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Émile Zola.

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to preach the new religion of the democracies, the purified, human and
living Gospel. But what ridiculous folly! A schism? He had known in Paris
an abbe of great heart and mind who had attempted to bring about that
famous, predicted, awaited schism. Ah! the poor man, the sad, the
ludicrous labour in the midst of universal incredulity, the icy
indifference of some, the mockery and the reviling of others! If Luther
were to come to France in our days he would end, forgotten and dying of
hunger, on a Batignolles fifth-floor. A schism cannot succeed among a
people that no longer believes, that has ceased to take all interest in
the Church, and sets its hope elsewhere. And it was all Catholicism, in
fact all Christianity, that would be swept away, for, apart from certain
moral maxims, the Gospel no longer supplied a possible code for society.
And this conviction increased Pierre's torment on the days when his
cassock weighed more heavily on his shoulders, when he ended by feeling
contempt for himself at thus celebrating the divine mystery of the mass,
which for him had become but the formula of a dead religion.

Having half filled the chalice with wine from the vase, Pierre washed his
hands and again perceived the mother with her face of ardent entreaty.
Then he thought it was for her that, with the charitable leanings of a
vow-bound man, he had remained a priest, a priest without belief, feeding
the belief of others with the bread of illusion. But this heroic conduct,
the haughty spirit of duty in which he imprisoned himself, was not
practised by him without growing anguish. Did not elementary probity
require that he should cast aside the cassock and return into the midst
of men? At certain times the falsity of his position filled him with
disgust for his useless heroism; and he asked himself if it were not
cowardly and dangerous to leave the masses in superstition. Certainly the
theory of a just and vigilant Providence, of a future paradise where all
these sufferings of the world would receive compensation, had long seemed
necessary to the wretchedness of mankind; but what a trap lay in it, what
a pretext for the tyrannical grinding down of nations; and how far more
virile it would be to undeceive the nations, however brutally, and give
them courage to live the real life, even if it were in tears. If they
were already turning aside from Christianity was not this because they
needed a more human ideal, a religion of health and joy which should not
be a religion of death? On the day when the idea of charity should
crumble, Christianity would crumble also, for it was built upon the idea
of divine charity correcting the injustice of fate, and offering future
rewards to those who might suffer in this life. And it was crumbling; for
the poor no longer believed in it, but grew angry at the thought of that
deceptive paradise, with the promise of which their patience had been
beguiled so long, and demanded that their share of happiness should not
always be put off until the morrow of death. A cry for justice arose from
every lip, for justice upon this earth, justice for those who hunger and
thirst, whom alms are weary of relieving after eighteen hundred years of
Gospel teaching, and who still and ever lack bread to eat.

When Pierre, with his elbows on the altar, had emptied the chalice after
breaking the sacred wafer, he felt himself sinking into yet greater
distress. And so a third experiment was beginning for him, the supreme
battle of justice against charity, in which his heart and his mind would
struggle together in that great Paris, so full of terrible, unknown
things. The need for the divine still battled within him against
domineering intelligence. How among the masses would one ever be able to
content the thirst for the mysterious? Leaving the _elite_ on one side,
would science suffice to pacify desire, lull suffering, and satisfy the
dream? And what would become of himself in the bankruptcy of that same
charity, which for three years had alone kept him erect by occupying his
every hour, and giving him the illusion of self-devotion, of being useful
to others? It seemed, all at once, as if the ground sank beneath him, and
he heard nothing save the cry of the masses, silent so long, but now
demanding justice, growling and threatening to take their share, which
was withheld from them by force and ruse. Nothing more, it seemed, could
delay the inevitable catastrophe, the fratricidal class warfare that
would sweep away the olden world, which was condemned to disappear
beneath the mountain of its crimes. Every hour with frightful sadness he
expected the collapse, Paris steeped in blood, Paris in flames. And his
horror of all violence froze him; he knew not where to seek the new
belief which might dissipate the peril. Fully conscious, though he was,
that the social and religious problems are but one, and are alone in
question in the dreadful daily labour of Paris, he was too deeply
troubled himself, too far removed from ordinary things by his position as
a priest, and too sorely rent by doubt and powerlessness to tell as yet
where might be truth, and health, and life. Ah! to be healthy and to
live, to content at last both heart and reason in the peace, the certain,
simply honest labour, which man has come to accomplish upon this earth!

The mass was finished, and Pierre descended from the altar, when the
weeping mother, near whom he passed, caught hold of a corner of the
chasuble with her trembling hands, and kissed it with wild fervour, as
one may kiss some relic of a saint from whom one expects salvation. She
thanked him for the miracle which he must have accomplished, certain as
she felt that she would find her child cured. And he was deeply stirred
by that love, that ardent faith of hers, in spite of the sudden and yet
keener distress which he felt at being in no wise the sovereign minister
that she thought him, the minister able to obtain a respite from Death.
But he dismissed her consoled and strengthened, and it was with an ardent
prayer that he entreated the unknown but conscious Power to succour the
poor creature. Then, when he had divested himself in the sacristy, and
found himself again out of doors before the basilica, lashed by the keen
wintry wind, a mortal shiver came upon him, and froze him, while through
the mist he looked to see if a whirlwind of anger and justice had not
swept Paris away: that catastrophe which must some day destroy it,
leaving under the leaden heavens only the pestilential quagmire of its
ruins.

Pierre wished to fulfil Abbe Rose's commission immediately. He followed
the Rue des Norvins, on the crest of Montmartre; and, reaching the Rue
des Saules, descended by its steep slope, between mossy walls, to the
other side of Paris. The three francs which he was holding in his
cassock's pocket, filled him at once with gentle emotion and covert anger
against the futility of charity. But as he gradually descended by the
sharp declivities and interminable storeys of steps, the mournful nooks
of misery which he espied took possession of him, and infinite pity wrung
his heart. A whole new district was here being built alongside the broad
thoroughfares opened since the great works of the Sacred Heart had begun.
Lofty middle-class houses were already rising among ripped-up gardens and
plots of vacant land, still edged with palings. And these houses with
their substantial frontages, all new and white, lent a yet more sombre
and leprous aspect to such of the old shaky buildings as remained, the
low pot-houses with blood-coloured walls, the _cites_ of workmen's
dwellings, those abodes of suffering with black, soiled buildings in
which human cattle were piled. Under the low-hanging sky that day, the
pavement, dented by heavily-laden carts, was covered with mud; the thaw
soaked the walls with an icy dampness, whilst all the filth and
destitution brought terrible sadness to the heart.

After going as far as the Rue Marcadet, Pierre retraced his steps; and in
the Rue des Saules, certain that he was not mistaken, he entered the
courtyard of a kind of barracks or hospital, encompassed by three
irregular buildings. This court was a quagmire, where filth must have
accumulated during the two months of terrible frost; and now all was
melting, and an abominable stench arose. The buildings were half falling,
the gaping vestibules looked like cellar holes, strips of paper streaked
the cracked and filthy window-panes, and vile rags hung about like flags
of death. Inside a shanty which served as the door-keeper's abode Pierre
only saw an infirm man rolled up in a tattered strip of what had once
been a horse-cloth.

"You have an old workman named Laveuve here," said the priest. "Which
staircase is it, which floor?"

The man did not answer, but opened his anxious eyes, like a scared idiot.
The door-keeper, no doubt, was in the neighbourhood. For a moment the
priest waited; then seeing a little girl on the other side of the
courtyard, he risked himself, crossed the quagmire on tip-toe, and asked:
"Do you know an old workman named Laveuve in the house, my child?"

The little girl, who only had a ragged gown of pink cotton stuff about
her meagre figure, stood there shivering, her hands covered with
chilblains. She raised her delicate face, which looked pretty though
nipped by the cold: "Laveuve," said she, "no, don't know, don't know."
And with the unconscious gesture of a beggar child she put out one of her
poor, numbed and disfigured hands. Then, when the priest had given her a
little bit of silver, she began to prance through the mud like a joyful
goat, singing the while in a shrill voice: "Don't know, don't know."

Pierre decided to follow her. She vanished into one of the gaping
vestibules, and, in her rear, he climbed a dark and fetid staircase,
whose steps were half-broken and so slippery, on account of the vegetable
parings strewn over them, that he had to avail himself of the greasy rope
by which the inmates hoisted themselves upwards. But every door was
closed; he vainly knocked at several of them, and only elicited, at the
last, a stifled growl, as though some despairing animal were confined
within. Returning to the yard, he hesitated, then made his way to another
staircase, where he was deafened by piercing cries, as of a child who is
being butchered. He climbed on hearing this noise and at last found
himself in front of an open room where an infant, who had been left
alone, tied in his little chair, in order that he might not fall, was
howling and howling without drawing breath. Then Pierre went down again,
upset, frozen by the sight of so much destitution and abandonment.

But a woman was coming in, carrying three potatoes in her apron, and on
being questioned by him she gazed distrustfully at his cassock. "Laveuve,
Laveuve? I can't say," she replied. "If the door-keeper were there, she
might be able to tell you. There are five staircases, you see, and we
don't all know each other. Besides, there are so many changes. Still try
over there; at the far end."

The staircase at the back of the yard was yet more abominable than the
others, its steps warped, its walls slimy, as if soaked with the sweat of
anguish. At each successive floor the drain-sinks exhaled a pestilential
stench, whilst from every lodging came moans, or a noise of quarrelling,
or some frightful sign of misery. A door swung open, and a man appeared
dragging a woman by the hair whilst three youngsters sobbed aloud. On the
next floor, Pierre caught a glimpse of a room where a young girl in her
teens, racked by coughing, was hastily carrying an infant to and fro to
quiet it, in despair that all the milk of her breast should be exhausted.
Then, in an adjoining lodging, came the poignant spectacle of three
beings, half clad in shreds, apparently sexless and ageless, who, amidst
the dire bareness of their room, were gluttonously eating from the same
earthen pan some pottage which even dogs would have refused. They barely
raised their heads to growl, and did not answer Pierre's questions.

He was about to go down again, when right atop of the stairs, at the
entry of a passage, it occurred to him to make a last try by knocking at
the door. It was opened by a woman whose uncombed hair was already
getting grey, though she could not be more than forty; while her pale
lips, and dim eyes set in a yellow countenance, expressed utter
lassitude, the shrinking, the constant dread of one whom wretchedness has
pitilessly assailed. The sight of Pierre's cassock disturbed her, and she
stammered anxiously: "Come in, come in, Monsieur l'Abbe."

However, a man whom Pierre had not at first seen - a workman also of some
forty years, tall, thin and bald, with scanty moustache and beard of a
washed-out reddish hue - made an angry gesture - a threat as it were - to
turn the priest out of doors. But he calmed himself, sat down near a
rickety table and pretended to turn his back. And as there was also a
child present - a fair-haired girl, eleven or twelve years old, with a
long and gentle face and that intelligent and somewhat aged expression
which great misery imparts to children - he called her to him, and held
her between his knees, doubtless to keep her away from the man in the
cassock.

Pierre - whose heart was oppressed by his reception, and who realised the
utter destitution of this family by the sight of the bare, fireless room,
and the distressed mournfulness of its three inmates - decided all the
same to repeat his question: "Madame, do you know an old workman named
Laveuve in the house?"

The woman - who now trembled at having admitted him, since it seemed to
displease her man - timidly tried to arrange matters. "Laveuve, Laveuve?
no, I don't. But Salvat, you hear? Do you know a Laveuve here?"

Salvat merely shrugged his shoulders; but the little girl could not keep
her tongue still: "I say, mamma Theodore, it's p'raps the Philosopher."

"A former house-painter," continued Pierre, "an old man who is ill and
past work."

Madame Theodore was at once enlightened. "In that case it's him, it's
him. We call him the Philosopher, a nickname folks have given him in the
neighbourhood. But there's nothing to prevent his real name from being
Laveuve."

With one of his fists raised towards the ceiling, Salvat seemed to be
protesting against the abomination of a world and a Providence that
allowed old toilers to die of hunger just like broken-down beasts.
However, he did not speak, but relapsed into the savage, heavy silence,
the bitter meditation in which he had been plunged when the priest
arrived. He was a journeyman engineer, and gazed obstinately at the table
where lay his little leather tool-bag, bulging with something it
contained - something, perhaps, which he had to take back to a work-shop.
He might have been thinking of a long, enforced spell of idleness, of a
vain search for any kind of work during the two previous months of that
terrible winter. Or perhaps it was the coming bloody reprisals of the
starvelings that occupied the fiery reverie which set his large, strange,
vague blue eyes aglow. All at once he noticed that his daughter had taken
up the tool-bag and was trying to open it to see what it might contain.
At this he quivered and at last spoke, his voice kindly, yet bitter with
sudden emotion, which made him turn pale. "Celine, you must leave that
alone. I forbade you to touch my tools," said he; then taking the bag, he
deposited it with great precaution against the wall behind him.

"And so, madame," asked Pierre, "this man Laveuve lives on this floor?"

Madame Theodore directed a timid, questioning glance at Salvat. She was
not in favour of hustling priests when they took the trouble to call, for
at times there was a little money to be got from them. And when she
realised that Salvat, who had once more relapsed into his black reverie,
left her free to act as she pleased, she at once tendered her services.
"If Monsieur l'Abbe is agreeable, I will conduct him. It's just at the
end of the passage. But one must know the way, for there are still some
steps to climb."

Celine, finding a pastime in this visit, escaped from her father's knees
and likewise accompanied the priest. And Salvat remained alone in that
den of poverty and suffering, injustice and anger, without a fire,
without bread, haunted by his burning dream, his eyes again fixed upon
his bag, as if there, among his tools, he possessed the wherewithal to
heal the ailing world.

It indeed proved necessary to climb a few more steps; and then, following
Madame Theodore and Celine, Pierre found himself in a kind of narrow
garret under the roof, a loft a few yards square, where one could not
stand erect. There was no window, only a skylight, and as the snow still
covered it one had to leave the door wide open in order that one might
see. And the thaw was entering the place, the melting snow was falling
drop by drop, and coming over the tiled floor. After long weeks of
intense cold, dark dampness rained quivering over all. And there, lacking
even a chair, even a plank, Laveuve lay in a corner on a little pile of
filthy rags spread upon the bare tiles; he looked like some animal dying
on a dung-heap.

"There!" said Celine in her sing-song voice, "there he is, that's the
Philosopher!"

Madame Theodore had bent down to ascertain if he still lived. "Yes, he
breathes; he's sleeping I think. Oh! if he only had something to eat
every day, he would be well enough. But what would you have? He has
nobody left him, and when one gets to seventy the best is to throw
oneself into the river. In the house-painting line it often happens that
a man has to give up working on ladders and scaffoldings at fifty. He at
first found some work to do on the ground level. Then he was lucky enough
to get a job as night watchman. But that's over, he's been turned away
from everywhere, and, for two months now, he's been lying in this nook
waiting to die. The landlord hasn't dared to fling him into the street as
yet, though not for want of any inclination that way. We others sometimes
bring him a little wine and a crust, of course; but when one has nothing
oneself, how can one give to others?"

Pierre, terrified, gazed at that frightful remnant of humanity, that
remnant into which fifty years of toil, misery and social injustice had
turned a man. And he ended by distinguishing Laveuve's white, worn,
sunken, deformed head. Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin
following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve's unkempt beard straggled over
his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his
toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose
seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his
resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn
to death, and now only good for the knackers.

"Ah! the poor fellow," muttered the shuddering priest. "And he is left to
die of hunger, all alone, without any succour? And not a hospital, not an
asylum has given him shelter?"

"Well," resumed Madame Theodore in her sad yet resigned voice, "the
hospitals are built for the sick, and he isn't sick, he's simply
finishing off, with his strength at an end. Besides he isn't always easy
to deal with. People came again only lately to put him in an asylum, but
he won't be shut up. And he speaks coarsely to those who question him,
not to mention that he has the reputation of liking drink and talking
badly about the gentle-folks. But, thank Heaven, he will now soon be
delivered."

Pierre had leant forward on seeing Laveuve's eyes open, and he spoke to
him tenderly, telling him that he had come from a friend with a little
money to enable him to buy what he might most pressingly require. At
first, on seeing Pierre's cassock, the old man had growled some coarse
words; but, despite his extreme feebleness, he still retained the pert
chaffing spirit of the Parisian artisan: "Well, then, I'll willingly
drink a drop," he said distinctly, "and have a bit of bread with it, if
there's the needful; for I've lost taste of both for a couple of days
past."

Celine offered her services, and Madame Theodore sent her to fetch a loaf
and a quart of wine with Abbe Rose's money. And in the interval she told
Pierre how Laveuve was at one moment to have entered the Asylum of the
Invalids of Labour, a charitable enterprise whose lady patronesses were
presided over by Baroness Duvillard. However, the usual regulation
inquiries had doubtless led to such an unfavourable report that matters
had gone no further.

"Baroness Duvillard! but I know her, and will go to see her to-day!"
exclaimed Pierre, whose heart was bleeding. "It is impossible for a man
to be left in such circumstances any longer."

Then, as Celine came back with the loaf and the wine, the three of them
tried to make Laveuve more comfortable, raised him on his heap of rags,
gave him to eat and to drink, and then left the remainder of the wine and
the loaf - a large four-pound loaf - near him, recommending him to wait
awhile before he finished the bread, as otherwise he might stifle.

"Monsieur l'Abbe ought to give me his address in case I should have any
news to send him," said Madame Theodore when she again found herself at
her door.

Pierre had no card with him, and so all three went into the room. But
Salvat was no longer alone there. He stood talking in a low voice very
quickly, and almost mouth to mouth, with a young fellow of twenty. The
latter, who was slim and dark, with a sprouting beard and hair cut in
brush fashion, had bright eyes, a straight nose and thin lips set in a
pale and slightly freckled face, betokening great intelligence. With
stern and stubborn brow, he stood shivering in his well-worn jacket.

"Monsieur l'Abbe wants to leave me his address for the Philosopher's
affair," gently explained Madame Theodore, annoyed to find another there
with Salvat.

The two men had glanced at the priest and then looked at one another,
each with terrible mien. And they suddenly ceased speaking in the bitter
cold which fell from the ceiling. Then, again with infinite precaution,
Salvat went to take his tool-bag from alongside the wall.

"So you are going down, you are again going to look for work?" asked
Madame Theodore.

He did not answer, but merely made an angry gesture, as if to say that he
would no longer have anything to do with work since work for so long a
time had not cared to have anything to do with him.

"All the same," resumed the woman, "try to bring something back with you,
for you know there's nothing. At what time will you be back?"

With another gesture he seemed to answer that he would come back when he
could, perhaps never. And tears rising, despite all his efforts, to his
vague, blue, glowing eyes he caught hold of his daughter Celine, kissed
her violently, distractedly, and then went off, with his bag under his
arm, followed by his young companion.

"Celine," resumed Madame Theodore, "give Monsieur l'Abbe your pencil,
and, see, monsieur, seat yourself here, it will be better for writing."

Then, when Pierre had installed himself at the table, on the chair
previously occupied by Salvat, she went on talking, seeking to excuse her
man for his scanty politeness: "He hasn't a bad heart, but he's had so
many worries in life that he has become a bit cracked. It's like that
young man whom you just saw here, Monsieur Victor Mathis. There's another
for you, who isn't happy, a young man who was well brought up, who has a
lot of learning, and whose mother, a widow, has only just got the
wherewithal to buy bread. So one can understand it, can't one? It all
upsets their heads, and they talk of blowing up everybody. For my part
those are not my notions, but I forgive them, oh! willingly enough."

Perturbed, yet interested by all the mystery and vague horror which he
could divine around him, Pierre made no haste to write his address, but
lingered listening, as if inviting confidence.

"If you only knew, Monsieur l'Abbe, that poor Salvat was a forsaken
child, without father or mother, and had to scour the roads and try every
trade at first to get a living. Then afterwards he became a mechanician,
and a very good workman, I assure you, very skilful and very painstaking.
But he already had those ideas of his, and quarrelled with people, and
tried to bring his mates over to his views; and so he was unable to stay
anywhere. At last, when he was thirty, he was stupid enough to go to
America with an inventor, who traded on him to such a point that after
six years of it he came back ill and penniless. I must tell you that he


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Online LibraryÉmile ZolaThe Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 → online text (page 2 of 10)