Madame Raquin had formerly been a mercer at Vernon. For close upon five-and-twenty years, she had kept a small shop in that town. A few years after the death of her husband, becoming subject to fits of faintness, she sold her business. Her savings added to the price of this sale placed a capital of 40,000 francs in her hand which she invested so that it brought her in an income of 2,000 francs a year. This sum amply sufficed for her requirements. She led the life of a recluse. Ignoring the poignant joys and cares of this world, she arranged for herself a tranquil existence of peace and happiness.
At an annual rental of 400 francs she took a small house with a garden descending to the edge of the Seine. This enclosed, quiet residence vaguely recalled the cloister. It stood in the centre of large fields, and was approached by a narrow path. The windows of the dwelling opened to the river and to the solitary hillocks on the opposite bank. The good lady, who had passed the half century, shut herself up in this solitary retreat, where along with her son Camille and her niece Therese, she partook of serene joy.
Although Camille was then twenty, his mother continued to spoil him like a little child. She adored him because she had shielded him from death, throughout a tedious childhood of constant suffering. The boy contracted every fever, every imaginable malady, one after the other. Madame Raquin struggled for fifteen years against these terrible evils, which arrived in rapid succession to tear her son away from her. She vanquished them all by patience, care, and adoration. Camille having grown up, rescued from death, had contracted a shiver from the torture of the repeated shocks he had undergone. Arrested in his growth, he remained short and delicate. His long, thin limbs moved slowly and wearily. But his mother loved him all the more on account of this weakness that arched his back. She observed his thin, pale face with triumphant tenderness when she thought of how she had brought him back to life more than ten times over.
During the brief spaces of repose that his sufferings allowed him, the child attended a commercial school at Vernon. There he learned orthography and arithmetic. His science was limited to the four rules, and a very superficial knowledge of grammar. Later on, he took lessons in writing and bookkeeping. Madame Raquin began to tremble when advised to send her son to college. She knew he would die if separated from her, and she said the books would kill him. So Camille remained ignorant, and this ignorance seemed to increase his weakness.
At eighteen, having nothing to do, bored to death at the delicate attention of his mother, he took a situation as clerk with a linen merchant, where he earned 60 francs a month. Being of a restless nature idleness proved unbearable. He found greater calm and better health in this labour of a brute which kept him bent all day long over invoices, over enormous additions, each figure of which he patiently added up. At night, broken down with fatigue, without an idea in his head, he enjoyed infinite delight in the doltishness that settled on him. He had to quarrel with his mother to go with the dealer in linen. She wanted to keep him always with her, between a couple of blankets, far from the accidents of life.
But the young man spoke as master. He claimed work as children claim toys, not from a feeling of duty, but by instinct, by a necessity of nature. The tenderness, the devotedness of his mother had instilled into him an egotism that was ferocious. He fancied he loved those who pitied and caressed him; but, in reality, he lived apart, within himself, loving naught but his comfort, seeking by all possible means to increase his enjoyment. When the tender affection of Madame Raquin disgusted him, he plunged with delight into a stupid occupation that saved him from infusions and potions.
In the evening, on his return from the office, he ran to the bank of the Seine with his cousin Therese who was then close upon eighteen. One day, sixteen years previously, while Madame Raquin was still a mercer, her brother Captain Degans brought her a little girl in his arms. He had just arrived from Algeria.
"Here is a child," said he with a smile, "and you are her aunt. The mother is dead and I don't know what to do with her. I'll give her to you."
The mercer took the child, smiled at her and kissed her rosy cheeks. Although Degans remained a week at Vernon, his sister barely put a question to him concerning the little girl he had brought her. She understood vaguely that the dear little creature was born at Oran, and that her mother was a woman of the country of great beauty. The Captain, an hour before his departure, handed his sister a certificate of birth in which Therese, acknowledged by him to be his child, bore his name. He rejoined his regiment, and was never seen again at Vernon, being killed a few years later in Africa.
Therese grew up under the fostering care of her aunt, sleeping in the same bed as Camille. She who had an iron constitution, received the treatment of a delicate child, partaking of the same medicine as her cousin, and kept in the warm air of the room occupied by the invalid. For hours she remained crouching over the fire, in thought, watching the flames before her, without lowering her eyelids.
This obligatory life of a convalescent caused her to retire within herself. She got into the habit of talking in a low voice, of moving about noiselessly, of remaining mute and motionless on a chair with expressionless, open eyes. But, when she raised an arm, when she advanced a foot, it was easy to perceive that she possessed feline suppleness, short, potent muscles, and that unmistakable energy and passion slumbered in her soporous frame. Her cousin having fallen down one day in a fainting fit, she abruptly picked him up and carried him—an effort of strength that turned her cheeks scarlet. The cloistered life she led, the debilitating regimen to which she found herself subjected, failed to weaken her thin, robust form. Only her face took a pale, and even a slightly yellowish tint, making her look almost ugly in the shade. Ever and anon she went to the window, and contemplated the opposite houses on which the sun threw sheets of gold.
When Madame Raquin sold her business, and withdrew to the little place beside the river, Therese experienced secret thrills of joy. Her aunt had so frequently repeated to her: "Don't make a noise; be quiet," that she kept all the impetuosity of her nature carefully concealed within her. She possessed supreme composure, and an apparent tranquillity that masked terrible transports. She still fancied herself in the room of her cousin, beside a dying child, and had the softened movements, the periods of silence, the placidity, the faltering speech of an old woman.
When she saw the garden, the clear river, the vast green hillocks ascending on the horizon, she felt a savage desire to run and shout. She felt her heart thumping fit to burst in her bosom; but not a muscle of her face moved, and she merely smiled when her aunt inquired whether she was pleased with her new home.
Life now became more pleasant for her. She maintained her supple gait, her calm, indifferent countenance, she remained the child brought up in the bed of an invalid; but inwardly she lived a burning, passionate existence. When alone on the grass beside the water, she would lie down flat on her stomach like an animal, her black eyes wide open, her body writhing, ready to spring. And she stayed there for hours, without a thought, scorched by the sun, delighted at being able to thrust her fingers in the earth. She had the most ridiculous dreams; she looked at the roaring river in defiance, imagining that the water was about to leap on her and attack her. Then she became rigid, preparing for the defence, and angrily inquiring of herself how she could vanquish the torrent.
At night, Therese, appeased and silent, stitched beside her aunt, with a countenance that seemed to be dozing in the gleam that softly glided from beneath the lamp shade. Camille buried in an armchair thought of his additions. A word uttered in a low voice, alone disturbed, at moments, the peacefulness of this drowsy home.
Madame Raquin observed her children with serene benevolence. She had resolved to make them husband and wife. She continued to treat her son as if he were at death's door; and she trembled when she happened to reflect that she would one day die herself, and would leave him alone and suffering. In that contingency, she relied on Therese, saying to herself that the young girl would be a vigilant guardian beside Camille. Her niece with her tranquil manner, and mute devotedness, inspired her with unlimited confidence. She had seen Therese at work, and wished to give her to her son as a guardian angel. This marriage was a solution to the matter, foreseen and settled in her mind.
The children knew for a long time that they were one day to marry. They had grown up with this idea, which had thus become familiar and natural to them. The union was spoken of in the family as a necessary and positive thing. Madame Raquin had said:
"We will wait until Therese is one-and-twenty."
And they waited patiently, without excitement, and without a blush.
Camille, whose blood had become impoverished by illness, had remained a little boy in the eyes of his cousin. He kissed her as he kissed his mother, by habit, without losing any of his egotistic tranquillity. He looked upon her as an obliging comrade who helped him to amuse himself, and who, if occasion offered, prepared him an infusion. When playing with her, when he held her in his arms, it was as if he had a boy to deal with. He experienced no thrill, and at these moments the idea had never occurred to him of planting a warm kiss on her lips as she struggled with a nervous laugh to free herself.
The girl also seemed to have remained cold and indifferent. At times her great eyes rested on Camille and fixedly gazed at him with sovereign calm. On such occasions her lips alone made almost imperceptible little motions. Nothing could be read on her expressionless countenance, which an inexorable will always maintained gentle and attentive. Therese became grave when the conversation turned to her marriage, contenting herself with approving all that Madame Raquin said by a sign of the head. Camille went to sleep.
On summer evenings, the two young people ran to the edge of the water. Camille, irritated at the incessant attentions of his mother, at times broke out in open revolt. He wished to run about and make himself ill, to escape the fondling that disgusted him. He would then drag Therese along with him, provoking her to wrestle, to roll in the grass. One day, having pushed his cousin down, the young girl bounded to her feet with all the savageness of a wild beast, and, with flaming face and bloodshot eyes, fell upon him with clenched fists. Camille in fear sank to the ground.
Months and years passed by, and at length the day fixed for the marriage arrived. Madame Raquin took Therese apart, spoke to her of her father and mother, and related to her the story of her birth. The young girl listened to her aunt, and when she had finished speaking, kissed her, without answering a word.
At night, Therese, instead of going into her own room, which was on the left of the staircase, entered that of her cousin which was on the right. This was all the change that occurred in her mode of life. The following day, when the young couple came downstairs, Camille had still his sickly languidness, his righteous tranquillity of an egotist. Therese still maintained her gentle indifference, and her restrained expression of frightful calmness.
A week after the marriage, Camille distinctly told his mother that he intended quitting Vernon to reside in Paris. Madame Raquin protested: she had arranged her mode of life, and would not modify it in any way. Thereupon her son had a nervous attack, and threatened to fall ill, if she did not give way to his whim.
"Never have I opposed you in your plans," said he; "I married my cousin, I took all the drugs you gave me. It is only natural, now, when I have a desire of my own, that you should be of the same mind. We will move at the end of the month."
Madame Raquin was unable to sleep all night. The decision Camille had come to, upset her way of living, and, in despair, she sought to arrange another existence for herself and the married couple. Little by little, she recovered calm. She reflected that the young people might have children, and that her small fortune would not then suffice. It was necessary to earn money, to go into business again, to find lucrative occupation for Therese. The next day she had become accustomed to the idea of moving, and had arranged a plan for a new life.
At luncheon she was quite gay.
"This is what we will do," said she to her children. "I will go to Paris to-morrow. There I will look out for a small mercery business for sale, and Therese and myself will resume selling needles and cotton, which will give us something to do. You, Camille, will act as you like. You can either stroll about in the sun, or you can find some employment."
"I shall find employment," answered the young man.
The truth was that an idiotic ambition had alone impelled Camille to leave Vernon. He wished to find a post in some important administration. He blushed with delight when he fancied he saw himself in the middle of a large office, with lustring elbow sleeves, and a pen behind his ear.
Therese was not consulted: she had always displayed such passive obedience that her aunt and husband no longer took the trouble to ask her opinion. She went where they went, she did what they did, without a complaint, without a reproach, without appearing even to be aware that she changed her place of residence.
Madame Raquin came to Paris, and went straight to the Arcade of the Pont Neuf. An old maid at Vernon had sent her to one of her relatives who in this arcade kept a mercery shop which she desired to get rid of. The former mercer found the shop rather small, and rather dark; but, in passing through Paris, she had been taken aback by the noise in the streets, by the luxuriously dressed windows, and this narrow gallery, this modest shop front, recalled her former place of business which was so peaceful. She could fancy herself again in the provinces, and she drew a long breath thinking that her dear children would be happy in this out-of-the-way corner. The low price asked for the business, caused her to make up her mind. The owner sold it her for 2,000 francs, and the rent of the shop and first floor was only 1,200 francs a year. Madame Raquin, who had close upon 4,000 francs saved up, calculated that she could pay for the business and settle the rent for the first year, without encroaching on her fortune. The salary Camille would be receiving, and the profit on the mercery business would suffice, she thought, to meet the daily expenses; so that she need not touch the income of her funded money, which would capitalise, and go towards providing marriage portions for her grandchildren.
She returned to Vernon beaming with pleasure, relating that she had found a gem, a delightful little place right in the centre of Paris. Little by little, at the end of a few days, in her conversations of an evening, the damp, obscure shop in the arcade became a palace; she pictured it to herself, so far as her memory served her, as convenient, spacious, tranquil, and replete with a thousand inestimable advantages.
"Ah! my dear Therese," said she, "you will see how happy we shall be in that nook! There are three beautiful rooms upstairs. The arcade is full of people. We will make charming displays. There is no fear of our feeling dull."
But she did not stop there. All her instinct of a former shopkeeper was awakened. She gave advice to Therese, beforehand, as to buying and selling, and posted her up in all the tricks of small tradespeople. At length, the family quitted the house beside the Seine, and on the evening of the same day, were installed in the Arcade of the Pont Neuf.
When Therese entered the shop, where in future she was to live, it seemed to her that she was descending into the clammy soil of a grave. She felt quite disheartened, and shivered with fear. She looked at the dirty, damp gallery, visited the shop, and ascending to the first floor, walked round each room. These bare apartments, without furniture, looked frightful in their solitude and dilapidation. The young woman could not make a gesture, or utter a word. She was as if frozen. Her aunt and husband having come downstairs, she seated herself on a trunk, her hands rigid, her throat full of sobs, and yet she could not cry.
Madame Raquin, face to face with reality, felt embarrassed, and ashamed of her dreams. She sought to defend her acquisition. She found a remedy for every fresh inconvenience that was discovered, explaining the obscurity by saying the weather was overcast, and concluded by affirming that a sweep-up would suffice to set everything right.
"Bah!" answered Camille, "all this is quite suitable. Besides, we shall only come up here at night. I shall not be home before five or six o'clock. As to you two, you will be together, so you will not be dull."
The young man would never have consented to inhabit such a den, had he not relied on the comfort of his office. He said to himself that he would be warm all day at his administration, and that, at night, he would go to bed early.
For a whole week, the shop and lodging remained in disorder. Therese had seated herself behind the counter from the first day, and she did not move from that place. Madame Raquin was astonished at this depressed attitude. She had thought that the young woman would try to adorn her habitation. That she would place flowers at the windows, and ask for new papers, curtains and carpets. When she suggested some repairs, some kind of embellishment, her niece quietly replied:
"What need is there for it? We are very well as we are. There is no necessity for luxury."
It was Madame Raquin who had to arrange the rooms and tidy up the shop. Therese at last lost patience at seeing the good old lady incessantly turning round and round before her eyes; she engaged a charwoman, and forced her aunt to be seated beside her.
Camille remained a month without finding employment. He lived as little as possible in the shop, preferring to stroll about all day; and he found life so dreadfully dull with nothing to do, that he spoke of returning to Vernon. But he at length obtained a post in the administration of the Orleans Railway, where he earned 100 francs a month. His dream had become realised.
He set out in the morning at eight o'clock. Walking down the Rue Guenegaud, he found himself on the quays. Then, taking short steps with his hands in his pockets, he followed the Seine from the Institut to the Jardin des Plantes. This long journey which he performed twice daily, never wearied him. He watched the water running along, and he stopped to see the rafts of wood descending the river, pass by. He thought of nothing. Frequently he planted himself before Notre Dame, to contemplate the scaffolding surrounding the cathedral which was then undergoing repair. These huge pieces of timber amused him although he failed to understand why. Then he cast a glance into the Port aux Vins as he went past, and after that counted the cabs coming from the station.
In the evening, quite stupefied, with his head full of some silly story related to his office, he crossed the Jardin des Plantes, and went to have a look at the bears, if he was not in too great a hurry. There he remained half an hour, leaning over the rails at the top of the pit, observing the animals clumsily swaying to and fro. The behaviour of these huge beasts pleased him. He examined them with gaping mouth and rounded eyes, partaking of the joy of an idiot when he perceived them bestir themselves. At last he turned homewards, dragging his feet along, busying himself with the passers-by, with the vehicles, and the shops.
As soon as he arrived he dined, and then began reading. He had purchased the works of Buffon, and, every evening, he set himself to peruse twenty to thirty pages, notwithstanding the wearisome nature of the task. He also read in serial, at 10 centimes the number, "The History of the Consulate and Empire" by Thiers, and "The History of the Girondins" by Lamartine, as well as some popular scientific works. He fancied he was labouring at his education. At times, he forced his wife to listen to certain pages, to particular anecdotes, and felt very much astonished that Therese could remain pensive and silent the whole evening, without being tempted to take up a book. And he thought to himself that his wife must be a woman of very poor intelligence.
Therese thrust books away from her with impatience. She preferred to remain idle, with her eyes fixed, and her thoughts wandering and lost. But she maintained an even, easy temper, exercising all her will to render herself a passive instrument, replete with supreme complaisance and abnegation.
The shop did not do much business. The profit was the same regularly each month. The customers consisted of female workpeople living in the neighbourhood. Every five minutes a young girl came in to purchase a few sous worth of goods. Therese served the people with words that were ever the same, with a smile that appeared mechanically on her lisp. Madame Raquin displayed a more unbending, a more gossipy disposition, and, to tell the truth, it was she who attracted and retained the customers.
For three years, days followed days and resembled one another. Camille did not once absent himself from his office. His mother and wife hardly ever left the shop. Therese, residing in damp obscurity, in gloomy, crushing silence, saw life expand before her in all its nakedness, each night bringing the same cold couch, and each morn the same empty day.
One day out of seven, on the Thursday evening, the Raquin family received their friends. They lit a large lamp in the dining-room, and put water on the fire to make tea. There was quite a set out. This particular evening emerged in bold relief from the others. It had become one of the customs of the family, who regarded it in the light of a middle-class orgie full of giddy gaiety. They did not retire to rest until eleven o'clock at night.
At Paris Madame Raquin had found one of her old friends, the commissary of police Michaud, who had held a post at Vernon for twenty years, lodging in the same house as the mercer. A narrow intimacy had thus been established between them; then, when the widow had sold her business to go and reside in the house beside the river, they had little by little lost sight of one another. Michaud left the provinces a few months later, and came to live peacefully in Paris, Rue de Seine, on his pension of 1,500 francs. One rainy day, he met his old friend in the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, and the same evening dined with the family.
The Thursday receptions began in this way: the former commissary of police got into the habit of calling on the Raquins regularly once a week. After a while he came accompanied by his son Olivier, a great fellow of thirty, dry and thin, who had married a very little woman, slow and sickly. This Olivier held the post of head clerk in the section of order and security at the Prefecture of Police, worth 3,000 francs a year, which made Camille feel particularly jealous. From the first day he made his appearance, Therese detested this cold, rigid individual, who imagined he honoured the shop in the arcade by making a display of his great shrivelled-up frame, and the exhausted condition of his poor little wife.
Camille introduced another guest, an old clerk at the Orleans Railway, named Grivet, who had been twenty years in the service of the company, where he now held the position of head clerk, and earned 2,100 francs a year. It was he who gave out the work in the office where Camille had found employment, and the latter showed him certain respect. Camille, in his day dreams, had said to himself that Grivet would one day die, and that he would perhaps take his place at the end of a decade or so. Grivet was delighted at the welcome Madame Raquin gave him, and he returned every week with perfect regularity. Six months later, his Thursday visit had become, in his way of thinking, a duty: he went to the Arcade of the Pont Neuf, just as he went every morning to his office, that is to say mechanically, and with the instinct of a brute.
From this moment, the gatherings became charming. At seven o'clock Madame Raquin lit the fire, set the lamp in the centre of the table, placed a box of dominoes beside it, and wiped the tea service which was in the sideboard. Precisely at eight o'clock old Michaud and Grivet met before the shop, one coming from the Rue de Seine, and the other from the Rue Mazarine. As soon as they entered, all the family went up to the first floor. There, in the dining-room, they seated themselves round the table waiting for Olivier Michaud and his wife who always arrived late. When the party was complete, Madame Raquin poured out the tea. Camille emptied the box of dominoes on the oilcloth table cover, and everyone became deeply interested in their hands. Henceforth nothing could be heard but the jingle of dominoes. At the end of each game, the players quarrelled for two or three minutes, then mournful silence was resumed, broken by the sharp clanks of the dominoes.
Therese played with an indifference that irritated Camille. She took Francois, the great tabby cat that Madame Raquin had brought from Vernon, on her lap, caressing it with one hand, whilst she placed her dominoes with the other. These Thursday evenings were a torture to her. Frequently she complained of being unwell, of a bad headache, so as not to play, and remain there doing nothing, and half asleep. An elbow on the table, her cheek resting on the palm of her hand, she watched the guests of her aunt and husband through a sort of yellow, smoky mist coming from the lamp. All these faces exasperated her. She looked from one to the other in profound disgust and secret irritation.
Old Michaud exhibited a pasty countenance, spotted with red blotches, one of those death-like faces of an old man fallen into second childhood; Grivet had the narrow visage, the round eyes, the thin lips of an idiot. Olivier, whose bones were piercing his cheeks, gravely carried a stiff, insignificant head on a ridiculous body; as to Suzanne, the wife of Olivier, she was quite pale, with expressionless eyes, white lips, and a soft face. And Therese could not find one human being, not one living being among these grotesque and sinister creatures, with whom she was shut up; sometimes she had hallucinations, she imagined herself buried at the bottom of a tomb, in company with mechanical corpses, who, when the strings were pulled, moved their heads, and agitated their legs and arms. The thick atmosphere of the dining-room stifled her; the shivering silence, the yellow gleams of the lamp penetrated her with vague terror, and inexpressible anguish.
Below, to the door of the shop, they had fixed a bell whose sharp tinkle announced the entrance of customers. Therese had her ear on the alert; and when the bell rang, she rapidly ran downstairs quite relieved, delighted at being able to quit the dining-room. She slowly served the purchaser, and when she found herself alone, she sat down behind the counter where she remained as long as possible, dreading going upstairs again, and in the enjoyment of real pleasure at no longer having Grivet and Olivier before her eyes. The damp air of the shop calmed the burning fever of her hands, and she again fell into the customary grave reverie.
But she could not remain like this for long. Camille became angry at her absence. He failed to comprehend how anyone could prefer the shop to the dining-room on a Thursday evening, and he leant over the banister, to look for his wife.
"What's the matter?" he would shout. "What are you doing there? Why don't you come up? Grivet has the devil's own luck. He has just won again."
The young woman rose painfully, and ascending to the dining-room resumed her seat opposite old Michaud, whose pendent lips gave heartrending smiles. And, until eleven o'clock, she remained oppressed in her chair, watching Francois whom she held in her arms, so as to avoid seeing the cardboard dolls grimacing around her.
One Thursday, Camille, on returning from his office, brought with him a great fellow with square shoulders, whom he pushed in a familiar manner into the shop.
"Mother," he said to Madame Raquin, pointing to the newcomer, "do you recognise this gentleman?"
The old mercer looked at the strapping blade, seeking among her recollections and finding nothing, while Therese placidly observed the scene.
"What!" resumed Camille, "you don't recognise Laurent, little Laurent, the son of daddy Laurent who owns those beautiful fields of corn out Jeufosse way. Don't you remember? I went to school with him; he came to fetch me of a morning on leaving the house of his uncle, who was our neighbour, and you used to give him slices of bread and jam."
All at once Madame Raquin recollected little Laurent, whom she found very much grown. It was quite ten years since she had seen him. She now did her best to make him forget her lapse of memory in greeting him, by recalling a thousand little incidents of the past, and by adopting a wheedling manner towards him that was quite maternal. Laurent had seated himself. With a peaceful smile on his lips, he replied to the questions addressed to him in a clear voice, casting calm and easy glances around him.
"Just imagine," said Camille, "this joker has been employed at the Orleans-Railway-Station for eighteen months, and it was only to-night that we met and recognised one another—the administration is so vast, so important!"
As the young man made this remark, he opened his eyes wider, and pinched his lips, proud to be a humble wheel in such a large machine. Shaking his head, he continued:
"Oh! but he is in a good position. He has studied. He already earns 1,500 francs a year. His father sent him to college. He had read for the bar, and learnt painting. That is so, is it not, Laurent? You'll dine with us?"
"I am quite willing," boldly replied the other.
He got rid of his hat and made himself comfortable in the shop, while Madame Raquin ran off to her ...