It was not until Sunday, the day after the massacre at Sainte–Roure, that the troops passed through Plassans again. The prefect and the colonel, whom Monsieur Garconnet had invited to dinner, once more entered the town alone. The soldiers went round the ramparts and encamped in the Faubourg, on the Nice road. Night was falling; the sky, overcast since the morning, had a strange yellow tint, and illumined the town with a murky light, similar to the copper-coloured glimmer of stormy weather. The reception of the troops by the inhabitants was timid; the bloodstained soldiers, who passed by weary and silent, in the yellow twilight, horrified the cleanly citizens promenading on the Cours. They stepped out of the way whispering terrible stories of fusillades and revengeful reprisals which still live in the recollection of the region. The Coup d’Etat terror was beginning to make itself felt, an overwhelming terror which kept the South in a state of tremor for many a long month. Plassans, in its fear and hatred of the insurgents, had welcomed the troops on their first arrival with enthusiasm; but now, at the appearance of that gloomy taciturn regiment, whose men were ready to fire at a word from their officers, the retired merchants and even the notaries of the new town anxiously examined their consciences, asking if they had not committed some political peccadilloes which might be thought deserving of a bullet.
The municipal authorities had returned on the previous evening in a couple of carts hired at Sainte–Roure. Their unexpected entry was devoid of all triumphal display. Rougon surrendered the mayor’s arm-chair without much regret. The game was over; and with feverish longing he now awaited the recompense for his devotion. On the Sunday — he had not hoped for it until the following day — he received a letter from Eugene. Since the previous Thursday Felicite had taken care to send her son the numbers of the “Gazette” and “Independant” which, in special second editions had narrated the battle of the night and the arrival of the prefect at Plassans. Eugene now replied by return of post that the nomination of a receivership would soon be signed; but added that he wished to give them some good news immediately. He had obtained the ribbon of the Legion of Honour for his father. Felicite wept with joy. Her husband decorated! Her proud dream had never gone as far as that. Rougon, pale with delight, declared they must give a grand dinner that very evening. He no longer thought of expense; he would have thrown his last fifty francs out of the drawing-room windows in order to celebrate that glorious day.
“Listen,” he said to his wife; “you must invite Sicardot: he has annoyed me with that rosette of his for a long time! Then Granoux and Roudier; I shouldn’t be at all sorry to make them feel that it isn’t their purses that will ever win them the cross. Vuillet is a skinflint, but the triumph ought to be complete: invite him as well as the small fry. I was forgetting; you must go and call on the marquis in person; we will seat him on your right; he’ll look very well at our table. You know that Monsieur Garconnet is entertaining the colonel and the prefect. That is to make me understand that I am nobody now. But I can afford to laugh at his mayoralty; it doesn’t bring him in a sou! He has invited me, but I shall tell him that I also have some people coming. The others will laugh on the wrong side of their mouths tomorrow. And let everything be of the best. Have everything sent from the Hotel de Provence. We must outdo the mayor’s dinner.”
Felicite set to work. Pierre still felt some vague uneasiness amidst his rapture. The Coup d’Etat was going to pay his debts, his son Aristide had repented of his faults, and he was at last freeing himself from Macquart; but he feared some folly on Pascal’s part, and was especially anxious about the lot reserved for Silvere. Not that he felt the least pity for the lad; he was simply afraid the matter of the gendarme might come before the Assize Court. Ah! if only some discriminating bullet had managed to rid him of that young scoundrel! As his wife had pointed out to him in the morning, all obstacles had fallen away before him; the family which had dishonoured him had, at the last moment, worked for his elevation; his sons Eugene and Aristide, those spend-thrifts, the cost of whose college life he had so bitterly regretted, were at last paying interest on the capital expended for their education. And yet the thought of that wretched Silvere must come to mar his hour of triumph!
While Felicite was running about to prepare the dinner for the evening, Pierre heard of the arrival of the troops and determined to go and make inquiries. Sicardot, whom he had questioned on his return, knew nothing; Pascal must have remained to look after the wounded; as for Silvere, he had not even been seen by the commander, who scarcely knew him. Rougon therefore repaired to the Faubourg, intending to make inquiries there and at the same time pay Macquart the eight hundred francs which he had just succeeded in raising with great difficulty. However, when he found himself in the crowded encampment, and from a distance saw the prisoners sitting in long files on the beams in the Aire Saint–Mittre, guarded by soldiers gun in hand, he felt afraid of being compromised, and so slunk off to his mother’s house, with the intention of sending the old woman out to pick up some information.
When he entered the hovel it was almost night. At first the only person he saw there was Macquart smoking and drinking brandy.
“Is that you? I’m glad of it,” muttered Antoine. “I’m growing deuced cold here. Have you got the money?”
But Pierre did not reply. He had just perceived his son Pascal leaning over the bed. And thereupon he questioned him eagerly. The doctor, surprised by his uneasiness, which he attributed to paternal affection, told him that the soldiers had taken him and would have shot him, had it not been for the intervention of some honest fellow whom he did not know. Saved by his profession of surgeon, he had returned to Plassans with the troops. This greatly relieved Rougon. So there was yet another who would not compromise him. He was evincing his delight by repeated hand-shakings, when Pascal concluded in a sorrowful voice: “Oh! don’t make merry. I have just found my poor grandmother in a very dangerous state. I brought her back this carbine, which she values very much; I found her lying here, and she has not moved since.”
Pierre’s eyes were becoming accustomed to the dimness. In the fast fading light he saw aunt Dide stretched, rigid and seemingly lifeless, upon her bed. Her wretched frame, attacked by neurosis from the hour of birth, was at length laid prostrate by a supreme shock. Her nerves had so to say consumed her blood. Moreover some cruel grief seemed to have suddenly accelerated her slow wasting-away. Her pale nun-like face, drawn and pinched by a life of gloom and cloister-like self-denial, was now stained with red blotches. With convulsed features, eyes that glared terribly, and hands twisted and clenched, she lay at full length in her skirts, which failed to hide the sharp outlines of her scrawny limbs. Extended there with lips closely pressed she imparted to the dim room all the horror of a mute death-agony.
Rougon made a gesture of vexation. This heart-rending spectacle was very distasteful to him. He had company coming to dinner in the evening, and it would be extremely inconvenient for him to have to appear mournful. His mother was always doing something to bother him. She might just as well have chosen another day. However, he put on an appearance of perfect ease, as he said: “Bah! it’s nothing. I’ve seen her like that a hundred times. You must let her lie still; it’s the only thing that does her any good.”
Pascal shook his head. “No, this fit isn’t like the others,” he whispered. “I have often studied her, and have never observed such symptoms before. Just look at her eyes: there is a peculiar fluidity, a pale brightness about them which causes me considerable uneasiness. And her face, how frightfully every muscle of it is distorted!”
Then bending over to observe her features more closely, he continued in a whisper, as though speaking to himself: “I have never seen such a face, excepting among people who have been murdered or have died from fright. She must have experienced some terrible shock.”
“But how did the attack begin?” Rougon impatiently inquired, at a loss for an excuse to leave the room.
Pascal did not know. Macquart, as he poured himself out another glass of brandy, explained that he had felt an inclination to drink a little Cognac, and had sent her to fetch a bottle. She had not been long absent, and at the very moment when she returned she had fallen rigid on the floor without uttering a word. Macquart himself had carried her to the bed.
“What surprises me,” he said, by way of conclusion, “is, that she did not break the bottle.”
The young doctor reflected. After a short pause he resumed: “I heard two shots fired as I came here. Perhaps those ruffians have been shooting some more prisoners. If she passed through the ranks of the soldiers at that moment, the sight of blood may have thrown her into this fit. She must have had some dreadful shock.”
Fortunately he had with him the little medicine-case which he had been carrying about ever since the departure of the insurgents. He tried to pour a few drops of reddish liquid between aunt Dide’s closely-set teeth, while Macquart again asked his brother: “Have you got the money?”
“Yes, I’ve brought it; we’ll settle now,” Rougon replied, glad of this diversion.
Thereupon Macquart, seeing that he was about to be paid, began to moan. He had only learnt the consequence of his treachery when it was too late; otherwise he would have demanded twice or thrice as much. And he complained bitterly. Really now a thousand francs was not enough. His children had forsaken him, he was all alone in the world, and obliged to quit France. He almost wept as he spoke of his coming exile.
“Come now, will you take the eight hundred francs?” said Rougon, who was in haste to be off.
“No, certainly not; double the sum. Your wife cheated me. If she had told me distinctly what it was she expected of me, I would never have compromised myself for such a trifle.”
Rougon laid the eight hundred francs upon the table.
“I swear I haven’t got any more,” he resumed. “I will think of you later. But do, for mercy’s sake, get away this evening.”
Macquart, cursing and muttering protests, thereupon carried the table to the window, and began to count the gold in the fading twilight. The coins tickled the tips of his fingers very pleasantly as he let them fall, and jingled musically in the darkness. At last he paused for a moment to say: “You promised to get me a berth, remember. I want to return to France. The post of rural guard in some pleasant neighbourhood which I could mention, would just suit me.”
“Very well, I’ll see about it,” Rougon replied. “Have you got the eight hundred francs?”
Macquart resumed his counting. The last coins were just clinking when a burst of laughter made them turn their heads. Aunt Dide was standing up in front of the bed, with her bodice unfastened, her white hair hanging loose, and her face stained with red blotches. Pascal had in vain endeavoured to hold her down. Trembling all over, and with her arms outstretched, she shook her head deliriously.
“The blood-money! the blood-money!” she again and again repeated. “I heard the gold. And it is they, they who sold him. Ah! the murderers! They are a pack of wolves.”
Then she pushed her hair aback, and passed her hand over her brow, as though seeking to collect her thoughts. And she continued: “Ah! I have long seen him with a bullet-hole in his forehead. There were always people lying in wait for him with guns. They used to sign to me that they were going to fire. . . . It’s terrible! I feel some one breaking my bones and battering out my brains. Oh! Mercy! Mercy! I beseech you; he shall not see her any more — never, never! I will shut him up. I will prevent him from walking out with her. Mercy! Mercy! Don’t fire. It is not my fault. If you knew ——”
She had almost fallen on her knees, and was weeping and entreating while she stretched her poor trembling hands towards some horrible vision which she saw in the darkness. Then she suddenly rose upright, and her eyes opened still more widely as a terrible cry came from her convulsed throat, as though some awful sight, visible to her alone, had filled her with mad terror.
“Oh, the gendarme!” she said, choking and falling backwards on the bed, where she rolled about, breaking into long bursts of furious, insane laughter.
Pascal was studying the attack attentively. The two brothers, who felt very frightened, and only detected snatches of what their mother said, had taken refuge in a corner of the room. When Rougon heard the word gendarme, he thought he understood her. Ever since the murder of her lover, the elder Macquart, on the frontier, aunt Dide had cherished a bitter hatred against all gendarmes and custom-house officers, whom she mingled together in one common longing for vengeance.
“Why, it’s the story of the poacher that she’s telling us,” he whispered.
But Pascal made a sign to him to keep quiet. The stricken woman had raised herself with difficulty, and was looking round her, with a stupefied air. She remained silent for a moment, endeavouring to recognise the various objects in the room, as though she were in some strange place. Then, with a sudden expression of anxiety, she asked: “Where is the gun?”
The doctor put the carbine into her hands. At this she raised a light cry of joy, and gazed at the weapon, saying in a soft, sing-song, girlish whisper: “That is it. Oh! I recognise it! It is all stained with blood. The stains are quite fresh today. His red hands have left marks of blood on the butt. Ah! poor, poor aunt Dide!”
Then she became dizzy once more, and lapsed into silent thought.
“The gendarme was dead,” she murmured at last, “but I have seen him again; he has come back. They never die, those blackguards!”
Again did gloomy passion come over her, and, shaking the carbine, she advanced towards her two sons who, speechless with fright, retreated to the very wall. Her loosened skirts trailed along the ground, as she drew up her twisted frame, which age had reduced to mere bones.
“It’s you who fired!” she cried. “I heard the gold. . . . Wretched woman that I am! . . . I brought nothing but wolves into the world — a whole family — a whole litter of wolves! . . . There was only one poor lad, and him they have devoured; each had a bite at him, and their lips are covered with blood. . . . Ah! the accursed villains! They have robbed, they have murdered. . . . And they live like gentlemen. Villains! Accursed villains!”
She sang, laughed, cried, and repeated “accursed villains!” in strangely sonorous tones, which suggested a crackling of a fusillade. Pascal, with tears in his eyes, took her in his arms and laid her on the bed again. She submitted like a child, but persisted in her wailing cries, accelerating their rhythm, and beating time on the sheet with her withered hands.
“That’s just what I was afraid of,” the doctor said; “she is mad. The blow has been too heavy for a poor creature already subject, as she is, to acute neurosis. She will die in a lunatic asylum like her father.”
“But what could she have seen?” asked Rougon, at last venturing to quit the corner where he had hidden himself.
“I have a terrible suspicion,” Pascal replied. “I was going to speak to you about Silvere when you came in. He is a prisoner. You must endeavour to obtain his release from the prefect, if there is still time.”
The old oil-dealer turned pale as he looked at his son. Then, rapidly, he responded: “Listen to me; you stay here and watch her. I’m too busy this evening. We will see tomorrow about conveying her to the lunatic asylum at Les Tulettes. As for you, Macquart, you must leave this very night. Swear to me that you will! I’m going to find Monsieur de Bleriot.”
He stammered as he spoke, and felt more eager than ever to get out into the fresh air of the streets. Pascal fixed a penetrating look on the madwoman, and then on his father and uncle. His professional instinct was getting the better of him, and he studied the mother and the sons, with all the keenness of a naturalist observing the metamorphosis of some insect. He pondered over the growth of that family to which he belonged, over the different branches growing from one parent stock, whose sap carried identical germs to the farthest twigs, which bent in divers ways according to the sunshine or shade in which they lived. And for a moment, as by the glow of a lightning flash, he thought he could espy the future of the Rougon–Macquart family, a pack of unbridled, insatiate appetites amidst a blaze of gold and blood.
Aunt Dide, however, had ceased her wailing chant at the mention of Silvere’s name. For a moment she listened anxiously. Then she broke out into terrible shrieks. Night had now completely fallen, and the black room seemed void and horrible. The shrieks of the madwoman, who was no longer visible, rang out from the darkness as from a grave. Rougon, losing his head, took to flight, pursued by those taunting cries, whose bitterness seemed to increase amidst the gloom.
As he was emerging from the Impasse Saint–Mittre with hesitating steps, wondering whether it would not be dangerous to solicit Silvere’s pardon from the prefect, he saw Aristide prowling about the timber-yard. The latter, recognising his father, ran up to him with an expression of anxiety and whispered a few words in his ear. Pierre turned pale, and cast a look of alarm towards the end of the yard, where the darkness was only relieved by the ruddy glow of a little gipsy fire. Then they both disappeared down the Rue de Rome, quickening their steps as though they had committed a murder, and turning up their coat-collars in order that they might not be recognised.
“That saves me an errand,” Rougon whispered. “Let us go to dinner. They are waiting for us.”
When they arrived, the yellow drawing-room was resplendent. Felicite was all over the place. Everybody was there; Sicardot, Granoux, Roudier, Vuillet, the oil-dealers, the almond-dealers, the whole set. The marquis, however, had excused himself on the plea of rheumatism; and, besides, he was about to leave Plassans on a short trip. Those bloodstained bourgeois offended his feelings of delicacy, and moreover his relative, the Count de Valqueyras, had begged him to withdraw from public notice for a little time. Monsieur de Carnavant’s refusal vexed the Rougons; but Felicite consoled herself by resolving to make a more profuse display. She hired a pair of candelabra and ordered several additional dishes as a kind of substitute for the marquis. The table was laid in the yellow drawing-room, in order to impart more solemnity to the occasion. The Hotel de Provence had supplied the silver, the china, and the glass. The cloth had been laid ever since five o’clock in order that the guests on arriving might feast their eyes upon it. At either end of the table, on the white cloth, were bouquets of artificial roses, in porcelain vases gilded and painted with flowers.
When the habitual guests of the yellow drawing-room were assembled there they could not conceal their admiration of the spectacle. Several gentlemen smiled with an air of embarrassment while they exchanged furtive glances, which clearly signified, “These Rougons are mad, they are throwing their money out of the window.” The truth was that Felicite, on going round to invite her guests, had been unable to hold her tongue. So everybody knew that Pierre had been decorated, and that he was about to be nominated to some post; at which, of course, they pulled wry faces. Roudier indeed observed that “the little black woman was puffing herself out too much.” Now that “prize-day” had come this band of bourgeois, who had rushed upon the expiring Republic — each one keeping an eye on the other, and glorying in giving a deeper bite than his neighbour — did not think it fair that their hosts should have all the laurels of the battle. Even those who had merely howled by instinct, asking no recompense of the rising Empire, were greatly annoyed to see that, thanks to them, the poorest and least reputable of them all should be decorated with the red ribbon. The whole yellow drawing-room ought to have been decorated!
“Not that I value the decoration,” Roudier said to Granoux, whom he had dragged into the embrasure of a window. “I refused it in the time of Louis–Philippe, when I was purveyor to the court. Ah! Louis–Philippe was a good king. France will never find his equal!”
Roudier was becoming an Orleanist once more. And he added, with the crafty hypocrisy of an old hosier from the Rue Saint–Honore: “But you, my dear Granoux; don’t you think the ribbon would look well in your button-hole? After all, you did as much to save the town as Rougon did. Yesterday, when I was calling upon some very distinguished persons, they could scarcely believe it possible that you had made so much noise with a mere hammer.”
Granoux stammered his thanks, and, blushing like a maiden at her first confession of love, whispered in Roudier’s ear: “Don’t say anything about it, but I have reason to believe that Rougon will ask the ribbon for me. He’s a good fellow at heart, you know.”
The old hosier thereupon became grave, and assumed a very affable manner. When Vuillet came and spoke to him of the well-deserved reward that their friend had just received, he replied in a loud voice, so as to be heard by Felicite, who was sitting a little way off, that “men like Rougon were an ornament to the Legion of Honour.” The bookseller joined in the chorus; he had that morning received a formal assurance that the custom of the college would be restored to him. As for Sicardot, he at first felt somewhat annoyed to find himself no longer the only one of the set who was decorated. According to him, none but soldiers had a right to the ribbon. Pierre’s valour surprised him. However, being in reality a good-natured fellow, he at last grew warmer, and ended by saying that the Napoleons always knew how to distinguish men of spirit and energy.
Rougon and Aristide consequently had an enthusiastic reception; on their arrival all hands were held out to them. Some of the guests went so far as to embrace them. Angele sat on the sofa, by the side of her mother-inlaw, feeling very happy, and gazing at the table with the astonishment of a gourmand who has never seen so many dishes at once. When Aristide approached, Sicardot complimented his son-inlaw upon his superb article in the “Independant.” He restored his friendship to him. The young man, in answer to the fatherly questions which Sicardot addressed to him, replied that he was anxious to take his little family with him to Paris, where his brother Eugene would push him forward; but he was in want of five hundred francs. Sicardot thereupon promised him the money, already foreseeing the day when his daughter would be received at the Tuileries by Napoleon III.
In the meantime, Felicite had made a sign to her husband. Pierre, surrounded by everybody and anxiously questioned about his pallor, could only escape for a minute. He was just able to whisper in his wife’s ear that he had found Pascal and that Macquart would leave that night. Then lowering his voice still more he told her of his mother’s insanity, and placed his finger on his lips, as if to say: “Not a word; that would spoil the whole evening.” Felicite bit her lips. They exchanged a look in which they read their common thoughts: so now the old woman would not trouble them any more: the poacher’s hovel would be razed to the ground, as the walls of the Fouques’ enclosure had been demolished; and they would for ever enjoy the respect and esteem of Plassans.
But the guests were looking at the table. Felicite showed the gentlemen their seats. It was perfect bliss. As each one took his spoon, Sicardot made a gesture to solicit a moment’s delay. Then he rose and gravely said: “Gentlemen, on behalf of the company present, I wish to express to our host how pleased we are at the rewards which his courage and patriotism have procured for him. I now see that he must have acted upon a heaven-sent inspiration in remaining here, while those beggars were dragging myself and others along the high roads. Therefore, I heartily applaud the decision of the government. . . . Let me finish, you can then congratulate our friend. . . . Know, then, that our friend, besides being made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, is also to be appointed to a receiver of taxes.”
There was a cry of surprise. They had expected a small post. Some of them tried to force a smile; but, aided by the sight of the table, the compliments again poured forth profusely.
Sicardot once more begged for silence. “Wait one moment,” he resumed; “I have not finished. Just one word. It is probable that our friend will remain among us, owing to the death of Monsieur Peirotte.”
Whilst the guests burst out into exclamations, Felicite felt a keen pain in her heart. Sicardot had already told her that the receiver had been shot; but at the mention of that sudden and shocking death, just as they were starting on that triumphal dinner, it seemed as if a chilling gust swept past her face. She remembered her wish; it was she who had killed that man. However, amidst the tinkling music of the silver, the company began to do honour to the banquet. In the provinces, people eat very much and very noisily. By the time the releve was served, the gentlemen were all talking together; they showered kicks upon the vanquished, flattered one another, and made disparaging remarks about the absence of the marquis. It was impossible, they said, to maintain intercourse with the nobility. Roudier even gave out that the marquis had begged to be excused because his fear of the insurgents had given him jaundice. At the second course they all scrambled like hounds at the quarry. The oil-dealers and almond-dealers were the men who saved France. They clinked glasses to the glory of the Rougons. Granoux, who was very red, began to stammer, while Vuillet, very pale, was quite drunk. Nevertheless Sicardot continued filling his glass. For her part Angele, who had already eaten too much, prepared herself some sugar and water. The gentlemen were so delighted at being freed from panic, and finding themselves together again in that yellow drawing-room, round a good table, in the bright light radiating from the candelabra and the chandelier — which they now saw for the first time without its fly-specked cover — that they gave way to most exuberant folly and indulged in the coarsest enjoyment. Their voices rose in the warm atmosphere more huskily and eulogistically at each successive dish till they could scarcely invent fresh compliments. However, one of them, an old retired master-tanner, hit upon this fine phrase — that the dinner was a “perfect feast worthy of Lucullus.”
Pierre was radiant, and his big pale face perspired with triumph. Felicite, already accustoming herself to her new station in life, said that they would probably rent poor Monsieur Peirotte’s flat until they could purchase a house of their own in the new town. She was already planning how she would place her future furniture in the receiver’s rooms. She was entering into possession of her Tuileries. At one moment, however, as the uproar of voices became deafening, she seemed to recollect something, and quitting her seat she whispered in Aristide’s ear: “And Silvere?”
The young man started with surprise at the question.
“He is dead,” he replied, likewise in a whisper. “I was there when the gendarme blew his brains out with a pistol.”
Felicite in her turn shuddered. She opened her mouth to ask her son why he had not prevented this murder by claiming the lad; but abruptly hesitating she remained there speechless. Then Aristide, who had read her question on her quivering lips, whispered: “You understand, I said nothing — so much the worse for him! I did quite right. It’s a good riddance.”
This brutal frankness displeased Felicite. So Aristide had his skeleton, like his father and mother. He would certainly not have confessed so openly that he had been strolling about the Faubourg and had allowed his cousin to be shot, had not the wine from the Hotel de Provence and the dreams he was building upon his approaching arrival in Paris, made him depart from his habitual cunning. The words once spoken, he swung himself to and fro on his chair. Pierre, who had watched the conversation between his wife and son from a distance, understood what had passed and glanced at them like an accomplice imploring silence. It was the last blast of terror, as it were, which blew over the Rougons, amidst the splendour and enthusiastic merriment of the dinner. True, Felicite, on returning to her seat, espied a taper burning behind a window on the other side of the road. Some one sat watching Monsieur Peirotte’s corpse, which had been brought back from Sainte–Roure that morning. She sat down, feeling as if that taper were heating her back. But the gaiety was now increasing, and exclamations of rapture rang through the yellow drawing-room when the dessert appeared.
At that same hour, the Faubourg was still shuddering at the tragedy which had just stained the Aire Saint–Mittre with blood. The return of the troops, after the carnage on the Nores plain, had been marked by the most cruel reprisals. Men were beaten to death behind bits of wall, with the butt-ends of muskets, others had their brains blown out in ravines by the pistols of gendarmes. In order that terror might impose silence, the soldiers strewed their road with corpses. One might have followed them by the red trail which they left behind.[*] It was a long butchery. At every halting-place, a few insurgents were massacred. Two were killed at Sainte–Roure, three at Ocheres, one at Beage. When the troops were encamped at Plassans, on the Nice road, it was decided that one more prisoner, the most guilty, should be shot. The victors judged it wise to leave this fresh corpse behind them in order to inspire the town with respect for the new-born Empire. But the soldiers were now weary of killing; none offered himself for the fatal task. The prisoners, thrown on the beams in the timber-yard as though on a camp bed, and bound together in pairs by the hands, listened and waited in a state of weary, resigned stupor.
[*] Though M. Zola has changed his place in his account of
the insurrection, that account is strictly accurate in all
its chief particulars. What he says of the savagery both of
the soldiers and of their officers is confirmed by all
impartial historical writers. — EDITOR.
At that moment the gendarme Rengade roughly opened a way for himself through the crowd of inquisitive idlers. As soon as he heard that the troops had returned with several hundred insurgents, he had risen from bed, shivering with fever, and risking his life in the cold, dark December air. Scarcely was he out of doors when his wound reopened, the bandage which covered his eyeless socket became stained with blood, and a red streamlet trickled over his cheek and moustache. He looked frightful in his dumb fury with his pale face and blood-stained bandage, as he ran along closely scrutinising each of the prisoners. He followed the beams, bending down and going to and fro, making the bravest shudder by his abrupt appearance. And, all of a sudden: “Ah! the bandit, I’ve got him!” he cried.
He had just laid his hand on Silvere’s shoulder. Silvere, crouching down on a beam, with lifeless and expressionless face, was looking straight before him into the pale twilight, with a calm, stupefied air. Ever since his departure from Sainte–Roure, he had retained that vacant stare. Along the high road, for many a league, whenever the soldiers urged on the march of their captives with the butt-ends of their rifles, he had shown himself as gentle as a child. Covered with dust, thirsty and weary, he trudged onward without saying a word, like one of those docile animals that herdsmen drive along. He was thinking of Miette. He ever saw her lying on the banner, under the trees with her eyes turned upwards. For three days he had seen none but her; and at this very moment, amidst the growing darkness, he still saw her.
Rengade turned towards the officer, who had failed to find among the soldiers the requisite men for an execution.
“This villain put my eye out,” he said, pointing to Silvere. “Hand him over to me. It’s as good as done for you.”
The officer did not reply in words, but withdrew with an air of indifference, making a vague gesture. The gendarme understood that the man was surrendered to him.
“Come, get up!” he resumed, as he shook him.
Silvere, like all the other prisoners, had a companion attached to him. He was fastened by the arm to a peasant of Poujols named Mourgue, a man about fifty, who had been brutified by the scorching sun and the hard labour of tilling the ground. Crooked-backed already, his hands hardened, his face coarse and heavy, he blinked his eyes in a stupid manner, with the stubborn, distrustful expression of an animal subject to the lash. He had set out armed with a pitchfork, because his fellow villagers had done so; but he could not have explained what had thus set him adrift on the high roads. Since he had been made a prisoner he understood it still less. He had some vague idea that he was being conveyed home. His amazement at finding himself bound, the sight of all the people staring at him, stupefied him still more. As he only spoke and understood the dialect of the region, he could not imagine what the gendarme wanted. He raised his coarse, heavy face towards him with an effort; then, fancying he was being asked the name of his village, he said in his hoarse voice:
“I come from Poujols.”
A burst of laughter ran through the crowd, and some voices cried: “Release the peasant.”
“Bah!” Rengade replied; “the more of this vermin that’s crushed the better. As they’re together, they can both go.”
There was a murmur.
But the gendarme turned his terrible blood-stained face upon the onlookers, and they slunk off. One cleanly little citizen went away declaring that if he remained any longer it would spoil his appetite for dinner. However some boys who recognised Silvere, began to speak of “the red girl.” Thereupon the little citizen retraced his steps, in order to see the lover of the female standard-bearer, that depraved creature who had been mentioned in the “Gazette.”
Silvere, for his part, neither saw nor heard anything; Rengade had to seize him by the collar. Thereupon he got up, forcing Mourgue to rise also.
“Come,” said the gendarme. “It won’t take long.”
Silvere then recognised the one-eyed man. He smiled. He must have understood. But he turned his head away. The sight of the one-eyed man, of his moustaches which congealed blood stiffened as with sinister rime, caused him profound grief. He would have liked to die in perfect peace. So he avoided the gaze of Rengade’s one eye, which glared from beneath the white bandage. And of his own accord he proceeded to the end of the Aire Saint–Mittre, to the narrow lane hidden by the timber stacks. Mourgue followed him thither.
The Aire stretched out, with an aspect of desolation under the sallow sky. A murky light fell here and there from the copper-coloured clouds. Never had a sadder and more lingering twilight cast its melancholy over this bare expanse — this wood-yard with its slumbering timber, so stiff and rigid in the cold. The prisoners, the soldiers, and the mob along the high road disappeared amid the darkness of the trees. The expanse, the beams, the piles of planks alone grew pale under the fading light, assuming a muddy tint that vaguely suggested the bed of a dried-up torrent. The sawyers’ trestles, rearing their meagre framework in a corner, seemed to form gallows, or the uprights of a guillotine. And there was no living soul there excepting three gipsies who showed their frightened faces at the door of their van — an old man and woman, and a big girl with woolly hair, whose eyes gleamed like those of a wolf.
Before reaching the secluded path, Silvere looked round him. He bethought himself of a far away Sunday when he had crossed the wood-yard in the bright moonlight. How calm and soft it had been! — how slowly had the pale rays passed over the beams! Supreme silence had fallen from the frozen sky. And amidst this silence, the woolly-haired gipsy girl had sung in a low key and an unknown tongue. Then Silvere remembered that the seemingly far-off Sunday was only a week old. But a week ago he had come to bid Miette farewell! How long past it seemed! He felt as though he had not set foot in the wood-yard for years. But when he reached the narrow path his heart failed him. He recognised the odour of the grass, the shadows of the planks, the holes in the wall. A woeful voice rose from all those things. The path stretched out sad and lonely; it seemed longer to him than usual, and he felt a cold wind blowing down it. The spot had aged cruelly. He saw that the wall was moss-eaten, that the verdant carpet was dried up by frost, that the piles of timber had been rotted by rain. It was perfect devastation. The yellow twilight fell like fine dust upon the ruins of all that had been most dear to him. He was obliged to close his eyes that he might again behold the lane green, and live his happy hours afresh. It was warm weather; and he was racing with Miette in the balmy air. Then the cruel December rains fell unceasingly, yet they still came there, sheltering themselves beneath the planks and listening with rapture to the heavy plashing of the shower. His whole life — all his happiness — passed before him like a flash of lightning. Miette was climbing over the wall, running to him, shaking with sonorous laughter. She was there; he could see her, gleaming white through the darkness, with her living helm of ink-black hair. She was talking about the magpies’ nests, which are so difficult to steal, and she dragged him along with her. Then he heard the gentle murmur of the Viorne in the distance, the chirping of the belated grasshoppers, and the blowing of the breeze among the poplars in the meadows of Sainte–Claire. Ah, how they used to run! How well he remembered it! She had learnt to swim in a fortnight. She was a plucky girl. She had only had one great fault: she was inclined to pilfering. But he would have cured her of that. Then the thought of their first embraces brought him back to the narrow path. They had always ended by returning to that nook. He fancied he could hear the gipsy girl’s song dying away, the creaking of the last shutters, the solemn striking of the clocks. Then the hour of separation came, and Miette climbed the wall again and threw him a kiss. And he saw her no more. Emotion choked him at the thought: he would never see her again — never!
“When you’re ready,” jeered the one-eyed man; “come, choose your place.”
Silvere took a few more steps. He was approaching the end of the path, and could see nothing but a strip of sky in which the rust-coloured light was fading away. Here had he spent his life for two years past. The slow approach of death added an ineffable charm to this pathway which had so long served as a lovers’ walk. He loitered, bidding a long and lingering farewell to all he loved; the grass, the timber, the stone of the old wall, all those things into which Miette had breathed life. And again his thoughts wandered. They were waiting till they should be old enough to marry: Aunt Dide would remain with them. Ah! if they had fled far away, very far away, to some unknown village, where the scamps of the Faubourg would no longer have been able to come and cast Chantegreil’s crime in his daughter’s face. What peaceful bliss! They would have opened a wheelwright’s workshop beside some high road. No doubt, he cared little for his ambitions now; he no longer thought of coachmaking, of carriages with broad varnished panels as shiny as mirrors. In the stupor of his despair he could not remember why his dream of bliss would never come to pass. Why did he not go away with Miette and aunt Dide? Then as he racked his memory, he heard the sharp crackling of a fusillade; he saw a standard fall before him, its staff broken and its folds drooping like the wings of a bird brought down by a shot. It was the Republic falling asleep with Miette under the red flag. Ah, what wretchedness! They were both dead, both had bleeding wounds in their breasts. And it was they — the corpses of his two loves — that now barred his path of life. He had nothing left him and might well die himself. These were the thoughts that had made him so gentle, so listless, so childlike all the way from Sainte–Roure. The soldiers might have struck him, he would not have felt it. His spirit no longer inhabited his body. It was far away, prostrate beside the loved ones who were dead under the trees amidst the pungent smoke of the gunpowder.
But the one-eyed man was growing impatient; giving a push to Mourgue, who was lagging behind, he growled: “Get along, do; I don’t want to be here all night.”
Silvere stumbled. He looked at his feet. A fragment of a skull lay whitening in the grass. He thought he heard a murmur of voices filling the pathway. The dead were calling him, those long departed ones, whose warm breath had so strangely perturbed him and his sweetheart during the sultry July evenings. He recognised their low whispers. They were rejoicing, they were telling him to come, and promising to restore Miette to him beneath the earth, in some retreat which would prove still more sequestered than this old trysting-place. The cemetery, whose oppressive odours and dark vegetation had breathed eager desire into the children’s hearts, while alluringly spreading out its couches of rank grass, without succeeding however in throwing them into one another’s arms, now longed to imbibe Silvere’s warm blood. For two summers past it had been expecting the young lovers.
“Is it here?” asked the one-eyed man.
Silvere looked in front of him. He had reached the end of the path. His eyes fell on the tombstone, and he started. Miette was right, that stone was for her. “Here lieth . . . Marie . . . died . . . “ She was dead, that slab had fallen over her. His strength failing him, he leant against the frozen stone. How warm it had been when they sat in that nook, chatting for many a long evening! She had always come that way, and the pressure of her foot, as she alighted from the wall, had worn away the stone’s surface in one corner. The mark seemed instinct with something of her lissom figure. And to Silvere it appeared as if some fatalism attached to all these objects — as if the stone were there precisely in order that he might come to die beside it, there where he had loved.
The one-eyed man cocked his pistols.
Death! death! the thought fascinated Silvere. It was to this spot, then, that they had led him, by the long white road which descends from Sainte–Roure to Plassans. If he had known it, he would have hastened on yet more quickly in order to die on that stone, at the end of the narrow path, in the atmosphere where he could still detect the scent of Miette’s breath! Never had he hoped for such consolation in his grief. Heaven was merciful. He waited, a vague smile playing on is face.
Mourgue, meantime, had caught sight of the pistols. Hitherto he had allowed himself to be dragged along stupidly. But fear now overcame him, and he repeated, in a tone of despair: “I come from Poujols — I come from Poujols!”
Then he threw himself on the ground, rolling at the gendarme’s feet, breaking out into prayers for mercy, and imagining that he was being mistaken for some one else.
“What does it matter to me that you come from Poujols?” Rengade muttered.
And as the wretched man, shivering and crying with terror, and quite unable to understand why he was going to die, held out his trembling hands — his deformed, hard, labourer’s hands — exclaiming in his patois that he had done nothing and ought to be pardoned, the one-eyed man grew quite exasperated at being unable to put the pistol to his temple, owing to his constant movements.
“Will you hold your tongue?” he shouted.
Thereupon Mourgue, mad with fright and unwilling to die, began to howl like a beast — like a pig that is being slaughtered.
“Hold your tongue, you scoundrel!” the gendarme repeated.
And he blew his brains out. The peasant fell with a thud. His body rolled to the foot of a timber-stack, where it remained doubled up. The violence of the shock had severed the rope which fastened him to his companion. Silvere fell on his knees before the tombstone.
It was to make his vengeance the more terrible that Rengade had killed Mourgue first. He played with his second pistol, raising it slowly in order to relish Silvere’s agony. But the latter looked at him quietly. Then again the sight of this man, with the one fierce, scorching eye, made him feel uneasy. He averted his glance, fearing that he might die cowardly if he continued to look at that feverishly quivering gendarme, with blood-stained bandage and bleeding moustache. However, as he raised his eyes to avoid him, he perceived Justin’s head just above the wall, at the very spot where Miette had been wont to leap over.
Justin had been at the Porte de Rome, among the crowd, when the gendarme had led the prisoners away. He had set off as fast as he could by way of the Jas–Meiffren, in his eagerness to witness the execution. The thought that he alone, of all the Faubourg scamps, would view the tragedy at his ease, as from a balcony, made him run so quickly that he twice fell down. And in spite of his wild chase, he arrived too late to witness the first shot. He climbed the mulberry tree in despair; but he smiled when he saw that Silvere still remained. The soldiers had informed him of his cousin’s death, and now the murder of the wheelwright brought his happiness to a climax. He awaited the shot with that delight which the sufferings of others always afforded him — a delight increased tenfold by the horror of the scene, and a feeling of exquisite fear.
Silvere, on recognising that vile scamp’s head all by itself above the wall — that pale grinning face, with hair standing on end — experienced a feeling of fierce rage, a sudden desire to live. It was the last revolt of his blood — a momentary mutiny. He again sank down on his knees, gazing straight before him. A last vision passed before his eyes in the melancholy twilight. At the end of the path, at the entrance of the Impasse Saint–Mittre, he fancied he could see aunt Dide standing erect, white and rigid like the statue of a saint, while she witnessed his agony from a distance.
At that moment he felt the cold pistol on his temple. There was a smile on Justin’s pale face. Closing his eyes, Silvere heard the long-departed dead wildly summoning him. In the darkness, he now saw nothing save Miette, wrapped in the banner, under the trees, with her eyes turned towards heaven. Then the one-eyed man fired, and all was over; the lad’s skull burst open like a ripe pomegranate; his face fell upon the stone, with his lips pressed to the spot which Miette’s feet had worn — that warm spot which still retained a trace of his dead love.
And in the evening at dessert, at the Rougons’ abode, bursts of laughter arose with the fumes from the table, which was still warm with the remains of the dinner. At last the Rougons were nibbling at the pleasures of the wealthy! Their appetites, sharpened by thirty years of restrained desire, now fell to with wolfish teeth. These fierce, insatiate wild beasts, scarcely entering upon indulgence, exulted at the birth of the Empire — the dawn of the Rush for the Spoils. The Coup d’Etat, which retrieved the fortune of the Bonapartes, also laid the foundation for that of the Rougons.
Pierre stood up, held out his glass, and exclaimed: “I drink to Prince Louis — to the Emperor!”
The gentlemen, who had drowned their jealousies in champagne, rose in a body and clinked glasses with deafening shouts. It was a fine spectacle. The bourgeois of Plassans, Roudier, Granoux, Vuillet, and all the others, wept and embraced each other over the corpse of the Republic, which as yet was scarcely cold. But a splendid idea occurred to Sicardot. He took from Felicite’s hair a pink satin bow, which she had placed over her right ear in honour of the occasion, cut off a strip of the satin with his dessert knife, and then solemnly fastened it to Rougon’s button-hole. The latter feigned modesty, and pretended to resist. But his face beamed with joy, as he murmured: “No, I beg you, it is too soon. We must wait until the decree is published.”
“Zounds!” Sicardot exclaimed, “will you please keep that! It’s an old soldier of Napoleon who decorates you!”
The whole company burst into applause. Felicite almost swooned with delight. Silent Granoux jumped up on a chair in his enthusiasm, waving his napkin and making a speech which was lost amid the uproar. The yellow drawing-room was wild with triumph.
But the strip of pink satin fastened to Pierre’s button-hole was not the only red spot in that triumph of the Rougons. A shoe, with a blood-stained heel, still lay forgotten under the bedstead in the adjoining room. The taper burning at Monsieur Peirotte’s bedside, over the way, gleamed too with the lurid redness of a gaping wound amidst the dark night. And yonder, far away, in the depths of the Aire Saint–Mittre, a pool of blood was congealing upon a tombstone.
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University of Adelaide
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15