A Moment of Truth

The Life of Zola


Hugh McLeave



By the time Commissaire Principal Camille Gustave Cornette arrived, a crowd had massed round the carriage entrance of the tall building and two gendarmes had to barge a passage for the tiny, dapper figure to enter. Once inside, the detective mounted a rococo wooden staircase to the first floor. This house he knew inch-by-inch, having kept its owner, Émile Zola, under tight surveillance for nearly five years. When he reached the landing, he made for the main bedroom. There, the scene halted him in his stride.

It looked like casualty station. Five doctors were toiling to revive the unconscious figures of Zola and his wife while half a dozen servants and friends stood watching. Three doctors worked on the novelist, stretched on an Egyptian divan under a window, while two others were giving his wife artificial respiration on a vast renaissance four-poster bed. Ordering the spectators out of the room, the chief superintendent approached the trio around Zola. Once doctor was flexing the arms, another the legs while a third was shuttling his tongue back and forth to try to ventilate his lungs.

"What do you think of his chances?" the detective asked Dr Édouard Main, a local practitioner.

Main straightened up. "He's still alive, but..." He shrugged and shook his head.
What would you say it was?"

"Poisoning of some sort," Main said, pointing to the vomit and excreta soiling the Aubusson carpet and patterned floor tiles.

After listening to several more details, Cornette made his way across the room and round the high, ornamental grill dividing the four-poster from the rest of the room. Dr Marc Berman had an oxygen mask over Madame Zola's face and another practitioner was kneading her chest.

"She has a bit of a pulse and I think she'll put through," Berman told the superintendent. Both doctors agreed that Zola and his wife had been poisoned.

"Any idea what with?"

"I'd say medicine," Berman replied. "Nobody else in the house is ill and the two dogs who were with them in the bedroom have survived."

On the bedside table, the superintendent noticed a half-empty bottle, its label reading Eau Chloroformée. On that side of the four-poster, an open door gave on to a large bathroom. There, he tried the medicine cabinet and found it locked.

On the floor, more feces made a trail to one of the lavatories. Someone had used the toilet without flushing it and had overturned a heavy towel-rack. A nickel-plated, slow-combustion stove stood in the bathroom but contained no fuel and felt cold. Where they had not installed electric light he checked the gas taps which were turned off.

Back in the bedroom, the detective sat down to scribble a note to the Paris police prefect:

This morning at about 9.30, Monsieur and Madame Zola, who returned yesterday from the country, were found unconscious in their bedroom, 21bis Rue de Bruxelles. Madame was in bed, Monsieur had fallen at the foot of the same be. Monsieur Zola is thought to be dead. They hope to save Madame. They are believed to have been accidentally poisoned by medicaments. Two small dogs which were in the bedroom are not dead.


For several minutes, the detective stood in the room taking stock of everything. Someone had broken down the anteroom door into the bedroom, splintering the lock, bolts and one panel; a Louis XIII chair lay askew and the right-hand bedside rug had slid across the blue-and-yellow floor tiles.

Those things apart, nothing seemed changed in the bedroom, which he remembered well. Zola's jade Buddha sat, smiling benignly, before the tall mirror over the marble mantelpiece and his solid-silver replica of Our Lady of Lourdes stood on a shelf beside the fireplace. For a self-confessed atheist, Zola had a passion for religious trinkets, the commissaire reflected.

With two bathroom hand towels, he carefully collected feces and vomit samples. Bending by the hearth, he caught a whiff of something acrid and sulfurous. Smoke. It came from the heavy, two-meter length of tapestry draped in front of the mantelpiece. When he went to raise the copper fireplace screen, he burned his hand. A fire was smoldering in the grate; several oval briquettes glowed red over a small pile of ash. He noted a bit of plasterboard under the gate which had obviously tumbled before the fire was lit.

For no reason that he could fathom, Cornette sensed the drama in this bedroom hinged round this massive fireplace and those burning briquettes. And yet, in a room this size—ten yards by five and a ceiling three times his height—it would take some smoke to fill it. Nevertheless, experience of more than a quarter-century of detective work whispered that coal gas and not drugs had poisoned the Zolas.

"It's no use," he heard one of Zola's three doctors exclaim as he stopped the tongue tractions.

Cornette crossed the room to gaze at the unconscious writer, clad only in a woolen nightshirt. All expression had gone from his eyes and his bearded face and lolling tongue had a cherry-red tinge; his jaw lay lax and his right arm dangled.

No amount of tongue tractions, artificial respiration and oxygen would bring Emile Zola back to life, Cornette reflected. And when news of his death spread from these northern fringes of Paris along the bourgeois boulevards and through working-class districts, it would cause a sensation and probably provoke riots.

Those anti-Semitic factions who had made him the most hated and vilified man in France would openly rejoice; and the other half of his countrymen who hero-worshipped Zola might take to the streets to avenge his death. For they would contend he had died by somebody's hand for publicly defending and helping to free the Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island for high treason. Zola's supporters would blame the Army, the Church, the bourgeoisie or the aristocracy for his murder.

Cornette had never wished Zola ill, dead or alive. Even though the novelist had kept his detectives and uniformed policemen in the Saint-Georges district in a ferment for five years. But he cursed his ill luck that Zola had landed him with this problem at fifty-two, so near the end of his career.

Most of his superiors did not share his tolerant view of Zola, hating him as much as did the high-ups in the French Establishment. For his own sake, Cornette hoped that Zola had died accidentally and not by his own hand or through foul play. However, he could take no chances.

"We'd better have blood samples from the lot," he told the doctors. Studying the phials of blood, he noticed Madame Zola's looked darker than her husband's, and both the dog samples seemed darker than hers. As he finished tagging them, a stoop-shouldered figure entered the bedroom. Charles Girard, head of Paris municipal laboratories, had come at the Prefect's behest to carry out the chemical tests; he stared at Zola's pink complexion then at the brilliant red of his blood sample before crossing to peer at the half-burned briquettes.

"Was the trap up or down?" he asked Cornette.


"Humph! I'd say it's hardly worth bothering to check for drugs in the stomach or blood stream.

"Gas, is it?"

"Carbon monoxide and dioxide. I can run spectroscopic tests and let you have confirmation." He pointed to the fireplace. "I expect they'll want us to repeat the room conditions and see how they affect experimental animals."

"I'll see nobody touches the fireplace," Cornett said. He jerked his head towards the bed where Madame Zola had begun to moan and cough. "Why is it she and the dogs have survived when Zola didn't?"

"Probably a better heart," Girard said. "But we'll have to wait until she recovers and can tell us." He gathered some of the ash and fuel from the fireplace, took the samples and departed.

Cornette sat down at the small, antique table to write a second note to the Prefect:

Further evidence establishes that the accident seems due to a chimney where fuel is still burning in the grate which seems in bad repair and is allowing gas to escape and spread through the room. An architect should be sent to verify this point. Monsieur Zola is dead. Madame Zola has been revived and is saved. —Cornette.

In the dining room, he assembled Zola's servants, the caretaker and four men who had been working in the house that morning. In all, he had nine witnesses; Madame Monnier, caretaker; Jules Delahalle, valet; his wife, Eugénie, cook; her nephew Léon Laveau, coachman; Mademoiselle Claret, maid; Victor Lefebre, plumber; Donat Beaudart, carpenter; Robert Manchien and his assistant, chimney sweeps. For more than an hour, the superintendent interrogated them, noting exactly what had happened from the moment they reopened the house the previous day.

That day, September 28, 1902, the Zolas had returned from their country estate at Médan, less than an hour by train along the Seine; they had arrived at midday. Jules, the valet, had preceded them by four hours and since it had rained and the day seemed cold and damp, he had lit the fire in the bedroom; this had smoked so he had opened a window and lowered the metal screen until it drew better.

Madame Zola had ordered he chimney sweep which she normally did on their return; she had spent the afternoon in the bedroom writing letters without complaining. Both the Zolas had dined well on clear soup, chicken, cheese and desert. They had retired to their bedroom between 9.30 and 10 o'clock.

"What did the servants have to eat?" Cornette asked.

"The same as the master and mistress," Jules replied.

Next morning, the chimney sweeps reported and started work downstairs. At 8.30, the servants wondered why Madame Zola had not rung for breakfast. Getting no answer to their knock, Mademoiselle Claret and Eugénie Delahalle summoned the two workmen repairing a pipe and a panel in Monsieur Zola's study.

Did Monsieur Zola always lock his bedroom door?"

Jules nodded. "Even before he got those threatening letters over the Dreyfus business. He had a thing about someone entering his bedroom while he slept."

When the workmen banged on the bedroom door, they heard Fanfan, the Pomeranian, whining and scuffling.

"Only one dog?"

"Yes, Monsieur le Commissaire," Eugénie Delahalle said. "They were jealous of each other which is why Pinpin slept in the bathroom."

Now thoroughly alarmed, they told Beaudart, the carpenter, to break down the door. All four of them went into the room. Fanfan crept towards them so feeble that he could hardly stand.

"Exactly what did you see?"

"Monsieur Zola was lying between the steel grill and the four-poster with his head on the raised platform and his feet towards the window," Beaudart said. "He was moaning and his body was warm. I held a mirror to his mouth and it misted over. Lefebre and myself carried him over to the divan and tried to bring him round while the coachman fetched a doctor."

"And Madame Zola?"

"She was on the bed with her face buried between the pillows. But she was coughing so we left her for the doctors."

Cornette drew the brown phial from a pocket. "Recognize this?"

"Its Madame's chloroform water," Mademoiselle Claret said. "She takes it for her nerves and to make her sleep, I think."

Cornette turned to Lefebre. "You're a plumber. When you broke into the bedroom, did you notice anything?" Lefebre shook his head. "No smoke, no smell?" Again, the plumber shook his head. "And the fire."

"That was out. I raised the trap and put my hand on the grate. It was cold."

"Cold? You sure of that?" When the plumber confirmed his statement, Cornette paused for a moment. Why had he almost burned his hand on the trap an hour and a half later? Why had the fire started up again? And why, when Zola had obviously died from coal gas poisoning, didn't a trained hand like a plumber catch a whiff of smoke? Little wonder the doctors had plumped for food or drug poisoning.

"The grit and plasterboard in the fireplace...did you see it when you lit the fire?" he asked the valet.

"Yes, I thought it had fallen recently, but I left it there for the sweep to see."

"You left for Médan during the cold weather five months ago. Was the fire drawing then?"

Delahalle, his wife and the maid all nodded. "It had never smoked the way it did this time," he said. "And it was swept regularly the day after we came back each year."

Robert Manchien, head of the chimney-sweeping firm, verified this with a nod.

"Was one sweeping a year enough?"

"For the five months they used that fire—yes."

When Cornet dismissed them, he had Zola's body moved from the bedroom to the study. Half an hour later, Madame Zola had recovered enough to ask for her husband. They lied, saying he had survived but had been taken to hospital. Her they transported to a clinic at Neuilly. Cornette placed seals on the furniture and doors, posted three gendarmes in the building then walked back to his headquarters in Boulevard Rochechouart.

Already, newsboys were tripping along the boulevard brandishing bills like victory banners, proclaiming ZOLA POISONED. As they bawled their sensational news, people snatched copies of the first editions of the evening papers; groups were collecting on the Place Clichy and Place Pigalle and rumors were beginning to fly around; some people wept openly while others shouted their jubilation out loud.

Halting to buy the early editions, the chief superintendent caught snippets of some wild stories:

Zola and his wife had had a bust-up over his mistress and she had murdered him; Zola had emptied a whole bottle of arsenic down his throat out of remorse for defending that Yid officer who sold French military secrets to the Prussians; somebody with the honor of France at heart had broken into their bedroom and shot them both, no more than they deserved; the Deuxième Bureau or the army intelligence service had poisoned their food for the way Zola had humiliated them over the Dreyfus Case; God had brought down His wrath on the liar and pornographer, the Judas and treacherous spy, Zola.

His bundle of evening papers merely magnified these rumors. In bludgeoning type, La Patrie broke the news of Zola's death then defamed him and his work; La Presse dilated on the sordid domestic drama ending in death at Rue de Bruxelles; and the news agency, Paris-Nouvelles, had embroidered his own first dispatch about drug poisoning to declare point-blank that Zola had committed suicide after a family row.

In his office, Inspector Denis was waiting for him. "They're getting het-up in the prefect's office about Zola," he said. "Isn't it an open-and-shut case?"

"I don't know," Cornette replied. "There's something I can't put my finger on."

"They've ordered a couple of chemists to do animal experiments in the room and a brace of architects to take the chimney apart and a pathologist to take Zola apart. Seems they're not leaving anything to chance."

"With somebody like Zola, they can't afford to."

"Oh, I forgot one thing—they've assigned an examining magistrate."

"Who's he?"

"Somebody called Bourrouillou...Joseph Bourrouillou." Observing the curl of Cornette's lip, Denis asked, "Do you know him?"

"Not well. But I know he spent twenty-odd years in Algeria, and these colonial sweats are more chauvinistic French than the President's guard."

"You mean, he'll be against rather than for Zola?"

Cornette shrugged. "He's a bureaucrat...likes to cover his tracks with a lot of paper." That's maybe why they've picked him."

Denis had asked the vital question. Who in France could remain impartial or objective about Zola, the villain or hero of the Dreyfus Case depending on your place or your politics? Cornette had his private idea about Judge Bourrouillou. From his experience, colonial judges had anything but a liberal viewpoint and, anyway, the judiciary as a whole had shown violent anti-Dreyfus sympathies. But his wasn't to reason why they'd chosen somebody who had spent most of his career judging natives and French settlers; as a police superintendent investigating a death and a serious case of poisoning, he had to take his orders and cue from Monsieur le Juge Joseph Bourrouillou.

Cornette had little time to worry about the legal and political aspects of his inquiry. He had to take statements, arrange for the experiments and a room for the autopsy; he allotted the study where Zola lay for friends.

There, he saw the twitching, shuffling figure of Captain Dreyfus come to pay his respects to the man who had done most to free him from Devil's Island; he recognized the writer, Octave Mirbeau, composer Alfred Bruneau, engraver Fernand Desmoulins (a revolver bulging under his black jacket) and the publishers, Georges Charpentier and Eugène Fasquelle.

Next morning, he escorted a mother and two children, all in mourning, to pray by the body. Zola's mistress, Jeanne Rozerot, and their two children, Denise and Jacques.

Late that morning after the drama, the detective had the autopsy results from Dr Charles Vibert and the findings of Girard's chemical lab. Apart from gallstones and several small kidney cysts, the pathologist discovered no organic reason why Zola had died and his wife had lived. Chemical analysis provided the physiological reason: Madame Zola's blood contained less than half the carbon monoxide they had found in her husband's body. Somehow, Zola had accumulated a massive seven percent.

Vibert declared that, even had Zola survived, his brain would have suffered permanent damage. For Cornette's benefit, he defined how the gas fastened on hemoglobin, the blood fraction transporting oxygen, it stifled the blood cells, destroyed the brain cells and finally arrested the heart.

"Would the concentration of gas be the same for someone on the floor, like Zola, and someone on a high bed, like his wife?"

Vibert thought for a moment then shook his head. "If anything, she'd run the greater risk since the gas is slightly lighter than air," he replied.

"Then that means she must have quit the room for some time during the night," Cornette said.

To clarify that point, he took a horse-cab to Neuilly to interview Alexandrine Zola. Dr Larat, her friend and family doctor, had just broken the news to her.

"I should have died with him," she sobbed. "He was always so afraid of death." She plunged her face into the pillows then looked up at Larat and Cornette. "I want to see him again...take me to see him...please, please."

Against Larat's insistence, she refused to remain in the clinic unless they could do something to allow her to see Zola once more. Finally, Larat promised they would embalm Zola so that she could look at him before the funeral.

Through Madame Zola’s delirium, Cornet pieced together what had happened that night after the Zolas had retired. She had noticed the fire still burning and had closed the trap. They had feared fire rather than smoke.

At some time during the night she had woken. Her head seemed compressed in a giant vice; she had griping pains and felt sick. Without disturbing her husband, she groped her way to the toilet. She fell...once?...twice?...she couldn't remember. She reached the toilet and relieved herself.

When she returned, her husband had woken and turned the electric light knob on. He said he was ill himself. They should go to sleep, he said. It was something they had eaten and they would feel better in the morning. When she woke again, she saw Zola leaning on a table, then kneeling on a chair. She tried to get up, to call for help, then she remembered nothing more.

"I have to ask you this, Madame Zola—did you and your husband have a quarrel that evening?"

"No, or course not...what do you mean?"

"I have to rule out and refute stories that are going round. You didn't have a row about Monsieur Zola's mistress and children?"

For a moment he noticed her eyes narrow then she shook her head and began to weep. As Cornette walked back to his cab, he remembered the feces in the room and bathroom. How long had Madame Zola spent outside that bedroom? Probably several hours since her absence from that smoke-filled room had saved her life. He deduced from her account that Zola had risen to open a window or a door, had collapsed and died.

When he returned to Rue de Bruxelles, Judge Joseph Bourrouillou had arrived and was examining the bedroom and bathroom. He smoked a cigarette and listened while Cornette brought him up to date with his inquiries. A full head taller than the detective, he had an imperial moustache, wispy beard and a twangy, Mediterranean accent. His top hat, striped pants and spatted patent shoes stamped him as a product of the old school.

To Cornette, he appeared unconcerned, even smug, as he noted the facts and continually referred to "the accident." He had detailed two architects, Henri Bunel from the police prefecture, and Georges Debrie from the municipality, to prepare a report on the functioning of the chimney after the chemists had performed their experiments.

"Let's get these tests done and finish the case as quickly as possible," he said. "I want to hold a reconstruction of the accident on October 3."

"We'll set them up tonight, Monsieur le Juge," Cornette replied, wondering what they could go to clear up the mystery in only three full days.

That night, Girard and his associate, Jules Ogier, head of the Paris toxicology laboratory, brought four guinea pigs and four canaries. When the valet had lit the fire with paper, firewood and briquettes exactly as he had done on September 28, they deployed the animals and bird round the room. A candle held near the chimney bent its flames, showing the fire was drawing.

In the morning when they opened the door, they noticed neither smoke nor smell; the fire was burning slowly. Both caged canaries had died, a third escaped when they levered a window up, but they caught the fourth. Neither in the birds nor the animals did the chemists discover measurable traces of carbon monoxide. Two dead canaries, birds notorious for their low tolerance to carbon monoxide, proved nothing.

"Curious," Cornette remarked. "The same conditions, same fire in the same chimney killed Zola two nights ago, and now there isn't enough toxic gas to put guinea-pigs to sleep.

"We'll repeat the experiments and see if we've done something wrong," Girard said.

Cornette grunted assent. But he felt they could carry out a dozen such experiments and they'd get the same result. His mind went back to what the plumber had said, then to the moment that he had scorched his own hand on the fire screen. And now the fire was drawing well enough to keep the room free from smoke and gas.

Walking back to his office, he observed that troops had already replaced the Republican Guard around the Rue de Bruxelles and Avenue de Clichy. Did they think the Guard would side with Zola if trouble started? Well, maybe they might. He had handled a lot of street rioting between Zola's supporters and enemies. On his desk he found a note from the police prefect, Louis Lépine, to say that they had postponed Zola's funeral until Sunday.

Cornette picked up the pile of newspapers, which his staff had collected. All of them carried long articles on Zola, a few of them laudatory but most either deriding or denigrating the dead novelist.

Four of the editors, Henri Rochefort of L'Intransigeant, Edouard Drumont of La Libre Parole, Charles Maurras of La Gazette de France and Ernest Judet of Le Petit Journal, repeated every slur, every stigma on Zola and his books; Italian upstart, Jew-lover, Imperial and Republican pornographer, money-grubbing traitor, sexual obsessive, pervert, pimp and pig. Even religious papers like La Croix attacked Zola as an anti-Christ.

Much of this Cornette had encountered before, during the Dreyfus Case when he had to keep Zola under close watch as well as protect him. Did this sort of muck really stick to the gentle, myopic and rather nervous individual he had met so often while doing his duty?

He turned to the police files which, in a sense, reflected the newspaper attacks. For there he found hundreds of murder threats by people roused to fury by Press reports, political and clerical utterances. ZOLA TO THE GALLOWS! ran one indictment and with this came two black-bordered cards, one inviting everyone to attend the novelist's funeral, the other outlining a satirical version of his last will. Most menaces bore no signature, though many had obviously been written by well-educated people.

Where is the Charlotte Corday who will rid France of your putrid presence?

Dirty pig and Jewish cat’s-paw. I've just left a meeting where we decided to do you in. France will be well shot of an infamous character.—Signed Aubert.

We'll have your guts out before long, be sure of that...Among a group of true Frenchmen, fate has chosen me to blow you sky-high; dynamite will rid us of your evil person.—Signed Georges Garnier.

I shall do you in if you don't get out of France soon.—Signed Jean Mass, butcher's boy.

I want you to know that I am leaving tomorrow for Paris to finish you off. You are going to croak, dirty pig...

No one could discount all these threats. Nine months ago, Cornette himself had investigated a crude attempt to murder Zola with a homemade bomb planted in the doorway of Rue de Bruxelles.

And each day and night for fifteen days, he had witnessed a crowd around the Palais de Justice ready to lynch the novelist when they tried him for accusing the army general staff of camouflaging the truth and perjuring themselves in the Dreyfus Case. He had seen anarchists and even good Frenchmen spoiling to wreck Zola's house the day they seized and auctioned his belongings.

So many people had willed his death. Had one of them contrived to murder him? His detective's intuition whispered that Zola's death had a strong connection with his stand for Dreyfus.

He felt sure of something else. Bourrouillou and his chosen experts would take the whole house to bits but they would still bring in the verdict that suited them and their superiors and la raison d'état regardless of the evidence. They would whitewash everybody and declare Zola's death an accident.

After leafing through the recent files and noting some names, Cornette glanced at the older police reports on Zola. To his astonishment, he discovered they went back thirty-six years to 1866.

So Zola had tangled with the authorities early in his career! Those police files filled in some of the gaps in his knowledge of Zola. For he realized he knew very little of the man whom had just left lying in an open coffin on his study desk with two Pomeranians and a marmalade cat sitting as though praying for a sign or a twitch from that marble, embalmed expression on their master's face, animated only by the prismatic light from the stained-glass windows



From where he stood with the priest and mourners, Émile spotted his mother sitting beside the driver of the wagon as it breasted the rise at the end of the Marseilles road. For a whole week, seven interminable days, she had deserted him for his sick father. Wrenching free from the maid, he darted between the elm trees to the cart, climbed up and buried himself in his mother's arms. He hardly noticed that she wore a black coat and veiled hat. Or that a black-velvet drape covered an object at the back of the wagon.

At the Calvary on the Rotunda at Aix-en-Provence, both mother and son dismounted and waited until they transferred the coffin to the horse-drawn hearse filled with flowers.

"Does he know?" Émilie Zola whispered to the maid, who shook her head. "I told him his father was very ill, but it was you he missed...he cried every night for you."

Émilie Zola had them re-open the coffin lid to let her son see his father for the last time; the boy gazed at the marble face with its pinched nostrils over a pomaded moustache and a more tranquil expression than he had ever seen on it. They fell into step behind the hearse, Émile grasping his mother's hand with white knuckles as though dreading another separation.

As they slow-stepped along the new boulevard to the Nice road, he heard the three tocsin notes clang from Saint-Sauveur Cathedral and echo from a dozen other churches in Aix-en-Provence; that doleful sound filled the high-walled alley leading to the cemetery and dinned in his head.

At the graveside, his mother's sobs ran like shocks up his arm as Monsieur Labot, a Parisian lawyer and family friend, praised his father. Names like Venice, Austria, England, Holland, Algiers, the Foreign Legion spun aimlessly in his head like the whorls of dust stirred round the coffin by the March wind. They signified nothing to a six-year-old boy. Except that he had never really known his father, never had the chance to grow close to him. He was always climbing in and out of coaches, bending over plans and columns of figures. That earth thudding on the wooden box reminded him of beatings and his father's stern manner.

He had never much minded those long absences; they had given him the chance to invite himself into the double bed and snuggle up to his mother and fancy himself her protector.

Accepting the crucifix from his mother, he made the sign of the cross over the coffin before they returned to the carriage, which drove through the town center.

For the first time, Aix-en-Provence unrolled before his eyes—the mansion houses then the grim twins of the law courts and the prison, the town hall with its mediaeval clock tower, the eight facets of the cathedral and the old ramparts, which they traversed to enter the Impasse Sylvacane where they lived.

His mother took off her black coat and veiled hat and sat down, weary and dazed from the twenty-mile trip on a makeshift hearse, and the emotions of the funeral. A widow at twenty-seven with a son nearly seven! She could still not believe it. Poor François had come home coughing from the gorge where he was building his dam and reservoir, but still insisted on going for a business trip of several days to Marseilles; she had packed his trunk and kissed him goodbye.

Thee days later came the gendarmes to announce he was lying seriously ill at a hotel in Rue de l'Arbre. Somehow, in that strange, strident port, she had fumbled her way to the street and found the rundown hotel with its shabby room where her husband was agonizing with pleurisy; for a whole week she had sat there, numb, watching him develop pneumonia and finally die.

In their eight years of marriage, he had never stopped running after that obsession to build his dam and canal and make their fortune; he had fought local nobility and half a dozen municipalities for construction rights; he had shuttled between Aix and Paris to lobby Adolphe Thiers, then prime minister, and even King Louis Philippe himself; finally he had triumphed, formed a company and started the dam which would make them rich.

And now what did she have? A mass of paper—plans, accounts, shares. Yes, and bills by the score. All that and a boy to bring up.

She fought back her tears as she saw his eyes fixed on hers. She adored Émile and had even defied François when he wanted to enroll him at school.

"Maman, ou est Papa?" he whispered.

"Papa is in heaven looking down on us," she replied.

"Ith he coming back?" he asked with that lisp which had made them both smile at first then worry when it persisted.

She shook her head and tears spurted. He came to put his arms round her neck. Maman, don't cry," he said, his face grave. "I shall take care of you."

She clung to him and wept. And the boy wondered why he should feel no remorse for wishing to have his mother and all her love to himself, no regret at his father's absence. Only a qualm at the thought he could still see them.

Several months later, her parents arrived from Paris. Her father, Louis Aubert, had retired a few years before from his painting and glazing business in Dourdan, forty miles south-west of the capital; his wife, Henriette, persuaded him that their daughter and grandson needed them in Aix.

Despite her silver hair, a life of hard work and no formal education, Henriette Aubert had more spunk and good sense than her daughter. She took one look at the long, two-story villa with it acre of garden that was costing more in rent than they spent on everything else. What did it matter that it had once housed the family of Adolphe Thiers, former prime minister, historian and sponsor of François Zola?

"It's much too big," Henriette said. "We have to move."

But they were bound by a seven-year lease. So Grandmother Aubert sacked the servants and ran the house herself. Émile posed a problem but she shelved that. With no friends of his own age, he played in their vast garden, a solitary and illiterate child who ran wild, held long dialogues with their neighbors' cats and dogs, soliloquized to trees, collected cockroaches and beetles and lisped worse than a three-year old.

Left to Émilie and himself, he would finish a weakling and a cretin, the old lady thought. Yet, like her daughter, she could not bear to thrust him through the high wall of Impasse Sylvacane into the rough-and-tumble of school life.

They had bigger problems. "How do we live?" Émilie sighed. "We owe money everywhere."

"We fight for your rights in your husband's dam. He worked himself to death for the town, so they can't refuse to help you."

"But I know nothing about the dam."

"Leave that to me," said Henriette.

Armed with the dossier on François Zola's project, the old lady made the rounds, badgering lawyers, councilors, leading shareholders; but flint-eyed local bigwigs growled through their Imperial beards that the contract had no clause covering the founder's death and no one owed the Zolas anything; moreover, the company was running into money trouble and soon the creditors would force it into bankruptcy.

Of the 1,200 shares of 500 francs issued to finance the venture, the family owned 50. One by one, Grandmother Aubert sold these to pay their debts, rent and food.

Adolphe Thiers visited the dam site in July 1847. As leader of the parliamentary oppositions, he wielded great influence in Paris and Aix. Émilie must take her son to meet the great man, her mother urged. So, amid blasting charges echoing down the Infernets gorges, the boy Émile shook hands with a thin-lipped, bespectacled homunculus, his quilted face dwarfed by a top hat.

"What! Zola's son can't read or write? "Thiers barked. Get him off to school and when he has learned something I'll speak to the town for a college bursary."

"There's that day-school three minutes from here near the old cemetery on the boulevard," Henriette Aubert said. "Louis will take him."

Up to that moment in autumn 1847, Émile's world had begun and ended with high walls surrounding their Provençal villa. When his grandfather left him with Monsieur Isoard, the headmaster of the Pension Notre Dame, he felt lost, panic-stricken. In the playground he stood crying while boys half his size hooted and jeered at him.

Where was God, the Almighty ally his mother and grandmother had promised would protect him if he prayed. Well, he had prayed and implored; it seemed only to bring more taunts and clods of earth on his head. He took his first communion really imagining he was swallowing the blood and body of the sacrificed Christ, though wondering why it tasted like any other bread and wine.

In class, too, they mocked when he lisped and stuttered through easy texts; after lessons he stayed behind with Monsieur Isoard to vocalize one more La Fontaine fable or Boileau poem. Yet this extra tuition helped little and he still sat a full head taller than the other, younger boys.

He chose a desk beside the two who did not molest him: Philippe Solari, a self-effacing lad who sat molding breadcrumbs into heads and bodies; and Marius Roux, who prompted him when his reading faltered and his lisp worsened.

Even though God had not lived up to his mother's and grandmother's exalted notions of Him, Émile always headed the queue for Sunday catechism at Saint John's Church; they all knew and twitted him about his girlfriend.

Indeed, he had fallen in love. Love pure and mute. Loved fired by nothing more than the sight of a pink, frilly hat and the touch of a white, lace-trimmed dress as it passed in the aisle. Love sustained by the flutter of eyelashes over violet eyes. He was ten and she was a year younger and he knew nothing about her except that she was Louise Solari, Philippe's sister. He wanted to confess his passion to his mother and grandmother, but decided to keep it secret.

Wouldn't they think it guilty? He recalled that night five years before, just after his fifth birthday, when his mother had entered his room and found Mustapha, the Arab servant boy, in his bed, sitting astride him.

On that occasion, his mother had screamed and his father had run and seized Mustapha and swore at him in a funny language before thrashing him and sending for the police to come and take him away. And he, who had done no wrong that he understood, got the same beating. When he gazed at Louise Solari, he had the same fire in his blood.

Why? That he could not comprehend either. So he kept his love to himself.

Anyway, his mother and grandparents had more to preoccupy them. Work on the dam had stopped and the town hall had decided to auction the plans, equipment and completed part of the project. Now they had no hope of even recouping François Zola's own investment in the scheme; they had to sell their remaining shares to cancel their lease, pay their lawyers and some of their creditors and find cheaper lodgings.

Near the Pont de Béraud in the country east of Aix lay a shanty town built by Italian masons and laborers, squatters, tramps and a gypsy colony; in this area, Grandmother Aubert discovered a dilapidated stone bastide (farmhouse); there, the family minus most of its furniture, set up home.

For Émile it meant trekking a mile on foot to school and back; but the primitive house had its points. Twenty yards away ran the Torse, a slow, twisting stream where he could bathe during the blistering months; around him he had hills and woods where he and Philippe Solari and Marius Roux could live like savages during the holidays with a couple of dogs for company.

He felt at one with the garrigue, the rock-strewn scrub on which pines and ilex had found a foothold. To his primitive ear, the wind carried on a dialogue with the pine needles; to his innocent eye, the kestrels and crows planing overhead seemed to trace more intelligible patterns in the air that Maitre Isoard on his blackboard; sun-bleached limestone outcropping in fantastic shapes became faces and figures that he could converse with; and the intoxicating scent of rosemary and jasmine, lavender and thyme, pine resin and peach blossom followed him into the bare bedroom of his bastide at night.

But soon that idyll evaporated. With their few bits of furniture stacked on a farm cart, they trudged back into town. He had no idea where they were going to pitch up, only guessing they would have shed another piece of furniture to help pay the rent, that their next abode would be smaller and shabbier. But his mother wanted to live near him.

For Monsieur Thiers had found him a place in Bourbon College.

* * *

At twelve he should have joined the sixth class, but they put him into the eighth with boys two years younger who still left him gaping with their superior knowledge. On that first day when they had beaten and cuffed him round the junior playground, when even the sight of the cod stew and haricot beans in the refectory made him feel sick, he cried himself to sleep among the forty-odd boys in his dormitory.

His five years at day school now seemed only an apprenticeship in sadism; his classmates ragged him and roughed him up; they played football with his new kepi and stole his textbooks; they showered every insult they could imagine on his head. "Italian scum...snooty Parisian...filthy foreigner," they shouted as they laid into him with their fists.

"Come on, let's duck him," one of them cried and they hustled him towards the stagnant pool between the junior and senior playgrounds.

He was bleating for mercy as they picked him up and prepared to throw him into the deep end. Suddenly, he heard someone bellow and they released him to turn and attack a bigger boy who flailed into them until they smothered him in a tangle of arms and legs. When they had kicked and pummeled him into a limp heap, they carted him to the pool and tossed him into the slimy water.

"That's what money-lenders' bastards get," they shouted.

Zola went to help the boy climb out of the pool, but he thrust the outstretched hand away. "I'm thorry," Zola sobbed.

"Stop blubbering. And if they kick you, kick them back twice as hard. Compris?" He shook the water off himself like a spaniel. "What's your name?"

"Tho-la." Seeing the puzzled look, he spelled it.

"So it was your father who was building the dam."

He studied the boy with his seedy look, baby face and that Parisian twang and lisp which made him a pariah for these rich hooligans. That hunted look would have earned him a kicking on its own, but his dead father with his defunct dam had lost Aix folk a lot of money, which they prized above everything, and that accounted for some of the hostility. Anyway, some kids just asked for a kicking.

"They kicked me until I kicked back," he said. "And they still call me a bastard."

"What'th a bathtard?"

"Never mind. My name's Cézanne, Paul Cézanne."

That evening when they had eaten their meat stew and apple tart in the refectory, Cézanne approached the black marble table where Zola sat with the chief of his tormentors, Marie-Paul Seymard. Without a word, Cézanne grabbed the burly youth by his tunic lapels, hoisted him to his feet then forehanded and backhanded him across the face.

"Every time you or anybody else lays a finger on Zola you get double," he said and returned to his table.

At the break next day, Zola saw Cézanne standing alone by the dividing wall; he went up diffidently, holding out an apple his mother had given him. Cézanne took it, sank crooked teeth into it, halved it with a penknife and handed half to Zola.

"My name's Paul," he said, holding out his hand.

"Mine'th Émile."

They shook hands solemnly.

In everything but blood they become brothers. No one bothered Zola now that he had a protector, although they still sneered at both of them, calling them Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Cézanne ignored these sons of local gentry, advocates, rich merchants and farmers. "They’re just the OTHERRRS, Émeeloo," he said in ringing Provençal tones. "We can always lick them, you and me."

"Yeth, Paul."

Indeed, Zola had begun to redeem his lost years; he noted how Cézanne slogged at his books while the Seymards, de Julinennes, Marguerys and Abels were dating grisettes in town. He did likewise, haunting the empty classrooms of the former convent where the perfume of Provençal herbs mingled with the odor of powdered ink, chlorine and molting distemper from the damp walls.

So well did he play his books that the OTHERRRS saw him carry off prizes for French grammar and composition, history, geography, classical recitation and general excellence.

He had always had a dread of dying, but somehow school routine and the ritual behavior reassured him. How could he miss morning prayers and roll call by dying—especially if he did his prep well!

Cézanne also inducted him into the wider world of Aix, that curious citadel immured in mediaeval ramparts behind fifteen stout gates that opened at sunrise and shut at sunset as though Aix folk wanted nothing to do with the universe beyond. Indeed, from the fifteenth-century era of Good King René, Aix had drowsed and slumbered in the Provençal sun, a capital only in name.

Zola trotted behind his new hero. In the Cours Mirabeau, the imposing cobbled avenue that split the town into plebeian and patrician districts, he tasted his first absinthe amid the Imperial trappings of the Deux Garçons café and got back to his mother's lodgings in Rue Bellegarde on Cézanne's shoulder.

He saw the last Sedan chair in France bearing a wraithlike creature to mass, the Marquise de la Garde, a lady who had curtsied to Marie Antoinette before the Revolution.

South of the Cours, aristocratic families like Saint-Marc, Forbin, Estienne d'Orves kept to their seventeenth-century mansions, hiding their poverty and political prejudices; on the north side lay cafés and shops, including the hat shop which had founded the fortune of Paul’s father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne.

It occurred to no one to cross the thirty meters of carriageway between the noble and plebeian districts. Behind the Cours, on the north side, sat Old Aix, a jigsaw of narrow, crooked streets and alleys and mediaeval houses. Almost every street took the name of a trade or calling. Carders and coppersmiths, tanners and muleteers, friars and penitents. Like social or religious caste areas.

Zola's sensitive nose told him what Aix did for a living. Whole streets stank of rabbit fur, which was tanned and converted into hat felt; whole districts smelled of olive oil which went out to the whole of France; or of wine pressed from thousands of acres of vineyards. These odors mingled with perfume from soap works and the aroma from factories processing tons of almond nuts into elliptical lozenges called calissons.

Along the alleys and avenues filtered scores of priests and nuns holding cassocks and robes down against the mistral, a violent wind which winter and summer transformed the water-jets from thirty-odd fountains into fine rain.

"All these priests, Paul?"

"Émeeloo, I've never met your like for asking daft questions. We've got dozens of churches, monasteries and nunneries to fill around Aix."

They met lawyers by the hundred coming and going through the splendid new Palais de Justice housing the departmental assizes and appeal courts.

"I don't like lawyers," Zola muttered, thinking of the litigation over the dam.

"I hate them, too," Cézanne grunted. "Papa wants to put me into a wig and gown."

Zola had never met Louis-Auguste Cézanne, but like everybody else, had heard how he built up his bank by flint-hearted dealing and lending money at usurer's interest. He wondered why Paul, who feared nobody, always quavered when he mentioned his father.

"What does that mean?" he asked, pointing to a street called Buèno Carrièro.
"Good-Job Street," Cézanne sniggered. "It's a Provençal joke. In the old days women paraded their wares there."

"Their wares?"

"Prostitutes...they went naked from the waist up to show off their tits," Cézanne said and laughed when Zola blushed. "Want to see where it all happens now?"

Zola nodded, mystified by the word Prostitute; he tripped along behind Cézanne through the Passage Agard, a narrow tunnel dog-legging from the main square into the Cours. Cézanne thumbed at the entrance to a dingy restaurant and Zola stretched to squint through misted windows.

Inside, several women were sipping wine, absinthe or coffee, their legs crossed to show frilly petticoats, their faces daubed with paint under floral bonnets, ruffed corsages riding over ample white bosoms. Some even smoked cigarettes.

"You can buy them," Cézanne whispered.

"Buy them?" Zola caught his breath.

" the the day."

"But Paul...but, what for?"

"Don't worry, Émeeloo, you'll find out soon enough," Cézanne said slapping him on the back. One day we'll try a couple of those tarts in there. Or go to one of the maisons closes in Rue de la Fonderie."

Tarts! Maisons closes! Zola ran his tongue over dry lips and wondered what went on in that smutty street where the windows giving on to the ramparts remained shuttered winter and summer. In this sun-drenched town he had already caught hints of the low boiling point of Latin blood; a hundred burning eyes would rake one flash of a female ankle and the flutter of a knowing eyelash could halt a dozen youths in their stride.

But what other sins did women commit worse than drinking absinthe, smoking cigarettes and painting their faces? Whatever they did, he could never imagine an ethereal creature like Louise Solari would stoop to such conduct. She and these woman did not even seem to belong to the same world.


Bourbon College taught him one thing. Life meant struggle. For weeks on end he went hungry or had to fill his stomach with bread being unable to eat the refectory meat and mash; he allied himself with hunger strikers and petty revolutionaries when they threw their carafes and wine-bottles at the masters in protest at the revolting food; he climbed the wall to steal his quota of apricots and blackcurrants from the head's garden and ate these in the dormitory.

But apart from Cézanne he made no real friends. He even chose subjects like math, science and religion where the human animal did not appear to remind him of his baleful schoolmates who mocked him and his family.

His pile of prize-books grew. And hadn't old Carbonnel blinked over his half-moon spectacles on reading one of his essays and murmured, "This is good, Zola. One day you'll be a writer?" He had already begun by filling several exercise books with a three-act drama and his own head with literary dreams, an infection he passed on to Cézanne.

They converted one of the OTHERRRS—Baptistin Baille, something of a bookworm aiming at a civil service career. In August, the college gates opened releasing them for two months. Avid to see everything, they tramped all over Provence, hiking seven miles to Roquefavour to climb the 260-foot aqueduct and gaze along its 400 yards of dizzying arches.

Halfway back, they were skirting a high wall when Cézanne jerked his head at it. "That's the Château de Galice," he threw out.

Château de Galice! It resonated like some incantation in Zola's head. They had to scramble up the wall and look over. Behind a tangle of apricot, apple and almond trees sprouting from some wild scrub they spied a square mansion which looked to Zola like some fairy-tale palace; tree-lined alleys radiated from it and flowers had overgrown the lawns as though trying to invade the house; a cloying fragrance of linden blossom, rosemary, lavender, roses and other flowers wafted over the wall to him. A lodge sat by the main gate and south, an old mill appeared above the trees.

"Who lives there?" Zola asked.

"Search me," Cézanne replied. "The Galice family...Papal nobility, I think. They've a place in town."

"It looks deserted," Baille said.

"All right, then let's get a few fistfuls of those apples," Cézanne cried and made to slither over when Zola stopped him.

"There's a girl yonder," he said.

They looked towards the eastern gable to where she was playing with a sheepdog, throwing sticks for it. To Zola, she had a beatific face, like the nun who ran the college first-aid clinic and set all their hearts pounding. For some reason, he felt relieved they could not steal the fruit from this garden.

Curiously, it reminded him strongly of Grandmother Aubert's bible stories. Genesis, wasn't it? A phrase gyrated in his head—"And God walked in the garden in the cool of the evening." His imagination pictured something like this manor house and its garden as the paradise in the Garden of Eden. Eating those apples would have smacked of sacrilege, he thought, dragging the others off the wall.

That summer of 1854 seemed to set the country aflame; beyond the town, the sugar-loaf outline of Montagne Sainte-Victoire glowed like a live coal; dust tarnished the olive, almond and pine trees in which cicadas racketed day and night; but a mile south of the town, the River Arc flowed through a lush valley and there the trio went to pitch camp, swim and talk literature. That normally meant Victor Hugo whom they worshipped for his revolutionary stand against Napoleon III and his sham Second Empire, for his romanticism in poems, plays, novels.

But Zola had found a new hero. He held up a slim and shabby volume. "Two sous in the flea market," he told the others. And in his lisping voice, he read a whole cycle of poems where the poet dreamed and communed with his muse on four nights of the four seasons. Cézanne and even Baille sat in silence, entranced by the passionate, lyrical language. Zola ended with this poem:

I am neither God nor demon,
And you called me by my name
When you took me for one of your own
Where you are, there shall I be always
Until the end of your days
When I shall go and sit by your graveside.

Hugo had gone. Deposed by Alfred de Musset, romantic and restless, breathing love and sorrow, laughter and tears in the same phrase, the brilliant artist rebelling against his era.

"Ah!" What wouldn't I give to write poetry like that?" Zola sighed.

"Your chance of a career," Baille commented.

Cézanne turned on him. "You talk like my old man," he shouted.

"He's a banker, so you needn't worry," Baille came back. "But Émile couldn't pay his paper and ink with poetry."

"Émeeloo shall succeed as a poet, and I'm going to do the same as a painter."

Baille burst out laughing, knowing how the art master and Gibert, the curator of the Granet Museum ridiculed and even sneered at Paul's drawing; but Zola had visited Cézanne's bedroom in Rue Mathéron and studied some of his watercolors. Though primitive in form and color, they had power and personality and had impressed him.

"Paul, I know you could be a great painter," he said.

"I shall be, Émeeloo. You will conquer Paris with your pen and me with brush and palette-knife." He poured red wine from an unlabelled bottled into their mugs. "That's worth drinking to."

Zola held up his hand. "Better still, we'll make a pact," he said. "Whatever happens, the three of us will march through life together hand in hand so that if one falters the others can sustain him like climbers on a rope."

"That way we all break our necks," said Baille.

Zola ignored him and both noticed his stammer and lisp had disappeared as he continued, "Before I found you, Paul and you, Baptistin, what was I? A boy hiding in school corner, praying to God and wondering why everyone didn't love me and why they beat me. What crime had I committed? It was you, Paul, who showed me what rabble they were..."

"Is this a speech?" Baille put in.

Zola shook his head, his face deadly serious. "I just wanted you both to know how I felt—that if I am proud beside those brutes, I am not with you, my friends. I concede my weaknesses but also one quality—that of loving you."

He turned to Cézanne. "As the wrecked man clings to a floating plank, I clung to you, Paul...I had found a friend and thanked Heaven for it. And in this world, friends are all that matter."

Both Cézanne and Baille listened, amazed and embarrassed but impressed by Zola's frank and sincere outburst.

All three of them drank gravely then clasped hands to seal their pact.

However, Paul worried him. They had joined the local drawing class in the old Knights of Malta priory which the town had converted into the Granet Museum, after its most famous artist; for two hours three nights a week, they drew from casts and sometimes from a live model.

Through mutton-chop whiskers, curator Joseph Gibert expounded the mysteries of pictorial composition, form and color, linear and aerial perspective. His museum typified French mid-century art philosophy; Italian renaissance masters and their French offspring covered his museum walls with scenes from Greek or Roman mythology or the Old Testament. And such subjects that had served his own heroes, Jacques-Louis David and Jean-Dominique Ingres, would amply serve his pupils.

But Gibert could make nothing of Paul. And, sitting beside his friend, Zola dreaded the inevitable collision between master and pupil.

"Mais voyons, Cézanne—you've drawn the model's arms too long. Remember, proportion and perspective." He stabbed his pencil at Zola's drawing. "Look, he's done it correctly. Tell him, Zola, what is the Golden Mean."

"The body eight times the size of the head and as tall as the arms at full stretch."

"Now, remember that, Cézanne."

"What if the arms look that way?"

"That means your eyes are playing tricks, that's all."

"Did Ingres's eyes play tricks?"

"Whatever do you mean?"

Cézanne pointed his pencil at the museum. "Out there, he's given Jupiter arms at least ten centimeters too long and Thetis has a goiter the size of a tennis ball."

Gibert flushed scarlet at this blasphemy and shouted above the uproar off laughter and stamping from the class. "Don't be absurd, Cé artist like Ingres..."

"Go and measure it with your Golden Mean."

Zola kicked Cézanne under the desk. "Paul," he pleaded, "don't argue with him."

"When he's wrong." Cézanne ripped his sketch into a hundred fragments, threw them on the floor and stalked out.

Zola knew he would head for the Deux Garçons and curse Gibert and his rules all the way to the bottom of a liter of Palette wine. Paul despaired so easily; a twitching model, a rowdy classmate and he would crumple his paper and stamp out. If only he could control himself and his talent...One evening he would sculpt something with pencil and paper that almost breathed then follow it next evening with a childish doodle.

Yet Zola realized his art mirrored his odd character. Phobias sprouted from him like hog bristle: he feared his father; he went in terror of women, whom he deemed calculating bitches itching to sink their hooks into him; he dreaded noise and crowds; he stood no one a drink in case they were trying to fleece the rich money-lender's son; he spurned any sort of help.

For instance, that day he cramped and Baille dived into the Arc to pull him out and Paul cuffed him away. Did he feel that even his best friends might invade and endanger his secret world? Or was it something to do with the shout of Bastard at college? Zola did not know. Nor Paul either, he guessed.

On his way out after the lesson, he stopped at Ingres's immense study of Jupiter and Thetis in scarlet, gold and bitumen on the west wall. He had never noticed it before, but Ingres had indeed deformed the neck and added inches to the arms of the god and goddess. Trust Paul to spot that and throw it in the teacher's face!

Would Gibert or any other classical artist thank him for questioning and spurning their Golden Mean, their proportion, perspective and all their other rules?



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