The Monomaniac (La bête humaine)
(LA BÊTE HUMAINE)
By ÉMILE ZOLA
Translated and Edited, with a Preface
By EDWARD VIZETELLY
HUTCHINSON & CO
Paternoster Row. 1901
TABLE OF CONTENTS
This striking work, now published for the first time inEngland, but a hundred thousand copies whereof havebeen sold in France, is one of the most powerful novels thatM. Émile Zola has written. It will be doubly interesting toEnglish readers, because for them it forms a missing link inthe famous Rougon-Macquart series.
The student of Zola literature will remember in theAssommoir that "handsome Lantier whose heartlessness wasto cost Gervaise so many tears." Jacques Lantier, the chiefcharacter in this Bête Humaine, this Human Animal whichI have ventured to call the Monomaniac, is one of theirchildren. It is he who is the monomaniac. His monomaniaconsists in an irresistible prurience for murder, and hisvictims must be women, just like that baneful criminal whowas performing his hideous exploits in the streets of the city ofLondon in utter defiance of the police, about the time M. Zolasat down to pen this remarkable novel, and from whom,maybe, he partly took the idea.
Every woman this Jacques Lantier falls in love with, nay,every girl from whom he culls a kiss, or whose bare shouldersor throat he happens to catch a glimpse of, he feels anindomitable craving to slaughter! And this abominable thirstis, it appears, nothing less than an irresistible desire to avenge[Pg vi]certain wrongs of which he has lost the exact account, thathave been handed down to him, through the males of his line,since that distant age when prehistoric man found shelterin the depths of caverns.
Around this peculiar being, who in other respects is likeany ordinary mortal, M. Émile Zola has grouped some verycarefully studied characters. All are drawn with a firm,masterly hand; all live and breathe. Madame Lebleu,caught with her ear to the keyhole, is worthy of Dickens. Sois Aunt Phasie, who has engaged in a desperate underhandstruggle with her wretch of a husband about a miserablehoard of £40 which he wants to lay hands on. The ideaof the jeering smile on her lips, which seem to be repeatingto him, "Search! search!" as she lies a corpse on her bedin the dim light of a tallow candle, is inimitable.
The unconscious Séverine is but one of thousands ofpretty Frenchwomen tripping along the asphalt at this hour,utterly unable to distinguish between right and wrong, whoare ready to do anything, to sell themselves body and soulfor a little ease, a few smart frocks, and some dainty linen.The warrior girl Flore, who thrashes the males, is a grandconception.
But the gem of the whole bunch is that obstinate, narrow-minded,self-sufficient examining-magistrate, M. Denizet;and in dealing with this character, the author lays bareall the abominable system of French criminal procedure.Recently this was modified to the extent of allowing theaccused party to have the assistance of counsel while undergoingthe torture of repeated searching cross-examinationsat the hands of his tormentor. But in the days of whichM. Émile Zola is writing, the prisoner enjoyed no such protection.He stood alone in the room with the examining-magistrate[Pg vii]and his registrar, and while the former craftily laidtraps for him to fall into, the latter carefully took down hisreplies to the incriminating questions addressed to him. Itpositively makes one shudder to think how many innocentmen must have been sent to the guillotine, or to penalservitude for life, like poor Cabuche, during the length ofyears this atrocious practice remained in full vigour!
The English reader, accustomed to open, even-handedjustice for one and all alike, and unfamiliar with the waysthat prevail in France, will start with amazement and incredulityat the idea of shelving criminal cases to avoidscandal involving persons in high position. But such is byno means an uncommon proceeding on the other side ofthe straits. Georges Ohnet introduces a similar incidentinto his novel Le Droit de l'Enfant.
M. Émile Zola has made most of his books a study ofsome particular sphere of life in France. In this instancehe introduces his readers to the railway and railway servants.They are all there, from the station-master to the porter,and all are depicted with so skilful a hand that anyone whohas travelled among our neighbours must recognise them.
By frequent runs on an express engine between Paris andHavre, and vice versâ, the author has mastered all thecomplicated mechanism of the locomotive; and we see histrains vividly as in reality, starting from the termini, glidingalong the lofty embankments, through the deep cuttings,plunging into and bursting from the tunnels amidst thedeafening riot of their hundred wheels, while the dumpyhabitation of the gatekeeper, Misard, totters on its frailfoundations as they fly by in a hurricane blast.
The story teems with incident from start to finish. Eachchapter is a drama in itself. To name but a few of the[Pg viii]exciting events that are dealt with: there is a murder in arailway carriage; an appalling railway accident; a desperatefight between driver and fireman on the foot-plate of alocomotive, which ends in both going over the side to becut to pieces, while the long train of cattle-trucks, under nocontrol, crammed full of inebriated soldiers on their way tothe war, who are yelling patriotic songs, dashes along, fullsteam, straight ahead, with a big fire just made up, onward;to stop, no one knows where.
This is certainly one of the best and most dramatic novelsthat M. Émile Zola has ever penned; and I feel lively pleasureat having the good fortune to be able, with the assistance ofmy enterprising publishers, to present it to the Englishreading public.
August 20, 1901.
Roubaud, on entering the room, placed the loaf, thepâté, and the bottle of white wine on the table. ButMother Victoire, before going down to her post in themorning, had crammed the stove with such a quantity ofcinders that the heat was stifling, and the assistant station-master,having opened a window, leant out on the rail infront of it.
This occurred in the Impasse d'Amsterdam, in the lasthouse on the right, a lofty dwelling, where the WesternRailway Company lodged some of their staff. The windowon the fifth floor, at the angle of the mansarded roof, lookedon to the station, that broad trench cutting into the Quartierde l'Europe, to abruptly open up the view, and which thegrey mid-February sky, of a grey that was damp and warm,penetrated by the sun, seemed to make still wider on thatparticular afternoon.
Opposite, in the sunny haze, the houses in the Rue deRome became confused, fading lightly into distance. Onthe left gaped the gigantic porches of the iron marquees,with their smoky glass. That of the main lines on whichthe eye looked down, appeared immense. It was separatedfrom those of Argenteuil, Versailles, and the Ceinturerailway, which were smaller, by the buildings set apart for[Pg 2]the post-office, and for heating water to fill the foot-warmers.To the right the trench was severed by the diamond patternironwork of the Pont de l'Europe, but it came into sightagain, and could be followed as far as the Batignolles tunnel.
And below the window itself, occupying all the vast space,the three double lines that issued from the bridge deviated,spreading out like a fan, whose innumerable metal branchesran on to disappear beneath the span roofs of the marquees.In front of the arches stood the three boxes of the pointsmen,with their small, bare gardens. Amidst the confused backgroundof carriages and engines encumbering the rails, agreat red signal formed a spot in the pale daylight.
Roubaud was interested for a few minutes, comparing whathe saw with his own station at Havre. Each time he camelike this, to pass a day at Paris, and found accommodationin the room of Mother Victoire, love of his trade got thebetter of him. The arrival of the train from Mantes hadanimated the platforms under the marquee of the main lines;and his eyes followed the shunting engine, a small tender-enginewith three low wheels coupled together, which beganbriskly bustling to and fro, branching off the train, draggingaway the carriages to drive them on to the shunting lines.Another engine, a powerful one this, an express engine, withtwo great devouring wheels, stood still alone, sending fromits chimney a quantity of black smoke, which ascendedstraight, and very slowly, through the calm air.
But all the attention of Roubaud was centred on the3.25 train for Caen, already full of passengers and awaitingits locomotive, which he could not see, for it had stoppedon the other side of the Pont de l'Europe. He could onlyhear it asking for permission to advance, with slight, hurriedwhistles, like a person becoming impatient. An order resounded.The locomotive responded by one short whistleto indicate that it had understood. Then, before moving,came a brief silence. The exhaust pipes were opened, and[Pg 3]the steam went hissing on a level with the ground in adeafening jet.
He then noticed this white cloud bursting from the bridgein volume, whirling about like snowy fleece flying through theironwork. A whole corner of the expanse became whitened,while the smoke from the other engine expanded its black veil.From behind the bridge could be heard the prolonged,muffled sounds of the horn, mingled with the shouting oforders and the shocks of turning-tables. All at once the airwas rent, and he distinguished in the background a trainfrom Versailles, and a train from Auteuil, one up and onedown, crossing each other.
As Roubaud was about to quit the window, a voice callinghim by name made him lean out. Below, on the fourth floorbalcony, he recognised a young man about thirty years ofage, named Henri Dauvergne, a headguard, who residedthere with his father, deputy station-master for the main lines,and his two sisters, Claire and Sophie, a couple of charmingblondes, one eighteen and the other twenty, who lookedafter the housekeeping with the 6,000 frcs. of the two men,amidst a constant stream of gaiety. The elder one wouldbe heard laughing, while the younger sang, and a cage fullof exotic birds rivalled one another in roulades.
"By Jove, Monsieur Roubaud! so you are in Paris, then?Ah! yes, about your affair with the sub-prefect!"
The assistant station-master, leaning on the rail again, explainedthat he had to leave Havre that morning by the 6.40express. He had been summoned to Paris by the traffic-manager,who had been giving him a serious lecture. Heconsidered himself lucky in not having lost his post.
"And madam?" Henri inquired.
Madame had wished to come also, to make some purchases.Her husband was waiting for her there, in that room whichMother Victoire placed at their service whenever they cameto Paris. It was there that they loved to lunch, tranquil and[Pg 4]alone, while the worthy woman was detained downstairs ather post. On that particular day they had eaten a roll atMantes, wishing to get their errands over first of all. Butthree o'clock had struck, and he was dying with hunger.
Henri, to be amiable, put one more question:
"And are you going to pass the night in Paris?"
No, no! Both were returning to Havre in the eveningby the 6.30 express. Ah! holidays, indeed! They broughtyou up to give you your dose, and off, back again at once!
The two looked at one another for a moment, tossing theirheads, but they could no longer hear themselves speak; adevil-possessed piano had just broken into sonorous notes.The two sisters must have been thumping on it together,laughing louder than ever, and exciting the exotic birds.Then the young man gained by the merriment, said good-byeto withdraw into the apartment; and the assistantstation-master, left alone, remained a moment with his eyeson the balcony whence ascended all this