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   Chapter 2 No.2

Fruitfulness By Emile Zola Characters: 25777

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


MORANGE, the chief accountant at Beauchene's works, was a man of thirty-eight, bald and already gray-headed, but with a superb dark, fan-shaped beard, of which he was very proud. His full limpid eyes, straight nose, and well-shaped if somewhat large mouth had in his younger days given him the reputation of being a handsome fellow. He still took great care of himself, invariably wore a tall silk hat, and preserved the correct appearance of a very painstaking and well-bred clerk.

"You don't know our new flat yet, do you?" he asked Mathieu as he led him away. "Oh! it's perfect, as you will see. A bedroom for us and another for Reine. And it is so close to the works too. I get there in four minutes, watch in hand."

He, Morange, was the son of a petty commercial clerk who had died on his stool after forty years of cloistral office-life. And he had married a clerk's daughter, one Valerie Duchemin, the eldest of four girls whose parents' home had been turned into a perfect hell, full of shameful wretchedness and unacknowledgable poverty, through this abominable incumbrance. Valerie, who was good-looking and ambitious, was lucky enough, however, to marry that handsome, honest, and hard-working fellow, Morange, although she was quite without a dowry; and, this accomplished, she indulged in the dream of climbing a little higher up the social ladder, and freeing herself from the loathsome world of petty clerkdom by making the son whom she hoped to have either an advocate or a doctor. Unfortunately the much-desired child proved to be a girl; and Valerie trembled, fearful of finding herself at last with four daughters on her hands, just as her mother had. Her dream thereupon changed, and she resolved to incite her husband onward to the highest posts, so that she might ultimately give her daughter a large dowry, and by this means gain that admittance to superior spheres which she so eagerly desired. Her husband, who was weak and extremely fond of her, ended by sharing her ambition, ever revolving schemes of pride and conquest for her benefit. But he had now been eight years at the Beauchene works, and he still earned but five thousand francs a year. This drove him and his wife to despair. Assuredly it was not at Beauchene's that he would ever make his fortune.

"You see!" he exclaimed, after going a couple of hundred yards with Mathieu along the Boulevard de Grenelle, "it is that new house yonder at the street corner. It has a stylish appearance, eh?"

Mathieu then perceived a lofty modern pile, ornamented with balconies and sculpture work, which looked quite out of place among the poor little houses predominating in the district.

"Why, it is a palace!" he exclaimed, in order to please Morange, who thereupon drew himself up quite proudly.

"You will see the staircase, my dear fellow! Our place, you know, is on the fifth floor. But that is of no consequence with such a staircase, so easy, so soft, that one climbs it almost without knowing."

Thereupon Morange showed his guest into the vestibule as if he were ushering him into a temple. The stucco walls gleamed brightly; there was a carpet on the stairs, and colored glass in the windows. And when, on reaching the fifth story, the cashier opened the door with his latchkey, he repeated, with an air of delight: "You will see, you will see!"

Valerie and Reine must have been on the watch, for they hastened forward. At thirty-two Valerie was still young and charming. She was a pleasant-looking brunette, with a round smiling face in a setting of superb hair. She had a full, round bust, and admirable shoulders, of which her husband felt quite proud whenever she showed herself in a low-necked dress. Reine, at this time twelve years old, was the very portrait of her mother, showing much the same smiling, if rather longer, face under similar black tresses.

"Ah! it is very kind of you to accept our invitation," said Valerie gayly as she pressed both Mathieu's hands. "What a pity that Madame Froment could not come with you! Reine, why don't you relieve the gentleman of his hat?"

Then she immediately continued: "We have a nice light anteroom, you see. Would you like to glance over our flat while the eggs are being boiled? That will always be one thing done, and you will then at least know where you are lunching."

All this was said in such an agreeable way, and Morange on his side smiled so good-naturedly, that Mathieu willingly lent himself to this innocent display of vanity. First came the parlor, the corner room, the walls of which were covered with pearl-gray paper with a design of golden flowers, while the furniture consisted of some of those white lacquered Louis XVI. pieces which makers turn out by the gross. The rosewood piano showed like a big black blot amidst all the rest. Then, overlooking the Boulevard de Grenelle, came Reine's bedroom, pale blue, with furniture of polished pine. Her parents' room, a very small apartment, was at the other end of the flat, separated from the parlor by the dining-room. The hangings adorning it were yellow; and a bedstead, a washstand, and a wardrobe, all of thuya, had been crowded into it. Finally the classic "old carved oak" triumphed in the dining-room, where a heavily gilded hanging lamp flashed like fire above the table, dazzling in its whiteness.

"Why, it's delightful," Mathieu, repeated, by way of politeness; "why, it's a real gem of a place."

In their excitement, father, mother, and daughter never ceased leading him hither and thither, explaining matters to him and making him feel the things. He was most struck, by the circumstance that the place recalled something he had seen before; he seemed to be familiar with the arrangement of the drawing-room, and with the way in which the nicknacks in the bedchamber were set out. And all at once he remembered. Influenced by envy and covert admiration, the Moranges, despite themselves, no doubt, had tried to copy the Beauchenes. Always short of money as they were, they could only and by dint of great sacrifices indulge in a species of make-believe luxury. Nevertheless they were proud of it, and, by imitating the envied higher class from afar, they imagined that they drew nearer to it.

"And then," Morange exclaimed, as he opened the dining-room window, "there is also this."

Outside, a balcony ran along the house-front, and at that height the view was really a very fine one, similar to that obtained from the Beauchene mansion but more extensive, the Seine showing in the distance, and the heights of Passy rising above the nearer and lower house-roofs.

Valerie also called attention to the prospect. "It is magnificent, is it not?" said she; "far better than the few trees that one can see from the quay."

The servant was now bringing the boiled eggs and they took their seats at table, while Morange victoriously explained that the place altogether cost him sixteen hundred francs a year. It was cheap indeed, though the amount was a heavy charge on Morange's slender income. Mathieu now began to understand that he had been invited more particularly to admire the new flat, and these worthy people seemed so delighted to triumph over it before him that he took the matter gayly and without thought of spite. There was no calculating ambition in his nature; he envied nothing of the luxury he brushed against in other people's homes, and he was quite satisfied with the snug modest life he led with Marianne and his children. Thus he simply felt surprised at finding the Moranges so desirous of cutting a figure and making money, and looked at them with a somewhat sad smile.

Valerie was wearing a pretty gown of foulard with a pattern of little yellow flowers, while her daughter, Reine, whom she liked to deck out coquettishly, had a frock of blue linen stuff. There was rather too much luxury about the meal also. Soles followed the eggs, and then came cutlets, and afterwards asparagus.

The conversation began with some mention of Janville.

"And so your children are in good health? Oh! they are very fine children indeed. And you really like the country? How funny! I think I should feel dreadfully bored there, for there is too great a lack of amusements. Why, yes, we shall be delighted to go to see you there, since Madame Froment is kind enough to invite us."

Then, as was bound to happen, the talk turned on the Beauchenes. This was a subject which haunted the Moranges, who lived in perpetual admiration of the Beauchenes, though at times they covertly criticised them. Valerie was very proud of being privileged to attend Constance's Saturday "at-homes," and of having been twice invited to dinner by her during the previous winter. She on her side now had a day of her own, Tuesday, and she even gave little private parties, and half ruined herself in providing refreshments at them. As for her acquaintances, she spoke with profound respect of Mme. Seguin du Hordel and that lady's magnificent mansion in the Avenue d'Antin, for Constance had obligingly obtained her an invitation to a ball there. But she was particularly vain of the friendship of Beauchene's sister, Seraphine, whom she invariably called "Madame la Baronne de Lowicz."

"The Baroness came to my at-home one afternoon," she said. "She is so very good-natured and so gay! You knew her formerly, did you not? After her marriage, eh? when she became reconciled to her brother and their wretched disputes about money matters were over. By the way, she has no great liking for Madame Beauchene, as you must know."

Then she again reverted to the manufacturer's wife, declared that little Maurice, however sturdy he might look, was simply puffed out with bad flesh; and she remarked that it would be a terrible blow for the parents if they should lose that only son. The subject of children was thus started, and when Mathieu, laughing, observed that they, the Moranges, had but one child, the cashier protested that it was unfair to compare him with M. Beauchene, who was such a wealthy man. Valerie, for her part, pictured the position of her parents, afflicted with four daughters, who had been obliged to wait months and months for boots and frocks and hats, and had grown up anyhow, in perpetual terror lest they should never find husbands. A family was all very well, but when it happened to consist of daughters the situation became terrible for people of limited means; for if daughters were to be launched properly into life they must have dowries.

"Besides," said she, "I am very ambitious for my husband, and I am convinced that he may rise to a very high position if he will only listen to me. But he must not be saddled with a lot of incumbrances. As things stand, I trust that we may be able to get rich and give Reine a suitable dowry."

Morange, quite moved by this little speech, caught hold of his wife's hand and kissed it. Weak and good-natured as he was, Valerie was really the one with will. It was she who had instilled some ambition into him, and he esteemed her the more for it.

"My wife is a thoroughly good woman, you know, my dear Froment," said he. "She has a good head as well as a good heart."

Then, while Valerie recapitulated her dream of wealth, the splendid flat she would have, the receptions she would hold, and the two months which, like the Beauchenes, she would spend at the seaside every summer, Mathieu looked at her and her husband and pondered their position. Their case was very different from that of old Moineaud, who knew that he would never be a cabinet minister. Morange possibly dreamt that his wife would indeed make him a minister some day. Every petty bourgeois in a democratic community has a chance of rising and wishes to do so. Indeed, there is a universal, ferocious rush, each seeking to push the others aside so that he may the more speedily climb a rung of the social ladder. This general ascent, this phenomenon akin to capillarity, is possible only in a country where political equality and economic inequality prevail; for each has the same right to fortune and has but to conquer it. There is, however, a struggle of the vilest egotism, if one wishes to taste the pleasures of the highly placed, pleasures which are displayed to the gaze of all and are eagerly coveted by nearly everybody in the lower spheres. Under a democratic constitution a nation cannot live happily if its manners and customs are not simple, and if the conditions of life are not virtually equal for one and all. Under other circumstances than these the liberal professions prove all-devouring: there is a rush for public functions; manual toil is regarded with contempt; luxury increases and becomes necessary; and wealth and power are furiously appropriated by assault in order that one may greedily taste the voluptuousness of enjoyment. And in such a state of aff

airs, children, as Valerie put it, were incumbrances, whereas one needed to be free, absolutely unburdened, if one wished to climb over all one's competitors.

Mathieu also thought of that law of imitation which impels even the least fortunate to impoverish themselves by striving to copy the happy ones of the world. How great the distress which really lurks beneath that envied luxury that is copied at such great cost! All sorts of useless needs are created, and production is turned aside from the strictly necessary. One can no longer express hardship by saying that people lack bread; what they lack in the majority of cases is the superfluous, which they are unable to renounce without imagining that they have gone to the dogs and are in danger of starvation.

At dessert, when the servant was no longer present, Morange, excited by his good meal, became expansive. Glancing at his wife he winked towards their guest, saying:

"Come, he's a safe friend; one may tell him everything."

And when Valerie had consented with a smile and a nod, he went on: "Well, this is the matter, my dear fellow: it is possible that I may soon leave the works. Oh! it's not decided, but I'm thinking of it. Yes, I've been thinking of it for some months past; for, when all is said, to earn five thousand francs a year, after eight years' zeal, and to think that one will never earn much more, is enough to make one despair of life."

"It's monstrous," the young woman interrupted: "it is like breaking one's head intentionally against a wall."

"Well, in such circumstances, my dear friend, the best course is to look out for something elsewhere, is it not? Do you remember Michaud, whom I had under my orders at the works some six years ago? A very intelligent fellow he was. Well, scarcely six years have elapsed since he left us to go to the Credit National, and what do you think he is now earning there? Twelve thousand francs-you hear me-twelve thousand francs!"

The last words rang out like a trumpet-call. The Moranges' eyes dilated with ecstasy. Even the little girl became very red.

"Last March," continued Morange, "I happened to meet Michaud, who told me all that, and showed himself very amiable. He offered to take me with him and help me on in my turn. Only there's some risk to run. He explained to me that I must at first accept three thousand six hundred, so as to rise gradually to a very big figure. But three thousand six hundred! How can one live on that in the meantime, especially now that this flat has increased our expenses?"

At this Valerie broke in impetuously: "'Nothing venture, nothing have!' That's what I keep on repeating to him. Of course I am in favor of prudence; I would never let him do anything rash which might compromise his future. But, at the same time, he can't moulder away in a situation unworthy of him."

"And so you have made up your minds?" asked Mathieu.

"Well, my wife has calculated everything," Morange replied; "and, yes, we have made up our minds, provided, of course, that nothing unforeseen occurs. Besides, it is only in October that any situation will be open at the Credit National. But, I say, my dear friend, keep the matter entirely to yourself, for we don't want to quarrel with the Beauchenes just now."

Then he looked at his watch, for, like a good clerk, he was very punctual, and did not wish to be late at the office. The servant was hurried, the coffee was served, and they were drinking it, boiling hot as it was, when the arrival of a visitor upset the little household and caused everything to be forgotten.

"Oh!" exclaimed Valerie, as she hastily rose, flushed with pride, "Madame la Baronne de Lowicz!"

Seraphine, at this time nine-and-twenty, was red-haired, tall and elegant, with magnificent shoulders which were known to all Paris. Her red lips were wreathed in a triumphant smile, and a voluptuous flame ever shone in her large brown eyes flecked with gold.

"Pray don't disturb yourselves, my friends," said she. "Your servant wanted to show me into the drawing-room, but I insisted on coming in here, because it is rather a pressing matter. I have come to fetch your charming little Reine to take her to a matinee at the Circus."

A fresh explosion of delight ensued. The child remained speechless with joy, whilst the mother exulted and rattled on: "Oh! Madame la Baronne, you are really too kind! You are spoiling the child. But the fact is that she isn't dressed, and you will have to wait a moment. Come, child, make haste, I will help you-ten minutes, you understand-I won't keep you waiting a moment longer."

Seraphine remained alone with the two men. She had made a gesture of surprise on perceiving Mathieu, whose hand, like an old friend, she now shook.

"And you, are you quite well?" she asked.

"Quite well," he answered; and as she sat down near him he instinctively pushed his chair back. He did not seem at all pleased at having met her.

He had been on familiar terms with her during his earlier days at the Beauchene works. She was a frantic pleasure-lover, and destitute of both conscience and moral principles. Her conduct had given rise to scandal even before her extraordinary elopement with Baron de Lowicz, that needy adventurer with a face like an archangel's and the soul of a swindler. The result of the union was a stillborn child. Then Seraphine, who was extremely egotistical and avaricious, quarrelled with her husband and drove him away. He repaired to Berlin, and was killed there in a brawl at a gambling den. Delighted at being rid of him, Seraphine made every use of her liberty as a young widow. She figured at every fete, took part in every kind of amusement, and many scandalous stories were told of her; but she contrived to keep up appearances and was thus still received everywhere.

"You are living in the country, are you not?" she asked again, turning towards Mathieu.

"Yes, we have been there for three weeks past."

"Constance told me of it. I met her the other day at Madame Seguin's. We are on the best terms possible, you know, now that I give my brother good advice."

In point of fact her sister-in-law, Constance, hated her, but with her usual boldness she treated the matter as a joke.

"We talked about Dr. Gaude," she resumed; "I fancied that she wanted to ask for his address; but she did not dare."

"Dr. Gaude!" interrupted Morange. "Ah! yes, a friend of my wife's spoke to her about him. He's a wonderfully clever man, it appears. Some of his operations are like miracles."

Then he went on talking of Dr. Gaude's clinic at the Hopital Marbeuf, a clinic whither society folks hastened to see operations performed, just as they might go to a theatre. The doctor, who was fond of money, and who bled his wealthy lady patients in more senses than one, was likewise partial to glory and proud of accomplishing the most dangerous experiments on the unhappy creatures who fell into his hands. The newspapers were always talking about him, his cures were constantly puffed and advertised by way of inducing fine ladies to trust themselves to his skill. And he certainly accomplished wonders, cutting and carving his patients in the quietest, most unconcerned way possible, with never a scruple, never a doubt as to whether what he did was strictly right or not.

Seraphine had begun to laugh, showing her white wolfish teeth between her blood-red lips, when she noticed the horrified expression which had appeared on Mathieu's face since Gaude had been spoken of. "Ah!" said she; "there's a man, now, who in nowise resembles your squeamish Dr. Boutan, who is always prattling about the birth-rate. I can't understand why Constance keeps to that old-fashioned booby, holding the views she does. She is quite right, you know, in her opinions. I fully share them."

Morange laughed complaisantly. He wished to show her that his opinions were the same. However, as Valerie did not return with Reine, he grew impatient, and asked permission to go and see what they were about. Perhaps he himself might be able to help in getting the child ready.

As soon as Seraphine was alone with Mathieu she turned her big, ardent, gold-flecked eyes upon him. She no longer laughed with the same laugh as a moment previously; an expression of voluptuous irony appeared on her bold bad face. After a spell of silence she inquired, "And is my good cousin Marianne quite well?"

"Quite well," replied Mathieu.

"And the children are still growing?"

"Yes, still growing."

"So you are happy, like a good paterfamilias, in your little nook?"

"Perfectly happy."

Again she lapsed into silence, but she did not cease to look at him, more provoking, more radiant than ever, with the charm of a young sorceress whose eyes burn and poison men's hearts. And at last she slowly resumed: "And so it is all over between us?"

He made a gesture in token of assent. There had long since been a passing fancy between them. He had been nineteen at the time, and she two-and-twenty. He had then but just entered life, and she was already married. But a few months later he had fallen in love with Marianne, and had then entirely freed himself from her.

"All over-really?" she again inquired, smiling but aggressive.

She was looking very beautiful and bold, seeking to tempt him and carry him off from that silly little cousin of hers, whose tears would simply have made her laugh. And as Mathieu did not this time give her any answer, even by a wave of the hand, she went on: "I prefer that: don't reply: don't say that it is all over. You might make a mistake, you know."

For a moment Mathieu's eyes flashed, then he closed them in order that he might no longer see Seraphine, who was leaning towards him. It seemed as if all the past were coming back. She almost pressed her lips to his as she whispered that she still loved him; and when he drew back, full of mingled emotion and annoyance, she raised her little hand to his mouth as if she feared that he was again going to say no.

"Be quiet," said she; "they are coming."

The Moranges were now indeed returning with Reine, whose hair had been curled. The child looked quite delicious in her frock of rose silk decked with white lace, and her large hat trimmed with some of the dress material. Her gay round face showed with flowery delicacy under the rose silk.

"Oh, what a love!" exclaimed Seraphine by way of pleasing the parents. "Somebody will be stealing her from me, you know."

Then it occurred to her to kiss the child in passionate fashion, feigning the emotion of a woman who regrets that she is childless. "Yes; indeed one regrets it very much when one sees such a treasure as this sweet girl of yours. Ah! if one could only be sure that God would give one such a charming child-well, at all events, I shall steal her from you; you need not expect me to bring her back again."

The enraptured Moranges laughed delightedly. And Mathieu, who knew her well, listened in stupefaction. How many times during their short and passionate attachment had she not inveighed against children! In her estimation maternity poisoned love, aged woman, and made a horror of her in the eyes of man.

The Moranges accompanied her and Reine to the landing. And they could not find words warm enough to express their happiness at seeing such coveted wealth and luxury come to seek their daughter. When the door of the flat was closed Valerie darted on to the balcony, exclaiming, "Let us see them drive off."

Morange, who no longer gave a thought to the office, took up a position near her, and called Mathieu and compelled him likewise to lean over and look down. A well-appointed victoria was waiting below with a superb-looking coachman motionless on the box-seat. This sight put a finishing touch to the excitement of the Moranges. When Seraphine had installed the little girl beside her, they laughed aloud.

"How pretty she looks! How happy she must feel!"

Reine must have been conscious that they were looking at her, for she raised her head, smiled and bowed. And Seraphine did the same, while the horse broke into a trot and turned the corner of the avenue. Then came a final explosion-

"Look at her!" repeated Valerie; "she is so candid! At twelve years old she is still as innocent as a child in her cradle. You know that I trust her to nobody. Wouldn't one think her a little duchess who has always had a carriage of her own?"

Then Morange reverted to his dream of fortune. "Well," said he, "I hope that she will have a carriage when we marry her off. Just let me get into the Credit National and you will see all your desires fulfilled."

And turning towards Mathieu he added, "There are three of us, and, as I have said before, that is quite enough for a man to provide for, especially as money is so hard to earn."

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