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Authors: Émile Zola

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BOOK: For a Night of Love
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‘Be careful,’ Thérèse was repeating, ‘slow down: you’re pulling the flowers off.’

Her voice was expressionless. She was smiling now, like any girl glad to be going to the ball. The dress was a white silk dress, covered all over with wild roses, their flowers white with a red-hued tip at their heart. And, when she stood in the middle of the room, she was like a great bouquet, virginal in her whiteness. Her bare arms, her bare neck blended into the whiteness of the silk.

‘Oh! how beautiful you look, how beautiful you look!’ old Françoise kept repeating with satisfaction. ‘And wait, don’t forget your garland!’

She seemed to be searching for it, and reached out to the curtains, as if to have a look on the bed. Julien almost let out a cry of anguish. But Thérèse, quite unhurried, still smiling at herself in the mirror, continued: ‘My garland is over there, look, on the chest of drawers. Give it to me… Oh! don’t touch my bed. I’ve put my things there. You’d mess it all up.’

Françoise helped her to put on the long rose branch she wore as a crown, the end of which curled down onto her neck. Then, Thérèse stood there for one minute longer, admiring her appearance. She was ready, just slipping on her gloves.

‘Ah yes!’ Françoise exclaimed, ‘there isn’t a single young girl as pure and white as you, in church!’

This compliment again made the girl smile. She gazed at herself one last time and headed to the door, saying, ‘Come on, let’s go down… You can blow out the candles.’

In the sudden darkness that fell, Julien heard the door closing shut and Thérèse’s dress moving away, its silk rustling along the corridor. He sat on the floor, in the corner between bed and wall, not yet daring to leave the alcove. The deep night veiled his sight; but he could still feel, right near him, the
sensation of that bare foot, which seemed to spread a chill through the whole room. He had been there he didn’t know for how long, weighed down by a heavy, almost soporific mass of thoughts, when the door was opened again. From the swoosh of the silk, he recognised Thérèse. She didn’t move forward, but simply placed something on the chest of drawers, murmuring, ‘Here, you must have gone without your
… You’ve got to eat, all right?’

The faint rustle of the silk was heard again, the dress moved away a second time, down the corridor. Julien, shaken, rose to his feet. He was suffocating in the alcove, he couldn’t stay sitting against that bed any longer, next to Colombel. The clock struck eight, he had four hours to wait. Then, he walked forward, muffling the sound of his footsteps.

A feeble glimmer, coming from the starry night, enabled him to distinguish the dark shapes of the furniture. Some of the corners were immersed in darkness. Alone, the mirror preserved a dull reflection of old silver. He was not usually prone to fear; but, in this room, trickles of sweat at times drenched his face. Around him, dark looming furniture shifted, assuming menacing shapes. Three times he thought he heard sighs emerging from the alcove. And each time he froze, terrified. Then, when he listened more closely, they turned out to be noises rising up from the party, a dance tune, the murmurous laughter of a crowd. He closed his eyes; and, suddenly, instead of the black hole of the bedroom, there would be an abrupt dazzling light, a brilliantly lit salon, in which he could see Thérèse, with her pure dress, swinging past to an amorous rhythm, in the arms of a waltzer. The whole house was throbbing to the strains of joyful music. He was alone, in this abominable hole, shivering with dread. At one moment, he recoiled, his hair standing on end: he thought
he could see a light starting to glow on a seat. When he plucked up the courage to go and touch it, he recognised a white satin corset. He took it, buried his face in the fabric that had been softly moulded by the young horsewoman’s slender breast, slowly breathing in its odour, to numb his senses.

Ah! what rapture! He wanted to forget everything. No, this was no vigil for the dead, it was a vigil of love. He went over to the window and pressed his forehead to the pane, still holding the satin corset to his lips; and he started to go over the story of his passion. Opposite, on the other side of the street, he could make out his room, whose windows had stayed open. It was there that he had seduced Thérèse in his long evenings of fervent music. His flute would sing with tenderness, pour out his declarations, with such a sweet tremulousness in its timid lover’s voice that the girl, vanquished, had finally smiled. This satin he was kissing was her satin, a corner of the satin of her skin, which she had left for him so he would not lose patience. His dream started to become so vivid that he left the window and ran over to the door, thinking he could hear her.

The chill atmosphere of the room fell on his shoulders; and, coming down to earth, he remembered. Then, he was seized by a furious resolve. Ah! he would hesitate no longer, he would come back that same night. She was too beautiful, he was too much in love with her. When two people’s love is sealed by crime, their love must be passionate enough to make their bones crack. To be sure, he would return, he would come running back without wasting a moment, as soon as the bundle had been dumped in the river. And, driven wild, shaken by a nervous spasm, he sank his teeth into the satin corset, rolling his head in the fabric, trying to stifle his sobs of desire.

Ten o’clock struck. He listened. He felt he had been there 
for years. So he waited, in a complete daze. His hand brushed against some bread and fruit, and he ate standing, hungrily, with an ache in his stomach that he could not soothe. This food would give him strength, perhaps. Then, when he had eaten, he was overwhelmed by an immense weariness. The night seemed as if it would drag on forever. In the house, the distant music became more distinct; at times the thump of a dance shook the polished floor; carriages were starting to roll away. And as he gazed fixedly at the door, he saw what looked like a star shining through the keyhole. He didn’t even bother to hide. Too bad if someone came in!

‘No thanks, Françoise,’ said Thérèse, appearing with a candle. ‘I can get undressed by myself… You go to bed, you must be tired.’

She pushed the door to, and slid the bolt across. Then, she stood motionless for a moment, a finger at her lips, still holding the candlestick. The dance had brought no flush to her cheeks. She said nothing, set down the candlestick, sat opposite Julien. For another half an hour, they waited, gazing at each other.

The doors had slammed shut, the house was drifting off to sleep. But what worried Thérèse more than anything was the proximity of Françoise, that bedroom in which the old woman lived. Françoise walked up and down for a few minutes, then her bed creaked, she had just lain down on it. For a long time she twisted and turned in her sheets, as if unable to get to sleep. Finally the sound of strong regular breathing could be heard through the dividing wall.

Thérèse was still gazing at Julien, gravely. She uttered just two words.

‘Come on,’ she said.

They drew the curtains, and set about dressing young 
Colombel’s corpse, which had already started to stiffen into a lugubrious puppet. When this task was completed, both their foreheads were drenched with sweat.

‘Come on!’ she said a second time.

Julien, without hesitating, in one single movement grasped young Colombel and swung him across his shoulders, in the same way that butchers carry calves. His big frame sagged under the weight, the corpse’s feet dangled a yard above the ground.

‘I’ll walk ahead of you,’ murmured Thérèse rapidly. ‘I’ll hold you by your jacket, you’ll just need to let me guide you. And go slowly.’

They first had to get through Françoise’s room. This was the most daunting part. They had crossed the room when one of the corpse’s feet bumped against a chair. At the noise, Françoise awoke. They heard her raise her head, muttering and mumbling. And they froze – she glued to the door, he crushed under the weight of the body, overcome by fear that the mother would catch them carting her son off to the river. For a minute they endured the most atrocious anguish. Then, Françoise appeared to go back to sleep, and they made their way out into the corridor, cautiously.

But there, they were thrown into panic again. The Marquise had not yet gone to bed, a streak of light was gleaming through her half-opened door. At that moment they dared go neither forward nor backward. Julien felt as if young Colombel would slip off his shoulders if he were forced to cross Françoise’s room a second time. For almost a quarter of an hour, they did not move; and Thérèse had the dreadful courage to help support the corpse so Julien would not exhaust himself. Finally the streak of light went out, they were able to reach the ground floor. They were saved.

It was Thérèse who forced half-open once more the old blocked-up carriage entrance. And, when Julien found himself in the middle of the Place des Quatre-Femmes, his burden on his back, he saw her standing there, at the top of the steps, her arms bare, all white in her ball gown. She would be waiting for him.


Julien had the strength of a bull. As a child, in the forest near his village, he had enjoyed helping the woodcutters, loading tree trunks onto his boyish shoulders. So he could carry young Colombel as if he were as light as a feather. That
corpse was like a bird round his neck. He hardly felt him, he was seized with a malevolent joy at finding how little he weighed, how slender he was, how completely
. Never again would young Colombel snigger as he passed beneath his window, on the days he played the flute; he would no longer pepper him with his jokes in town. And, at the thought that he had in his grasp a successful rival now stiff and cold, Julien felt his loins quiver with satisfaction. He hiked him up round his neck, gritted his teeth and stepped out.

The town was dark. But there was light on the Place des Quatre-Femmes, at the window of Captain Pidoux; probably the captain was unwell, the swollen outline of his belly could be seen coming and going behind the curtains. Julien, in trepidation, was slipping past the houses opposite when the sound of a slight cough froze him. He halted in the shadow of a doorway, recognising the wife of the lawyer Savournin, taking the air and looking up at the skies as she heaved heavy sighs. It was sheer bad luck; usually, at this hour, the Place des Quatre-Femmes was fast asleep. Mme Savournin, fortunately, finally went back home to lay her head on the
pillow next to M. Savournin, whose rumbling snores could be heard in the cobbled street, floating down through the window. And, when this window was at last closed, Julien swiftly crossed the square, still keeping an eye open for the twisted, dancing silhouette of Captain Pidoux.

Nonetheless, he felt reassured once he had reached the constricted thoroughfare of the rue Beau-Soleil. There, the houses were so close together, the cobbled street twisted down so steeply, that the starlight could not penetrate to the bottom of this narrow lane, in which a pool of dense shadow seemed to have gathered. As soon as he saw how sheltered he was, an irresistible desire to run impelled him suddenly into a furious gallop. It was dangerous and stupid, he was perfectly aware of that; but he couldn’t stop himself galloping, he could still sense at his back the clear empty square of the Place des Quatre-Femmes, with the windows of the lawyer’s wife and the captain lit up like two big eyes gazing at him. His shoes made such a racket on the cobbles that he thought he was being pursued. Then, all at once, he stopped. Thirty yards away, he had just heard the voices of the officers staying at the guest house run by a blonde widow in the rue Beau-Soleil. These gentlemen must have decided to indulge in a bowl of punch to celebrate the transfer of one of their comrades. The young man told himself that, if they came back up the street, he would have had it; there was no side-street down which he could escape, and he would certainly not have time to turn back. He listened to the regular tread of their boots and the light clatter of their swords, and was overwhelmed with a suffocating panic. For a few moments, he was unable to work out whether the sounds were approaching or receding. But the noises slowly faded away. He waited a little longer, then decided to continue his journey, muffling the sound of his
footsteps. He would have gone barefoot if he had dared pause long enough to take off his shoes.

Finally, Julien emerged in front of the town gate.

There is no toll-house there, nor any kind of guard post. So he could pass freely. But the sudden expanse of countryside opening up before him terrified him, as he came out of the narrow rue Beau-Soleil. The countryside was blue all over, a soft gentle blue colour; a fresh breeze was blowing; and it seemed to him that a huge crowd was waiting for him there, breathing into his face. They could see him, there would be a terrible outcry that would root him to the spot.

But the bridge lay before him. He could see the white road, the two parapets, low and grey like benches of granite; he could hear the murmur of the Chanteclair making crystal-clear music in the tall weeds. Then he ventured forward, walking bent double, avoiding the open spaces, afraid of being seen by the thousand mute witnesses he sensed all around him. The most alarming part was the bridge itself, on which he would be exposed to the view of the whole town, built like an amphitheatre all around. And he wanted to get to the end of the bridge, to the place where he habitually sat, his legs dangling, breathing in the fresh air of fine evenings. Where the bed of the Chanteclair formed a deep hollow, there was a still, black stretch of water, dimpled by fleeting wrinkles from the hidden turbulence of a violent whirlpool. How many times had he amused himself by throwing stones into this stretch of water so as to measure by the bubbling of the water the depth of the river at that point! He made one last effort of will-power, and crossed the bridge.

Yes, this was the place. Julien recognised the slab, worn smooth by his long sojourns there. He bent over, he could see the stretch of water with its swift dimples, tracing smiles. This
was the place, and he unloaded his burden onto the parapet. Before throwing young Colombel in, he felt an irresistible urge to look at him one last time. The eyes of all the townspeople gazing at him would have been unable to prevent him satisfying his wish. He stood for a few seconds face to face with the corpse. The hole in its temple had blackened. A cart, in the distance of the sleeping countryside, was making a great moaning noise. Then Julien made haste; and to avoid too noisy a splash, he hauled the body over and helped it down. But, he couldn’t tell how, the dead man’s arms clasped him round his neck so powerfully that he himself was dragged down. Miraculously, he managed to grab hold of a ridge. Young Colombel had wanted to take him with him.

BOOK: For a Night of Love
12.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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