For a month this unpleasant state of affairs continued, every day growing worse, and Clotilde suffered especially at seeing that Pascal now locked up everything. He had no longer the same tranquil confidence in her as before, and this wounded her so deeply that, if she had at any time found the press open, she would have thrown the papers into the fire as her grandmother Felicite had urged her to do. And the disagreements began again, so that they often remained without speaking to each other for two days together.
One morning, after one of these misunderstandings which had lasted since the day before, Martine said as she was serving the breakfast:
“Just now as I was crossing the Place de la Sous-Prefecture, I saw a stranger whom I thought I recognized going into Mme. Felicite’s house. Yes, mademoiselle, I should not be surprised if it were your brother.”
On the impulse of the moment, Pascal and Clotilde spoke.
“Your brother! Did your grandmother expect him, then?”
“No, I don’t think so, though she has been expecting him at any time for the past six months, I know that she wrote to him again a week ago.”
They questioned Martine.
“Indeed, monsieur, I cannot say; since I last saw M. Maxime four years ago, when he stayed two hours with us on his way to Italy, he may perhaps have changed greatly–I thought, however, that I recognized his back.”
The conversation continued, Clotilde seeming to be glad of this event, which broke at last the oppressive silence between them, and Pascal ended:
“Well, if it is he, he will come to see us.”
It was indeed Maxime. He had yielded, after months of refusal, to the urgent solicitations of old Mme. Rougon, who had still in this quarter an open family wound to heal. The trouble was an old one, and it grew worse every day.
Fifteen years before, when he was seventeen, Maxime had had a child by a servant whom he had seduced. His father Saccard, and his stepmother Renee–the latter vexed more especially at his unworthy choice–had acted in the matter with indulgence. The servant, Justine Megot, belonged to one of the neighboring villages, and was a fair-haired girl, also seventeen, gentle and docile; and they had sent her back to Plassans, with an allowance of twelve hundred francs a year, to bring up little Charles. Three years later she had married there a harness-maker of the faubourg, Frederic Thomas by name, a good workman and a sensible fellow, who was tempted by the allowance. For the rest her conduct was now most exemplary, she had grown fat, and she appeared to be cured of a cough that had threatened a hereditary malady due to the alcoholic propensities of a long line of progenitors. And two other children born of her marriage, a boy who was now ten and a girl who was seven, both plump and rosy, enjoyed perfect health; so that she would have been the most respected and the happiest of women, if it had not been for the trouble which Charles caused in the household. Thomas, notwithstanding the allowance, execrated this son of another man and gave him no peace, which made the mother suffer in secret, being an uncomplaining and submissive wife. So that, although she adored him, she would willingly have given him up to his father’s family.
Charles, at fifteen, seemed scarcely twelve, and he had the infantine intelligence of a child of five, resembling in an extraordinary degree his great-great-grandmother, Aunt Dide, the madwoman at the Tulettes. He had the slender and delicate grace of one of those bloodless little kings with whom a race ends, crowned with their long, fair locks, light as spun silk. His large, clear eyes were expressionless, and on his disquieting beauty lay the shadow of death. And he had neither brain nor heart–he was nothing but a vicious little dog, who rubbed himself against people to be fondled. His great-grandmother Felicite, won by this beauty, in which she affected to recognize her blood, had at first put him in a boarding school, taking charge of him, but he had been expelled from it at the end of six months for misconduct. Three times she had changed his boarding school, and each time he had been expelled in disgrace. Then, as he neither would nor could learn anything, and as his health was declining rapidly, they kept him at home, sending him from one to another of the family. Dr. Pascal, moved to pity, had tried to cure him, and had abandoned the hopeless task only after he had kept him with him for nearly a year, fearing the companionship for Clotilde. And now, when Charles was not at his mother’s, where he scarcely ever lived at present, he was to be found at the house of Felicite, or that of some other relative, prettily dressed, laden with toys, living like the effeminate little dauphin of an ancient and fallen race.
Old Mme. Rougon, however, suffered because of this bastard, and she had planned to get him away from the gossiping tongues of Plassans, by persuading Maxime to take him and keep him with him in Paris. It would still be an ugly story of the fallen family. But Maxime had for a long time turned a deaf ear to her solicitations, in the fear which continually haunted him of spoiling his life. After the war, enriched by the death of his wife, he had come back to live prudently on his fortune in his mansion on the avenue of the Bois de Boulogne, tormented by the hereditary malady of which he was to die young, having gained from his precocious debauchery a salutary fear of pleasure, resolved above all to shun emotions and responsibilities, so that he might last as long as possible. Acute pains in the limbs, rheumatic he thought them, had been alarming him for some time past; he saw himself in fancy already an invalid tied down to an easy-chair; and his father’s sudden return to France, the fresh activity which Saccard was putting forth, completed his disquietude. He knew well this devourer of millions; he trembled at finding him again bustling about him with his good-humored, malicious laugh. He felt that he was being watched, and he had the conviction that he would be cut up and devoured if he should be for a single day at his mercy, rendered helpless by the pains which were invading his limbs. And so great a fear of solitude had taken possession of him that he had now yielded to the idea of seeing his son again. If he found the boy gentle, intelligent, and healthy, why should he not take him to live with him? He would thus have a companion, an heir, who would protect him against the machinations of his father. Gradually he came to see himself, in his selfish forethought, loved, petted, and protected; yet for all that he might not have risked such a journey, if his physician had not just at that time sent him to the waters of St. Gervais. Thus, having to go only a few leagues out of his way, he had dropped in unexpectedly that morning on old Mme. Rougon, firmly resolved to take the train again in the evening, after having questioned her and seen the boy.
At two o’clock Pascal and Clotilde were still beside the fountain under the plane trees where they had taken their coffee, when Felicite arrived with Maxime.
“My dear, here’s a surprise! I have brought you your brother.”
Startled, the young girl had risen, seeing this thin and sallow stranger, whom she scarcely recognized. Since their parting in 1854 she had seen him only twice, once at Paris and again at Plassans. Yet his image, refined, elegant, and vivacious, had remained engraven on her mind; his face had grown hollow, his hair was streaked with silver threads. But notwithstanding, she found in him still, with his delicately handsome head, a languid grace, like that of a girl, even in his premature decrepitude.
“How well you look!” he said simply, as he embraced his sister.
“But,” she responded, “to be well one must live in the sunshine. Ah, how happy it makes me to see you again!”
Pascal, with the eye of the physician, had examined his nephew critically. He embraced him in his turn.
“Goodday, my boy. And she is right, mind you; one can be well only out in the sunshine–like the trees.”
Felicite had gone hastily to the house. She returned, crying:
“Charles is not here, then?”
“No,” said Clotilde. “We went to see him yesterday. Uncle Macquart has taken him, and he is to remain for a few days at the Tulettes.”
Felicite was in despair. She had come only in the certainty of finding the boy at Pascal’s. What was to be done now? The doctor, with his tranquil air, proposed to write to Uncle Macquart, who would bring him back in the morning. But when he learned that Maxime wished positively to go away again by the nine o’clock train, without remaining over night, another idea occurred to him. He would send to the livery stable for a landau, and all four would go to see Charles at Uncle Macquart’s. It would even be a delightful drive. It was not quite three leagues from Plassans to the Tulettes–an hour to go, and an hour to return, and they would still have almost two hours to remain there, if they wished to be back by seven. Martine would get dinner, and Maxime would have time enough to dine and catch his train.
But Felicite objected, visibly disquieted by this visit to Macquart.
“Oh, no, indeed! If you think I am going down there in this frightful weather, you are mistaken. It is much simpler to send some one to bring Charles to us.”
Pascal shook his head. Charles was not always to be brought back when one wished. He was a boy without reason, who sometimes, if the whim seized him, would gallop off like an untamed animal. And old Mme. Rougon, overruled and furious at having been unable to make any preparation, was at last obliged to yield, in the necessity in which she found herself of leaving the matter to chance.
“Well, be it as you wish, then! Good Heavens, how unfortunately things have turned out!”
Martine hurried away to order the landau, and before three o’clock had struck the horses were on the Nice road, descending the declivity which slopes down to the bridge over the Viorne. Then they turned to the left, and followed the wooded banks of the river for about two miles. After this the road entered the gorges of the Seille, a narrow pass between two giant walls of rock scorched by the ardent rays of the summer sun. Pine trees pushed their way through the clefts; clumps of trees, scarcely thicker at the roots than tufts of grass, fringed the crests and hung over the abyss. It was a chaos; a blasted landscape, a mouth of hell, with its wild turns, its droppings of blood-colored earth sliding down from every cut, its desolate solitude invaded only by the eagles’ flight.
Felicite did not open her lips; her brain was at work, and she seemed completely absorbed in her thoughts. The atmosphere was oppressive, the sun sent his burning rays from behind a veil of great livid clouds. Pascal was almost the only one who talked, in his passionate love for this scorched land–a love which he endeavored to make his nephew share. But it was in vain that he uttered enthusiastic exclamations, in vain that he called his attention to the persistence of the olives, the fig trees, and the thorn bushes in pushing through the rock; the life of the rock itself, that colossal and puissant frame of the earth, from which they could almost fancy they heard a sound of breathing arise. Maxime remained cold, filled with a secret anguish in presence of those blocks of savage majesty, whose mass seemed to crush him. And he preferred to turn his eyes toward his sister, who was seated in front of him. He was becoming more and more charmed with her. She looked so healthy and so happy, with her pretty round head, with its straight, well-molded forehead. Now and then their glances met, and she gave him an affectionate smile which consoled him.
But the wildness of the gorge was beginning to soften, the two walls of rock to grow lower; they passed between two peaceful hills, with gentle slopes covered with thyme and lavender. It was the desert still, there were still bare spaces, green or violet hued, from which the faintest breeze brought a pungent perfume.
Then abruptly, after a last turn they descended to the valley of the Tulettes, which was refreshed by springs. In the distance stretched meadows dotted by large trees. The village was seated midway on the slope, among olive trees, and the country house of Uncle Macquart stood a little apart on the left, full in view. The landau turned into the road which led to the insane asylum, whose white walls they could see before them in the distance.
Felicite’s silence had grown somber, for she was not fond of exhibiting Uncle Macquart. Another whom the family would be well rid of the day when he should take his departure. For the credit of every one he ought to have been sleeping long ago under the sod. But he persisted in living, he carried his eighty-three years well, like an old drunkard saturated with liquor, whom the alcohol seemed to preserve. At Plassans he had left a terrible reputation as a do-nothing and a scoundrel, and the old men whispered the execrable story of the corpses that lay between him and the Rougons, an act of treachery in the troublous days of December, 1851, an ambuscade in which he had left comrades with their bellies ripped open, lying on the bloody pavement. Later, when he had returned to France, he had preferred to the good place of which he had obtained the promise this little domain of the Tulettes, which Felicite had bought for him. And he had lived comfortably here ever since; he had no longer any other ambition than that of enlarging it, looking out once more for the good chances, and he had even found the means of obtaining a field which he had long coveted, by making himself useful to his sister-in-law at the time when the latter again reconquered Plassans from the legitimists– another frightful story that was whispered also, of a madman secretly let loose from the asylum, running in the night to avenge himself, setting fire to his house in which four persons were burned. But these were old stories and Macquart, settled down now, was no longer the redoubtable scoundrel who had made all the family tremble. He led a perfectly correct life; he was a wily diplomat, and he had retained nothing of his air of jeering at the world but his bantering smile.
“Uncle is at home,” said Pascal, as they approached the house.
This was one of those Provencal structures of a single story, with discolored tiles and four walls washed with a bright yellow. Before the facade extended a narrow terrace shaded by ancient mulberry trees, whose thick, gnarled branches drooped down, forming an arbor. It was here that Uncle Macquart smoked his pipe in the cool shade, in summer. And on hearing the sound of the carriage, he came and stood at the edge of the terrace, straightening his tall form neatly clad in blue cloth, his head covered with the eternal fur cap which he wore from one year’s end to the other.
As soon as he recognized his visitors, he called out with a sneer:
“Oh, here come some fine company! How kind of you; you are out for an airing.”
But the presence of Maxime puzzled him. Who was he? Whom had he come to see? They mentioned his name to him, and he immediately cut short the explanations they were adding, to enable him to straighten out the tangled skein of relationship.
“The father of Charles–I know, I know! The son of my nephew Saccard, pardi! the one who made a fine marriage, and whose wife died–”
He stared at Maxime, seeming happy to find him already wrinkled at thirty-two, with his hair and beard sprinkled with snow.
“Ah, well!” he added, “we are all growing old. But I, at least, have no great reason to complain. I am solid.”
And he planted himself firmly on his legs with his air of ferocious mockery, while his fiery red face seemed to flame and burn. For a long time past ordinary brandy had seemed to him like pure water; only spirits of 36 degrees tickled his blunted palate; and he took such draughts of it that he was full of it–his flesh saturated with it– like a sponge. He perspired alcohol. At the slightest breath whenever he spoke, he exhaled from his mouth a vapor of alcohol.
“Yes, truly; you are solid, uncle!” said Pascal, amazed. “And you have done nothing to make you so; you have good reason to ridicule us. Only there is one thing I am afraid of, look you, that some day in lighting your pipe, you may set yourself on fire–like a bowl of punch.”
Macquart, flattered, gave a sneering laugh.
“Have your jest, have your jest, my boy! A glass of cognac is worth more than all your filthy drugs. And you will all touch glasses with me, hey? So that it may be said truly that your uncle is a credit to you all. As for me, I laugh at evil tongues. I have corn and olive trees, I have almond trees and vines and land, like any bourgeois. In summer I smoke my pipe under the shade of my mulberry trees; in winter I go to smoke it against my wall, there in the sunshine. One has no need to blush for an uncle like that, hey? Clotilde, I have syrup, if you would like some. And you, Felicite, my dear, I know that you prefer anisette. There is everything here, I tell you, there is everything here!”
He waved his arm as if to take possession of the comforts he enjoyed, now that from an old sinner he had become a hermit, while Felicite, whom he had disturbed a moment before by the enumeration of his riches, did not take her eyes from his face, waiting to interrupt him.
“Thank you, Macquart, we will take nothing; we are in a hurry. Where is Charles?”
“Charles? Very good, presently! I understand, papa has come to see his boy. But that is not going to prevent you taking a glass.”
And as they positively refused he became offended, and said, with his malicious laugh:
“Charles is not here; he is at the asylum with the old woman.”
Then, taking Maxime to the end of the terrace, he pointed out to him the great white buildings, whose inner gardens resembled prison yards.
“Look, nephew, you see those three trees in front of you? Well, beyond the one to the left, there is a fountain in a court. Follow the ground floor, and the fifth window to the right is Aunt Dide’s. And that is where the boy is. Yes, I took him there a little while ago.”
This was an indulgence of the directors. In the twenty years that she had been in the asylum the old woman had not given a moment’s uneasiness to her keeper. Very quiet, very gentle, she passed the days motionless in her easy-chair, looking straight before her; and as the boy liked to be with her, and as she herself seemed to take an interest in him, they shut their eyes to this infraction of the rules and left him there sometimes for two or three hours at a time, busily occupied in cutting out pictures.
But this new disappointment put the finishing stroke to Felicite’s ill-humor; she grew angry when Macquart proposed that all five should go in a body in search of the boy.
“What an idea! Go you alone, and come back quickly. We have no time to lose.”
Her suppressed rage seemed to amuse Uncle Macquart, and perceiving how disagreeable his proposition was to her, he insisted, with his sneering laugh:
“But, my children, we should at the same time have an opportunity of seeing the old mother; the mother of us all. There is no use in talking; you know that we are all descended from her, and it would hardly be polite not to go wish her a good-day, when my grandnephew, who has come from such a distance, has perhaps never before had a good look at her. I’ll not disown her, may the devil take me if I do. To be sure she is mad, but all the same, old mothers who have passed their hundredth year are not often to be seen, and she well deserves that we should show ourselves a little kind to her.”
There was silence for a moment. A little shiver had run through every one. And it was Clotilde, silent until now, who first declared in a voice full of feeling:
“You are right, uncle; we will all go.”
Felicite herself was obliged to consent. They re-entered the landau, Macquart taking the seat beside the coachman. A feeling of disquietude had given a sallow look to Maxime’s worn face; and during the short drive he questioned Pascal concerning Charles with an air of paternal interest, which concealed a growing anxiety. The doctor constrained by his mother’s imperious glances, softened the truth. Well, the boy’s health was certainly not very robust; it was on that account, indeed, that they were glad to leave him for weeks together in the country with his uncle: but he had no definite disease. Pascal did not add that he had for a moment cherished the dream of giving him a brain and muscles by treating him with his hypodermic injections of nerve substance, but that he had always been met by the same difficulty; the slightest puncture brought on a hemorrhage which it was found necessary to stop by compresses; there was a laxness of the tissues, due to degeneracy; a bloody dew which exuded from the skin; he had especially, bleedings at the nose so sudden and so violent that they did not dare to leave him alone, fearing lest all the blood in his veins should flow out. And the doctor ended by saying that although the boy’s intelligence had been sluggish, he still hoped that it would develop in an environment of quicker mental activity.
They arrived at the asylum and Macquart, who had been listening to the doctor, descended from his seat, saying:
“He is a gentle little fellow, a very gentle little fellow! And then, he is so beautiful–an angel!”
Maxime, who was still pale, and who shivered in spite of the stifling heat, put no more questions. He looked at the vast buildings of the asylum, the wings of the various quarters separated by gardens, the men’s quarters from those of the women, those of the harmless insane from those of the violent insane. A scrupulous cleanliness reigned everywhere, a gloomy silence–broken from time to time by footsteps and the noise of keys. Old Macquart knew all the keepers. Besides, the doors were always to open to Dr. Pascal, who had been authorized to attend certain of the inmates. They followed a passage and entered a court; it was here–one of the chambers on the ground floor, a room covered with a light carpet, furnished with a bed, a press, a table, an armchair, and two chairs. The nurse, who had orders never to quit her charge, happened just now to be absent, and the only occupants of the room were the madwoman, sitting rigid in her armchair at one side of the table, and the boy, sitting on a chair on the opposite side, absorbed in cutting out his pictures.
“Go in, go in!” Macquart repeated. “Oh, there is no danger, she is very gentle!”
The grandmother, Adelaide Fouque, whom her grandchildren, a whole swarm of descendants, called by the pet name of Aunt Dide, did not even turn her head at the noise. In her youth hysterical troubles had unbalanced her mind. Of an ardent and passionate nature and subject to nervous attacks, she had yet reached the great age of eighty-three when a dreadful grief, a terrible moral shock, destroyed her reason. At that time, twenty-one years before, her mind had ceased to act; it had become suddenly weakened without the possibility of recovery. And now, at the age of 104 years, she lived here as if forgotten by the world, a quiet madwoman with an ossified brain, with whom insanity might remain stationary for an indefinite length of time without causing death. Old age had come, however, and had gradually atrophied her muscles. Her flesh was as if eaten away by age. The skin only remained on her bones, so that she had to be carried from her chair to her bed, for it had become impossible for her to walk or even to move. And yet she held herself erect against the back of her chair, a yellow, dried-up skeleton–like an ancient tree of which the bark only remains–with only her eyes still living in her thin, long visage, in which the wrinkles had been, so to say, worn away. She was looking fixedly at Charles.
Clotilde approached her a little tremblingly.
“Aunt Dide, it is we; we have come to see you. Don’t you know me, then? Your little girl who comes sometimes to kiss you.”
But the madwoman did not seem to hear. Her eyes remained fixed upon the boy, who was finishing cutting out a picture–a purple king in a golden mantle.
“Come, mamma,” said Macquart, “don’t pretend to be stupid. You may very well look at us. Here is a gentleman, a grandson of yours, who has come from Paris expressly to see you.”
At this voice Aunt Dide at last turned her head. Her clear, expressionless eyes wandered slowly from one to another, then rested again on Charles with the same fixed look as before.
They all shivered, and no one spoke again.
“Since the terrible shock she received,” explained Pascal in a low voice, “she has been that way; all intelligence, all memory seem extinguished in her. For the most part she is silent; at times she pours forth a flood of stammering and indistinct words. She laughs and cries without cause, she is a thing that nothing affects. And yet I should not venture to say that the darkness of her mind is complete, that no memories remain stored up in its depths. Ah! the poor old mother, how I pity her, if the light has not yet been finally extinguished. What can her thoughts have been for the last twenty-one years, if she still remembers?”
With a gesture he put this dreadful past which he knew from him. He saw her again young, a tall, pale, slender girl with frightened eyes, a widow, after fifteen months of married life with Rougon, the clumsy gardener whom she had chosen for a husband, throwing herself immediately afterwards into the arms of the smuggler Macquart, whom she loved with a wolfish love, and whom she did not even marry. She had lived thus for fifteen years, with her three children, one the child of her marriage, the other two illegitimate, a capricious and tumultuous existence, disappearing for weeks at a time, and returning all bruised, her arms black and blue. Then Macquart had been killed, shot down like a dog by a gendarme; and the first shock had paralyzed her, so that even then she retained nothing living but her water-clear eyes in her livid face; and she shut herself up from the world in the hut which her lover had left her, leading there for forty years the dead existence of a nun, broken by terrible nervous attacks. But the other shock was to finish her, to overthrow her reason, and Pascal recalled the atrocious scene, for he had witnessed it–a poor child whom the grandmother had taken to live with her, her grandson Silvere, the victim of family hatred and strife, whose head another gendarme shattered with a pistol shot, at the suppression of the insurrectionary movement of 1851. She was always to be bespattered with blood.
Felicite, meanwhile, had approached Charles, who was so engrossed with his pictures that all these people did not disturb him.
“My darling, this gentleman is your father. Kiss him,” she said.
And then they all occupied themselves with Charles. He was very prettily dressed in a jacket and short trousers of black velvet, braided with gold cord. Pale as a lily, he resembled in truth one of those king’s sons whose pictures he was cutting out, with his large, light eyes and his shower of fair curls. But what especially struck the attention at this moment was his resemblance to Aunt Dide; this resemblance which had overleaped three generations, which had passed from this withered centenarian’s countenance, from these dead features wasted by life, to this delicate child’s face that was also as if worn, aged, and wasted, through the wear of the race. Fronting each other, the imbecile child of a deathlike beauty seemed the last of the race of which she, forgotten by the world, was the ancestress.
Maxime bent over to press a kiss on the boy’s forehead; and a chill struck to his heart–this very beauty disquieted him; his uneasiness grew in this chamber of madness, whence, it seemed to him, breathed a secret horror come from the far-off past.
“How beautiful you are, my pet! Don’t you love me a little?”
Charles looked at him without comprehending, and went back to his play.
But all were chilled. Without the set expression of her countenance changing Aunt Dide wept, a flood of tears rolled from her living eyes over her dead cheeks. Her gaze fixed immovably upon the boy, she wept slowly, endlessly. A great thing had happened.
And now an extraordinary emotion took possession of Pascal. He caught Clotilde by the arm and pressed it hard, trying to make her understand. Before his eyes appeared the whole line, the legitimate branch and the bastard branch, which had sprung from this trunk already vitiated by neurosis. Five generations were there present–the Rougons and the Macquarts, Adelaide Fouque at the root, then the scoundrelly old uncle, then himself, then Clotilde and Maxime, and lastly, Charles. Felicite occupied the place of her dead husband. There was no link wanting; the chain of heredity, logical and implacable, was unbroken. And what a world was evoked from the depths of the tragic cabin which breathed this horror that came from the far-off past in such appalling shape that every one, notwithstanding the oppressive heat, shivered.
“What is it, master?” whispered Clotilde, trembling.
“No, no, nothing!” murmured the doctor. “I will tell you later.”
Macquart, who alone continued to sneer, scolded the old mother. What an idea was hers, to receive people with tears when they put themselves out to come and make her a visit. It was scarcely polite. And then he turned to Maxime and Charles.
“Well, nephew, you have seen your boy at last. Is it not true that he is pretty, and that he is a credit to you, after all?”
Felicite hastened to interfere. Greatly dissatisfied with the turn which affairs were taking, she was now anxious only to get away.
“He is certainly a handsome boy, and less backward than people think. Just see how skilful he is with his hands. And you will see when you have brightened him up in Paris, in a different way from what we have been able to do at Plassans, eh?”
“No doubt,” murmured Maxime. “I do not say no; I will think about it.”
He seemed embarrassed for a moment, and then added:
“You know I came only to see him. I cannot take him with me now as I am to spend a month at St. Gervais. But as soon as I return to Paris I will think of it, I will write to you.”
Then, taking out his watch, he cried:
“The devil! Half-past five. You know that I would not miss the nine o’clock train for anything in the world.”
“Yes, yes, let us go,” said Felicite brusquely. “We have nothing more to do here.”
Macquart, whom his sister-in-law’s anger seemed still to divert, endeavored to delay them with all sorts of stories. He told of the days when Aunt Dide talked, and he affirmed that he had found her one morning singing a romance of her youth. And then he had no need of the carriage, he would take the boy back on foot, since they left him to him.
“Kiss your papa, my boy, for you know now that you see him, but you don’t know whether you shall ever see him again or not.”
With the same surprised and indifferent movement Charles raised his head, and Maxime, troubled, pressed another kiss on his forehead.
“Be very good and very pretty, my pet. And love me a little.”
“Come, come, we have no time to lose,” repeated Felicite.
But the keeper here re-entered the room. She was a stout, vigorous girl, attached especially to the service of the madwoman. She carried her to and from her bed, night and morning; she fed her and took care of her like a child. And she at once entered into conversation with Dr. Pascal, who questioned her. One of the doctor’s most cherished dreams was to cure the mad by his treatment of hypodermic injections. Since in their case it was the brain that was in danger, why should not hypodermic injections of nerve substance give them strength and will, repairing the breaches made in the organ? So that for a moment he had dreamed of trying the treatment with the old mother; then he began to have scruples, he felt a sort of awe, without counting that madness at that age was total, irreparable ruin. So that he had chosen another subject–a hatter named Sarteur, who had been for a year past in the asylum, to which he had come himself to beg them to shut him up to prevent him from committing a crime. In his paroxysms, so strong an impulse to kill seized him that he would have thrown himself upon the first passer-by. He was of small stature, very dark, with a retreating forehead, an aquiline face with a large nose and a very short chin, and his left cheek was noticeably larger than his right. And the doctor had obtained miraculous results with this victim of emotional insanity, who for a month past had had no attack. The nurse, indeed being questioned, answered that Sarteur had become quiet and was growing better every day.
“Do you hear, Clotilde?” cried Pascal, enchanted. “I have not the time to see him this evening, but I will come again to-morrow. It is my visiting day. Ah, if I only dared; if she were young still–”
His eyes turned toward Aunt Dide. But Clotilde, whom his enthusiasm made smile, said gently:
“No, no, master, you cannot make life anew. There, come. We are the last.”
It was true; the others had already gone. Macquart, on the threshold, followed Felicite and Maxime with his mocking glance as they went away. Aunt Dide, the forgotten one, sat motionless, appalling in her leanness, her eyes again fixed upon Charles with his white, worn face framed in his royal locks.
The drive back was full of constraint. In the heat which exhaled from the earth, the landau rolled on heavily to the measured trot of the horses. The stormy sky took on an ashen, copper-colored hue in the deepening twilight. At first a few indifferent words were exchanged; but from the moment in which they entered the gorges of the Seille all conversation ceased, as if they felt oppressed by the menacing walls of giant rock that seemed closing in upon them. Was not this the end of the earth, and were they not going to roll into the unknown, over the edge of some abyss? An eagle soared by, uttering a shrill cry.
Willows appeared again, and the carriage was rolling lightly along the bank of the Viorne, when Felicite began without transition, as if she were resuming a conversation already commenced.
“You have no refusal to fear from the mother. She loves Charles dearly, but she is a very sensible woman, and she understands perfectly that it is to the boy’s advantage that you should take him with you. And I must tell you, too, that the poor boy is not very happy with her, since, naturally, the husband prefers his own son and daughter. For you ought to know everything.”
And she went on in this strain, hoping, no doubt, to persuade Maxime and draw a formal promise from him. She talked until they reached Plassans. Then, suddenly, as the landau rolled over the pavement of the faubourg, she said:
“But look! there is his mother. That stout blond at the door there.”
At the threshold of a harness-maker’s shop hung round with horse trappings and halters, Justine sat, knitting a stocking, taking the air, while the little girl and boy were playing on the ground at her feet. And behind them in the shadow of the shop was to be seen Thomas, a stout, dark man, occupied in repairing a saddle.
Maxime leaned forward without emotion, simply curious. He was greatly surprised at sight of this robust woman of thirty-two, with so sensible and so commonplace an air, in whom there was not a trace of the wild little girl with whom he had been in love when both of the same age were entering their seventeenth year. Perhaps a pang shot through his heart to see her plump and tranquil and blooming, while he was ill and already aged.
“I should never have recognized her,” he said.
And the landau, still rolling on, turned into the Rue de Rome. Justine had disappeared; this vision of the past–a past so different from the present–had sunk into the shadowy twilight, with Thomas, the children, and the shop.
At La Souleiade the table was set; Martine had an eel from the Viorne, a sauted rabbit, and a leg of mutton. Seven o’clock was striking, and they had plenty of time to dine quietly.
“Don’t be uneasy,” said Dr. Pascal to his nephew. “We will accompany you to the station; it is not ten minutes’ walk from here. As you left your trunk, you have nothing to do but to get your ticket and jump on board the train.”
Then, meeting Clotilde in the vestibule, where she was hanging up her hat and her umbrella, he said to her in an undertone:
“Do you know that I am uneasy about your brother?”
“I have observed him attentively. I don’t like the way in which he walks; and have you noticed what an anxious look he has at times? That has never deceived me. In short, your brother is threatened with ataxia.”
“Ataxia!” she repeated turning very pale.
A cruel image rose before her, that of a neighbor, a man still young, whom for the past ten years she had seen driven about in a little carriage by a servant. Was not this infirmity the worst of all ills, the ax stroke that separates a living being from social and active life?
“But,” she murmured, “he complains only of rheumatism.”
Pascal shrugged his shoulders; and putting a finger to his lip he went into the dining-room, where Felicite and Maxime were seated.
The dinner was very friendly. The sudden disquietude which had sprung up in Clotilde’s heart made her still more affectionate to her brother, who sat beside her. She attended to his wants gayly, forcing him to take the most delicate morsels. Twice she called back Martine, who was passing the dishes too quickly. And Maxime was more and more enchanted by this sister, who was so good, so healthy, so sensible, whose charm enveloped him like a caress. So greatly was he captivated by her that gradually a project, vague at first, took definite shape within him. Since little Charles, his son, terrified him so greatly with his deathlike beauty, his royal air of sickly imbecility, why should he not take his sister Clotilde to live with him? The idea of having a woman in his house alarmed him, indeed, for he was afraid of all women, having had too much experience of them in his youth; but this one seemed to him truly maternal. And then, too, a good woman in his house would make a change in it, which would be a desirable thing. He would at least be left no longer at the mercy of his father, whom he suspected of desiring his death so that he might get possession of his money at once. His hatred and terror of his father decided him.
“Don’t you think of marrying, then?” he asked, wishing to try the ground.
The young girl laughed.
“Oh, there is no hurry,” she answered.
Then, suddenly, looking at Pascal, who had raised his head, she added:
“How can I tell? Oh, I shall never marry.”
But Felicite protested. When she saw her so attached to the doctor, she often wished for a marriage that would separate her from him, that would leave her son alone in a deserted home, where she herself might become all powerful, mistress of everything. Therefore she appealed to him. Was it not true that a woman ought to marry, that it was against nature to remain an old maid?
And he gravely assented, without taking his eyes from Clotilde’s face.
“Yes, yes, she must marry. She is too sensible not to marry.”
“Bah!” interrupted Maxime, “would it be really sensible in her to marry? In order to be unhappy, perhaps; there are so many ill-assorted marriages!”
And coming to a resolution, he added:
“Don’t you know what you ought to do? Well, you ought to come and live with me in Paris. I have thought the matter over. The idea of taking charge of a child in my state of health terrifies me. Am I not a child myself, an invalid who needs to be taken care of? You will take care of me; you will be with me, if I should end by losing the use of my limbs.”
There was a sound of tears in his voice, so great a pity did he feel for himself. He saw himself, in fancy, sick; he saw his sister at his bedside, like a Sister of Charity; if she consented to remain unmarried he would willingly leave her his fortune, so that his father might not have it. The dread which he had of solitude, the need in which he should perhaps stand of having a sick-nurse, made him very pathetic.
“It would be very kind on your part, and you should have no cause to repent it.”
Martine, who was serving the mutton, stopped short in surprise; and the proposition caused the same surprise at the table. Felicite was the first to approve, feeling that the girl’s departure would further her plans. She looked at Clotilde, who was still silent and stunned, as it were; while Dr. Pascal waited with a pale face.
“Oh, brother, brother,” stammered the young girl, unable at first to think of anything else to say.
Then her grandmother cried:
“Is that all you have to say? Why, the proposition your brother has just made you is a very advantageous one. If he is afraid of taking Charles now, why, you can go with him, and later on you can send for the child. Come, come, that can be very well arranged. Your brother makes an appeal to your heart. Is it not true, Pascal, that she owes him a favorable answer?”
The doctor, by an effort, recovered his self-possession. The chill that had seized him made itself felt, however, in the slowness with which he spoke.
“The offer, in effect, is very kind. Clotilde, as I said before, is very sensible and she will accept it, if it is right that she should do so.”
The young girl, greatly agitated, rebelled at this.
“Do you wish to send me away, then, master? Maxime is very good, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart. But to leave everything, my God! To leave all that love me, all that I have loved until now!”
She made a despairing gesture, indicating the place and the people, taking in all La Souleiade.
“But,” responded Pascal, looking at her fixedly, “what if Maxime should need you, what if you had a duty to fulfil toward him?”
Her eyes grew moist, and she remained for a moment trembling and desperate; for she alone understood. The cruel vision again arose before her–Maxime, helpless, driven, about in a little carriage by a servant, like the neighbor whom she used to pity. Had she indeed any duty toward a brother who for fifteen years had been a stranger to her? Did not her duty lie where her heart was? Nevertheless, her distress of mind continued; she still suffered in the struggle.
“Listen, Maxime,” she said at last, “give me also time to reflect. I will see. Be assured that I am very grateful to you. And if you should one day really have need of me, well, I should no doubt decide to go.”
This was all they could make her promise. Felicite, with her usual vehemence, exhausted all her efforts in vain, while the doctor now affected to say that she had given her word. Martine brought a cream, without thinking of hiding her joy. To take away mademoiselle! what an idea, in order that monsieur might die of grief at finding himself all alone. And the dinner was delayed, too, by this unexpected incident. They were still at the dessert when half-past eight struck.
Then Maxime grew restless, tapped the floor with his foot, and declared that he must go.
At the station, whither they all accompanied him he kissed his sister a last time, saying:
“Don’t be afraid,” declared Felicite, “we are here to remind her of her promise.”
The doctor smiled, and all three, as soon as the train was in motion, waved their handkerchiefs.
On this day, after accompanying the grandmother to her door, Dr. Pascal and Clotilde returned peacefully to La Souleiade, and spent a delightful evening there. The constraint of the past few weeks, the secret antagonism which had separated them, seemed to have vanished. Never had it seemed so sweet to them to feel so united, inseparable. Doubtless it was only this first pang of uneasiness suffered by their affection, this threatened separation, the postponement of which delighted them. It was for them like a return to health after an illness, a new hope of life. They remained for long time in the warm night, under the plane trees, listening to the crystal murmur of the fountain. And they did not even speak, so profoundly did they enjoy the happiness of being together.