For a Night of Love by Émile Zola.
For a Night of Love (Pour une nuit d'amour) is a short story by Émile Zola, first published in 1876 in Le Messager de l'Europe. It reads like a fairy tale nightmare, set on the banks of the river Chanteclair, and tells the story of Julien Michon, a shy lad who plays the flute. He falls in love with Thérèse Marsannes who lives with her very wealthy family in a big house near him. She is very beautiful, seductive, and as we learn, very cold and cruel.
One night she beckons him into the house and, excited, he goes and she promises that if he does one thing for her, he may spend the night with her. When she reveals his task he is horrified: he must dispose of the body of Thérèse's lover Colombel.
As the story progresses we learn more of Colombel and Thérèse's relationship: it's like a mixture of Zola's earlier novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (1847). Colombel had grown up, as Zola describes, in the house with a status somewhere between a servant and a playmate. Whilst Thérèse appears to outsiders as a beautiful and well behaved young lady, her behaviour towards Colombel shows a much darker and sinister side: she would beat and torture him, and this she continued until they both grew up and entered into a sexual relationship. But, that night, she went too far and she killed him, so Julien must decide if he will perform the task and whether he really does want to spend one night of love with her.
It's a very powerful story, very well written and shows Zola at his best. Often Zola's short stories are overshadowed by the vast excellence of the Rougon Macquart novels, but this serves as a reminder that Zola was too a master of short stories as he was of novels.
And that was my 21st title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Scholar's Complaint of his Own Bashfulness by Samuel Johnson.