Émile Zola.

The Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 online

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WITH the present work M. Zola completes the "Trilogy of the Three
Cities," which he began with "Lourdes" and continued with "Rome"; and
thus the adventures and experiences of Abbe Pierre Froment, the doubting
Catholic priest who failed to find faith at the miraculous grotto by the
Cave, and hope amidst the crumbling theocracy of the Vatican, are here
brought to what, from M. Zola's point of view, is their logical
conclusion. From the first pages of "Lourdes," many readers will have
divined that Abbe Froment was bound to finish as he does, for, frankly,
no other finish was possible from a writer of M. Zola's opinions.

Taking the Trilogy as a whole, one will find that it is essentially
symbolical. Abbe Froment is Man, and his struggles are the struggles
between Religion, as personified by the Roman Catholic Church, on the one
hand, and Reason and Life on the other. In the Abbe's case the victory
ultimately rests with the latter; and we may take it as being M. Zola's
opinion that the same will eventually be the case with the great bulk of
mankind. English writers are often accused of treating subjects from an
insular point of view, and certainly there may be good ground for such a
charge. But they are not the only writers guilty of the practice. The
purview of French authors is often quite as limited: they regard French
opinion as the only good opinion, and judge the rest of the world by
their own standard. In the present case, if we leave the world and
mankind generally on one side, and apply M. Zola's facts and theories to
France alone, it will be found, I think, that he has made out a
remarkably good case for himself. For it is certain that Catholicism, I
may say Christianity, is fast crumbling in France. There may be revivals
in certain limited circles, efforts of the greatest energy to prop up the
tottering edifice by a "rallying" of believers to the democratic cause,
and by a kindling of the most bitter anti-Semitic warfare; but all these
revivals and efforts, although they are extremely well-advertised and
create no little stir, produce very little impression on the bulk of the
population. So far as France is concerned, the policy of Leo XIII. seems
to have come too late. The French masses regard Catholicism or
Christianity, whichever one pleases, as a religion of death, - a religion
which, taking its stand on the text "There shall always be poor among
you," condemns them to toil and moil in poverty and distress their whole
life long, with no other consolation than the promise of happiness in
heaven. And, on the other hand, they see the ministers of the Deity,
"whose kingdom is not of this world," supporting the wealthy and
powerful, and striving to secure wealth and power for themselves. Charity
exists, of course, but the masses declare that it is no remedy; they do
not ask for doles, they ask for Justice. It is largely by reason of all
this that Socialism and Anarchism have made such great strides in France
of recent years. Robespierre, as will be remembered, once tried to
suppress Christianity altogether, and for a time certainly there was a
virtually general cessation of religious observances in France. But no
such Reign of Terror prevails there to-day. Men are perfectly free to
believe if they are inclined to do so; and yet never were there fewer
religious marriages, fewer baptisms or smaller congregations in the
French churches. I refer not merely to Paris and other large cities, but
to the smaller towns, and even the little hamlets of many parts. Old
village priests, men practising what they teach and possessed of the most
loving, benevolent hearts, have told me with tears in their eyes of the
growing infidelity of their parishioners.

I have been studying this matter for some years, and write without
prejudice, merely setting down what I believe to be the truth. Of course
we are all aware that the most stupendous efforts are being made by the
Catholic clergy and zealous believers to bring about a revival of the
faith, and certainly in some circles there has been a measure of success.
But the reconversion of a nation is the most formidable of tasks; and, in
my own opinion, as in M. Zola's, France as a whole is lost to the
Christian religion. On this proposition, combined with a second one,
namely, that even as France as a nation will be the first to discard
Christianity, so she will be the first to promulgate a new faith based on
reason, science and the teachings of life, is founded the whole argument
of M. Zola's Trilogy.

Having thus dealt with the Trilogy's religious aspects, I would now speak
of "Paris," its concluding volume. This is very different from "Lourdes"
and "Rome." Whilst recounting the struggles and fate of Abbe Froment and
his brother Guillaume, and entering largely into the problem of Capital
and Labour, which problem has done so much to turn the masses away from
Christianity, it contains many an interesting and valuable picture of the
Parisian world at the close of the nineteenth century. It is no
guide-book to Paris; but it paints the city's social life, its rich and
poor, its scandals and crimes, its work and its pleasures. Among the
households to which the reader is introduced are those of a banker, an
aged Countess of the old _noblesse_, a cosmopolitan Princess, of a kind
that Paris knows only too well, a scientist, a manufacturer, a working
mechanician, a priest, an Anarchist, a petty clerk and an actress of a
class that so often dishonours the French stage. Science and art and
learning and religion, all have their representatives. Then, too, the
political world is well to the front. There are honest and unscrupulous
Ministers of State, upright and venal deputies, enthusiastic and cautious
candidates for power, together with social theoreticians of various
schools. And the _blase_, weak-minded man of fashion is here, as well as
the young "symbolist" of perverted, degraded mind. The women are of all
types, from the most loathsome to the most lovable. Then, too, the
journalists are portrayed in such life-like fashion that I might give
each of them his real name. And journalism, Parisian journalism, is
flagellated, shown as it really is, - if just a few well-conducted organs
be excepted, - that is, venal and impudent, mendacious and even petty.

The actual scenes depicted are quite as kaleidoscopic as are the
characters in their variety. We enter the banker's gilded saloon and the
hovel of the pauper, the busy factory, the priest's retired home and the
laboratory of the scientist. We wait in the lobbies of the Chamber of
Deputies, and afterwards witness "a great debate"; we penetrate into the
private sanctum of a Minister of the Interior; we attend a fashionable
wedding at the Madeleine and a first performance at the Comedie
Francaise; we dine at the Cafe Anglais and listen to a notorious vocalist
in a low music hall at Montmartre; we pursue an Anarchist through the
Bois de Boulogne; we slip into the Assize Court and see that Anarchist
tried there; we afterwards gaze upon his execution by the guillotine; we
are also on the boulevards when the lamps are lighted for a long night of
revelry, and we stroll along the quiet streets in the small hours of the
morning, when crime and homeless want are prowling round.

And ever the scene changes; the whole world of Paris passes before one.
Yet the book, to my thinking, is far less descriptive than analytical.
The souls of the principal characters are probed to their lowest depths.
Many of the scenes, too, are intensely dramatic, admirably adapted for
the stage; as, for instance, Baroness Duvillard's interview with her
daughter in the chapter which I have called "The Rivals." And side by
side with baseness there is heroism, while beauty of the flesh finds its
counterpart in beauty of the mind. M. Zola has often been reproached for
showing us the vileness of human nature; and no doubt such vileness may
be found in "Paris," but there are contrasting pictures. If some of M.
Zola's characters horrify the reader, there are others that the latter
can but admire. Life is compounded of good and evil, and unfortunately it
is usually the evil that makes the most noise and attracts the most
attention. Moreover, in M. Zola's case, it has always been his purpose to
expose the evils from which society suffers in the hope of directing
attention to them and thereby hastening a remedy, and thus, in the course
of his works, he could not do otherwise than drag the whole frightful
mass of human villany and degradation into the full light of day. But if
there are, again, black pages in "Paris," others, bright and comforting,
will be found near them. And the book ends in no pessimist strain.
Whatever may be thought of the writer's views on religion, most readers
will, I imagine, agree with his opinion that, despite much social
injustice, much crime, vice, cupidity and baseness, we are ever marching
on to better things.

In the making of the coming, though still far-away, era of truth and
justice, Paris, he thinks, will play the leading part, for whatever the
stains upon her, they are but surface-deep; her heart remains good and
sound; she has genius and courage and energy and wit and fancy. She can
be generous, too, when she chooses, and more than once her ideas have
irradiated the world. Thus M. Zola hopes much from her, and who will
gainsay him? Not I, who can apply to her the words which Byron addressed
to the home of my own and M. Zola's forefathers: -

"I loved her from my boyhood; she to me
Was as a fairy city of the heart."

Thus I can but hope that Paris, where I learnt the little I know, where I
struggled and found love and happiness, whose every woe and disaster and
triumph I have shared for over thirty years, may, however dark the clouds
that still pass over her, some day fully justify M. Zola's confidence,
and bring to pass his splendid dream of perfect truth and perfect

E. A. V.


Feb. 5, 1898.





THAT morning, one towards the end of January, Abbe Pierre Froment, who
had a mass to say at the Sacred Heart at Montmartre, was on the height,
in front of the basilica, already at eight o'clock. And before going in
he gazed for a moment upon the immensity of Paris spread out below him.

After two months of bitter cold, ice and snow, the city was steeped in a
mournful, quivering thaw. From the far-spreading, leaden-hued heavens a
thick mist fell like a mourning shroud. All the eastern portion of the
city, the abodes of misery and toil, seemed submerged beneath ruddy
steam, amid which the panting of workshops and factories could be
divined; while westwards, towards the districts of wealth and enjoyment,
the fog broke and lightened, becoming but a fine and motionless veil of
vapour. The curved line of the horizon could scarcely be divined, the
expanse of houses, which nothing bounded, appeared like a chaos of stone,
studded with stagnant pools, which filled the hollows with pale steam;
whilst against them the summits of the edifices, the housetops of the
loftier streets, showed black like soot. It was a Paris of mystery,
shrouded by clouds, buried as it were beneath the ashes of some disaster,
already half-sunken in the suffering and the shame of that which its
immensity concealed.

Thin and sombre in his flimsy cassock, Pierre was looking on when Abbe
Rose, who seemed to have sheltered himself behind a pillar of the porch
on purpose to watch for him, came forward: "Ah! it's you at last, my dear
child," said he, "I have something to ask you."

He seemed embarrassed and anxious, and glanced round distrustfully to
make sure that nobody was near. Then, as if the solitude thereabouts did
not suffice to reassure him, he led Pierre some distance away, through
the icy, biting wind, which he himself did not seem to feel. "This is the
matter," he resumed, "I have been told that a poor fellow, a former
house-painter, an old man of seventy, who naturally can work no more, is
dying of hunger in a hovel in the Rue des Saules. So, my dear child, I
thought of you. I thought you would consent to take him these three
francs from me, so that he may at least have some bread to eat for a few

"But why don't you take him your alms yourself?"

At this Abbe Rose again grew anxious, and cast vague, frightened glances
about him. "Oh, no, oh, no!" he said, "I can no longer do that after all
the worries that have befallen me. You know that I am watched, and should
get another scolding if I were caught giving alms like this, scarcely
knowing to whom I give them. It is true that I had to sell something to
get these three francs. But, my dear child, render me this service, I
pray you."

Pierre, with heart oppressed, stood contemplating the old priest, whose
locks were quite white, whose full lips spoke of infinite kindliness, and
whose eyes shone clear and childlike in his round and smiling face. And
he bitterly recalled the story of that lover of the poor, the
semi-disgrace into which he had fallen through the sublime candour of his
charitable goodness. His little ground-floor of the Rue de Charonne,
which he had turned into a refuge where he offered shelter to all the
wretchedness of the streets, had ended by giving cause for scandal. His
_naivete_ and innocence had been abused; and abominable things had gone
on under his roof without his knowledge. Vice had turned the asylum into
a meeting-place; and at last, one night, the police had descended upon it
to arrest a young girl accused of infanticide. Greatly concerned by this
scandal, the diocesan authorities had forced Abbe Rose to close his
shelter, and had removed him from the church of Ste. Marguerite to that
of St. Pierre of Montmartre, where he now again acted as curate. Truth to
tell, it was not a disgrace but a removal to another spot. However, he
had been scolded and was watched, as he said; and he was much ashamed of
it, and very unhappy at being only able to give alms by stealth, much
like some harebrained prodigal who blushes for his faults.

Pierre took the three francs. "I promise to execute your commission, my
friend, oh! with all my heart," he said.

"You will go after your mass, won't you? His name is Laveuve, he lives in
the Rue des Saules in a house with a courtyard, just before reaching the
Rue Marcadet. You are sure to find it. And if you want to be very kind
you will tell me of your visit this evening at five o'clock, at the
Madeleine, where I am going to hear Monseigneur Martha's address. He has
been so good to me! Won't you also come to hear him?"

Pierre made an evasive gesture. Monseigneur Martha, Bishop of Persepolis
and all powerful at the archiepiscopal palace, since, like the genial
propagandist he was, he had been devoting himself to increasing the
subscriptions for the basilica of the Sacred Heart, had indeed supported
Abbe Rose; in fact, it was by his influence that the abbe had been kept
in Paris, and placed once more at St. Pierre de Montmartre.

"I don't know if I shall be able to hear the address," said Pierre, "but
in any case I will go there to meet you."

The north wind was blowing, and the gloomy cold penetrated both of them
on that deserted summit amidst the fog which changed the vast city into a
misty ocean. However, some footsteps were heard, and Abbe Rose, again
mistrustful, saw a man go by, a tall and sturdy man, who wore clogs and
was bareheaded, showing his thick and closely-cut white hair. "Is not
that your brother?" asked the old priest.

Pierre had not stirred. "Yes, it is my brother Guillaume," he quietly
responded. "I have found him again since I have been coming occasionally
to the Sacred Heart. He owns a house close by, where he has been living
for more than twenty years, I think. When we meet we shake hands, but I
have never even been to his house. Oh! all is quite dead between us, we
have nothing more in common, we are parted by worlds."

Abbe Rose's tender smile again appeared, and he waved his hand as if to
say that one must never despair of love. Guillaume Froment, a savant of
lofty intelligence, a chemist who lived apart from others, like one who
rebelled against the social system, was now a parishioner of the abbe's,
and when the latter passed the house where Guillaume lived with his three
sons - a house all alive with work - he must often have dreamt of leading
him back to God.

"But, my dear child," he resumed, "I am keeping you here in this dark
cold, and you are not warm. Go and say your mass. Till this evening, at
the Madeleine." Then, in entreating fashion, after again making sure that
none could hear them, he added, still with the air of a child at fault:
"And not a word to anybody about my little commission - it would again be
said that I don't know how to conduct myself."

Pierre watched the old priest as he went off towards the Rue Cartot,
where he lived on a damp ground-floor, enlivened by a strip of garden.
The veil of disaster, which was submerging Paris, now seemed to grow
thicker under the gusts of the icy north wind. And at last Pierre entered
the basilica, his heart upset, overflowing with the bitterness stirred up
by the recollection of Abbe Rose's story - that bankruptcy of charity, the
frightful irony of a holy man punished for bestowing alms, and hiding
himself that he might still continue to bestow them. Nothing could calm
the smart of the wound reopened in Pierre's heart - neither the warm
peacefulness into which he entered, nor the silent solemnity of the
broad, deep fabric, whose new stonework was quite bare, without a single
painting or any kind of decoration; the nave being still half-barred by
the scaffoldings which blocked up the unfinished dome. At that early hour
the masses of entreaty had already been said at several altars, under the
grey light falling from the high and narrow windows, and the tapers of
entreaty were burning in the depths of the apse. So Pierre made haste to
go to the sacristy, there to assume his vestments in order that he might
say his mass in the chapel of St. Vincent de Paul.

But the floodgates of memory had been opened, and he had no thought but
for his distress whilst, in mechanical fashion, he performed the rites
and made the customary gestures. Since his return from Rome three years
previously, he had been living in the very worst anguish that can fall on
man. At the outset, in order to recover his lost faith, he had essayed a
first experiment: he had gone to Lourdes, there to seek the innocent
belief of the child who kneels and prays, the primitive faith of young
nations bending beneath the terror born of ignorance; but he had rebelled
yet more than ever in presence of what he had witnessed at Lourdes: that
glorification of the absurd, that collapse of common sense; and was
convinced that salvation, the peace of men and nations nowadays, could
not lie in that puerile relinquishment of reason. And afterwards, again
yielding to the need of loving whilst yet allowing reason, so hard to
satisfy, her share in his intellect, he had staked his final peace on a
second experiment, and had gone to Rome to see if Catholicism could there
be renewed, could revert to the spirit of primitive Christianity and
become the religion of the democracy, the faith which the modern world,
upheaving and in danger of death, was awaiting in order to calm down and
live. And he had found there naught but ruins, the rotted trunk of a tree
that could never put forth another springtide; and he had heard there
naught but the supreme rending of the old social edifice, near to its
fall. Then it was, that, relapsing into boundless doubt, total negation,
he had been recalled to Paris by Abbe Rose, in the name of their poor,
and had returned thither that he might forget and immolate himself and
believe in them - the poor - since they and their frightful sufferings
alone remained certain. And then it was too, that for three years he came
into contact with that collapse, that very bankruptcy of goodness itself:
charity a derision, charity useless and flouted.

Those three years had been lived by Pierre amidst ever-growing torments,
in which his whole being had ended by sinking. His faith was forever
dead; dead, too, even his hope of utilising the faith of the multitudes
for the general salvation. He denied everything, he anticipated nothing
but the final, inevitable catastrophe: revolt, massacre and
conflagration, which would sweep away a guilty and condemned world.
Unbelieving priest that he was, yet watching over the faith of others,
honestly, chastely discharging his duties, full of haughty sadness at the
thought that he had been unable to renounce his mind as he had renounced
his flesh and his dream of being a saviour of the nations, he withal
remained erect, full of fierce yet solitary grandeur. And this
despairing, denying priest, who had dived to the bottom of nothingness,
retained such a lofty and grave demeanour, perfumed by such pure
kindness, that in his parish of Neuilly he had acquired the reputation of
being a young saint, one beloved by Providence, whose prayers wrought
miracles. He was but a personification of the rules of the Church; of the
priest he retained only the gestures; he was like an empty sepulchre in
which not even the ashes of hope remained; yet grief-stricken weeping
women worshipped him and kissed his cassock; and it was a tortured mother
whose infant was in danger of death, who had implored him to come and ask
that infant's cure of Jesus, certain as she felt that Jesus would grant
her the boon in that sanctuary of Montmartre where blazed the prodigy of
His heart, all burning with love.

Clad in his vestments, Pierre had reached the chapel of St. Vincent de
Paul. He there ascended the altar-step and began the mass; and when he
turned round with hands spread out to bless the worshippers he showed his
hollow cheeks, his gentle mouth contracted by bitterness, his loving eyes
darkened by suffering. He was no longer the young priest whose
countenance had glowed with tender fever on the road to Lourdes, whose
face had been illumined by apostolic fervour when he started for Rome.
The two hereditary influences which were ever at strife within him - that
of his father to whom he owed his impregnable, towering brow, that of his
mother who had given him his love-thirsting lips, were still waging war,
the whole human battle of sentiment and reason, in that now ravaged face
of his, whither in moments of forgetfulness ascended all the chaos of
internal suffering. The lips still confessed that unquenched thirst for
love, self-bestowal and life, which he well thought he could nevermore
content, whilst the solid brow, the citadel which made him suffer,
obstinately refused to capitulate, whatever might be the assaults of
error. But he stiffened himself, hid the horror of the void in which he
struggled, and showed himself superb, making each gesture, repeating each
word in sovereign fashion. And gazing at him through her tears, the
mother who was there among the few kneeling women, the mother who awaited
a supreme intercession from him, who thought him in communion with Jesus
for the salvation of her child, beheld him radiant with angelic beauty
like some messenger of the divine grace.

When, after the offertory, Pierre uncovered the chalice he felt contempt
for himself. The shock had been too great, and he thought of those things
in spite of all. What puerility there had been in his two experiments at
Lourdes and Rome, the _naivete_ of a poor distracted being, consumed by
desire to love and believe. To have imagined that present-day science
would in his person accommodate itself to the faith of the year One
Thousand, and in particular to have foolishly believed that he, petty
priest that he was, would be able to indoctrinate the Pope and prevail on
him to become a saint and change the face of the world! It all filled him
with shame; how people must have laughed at him! Then, too, his idea of a
schism made him blush. He again beheld himself at Rome, dreaming of
writing a book by which he would violently sever himself from Catholicism

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