Émile Zola.

Doctor Pascal online

. (page 19 of 28)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaDoctor Pascal → online text (page 19 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


if he should be unable to pay her.

So far neither Pascal nor Clotilde had any great merit in preserving
their serenity in misfortune, for they did not feel it. They lived high
above it, in the rich and happy realm of their love. At table they did
not know what they were eating; they might fancy they were partaking of
a princely banquet, served on silver dishes. They were unconscious of
the increasing destitution around them, of the hunger of the servant
who lived upon the crumbs from their table; and they walked through the
empty house as through a palace hung with silk and filled with riches.
This was undoubtedly the happiest period of their love. The workroom had
pleasant memories of the past, and they spent whole days there, wrapped
luxuriously in the joy of having lived so long in it together. Then, out
of doors, in every corner of La Souleiade, royal summer had set up his
blue tent, dazzling with gold. In the morning, in the embalsamed walks
on the pine grove; at noon under the dark shadow of the plane trees,
lulled by the murmur of the fountain; in the evening on the cool
terrace, or in the still warm threshing yard bathed in the faint blue
radiance of the first stars, they lived with rapture their straitened
life, their only ambition to live always together, indifferent to all
else. The earth was theirs, with all its riches, its pomps, and its
dominions, since they loved each other.

Toward the end of August however, matters grew bad again. At times they
had rude awakenings, in the midst of this life without ties, without
duties, without work; this life which was so sweet, but which it would
be impossible, hurtful, they knew, to lead always. One evening Martine
told them that she had only fifty francs left, and that they would have
difficulty in managing for two weeks longer, even giving up wine. In
addition to this the news was very serious; the notary Grandguillot was
beyond a doubt insolvent, so that not even the personal creditors would
receive anything. In the beginning they had relied on the house and the
two farms which the fugitive notary had left perforce behind him, but it
was now certain that this property was in his wife's name and, while
he was enjoying in Switzerland, as it was said, the beauty of the
mountains, she lived on one of the farms, which she cultivated
quietly, away from the annoyances of the liquidation. In short, it was
infamous - a hundred families ruined; left without bread. An assignee had
indeed been appointed, but he had served only to confirm the disaster,
since not a centime of assets had been discovered. And Pascal, with his
usual indifference, neglected even to go and see him to speak to him
about his own case, thinking that he already knew all that there was
to be known about it, and that it was useless to stir up this ugly
business, since there was neither honor nor profit to be derived from
it.

Then, indeed, the future looked threatening at La Souleiade. Black want
stared them in the face. And Clotilde, who, in reality, had a great
deal of good sense, was the first to take alarm. She maintained her
cheerfulness while Pascal was present, but, more prescient than he, in
her womanly tenderness, she fell into a state of absolute terror if he
left her for an instant, asking herself what was to become of him at
his age with so heavy a burden upon his shoulders. For several days she
cherished in secret a project - to work and earn money, a great deal of
money, with her pastels. People had so often praised her extraordinary
and original talent that, taking Martine into her confidence, she sent
her one fine morning to offer some of her fantastic bouquets to the
color dealer of the Cours Sauvaire, who was a relation, it was said, of
a Parisian artist. It was with the express condition that nothing was to
be exhibited in Plassans, that everything was to be sent to a distance.
But the result was disastrous; the merchant was frightened by the
strangeness of the design, and by the fantastic boldness of the
execution, and he declared that they would never sell. This threw her
into despair; great tears welled her eyes. Of what use was she? It was
a grief and a humiliation to be good for nothing. And the servant was
obliged to console her, saying that no doubt all women were not born for
work; that some grew like the flowers in the gardens, for the sake
of their fragrance; while others were the wheat of the fields that is
ground up and used for food.

Martine, meantime, cherished another project; it was to urge the doctor
to resume his practise. At last she mentioned it to Clotilde, who at
once pointed out to her the difficulty, the impossibility almost, of
such an attempt. She and Pascal had been talking about his doing so only
the day before. He, too, was anxious, and had thought of work as the
only chance of salvation. The idea of opening an office again was
naturally the first that had presented itself to him. But he had been
for so long a time the physician of the poor! How could he venture now
to ask payment when it was so many years since he had left off doing so?
Besides, was it not too late, at his age, to recommence a career? not to
speak of the absurd rumors that had been circulating about him, the name
which they had given him of a crack-brained genius. He would not find a
single patient now, it would be a useless cruelty to force him to make
an attempt which would assuredly result only in a lacerated heart and
empty hands. Clotilde, on the contrary, had used all her influence to
turn him from the idea. Martine comprehended the reasonableness of these
objections, and she too declared that he must be prevented from running
the risk of so great a chagrin. But while she was speaking a new idea
occurred to her, as she suddenly remembered an old register, which she
had met with in a press, and in which she had in former times entered
the doctor's visits. For a long time it was she who had kept the
accounts. There were so many patients who had never paid that a list
of them filled three of the large pages of the register. Why, then, now
that they had fallen into misfortune, should they not ask from these
people the money which they justly owed? It might be done without saying
anything to monsieur, who had never been willing to appeal to the
law. And this time Clotilde approved of her idea. It was a perfect
conspiracy. Clotilde consulted the register, and made out the bills, and
the servant presented them. But nowhere did she receive a sou; they told
her at every door that they would look over the account; that they would
stop in and see the doctor himself. Ten days passed, no one came, and
there were now only six francs in the house, barely enough to live upon
for two or three days longer.

Martine, when she returned with empty hands on the following day from a
new application to an old patient, took Clotilde aside and told her that
she had just been talking with Mme. Felicite at the corner of the Rue de
la Banne. The latter had undoubtedly been watching for her. She had
not again set foot in La Souleiade. Not even the misfortune which had
befallen her son - the sudden loss of his money, of which the whole
town was talking - had brought her to him; she still continued stern and
indignant. But she waited in trembling excitement, she maintained her
attitude as an offended mother only in the certainty that she would at
last have Pascal at her feet, shrewdly calculating that he would sooner
or later be compelled to appeal to her for assistance. When he had not a
sou left, when he knocked at her door, then she would dictate her
terms; he should marry Clotilde, or, better still, she would demand the
departure of the latter. But the days passed, and he did not come. And
this was why she had stopped Martine, assuming a pitying air, asking
what news there was, and seeming to be surprised that they had not had
recourse to her purse, while giving it to be understood that her dignity
forbade her to take the first step.

"You should speak to monsieur, and persuade him," ended the servant. And
indeed, why should he not appeal to his mother? That would be entirely
natural.

"Oh! never would I undertake such a commission," cried Clotilde.
"Master would be angry, and with reason. I truly believe he would die of
starvation before he would eat grandmother's bread."

But on the evening of the second day after this, at dinner, as Martine
was putting on the table a piece of boiled beef left over from the day
before, she gave them notice.

"I have no more money, monsieur, and to-morrow there will be only
potatoes, without oil or butter. It is three weeks now that you have had
only water to drink; now you will have to do without meat."

They were still cheerful, they could still jest.

"Have you salt, my good girl?"

"Oh, that; yes, monsieur, there is still a little left."

"Well, potatoes and salt are very good when one is hungry."

That night, however, Pascal noticed that Clotilde was feverish; this was
the hour in which they exchanged confidences, and she ventured to tell
him of her anxiety on his account, on her own, on that of the whole
house. What was going to become of them when all their resources should
be exhausted? For a moment she thought of speaking to him of his mother.
But she was afraid, and she contented herself with confessing to him
what she and Martine had done - the old register examined, the bills made
out and sent, the money asked everywhere in vain. In other circumstances
he would have been greatly annoyed and very angry at this confession;
offended that they should have acted without his knowledge, and contrary
to the attitude he had maintained during his whole professional life. He
remained for a long tine silent, strongly agitated, and this would have
sufficed to prove how great must be his secret anguish at times, under
his apparent indifference to poverty. Then he forgave Clotilde, clasping
her wildly to his breast, and finally he said that she had done right,
that they could not continue to live much longer as they were living,
in a destitution which increased every day. Then they fell into silence,
each trying to think of a means of procuring the money necessary for
their daily wants, each suffering keenly; she, desperate at the thought
of the tortures that awaited him; he unable to accustom himself to the
idea of seeing her wanting bread. Was their happiness forever ended,
then? Was poverty going to blight their spring with its chill breath?

At breakfast, on the following day, they ate only fruit. The doctor was
very silent during the morning, a prey to a visible struggle. And it was
not until three o'clock that he took a resolution.

"Come, we must stir ourselves," he said to his companion. "I do not
wish you to fast this evening again; so put on your hat, we will go out
together."

She looked at him, waiting for an explanation.

"Yes, since they owe us money, and have refused to give it to you, I
will see whether they will also refuse to give it to me."

His hands trembled; the thought of demanding payment in this way, after
so many years, evidently made him suffer terribly; but he forced
a smile, he affected to be very brave. And she, who knew from the
trembling of his voice the extent of his sacrifice, had tears in her
eyes.

"No, no, master; don't go if it makes you suffer so much. Martine can go
again."

But the servant, who was present, approved highly of monsieur's
intention.

"And why should not monsieur go? There's no shame in asking what is owed
to one, is there? Every one should have his own; for my part, I think it
quite right that monsieur should show at last that he is a man."

Then, as before, in their hours of happiness, old King David, as Pascal
jestingly called himself, left the house, leaning on Abishag's arm.
Neither of them was yet in rags; he still wore his tightly buttoned
overcoat; she had on her pretty linen gown with red spots, but doubtless
the consciousness of their poverty lowered them in their own estimation,
making them feel that they were now only two poor people who occupied
a very insignificant place in the world, for they walked along by the
houses, shunning observation. The sunny streets were almost deserted. A
few curious glances embarrassed them. They did not hasten their steps,
however; only their hearts were oppressed at the thought of the visits
they were about to make.

Pascal resolved to begin with an old magistrate whom he had treated
for an affection of the liver. He entered the house, leaving Clotilde
sitting on the bench in the Cours Sauvaire. But he was greatly relieved
when the magistrate, anticipating his demand, told him that he did not
receive his rents until October, and that he would pay him then. At
the house of an old lady of seventy, a paralytic, the rebuff was of a
different kind. She was offended because her account had been sent to
her through a servant who had been impolite; so that he hastened to
offer her his excuses, giving her all the time she desired. Then he
climbed up three flights of stairs to the apartment of a clerk in the
tax collector's office, whom he found still ill, and so poor that he did
not even venture to make his demand. Then followed a mercer, a lawyer's
wife, an oil merchant, a baker - all well-to-do people; and all turned
him away, some with excuses, others by denying him admittance; a few
even pretended not to know what he meant. There remained the Marquise
de Valqueyras, the sole representative of a very ancient family, a widow
with a girl of ten, who was very rich, and whose avarice was notorious.
He had left her for the last, for he was greatly afraid of her. Finally
he knocked at the door of her ancient mansion, at the foot of the Cours
Sauvaire, a massive structure of the time of Mazarin. He remained so
long in the house that Clotilde, who was walking under the trees, at
last became uneasy.

When he finally made his appearance, at the end of a full half hour, she
said jestingly, greatly relieved:

"Why, what was the matter? Had she no money?"

But here, too, he had been unsuccessful; she complained that her tenants
did not pay her.

"Imagine," he continued, in explanation of his long absence, "the little
girl is ill. I am afraid that it is the beginning of a gastric fever. So
she wished me to see the child, and I examined her."

A smile which she could not suppress came to Clotilde's lips.

"And you prescribed for her?"

"Of course; could I do otherwise?"

She took his arm again, deeply affected, and he felt her press it
against her heart. For a time they walked on aimlessly. It was all over;
they had knocked at every debtor's door, and nothing now remained for
them to do but to return home with empty hands. But this Pascal refused
to do, determined that Clotilde should have something more than the
potatoes and water which awaited them. When they ascended the Cours
Sauvaire, they turned to the left, to the new town; drifting now whither
cruel fate led them.

"Listen," said Pascal at last; "I have an idea. If I were to speak to
Ramond he would willingly lend us a thousand francs, which we could
return to him when our affairs are arranged."

She did not answer at once. Ramond, whom she had rejected, who was now
married and settled in a house in the new town, in a fair way to become
the fashionable physician of the place, and to make a fortune! She knew,
indeed, that he had a magnanimous soul and a kind heart. If he had not
visited them again it had been undoubtedly through delicacy. Whenever
they chanced to meet, he saluted them with so admiring an air, he seemed
so pleased to see their happiness.

"Would that be disagreeable to you?" asked Pascal ingenuously. For his
part, he would have thrown open to the young physician his house, his
purse, and his heart.

"No, no," she answered quickly. "There has never been anything between
us but affection and frankness. I think I gave him a great deal of pain,
but he has forgiven me. You are right; we have no other friend. It is to
Ramond that we must apply."

Ill luck pursued them, however. Ramond was absent from home, attending a
consultation at Marseilles, and he would not be back until the following
evening. And it young Mme. Ramond, an old friend of Clotilde's,
some three years her junior, who received them. She seemed a little
embarrassed, but she was very amiable, notwithstanding. But the doctor,
naturally, did not prefer his request, and contented himself with
saying, in explanation of his visit, that he had missed Ramond. When
they were in the street again, Pascal and Clotilde felt themselves once
more abandoned and alone. Where now should they turn? What new effort
should they make? And they walked on again aimlessly.

"I did not tell you, master," Clotilde at last ventured to murmur, "but
it seems that Martine met grandmother the other day. Yes, grandmother
has been uneasy about us. She asked Martine why we did not go to her, if
we were in want. And see, here is her house."

They were in fact, in the Rue de la Banne. They could see the corner of
the Place de la Sous-Prefecture. But he at once silenced her.

"Never, do you hear! Nor shall you go either. You say that because it
grieves you to see me in this poverty. My heart, too, is heavy, to think
that you also are in want, that you also suffer. But it is better to
suffer than to do a thing that would leave one an eternal remorse. I
will not. I cannot."

They emerged from the Rue de la Banne, and entered the old quarter.

"I would a thousand times rather apply to a stranger. Perhaps we still
have friends, even if they are only among the poor."

And resolved to beg, David continued his walk, leaning on the arm of
Abishag; the old mendicant king went from door to door, leaning on the
shoulder of the loving subject whose youth was now his only support.
It was almost six o'clock; the heat had abated; the narrow streets were
filling with people; and in this populous quarter where they were loved,
they were everywhere greeted with smiles. Something of pity was mingled
with the admiration they awakened, for every one knew of their ruin. But
they seemed of a nobler beauty than before, he all white, she all blond,
pressing close to each other in their misfortune. They seemed more
united, more one with each other than ever; holding their heads erect,
proud of their glorious love, though touched by misfortune; he shaken,
while she, with a courageous heart, sustained him. And in spite of the
poverty that had so suddenly overtaken them they walked without shame,
very poor and very great, with the sorrowful smile under which they
concealed the desolation of their souls. Workmen in dirty blouses passed
them by, who had more money in their pockets than they. No one ventured
to offer them the sou which is not refused to those who are hungry. At
the Rue Canoquin they stopped at the house of Gulraude. She had died
the week before. Two other attempts which they made failed. They were
reduced now to consider where they could borrow ten francs. They had
been walking about the town for three hours, but they could not resolve
to go home empty-handed.

Ah, this Plassans, with its Cours Sauvaire, its Rue de Rome, and its Rue
de la Banne, dividing it into three quarters; this Plassans; with its
windows always closed, this sun-baked town, dead in appearance, but
which concealed under this sleeping surface a whole nocturnal life of
the clubhouse and the gaming table. They walked through it three times
more with slackened pace, on this clear, calm close of a glowing August
day. In the yard of the coach office a few old stage-coaches, which
still plied between the town and the mountain villages, were standing
unharnessed; and under the thick shade of the plane trees at the doors
of the cafes, the customers, who were to be seen from seven o'clock
in the morning, looked after them smiling. In the new town, too, the
servants came and stood at the doors of the wealthy houses; they met
with less sympathy here than in the deserted streets of the Quartier St.
Marc, whose antique houses maintained a friendly silence. They returned
to the heart of the old quarter where they were most liked; they went as
far as St. Saturnin, the cathedral, whose apse was shaded by the garden
of the chapter, a sweet and peaceful solitude, from which a beggar drove
them by himself asking an alms from them. They were building rapidly in
the neighborhood of the railway station; a new quarter was growing up
there, and they bent their steps in that direction. Then they returned a
last time to the Place de la Sous-Prefecture, with a sudden reawakening
of hope, thinking that they might meet some one who would offer them
money. But they were followed only by the indulgent smile of the town,
at seeing them so united and so beautiful. Only one woman had tears in
her eyes, foreseeing, perhaps, the sufferings that awaited them. The
stones of the Viorne, the little sharp paving stones, wounded their
feet. And they had at last to return to La Souleiade, without having
succeeded in obtaining anything, the old mendicant king and his
submissive subject; Abishag, in the flower of her youth, leading back
David, old and despoiled of his wealth, and weary from having walked the
streets in vain.

It was eight o'clock, and Martine, who was waiting for them,
comprehended that she would have no cooking to do this evening. She
pretended that she had dined, and as she looked ill Pascal sent her at
once to bed.

"We do not need you," said Clotilde. "As the potatoes are on the fire we
can take them up very well ourselves."

The servant, who was feverish and out of humor, yielded. She muttered
some indistinct words - when people had eaten up everything what was the
use of sitting down to table? Then, before shutting herself into her
room, she added:

"Monsieur, there is no more hay for Bonhomme. I thought he was looking
badly a little while ago; monsieur ought to go and see him."

Pascal and Clotilde, filled with uneasiness, went to the stable. The old
horse was, in fact, lying on the straw in the somnolence of expiring old
age. They had not taken him out for six months past, for his legs, stiff
with rheumatism, refused to support him, and he had become completely
blind. No one could understand why the doctor kept the old beast.
Even Martine had at last said that he ought to be slaughtered, if only
through pity. But Pascal and Clotilde cried out at this, as much excited
as if it had been proposed to them to put an end to some aged relative
who was not dying fast enough. No, no, he had served them for more than
a quarter of a century; he should die comfortably with them, like the
worthy fellow he had always been. And to-night the doctor did not scorn
to examine him, as if he had never attended any other patients than
animals. He lifted up his hoofs, looked at his gums, and listened to the
beating of his heart.

"No, there is nothing the matter with him," he said at last. "It is
simply old age. Ah, my poor old fellow, I think, indeed, we shall never
again travel the roads together."

The idea that there was no more hay distressed Clotilde. But Pascal
reassured her - an animal of that age, that no longer moved about, needed
so little. She stooped down and took a few handfuls of grass from a heap
which the servant had left there, and both were rejoiced when Bonhomme
deigned, solely and simply through friendship, as it seemed, to eat the
grass out of her hand.

"Oh," she said, laughing, "so you still have an appetite! You cannot be
very sick, then; you must not try to work upon our feelings. Good night,
and sleep well."

And they left him to his slumbers after having each given him, as usual,
a hearty kiss on either side of his nose.

Night fell, and an idea occurred to them, in order not to remain
downstairs in the empty house - to close up everything and eat their
dinner upstairs. Clotilde quickly took up the dish of potatoes, the
salt-cellar, and a fine decanter of water; while Pascal took charge of
a basket of grapes, the first which they had yet gathered from an early
vine at the foot of the terrace. They closed the door, and laid the
cloth on a little table, putting the potatoes in the middle between the
salt-cellar and the decanter, and the basket of grapes on a chair beside
them. And it was a wonderful feast, which reminded them of the delicious
breakfast they had made on the morning on which Martine had obstinately
shut herself up in her room, and refused to answer them. They
experienced the same delight as then at being alone, at waiting upon
themselves, at eating from the same plate, sitting close beside each


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaDoctor Pascal → online text (page 19 of 28)