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Later on, however, when he was twelve years old,
he would stop there bravely and watch in order that she might not hurt
herself by falling off the bed. He stood for hours holding her tightly
in his arms to subdue the rude shocks which distorted her. During
intervals of calmness he would gaze with pity on her convulsed features
and withered frame, over which her skirts lay like a shroud. These
hidden dramas, which recurred every month, this old woman as rigid as
a corpse, this child bent over her, silently watching for the return
of consciousness, made up amidst the darkness of the hovel a strange
picture of mournful horror and broken-hearted tenderness.

When aunt Dide came round, she would get up with difficulty, and set
about her work in the hovel without even questioning Silvere. She
remembered nothing, and the child, from a sort of instinctive prudence,
avoided the least allusion to what had taken place. These recurring
fits, more than anything else, strengthened Silvere's deep attachment
for his grandmother. In the same manner as she adored him without any
garrulous effusiveness, he felt a secret, almost bashful, affection for
her. While he was really very grateful to her for having taken him in
and brought him up, he could not help regarding her as an extraordinary
creature, a prey to some strange malady, whom he ought to pity and
respect. No doubt there was not sufficient life left in Adelaide; she
was too white and too stiff for Silvere to throw himself on her neck.
Thus they lived together amidst melancholy silence, in the depths of
which they felt the tremor of boundless love.

The sad, solemn atmosphere, which he had breathed from childhood, gave
Silvere a strong heart, in which gathered every form of enthusiasm. He
early became a serious, thoughtful little man, seeking instruction with
a kind of stubbornness. He only learnt a little spelling and arithmetic
at the school of the Christian Brothers, which he was compelled to leave
when he was but twelve years old, on account of his apprenticeship. He
never acquired the first rudiments of knowledge. However, he read all
the odd volumes which fell into his hands, and thus provided himself
with strange equipment; he had some notions of a multitude of subjects,
ill-digested notions, which he could never classify distinctly in his
head. When he was quite young, he had been in the habit of playing in
the workshop of a master wheelwright, a worthy man named Vian, who lived
at the entrance of the blind-alley in front of the Aire Saint-Mittre
where he stored his timber. Silvere used to jump up on the wheels of the
tilted carts undergoing repair, and amuse himself by dragging about
the heavy tools which his tiny hands could scarcely lift. One of his
greatest pleasures, too, was to assist the workmen by holding some piece
of wood for them, or bringing them the iron-work which they required.
When he had grown older he naturally became apprenticed to Vian. The
latter had taken a liking to the little fellow who was always kicking
about his heels, and asked Adelaide to let him come, refusing to take
anything for his board and lodging. Silvere eagerly accepted, already
foreseeing the time when he would be able to make his poor aunt Dide
some return for all she had spent upon him.

In a short time he became an excellent workman. He cherished, however,
much higher ambitions. Having once seen, at a coachbuilder's at
Plassans, a fine new carriage, shining with varnish, he vowed that he
would one day build carriages himself. He remembered this carriage as
a rare and unique work of art, an ideal towards which his aspirations
should tend. The tilted carts at which he worked in Vian's shop, those
carts which he had lovingly cherished, now seemed unworthy of his
affections. He began to attend the local drawing-school, where he formed
a connection with a youngster who had left college, and who lent him an
old treatise on geometry. He plunged into this study without a guide,
racking his brains for weeks together in order to grasp the simplest
problem in the world. In this matter he gradually became one of those
learned workmen who can hardly sign their name and yet talk about
algebra as though it were an intimate friend.

Nothing unsettles the mind so much as this desultory kind of education,
which reposes on no firm basis. Most frequently such scraps of knowledge
convey an absolutely false idea of the highest truths, and render
persons of limited intellect insufferably stupid. In Silvere's case,
however, his scraps of stolen knowledge only augmented his liberal
aspirations. He was conscious of horizons which at present remained
closed to him. He formed for himself divine conceptions of things beyond
his reach, and lived on, regarding in a deep, innocent, religious way
the noble thoughts and grand conceptions towards which he was raising
himself, but which he could not as yet comprehend. He was one of the
simple-minded, one whose simplicity was divine, and who had remained
on the threshold of the temple, kneeling before the tapers which from a
distance he took for stars.

The hovel in the Impasse Saint-Mittre consisted, in the first place,
of a large room into which the street door opened. The only pieces of
furniture in this room, which had a stone floor, and served both as a
kitchen and a dining-room, were some straw-seated chairs, a table on
trestles, and an old coffer which Adelaide had converted into a sofa, by
spreading a piece of woollen stuff over the lid. In the left hand
corner of the large fireplace stood a plaster image of the Holy Virgin,
surrounded by artificial flowers; she is the traditional good mother of
all old Provencal women, however irreligious they may be. A passage led
from the room into a yard situated at the rear of the house; in this
yard there was a well. Aunt Dide's bedroom was on the left side of the
passage; it was a little apartment containing an iron bedstead and one
chair; Silvere slept in a still smaller room on the right hand side,
just large enough for a trestle bedstead; and he had been obliged to
plan a set of shelves, reaching up to the ceiling, to keep by him
all those dear odd volumes which he saved his sous to purchase from a
neighbouring general dealer. When he read at night-time, he would hang
his lamp on a nail at the head of the bed. If his grandmother had an
attack, he merely had to leap out at the first gasp to be at her side in
a moment.

The young man led the life of a child. He passed his existence in this
lonely spot. Like his father, he felt a dislike for taverns and Sunday
strolling. His mates wounded his delicate susceptibilities by their
coarse jokes. He preferred to read, to rack his rain over some simple
geometrical problem. Since aunt Dide had entrusted him with the
little household commissions she did not go out at all, but ceased all
intercourse even with her family. The young man sometimes thought of her
forlornness; he reflected that the poor old woman lived but a few steps
from the children who strove to forget her, as though she were dead;
and this made him love her all the more, for himself and for the others.
When he at times entertained a vague idea that aunt Dide might be
expiating some former transgressions, he would say to himself: "I was
born to pardon her."

A nature such as Silvere's, ardent yet self-restrained, naturally
cherished the most exalted republican ideas. At night, in his little
hovel, Silvere would again and again read a work of Rousseau's which he
had picked up at the neighbouring dealer's among a number of old locks.
The reading of this book kept him awake till daylight. Amidst his dream
of universal happiness so dear to the poor, the words liberty, equality,
fraternity, rang in his ears like those sonorous sacred calls of the
bells, at the sound of which the faithful fall upon their knees. When,
therefore, he learnt that the Republic had just been proclaimed in
France he fancied that the whole world would enjoy a life of celestial
beatitude. His knowledge, though imperfect, made him see farther than
other workmen; his aspirations did not stop at daily bread; but his
extreme ingenuousness, his complete ignorance of mankind, kept him
in the dreamland of theory, a Garden of Eden where universal justice
reigned. His paradise was for a long time a delightful spot in which he
forgot himself.

When he came to perceive that things did not go on quite satisfactorily
in the best of republics he was sorely grieved, and indulged in another
dream, that of compelling men to be happy even by force. Every act which
seemed to him prejudicial to the interest of the people roused him to
revengeful indignation. Though he was as gentle as a child, he cherished
the fiercest political animosity. He would not have killed a fly, and
yet he was for ever talking of a call to arms. Liberty was his passion,
an unreasoning, absolute passion, to which he gave all the feverish
ardour of his blood. Blinded by enthusiasm, he was both too ignorant and
too learned to be tolerant, and would not allow for men's weaknesses; he
required an ideal government of perfect justice and perfect liberty. It
was at this period that Antoine Macquart thought of setting him against
the Rougons. He fancied that this young enthusiast would work terrible
havoc if he were only exasperated to the proper pitch. This calculation
was not altogether devoid of shrewdness.

Such being Antoine's scheme, he tried to induce Silvere to visit him, by
professing inordinate admiration for the young man's ideas. But he
very nearly compromised the whole matter at the outset. He had a way
of regarding the triumph of the Republic as a question of personal
interest, as an era of happy idleness and endless junketing, which
chilled his nephew's purely moral aspirations. However, he perceived
that he was on the wrong track, and plunged into strange bathos, a
string of empty but high-sounding words, which Silvere accepted as a
satisfactory proof of his civism. Before long the uncle and the nephew
saw each other two or three times a week. During their long discussions,
in which the fate of the country was flatly settled, Antoine endeavoured
to persuade the young man that the Rougons' drawing-room was the chief
obstacle to the welfare of France.

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