MoboReader > Literature > Fruitfulness

   Chapter 6 No.6

Fruitfulness By Emile Zola Characters: 29077

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


ABOUT nine o'clock one fine cold morning, a few days afterwards, as Mathieu, bound for his office, a little late through having lingered near his wife, was striding hastily across the garden which separated the pavilion from the factory yard, he met Constance and Maurice, who, clad in furs, were going out for a walk in the sharp air. Beauchene, who was accompanying them as far as the gate, bareheaded and ever sturdy and victorious, gayly exclaimed to his wife:

"Give the youngster a good spin on his legs! Let him take in all the fresh air he can. There's nothing like that and good food to make a man."

Mathieu, on hearing this, stopped short. "Has Maurice been poorly again?" he inquired.

"Oh, no!" hastily replied the boy's mother, with an appearance of great gayety, assumed perhaps from an unconscious desire to hide certain covert fears. "Only the doctor wants him to take exercise, and it is so fine this morning that we are going off on quite an expedition."

"Don't go along the quays," said Beauchene again. "Go up towards the Invalides. He'll have much stiffer marching to do when he's a soldier."

Then, the mother and the child having taken themselves off, he went back into the works with Mathieu, adding in his triumphant way: "That youngster, you know, is as strong as an oak. But women are always so nervous. For my part, I'm quite easy in mind about him, as you can see." And with a laugh he concluded: "When one has but one son, he keeps him."

That same day, about an hour later, a terrible dispute which broke out between old Moineaud's daughters, Norine and Euphrasie, threw the factory into a state of commotion. Norine's intrigue with Beauchene had ended in the usual way. He had soon tired of the girl and betaken himself to some other passing fancy, leaving her to her tears, her shame, and all the consequences of her fault; for although it had hitherto been possible for her to conceal her condition from her parents, she was unable to deceive her sister, who was her constant companion. The two girls were always bickering, and Norine had for some time lived in dread of scandal and exposure. And that day the trouble came to a climax, beginning with a trivial dispute about a bit of glass-paper in the workroom, then developing into a furious exchange of coarse, insulting language, and culminating in a frantic outburst from Euphrasie, who shrieked to the assembled work-girls all that she knew about her sister.

There was an outrageous scene: the sisters fought, clawing and scratching one another desperately, and could not be separated until Beauchene, Mathieu, and Morange, attracted by the extraordinary uproar, rushed into the workroom and restored a little order. Fortunately for Beauchene, Euphrasie did not know the whole truth, and Norine, after giving her employer a humble, supplicating glance, kept silence; but old Moineaud was present, and the public revelation of his daughter's shame sent him into a fury. He ordered Norine out of the works forthwith, and threatened to throw her out of window should he find her at home when he returned there in the evening. And Beauchene, both annoyed at the scandal and ashamed at being the primary cause of it, did not venture to interfere. It was only after the unhappy Norine had rushed off sobbing that he found strength of mind to attempt to pacify the father, and assert his authority in the workroom by threatening to dismiss one and all of the girls if the slightest scandal, the slightest noise, should ever occur there again.

Mathieu was deeply pained by the scene, but kept his own counsel. What most astonished him was the promptness with which Beauchene regained his self-possession as soon as Norine had fled, and the majesty with which he withdrew to his office after threatening the others and restoring order. Another whom the scene had painfully affected was Morange, whom Mathieu, to his surprise, found ghastly pale, with trembling hands, as if indeed he had had some share of responsibility in this unhappy business. But Morange, as he confided to Mathieu, was distressed for other reasons. The scene in the workroom, the revelation of Norine's condition, the fate awaiting the girl driven away into the bleak, icy streets, had revived all his own poignant worries with respect to Valerie. Mathieu had already heard of the latter's trouble from his wife, and he speedily grasped the accountant's meaning. It vaguely seemed to him also that Morange was yielding to the same unreasoning despair as Valerie, and was almost willing that she should take the desperate course which she had hinted to Marianne. But it was a very serious matter, and Mathieu did not wish to be in any way mixed up in it. Having tried his best to pacify the cashier, he sought forgetfulness of these painful incidents in his work.

That afternoon, however, a little girl, Cecile Moineaud, the old fitter's youngest daughter, slipped into his office, with a message from her mother, beseeching him to speak with her. He readily understood that the woman wished to see him respecting Norine, and in his usual compassionate way he consented to go. The interview took place in one of the adjacent streets, down which the cold winter wind was blowing. La Moineaude was there with Norine and another little girl of hers, Irma, a child eight years of age. Both Norine and her mother wept abundantly while begging Mathieu to help them. He alone knew the whole truth, and was in a position to approach Beauchene on the subject. La Moineaude was firmly determined to say nothing to her husband. She trembled for his future and that of her son Alfred, who was now employed at the works; for there was no telling what might happen if Beauchene's name should be mentioned. Life was indeed hard enough already, and what would become of them all should the family bread-winners be turned away from the factory? Norine certainly had no legal claim on Beauchene, the law being peremptory on that point; but, now that she had lost her employment, and was driven from home by her father, could he leave her to die of want in the streets? The girl tried to enforce her moral claim by asserting that she had always been virtuous before meeting Beauchene. In any case, her lot remained a very hard one. That Beauchene was the father of her child there could be no doubt; and at last Mathieu, without promising success, told the mother that he would do all he could in the matter.

He kept his word that same afternoon, and after a great deal of difficulty he succeeded. At first Beauchene fumed, stormed, denied, equivocated, almost blamed Mathieu for interfering, talked too of blackmail, and put on all sorts of high and mighty airs. But at heart the matter greatly worried him. What if Norine or her mother should go to his wife? Constance might close her eyes as long as she simply suspected things, but if complaints were formally, openly made to her, there would be a terrible scandal. On the other hand, however, should he do anything for the girl, it would become known, and everybody would regard him as responsible. And then there would be no end to what he called the blackmailing.

However, when Beauchene reached this stage Mathieu felt that the battle was gained. He smiled and answered: "Of course, one can never tell-the girl is certainly not malicious. But when women are driven beyond endurance, they become capable of the worst follies. I must say that she made no demands of me; she did not even explain what she wanted; she simply said that she could not remain in the streets in this bleak weather, since her father had turned her away from home. If you want my opinion, it is this: I think that one might at once put her to board at a proper place. Let us say that four or five months will elapse before she is able to work again; that would mean a round sum of five hundred francs in expenses. At that cost she might be properly looked after."

Beauchene walked nervously up and down, and then replied: "Well, I haven't a bad heart, as you know. Five hundred francs more or less will not inconvenience me. If I flew into a temper just now it was because the mere idea of being robbed and imposed upon puts me beside myself. But if it's a question of charity, why, then, do as you suggest. It must be understood, however, that I won't mix myself up in anything; I wish even to remain ignorant of what you do. Choose a nurse, place the girl where you please, and I will simply pay the bill. Neither more nor less."

Then he heaved a sigh of relief at the prospect of being extricated from this equivocal position, the worry of which he refused to acknowledge. And once more he put on the mien of a superior, victorious man, one who is certain that he will win all the battles of life. In fact, he even jested about the girl, and at last went off repeating his instructions: "See that my conditions are fully understood. I don't want to know anything about any child. Do whatever you please, but never let me hear another word of the matter."

That day was certainly one fertile in incidents, for in the evening there was quite an alarm at the Beauchenes. At the moment when they were about to sit down to dinner little Maurice fainted away and fell upon the floor. Nearly a quarter of an hour elapsed before the child could be revived, and meantime the distracted parents quarrelled and shouted, accusing one another of having compelled the lad to go out walking that morning in such cold, frosty weather. It was evidently that foolish outing which had chilled him. At least, this was what they said to one another by way of quieting their anxiety. Constance, while she held her boy in her arms, pictured him as dead. It occurred to her for the first time that she might possibly lose him. At this idea she experienced a terrible heart-pang, and a feeling of motherliness came upon her, so acute that it was like a revelation. The ambitious woman that was in her, she who dreamt of royalty for that only son, the future princely owner of the ever-growing family fortune, likewise suffered horribly. If she was to lose that son she would have no child left. Why had she none other? Was it not she who had willed it thus? At this thought a feeling of desperate regret shot through her like a red-hot blade, burning her cruelly to the very depths of her being. Maurice, however, at last recovered consciousness, and even sat down to the table and ate with a fair appetite. Then Beauchene immediately shrugged his shoulders, and began to jest about the unreasoning fears of women. And as time went by Constance herself ceased to think of the incident.

On the morrow, when Mathieu had to attend to the delicate mission which he had undertaken, he remembered the two women of whom Celeste, the maid, had spoken on the day of his visit to the Seguins. He at first dismissed all idea of that Madame Rouche, of whom the girl had spoken so strangely, but he thought of making some inquiries respecting Madame Bourdieu, who accommodated boarders at the little house where she resided in the Rue de Miromesnil. And he seemed to remember that this woman had attended Madame Morange at the time of Reine's birth, a circumstance which induced him to question the cashier.

At the very first words the latter seemed greatly disturbed. "Yes, a lady friend recommended Madame Bourdieu to my wife," said he; "but why do you ask me?"

And as he spoke he looked at Mathieu with an expression of anguish, as if that sudden mention of Madame Bourdieu's name signified that the young fellow had guessed his secret preoccupations. It was as though he had been abruptly surprised in wrong-doing. Perhaps, too, certain dim, haunting thoughts, which he had long been painfully revolving in his mind, without as yet being able to come to a decision, took shape at that moment. At all events, he turned pale and his lips trembled.

Then, as Mathieu gave him to understand that it was a question of placing Norine somewhere, he involuntarily let an avowal escape him.

"My wife was speaking to me of Madame Bourdieu only this morning," he began. "Oh! I don't know how it happened, but, as you are aware, Reine was born so many years ago that I can't give you any precise information. It seems that the woman has done well, and is now at the head of a first-class establishment. Inquire there yourself; I have no doubt you will find what you want there."

Mathieu followed this advice; but at the same time, as he had been warned that Madame Bourdieu's terms were rather high, he stifled his prejudices and began by repairing to the Rue du Rocher in order to reconnoitre Madame Rouche's establishment and make some inquiries of her. The mere aspect of the place chilled him. It was one of the black houses of old Paris, with a dark, evil-smelling passage, leading into a small yard which the nurse's few squalid rooms overlooked. Above the passage entrance was a yellow signboard which simply bore the name of Madame Rouche in big letters. She herself proved to be a person of five- or six-and-thirty, gowned in black and spare of figure, with a leaden complexion, scanty hair of no precise color, and a big nose of unusual prominence. With her low, drawling speech, her prudent, cat-like gestures, and her sour smile, he divined her to be a dangerous, unscrupulous woman. She told him that, as the accommodation at her disposal was so small, she only took boarders for a limited time, and this of course enabled him to curtail his inquiries. Glad to have done with her, he hurried off, oppressed by nausea and vaguely frightened by what he had seen of the place.

On the other hand, Madame Bourdieu's establishment, a little three-storied house in the Rue de Miromesnil, between the Rue La Boetie and the Rue de Penthievre, offered an engaging aspect, with its bright facade and muslin-curtained windows. And Madame Bourdieu, then two-and-thirty, rather short and stout, had a broad, pleasant white face, which had greatly helped her on the road to success. She expatiated to Mathieu on the preliminary training that was required by one of her profession, the cost of it, the efforts needed to make a position, the responsibilities, the inspections, the worries of all sorts that she had to face; and she plainly told the young man that her charge for a boarder would be two hundred francs a month. This was far more than he was empowered to give; however, after some further conversation, when Madame Bourdieu learnt that it was a quest

ion of four months' board, she became more accommodating, and agreed to accept a round sum of six hundred francs for the entire period, provided that the person for whom Mathieu was acting would consent to occupy a three-bedded room with two other boarders.

Altogether there were about a dozen boarders' rooms in the house, some of these having three, and even four, beds; while others, the terms for which were naturally higher, contained but one. Madame Bourdieu could accommodate as many as thirty boarders, and as a rule, she had some five-and-twenty staying on her premises. Provided they complied with the regulations, no questions were asked them. They were not required to say who they were or whence they came, and in most cases they were merely known by some Christian name which they chose to give.

Mathieu ended by agreeing to Madame Bourdieu's terms, and that same evening Norine was taken to her establishment. Some little trouble ensued with Beauchene, who protested when he learnt that five hundred francs would not suffice to defray the expenses. However, Mathieu managed affairs so diplomatically that at last the other not only became reconciled to the terms, but provided the money to purchase a little linen, and even agreed to supply pocket-money to the extent of ten francs a month. Thus, five days after Norine had entered Madame Bourdieu's establishment, Mathieu decided to return thither to hand the girl her first ten francs and tell her that he had settled everything.

He found her there in the boarders' refectory with some of her companions in the house-a tall, thin, severe-looking Englishwoman, with lifeless eyes and bloodless lips, who called herself Amy, and a pale red-haired girl with a tip-tilted nose and a big mouth, who was known as Victoire. Then, too, there was a young person of great beauty answering to the name of Rosine, a jeweller's daughter, so Norine told Mathieu, whose story was at once pathetic and horrible. The young man, while waiting to see Madame Bourdieu, who was engaged, sat for a time answering Norine's questions, and listening to the others, who conversed before him in a free and open way. His heart was wrung by much that he heard, and as soon as he could rid himself of Norine he returned to the waiting-room, eager to complete his business. There, however, two women who wished to consult Madame Bourdieu, and who sat chatting side by side on a sofa, told him that she was still engaged, so that he was compelled to tarry a little longer. He ensconced himself in a large armchair, and taking a newspaper from his pocket, began to read it. But he had not been thus occupied for many minutes before the door opened and a servant entered, ushering in a lady dressed in black and thickly veiled, whom she asked to be good enough to wait her turn. Mathieu was on the point of rising, for, though his back was turned to the door, he could see, in a looking-glass, that the new arrival was none other than Morange's wife, Valerie. After a moment's hesitation, however, the sight of her black gown and thick veil, which seemed to indicate that she desired to escape recognition, induced him to dive back into his armchair and feign extreme attention to his newspaper. She, on her side, had certainly not noticed him, but by glancing slantwise towards the looking-glass he could observe all her movements.

Meantime the conversation between the other women on the sofa continued, and to Mathieu's surprise it suddenly turned on Madame Rouche, concerning whom one of them began telling the most horrible stories, which fully confirmed the young man's previous suspicions. These stories seemed to have a powerful fascination for Valerie, who sat in a corner, never stirring, but listening intently. She did not even turn her head towards the other women, but, beneath her veil, Mathieu could detect her big eyes glittering feverishly. She started but once. It was when one of the others inquired of her friend where that horrid creature La Rouche resided, and the other replied, "At the lower end of the Rue du Rocher."

Then their chatter abruptly ceased, for Madame Bourdieu made her appearance on the threshold of her private room. The gossips exchanged only a few words with her, and then, as Mathieu remained in his armchair, the high back of which concealed him from view, Valerie rose from her seat and followed Madame Bourdieu into the private room.

As soon as he was alone the young man let his newspaper fall upon his knees, and lapsed into a reverie, haunted by all the chatter he had heard, both there and in Norine's company, and shuddering at the thought of the dreadful secrets that had been revealed to him. How long an interval elapsed he could not tell, but at last he was suddenly roused by a sound of voices.

Madame Bourdieu was now escorting Valerie to the door. She had the same plump fresh face as usual, and even smiled in a motherly way; but the other was quivering, as with distress and grief. "You are not sensible, my dear child," said Madame Bourdieu to her. "It is simply foolish of you. Come, go home and be good."

Then, Valerie having withdrawn without uttering a word, Madame Bourdieu was greatly surprised to see Mathieu, who had risen from his chair. And she suddenly became serious, displeased with herself at having spoken in his presence. Fortunately, a diversion was created by the arrival of Norine, who came in from the refectory; and Mathieu then promptly settled his business and went off, after promising Norine that he would return some day to see her.

To make up for lost time he was walking hastily towards the Rue La Boetie, when, all at once, he came to a halt, for at the very corner of that street he again perceived Valerie, now talking to a man, none other than her husband. So Morange had come with her, and had waited for her in the street while she interviewed Madame Bourdieu. And now they both stood there consulting together, hesitating and evidently in distress. It was plain to Mathieu that a terrible combat was going on within them. They stamped about, moved hither and thither in a feverish way, then halted once more to resume their conversation in a whisper. At one moment the young man felt intensely relieved, for, turning into the Rue La Boetie, they walked on slowly, as if downcast and resigned, in the direction of Grenelle. But all at once they halted once more and exchanged a few words; and then Mathieu's heart contracted as he saw them retrace their steps along the Rue La Boetie and follow the Rue de la Pepiniere as far as the Rue du Rocher. He readily divined whither they were going, but some irresistible force impelled him to follow them; and before long, from an open doorway, in which he prudently concealed himself, he saw them look round to ascertain whether they were observed, and then slink, first the wife and afterwards the husband, into the dark passage of La Rouche's house. For a moment Mathieu lingered in his hiding-place, quivering, full of dread and horror; and when at last he turned his steps homeward it was with a heavy heart indeed.

The weeks went by, the winter ran its course, and March had come round, when the memory of all that the young fellow had heard and seen that day-things which he had vainly striven to forget-was revived in the most startling fashion. One morning at eight o'clock Morange abruptly called at the little pavilion in the Rue de la Federation, accompanied by his daughter Reine. The cashier was livid, haggard, distracted, and as soon as Reine had joined Mathieu's children, and could not hear what he said, he implored the young man to come with him. In a gasp he told the dreadful truth-Valerie was dying. Her daughter believed her to be in the country, but that was a mere fib devised to quiet the girl. Valerie was elsewhere, in Paris, and he, Morange, had a cab waiting below, but lacked the strength to go back to her alone, so poignant was his grief, so great his dread.

Mathieu was expecting a happy event that very day, and he at first told the cashier that he could not possibly go with him; but when he had informed Marianne that he believed that something dreadful had happened to the Moranges, she bravely bade him render all assistance. And then the two men drove, as Mathieu had anticipated, to the Rue du Rocher, and there found the hapless Valerie, not dying, but dead, and white, and icy cold. Ah! the desperate, tearless grief of the husband, who fell upon his knees at the bedside, benumbed, annihilated, as if he also felt death's heavy hand upon him.

For a moment, indeed, the young man anticipated exposure and scandal. But when he hinted this to La Rouche she faintly smiled. She had friends on many sides, it seemed. She had already reported Valerie's death at the municipal office, and the doctor, who would be sent to certify the demise, would simply ascribe it to natural causes. Such was the usual practice!

Then Mathieu bethought himself of leading Morange away; but the other, still plunged in painful stupor, did not heed him.

"No, no, my friend, I pray you, say nothing," he at last replied, in a very faint, distant voice, as though he feared to awaken the unfortunate woman who had fallen asleep forever. "I know what I have done; I shall never forgive myself. If she lies there, it is because I consented. Yet I adored her, and never wished her aught but happiness. I loved her too much, and I was weak. Still, I was the husband, and when her madness came upon her I ought to have acted sensibly, and have warned and dissuaded her. I can understand and excuse her, poor creature; but as for me, it is all over; I am a wretch; I feel horrified with myself."

All his mediocrity and tenderness of heart sobbed forth in this confession of his weakness. And his voice never gave sign of animation, never rose in a louder tone from the depths of his annihilated being, which would evermore be void. "She wished to be gay, and rich, and happy," he continued. "It was so legitimate a wish on her part, she was so intelligent and beautiful! There was only one delight for me, to content her tastes and satisfy her ambition. You know our new flat. We spent far too much money on it. Then came that story of the Credit National and the hope of speedily rising to fortune. And thus, when the trouble came, and I saw her distracted at the idea of having to renounce all her dreams, I became as mad as she was, and suffered her to do her will. We thought that our only means of escaping from everlasting penury and drudgery was to evade Nature, and now, alas! she lies there."

Morange's lugubrious voice, never broken by a sob, never rising to violence, but sounding like a distant, monotonous, mournful knell, rent Mathieu's heart. He sought words of consolation, and spoke of Reine.

"Ah, yes!" said the other, "I am very fond of Reine. She is so like her mother. You will keep her at your house till to-morrow, won't you? Tell her nothing; let her play; I will acquaint her with this dreadful misfortune. And don't worry me, I beg you, don't take me away. I promise you that I will keep very quiet: I will simply stay here, watching her. Nobody will even hear me; I shan't disturb any one."

Then his voice faltered and he stammered a few more incoherent phrases as he sank into a dream of his wrecked life.

Mathieu, seeing him so quiet, so overcome, at last decided to leave him there, and, entering the waiting cab, drove back to Grenelle. Ah! it was indeed relief for him to see the crowded, sunlit streets again, and to breathe the keen air which came in at both windows of the vehicle. Emerging from that horrid gloom, he breathed gladly beneath the vast sky, all radiant with healthy joy. And the image of Marianne arose before him like a consolatory promise of life's coming victory, an atonement for every shame and iniquity. His dear wife, whom everlasting hope kept full of health and courage, and through whom, even amid her pangs, love would triumph, while they both held themselves in readiness for to-morrow's allotted effort! The cab rolled on so slowly that Mathieu almost despaired, eager as he was to reach his bright little house, that he might once more take part in life's poem, that august festival instinct with so much suffering and so much joy, humanity's everlasting hymn, the coming of a new being into the world.

That very day, soon after his return, Denis and Blaise, Ambroise, Rose, and Reine were sent round to the Beauchenes', where they filled the house with their romping mirth. Maurice, however, was again ailing, and had to lie upon a sofa, disconsolate at being unable to take part in the play of the others. "He has pains in his legs," said his father to Mathieu, when he came round to inquire after Marianne; "he's growing so fast, and getting such a big fellow, you know."

Lightly as Beauchene spoke, his eyes even then wavered, and his face remained for a moment clouded. Perhaps, in his turn, he also had felt the passing of that icy breath from the unknown which one evening had made Constance shudder with dread whilst she clasped her swooning boy in her arms.

But at that moment Mathieu, who had left Marianne's room to answer Beauchene's inquiries, was summoned back again. And there he now found the sunlight streaming brilliantly, like a glorious greeting to new life. While he yet stood there, dazzled by the glow, the doctor said to him: "It is a boy."

Then Mathieu leant over his wife and kissed her lovingly. Her beautiful eyes were still moist with the tears of anguish, but she was already smiling with happiness.

"Dear, dear wife," said Mathieu, "how good and brave you are, and how I love you!"

"Yes, yes, I am very happy," she faltered, "and I must try to give you back all the love that you give me."

Ah! that room of battle and victory, it seemed radiant with triumphant glory. Elsewhere was death, darkness, shame, and crime, but here holy suffering had led to joy and pride, hope and trustfulness in the coming future. One single being born, a poor bare wee creature, raising the faint cry of a chilly fledgeling, and life's immense treasure was increased and eternity insured. Mathieu remembered one warm balmy spring night when, yonder at Chantebled, all the perfumes of fruitful nature had streamed into their room in the little hunting-box, and now around him amid equal rapture he beheld the ardent sunlight flaring, chanting the poem of eternal life that sprang from love the eternal.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares