Amidst the deep silence and solitude prevailing in the avenue several market gardeners’ carts were climbing the slope which led towards Paris, and the fronts of the houses, asleep behind the dim lines of elms on either side of the road, echoed back the rhythmical jolting of the wheels. At the Neuilly bridge a cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined the eight waggons of carrots and turnips coming down from Nanterre; and the horses, left to themselves, had continued plodding along with lowered heads, at a regular though lazy pace, which the ascent of the slope now slackened. The sleeping waggoners, wrapped in woollen cloaks, striped black and grey, and grasping the reins slackly in their closed hands, were stretched at full length on their stomachs atop of the piles of vegetables. Every now and then, a gas lamp, following some patch of gloom, would light up the hobnails of a boot, the blue sleeve of a blouse, or the peak of a cap peering out of the huge florescence of vegetables — red bouquets of carrots, white bouquets of turnips, and the overflowing greenery of peas and cabbages.
And all along the road, and along the neighbouring roads, in front and behind, the distant rumbling of vehicles told of the presence of similar contingents of the great caravan which was travelling onward through the gloom and deep slumber of that matutinal hour, lulling the dark city to continued repose with its echoes of passing food.
Madame Francois’s horse, Balthazar, an animal that was far too fat, led the van. He was plodding on, half asleep and wagging his ears, when suddenly, on reaching the Rue de Longchamp, he quivered with fear and came to a dead stop. The horses behind, thus unexpectedly checked, ran their heads against the backs of the carts in front of them, and the procession halted amidst a clattering of bolts and chains and the oaths of the awakened waggoners. Madame Francois, who sat in front of her vehicle, with her back to a board which kept her vegetables in position, looked down; but, in the dim light thrown to the left by a small square lantern, which illuminated little beyond one of Balthazar’s sheeny flanks, she could distinguish nothing.
“Come, old woman, let’s get on!” cried one of the men, who had raised himself to a kneeling position amongst his turnips; “it’s only some drunken sot.”
Madame Francois, however, had bent forward and on her right hand had caught sight of a black mass, lying almost under the horse’s hoofs, and blocking the road.
“You wouldn’t have us drive over a man, would you?” said she, jumping to the ground.
It was indeed a man lying at full length upon the road, with his arms stretched out and his face in the dust. He seemed to be remarkably tall, but as withered as a dry branch, and the wonder was that Balthazar had not broken him in half with a blow from his hoof. Madame Francois thought that he was dead; but on stooping and taking hold of one of his hands, she found that it was quite warm.
“Poor fellow!” she murmured softly.
The waggoners, however, were getting impatient.
“Hurry up, there!” said the man kneeling amongst the turnips, in a hoarse voice. “He’s drunk till he can hold no more, the hog! Shove him into the gutter.”
Meantime, the man on the road had opened his eyes. He looked at Madame Francois with a startled air, but did not move. She herself now thought that he must indeed be drunk.
“You mustn’t stop here,” she said to him, “or you’ll get run over and killed. Where were you going?”
“I don’t know,” replied the man in a faint voice.
Then, with an effort and an anxious expression, he added: “I was going to Paris; I fell down, and don’t remember any more.”
Madame Francois could now see him more distinctly, and he was truly a pitiable object, with his ragged black coat and trousers, through the rents in which you could espy his scraggy limbs. Underneath a black cloth cap, which was drawn low over his brows, as though he were afraid of being recognised, could be seen two large brown eyes, gleaming with peculiar softness in his otherwise stern and harassed countenance. It seemed to Madame Francois that he was in far too famished a condition to have got drunk.
“And what part of Paris were you going to?” she continued.
The man did not reply immediately. This questioning seemed to distress him. He appeared to be thinking the matter over, but at last said hesitatingly, “Over yonder, towards the markets.”
He had now, with great difficulty, got to his feet again, and seemed anxious to resume his journey. But Madame Francois noticed that he tottered, and clung for support to one of the shafts of her waggon.
“Are you tired?” she asked him.
“Yes, very tired,” he replied.
Then she suddenly assumed a grumpy tone, as though displeased, and, giving him a push, exclaimed: “Look sharp, then, and climb into my cart. You’ve made us lose a lot of time. I’m going to the markets, and I’ll turn you out there with my vegetables.”
Then, as the man seemed inclined to refuse her offer, she pushed him up with her stout arms, and bundled him down upon the turnips and carrots.
“Come, now, don’t give us any more trouble,” she cried angrily. “You are quite enough to provoke one, my good fellow. Don’t I tell you that I’m going to the markets? Sleep away up there. I’ll wake you when we arrive.”
She herself then clambered into the cart again, and settled herself with her back against the board, grasping the reins of Balthazar, who started off drowsily, swaying his ears once more. The other waggons followed, and the procession resumed its lazy march through the darkness, whilst the rhythmical jolting of the wheels again awoke the echoes of the sleepy house fronts, and the waggoners, wrapped in their cloaks, dozed off afresh. The one who had called to Madame Francois growled out as he lay down: “As if we’d nothing better to do than pick up every drunken sot we come across! You’re a scorcher, old woman!”
The waggons rumbled on, and the horses picked their own way, with drooping heads. The stranger whom Madame Francois had befriended was lying on his stomach, with his long legs lost amongst the turnips which filled the back part of the cart, whilst his face was buried amidst the spreading piles of carrot bunches. With weary, extended arms he clutched hold of his vegetable couch in fear of being thrown to the ground by one of the waggon’s jolts, and his eyes were fixed on the two long lines of gas lamps which stretched away in front of him till they mingled with a swarm of other lights in the distance atop of the slope. Far away on the horizon floated a spreading, whitish vapour, showing where Paris slept amidst the luminous haze of all those flamelets.
“I come from Nanterre, and my name’s Madame Francois,” said the market gardener presently. “Since my poor man died I go to the markets every morning myself. It’s a hard life, as you may guess. And who are you?”
“My name’s Florent, I come from a distance,” replied the stranger, with embarrassment. “Please excuse me, but I’m really so tired that it is painful to me to talk.”
He was evidently unwilling to say anything more, and so Madame Francois relapsed into silence, and allowed the reins to fall loosely on the back of Balthazar, who went his way like an animal acquainted with every stone of the road.
Meantime, with his eyes still fixed upon the far-spreading glare of Paris, Florent was pondering over the story which he had refused to communicate to Madame Francois. After making his escape from Cayenne, whither he had been transported for his participation in the resistance to Louis Napoleon’s Coup d’Etat, he had wandered about Dutch Guiana for a couple of years, burning to return to France, yet dreading the Imperial police. At last, however, he once more saw before him the beloved and mighty city which he had so keenly regretted and so ardently longed for. He would hide himself there, he told himself, and again lead the quiet, peaceable life that he had lived years ago. The police would never be any the wiser; and everyone would imagine, indeed, that he had died over yonder, across the sea. Then he thought of his arrival at Havre, where he had landed with only some fifteen francs tied up in a corner of his handkerchief. He had been able to pay for a seat in the coach as far as Rouen, but from that point he had been forced to continue his journey on foot, as he had scarcely thirty sous left of his little store. At Vernon his last copper had gone in bread. After that he had no clear recollection of anything. He fancied that he could remember having slept for several hours in a ditch, and having shown the papers with which he had provided himself to a gendarme; however, he had only a very confused idea of what had happened. He had left Vernon without any breakfast, seized every now and then with hopeless despair and raging pangs which had driven him to munch the leaves of the hedges as he tramped along. A prey to cramp and fright, his body bent, his sight dimmed, and his feet sore, he had continued his weary march, ever drawn onwards in a semi-unconscious state by a vision of Paris, which, far, far away, beyond the horizon, seemed to be summoning him and waiting for him.
When he at length reached Courbevoie, the night was very dark. Paris, looking like a patch of star-sprent sky that had fallen upon the black earth, seemed to him to wear a forbidding aspect, as though angry at his return. Then he felt very faint, and his legs almost gave way beneath him as he descended the hill. As he crossed the Neuilly bridge he sustained himself by clinging to the parapet, and bent over and looked at the Seine rolling inky waves between its dense, massy banks. A red lamp on the water seemed to be watching him with a sanguineous eye. And then he had to climb the hill if he would reach Paris on its summit yonder. The hundreds of leagues which he had already travelled were as nothing to it. That bit of a road filled him with despair. He would never be able, he thought, to reach yonder light crowned summit. The spacious avenue lay before him with its silence and its darkness, its lines of tall trees and low houses, its broad grey footwalks, speckled with the shadows of overhanging branches, and parted occasionally by the gloomy gaps of side streets. The squat yellow flames of the gas lamps, standing erect at regular intervals, alone imparted a little life to the lonely wilderness. And Florent seemed to make no progress; the avenue appeared to grow ever longer and longer, to be carrying Paris away into the far depths of the night. At last he fancied that the gas lamps, with their single eyes, were running off on either hand, whisking the road away with them; and then, overcome by vertigo, he stumbled and fell on the roadway like a log.
Now he was lying at ease on his couch of greenery, which seemed to him soft as a feather bed. He had slightly raised his head so as to keep his eyes on the luminous haze which was spreading above the dark roofs which he could divine on the horizon. He was nearing his goal, carried along towards it, with nothing to do but to yield to the leisurely jolts of the waggon; and, free from all further fatigue, he now only suffered from hunger. Hunger, indeed, had once more awoke within him with frightful and wellnigh intolerable pangs. His limbs seemed to have fallen asleep; he was only conscious of the existence of his stomach, horribly cramped and twisted as by a red-hot iron. The fresh odour of the vegetables, amongst which he was lying, affected him so keenly that he almost fainted away. He strained himself against that piled-up mass of food with all his remaining strength, in order to compress his stomach and silence its groans. And the nine other waggons behind him, with their mountains of cabbages and peas, their piles of artichokes, lettuces, celery, and leeks, seemed to him to be slowly overtaking him, as though to bury him whilst he was thus tortured by hunger beneath an avalanche of food. Presently the procession halted, and there was a sound of deep voices. They had reached the barriers, and the municipal customs officers were examining the waggons. A moment later Florent entered Paris, in a swoon, lying atop of the carrots, with clenched teeth.
“Hallow! You up there!” Madame Francois called out sharply.
And as the stranger made no attempt to move, she clambered up and shook him. Florent rose to a sitting posture. He had slept and no longer felt the pangs of hunger, but was dizzy and confused.
“You’ll help me to unload, won’t you?” Madame Francois said to him, as she made him get down.
He helped her. A stout man with a felt hat on his head and a badge in the top buttonhole of his coat was striking the ground with a stick and grumbling loudly:
“Come, come, now, make haste! You must get on faster than that! Bring the waggon a little more forward. How many yards’ standing have you? Four, isn’t it?”
Then he gave a ticket to Madame Francois, who took some coppers out of a little canvas bag and handed them to him; whereupon he went off to vent his impatience and tap the ground with his stick a little further away. Madame Francois took hold of Balthazar’s bridle and backed him so as to bring the wheels of the waggon close to the footway. Then, having marked out her four yards with some wisps of straw, after removing the back of the cart, she asked Florent to hand her the vegetables bunch by bunch. She arranged them sort by sort on her standing, setting them out artistically, the “tops” forming a band of greenery around each pile; and it was with remarkable rapidity that she completed her show, which, in the gloom of early morning, looked like some piece of symmetrically coloured tapestry. When Florent had handed her a huge bunch of parsley, which he had found at the bottom of the cart, she asked him for still another service.
“It would be very kind of you,” said she, “if you would look after my goods while I put the horse and cart up. I’m only going a couple of yards, to the Golden Compasses, in the Rue Montorgueil.”
Florent told her that she might make herself easy. He preferred to remain still, for his hunger had revived since he had begun to move about. He sat down and leaned against a heap of cabbages beside Madame Francois’s stock. He was all right there, he told himself, and would not go further afield, but wait. His head felt empty, and he had no very clear notion as to where he was. At the beginning of September it is quite dark in the early morning. Around him lighted lanterns were flitting or standing stationary in the depths of the gloom. He was sitting on one side of a broad street which he did not recognise; it stretched far away into the blackness of the night. He could make out nothing plainly, excepting the stock of which he had been left in charge. All around him along the market footways rose similar piles of goods. The middle of the roadway was blocked by huge grey tumbrels, and from one end of the street to the other a sound of heavy breathing passed, betokening the presence of horses which the eye could not distinguish.
Shouts and calls, the noise of falling wood, or of iron chains slipping to the ground, the heavy thud of loads of vegetables discharged from the waggons, and the grating of wheels as the carts were backed against the footways, filled the yet sonorous awakening, whose near approach could be felt and heard in the throbbing gloom. Glancing over the pile of cabbages behind him. Florent caught sight of a man wrapped like a parcel in his cloak, and snoring away with his head upon some baskets of plums. Nearer to him, on his left, he could distinguish a lad, some ten years old, slumbering between two heaps of endive, with an angelic smile on his face. And as yet there seemed to be nothing on that pavement that was really awake except the lanterns waving from invisible arms, and flitting and skipping over the sleep of the vegetables and human beings spread out there in heaps pending the dawn. However, what surprised Florent was the sight of some huge pavilions on either side of the street, pavilions with lofty roofs that seemed to expand and soar out of sight amidst a swarm of gleams. In his weakened state of mind he fancied he beheld a series of enormous, symmetrically built palaces, light and airy as crystal, whose fronts sparkled with countless streaks of light filtering through endless Venetian shutters. Gleaming between the slender pillar shafts these narrow golden bars seemed like ladders of light mounting to the gloomy line of the lower roofs, and then soaring aloft till they reached the jumble of higher ones, thus describing the open framework of immense square halls, where in the yellow flare of the gas lights a multitude of vague, grey, slumbering things was gathered together.
At last Florent turned his head to look about him, distressed at not knowing where he was, and filled with vague uneasiness by the sight of that huge and seemingly fragile vision. And now, as he raised his eyes, he caught sight of the luminous dial and the grey massive pile of Saint Eustache’s Church. At this he was much astonished. He was close to Saint Eustache, yet all was novel to him.
However, Madame Francois had come back again, and was engaged in a heated discussion with a man who carried a sack over his shoulder and offered to buy her carrots for a sou a bunch.
“Really, now, you are unreasonable, Lacaille!” said she. “You know quite well that you will sell them again to the Parisians at four and five sous the bunch. Don’t tell me that you won’t! You may have them for two sous the bunch, if you like.”
Then, as the man went off, she continued: “Upon my word, I believe some people think that things grow of their own accord! Let him go and find carrots at a sou the bunch elsewhere, tipsy scoundrel that he is! He’ll come back again presently, you’ll see.”
These last remarks were addressed to Florent. And, seating herself by his side, Madame Francois resumed: “If you’ve been a long time away from Paris, you perhaps don’t know the new markets. They haven’t been built for more than five years at the most. That pavilion you see there beside us is the flower and fruit market. The fish and poultry markets are farther away, and over there behind us come the vegetables and the butter and cheese. There are six pavilions on this side, and on the other side, across the road, there are four more, with the meat and the tripe stalls. It’s an enormous place, but it’s horribly cold in the winter. They talk about pulling down the houses near the corn market to make room for two more pavilions. But perhaps you know all this?”
“No, indeed,” replied Florent; “I’ve been abroad. And what’s the name of that big street in front of us?”
“Oh, that’s a new street. It’s called the Rue du Pont Neuf. It leads from the Seine through here to the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Montorgueil. You would soon have recognized where you were if it had been daylight.”
Madame Francois paused and rose, for she saw a woman heading down to examine her turnips. “Ah, is that you, Mother Chantemesse?” she said in a friendly way.
Florent meanwhile glanced towards the Rue Montorgueil. It was there that a body of police officers had arrested him on the night of December 4.* He had been walking along the Boulevard Montmartre at about two o’clock, quietly making his way through the crowd, and smiling at the number of soldiers that the Elysee had sent into the streets to awe the people, when the military suddenly began making a clean sweep of the thoroughfare, shooting folks down at close range during a quarter of an hour. Jostled and knocked to the ground, Florent fell at the corner of the Rue Vivienne and knew nothing further of what happened, for the panic-stricken crowd, in their wild terror of being shot, trampled over his body. Presently, hearing everything quiet, he made an attempt to rise; but across him there lay a young woman in a pink bonnet, whose shawl had slipped aside, allowing her chemisette, pleated in little tucks, to be seen. Two bullets had pierced the upper part of her bosom; and when Florent gently removed the poor creature to free his legs, two streamlets of blood oozed from her wounds on to his hands. Then he sprang up with a sudden bound, and rushed madly away, hatless and with his hands still wet with blood. Until evening he wandered about the streets, with his head swimming, ever seeing the young woman lying across his legs with her pale face, her blue staring eyes, her distorted lips, and her expression of astonishment at thus meeting death so suddenly. He was a shy, timid fellow. Albeit thirty years old he had never dared to stare women in the face; and now, for the rest of his life, he was to have that one fixed in his heart and memory. He felt as though he had lost some loved one of his own.
* 1851. Two days after the Coup d’Etat. — Translator.
In the evening, without knowing how he had got there, still dazed and horrified as he was by the terrible scenes of the afternoon, he had found himself at a wine shop in the Rue Montorgueil, where several men were drinking and talking of throwing up barricades. He went away with them, helped them to tear up a few paving-stones, and seated himself on the barricade, weary with his long wandering through the streets, and reflecting that he would fight when the soldiers came up. However, he had not even a knife with him, and was still bareheaded. Towards eleven o’clock he dozed off, and in his sleep could see the two holes in the dead woman’s white chemisette glaring at him like eyes reddened by tears and blood. When he awoke he found himself in the grasp of four police officers, who were pummelling him with their fists. The men who had built the barricade had fled. The police officers treated him with still greater violence, and indeed almost strangled him when they noticed that his hands were stained with blood. It was the blood of the young woman.
Florent raised his eyes to the luminous dial of Saint Eustache with his mind so full of these recollections that he did not notice the position of the pointers. It was, however, nearly four o’clock. The markets were as yet wrapped in sleep. Madame Francois was still talking to old Madame Chantemesse, both standing and arguing about the price of turnips, and Florent now called to mind how narrowly he had escaped being shot over yonder by the wall of Saint Eustache. A detachment of gendarmes had just blown out the brains of five unhappy fellows caught at a barricade in the Rue Greneta. The five corpses were lying on the footway, at a spot where he thought he could now distinguish a heap of rosy radishes. He himself had escaped being shot merely because the policemen only carried swords. They took him to a neighbouring police station and gave the officer in charge a scrap of paper, on which were these words written in pencil: “Taken with blood-stained hands. Very dangerous.” Then he had been dragged from station to station till the morning came. The scrap of paper accompanied him wherever he went. He was manacled and guarded as though he were a raving madman. At the station in the Rue de la Lingerie some tipsy soldiers wanted to shoot him; and they had already lighted a lantern with that object when the order arrived for the prisoners to be taken to the depot of the Prefecture of Police. Two days afterwards he found himself in a casemate of the fort of Bicetre. Ever since then he had been suffering from hunger. He had felt hungry in the casemate, and the pangs of hunger had never since left him. A hundred men were pent in the depths of that cellar-like dungeon, where, scarce able to breathe, they devoured the few mouthfuls of bread that were thrown to them, like so many captive wild beasts.
When Florent was brought before an investigating magistrate, without anyone to defend him, and without any evidence being adduced, he was accused of belonging to a secret society; and when he swore that this was untrue, the magistrate produced the scrap of paper from amongst the documents before him: “Taken with blood-stained hands. Very dangerous.” That was quite sufficient. He was condemned to transportation. Six weeks afterwards, one January night, a gaoler awoke him and locked him up in a courtyard with more than four hundred other prisoners. An hour later this first detachment started for the pontoons and exile, handcuffed and guarded by a double file of gendarmes with loaded muskets. They crossed the Austerlitz bridge, followed the line of the boulevards, and so reached the terminus of the Western Railway line. It was a joyous carnival night. The windows of the restaurants on the boulevards glittered with lights. At the top of the Rue Vivienne, just at the spot where he ever saw the young woman lying dead — that unknown young woman whose image he always bore with him — he now beheld a large carriage in which a party of masked women, with bare shoulders and laughing voices, were venting their impatience at being detained, and expressing their horror of that endless procession of convicts. The whole of the way from Paris to Havre the prisoners never received a mouthful of bread or a drink of water. The officials had forgotten to give them their rations before starting, and it was not till thirty-six hours afterwards, when they had been stowed away in the hold of the frigate Canada, that they at last broke their fast.
No, Florent had never again been free from hunger. He recalled all the past to mind, but could not recollect a single hour of satiety. He had become dry and withered; his stomach seemed to have shrunk; his skin clung to his bones. And now that he was back in Paris once more, he found it fat and sleek and flourishing, teeming with food in the midst of the darkness. He had returned to it on a couch of vegetables; he lingered in its midst encompassed by unknown masses of food which still and ever increased and disquieted him. Had that happy carnival night continued throughout those seven years, then? Once again he saw the glittering windows on the boulevards, the laughing women, the luxurious, greedy city which he had quitted on that far-away January night; and it seemed to him that everything had expanded and increased in harmony with those huge markets, whose gigantic breathing, still heavy from the indigestion of the previous day, he now began to hear.
Old Mother Chantemesse had by this time made up her mind to buy a dozen bunches of turnips. She put them in her apron, which she held closely pressed to her person, thus making herself look yet more corpulent than she was; and for some time longer she lingered there, still gossiping in a drawling voice. When at last she went away, Madame Francois again sat down by the side of Florent.
“Poor old Mother Chantemesse!” she said; “she must be at least seventy-two. I can remember her buying turnips of my father when I was a mere chit. And she hasn’t a relation in the world; no one but a young hussy whom she picked up I don’t know where and who does nothing but bring her trouble. Still, she manages to live, selling things by the ha’p’orth and clearing her couple of francs profit a day. For my own part, I’m sure that I could never spend my days on the foot-pavement in this horrid Paris! And she hasn’t even any relations here!”
“You have some relations in Paris, I suppose?” she asked presently, seeing that Florent seemed disinclined to talk.
Florent did not appear to hear her. A feeling of distrust came back to him. His head was teeming with old stories of the police, stories of spies prowling about at every street corner, and of women selling the secrets which they managed to worm out of the unhappy fellows they deluded. Madame Francois was sitting close beside him and certainly looked perfectly straightforward and honest, with her big calm face, above which was bound a black and yellow handkerchief. She seemed about five and thirty years of age, and was somewhat stoutly built, with a certain hardy beauty due to her life in the fresh air. A pair of black eyes, which beamed with kindly tenderness, softened the more masculine characteristics of her person. She certainly was inquisitive, but her curiosity was probably well meant.
“I’ve a nephew in Paris,” she continued, without seeming at all offended by Florent’s silence. “He’s turned out badly though, and has enlisted. It’s a pleasant thing to have somewhere to go to and stay at, isn’t it? I dare say there’s a big surprise in store for your relations when they see you. But it’s always a pleasure to welcome one of one’s own people back again, isn’t it?”
She kept her eyes fixed upon him while she spoke, doubtless compassionating his extreme scragginess; fancying, too, that there was a “gentleman” inside those old black rags, and so not daring to slip a piece of silver into his hand. At last, however, she timidly murmured: “All the same, if you should happen just at present to be in want of anything ——”
But Florent checked her with uneasy pride. He told her that he had everything he required, and had a place to go to. She seemed quite pleased to hear this, and, as though to tranquillise herself concerning him, repeated several times: “Well, well, in that case you’ve only got to wait till daylight.”
A large bell at the corner of the fruit market, just over Florent’s head, now began to ring. The slow regular peals seemed to gradually dissipate the slumber that yet lingered all around. Carts were still arriving, and the shouts of the waggoners, the cracking of their whips, and the grinding of the paving-stones beneath the iron-bound wheels and the horses’ shoes sounded with an increasing din. The carts could now only advance by a series of spasmodic jolts, and stretched in a long line, one behind the other, till they were lost to sight in the distant darkness, whence a confused roar ascended.
Unloading was in progress all along the Rue du Pont Neuf, the vehicles being drawn up close to the edge of the footways, while their teams stood motionless in close order as at a horse fair. Florent felt interested in one enormous tumbrel which was piled up with magnificent cabbages, and had only been backed to the kerb with the greatest difficulty. Its load towered above the lofty gas lamp whose bright light fell full upon the broad leaves which looked like pieces of dark green velvet, scalloped and goffered. A young peasant girl, some sixteen years old, in a blue linen jacket and cap, had climbed on to the tumbrel, where, buried in the cabbages to her shoulders, she took them one by one and threw them to somebody concealed in the shade below. Every now and then the girl would slip and vanish, overwhelmed by an avalanche of the vegetables, but her rosy nose soon reappeared amidst the teeming greenery, and she broke into a laugh while the cabbages again flew down between Florent and the gas lamp. He counted them mechanically as they fell. When the cart was emptied he felt worried.
The piles of vegetables on the pavement now extended to the verge of the roadway. Between the heaps, the market gardeners left narrow paths to enable people to pass along. The whole of the wide footway was covered from end to end with dark mounds. As yet, in the sudden dancing gleams of light from the lanterns, you only just espied the luxuriant fulness of the bundles of artichokes, the delicate green of the lettuces, the rosy coral of the carrots, and dull ivory of the turnips. And these gleams of rich colour flitted along the heaps, according as the lanterns came and went. The footway was now becoming populated: a crowd of people had awakened, and was moving hither and thither amidst the vegetables, stopping at times, and chattering and shouting. In the distance a loud voice could be heard crying, “Endive! who’s got endive?” The gates of the pavilion devoted to the sale of ordinary vegetables had just been opened; and the retail dealers who had stalls there, with white caps on their heads, fichus knotted over their black jackets, and skirts pinned up to keep them from getting soiled, now began to secure their stock for the day, depositing their purchases in some huge porters’ baskets placed upon the ground. Between the roadway and the pavilion these baskets were to be seen coming and going on all sides, knocking against the crowded heads of the bystanders, who resented the pushing with coarse expressions, whilst all around was a clamour of voices growing hoarse by prolonged wrangling over a sou or two. Florent was astonished by the calmness of the female market gardeners, with bandanas and bronzed faces, displayed amidst all this garrulous bargaining of the markets.
Behind him, on the footway of the Rue Rambuteau, fruit was being sold. Hampers and low baskets covered with canvas or straw stood there in long lines, a strong odour of over-ripe mirabelle plums was wafted hither and thither. At last a subdued and gentle voice, which he had heard for some time past, induced him to turn his head, and he saw a charming darksome little woman sitting on the ground and bargaining.
“Come now, Marcel,” said she, “you’ll take a hundred sous, won’t you?”
The man to whom she was speaking was closely wrapped in his cloak and made no reply; however, after a silence of five minutes or more, the young woman returned to the charge.
“Come now, Marcel; a hundred sous for that basket there, and four francs for the other one; that’ll make nine francs altogether.”
Then came another interval.
“Well, tell me what you will take.”
“Ten francs. You know that well enough already; I told you so before. But what have you done with your Jules this morning, La Sarriette?”
The young woman began to laugh as she took a handful of small change out of her pocket.
“Oh,” she replied, “Jules is still in bed. He says that men were not intended to work.”
She paid for the two baskets, and carried them into the fruit pavilion, which had just been opened. The market buildings still retained their gloom-wrapped aspect of airy fragility, streaked with the thousand lines of light that gleamed from the venetian shutters. People were beginning to pass along the broad covered streets intersecting the pavilions, but the more distant buildings still remained deserted amidst the increasing buzz of life on the footways. By Saint Eustache the bakers and wine sellers were taking down their shutters, and the ruddy shops, with their gas lights flaring, showed like gaps of fire in the gloom in which the grey house-fronts were yet steeped. Florent noticed a baker’s shop on the left-hand side of the Rue Montorgueil, replete and golden with its last baking, and fancied he could scent the pleasant smell of the hot bread. It was now half past four.
Madame Francois by this time had disposed of nearly all her stock. She had only a few bunches of carrots left when Lacaille once more made his appearance with his sack.
“Well,” said he, “will you take a sou now?”
“I knew I should see you again,” the good woman quietly answered. “You’d better take all I have left. There are seventeen bunches.”
“That makes seventeen sous.”
At last they agreed to fix the price at twenty-five sous. Madame Francois was anxious to be off.
“He’d been keeping his eye upon me all the time,” she said to Florent, when Lacaille had gone off with the carrots in his sack. “That old rogue runs things down all over the markets, and he often waits till the last peal of the bell before spending four sous in purchase. Oh, these Paris folk! They’ll wrangle and argue for an hour to save half a sou, and then go off and empty their purses at the wine shop.”
Whenever Madame Francois talked of Paris she always spoke in a tone of disdain, and referred to the city as though it were some ridiculous, contemptible, far-away place, in which she only condescended to set foot at nighttime.
“There!” she continued, sitting down again, beside Florent, on some vegetables belonging to a neighbour, “I can get away now.”
Florent bent his head. He had just committed a theft. When Lacaille went off he had caught sight of a carrot lying on the ground, and having picked it up he was holding it tightly in his right hand. Behind him were some bundles of celery and bunches of parsley were diffusing pungent odours which painfully affected him.
“Well, I’m off now!” said Madame Francois.
However, she felt interested in this stranger, and could divine that he was suffering there on that foot-pavement, from which he had never stirred. She made him fresh offers of assistance, but he again refused them, with a still more bitter show of pride. He even got up and remained standing to prove that he was quite strong again. Then, as Madame Francois turned her head away, he put the carrot to his mouth. But he had to remove it for a moment, in spite of the terrible longing which he felt to dig his teeth into it; for Madame Francois turned round again and looking him full in the face, began to question him with her good-natured womanly curiosity. Florent, to avoid speaking, merely answered by nods and shakes of the head. Then, slowly and gently, he began to eat the carrot.
The worthy woman was at last on the point of going off, when a powerful voice exclaimed close beside her, “Good morning, Madame Francois.”
The speaker was a slim young man, with big bones and a big head. His face was bearded, and he had a very delicate nose and narrow sparkling eyes. He wore on his head a rusty, battered, black felt hat, and was buttoned up in an immense overcoat, which had once been of a soft chestnut hue, but which rain had discoloured and streaked with long greenish stains. Somewhat bent, and quivering with a nervous restlessness which was doubtless habitual with him, he stood there in a pair of heavy laced shoes, and the shortness of his trousers allowed a glimpse of his coarse blue hose.
“Good morning, Monsieur Claude,” the market gardener replied cheerfully. “I expected you, you know, last Monday, and, as you didn’t come, I’ve taken care of your canvas for you. I’ve hung it up on a nail in my room.”
“You are really very kind, Madame Francois. I’ll go to finish that study of mine one of these days. I wasn’t able to go on Monday. Has your big plum tree still got all its leaves?”
“I wanted to know, because I mean to put it in a corner of the picture. It will come in nicely by the side of the fowl house. I have been thinking about it all the week. What lovely vegetables are in the market this morning! I came down very early, expecting a fine sunrise effect upon all these heaps of cabbages.”
With a wave of the arm he indicated the footway.
“Well, well, I must be off now,” said Madame Francois. “Good-bye for the present. We shall meet again soon, I hope, Monsieur Claude.”
However, as she turned to go, she introduced Florent to the young artist.
“This gentleman, it seems, has just come from a distance,” said she. “He feels quite lost in your scampish Paris. I dare say you might be of service to him.”
Then she at last took her departure, feeling pleased at having left the two men together. Claude looked at Florent with a feeling of interest. That tall, slight, wavy figure seemed to him original. Madame Francois’s hasty presentation was in his eyes quite sufficient, and he addressed Florent with the easy familiarity of a lounger accustomed to all sorts of chance encounters.
“I’ll accompany you,” he said; “which way are you going?”
Florent felt ill at ease; he was not wont to unbosom himself so readily. However, ever since his arrival in Paris, a question had been trembling on his lips, and now he ventured to ask it, with the evident fear of receiving an unfavourable reply.
“Is the Rue Pirouette still in existence?”
“Oh, yes,” answered the artist. “A very curious corner of old Paris is the Rue Pirouette. It twists and turns like a dancing girl, and the houses bulge out like pot-bellied gluttons. I’ve made an etching of it that isn’t half bad. I’ll show it to you when you come to see me. Is it to the Rue Pirouette that you want to go?”
Florent, who felt easier and more cheerful now that he knew the street still existed, declared that he did not want to go there; in fact, he did not want to go anywhere in particular. All his distrust awoke into fresh life at Claude’s insistence.
“Oh! never mind,” said the artist, “let’s go to the Rue Pirouette all the same. It has such a fine colour at night time. Come along; it’s only a couple of yards away.”
Florent felt constrained to follow him, and the two men walked off, side by side, stepping over the hampers and vegetables like a couple of old friends. On the footway of the Rue Rambuteau there were some immense heaps of cauliflowers, symmetrically piled up like so many cannonballs. The soft-white flowers spread out like huge roses in the midst of their thick green leaves, and the piles had something of the appearance of bridal bouquets ranged in a row in colossal flower stands. Claude stopped in front of them, venting cries of admiration.
Then, on turning into the Rue Pirouette, which was just opposite, he pointed out each house to his companion, and explained his views concerning it. There was only a single gas lamp, burning in a corner. The buildings, which had settled down and swollen, threw their pent-houses forward in such wise as to justify Claude’s allusion to pot-bellied gluttons, whilst their gables receded, and on either side they clung to their neighbours for support. Three or four, however, standing in gloomy recesses, appeared to be on the point of toppling forward. The solitary gas lamp illumined one which was snowy with a fresh coat of whitewash, suggesting some flabby broken-down old dowager, powdered and bedaubed in the hope of appearing young. Then the others stretched away into the darkness, bruised, dented, and cracked, greeny with the fall of water from their roofs, and displaying such an extraordinary variety of attitudes and tints that Claude could not refrain from laughing as he contemplated them.
Florent, however, came to stand at the corner of the rue de Mondetour, in front of the last house but one on the left. Here the three floors, each with two shutterless windows, having little white curtains closely drawn, seemed wrapped in sleep; but, up above, a light could be seen flitting behind the curtains of a tiny gable casement. However, the sight of the shop beneath the pent-house seemed to fill Florent with the deepest emotion. It was kept by a dealer in cooked vegetables, and was just being opened. At its far end some metal pans were glittering, while on several earthen ones in the window there was a display of cooked spinach and endive, reduced to a paste and arranged in conical mounds from which customers were served with shovel-like carvers of white metal, only the handles of which were visible. This sight seemed to rivet Florent to the ground with surprise. He evidently could not recognize the place. He read the name of the shopkeeper, Godeboeuf, which was painted on a red sign board up above, and remained quite overcome by consternation. His arms dangling beside him, he began to examine the cooked spinach, with the despairing air of one on whom some supreme misfortune falls.
However, the gable casement was now opened, and a little old woman leaned out of it, and looked first at the sky and then at the markets in the distance.
“Ah, Mademoiselle Saget is an early riser,” exclaimed Claude, who had just raised his head. And, turning to his companion, he added: “I once had an aunt living in that house. It’s a regular hive of tittle-tattle! Ah, the Mehudins are stirring now, I see. There’s a light on the second floor.”
Florent would have liked to question his companion, but the latter’s long discoloured overcoat give him a disquieting appearance. So without a word Florent followed him, whilst he went on talking about the Mehudins. These Mehudins were fish-girls, it seemed; the older one was a magnificent creature, while the younger one, who sold fresh-water fish, reminded Claude of one of Murillo’s virgins, whenever he saw her standing with her fair face amidst her carps and eels.
From this Claude went on to remark with asperity that Murillo painted like an ignoramus. But all at once he stopped short in the middle of the street.
“Come!” he exclaimed, “tell me where it is that you want to go.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere just at present,” replied Florent in confusion. “Let’s go wherever you like.”
Just as they were leaving the Rue Pirouette, some one called to Claude from a wine shop at the corner of the street. The young man went in, dragging Florent with him. The shutters had been taken down on one side only, and the gas was still burning in the sleepy atmosphere of the shop. A forgotten napkin and some cards that had been used in the previous evening’s play were still lying on the tables; and the fresh breeze that streamed in through the open doorway freshened the close, warm vinous air. The landlord, Monsieur Lebigre, was serving his customers. He wore a sleeved waistcoat, and his fat regular features, fringed by an untidy beard, were still pale with sleep. Standing in front of the counter, groups of men, with heavy, tired eyes, were drinking, coughing, and spitting, whilst trying to rouse themselves by the aid of white wine and brandy. Amongst them Florent recognised Lacaille, whose sack now overflowed with various sorts of vegetables. He was taking his third dram with a friend, who was telling him a long story about the purchase of a hamper of potatoes.* When he had emptied his glass, he went to chat with Monsieur Lebigre in a little glazed compartment at the end of the room, where the gas had not yet been lighted.
* At the Paris central markets potatoes are sold by the hamper, not by the sack as in England. — Translator.
“What will you take?” Claude asked of Florent.
He had on entering grasped the hand of the person who had called out to him. This was a market porter,* a well-built young man of two and twenty at the most. His cheeks and chin were clean-shaven, but he wore a small moustache, and looked a sprightly, strapping fellow with his broad-brimmed hat covered with chalk, and his wool-worked neck-piece, the straps falling from which tightened his short blue blouse. Claude, who called him Alexandre, patted his arms, and asked him when they were going to Charentonneau again. Then they talked about a grand excursion they had made together in a boat on the Marne, when they had eaten a rabbit for supper in the evening.
* Fort is the French term, literally “a strong man,” as every market porter needs to be. — Translator.
“Well, what will you take?” Claude again asked Florent.
The latter looked at the counter in great embarrassment. At one end of it some stoneware pots, encircled with brass bands and containing punch and hot wine, were standing over the short blue flames of a gas stove. Florent at last confessed that a glass of something warm would be welcome. Monsieur Lebigre thereupon served them with three glasses of punch. In a basket near the pots were some smoking hot rolls which had only just arrived. However, as neither of the others took one, Florent likewise refrained, and drank his punch. He felt it slipping down into his empty stomach, like a steam of molten lead. It was Alexandre who paid for the “shout.”
“He’s a fine fellow, that Alexandre!” said Claude, when he and Florent found themselves alone again on the footway of the Rue Rambuteau. “He’s a very amusing companion to take into the country. He’s fond of showing his strength. And then he’s so magnificently built! I have seen him stripped. Ah, if I could only get him to pose for me in the nude out in the open air! Well, we’ll go and take a turn through the markets now, if you like.”
Florent followed, yielding entirely to his new friend’s guidance. A bright glow at the far end of the Rue Rambuteau announced the break of day. The far-spreading voice of the markets was become more sonorous, and every now and then the peals of a bell ringing in some distant pavilion mingled with the swelling, rising clamour. Claude and Florent entered one of the covered streets between the fish and poultry pavilions. Florent raised his eyes and looked at the lofty vault overhead, the inner timbers of which glistened amidst a black lacework of iron supports. As he turned into the great central thoroughfare he pictured himself in some strange town, with its various districts and suburbs, promenades and streets, squares and cross-roads, all suddenly placed under shelter on a rainy day by the whim of some gigantic power. The deep gloom brooding in the hollows of the roofs multiplied, as it were, the forest of pillars, and infinitely increased the number of the delicate ribs, railed galleries, and transparent shutters. And over the phantom city and far away into the depths of the shade, a teeming, flowering vegetation of luxuriant metal-work, with spindle-shaped stems and twining knotted branches, covered the vast expanse as with the foliage of some ancient forest. Several departments of the markets still slumbered behind their closed iron gates. The butter and poultry pavilions displayed rows of little trellised stalls and long alleys, which lines of gas lights showed to be deserted. The fish market, however, had just been opened, and women were flitting to and fro amongst the white slabs littered with shadowy hampers and cloths. Among the vegetables and fruit and flowers the noise and bustle were gradually increasing. The whole place was by degree waking up, from the popular quarter where the cabbages are piled at four o’clock in the morning, to the lazy and wealthy district which only hangs up its pullets and pheasants when the hands of the clock point to eight.
The great covered alleys were now teeming with life. All along the footways on both sides of the road there were still many market gardeners, with other small growers from the environs of Paris, who displayed baskets containing their “gatherings” of the previous evening — bundles of vegetables and clusters of fruit. Whilst the crowd incessantly paced hither and thither, vehicles barred the road; and Florent, in order to pass them, had to press against some dingy sacks, like coal-sacks in appearance, and so numerous and heavy that the axle-trees of the vans bent beneath them. They were quite damp, and exhaled a fresh odour of seaweed. From a rent low down in the side of one of them a black stream of big mussels was trickling.
Florent and Claude had now to pause at every step. The fish was arriving and one after another the drays of the railway companies drove up laden with wooden cages full of the hampers and baskets that had come by train from the sea coast. And to get out of the way of the fish drays, which became more and more numerous and disquieting, the artist and Florent rushed amongst the wheels of the drays laden with butter and eggs and cheese, huge yellow vehicles bearing coloured lanterns, and drawn by four horses. The market porters carried the cases of eggs, and baskets of cheese and butter, into the auction pavilion, where clerks were making entries in note books by the light of the gas.
Claude was quite charmed with all this uproar, and forgot everything to gaze at some effect of light, some group of blouses, or the picturesque unloading of a cart. At last they extricated themselves from the crowd, and as they continued on their way along the main artery they presently found themselves amidst an exquisite perfume which seemed to be following them. They were in the cut-flower market. All over the footways, to the right and left, women were seated in front of large rectangular baskets full of bunches of roses, violets, dahlias, and marguerites. At times the clumps darkened and looked like splotches of blood, at others they brightened into silvery greys of the softest tones. A lighted candle, standing near one basket, set amidst the general blackness quite a melody of colour — the bright variegations of marguerites, the blood-red crimson of dahlias, the bluey purple of violets, and the warm flesh tints of roses. And nothing could have been sweeter or more suggestive of springtide than this soft breath of perfume encountered on the footway, on emerging from the sharp odours of the fish market and the pestilential smell of the butter and the cheese.
Claude and Florent turned round and strolled about, loitering among the flowers. They halted with some curiosity before several women who were selling bunches of fern and bundles of vine-leaves, neatly tied up in packets of five and twenty. Then they turned down another covered alley, which was almost deserted, and where their footsteps echoed as though they had been walking through a church. Here they found a little cart, scarcely larger than a wheelbarrow, to which was harnessed a diminutive donkey, who, no doubt, felt bored, for at sight of them he began braying with such prolonged and sonorous force that the vast roofing of the markets fairly trembled. Then the horses began to neigh in reply, there was a sound of pawing and tramping, a distant uproar, which swelled, rolled along, then died away.
Meantime, in the Rue Berger in front of them, Claude and Florent perceived a number of bare, frontless, salesmen’s shops, where, by the light of flaring gas jets, they could distinguish piles of hampers and fruit, enclosed by three dirty walls which were covered with addition sums in pencil. And the two wanderers were still standing there, contemplating this scene, when they noticed a well-dressed woman huddled up in a cab which looked quite lost and forlorn in the block of carts as it stealthily made its way onwards.
“There’s Cinderella coming back without her slippers,” remarked Claude with a smile.
They began chatting together as they went back towards the markets. Claude whistled as he strolled along with his hands in his pockets, and expatiated on his love for this mountain of food which rises every morning in the very centre of Paris. He prowled about the footways night after night, dreaming of colossal still-life subjects, paintings of an extraordinary character. He had even started on one, having his friend Marjolin and that jade Cadine to pose for him; but it was hard work to paint those confounded vegetables and fruit and fish and meat — they were all so beautiful! Florent listened to the artist’s enthusiastic talk with a void and hunger-aching stomach. It did not seem to occur to Claude that all those things were intended to be eaten. Their charm for him lay in their colour. Suddenly, however, he ceased speaking and, with a gesture that was habitual to him, tightened the long red sash which he wore under his green-stained coat.
And then with a sly expression he resumed:
“Besides, I breakfast here, through my eyes, at any rate, and that’s better than getting nothing at all. Sometimes, when I’ve forgotten to dine on the previous day, I treat myself to a perfect fit of indigestion in the morning by watching the carts arrive here laden with all sorts of good things. On such mornings as those I love my vegetables more than ever. Ah! the exasperating part, the rank injustice of it all, is that those rascally Philistines really eat these things!”
Then he went on to tell Florent of a supper to which a friend had treated him at Baratte’s on a day of affluence. They had partaken of oysters, fish, and game. But Baratte’s had sadly fallen, and all the carnival life of the old Marche des Innocents was now buried. In place thereof they had those huge central markets, that colossus of ironwork, that new and wonderful town. Fools might say what they liked; it was the embodiment of the spirit of the times. Florent, however, could not at first make out whether he was condemning the picturesqueness of Baratte’s or its good cheer.
But Claude next began to inveigh against romanticism. He preferred his piles of vegetables, he said, to the rags of the middle ages; and he ended by reproaching himself with guilty weakness in making an etching of the Rue Pirouette. All those grimy old places ought to be levelled to the ground, he declared, and modern houses ought to be built in their stead.
“There!” he exclaimed, coming to a halt, “look at the corner of the footway yonder! Isn’t that a picture readymade, ever so much more human and natural than all their confounded consumptive daubs?”
Along the covered way women were now selling hot soup and coffee. At one corner of the foot-pavement a large circle of customers clustered round a vendor of cabbage soup. The bright tin caldron, full of broth, was steaming over a little low stove, through the holes of which came the pale glow of the embers. From a napkin-lined basket the woman took some thin slices of bread and dropped them into yellow cups; then with a ladle she filled the cups with liquor. Around her were saleswomen neatly dressed, market gardeners in blouses, porters with coats soiled by the loads they had carried, poor ragged vagabonds — in fact, all the early hungry ones of the markets, eating, and scalding their mouths, and drawing back their chins to avoid soiling them with the drippings from their spoons. The delighted artist blinked, and sought a point of view so as to get a good ensemble of the picture. That cabbage soup, however, exhaled a very strong odour. Florent, for his part, turned his head away, distressed by the sight of the full cups which the customers emptied in silence, glancing around them the while like suspicious animals. As the woman began serving a fresh customer, Claude himself was affected by the odorous steam of the soup, which was wafted full in his face.
He again tightened his sash, half amused and half annoyed. Then resuming his walk, and alluding to the punch paid for by Alexandre, he said to Florent in a low voice:
“It’s very odd, but have you ever noticed that although a man can always find somebody to treat him to something to drink, he can never find a soul who will stand him anything to eat?”
The dawn was now rising. The houses on the Boulevard de Sebastopol at the end of the Rue de la Cossonnerie were still black; but above the sharp line of their slate roofs a patch of pale blue sky, circumscribed by the arch-pieces of the covered way, showed like a gleaming half-moon. Claude, who had been bending over some grated openings on a level with the ground, through which a glimpse could be obtained of deep cellars where gas lights glimmered, now glanced up into the air between the lofty pillars, as though scanning the dark roofs which fringed the clear sky. Then he halted again, with his eyes fixed on one of the light iron ladders which connect the superposed market roofs and give access from one to the other. Florent asked him what he was seeking there.
“I’m looking for that scamp of a Marjolin,” replied the artist. “He’s sure to be in some guttering up there, unless, indeed, he’s been spending the night in the poultry cellars. I want him to give me a sitting.”
Then he went on to relate how a market saleswoman had found his friend Marjolin one morning in a pile of cabbages, and how Marjolin had grown up in all liberty on the surrounding footways. When an attempt had been made to send him to school he had fallen ill, and it had been necessary to bring him back to the markets. He knew every nook and corner of them, and loved them with a filial affection, leading the agile life of a squirrel in that forest of ironwork. He and Cadine, the hussy whom Mother Chantemesse had picked up one night in the old Market of the Innocents, made a pretty couple — he, a splendid foolish fellow, as glowing as a Rubens, with a ruddy down on his skin which attracted the sunlight; and she, slight and sly, with a comical phiz under her tangle of black curly hair.
Whilst talking Claude quickened his steps, and soon brought his companion back to Saint Eustache again. Florent, whose legs were once more giving way, dropped upon a bench near the omnibus office. The morning air was freshening. At the far end of the Rue Rambuteau rosy gleams were streaking the milky sky, which higher up was slashed by broad grey rifts. Such was the sweet balsamic scent of this dawn, that Florent for a moment fancied himself in the open country, on the brow of a hill. But behind the bench Claude pointed out to him the many aromatic herbs and bulbs on sale. All along the footway skirting the tripe market there were, so to say, fields of thyme and lavender, garlic and shallots; and round the young plane-trees on the pavement the vendors had twined long branches of laurel, forming trophies of greenery. The strong scent of the laurel leaves prevailed over every other odour.
At present the luminous dial of Saint Eustache was paling as a night-light does when surprised by the dawn. The gas jets in the wine shops in the neighbouring streets went out one by one, like stars extinguished by the brightness. And Florent gazed at the vast markets now gradually emerging from the gloom, from the dreamland in which he had beheld them, stretching out their ranges of open palaces. Greenish-grey in hue, they looked more solid now, and even more colossal with their prodigious masting of columns upholding an endless expanse of roofs. They rose up in geometrically shaped masses; and when all the inner lights had been extinguished and the square uniform buildings were steeped in the rising dawn, they seemed typical of some gigantic modern machine, some engine, some caldron for the supply of a whole people, some colossal belly, bolted and riveted, built up of wood and glass and iron, and endowed with all the elegance and power of some mechanical motive appliance working there with flaring furnaces, and wild, bewildering revolutions of wheels.
Claude, however, had enthusiastically sprung on to the bench, and stood upon it. He compelled his companion to admire the effect of the dawn rising over the vegetables. There was a perfect sea of these extending between the two clusters of pavilions from Saint Eustache to the Rue des Halles. And in the two open spaces at either end the flood of greenery rose to even greater height, and quite submerged the pavements. The dawn appeared slowly, softly grey in hue, and spreading a light water-colour tint over everything. These surging piles akin to hurrying waves, this river of verdure rushing along the roadway like an autumn torrent, assumed delicate shadowy tints — tender violet, blush-rose, and greeny yellow, all the soft, light hues which at sunrise make the sky look like a canopy of shot silk. And by degrees, as the fires of dawn rose higher and higher at the far end of the Rue Rambuteau, the mass of vegetation grew brighter and brighter, emerging more and more distinctly from the bluey gloom that clung to the ground. Salad herbs, cabbage-lettuce, endive, and succory, with rich soil still clinging to their roots, exposed their swelling hearts; bundles of spinach, bundles of sorrel, clusters of artichokes, piles of peas and beans, mounds of cos-lettuce, tied round with straws, sounded every note in the whole gamut of greenery, from the sheeny lacquer-like green of the pods to the deep-toned green of the foliage; a continuous gamut with ascending and descending scales which died away in the variegated tones of the heads of celery and bundles of leeks. But the highest and most sonorous notes still came from the patches of bright carrots and snowy turnips, strewn in prodigious quantities all along the markets and lighting them up with the medley of their two colours.
At the crossway in the Rue des Halles cabbages were piled up in mountains; there were white ones, hard and compact as metal balls, curly savoys, whose great leaves made them look like basins of green bronze, and red cabbages, which the dawn seemed to transform into superb masses of bloom with the hue of wine-lees, splotched with dark purple and carmine. At the other side of the markets, at the crossway near Saint Eustache, the end of the Rue Rambuteau was blocked by a barricade of orange-hued pumpkins, sprawling with swelling bellies in two superposed rows. And here and there gleamed the glistening ruddy brown of a hamper of onions, the blood-red crimson of a heap of tomatoes, the quiet yellow of a display of marrows, and the sombre violet of the fruit of the eggplant; while numerous fat black radishes still left patches of gloom amidst the quivering brilliance of the general awakening.
Claude clapped his hands at the sight. He declared that those “blackguard vegetables” were wild, mad, sublime! He stoutly maintained that they were not yet dead, but, gathered in the previous evening, waited for the morning sun to bid him good-bye from the flag-stones of the market. He could observe their vitality, he declared, see their leaves stir and open as though their roots were yet firmly and warmly embedded in well-manured soil. And here, in the markets, he added, he heard the death-rattle of all the kitchen gardens of the environs of Paris.
A crowd of white caps, loose black jackets, and blue blouses was swarming in the narrow paths between the various piles. The big baskets of the market porters passed along slowly, above the heads of the throng. Retail dealers, costermongers, and greengrocers were making their purchases in haste. Corporals and nuns clustered round the mountains of cabbages, and college cooks prowled about inquisitively, on the look-out for good bargains. The unloading was still going on; heavy tumbrels, discharging their contents as though these were so many paving-stones, added more and more waves to the sea of greenery which was now beating against the opposite footways. And from the far end of the Rue du Pont Neuf fresh rows of carts were still and ever arriving.
“What a fine sight it is!” exclaimed Claude in an ecstasy of enthusiasm.
Florent was suffering keenly. He fancied that all this was some supernatural temptation, and, unwilling to look at the markets any longer, turned towards Saint Eustache, a side view of which he obtained from the spot where he now stood. With its roses, and broad arched windows, its bell-turret, and roofs of slate, it looked as though painted in sepia against the blue of the sky. He fixed his eyes at last on the sombre depths of the Rue Montorgueil, where fragments of gaudy sign boards showed conspicuously, and on the corner of the Rue Montmartre, where there were balconies gleaming with letters of gold. And when he again glanced at the cross-roads, his gaze was solicited by other sign boards, on which such inscriptions as “Druggist and Chemist,” “Flour and Grain” appeared in big red and black capital letters upon faded backgrounds. Near these corners, houses with narrow windows were now awakening, setting amidst the newness and airiness of the Rue du Pont Neuf a few of the yellow ancient facades of olden Paris. Standing at the empty windows of the great drapery shop at the corner of the Rue Rambuteau a number of spruce-looking counter-jumpers in their shirt sleeves, with snowy-white wristbands and tight-fitting pantaloons, were “dressing” their goods. Farther away, in the windows of the severe looking, barrack-like Guillot establishment, biscuits in gilt wrappers and fancy cakes on glass stands were tastefully set out. All the shops were now open; and workmen in white blouses, with tools under their arms, were hurrying along the road.
Claude had not yet got down from the bench. He was standing on tiptoe in order to see the farther down the streets. Suddenly, in the midst of the crowd which he overlooked, he caught sight of a fair head with long wavy locks, followed by a little black one covered with curly tumbled hair.
“Hallo, Marjolin! Hallo, Cadine!” he shouted; and then, as his voice was drowned by the general uproar, he jumped to the ground and started off. But all at once, recollecting that he had left Florent behind him, he hastily came back. “I live at the end of the Impasse des Bourdonnais,” he said rapidly. “My name’s written in chalk on the door, Claude Lantier. Come and see the etching of the Rue Pirouette.”
Then he vanished. He was quite ignorant of Florent’s name, and, after favouring him with his views on art, parted from him as he had met him, at the roadside.
Florent was now alone, and at first this pleased him. Ever since Madame Francoise had picked him up in the Avenue de Neuilly he had been coming and going in a state of pain fraught somnolence which had quite prevented him from forming any definite ideas of his surroundings. Now at last he was at liberty to do what he liked, and he tried to shake himself free from that intolerable vision of teeming food by which he was pursued. But his head still felt empty and dizzy, and all that he could find within him was a kind of vague fear. The day was now growing quite bright, and he could be distinctly seen. He looked down at his wretched shabby coat and trousers. He buttoned the first, dusted the latter, and strove to make a bit of a toilet, fearing lest those black rags of his should proclaim aloud whence he had come. He was seated in the middle of the bench, by the side of some wandering vagabonds who had settled themselves there while waiting for the sunrise. The neighbourhood of the markets is a favourite spot with vagrants in the small hours of the morning. However, two constables, still in night uniform, with cloaks and kepis, paced up and down the footway side by side, their hands resting behind their backs; and every time they passed the bench they glanced at the game which they scented there. Florent felt sure that they recognised him, and were consulting together about arresting him. At this thought his anguish of mind became extreme. He felt a wild desire to get up and run away; but he did not dare to do so, and was quite at a loss as to how he might take himself off. The repeated glances of the constables, their cold, deliberate scrutiny caused him the keenest torture. At length he rose from the bench, making a great effort to restrain himself from rushing off as quickly as his long legs could carry him; and succeeded in walking quietly away, though his shoulders quivered in the fear he felt of suddenly feeling the rough hands of the constables clutching at his collar from behind.
He had now only one thought, one desire, which was to get away from the markets as quickly as possible. He would wait and make his investigations later on, when the footways should be clear. The three streets which met here — the Rue Montmartre, Rue Montorgueil, and Rue Turbigo — filled him with uneasiness. They were blocked by vehicles of all kinds, and their footways were crowded with vegetables. Florent went straight along as far as the Rue Pierre Lescot, but there the cress and the potato markets seemed to him insuperable obstacles. So he resolved to take the Rue Rambuteau. On reaching the Boulevard de Sebastopol, however, he came across such a block of vans and carts and waggonettes that he turned back and proceeded along the Rue Saint Denis. Then he got amongst the vegetables once more. Retail dealers had just set up their stalls, formed of planks resting on tall hampers; and the deluge of cabbages and carrots and turnips began all over again. The markets were overflowing. Florent tried to make his escape from this pursuing flood which ever overtook him in his flight. He tried the Rue de la Cossonnerie, the Rue Berger, the Square des Innocents, the Rue de la Ferronnerie, and the Rue des Halles. And at last he came to a standstill, quite discouraged and scared at finding himself unable to escape from the infernal circle of vegetables, which now seemed to dance around him, twining clinging verdure about his legs.
The everlasting stream of carts and horses stretched away as far as the Rue de Rivoli and the Place de l’Hotel de Ville. Huge vans were carrying away supplies for all the greengrocers and fruiterers of an entire district; chars-a-bancs were starting for the suburbs with straining, groaning sides. In the Rue de Pont Neuf Florent got completely bewildered. He stumbled upon a crowd of hand-carts, in which numerous costermongers were arranging their purchases. Amongst them he recognised Lacaille, who went off along the Rue Saint Honore, pushing a barrow of carrots and cauliflowers before him. Florent followed him, in the hope that he would guide him out of the mob. The pavement was now quite slippery, although the weather was dry, and the litter of artichoke stalks, turnip tops, and leaves of all kinds made walking somewhat dangerous. Florent stumbled at almost every step. He lost sight of Lacaille in the Rue Vauvilliers, and on approaching the corn market he again found the streets barricaded with vehicles. Then he made no further attempt to struggle; he was once more in the clutch of the markets, and their stream of life bore him back. Slowly retracing his steps, he presently found himself by Saint Eustache again.
He now heard the loud continuous rumbling of the waggons that were setting out from the markets. Paris was doling out the daily food of its two million inhabitants. These markets were like some huge central organ beating with giant force, and sending the blood of life through every vein of the city. The uproar was akin to that of colossal jaws — a mighty sound to which each phase of the provisioning contributed, from the whip-cracking of the larger retail dealers as they started off for the district markets to the dragging pit-a-pat of the old shoes worn by the poor women who hawked their lettuces in baskets from door to door.
Florent turned into a covered way on the left, intersecting the group of four pavilions whose deep silent gloom he had remarked during the night. He hoped that he might there find a refuge, discover some corner in which he could hide himself. But these pavilions were now as busy, as lively as the others. Florent walked on to the end of the street. Drays were driving up at a quick trot, crowding the market with cages full of live poultry, and square hampers in which dead birds were stowed in deep layers. On the other side of the way were other drays from which porters were removing freshly killed calves, wrapped in canvas, and laid at full length in baskets, whence only the four bleeding stumps of their legs protruded. There were also whole sheep, and sides and quarters of beef. Butchers in long white aprons marked the meat with a stamp, carried it off, weighted it, and hung it up on hooks in the auction room. Florent, with his face close to the grating, stood gazing at the rows of hanging carcasses, at the ruddy sheep and oxen and paler calves, all streaked with yellow fat and sinews, and with bellies yawning open. Then he passed along the sidewalk where the tripe market was held, amidst the pallid calves’ feet and heads, the rolled tripe neatly packed in boxes, the brains delicately set out in flat baskets, the sanguineous livers, and purplish kidneys. He checked his steps in front of some long two-wheeled carts, covered with round awnings, and containing sides of pork hung on each side of the vehicle over a bed of straw. Seen from the back end, the interiors of the carts looked like recesses of some tabernacle, like some taper-lighted chapel, such was the glow of all the bare flesh they contained. And on the beds of straw were lines of tin cans, full of the blood that had trickled from the pigs. Thereupon Florent was attacked by a sort of rage. The insipid odour of the meat, the pungent smell of the tripe exasperated him. He made his way out of the covered road, preferring to return once more to the footwalk of the Rue de Pont Neuf.
He was enduring perfect agony. The shiver of early morning came upon him; his teeth chattered, and he was afraid of falling to the ground and finding himself unable to rise again. He looked about, but could see no vacant place on any bench. Had he found one he would have dropped asleep there, even at the risk of being awakened by the police. Then, as giddiness nearly blinded him, he leaned for support against a tree, with his eyes closed and his ears ringing. The raw carrot, which he had swallowed almost without chewing, was torturing his stomach, and the glass of punch which he had drunk seemed to have intoxicated him. He was indeed intoxicated with misery, weariness, and hunger. Again he felt a burning fire in the pit of the stomach, to which he every now and then carried his hands, as though he were trying to stop up a hole through which all his life was oozing away. As he stood there he fancied that the foot-pavement rocked beneath him; and thinking that he might perhaps lessen his sufferings by walking, he went straight on through the vegetables again. He lost himself among them. He went along a narrow footway, turned down another, was forced to retrace his steps, bungled in doing so, and once more found himself amidst piles of greenery. Some heaps were so high that people seemed to be walking between walls of bundles and bunches. Only their heads slightly overtopped these ramparts, and passed along showing whitely or blackly according to the colour of their hats or caps; whilst the huge swinging baskets, carried aloft on a level with the greenery, looked like osier boats floating on a stagnant, mossy lake.
Florent stumbled against a thousand obstacles — against porters taking up their burdens, and saleswomen disputing in rough tones. He slipped over the thick bed of waste leaves and stumps which covered the footway, and was almost suffocated by the powerful odour of crushed verdure. At last he halted in a sort of confused stupor, and surrendered to the pushing of some and the insults of others; and then he became a mere waif, a piece of wreckage tossed about on the surface of that surging sea.
He was fast losing all self-respect, and would willingly have begged. The recollection of his foolish pride during the night exasperated him. If he had accepted Madame Francois’s charity, if he had not felt such idiotic fear of Claude, he would not now have been stranded there groaning in the midst of these cabbages. And he was especially angry with himself for not having questioned the artist when they were in the Rue Pirouette. Now, alas! he was alone and deserted, liable to die in the streets like a homeless dog.
For the last time he raised his eyes and looked at the markets. At present they were glittering in the sun. A broad ray was pouring through the covered road from the far end, cleaving the massy pavilions with an arcade of light, whilst fiery beams rained down upon the far expanse of roofs. The huge iron framework grew less distinct, assumed a bluey hue, became nothing but a shadowy silhouette outlined against the flaming flare of the sunrise. But up above a pane of glass took fire, drops of light trickled down the broad sloping zinc plates to the gutterings; and then, below, a tumultuous city appeared amidst a haze of dancing golden dust. The general awakening had spread, from the first start of the market gardeners snoring in their cloaks, to the brisk rolling of the food-laden railway drays. And the whole city was opening its iron gates, the footways were humming, the pavilions roaring with life. Shouts and cries of all kinds rent the air; it was as though the strain, which Florent had heard gathering force in the gloom ever since four in the morning, had now attained its fullest volume. To the right and left, on all sides indeed, the sharp cries accompanying the auction sales sounded shrilly like flutes amidst the sonorous bass roar of the crowd. It was the fish, the butter, the poultry, and the meat being sold.
The pealing of bells passed through the air, imparting a quiver to the buzzing of the opening markets. Around Florent the sun was setting the vegetables aflame. He no longer perceived any of those soft water-colour tints which had predominated in the pale light of early morning. The swelling hearts of the lettuces were now gleaming brightly, the scales of greenery showed forth with wondrous vigour, the carrots glowed blood-red, the turnips shone as if incandescent in the triumphant radiance of the sun.
On Florent’s left some waggons were discharging fresh loads of cabbages. He turned his eyes, and away in the distance saw carts yet streaming out of the Rue Turbigo. The tide was still and ever rising. He had felt it about his ankles, then on a level with his stomach, and now it was threatening to drown him altogether. Blinded and submerged, his ears buzzing, his stomach overpowered by all that he had seen, he asked for mercy; and wild grief took possession of him at the thought of dying there of starvation in the very heart of glutted Paris, amidst the effulgent awakening of her markets. Big hot tears started from his eyes.
Walking on, he had now reached one of the larger alleys. Two women, one short and old, the other tall and withered, passed him, talking together as they made their way towards the pavilions.
“So you’ve come to do your marketing, Mademoiselle Saget?” said the tall withered woman.
“Well, yes, Madame Lecoeur, if you can give it such a name as marketing. I’m a lone woman, you know, and live on next to nothing. I should have liked a small cauliflower, but everything is so dear. How is butter selling to-day?”
“At thirty-four sous. I have some which is first rate. Will you come and look at it?”
“Well, I don’t know if I shall want any to-day; I’ve still a little lard left.”
Making a supreme effort, Florent followed these two women. He recollected having heard Claude name the old one — Mademoiselle Saget — when they were in the Rue Pirouette; and he made up his mind to question her when she should have parted from her tall withered acquaintance.
“And how’s your niece?” Mademoiselle Saget now asked.
“Oh, La Sarriette does as she likes,” Madame Lecoeur replied in a bitter tone. “She’s chosen to set up for herself and her affairs no longer concern me. When her lovers have beggared her, she needn’t come to me for any bread.”
“And you were so good to her, too! She ought to do well this year; fruit is yielding big profits. And your brother-in-law, how is he?”
“Oh, he ——”
Madame Lecoeur bit her lips, and seemed disinclined to say anything more.
“Still the same as ever, I suppose?” continued Mademoiselle Saget. “He’s a very worthy man. Still, I once heard it said that he spent his money in such a way that —”
“But does anyone know how he spends his money?” interrupted Madame Lecoeur, with much asperity. “He’s a miserly niggard, a scurvy fellow, that’s what I say! Do you know, mademoiselle, he’d see me die of starvation rather than lend me five francs! He knows quite well that there’s nothing to be made out of butter this season, any more than out of cheese and eggs; whereas he can sell as much poultry as ever he chooses. But not once, I assure you, not once has he offered to help me. I am too proud, as you know, to accept any assistance from him; still it would have pleased me to have had it offered.”
“Ah, by the way, there he is, your brother-in-law!” suddenly exclaimed Mademoiselle Saget, lowering her voice.
The two women turned and gazed at a man who was crossing the road to enter the covered way close by.
“I’m in a hurry,” murmured Madame Lecoeur. “I left my stall without anyone to look after it; and, besides, I don’t want to speak to him.”
However, Florent also had mechanically turned round and glanced at the individual referred to. This was a short, squarely-built man, with a cheery look and grey, close-cut brush-like hair. Under each arm he was carrying a fat goose, whose head hung down and flapped against his legs. And then all at once Florent made a gesture of delight. Forgetting his fatigue, he ran after the man, and, overtaking him, tapped him on the shoulder.
“Gavard!” he exclaimed.
The other raised his head and stared with surprise at Florent’s tall black figure, which he did not at first recognise. Then all at once: “What! is it you?” he cried, as if overcome with amazement. “Is it really you?”
He all but let his geese fall, and seemed unable to master his surprise. On catching sight, however, of his sister-in-law and Mademoiselle Saget, who were watching the meeting at a distance, he began to walk on again.
“Come along; don’t let us stop here,” he said. “There are too many eyes and tongues about.”
When they were in the covered way they began to chat. Florent related how he had gone to the Rue Pirouette, at which Gavard seemed much amused and laughed heartily. Then he told Florent that his brother Quenu had moved from that street and had reopened his pork shop close by, in the Rue Rambuteau, just in front of the markets. And afterwards he was again highly amused to hear that Florent had been wandering about all that morning with Claude Lantier, an odd kind of fish, who, strangely enough, said he, was Madame Quenu’s nephew. Thus chatting, Gavard was on the point of taking Florent straight to the pork shop, but, on hearing that he had returned to France with false papers, he suddenly assumed all sorts of solemn and mysterious airs, and insisted upon walking some fifteen paces in front of him, to avoid attracting attention. After passing through the poultry pavilion, where he hung his geese up in his stall, he began to cross the Rue Rambuteau, still followed by Florent; and then, halting in the middle of the road, he glanced significantly towards a large and well-appointed pork shop.
The sun was obliquely enfilading the Rue Rambuteau, lighting up the fronts of the houses, in the midst of which the Rue Pirouette formed a dark gap. At the other end the great pile of Saint Eustache glittered brightly in the sunlight like some huge reliquary. And right through the crowd, from the distant crossway, an army of street-sweepers was advancing in file down the road, the brooms swishing rhythmically, while scavengers provided with forks pitched the collected refuse into tumbrels, which at intervals of a score of paces halted with a noise like the chattering of broken pots. However, all Florent’s attention was concentrated on the pork shop, open and radiant in the rising sun.
It stood very near the corner of the Rue Pirouette and provided quite a feast for the eyes. Its aspect was bright and smiling, touches of brilliant colour showing conspicuously amidst all the snowy marble. The sign board, on which the name of QUENU-GRADELLE glittered in fat gilt letters encircled by leaves and branches painted on a soft-hued background, was protected by a sheet of glass. On two panels, one on each side of the shop-front, and both, like the board above, covered with glass, were paintings representing various chubby little cupids playing amidst boars’ heads, pork chops and strings of sausages; and these latter still-life subjects, embellished with scrolls and bows, had been painted in such soft tones that the uncooked pork which they represented had the pinkiness of raspberry jam. Within this pleasing framework arose the window display, arranged upon a bed of fine blue-paper shavings. Here and there fern-leaves, tastefully disposed, changed the plates which they encircled into bouquets fringed with foliage. There was a wealth of rich, luscious, melting things. Down below, quite close to the window, jars of preserved sausage-meat were interspersed with pots of mustard. Above these were some small, plump, boned hams. Golden with their dressings of toasted bread-crumbs, and adorned at the knuckles with green rosettes. Next came the larger dishes, some containing preserved Strasburg tongues, enclosed in bladders coloured a bright red and varnished, so that they looked quite sanguineous beside the pale sausages and trotters; then there were black-puddings coiled like harmless snakes, healthy looking chitterlings piled up two by two; Lyons sausages in little silver copes that made them look like choristers; hot pies, with little banner-like tickets stuck in them; big hams, and great glazed joints of veal and pork, whose jelly was as limpid as sugar-candy. In the rear were other dishes and earthen pans in which meat, minced and sliced, slumbered beneath lakes of melted fat. And betwixt the various plates and dishes, jars and bottle of sauce, cullis, stock and preserved truffles, pans of foie gras and boxes of sardines and tunny-fish were strewn over the bed of paper shavings. A box of creamy cheeses, and one of edible snails, the apertures of whose shells were dressed with butter and parsley, had been placed carelessly at either corner. Finally, from a bar overhead strings of sausages and saveloys of various sizes hung down symmetrically like cords and tassels; while in the rear fragments of intestinal membranes showed like lacework, like some guipure of white flesh. And on the highest tier in this sanctuary of gluttony, amidst the membranes and between two bouquets of purple gladioli, the window stand was crowned by a small square aquarium, ornamented with rock-work, and containing a couple of gold-fish, which were continually swimming round it.
Florent’s whole body thrilled at the sight. Then he perceived a woman standing in the sunlight at the door of the shop. With her prosperous, happy look in the midst of all those inviting things she added to the cherry aspect of the place. She was a fine woman and quite blocked the doorway. Still, she was not over stout, but simply buxom, with the full ripeness of her thirty years. She had only just risen, yet her glossy hair was already brushed smooth and arranged in little flat bands over her temples, giving her an appearance of extreme neatness. She had the fine skin, the pinky-white complexion common to those whose life is spent in an atmosphere of raw meat and fat. There was a touch of gravity about her demeanour, her movements were calm and slow; what mirth or pleasure she felt she expressed by her eyes, her lips retaining all their seriousness. A collar of starched linen encircled her neck, white sleevelets reached to her elbows, and a white apron fell even over the tips of her shoes, so that you saw but little of her black cashmere dress, which clung tightly to her well-rounded shoulders and swelling bosom. The sun rays poured hotly upon all the whiteness she displayed. However, although her bluish-black hair, her rosy face, and bright sleeves and apron were steeped in the glow of light, she never once blinked, but enjoyed her morning bath of sunshine with blissful tranquillity, her soft eyes smiling the while at the flow and riot of the markets. She had the appearance of a very worthy woman.
“That is your brother’s wife, your sister-in-law, Lisa,” Gavard said to Florent.
He had saluted her with a slight inclination of the head. Then he darted along the house passage, continuing to take the most minute precautions, and unwilling to let Florent enter the premises through the shop, though there was no one there. It was evident that he felt great pleasure in dabbling in what he considered to be a compromising business.
“Wait here,” he said, “while I go to see whether your brother is alone. You can come in when I clap my hands.”
Thereupon he opened a door at the end of the passage. But as soon as Florent heard his brother’s voice behind it, he sprang inside at a bound. Quenu, who was much attached to him, threw his arms round his neck, and they kissed each other like children.
“Ah! dash it all! Is it really you, my dear fellow?” stammered the pork butcher. “I never expected to see you again. I felt sure you were dead! Why, only yesterday I was saying to Lisa, ‘That poor fellow, Florent!’”
However, he stopped short, and popping his head into the shop, called out, “Lisa! Lisa!” Then turning towards a little girl who had crept into a corner, he added, “Pauline, go and find your mother.”
The little one did not stir, however. She was an extremely fine child, five years of age, with a plump chubby face, bearing a strong resemblance to that of the pork butcher’s wife. In her arms she was holding a huge yellow cat, which had cheerfully surrendered itself to her embrace, with its legs dangling downwards; and she now squeezed it tightly with her little arms, as if she were afraid that yonder shabby-looking gentleman might rob her of it.
Lisa, however, leisurely made her appearance.
“Here is my brother Florent!” exclaimed Quenu.
Lisa addressed him as “Monsieur,” and gave him a kindly welcome. She scanned him quietly from head to foot, without evincing any disagreeable surprise. Merely a faint pout appeared for a moment on her lips. Then, standing by, she began to smile at her husband’s demonstrations of affection. Quenu, however, at last recovered his calmness, and noticing Florent’s fleshless, poverty-stricken appearance, exclaimed: “Ah, my poor fellow, you haven’t improved in your looks since you were over yonder. For my part, I’ve grown fat; but what would you have!”
He had indeed grown fat, too fat for his thirty years. He seemed to be bursting through his shirt and apron, through all the snowy-white linen in which he was swathed like a huge doll. With advancing years his clean-shaven face had become elongated, assuming a faint resemblance to the snout of one of those pigs amidst whose flesh his hands worked and lived the whole day through. Florent scarcely recognised him. He had now seated himself, and his glance turned from his brother to handsome Lisa and little Pauline. They were all brimful of health, squarely built, sleek, in prime condition; and in their turn they looked at Florent with the uneasy astonishment which corpulent people feel at the sight of a scraggy person. The very cat, whose skin was distended by fat, dilated its yellow eyes and scrutinised him with an air of distrust.
“You’ll wait till we have breakfast, won’t you?” asked Quenu. “We have it early, at ten o’clock.”
A penetrating odour of cookery pervaded the place; and Florent looked back upon the terrible night which he had just spent, his arrival amongst the vegetables, his agony in the midst of the markets, the endless avalanches of food from which he had just escaped. And then in a low tone and with a gentle smile he responded:
“No; I’m really very hungry, you see.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:56