught by going one evening to wash the family linen in the Viorne, and carrying it home wet on her back. She returned soaked with water and perspiration, bowed down by her load, which was terribly heavy, and she never recovered.
Her death filled Macquart with consternation. His most reliable source of income was gone. When, a few days later, he sold the caldron in which his wife had boiled her chestnuts, and the wooden horse which she used in reseating old chairs, he foully accused the Divinity of having robbed him of that strong strapping woman of whom he had often felt ashamed, but whose real worth he now appreciated. He now also fell upon the children’s earnings with greater avidity than ever. But, a month later, Gervaise, tired of his continual exactions, ran away with her two children and Lantier, whose mother was dead. The lovers took refuge in Paris. Antoine, overwhelmed, vented his rage against his daughter by expressing the hope that she might die in hospital like most of her kind. This abuse did not, however, improve the situation, which was decidedly becoming bad. Jean soon followed his sister’s example. He waited for pay-day to come round, and then contrived to receive the money himself. As he was leaving he told one of his friends, who repeated it to Antoine, that he would no longer keep his lazy father, and that if the latter should take it into his head to have him brought back by the gendarmes he would touch neither saw nor plane.
On the morrow, when Antoine, having vainly sought him, found himself alone and penniless in the house where for twenty years he had been comfortably kept, he flew into the most frantic rage, kicked the furniture about, and yelled the vilest imprecations. Then he sank down exhausted, and began to drag himself about and moan like a convalescent. The fear of having to earn his bread made him positively ill. When Silvere came to see him, he complained, with tears, of his children’s ingratitude. Had he not always been a good father to them? Jean and Gervaise were monsters, who had made him an evil return for all he had done for them. Now they abandoned him because he was old, and they could not get anything more out of him!
“But uncle,” said Silvere, “you are not yet too old to work!”
Macquart, coughing and stooping, shook his head mournfully, as if to say that he could not bear the least fatigue for any length of time. Just as his nephew was about to withdraw, he borrowed ten francs of him. Then for a month he lived by taking his children’s old clothes, one by one, to a second-hand dealer’s, and in the same way, little by little, he sold all the small articles in the house. Soon nothing remained but a table, a chair, his bed, and the clothes on his back. He ended by exchanging the walnut-wood bedstead for a plain strap one. When he had exhausted all his resources, he cried with rage; and, with the fierce pallor of a man who is resigned to suicide, he went to look for the bundle of osier that he had forgotten in some corner for a quarter of a century past. As he took it up he seemed to be lifting a mountain. However, he again began to plait baskets and hampers, while denouncing the human race for their neglect.
It was particularly at this time that he talked of dividing and sharing the riches of the wealthy. He showed himself terrible. His speeches kept up a constant conflagration in the tavern, where his furious looks secured him unlimited credit. Moreover, he only worked when he had been unable to get a five-franc piece out of Silvere or a comrade. He was no longer “Monsieur” Macquart, the clean-shaven workman, who wore his Sunday clothes every day and played the gentleman; he again became the big slovenly devil who had once speculated on his rags. Felicite did not dare to go to market now that he was so often coming there to sell his baskets. He once had a violent quarrel with her there. His hatred against the Rougons grew with his wretchedness. He swore, with horrible threats, that he would wreak justice himself, since the rich were leagued together to compel him to toil.
In this state of mind, he welcomed the Coup d’Etat with the ardent, obstreperous delight of a hound scenting the quarry. As the few honest Liberals in the town had failed to arrive at an understanding amongst themselves, and therefore kept apart, he became naturally one of the most prominent agents of the insurrection. The working classes, notwithstanding the unfavourable opinion which they at last entertained of this lazy fellow, would, when the time arrived, have to accept him as a rallying flag. On the first few days, however, the town remained quiet, and Macquart thought that his plans were frustrated. It was not until the news arrived of the rising of the rural districts that he recovered hope. For his own part he would not have left Plassans for all the world; accordingly he invented some pretext for not following those workmen who, on the Sunday morning, set off to join the insurrectionary band of La Palud and Saint–Martin-deVaulx.
On the evening of the same day he was sitting in some disreputable tavern of the old quarter with a few friends, when a comrade came to inform him that the insurgents were only a few miles from Plassans. This news had just been brought by an express, who had succeeded in making his way into the town, and had been charged to get the gates opened for the column. There was an outburst of triumph. Macquart, especially, appeared to be delirious with enthusiasm. The unforeseen arrival of the insurgents seemed to him a delicate attention of Providence for his own particular benefit. His hands trembled at the idea that he would soon hold the Rougons by the throat.
He hastily quitted the tavern with his friends. All the Republicans who had not yet left the town were soon assembled on the Cours Sauvaire. It was this band that Rougon had perceived as he was hastening to conceal himself in his mother’s house. When the band had reached the top of the Rue de la Banne, Macquart, who had stationed himself at the rear, detained four of his companions, big fellows who were not over-burdened with brains and whom he swayed by his tavern bluster. He easily persuaded them that the enemies of the Republic must be arrested immediately if they wished to prevent the greatest calamities. The truth was that he feared Pierre might escape him in the midst of the confusion which the entry of the insurgents would produce. However, the four big fellows followed him with exemplary docility, and knocked violently at the door of the Rougons’ abode. In this critical situation Felicite displayed admirable courage. She went down and opened the street door herself.
“We want to go upstairs into your rooms,” Macquart said to her brutally.
“Very well, gentlemen, walk up,” she replied with ironical politeness, pretending that she did not recognise her brother-inlaw.
Once upstairs, Macquart ordered her to fetch her husband.
“My husband is not here,” she said with perfect calmness; “he is travelling on business. He took the diligence for Marseilles at six o’clock this evening.”
Antoine at this declaration, which Felicite uttered in a clear voice, made a gesture of rage. He rushed through the drawing-room, and then into the bedroom, turned the bed up, looked behind the curtains and under the furniture. The four big fellows assisted him. They searched the place for a quarter of an hour. Felicite meantime quietly seated herself on the drawing-room sofa, and began to fasten the strings of her petticoats, like a person who has been surprised in her sleep and has not had time to dress properly.
“It’s true then, he’s run away, the coward!” Macquart muttered on returning to the drawing-room.
Nevertheless, he continued to look about him with a suspicious air. He felt a presentiment that Pierre could not have given up the game at the decisive moment. At last he approached Felicite, who was yawning: “Show us the place where your husband is hidden,” he said to her, “and I promise no harm shall be done to him.”
“I have told you the truth,” she replied impatiently. “I can’t deliver my husband to you, as he’s not here. You have searched everywhere, haven’t you? Then leave me alone now.”
Macquart, exasperated by her composure, was just going to strike her, when a rumbling noise arose from the street. It was the column of insurgents entering the Rue de la Banne.
He then had to leave the yellow drawing-room, after shaking his fist at his sister-inlaw, calling her an old jade, and threatening that he would soon return. At the foot of the staircase, he took one of the men who accompanied him, a navvy named Cassoute, the most wooden-headed of the four, and ordered him to sit on the first step, and remain there.
“You must come and inform me,” he said to him, “if you see the scoundrel from upstairs return.”
The man sat down heavily. When Macquart reached the pavement, he raised his eyes and observed Felicite leaning out of the window of the yellow-drawing room, watching the march past of the insurgents, as if it was nothing but a regiment passing through the town to the strains of its band. This last sign of perfect composure irritated him to such a degree that he was almost tempted to go up again and throw the old woman into the street. However, he followed the column, muttering in a hoarse voice: “Yes, yes, look at us passing. We’ll see whether you will station yourself at your balcony tomorrow.”
It was nearly eleven o’clock at night when the insurgents entered the town by the Porte de Rome. The workmen remaining in Plassans had opened the gate for them, in spite of the wailings of the keeper, from whom they could only wrest the keys by force. This man, very jealous of his office, stood dumbfoundered in the presence of the surging crowd. To think of it! he, who never allowed more than one person to pass in at a time, and then only after a prolonged examination of his face! And he murmured that he was dishonoured. The men of Plassans were still marching at the head of the column by way of guiding the others; Miette, who was in the front rank, with Silvere on her left, held up her banner more proudly than ever now that she could divine behind the closed blinds the scared looks of well-to-do bourgeois startled out of their sleep. The insurgents passed along the Rue de Rome and the Rue de la Banne slowly and warily; at every crossway, although they well knew the quiet disposition of the inhabitants, they feared they might be received with bullets. The town seemed lifeless, however; there was scarcely a stifled exclamation to be heard at the windows. Only five or six shutters opened. Some old householder then appeared in his night-shirt, candle in hand, and leant out to obtain a better view; but as soon as he distinguished the tall red girl who appeared to be drawing that crowd of black demons behind her, he hastily closed his window again, terrified by such a diabolical apparition.
The silence of the slumbering town reassured the insurgents, who ventured to make their way through the lanes of the old quarter, and thus reached the market-place and the Place de l’Hotel-deVille, which was connected by a short but broad street. These open spaces, planted with slender trees, were brilliantly illumined by the moon. Against the clear sky the recently restored town-hall appeared like a large patch of crude whiteness, the fine black lines of the wrought-iron arabesques of the first-floor balcony showing in bold relief. Several persons could be plainly distinguished standing on this balcony, the mayor, Commander Sicardot, three or four municipal councillors, and other functionaries. The doors below were closed. The three thousand Republicans, who covered both open spaces, halted with upraised heads, ready to force the doors with a single push.
The arrival of the insurrectionary column at such an hour took the authorities by surprise. Before repairing to the mayor’s, Commander Sicardot had taken time to don his uniform. He then had to run and rouse the mayor. When the keeper of the Porte de Rome, who had been left free by the insurgents, came to announce that the villains were already in the town, the commander had so far only managed to assemble a score of the national guards. The gendarmes, though their barracks were close by, could not even be warned. It was necessary to shut the town-hall doors in all haste, in order to deliberate. Five minutes later a low continuous rumbling announced the approach of the column.
Monsieur Garconnet, out of hatred to the Republic, would have greatly liked to offer resistance. But he was of a prudent nature, and comprehended the futility of a struggle on finding only a few pale men, who were scarcely awake, around him. So the deliberations did not last long. Sicardot alone was obstinate; he wanted to fight, asserting that twenty men would suffice to bring these three thousand villains to reason. At this Monsieur Garconnet shrugged his shoulders, and declared that the only step to take was to make an honourable capitulation. As the uproar of the mob increased, he went out on the balcony, followed by all the persons present. Silence was gradually obtained. Below, among the black, quivering mass of insurgents, the guns and scythes glittered in the moonlight.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” cried the mayor in a loud voice.
Thereupon a man in a greatcoat, a landowner of La Palud, stepped forward.
“Open the doors,” he said, without replying to Monsieur Garconnet’s question. “Avoid a fratricidal conflict.”
“I call upon you to withdraw,” the mayor continued. “I protest in the name of the law.”
These words provoked deafening shouts from the crowd. When the tumult had somewhat abated, vehement calls ascended to the balcony. Voices shouted: “It is in the name of the law that we have come here!”
“Your duty as a functionary is to secure respect for the fundamental law of the land, the constitution, which has just been outrageously violated.”
“Long live the constitution! Long live the Republic!”
Then as Monsieur Garconnet endeavoured to make himself heard, and continued to invoke his official dignity, the land-owner of La Palud, who was standing under the balcony, interrupted him with great vehemence: “You are now nothing but the functionary of a fallen functionary; we have come to dismiss you from your office.”
Hitherto, Commander Sicardot had been ragefully biting his moustache, and muttering insulting words. The sight of the cudgels and scythes exasperated him; and he made desperate efforts to restrain himself from treating these twopenny-halfpenny soldiers, who had not even a gun apiece, as they deserved. But when he heard a gentleman in a mere greatcoat speak of deposing a mayor girded with his scarf, he could no longer contain himself and shouted: “You pack of rascals! If I only had four men and a corporal, I’d come down and pull your ears for you, and make you behave yourselves!”
Less than this was needed to raise a serious disturbance. A long shout rose from the mob as it made a rush for the doors. Monsieur Garconnet, in consternation, hastily quitted the balcony, entreating Sicardot to be reasonable unless he wished to have them massacred. But in two minutes the doors gave way, the people invaded the building and disarmed the national guards. The mayor and the other functionaries present were arrested. Sicardot, who declined to surrender his sword, had to be protected from the fury of some insurgents by the chief of the contingent from Les Tulettes, a man of great self-possession. When the town-hall was in the hands of the Republicans, they led their prisoners to a small cafe in the market-place, and there kept them closely watched.
The insurrectionary army would have avoided marching through Plassans if its leaders had not decided that a little food and a few hours’ rest were absolutely necessary for the men. Instead of pushing forward direct to the chief town of the department, the column, owing to the inexcusable weakness and the inexperience of the improvised general who commanded it, was now diverging to the left, making a detour which was destined, ultimately, to lead it to destruction. It was bound for the heights of Sainte–Roure, still about ten leagues distant, and it was in view of this long march that it had been decided to pass through Plassans, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour. It was now half-past eleven.
When Monsieur Garconnet learnt that the band was in quest of provisions, he offered his services to procure them. This functionary formed, under very difficult circumstances, a proper estimate of the situation. Those three thousand starving men would have to be satisfied; it would never do for Plassans, on waking up, to find them still squatting on the pavements; if they withdrew before daybreak they would simply have passed through the slumbering town like an evil dream, like one of those nightmares which depart with the arrival of dawn. And so, although he remained a prisoner, Monsieur Garconnet, followed by two guards, went about knocking at the bakers’ doors, and had all the provisions that he could find distributed among the insurgents.
Towards one o’clock the three thousand men began to eat, squatting on the ground, with their weapons between their legs. The market-place and the neighbourhood of the town-hall were turned into vast open-air refectories. In spite of the bitter cold, humorous sallies were exchanged among the swarming multitude, the smallest groups of which showed forth in the brilliant moonlight. The poor famished fellows eagerly devoured their portions while breathing on their fingers to warm them; and, from the depths of adjoining streets, where vague black forms sat on the white thresholds of the houses, there came sudden bursts of laughter. At the windows emboldened, inquisitive women, with silk handkerchiefs tied round their heads, watched the repast of those terrible insurgents, those blood-suckers who went in turn to the market pump to drink a little water in the hollows of their hands.
While the town-hall was being invaded, the gendarmes’ barracks, situated a few steps away, in the Rue Canquoin, which leads to the market, had also fallen into the hands of the mob. The gendarmes were surprised in their beds and disarmed in a few minutes. The impetus of the crowd had carried Miette and Silvere along in this direction. The girl, who still clasped her flagstaff to her breast, was pushed against the wall of the barracks, while the young man, carried away by the human wave, penetrated into the interior, and helped his comrades to wrest from the gendarmes the carbines which they had hastily caught up. Silvere, waxing ferocious, intoxicated by the onslaught, attacked a big devil of a gendarme named Rengade, with whom for a few moments he struggled. At last, by a sudden jerk, he succeeded in wresting his carbine from him. But the barrel struck Rengade a violent blow in the face, which put his right eye out. Blood flowed, and, some of it splashing Silvere’s hands, quickly brought him to his senses. He looked at his hands, dropped the carbine, and ran out, in a state of frenzy, shaking his fingers.
“You are wounded!” cried Miette.
“No, no,” he replied in a stifled voice, “I’ve just killed a gendarme.”
“Is he really dead?” asked Miette.
“I don’t know,” replied Silvere, “his face was all covered with blood. Come quickly.”
Then he hurried the girl away. On reaching the market, he made her sit down on a stone bench, and told her to wait there for him. He was still looking at his hands, muttering something at the same time. Miette at last understood from his disquieted words that he wished to go and kiss his grandmother before leaving.
“Well, go,” she said; “don’t trouble yourself about me. Wash your hands.”
But he went quickly away, keeping his fingers apart, without thinking of washing them at the pump which he passed. Since he had felt Rengade’s warm blood on his skin, he had been possessed by one idea, that of running to Aunt Dide’s and dipping his hands in the well-trough at the back of the little yard. There only, he thought, would he be able to wash off the stain of that blood. Moreover, all his calm, gentle childhood seemed to return to him; he felt an irresistible longing to take refuge in his grandmother’s skirts, if only for a minute. He arrived quite out of breath. Aunt Dide had not gone to bed, a circumstance which at any other time would have greatly surprised Silvere. But on entering he did not even see his uncle Rougon, who was seated in a corner on the old chest. He did not wait for the poor old woman’s questions. “Grandmother,” he said quickly, “you must forgive me; I’m going to leave with the others. You see I’ve got blood on me. I believe I’ve killed a gendarme.”
“You’ve killed a gendarme?” Aunt Dide repeated in a strange voice.
Her eyes gleamed brightly as she fixed them on the red stains. And suddenly she turned towards the chimney-piece. “You’ve taken the gun,” she said; “where’s the gun?”
Silvere, who had left the weapon with Miette, swore to her that it was quite safe. And for the very first time, Adelaide made an allusion to the smuggler Macquart in her grandson’s presence.
“You’ll bring the gun back? You promise me!” she said with singular energy. “It’s all I have left of him. You’ve killed a gendarme; ah, it was the gendarmes who killed him!”
She continued gazing fixedly at Silvere with an air of cruel satisfaction, and apparently without thought of detaining him. She never asked him for any explanation, nor wept like those good grandmothers who always imagine, at sight of the least scratch, that their grandchildren are dying. All her nature was concentrated in one unique thought, to which she at last gave expression with ardent curiosity: “Did you kill the gendarme with the gun?”
Either Silvere did not quite catch what she said, or else he misunderstood her.
“Yes!” he replied. “I’m going to wash my hands.”
It was only on returning from the well that he perceived his uncle. Pierre had turned pale on hearing the young man’s words. Felicite was indeed right; his family took a pleasure in compromising him. One of his nephews had now killed a gendarme! He would never get the post of receiver of taxes, if he did not prevent this foolish madman from rejoining the insurgents. So he planted himself in front of the door, determined to prevent Silvere from going out.
“Listen,” he said to the young fellow, who was greatly surprised to find him there. “I am the head of the family, and I forbid you to leave this house. You’re risking both your honour and ours. To-morrow I will try to get you across the frontier.”
But Silvere shrugged his shoulders. “Let me pass,” he calmly replied. “I’m not a police-spy; I shall not reveal your hiding-place, never fear.” And as Rougon continued to speak of the family dignity and the authority with which his seniority invested him: “Do I belong to your family?” the young man continued. “You have always disowned me. To-day, fear has driven you here, because you feel that the day of judgment has arrived. Come, make way! I don’t hide myself; I have a duty to perform.”
Rougon did not stir. But Aunt Dide, who had listened with a sort of delight to Silvere’s vehement language, laid her withered hand on her son’s arm. “Get out of the way, Pierre,” she said; “the lad must go.”
The young man gave his uncle a slight shove, and dashed outside. Then Rougon, having carefully shut the door again, said to his mother in an angry, threatening tone: “If any mischief happens to him it will be your fault. You’re an old mad-woman; you don’t know what you’ve just done.”
Adelaide, however, did not appear to hear him. She went and threw some vine-branches on the fire, which was going out, and murmured with a vague smile: “I’m used to it. He would remain away for months together, and then come back to me in much better health.”
She was no doubt speaking of Macquart.
In the meantime, Silvere hastily regained the market-place. As he approached the spot where he had left Miette, he heard a loud uproar of voices and saw a crowd which made him quicken his steps. A cruel scene had just occurred. Some inquisitive people were walking among the insurgents, while the latter quietly partook of their meal. Amongst these onlookers was Justin Rebufat, the son of the farmer of the Jas–Meiffren, a youth of twenty years old, a sickly, squint-eyed creature, who harboured implacable hatred against his cousin Miette. At home he grudged her the bread she ate, and treated her like a beggar picked up from the gutter out of charity. It is probable that the young girl had rejected his advances. Lank and pale, with ill-proportioned limbs and face all awry, he revenged himself upon her for his own ugliness, and the contempt which the handsome, vigorous girl must have evinced for him. He ardently longed to induce his father to send her about her business; and for this reason he was always spying upon her. For some time past, he had become aware of the meetings with Silvere, and had only awaited a decisive opportunity to reveal everything to his father, Rebufat.
On the evening in question, having seen her leave home at about eight o’clock, Justin’s hatred had overpowered him, and he had been unable to keep silent any longer. Rebufat, on hearing his story, fell into a terrible rage, and declared that he would kick the gadabout out of his house should she have the audacity to return. Justin then went to bed, relishing beforehand the fine scene which would take place on the morrow. Then, however, a burning desire came upon him for some immediate foretaste of his revenge. So he dressed himself again and went out. Perhaps he might meet Miette. In that case he was resolved to treat her insolently. This is how he came to witness the arrival of the insurgents, whom he followed to the town-hall with a vague presentiment that he would find the lovers there. And, indeed, he at last caught sight of his cousin on the seat where she was waiting for Silvere. Seeing her wrapped in her long pelisse, with the red flag at her side, resting against a market pillar, he began to sneer and deride her in foul language. The girl, thunderstruck at seeing him, was unable to speak. She wept beneath his abuse, and whist she was overcome by sobbing, bowing her head and hiding her face, Justin called her a convict’s daughter, and shouted that old Rebufat would give her a good thrashing should she ever dare to return to Jas–Meiffren.
For a quarter of an hour he thus kept her smarting and trembling. Some people had gathered round, and grinned stupidly at the painful scene. At last a few insurgents interfered, and threatened the young man with exemplary chastisement if he did not leave Miette alone. But Justin, although he retreated, declared that he was not afraid of them. It was just at this moment that Silvere came up. Young Rebufat, on catching sight of him, made a sudden bound, as if to take flight; for he was afraid of him, knowing that he was much stronger than himself. He could not, however, resist the temptation to cast a parting insult on the girl in her lover’s presence.
“Ah! I knew very well,” he cried, “that the wheelwright could not be far off! You left us to run after that crack-brained fellow, eh? You wretched girl! When’s the baptism to be?”
Then he retreated a few steps further on seeing Silvere clench his fists.
“And mind,” he continued, with a vile sneer, “don’t come to our house again. My father will kick you out if you do! Do you hear?”
But he ran away howling, with bruised visage. For Silvere had bounded upon him and dealt him a blow full in the face. The young man did not pursue him. When he returned to Miette he found her standing up, feverishly wiping her tears away with the palm of her hand. And as he gazed at her tenderly, in order to console her, she made a sudden energetic gesture. “No,” she said, “I’m not going to cry any more, you’ll see. I’m very glad of it. I don’t feel any regret now for having left home. I am free.”
She took up the flag and led Silvere back into the midst of the insurgents. It was now nearly two o’clock in the morning. The cold was becoming so intense that the Republicans had risen to their feet and were marching to and fro in order to warm themselves while they finished their bread. At last their leaders gave orders for departure. The column formed again. The prisoners were placed in the middle of it. Besides Monsieur Garconnet and Commander Sicardot, the insurgents had arrested Monsieur Peirotte, the receiver of taxes, and several other functionaries, all of whom they led away.
At this moment Aristide was observed walking about among the groups. In presence of this formidable rising, the dear fellow had thought it imprudent not to remain on friendly terms with the Republicans; but as, on the other hand, he did not desire to compromise himself too much, he had come to bid them farewell with his arm in a sling, complaining bitterly of the accursed injury which prevented him from carrying a weapon. As he walked through the crowd he came across his brother Pascal, provided with a case of surgical instruments and a little portable medicine chest. The doctor informed him, in his quiet, way, that he intended to follow the insurgents. At this Aristide inwardly pronounced him a great fool. At last he himself slunk away, fearing lest the others should entrust the care of the town to him, a post which he deemed exceptionally perilous.
The insurgents could not think of keeping Plassans in their power. The town was animated by so reactionary a spirit that it seemed impossible even to establish a democratic municipal commission there, as had already been done in other places. So they would simply have gone off without taking any further steps if Macquart, prompted and emboldened by his own private animosities, had not offered to hold Plassans in awe, on condition that they left him twenty determined men. These men were given him, and at their head he marched off triumphantly to take possession of the town-hall. Meantime the column of insurgents was wending its way along the Cours Sauvaire, and making its exit by the Grand’-Porte, leaving the streets, which it had traversed like a tempest, silent and deserted in its rear. The high road, whitened by the moonshine, stretched far into the distance. Miette had refused the support of Silvere’s arm; she marched on bravely, steady and upright, holding the red flag aloft with both hands, without complaining of the cold which was turning her fingers blue.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02