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- The Fortune of the Rougons - 20/66 -
and suggestions from each of them. Eugene was full of faith. He described Prince Louis Bonaparte to his father as the predestined necessary man who alone could unravel the situation. He had believed in him prior even to his return to France, at a time when Bonapartism was treated as a ridiculous chimera. Felicite understood that her son had been a very active secret agent since 1848. Although he did not clearly explain his position in Paris, it was evident that he was working for the Empire, under the orders of personages whose names he mentioned with a sort of familiarity. Each of his letters gave information as to the progress of the cause, to which an early denouement was foreshadowed; and usually concluded by pointing out the line of action that Pierre should pursue at Plassans. Felicite could now comprehend certain words and acts of her husband, whose significance had previously escaped her; Pierre was obeying his son, and blindly following his recommendations.
When the old woman had finished reading, she was convinced. Eugene's entire thoughts were clearly revealed to her. He reckoned upon making his political fortune in the squabble, and repaying his parents the debt he owed them for his education, by throwing them a scrap of the prey as soon as the quarry was secured. However small the assistance his father might render to him and to the cause, it would not be difficult to get him appointed receiver of taxes. Nothing would be refused to one who like Eugene had steeped his hands in the most secret machinations. His letters were simply a kind attention on his part, a device to prevent the Rougons from committing any act of imprudence, for which Felicite felt deeply grateful. She read certain passages of the letters twice over, notably those in which Eugene spoke, in vague terms, of "a final catastrophe." This catastrophe, the nature or bearings of which she could not well conceive became a sort of end of the world for her. God would range the chosen ones on His right hand and the damned on His left, and she placed herself among the former.
When she succeeded in replacing the key in her husband's waistcoat pocket on the following night, she made up her mind to employ the same expedient for reading every fresh letter that arrived. She resolved, likewise, to profess complete ignorance. This plan was an excellent one. Henceforward, she gave her husband the more assistance as she appeared to render it unconsciously. When Pierre thought he was working alone it was she who brought the conversation round to the desired topic, recruiting partisans for the decisive moment. She felt hurt at Eugene's distrust of her. She wanted to be able to say to him, after the triumph: "I knew all, and so far from spoiling anything, I have secured the victory." Never did an accomplice make less noise or work harder. The marquis, whom she had taken into her confidence, was astounded at it.
The fate of her dear Aristide, however, continued to make her uneasy. Now that she shared the faith of her eldest son, the rabid articles of the "Independant" alarmed her all the more. She longed to convert the unfortunate republican to Napoleonist ideas; but she did not know how to accomplish this in a discreet manner. She recalled the emphasis with which Eugene had told them to be on their guard against Aristide. At last she submitted the matter to Monsieur de Carnavant, who was entirely of the same opinion.
"Little one," he said to her, "in politics one must know how to look after one's self. If you were to convert your son, and the 'Independant' were to start writing in defence of Bonapartism, it would deal the party a rude blow. The 'Independant' has already been condemned, its title alone suffices to enrage the middle classes of Plassans. Let dear Aristide flounder about; this only moulds young people. He does not appear to me to be cut out for carrying on the role of a martyr for any length of time."
However, in her eagerness to point out the right way to her family, now that she believed herself in possession of the truth, Felicite even sought to convert her son Pascal. The doctor, with the egotism of a scientist immersed in his researches, gave little heed to politics. Empires might fall while he was making an experiment, yet he would not have deigned to turn his head. He at last yielded, however, to certain importunities of his mother, who accused him more than ever of living like an unsociable churl.
"If you were to go into society," she said to him, "you would get some well-to-do patients. Come, at least, and spend some evenings in our drawing-room. You will make the acquaintance of Messieurs Roudier, Granoux, and Sicardot, all gentlemen in good circumstances, who will pay you four or five francs a visit. The poor people will never enrich you."
The idea of succeeding in life, of seeing all her family attain to fortune, had become a form of monomania with Felicite. Pascal, in order to be agreeable to her, came and spent a few evenings in the yellow drawing-room. He was much less bored there than he had apprehended. At first he was rather stupefied at the degree of imbecility to which sane men can sink. The old oil and almond dealers, the marquis and the commander even, appeared to him so many curious animals, which he had not hitherto had an opportunity of studying. He looked with a naturalist's interest at their grimacing faces, in which he discerned traces of their occupations and appetites; he listened also to their inane chatter, just as he might have tried to catch the meaning of a cat's mew or a dog's bark. At this period he was occupied with comparative natural history, applying to the human race the observations which he had made upon animals with regard to the working of heredity. While he was in the yellow drawing-room, therefore, he amused himself with the belief that he had fallen in with a menagerie. He established comparisons between the grotesque creatures he found there and certain animals of his acquaintance. The marquis, with his leanness and small crafty-looking head, reminded him exactly of a long green grasshopper. Vuillet impressed him as a pale, slimy toad. He was more considerate for Roudier, a fat sheep, and for the commander, an old toothless mastiff. But the prodigious Granoux was a perpetual cause of astonishment to him. He spent a whole evening measuring this imbecile's facial angle. When he heard him mutter indistinct imprecations against those blood-suckers the Republicans, he always expected to hear him moan like a calf; and he could never see him rise from his chair without imagining that he was about to leave the room on all fours.
"Talk to them," his mother used to say in an undertone; "try and make a practice out of these gentlemen."
"I am not a veterinary surgeon," he at last replied, exasperated.
One evening Felicite took him into a corner and tired to catechise him. She was glad to see him come to her house rather assiduously. She thought him reconciled to Society, not suspecting for a moment the singular amusement that he derived from ridiculing these rich people. She cherished the secret project of making him the fashionable doctor of Plassans. It would be sufficient if men like Granoux and Roudier consented to give him a start. She wished, above all, to impart to him the political views of the family, considering that a doctor had everything to gain by constituting himself a warm partisan of the regime which was to succeed the Republic.
"My dear boy," she said to him, "as you have now become reasonable, you must give some thought to the future. You are accused of being a Republican, because you are foolish enough to attend all the beggars of the town without making any charge. Be frank, what are your real opinions?"
Pascal looked at his mother with na´ve astonishment, then with a smile replied: "My real opinions? I don't quite know--I am accused of being a Republican, did you say? Very well! I don't feel at all offended. I am undoubtedly a Republican, if you understand by that word a man who wishes the welfare of everybody."
"But you will never attain to any position," Felicite quickly interrupted. "You will be crushed. Look at your brothers, they are trying to make their way."
Pascal then comprehended that he was not called upon to defend his philosophic egotism. His mother simply accused him of not speculating on the political situation. He began to laugh somewhat sadly, and then turned the conversation into another channel. Felicite could never induce him to consider the chances of the various parties, nor to enlist in that one of them which seemed likely to carry the day. However, he still occasionally came to spend an evening in the yellow drawing-room. Granoux interested him like an antediluvian animal.
In the meantime, events were moving. The year 1851 was a year of anxiety and apprehension for the politicians of Plassans, and the cause which the Rougons served derived advantage from this circumstance. The most contradictory news arrived from Paris; sometimes the Republicans were in the ascendant, sometimes the Conservative party was crushing the Republic. The echoes of the squabbles which were rending the Legislative Assembly reached the depths of the provinces, now in an exaggerated, now in an attenuated form, varying so greatly as to obscure the vision of the most clear- sighted. The only general feeling was that a denouement was approaching. The prevailing ignorance as to the nature of this denouement kept timid middle class people in a terrible state of anxiety. Everybody wished to see the end. They were sick of uncertainty, and would have flung themselves into the arms of the Grand Turk, if he would have deigned to save France from anarchy.
The marquis's smile became more acute. Of an evening, in the yellow drawing-room, when Granoux's growl was rendered indistinct by fright, he would draw near to Felicite and whisper in her ear: "Come, little one, the fruit is ripe--but you must make yourself useful."
Felicite, who continued to read Eugene's letters, and knew that a decisive crisis might any day occur, had already often felt the necessity of making herself useful, and reflected as to the manner in which the Rougons should employ themselves. At last she consulted the marquis.
"It all depends upon circumstances," the little old man replied. "If the department remains quiet, if no insurrection occurs to terrify Plassans, it will be difficult for you to make yourselves conspicuous and render any services to the new government. I advise you, in that case, to remain at home, and peacefully await the bounties of your son Eugene. But if the people rise, and our brave bourgeois think themselves in danger, there will be a fine part to play. Your husband is somewhat heavy--"
"Oh!" said Felicite, "I'll undertake to make him supple. Do you think the department will revolt?"
"To my mind it's a certainty. Plassans, perhaps, will not make a stir; the reaction has secured too firm a hold here for that. But the neighbouring towns, especially the small ones and the villages, have long been worked by certain secret societies, and belong to the advanced Republican party. If a Coup d'Etat should burst forth, the tocsin will be heard throughout the entire country, from the forests of the Seille to the plateau of Sainte-Roure."
Felicite reflected. "You think, then," she resumed, "that an
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