Émile Zola.

The Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 online

. (page 3 of 10)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaThe Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 → online text (page 3 of 10)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

had married my younger sister Leonie, and that she died before he went to
America, leaving him little Celine, who was then only a year old. I was
then living with my husband, Theodore Labitte, a mason; and it's not to
brag that I say it, but however much I wore out my eyes with needlework
he used to beat me till he left me half-dead on the floor. But he ended
by deserting me and going off with a young woman of twenty, which, after
all, caused me more pleasure than grief. And naturally when Salvat came
back he sought me out and found me alone with his little Celine, whom he
had left in my charge when he went away, and who called me mamma. And
we've all three been living together since then - "

She became somewhat embarrassed, and then, as if to show that she did not
altogether lack some respectable family connections, she went on to say:
"For my part I've had no luck; but I've another sister, Hortense, who's
married to a clerk, Monsieur Chretiennot, and lives in a pretty lodging
on the Boulevard Rochechouart. There were three of us born of my father's
second marriage, - Hortense, who's the youngest, Leonie, who's dead, and
myself, Pauline, the eldest. And of my father's first marriage I've still
a brother Eugene Toussaint, who is ten years older than me and is an
engineer like Salvat, and has been working ever since the war in the same
establishment, the Grandidier factory, only a hundred steps away in the
Rue Marcadet. The misfortune is that he had a stroke lately. As for me,
my eyes are done for; I ruined them by working ten hours a day at fine
needlework. And now I can no longer even try to mend anything without my
eyes filling with water till I can't see at all. I've tried to find
charwoman's work, but I can't get any; bad luck always follows us. And so
we are in need of everything; we've nothing but black misery, two or
three days sometimes going by without a bite, so that it's like the
chance life of a dog that feeds on what it can find. And with these last
two months of bitter cold to freeze us, it's sometimes made us think that
one morning we should never wake up again. But what would you have? I've
never been happy, I was beaten to begin with, and now I'm done for, left
in a corner, living on, I really don't know why."

Her voice had begun to tremble, her red eyes moistened, and Pierre could
realise that she thus wept through life, a good enough woman but one who
had no will, and was already blotted out, so to say, from existence.

"Oh! I don't complain of Salvat," she went on. "He's a good fellow; he
only dreams of everybody's happiness, and he doesn't drink, and he works
when he can. Only it's certain that he'd work more if he didn't busy
himself with politics. One can't discuss things with comrades, and go to
public meetings and be at the workshop at the same time. In that he's at
fault, that's evident. But all the same he has good reason to complain,
for one can't imagine such misfortunes as have pursued him. Everything
has fallen on him, everything has beaten him down. Why, a saint even
would have gone mad, so that one can understand that a poor beggar who
has never had any luck should get quite wild. For the last two months he
has only met one good heart, a learned gentleman who lives up yonder on
the height, Monsieur Guillaume Froment, who has given him a little work,
just something to enable us to have some soup now and then."

Much surprised by this mention of his brother, Pierre wished to ask
certain questions; but a singular feeling of uneasiness, in which fear
and discretion mingled, checked his tongue. He looked at Celine, who
stood before him, listening in silence with her grave, delicate air; and
Madame Theodore, seeing him smile at the child, indulged in a final
remark: "It's just the idea of that child," said she, "that throws Salvat
out of his wits. He adores her, and he'd kill everybody if he could, when
he sees her go supperless to bed. She's such a good girl, she was
learning so nicely at the Communal School! But now she hasn't even a
shift to go there in."

Pierre, who had at last written his address, slipped a five-franc piece
into the little girl's hand, and, desirous as he was of curtailing any
thanks, he hastily said: "You will know now where to find me if you need
me for Laveuve. But I'm going to busy myself about him this very
afternoon, and I really hope that he will be fetched away this evening."

Madame Theodore did not listen, but poured forth all possible blessings;
whilst Celine, thunderstruck at seeing five francs in her hand, murmured:
"Oh! that poor papa, who has gone to hunt for money! Shall I run after
him to tell him that we've got enough for to-day?"

Then the priest, who was already in the passage, heard the woman answer:
"Oh! he's far away if he's still walking. He'll p'raps come back right

However, as Pierre, with buzzing head and grief-stricken heart, hastily
escaped out of that frightful house of suffering, he perceived to his
astonishment Salvat and Victor Mathis standing erect in a corner of the
filthy courtyard, where the stench was so pestilential. They had come
downstairs, there to continue their interrupted colloquy. And again, they
were talking in very low tones, and very quickly, mouth to mouth,
absorbed in the violent thoughts which made their eyes flare. But they
heard the priest's footsteps, recognised him, and suddenly becoming cold
and calm, exchanged an energetic hand-shake without uttering another
word. Victor went up towards Montmartre, whilst Salvat hesitated like a
man who is consulting destiny. Then, as if trusting himself to stern
chance, drawing up his thin figure, the figure of a weary, hungry toiler,
he turned into the Rue Marcadet, and walked towards Paris, his tool-bag
still under his arm.

For an instant Pierre felt a desire to run and call to him that his
little girl wished him to go back again. But the same feeling of
uneasiness as before came over the priest - a commingling of discretion
and fear, a covert conviction that nothing could stay destiny. And he
himself was no longer calm, no longer experienced the icy, despairing
distress of the early morning. On finding himself again in the street,
amidst the quivering fog, he felt the fever, the glow of charity which
the sight of such frightful wretchedness had ignited, once more within
him. No, no! such suffering was too much; he wished to struggle still, to
save Laveuve and restore a little joy to all those poor folk. The new
experiment presented itself with that city of Paris which he had seen
shrouded as with ashes, so mysterious and so perturbing beneath the
threat of inevitable justice. And he dreamed of a huge sun bringing
health and fruitfulness, which would make of the huge city the fertile
field where would sprout the better world of to-morrow.



THAT same morning, as was the case nearly every day, some intimates were
expected to _dejeuner_ at the Duvillards', a few friends who more or less
invited themselves. And on that chilly day, all thaw and fog, the regal
mansion in the Rue Godot-de-Mauroy near the Boulevard de la Madeleine
bloomed with the rarest flowers, for flowers were the greatest passion of
the Baroness, who transformed the lofty, sumptuous rooms, littered with
marvels, into warm and odoriferous conservatories, whither the gloomy,
livid light of Paris penetrated caressingly with infinite softness.

The great reception rooms were on the ground-floor looking on to the
spacious courtyard, and preceded by a little winter garden, which served
as a vestibule where two footmen in liveries of dark green and gold were
invariably on duty. A famous gallery of paintings, valued at millions of
francs, occupied the whole of the northern side of the house. And the
grand staircase, of a sumptuousness which also was famous, conducted to
the apartments usually occupied by the family, a large red drawing-room,
a small blue and silver drawing-room, a study whose walls were hung with
old stamped leather, and a dining-room in pale green with English
furniture, not to mention the various bedchambers and dressing-rooms.
Built in the time of Louis XIV. the mansion retained an aspect of noble
grandeur, subordinated to the epicurean tastes of the triumphant
_bourgeoisie_, which for a century now had reigned by virtue of the
omnipotence of money.

Noon had not yet struck, and Baron Duvillard, contrary to custom, found
himself the first in the little blue and silver _salon_. He was a man of
sixty, tall and sturdy, with a large nose, full cheeks, broad, fleshy
lips, and wolfish teeth, which had remained very fine. He had, however,
become bald at an early age, and dyed the little hair that was left him.
Moreover, since his beard had turned white, he had kept his face
clean-shaven. His grey eyes bespoke his audacity, and in his laugh there
was a ring of conquest, while the whole of his face expressed the fact
that this conquest was his own, that he wielded the sovereignty of an
unscrupulous master, who used and abused the power stolen and retained by
his caste.

He took a few steps, and then halted in front of a basket of wonderful
orchids near the window. On the mantel-piece and table tufts of violets
sent forth their perfume, and in the warm, deep silence which seemed to
fall from the hangings, the Baron sat down and stretched himself in one
of the large armchairs, upholstered in blue satin striped with silver. He
had taken a newspaper from his pocket, and began to re-peruse an article
it contained, whilst all around him the entire mansion proclaimed his
immense fortune, his sovereign power, the whole history of the century
which had made him the master. His grandfather, Jerome Duvillard, son of
a petty advocate of Poitou, had come to Paris as a notary's clerk in
1788, when he was eighteen; and very keen, intelligent and hungry as he
was, he had gained the family's first three millions - at first in
trafficking with the _emigres'_ estates when they were confiscated and
sold as national property, and later, in contracting for supplies to the
imperial army. His father, Gregoire Duvillard, born in 1805, and the real
great man of the family - he who had first reigned in the Rue
Godot-de-Mauroy, after King Louis Philippe had granted him the title of
Baron - remained one of the recognized heroes of modern finance by reason
of the scandalous profits which he had made in every famous thieving
speculation of the July Monarchy and the Second Empire, such as mines,
railroads, and the Suez Canal. And he, the present Baron, Henri by name,
and born in 1836, had only seriously gone into business on Baron
Gregoire's death soon after the Franco-German War. However, he had done
so with such a rageful appetite, that in a quarter of a century he had
again doubled the family fortune. He rotted and devoured, corrupted,
swallowed everything that he touched; and he was also the tempter
personified - the man who bought all consciences that were for
sale - having fully understood the new times and its tendencies in
presence of the democracy, which in its turn had become hungry and
impatient. Inferior though he was both to his father and his grandfather,
being a man of enjoyment, caring less for the work of conquest than the
division of the spoil, he nevertheless remained a terrible fellow, a
sleek triumpher, whose operations were all certainties, who amassed
millions at each stroke, and treated with governments on a footing of
equality, able as he was to place, if not France, at least a ministry in
his pocket. In one century and three generations, royalty had become
embodied in him: a royalty already threatened, already shaken by the
tempest close ahead. And at times his figure grew and expanded till it
became, as it were, an incarnation of the whole _bourgeoisie_ - that
_bourgeoisie_ which at the division of the spoils in 1789 appropriated
everything, and has since fattened on everything at the expense of the
masses, and refuses to restore anything whatever.

The article which the Baron was re-perusing in a halfpenny newspaper
interested him. "La Voix du Peuple" was a noisy sheet which, under the
pretence of defending outraged justice and morality, set a fresh scandal
circulating every morning in the hope of thereby increasing its sales.
And that morning, in big type on its front page, this sub-title was
displayed: "The Affair of the African Railways. Five Millions spent in
Bribes: Two Ministers Bought, Thirty Deputies and Senators Compromised."
Then in an article of odious violence the paper's editor, the famous
Sagnier, announced that he possessed and intended to publish the list of
the thirty-two members of Parliament, whose support Baron Duvillard had
purchased at the time when the Chambers had voted the bill for the
African Railway Lines. Quite a romantic story was mingled with all this,
the adventures of a certain Hunter, whom the Baron had employed as his
go-between and who had now fled. The Baron, however, re-perused each
sentence and weighed each word of the article very calmly; and although
he was alone he shrugged his shoulders and spoke aloud with the tranquil
assurance of a man whose responsibility is covered and who is, moreover,
too powerful to be molested.

"The idiot," he said, "he knows even less than he pretends."

Just then, however, a first guest arrived, a man of barely four and
thirty, elegantly dressed, dark and good looking, with a delicately
shaped nose, and curly hair and beard. As a rule, too, he had laughing
eyes, and something giddy, flighty, bird-like in his demeanour; but that
morning he seemed nervous, anxious even, and smiled in a scared way.

"Ah! it's you, Duthil," said the Baron, rising. "Have you read this?" And
he showed the new comer the "Voix du Peuple," which he was folding up to
replace it in his pocket.

"Why yes, I've read it. It's amazing. How can Sagnier have got hold of
the list of names? Has there been some traitor?"

The Baron looked at his companion quietly, amused by his secret anguish.
Duthil, the son of a notary of Angouleme, almost poor and very honest,
had been sent to Paris as deputy for that town whilst yet very young,
thanks to the high reputation of his father; and he there led a life of
pleasure and idleness, even as he had formerly done when a student.
However, his pleasant bachelor's quarters in the Rue de Suresnes, and his
success as a handsome man in the whirl of women among whom he lived, cost
him no little money; and gaily enough, devoid as he was of any moral
sense, he had already glided into all sorts of compromising and lowering
actions, like a light-headed, superior man, a charming, thoughtless
fellow, who attached no importance whatever to such trifles.

"Bah!" said the Baron at last. "Has Sagnier even got a list? I doubt it,
for there was none; Hunter wasn't so foolish as to draw one up. And then,
too, it was merely an ordinary affair; nothing more was done than is
always done in such matters of business."

Duthil, who for the first time in his life had felt anxious, listened
like one that needs to be reassured. "Quite so, eh?" he exclaimed.
"That's what I thought. There isn't a cat to be whipped in the whole

He tried to laugh as usual, and no longer exactly knew how it was that he
had received some ten thousand francs in connection with the matter,
whether it were in the shape of a vague loan, or else under some pretext
of publicity, puffery, or advertising, for Hunter had acted with extreme
adroitness so as to give no offence to the susceptibilities of even the
least virginal consciences.

"No, there's not a cat to be whipped," repeated Duvillard, who decidedly
seemed amused by the face which Duthil was pulling. "And besides, my dear
fellow, it's well known that cats always fall on their feet. But have you
seen Silviane?"

"I just left her. I found her in a great rage with you. She learnt this
morning that her affair of the Comedie is off."

A rush of anger suddenly reddened the Baron's face. He, who could scoff
so calmly at the threat of the African Railways scandal, lost his balance
and felt his blood boiling directly there was any question of Silviane,
the last, imperious passion of his sixtieth year. "What! off?" said he.
"But at the Ministry of Fine Arts they gave me almost a positive promise
only the day before yesterday."

He referred to a stubborn caprice of Silviane d'Aulnay, who, although she
had hitherto only reaped a success of beauty on the stage, obstinately
sought to enter the Comedie Francaise and make her _debut_ there in the
part of "Pauline" in Corneille's "Polyeucte," which part she had been
studying desperately for several months past. Her idea seemed an insane
one, and all Paris laughed at it; but the young woman, with superb
assurance, kept herself well to the front, and imperiously demanded the
_role_, feeling sure that she would conquer.

"It was the minister who wouldn't have it," explained Duthil.

The Baron was choking. "The minister, the minister! Ah! well, I will soon
have that minister sent to the rightabout."

However, he had to cease speaking, for at that moment Baroness Duvillard
came into the little drawing-room. At forty-six years of age she was
still very beautiful. Very fair and tall, having hitherto put on but
little superfluous fat, and retaining perfect arms and shoulders, with
speckless silky skin, it was only her face that was spoiling, colouring
slightly with reddish blotches. And these blemishes were her torment, her
hourly thought and worry. Her Jewish origin was revealed by her somewhat
long and strangely charming face, with blue and softly voluptuous eyes.
As indolent as an Oriental slave, disliking to have to move, walk, or
even speak, she seemed intended for a harem life, especially as she was
for ever tending her person. That day she was all in white, gowned in a
white silk toilette of delicious and lustrous simplicity.

Duthil complimented her, and kissed her hand with an enraptured air. "Ah!
madame, you set a little springtide in my heart. Paris is so black and
muddy this morning."

However, a second guest entered the room, a tall and handsome man of five
or six and thirty; and the Baron, still disturbed by his passion,
profited by this opportunity to make his escape. He carried Duthil away
into his study, saying, "Come here an instant, my dear fellow. I have a
few more words to say to you about the affair in question. Monsieur de
Quinsac will keep my wife company for a moment."

The Baroness, as soon as she was alone with the new comer, who, like
Duthil, had most respectfully kissed her hand, gave him a long, silent
look, while her soft eyes filled with tears. Deep silence, tinged with
some slight embarrassment, had fallen, but she ended by saying in a very
low voice: "How happy I am, Gerard, to find myself alone with you for a
moment. For a month past I have not had that happiness."

The circumstances in which Henri Duvillard had married the younger
daughter of Justus Steinberger, the great Jew banker, formed quite a
story which was often recalled. The Steinbergers - after the fashion of
the Rothschilds - were originally four brothers - Justus, residing in
Paris, and the three others at Berlin, Vienna, and London, a circumstance
which gave their secret association most formidable power in the
financial markets of Europe. Justus, however, was the least wealthy of
the four, and in Baron Gregoire Duvillard he had a redoubtable adversary
against whom he was compelled to struggle each time that any large prey
was in question. And it was after a terrible encounter between the pair,
after the eager sharing of the spoils, that the crafty idea had come to
Justus of giving his younger daughter Eve in marriage, by way of
_douceur_, to the Baron's son, Henri. So far the latter had only been
known as an amiable fellow, fond of horses and club life; and no doubt
Justus's idea was that, at the death of the redoubtable Baron, who was
already condemned by his physicians, he would be able to lay his hands on
the rival banking-house, particularly if he only had in front of him a
son-in-law whom it was easy to conquer. As it happened, Henri had been
mastered by a violent passion for Eve's blond beauty, which was then
dazzling. He wished to marry her, and his father, who knew him,
consented, in reality greatly amused to think that Justus was making an
execrably bad stroke of business. The enterprise became indeed disastrous
for Justus when Henri succeeded his father and the man of prey appeared
from beneath the man of pleasure and carved himself his own huge share in
exploiting the unbridled appetites of the middle-class democracy, which
had at last secured possession of power. Not only did Eve fail to devour
Henri, who in his turn had become Baron Duvillard, the all-powerful
banker, more and more master of the market; but it was the Baron who
devoured Eve, and this in less than four years' time. After she had borne
him a daughter and a son in turn, he suddenly drew away from her,
neglected her, as if she were a mere toy that he no longer cared for. She
was at first both surprised and distressed by the change, especially on
learning that he was resuming his bachelor's habits, and had set his
fickle if ardent affections elsewhere. Then, however, without any kind of
recrimination, any display of anger, or even any particular effort to
regain her ascendency over him, she, on her side, imitated his example.
She could not live without love, and assuredly she had only been born to
be beautiful, to fascinate and reap adoration. To the lover whom she
chose when she was five and twenty she remained faithful for more than
fifteen years, as faithful as she might have been to a husband; and when
he died her grief was intense, it was like real widowhood. Six months
later, however, having met Count Gerard de Quinsac she had again been
unable to resist her imperative need of adoration, and an intrigue had

"Have you been ill, my dear Gerard?" she inquired, noticing the young
man's embarrassment. "Are you hiding some worry from me?"

She was ten years older than he was; and she clung desperately to this
last passion of hers, revolting at the thought of growing old, and
resolved upon every effort to keep the young man beside her.

"No, I am hiding nothing, I assure you," replied the Count. "But my
mother has had much need of me recently."

She continued looking at him, however, with anxious passion, finding him
so tall and aristocratic of mien, with his regular features and dark hair
and moustaches which were always most carefully tended. He belonged to
one of the oldest families of France, and resided on a ground-floor in
the Rue St. Dominique with his widowed mother, who had been ruined by her
adventurously inclined husband, and had at most an income of some fifteen
thousand francs* to live upon. Gerard for his part had never done
anything; contenting himself with his one year of obligatory military
service, he had renounced the profession of arms in the same way as he
had renounced that of diplomacy, the only one that offered him an opening
of any dignity. He spent his days in that busy idleness common to all
young men who lead "Paris life." And his mother, haughtily severe though
she was, seemed to excuse this, as if in her opinion a man of his birth
was bound by way of protest to keep apart from official life under a
Republic. However, she no doubt had more intimate, more disturbing
reasons for indulgence. She had nearly lost him when he was only seven,
through an attack of brain fever. At eighteen he had complained of his
heart, and the doctors had recommended that he should be treated gently
in all respects. She knew, therefore, what a lie lurked behind his proud
demeanour, within his lofty figure, that haughty _facade_ of his race. He
was but dust, ever threatened with illness and collapse. In the depths of
his seeming virility there was merely girlish _abandon_; and he was
simply a weak, good-natured fellow, liable to every stumble. It was on
the occasion of a visit which he had paid with his mother to the Asylum
of the Invalids of Labour that he had first seen Eve, whom he continued
to meet; his mother, closing her eyes to this culpable connection in a
sphere of society which she treated with contempt, in the same way as she
had closed them to so many other acts of folly which she had forgiven
because she regarded them as the mere lapses of an ailing child.
Moreover, Eve had made a conquest of Madame de Quinsac, who was very
pious, by an action which had recently amazed society. It had been

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaThe Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Volume 1 → online text (page 3 of 10)