Three days later the necessary formalities were gone through, and without demur the police authorities at the Prefecture accepted Florent on Monsieur Verlaque’s recommendation as his substitute. Gavard, by the way, had made it a point to accompany them. When he again found himself alone with Florent he kept nudging his ribs with his elbow as they walked along together, and laughed, without saying anything, while winking his eyes in a jeering way. He seemed to find something very ridiculous in the appearance of the police officers whom they met on the Quai de l’Horloge, for, as he passed them, he slightly shrugged his shoulders and made the grimace of a man seeking to restrain himself from laughing in people’s faces.
On the following morning Monsieur Verlaque began to initiate the new inspector into the duties of his office. It had been arranged that during the next few days he should make him acquainted with the turbulent sphere which he would have to supervise. Poor Verlaque, as Gavard called him was a pale little man, swathed in flannels, handkerchiefs, and mufflers. Constantly coughing, he made his way through the cool, moist atmosphere, and running waters of the fish market, on a pair of scraggy legs like those of a sickly child.
When Florent made his appearance on the first morning, at seven o’clock, he felt quite distracted; his eyes were dazed, his head ached with all the noise and riot. Retail dealers were already prowling about the auction pavilion; clerks were arriving with their ledgers, and consigners’ agents, with leather bags slung over their shoulders, sat on overturned chairs by the salesmen’s desks, waiting to receive their cash. Fish was being unloaded and unpacked not only in the enclosure, but even on the footways. All along the latter were piles of small baskets, an endless arrival of cases and hampers, and sacks of mussels, from which streamlets of water trickled. The auctioneers’ assistants, all looking very busy, sprang over the heaps, tore away the straw at the tops of the baskets, emptied the latter, and tossed them aside. They then speedily transferred their contents in lots to huge wickerwork trays, arranging them with a turn of the hand so that they might show to the best advantage. And when the large tray-like baskets were all set out, Florent could almost fancy that a whole shoal of fish had got stranded there, still quivering with life, and gleaming with rosy nacre, scarlet coral, and milky pearl, all the soft, pale, sheeny hues of the ocean.
The deep-lying forests of seaweed, in which the mysterious life of the ocean slumbers, seemed at one haul of the nets to have yielded up all they contained. There were cod, keeling, whiting, flounders, plaice, dabs, and other sorts of common fish of a dingy grey with whitish splotches; there were conger-eels, huge serpent-like creatures, with small black eyes and muddy, bluish skins, so slimy that they still seemed to be gliding along, yet alive. There were broad flat skate with pale undersides edged with a soft red, and superb backs bumpy with vertebrae, and marbled down to the tautly stretched ribs of their fins with splotches of cinnabar, intersected by streaks of the tint of Florentine bronze — a dark medley of colour suggestive of the hues of a toad or some poisonous flower. Then, too, there were hideous dog-fish, with round heads, widely-gaping mouths like those of Chinese idols, and short fins like bats’ wings; fit monsters to keep yelping guard over the treasures of the ocean grottoes. And next came the finer fish, displayed singly on the osier trays; salmon that gleamed like chased silver, every scale seemingly outlined by a graving-tool on a polished metal surface; mullet with larger scales and coarser markings; large turbot and huge brill with firm flesh white like curdled milk; tunny-fish, smooth and glossy, like bags of blackish leather; and rounded bass, with widely gaping mouths which a soul too large for the body seemed to have rent asunder as it forced its way out amidst the stupefaction of death. And on all sides there were sole, brown and grey, in pairs; sand-eels, slim and stiff, like shavings of pewter; herrings, slightly twisted, with bleeding gills showing on their silver-worked skins; fat dories tinged with just a suspicion of carmine; burnished mackerel with green-streaked backs, and sides gleaming with ever-changing iridescence; and rosy gurnets with white bellies, their head towards the centre of the baskets and their tails radiating all around, so that they simulated some strange florescence splotched with pearly white and brilliant vermilion. There were rock mullet, too, with delicious flesh, flushed with the pinky tinge peculiar to the Cyprinus family; boxes of whiting with opaline reflections; and baskets of smelts — neat little baskets, pretty as those used for strawberries, and exhaling a strong scent of violets. And meantime the tiny black eyes of the shrimps dotted as with beads of jet their soft-toned mass of pink and grey; and spiny crawfish and lobsters striped with black, all still alive, raised a grating sound as they tried to crawl along with their broken claws.
Florent gave but indifferent attention to Monsieur Verlaque’s explanations. A flood of sunshine suddenly streamed through the lofty glass roof of the covered way, lighting up all these precious colours, toned and softened by the waves — the iridescent flesh-tints of the shell-fish, the opal of the whiting, the pearly nacre of the mackerel, the ruddy gold of the mullets, the plated skins of the herrings, and massive silver of the salmon. It was as though the jewel-cases of some sea-nymph had been emptied there — a mass of fantastical, undreamt-of ornaments, a streaming and heaping of necklaces, monstrous bracelets, gigantic brooches, barbaric gems and jewels, the use of which could not be divined. On the backs of the skate and the dog-fish you saw, as it were, big dull green and purple stones set in dark metal, while the slender forms of the sand-eels and the tails and fins of the smelts displayed all the delicacy of finely wrought silver-work.
And meantime Florent’s face was fanned by a fresh breeze, a sharp, salt breeze redolent of the sea. It reminded him of the coasts of Guiana and his voyages. He half fancied that he was gazing at some bay left dry by the receding tide, with the seaweed steaming in the sun, the bare rocks drying, and the beach smelling strongly of the brine. All around him the fish in their perfect freshness exhaled a pleasant perfume, that slightly sharp, irritating perfume which depraves the appetite.
Monsieur Verlaque coughed. The dampness was affecting him, and he wrapped his muffler more closely about his neck.
“Now,” said he, “we will pass on to the fresh water fish.”
This was in a pavilion beside the fruit market, the last one, indeed, in the direction of the Rue Rambuteau. On either side of the space reserved for the auctions were large circular stone basins, divided into separate compartments by iron gratings. Slender streams of water flowed from brass jets shaped like swan’s necks; and the compartments were filled with swarming colonies of crawfish, black-backed carp ever on the move, and mazy tangles of eels, incessantly knotting and unknotting themselves. Again was Monsieur Verlaque attacked by an obstinate fit of coughing. The moisture of the atmosphere was more insipid here than amongst the sea water fish: there was a riverside scent, as of sun-warmed water slumbering on a bed of sand.
A great number of crawfishes had arrived from Germany that morning in cases and hampers, and the market was also crowded with river fish from Holland and England. Several men were unpacking shiny carp from the Rhine, lustrous with ruddy metallic hues, their scales resembling bronzed cloisonne enamel; and others were busy with huge pike, the cruel iron-grey brigands of the waters, who ravenously protruded their savage jaws; or with magnificent dark-hued with verdigris. And amidst these suggestions of copper, iron, and bronze, the gudgeon and perch, the trout, the bleak, and the flat-fish taken in sweep-nets showed brightly white, the steel-blue tints of their backs gradually toning down to the soft transparency of their bellies. However, it was the fat snowy-white barbel that supplied the liveliest brightness in this gigantic collection of still life.
Bags of young carp were being gently emptied into the basins. The fish spun round, then remained motionless for a moment, and at last shot away and disappeared. Little eels were turned out of their hampers in a mass, and fell to the bottom of the compartments like tangled knots of snakes; while the larger ones — those whose bodies were about as thick as a child’s arm — raised their heads and slipped of their own accord into the water with the supple motion of serpents gliding into the concealment of a thicket. And meantime the other fish, whose death agony had been lasting all the morning as they lay on the soiled osiers of the basket-trays, slowly expired amidst all the uproar of the auctions, opening their mouths as though to inhale the moisture of the air, with great silent gasps, renewed every few seconds.
However, Monsieur Verlaque brought Florent back to the salt water fish. He took him all over the place and gave him the minutest particulars about everything. Round the nine salesmen’s desks ranged along three sides of the pavilion there was now a dense crowd of surging, swaying heads, above which appeared the clerks, perched upon high chairs and making entries in their ledgers.
“Are all these clerks employed by the salesmen?” asked Florent.
By way of reply Monsieur Verlaque made a detour along the outside footway, led him into the enclosure of one of the auctions, and then explained the working of the various departments of the big yellow office, which smelt strongly of fish and was stained all over by drippings and splashings from the hampers. In a little glazed compartment up above, the collector of the municipal dues took note of the prices realised by the different lots of fish. Lower down, seated upon high chairs and with their wrists resting upon little desks, were two female clerks, who kept account of the business on behalf of the salesmen. At each end of the stone table in front of the office was a crier who brought the basket-trays forward in turn, and in a bawling voice announced what each lot consisted of; while above him the female clerk, pen in hand, waited to register the price at which the lots were knocked down. And outside the enclosure, shut up in another little office of yellow wood, Monsieur Verlaque showed Florent the cashier, a fat old woman, who was ranging coppers and five-franc pierces in piles.
“There is a double control, you see,” said Monsieur Verlaque; “the control of the Prefecture of the Seine and that of the Prefecture of Police. The latter, which licenses the salesmen, claims to have the right of supervision over them; and the municipality asserts its right to be represented at the transactions as they are subject to taxation.”
He went on expatiating at length in his faint cold voice respecting the rival claims of the two Prefectures. Florent, however, was paying but little heed, his attention being concentrated on a female clerk sitting on one of the high chairs just in front of him. She was a tall, dark woman of thirty, with big black eyes and an easy calmness of manner, and she wrote with outstretched fingers like a girl who had been taught the regulation method of the art.
However, Florent’s attention was diverted by the yelping of the crier, who was just offering a magnificent turbot for sale.
“I’ve a bid of thirty francs! Thirty francs, now; thirty francs!”
He repeated these words in all sorts of keys, running up and down a strange scale of notes full of sudden changes. Humpbacked and with his face twisted askew, and his hair rough and disorderly, he wore a great blue apron with a bib; and with flaming eyes and outstretched arms he cried vociferously: “Thirty-one! thirty-two! thirty-three! Thirty-three francs fifty centimes! thirty-three fifty!”
Then he paused to take breath, turning the basket-tray and pushing it farther upon the table. The fish-wives bent forward and gently touched the turbot with their finger-tips. Then the crier began again with renewed energy, hurling his figures towards the buyers with a wave of the hand and catching the slightest indication of a fresh bid — the raising of a finger, a twist of the eyebrows, a pouting of the lips, a wink, and all with such rapidity and such a ceaseless jumble of words that Florent, utterly unable to follow him, felt quite disconcerted when, in a sing-song voice like that of a priest intoning the final words of a versicle, he chanted: “Forty-two! forty-two! The turbot goes for forty-two francs.”
It was the beautiful Norman who had made the last bid. Florent recognised her as she stood in the line of fish-wives crowding against the iron rails which surrounded the enclosure. The morning was fresh and sharp, and there was a row of tippets above the display of big white aprons, covering the prominent bosoms and stomachs and sturdy shoulders. With high-set chignon set off with curls, and white and dainty skin, the beautiful Norman flaunted her lace bow amidst tangled shocks of hair covered with dirty kerchiefs, red noses eloquent of drink, sneering mouths, and battered faces suggestive of old pots. And she also recognised Madame Quenu’s cousin, and was so surprised to see him there that she began gossiping to her neighbours about him.
The uproar of voices had become so great that Monsieur Verlaque renounced all further attempt to explain matters to Florent. On the footway close by, men were calling out the larger fish with prolonged shouts, which sounded as though they came from gigantic speaking-trumpets; and there was one individual who roared “Mussels! Mussels!” in such a hoarse, cracked, clamorous voice that the very roofs of the market shook. Some sacks of mussels were turned upside down, and their contents poured into hampers, while others were emptied with shovels. And there was a ceaseless procession of basket-trays containing skate, soles, mackerel, conger-eels, and salmon, carried backwards and forwards amidst the ever-increasing cackle and pushing of the fish-women as they crowded against the iron rails which creaked with their pressure. The humpbacked crier, now fairly on the job, waved his skinny arms in the air and protruded his jaws. Presently, seemingly lashed into a state of frenzy by the flood of figures that spurted from his lips, he sprang upon a stool, where, with his mouth twisted spasmodically and his hair streaming behind him, he could force nothing more than unintelligible hisses from his parched throat. And in the meantime, up above, the collector of municipal dues, a little old man, muffled in a collar of imitation astrachan, remained with nothing but his nose showing under his black velvet skullcap. And the tall, dark-complexioned female clerk, with eyes shining calmly in her face, which had been slightly reddened by the cold, sat on her high wooden chair, quietly writing, apparently unruffled by the continuous rattle which came from the hunchback below her.
“That fellow Logre is wonderful,” muttered Monsieur Verlaque with a smile. “He is the best crier in the markets. I believe he could make people buy boot soles in the belief they were fish!”
Then he and Florent went back into the pavilion. As they again passed the spot where the fresh water fish was being sold by auction, and where the bidding seemed much quieter, Monsieur Verlaque explained that French river fishing was in a bad way.* The crier here, a fair, sorry-looking fellow, who scarcely moved his arms, was disposing of some lots of eels and crawfish in a monotonous voice, while the assistants fished fresh supplies out of the stone basins with their short-handled nets.
* M. Zola refers, of course, to the earlier years of the Second Empire. Under the present republican Government, which has largely fostered fish culture, matters have considerably improved. — Translator.
However, the crowd round the salesmen’s desks was still increasing. Monsieur Verlaque played his part as Florent’s instructor in the most conscientious manner, clearing the way by means of his elbows, and guiding his successor through the busiest parts. The upper-class retail dealers were there, quietly waiting for some of the finer fish, or loading the porters with their purchases of turbot, tunny, and salmon. The street-hawkers who had clubbed together to buy lots of herrings and small flat-fish were dividing them on the pavement. There were also some people of the smaller middle class, from distant parts of the city, who had come down at four o’clock in the morning to buy a really fresh fish, and had ended by allowing some enormous lot, costing from forty to fifty francs, to be knocked down to them, with the result that they would be obliged to spend the whole day in getting their friends and acquaintances to take the surplus off their hands. Every now and then some violent pushing would force a gap through part of the crowd. A fish-wife, who had got tightly jammed, freed herself, shaking her fists and pouring out a torrent of abuse. Then a compact mass of people again collected, and Florent, almost suffocated, declared that he had seen quite enough, and understood all that was necessary.
As Monsieur Verlaque was helping him to extricate himself from the crowd, they found themselves face to face with the handsome Norman. She remained stock-still in front of them, and with her queenly air inquired:
“Well, is it quite settled? You are going to desert us, Monsieur Verlaque?”
“Yes, yes,” replied the little man; “I am going to take a rest in the country, at Clamart. The smell of the fish is bad for me, it seems. Here, this is the gentleman who is going to take my place.”
So speaking he turned round to introduce Florent to her. The handsome Norman almost choked; however, as Florent went off, he fancied he could hear her whisper to her neighbours, with a laugh: “Well, we shall have some fine fun now, see if we don’t!”
The fish-wives had begun to set out their stalls. From all the taps at the corners of the marble slabs water was gushing freely; and there was a rustling sound all round, like the plashing of rain, a streaming of stiff jets of water hissing and spurting. And then, from the lower side of the sloping slabs, great drops fell with a softened murmur, splashing on the flagstones where a mass of tiny streams flowed along here and there, turning holes and depressions into miniature lakes, and afterwards gliding in a thousand rills down the slope towards the Rue Rambuteau. A moist haze ascended, a sort of rainy dust, bringing fresh whiffs of air to Florent’s face, whiffs of that salt, pungent sea breeze which he remembered so well; while in such fish as was already laid out he once more beheld the rosy nacres, gleaming corals, and milky pearls, all the rippling colour and glaucous pallidity of the ocean world.
That first morning left him much in doubt; indeed, he regretted that he had yielded to Lisa’s insistence. Ever since his escape from the greasy drowsiness of the kitchen he had been accusing himself of base weakness with such violence that tears had almost risen in his eyes. But he did not dare to go back on his word. He was a little afraid of Lisa, and could see the curl of her lips and the look of mute reproach upon her handsome face. He felt that she was too serious a woman to be trifled with. However, Gavard happily inspired him with a consoling thought. On the evening of the day on which Monsieur Verlaque had conducted him through the auction sales, Gavard took him aside and told him, with a good deal of hesitation, that “the poor devil” was not at all well off. And after various remarks about the scoundrelly Government which ground the life out of its servants without allowing them even the means to die in comfort, he ended by hinting that it would be charitable on Florent’s part to surrender a part of his salary to the old inspector. Florent welcomed the suggestion with delight. It was only right, he considered, for he looked upon himself simply as Monsieur Verlaque’s temporary substitute; and besides, he himself really required nothing, as he boarded and lodged with his brother. Gavard added that he thought if Florent gave up fifty francs out of the hundred and fifty which he would receive monthly, the arrangement would be everything that could be desired; and, lowering his voice, he added that it would not be for long, for the poor fellow was consumptive to his very bones. Finally it was settled that Florent should see Monsieur Verlaque’s wife, and arrange matters with her, to avoid any possibility of hurting the old man’s feelings.
The thought of this kindly action afforded Florent great relief, and he now accepted his duties with the object of doing good, thus continuing to play the part which he had been fulfilling all his life. However, he made the poultry dealer promise that he would not speak of the matter to anyone; and as Gavard also felt a vague fear of Lisa, he kept the secret, which was really very meritorious in him.
And now the whole pork shop seemed happy. Handsome Lisa manifested the greatest friendliness towards her brother-in-law. She took care that he went to bed early, so as to be able to rise in good time; she kept his breakfast hot for him; and she no longer felt ashamed at being seen talking to him on the footway, now that he wore a laced cap. Quenu, quite delighted by all these good signs, sat down to table in the evening between his wife and brother with a lighter heart than ever. They often lingered over dinner till nine o’clock, leaving the shop in Augustine’s charge, and indulging in a leisurely digestion interspersed with gossip about the neighbourhood, and the dogmatic opinions of Lisa on political topics; Florent also had to relate how matters had gone in the fish market that day. He gradually grew less frigid, and began to taste the happiness of a well-regulated existence. There was a well-to-do comfort and trimness about the light yellowish dining room which had a softening influence upon him as soon as he crossed its threshold. Handsome Lisa’s kindly attentions wrapped him, as it were, in cotton-wool; and mutual esteem and concord reigned paramount.
Gavard, however, considered the Quenu–Gradelles’ home to be too drowsy. He forgave Lisa her weakness for the Emperor, because, he said, one ought never to discuss politics with women, and beautiful Madame Quenu was, after all, a very worthy person, who managed her business admirably. Nevertheless, he much preferred to spend his evenings at Monsieur Lebigre’s, where he met a group of friends who shared his own opinions. Thus when Florent was appointed to the inspectorship of the fish market, Gavard began to lead him astray, taking him off for hours, and prompting him to lead a bachelor’s life now that he had obtained a berth.
Monsieur Lebigre was the proprietor of a very fine establishment, fitted up in the modern luxurious style. Occupying the right-hand corner of the Rue Pirouette, and looking on to the Rue Rambuteau, it formed, with its four small Norwegian pines in green-painted tubs flanking the doorway, a worthy pendant to the big pork shop of the Quenu–Gradelles. Through the clear glass windows you could see the interior, which was decorated with festoons of foliage, vine branches, and grapes, painted on a soft green ground. The floor was tiled with large black and white squares. At the far end was the yawning cellar entrance, above which rose a spiral staircase hung with red drapery, and leading to the billiard-room on the first floor. The counter or “bar” on the right looked especially rich, and glittered like polished silver. Its zinc-work, hanging with a broad bulging border over the sub-structure of white and red marble, edged it with a rippling sheet of metal as if it were some high altar laden with embroidery. At one end, over a gas stove, stood porcelain pots, decorated with circles of brass, and containing punch and hot wine. At the other extremity was a tall and richly sculptured marble fountain, from which a fine stream of water, so steady and continuous that it looked as though it were motionless, flowed into a basin. In the centre, edged on three sides by the sloping zinc surface of the counter, was a second basin for rinsing and cooling purposes, where quart bottles of draught wine, partially empty, reared their greenish necks. Then on the counter, to the right and left of this central basin, were batches of glasses symmetrically arranged: little glasses for brandy, thick tumblers for draught wine, cup glasses for brandied fruits, glasses for absinthe, glass mugs for beer, and tall goblets, all turned upside down and reflecting the glitter of the counter. On the left, moreover, was a metal urn, serving as a receptacle for gratuities; whilst a similar one on the right bristled with a fan-like arrangement of coffee spoons.
Monsieur Lebigre was generally to be found enthroned behind his counter upon a seat covered with buttoned crimson leather. Within easy reach of his hand were the liqueurs in cut-glass decanters protruding from the compartments of a stand. His round back rested against a huge mirror which completely filled the panel behind him; across it ran two glass shelves supporting an array of jars and bottles. Upon one of them the glass jars of preserved fruits, cherries, plums, and peaches, stood out darkly; while on the other, between symmetrically arranged packets of finger biscuits, were bright flasks of soft green and red and yellow glass, suggesting strange mysterious liqueurs, or floral extracts of exquisite limpidity. Standing on the glass shelf in the white glow of the mirror, these flasks, flashing as if on fire, seemed to be suspended in the air.
To give his premises the appearance of a cafe, Monsieur Lebigre had placed two small tables of bronzed iron and four chairs against the wall, in front of the counter. A chandelier with five lights and frosted globes hung down from the ceiling. On the left was a round gilt timepiece, above a tourniquet* fixed to the wall. Then at the far end came the private “cabinet,” a corner of the shop shut off by a partition glazed with frosted glass of a small square pattern. In the daytime this little room received a dim light from a window that looked on to the Rue Pirouette; and in the evening, a gas jet burnt over the two tables painted to resemble marble. It was there that Gavard and his political friends met each evening after dinner. They looked upon themselves as being quite at home there, and had prevailed on the landlord to reserve the place for them. When Monsieur Lebigre had closed the door of the glazed partition, they knew themselves to be so safely screened from intrusion that they spoke quite unreservedly of the great “sweep out” which they were fond of discussing. No unprivileged customer would have dared to enter.
* This is a kind of dial turning on a pivot, and usually enclosed in a brass frame, from which radiate a few small handles or spokes. Round the face of the dial — usually of paper — are various numerals, and between the face and its glass covering is a small marble or wooden ball. The appliance is used in lieu of dice or coins when two or more customers are “tossing” for drinks. Each in turn sends the dial spinning round, and wins or loses according to the numeral against which the ball rests when the dial stops. As I can find no English name for the appliance, I have thought it best to describe it. — Translator.
On the first day that Gavard took Florent off he gave him some particulars of Monsieur Lebigre. He was a good fellow, he said, who sometimes came to drink his coffee with them; and, as he had said one day that he had fought in ‘48, no one felt the least constraint in his presence. He spoke but little, and seemed rather thick-headed. As the gentlemen passed him on their way to the private room they grasped his hand in silence across the glasses and bottles. By his side on the crimson leather seat behind the counter there was generally a fair little woman, whom he had engaged as counter assistant in addition to the white-aproned waiter who attended to the tables and the billiard-room. The young woman’s name was Rose, and she seemed a very gentle and submissive being. Gavard, with a wink of his eye, told Florent that he fancied Lebigre had a weakness for her. It was she, by the way, who waited upon the friends in the private room, coming and going, with her happy, humble air, amidst the stormiest political discussions.
Upon the day on which the poultry dealer took Florent to Lebigre’s to present him to his friends, the only person whom the pair found in the little room when they entered it was a man of some fifty years of age, of a mild and thoughtful appearance. He wore a rather shabby-looking hat and a long chestnut-coloured overcoat, and sat, with his chin resting on the ivory knob of a thick cane, in front of a glass mug full of beer. His mouth was so completely concealed by a vigorous growth of beard that his face had a dumb, lipless appearance.
“How are you, Robine?” exclaimed Gavard.
Robine silently thrust out his hand, without making any reply, though his eyes softened into a slight smile of welcome. Then he let his chin drop on to the knob of his cane again, and looked at Florent over his beer. Florent had made Gavard swear to keep his story a secret for fear of some dangerous indiscretion; and he was not displeased to observe a touch of distrust in the discreet demeanour of the gentleman with the heavy beard. However, he was really mistaken in this, for Robine never talked more than he did now. He was always the first to arrive, just as the clock struck eight; and he always sat in the same corner, never letting go his hold of his cane, and never taking off either his hat or his overcoat. No one had ever seen him without his hat upon his head. He remained there listening to the talk of the others till midnight, taking four hours to empty his mug of beer, and gazing successively at the different speakers as though he heard them with his eyes. When Florent afterwards questioned Gavard about Robine, the poultry dealer spoke of the latter as though he held him in high esteem. Robine, he asserted, was an extremely clever and able man, and, though he was unable to say exactly where he had given proof of his hostility to the established order of things, he declared that he was one of the most dreaded of the Government’s opponents. He lived in the Rue Saint Denis, in rooms to which no one as a rule could gain admission. The poultry dealer, however, asserted that he himself had once been in them. The wax floors, he said, were protected by strips of green linen; and there were covers over the furniture, and an alabaster timepiece with columns. He had caught a glimpse of the back of a lady, who was just disappearing through one doorway as he was entering by another, and had taken her to be Madame Robine. She appeared to be an old lady of very genteel appearance, with her hair arranged in corkscrew curls; but of this he could not be quite certain. No one knew why they had taken up their abode amidst all the uproar of a business neighbourhood; for the husband did nothing at all, spending his days no one knew how and living on no one knew what, though he made his appearance every evening as though he were tired but delighted with some excursion into the highest regions of politics.
“Well, have you read the speech from the throne?” asked Gavard, taking up a newspaper that was lying on the table.
Robine shrugged his shoulders. Just at that moment, however, the door of the glazed partition clattered noisily, and a hunchback made his appearance. Florent at once recognised the deformed crier of the fish market, though his hands were now washed and he was neatly dressed, with his neck encircled by a great red muffler, one end of which hung down over his hump like the skirt of a Venetian cloak.
“Ah, here’s Logre!” exclaimed the poultry dealer. “Now we shall hear what he thinks about the speech from the throne.”
Logre, however, was apparently furious. To begin with he almost broke the pegs off in hanging up his hat and muffler. Then he threw himself violently into a chair, and brought his fist down on the table, while tossing away the newspaper.
“Do you think I read their fearful lies?” he cried.
Then he gave vent to the anger raging within him. “Did ever anyone hear,” he cried, “of masters making such fools of their people? For two whole hours I’ve been waiting for my pay! There were ten of us in the office kicking our heels there. Then at last Monsieur Manoury arrived in a cab. Where he had come from I don’t know, and don’t care, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t any respectable place. Those salesmen are all a parcel of thieves and libertines! And then, too, the hog actually gave me all my money in small change!”
Robine expressed his sympathy with Logre by the slight movement of his eyelids. But suddenly the hunchback bethought him of a victim upon whom to pour out his wrath. “Rose! Rose!” he cried, stretching his head out of the little room.
The young woman quickly responded to the call, trembling all over.
“Well,” shouted Logre, “what do you stand staring at me like that for? Much good that’ll do! You saw me come in, didn’t you? Why haven’t you brought me my glass of black coffee, then?”
Gavard ordered two similar glasses, and Rose made all haste to bring what was required, while Logre glared sternly at the glasses and little sugar trays as if studying them. When he had taken a drink he seemed to grow somewhat calmer.
“But it’s Charvet who must be getting bored,” he said presently. “He is waiting outside on the pavement for Clemence.”
Charvet, however, now made his appearance, followed by Clemence. He was a tall, scraggy young man, carefully shaved, with a skinny nose and thin lips. He lived in the Rue Vavin, behind the Luxembourg, and called himself a professor. In politics he was a disciple of Hebert.* He wore his hair very long, and the collar and lapels of his threadbare frock-coat were broadly turned back. Affecting the manner and speech of a member of the National Convention, he would pour out such a flood of bitter words and make such a haughty display of pedantic learning that he generally crushed his adversaries. Gavard was afraid of him, though he would not confess it; still, in Charvet’s absence he would say that he really went too far. Robine, for his part, expressed approval of everything with his eyes. Logre sometimes opposed Charvet on the question of salaries; but the other was really the autocrat of the coterie, having the greatest fund of information and the most overbearing manner. For more than ten years he and Clemence had lived together as man and wife, in accordance with a previously arranged contract, the terms of which were strictly observed by both parties to it. Florent looked at the young woman with some little surprise, but at last he recollected where he had previously seen her. This was at the fish auction. She was, indeed, none other than the tall dark female clerk whom he had observed writing with outstretched fingers, after the manner of one who had been carefully instructed in the art of holding a pen.
* Hebert, as the reader will remember, was the furious demagogue with the foul tongue and poisoned pen who edited the Pere Duchesne at the time of the first French Revolution. We had a revival of his politics and his journal in Paris during the Commune of 1871. — Translator.
Rose made her appearance at the heels of the two newcomers. Without saying a word she placed a mug of beer before Charvet and a tray before Clemence, who in a leisurely way began to compound a glass of “grog,” pouring some hot water over a slice of lemon, which she crushed with her spoon, and glancing carefully at the decanter as she poured out some rum, so as not to add more of it than a small liqueur glass could contain.
Gavard now presented Florent to the company, but more especially to Charvet. He introduced them to one another as professors, and very able men, who would be sure to get on well together. But it was probable that he had already been guilty of some indiscretion, for all the men at once shook hands with a tight and somewhat masonic squeeze of each other’s fingers. Charvet, for his part, showed himself almost amiable; and whether he and the others knew anything of Florent’s antecedents, they at all events indulged in no embarrassing allusions.
“Did Manoury pay you in small change?” Logre asked Clemence.
She answered affirmatively, and produced a roll of francs and another of two-franc pieces, and unwrapped them. Charvet watched her, and his eyes followed the rolls as she replaced them in her pocket, after counting their contents and satisfying herself that they were correct.
“We have our accounts to settle,” he said in a low voice.
“Yes, we’ll settle up to-night,” the young woman replied. “But we are about even, I should think. I’ve breakfasted with you four times, haven’t I? But I lent you a hundred sous last week, you know.”
Florent, surprised at hearing this, discreetly turned his head away. Then Clemence slipped the last roll of silver into her pocket, drank a little of her grog, and, leaning against the glazed partition, quietly settled herself down to listen to the men talking politics. Gavard had taken up the newspaper again, and, in tones which he strove to render comic, was reading out some passages of the speech from the throne which had been delivered that morning at the opening of the Chambers. Charvet made fine sport of the official phraseology; there was not a single line of it which he did not tear to pieces. One sentence afforded especial amusement to them all. It was this: “We are confident, gentlemen, that, leaning on your lights* and the conservative sentiments of the country, we shall succeed in increasing the national prosperity day by day.”
* In the sense of illumination of mind. It has been necessary to give a literal translation of this phrase to enable the reader to realise the point of subsequent witticisms in which Clemence and Gavard indulge. — Translator.
Logre rose up and repeated this sentence, and by speaking through his nose succeeded fairly well in mimicking the Emperor’s drawling voice.
“It’s lovely, that prosperity of his; why, everyone’s dying of hunger!” said Charvet.
“Trade is shocking,” asserted Gavard.
“And what in the name of goodness is the meaning of anybody ‘leaning on lights’?” continued Clemence, who prided herself upon literary culture.
Robine himself even allowed a faint laugh to escape from the depths of his beard. The discussion began to grow warm. The party fell foul of the Corps Legislatif, and spoke of it with great severity. Logre did not cease ranting, and Florent found him the same as when he cried the fish at the auctions — protruding his jaws and hurling his words forward with a wave of the arm, whilst retaining the crouching attitude of a snarling dog. Indeed, he talked politics in just the same furious manner as he offered a tray full of soles for sale.
Charvet, on the other hand, became quieter and colder amidst the smoke of the pipes and the fumes of the gas which were now filling the little den; and his voice assumed a dry incisive tone, sharp like a guillotine blade, while Robine gently wagged his head without once removing his chin from the ivory knob of his cane. However, some remark of Gavard’s led the conversation to the subject of women.
“Woman,” declared Charvet drily, “is the equal of man; and, that being so, she ought not to inconvenience him in the management of his life. Marriage is a partnership, in which everything should be halved. Isn’t that so, Clemence?”
“Clearly so,” replied the young woman, leaning back with her head against the wall and gazing into the air.
However, Florent now saw Lacaille, the costermonger, and Alexandre, the porter, Claude Lantier’s friend, come into the little room. In the past these two had long remained at the other table in the sanctum; they did not belong to the same class as the others. By the help of politics, however, their chairs had drawn nearer, and they had ended by forming part of the circle. Charvet, in whose eyes they represented “the people,” did his best to indoctrinate them with his advanced political theories, while Gavard played the part of the shopkeeper free from all social prejudices by clinking glasses with them. Alexandre was a cheerful, good-humoured giant, with the manner of a big merry lad. Lacaille, on the other hand, was embittered; his hair was already grizzling; and, bent and wearied by his ceaseless perambulations through the streets of Paris, he would at times glance loweringly at the placid figure of Robine, and his sound boots and heavy coat.
That evening both Lacaille and Alexandre called for a liqueur glass of brandy, and then the conversation was renewed with increased warmth and excitement, the party being now quite complete. A little later, while the door of the cabinet was left ajar, Florent caught sight of Mademoiselle Saget standing in front of the counter. She had taken a bottle from under her apron, and was watching Rose as the latter poured into it a large measureful of black-currant syrup and a smaller one of brandy. Then the bottle disappeared under the apron again, and Mademoiselle Saget, with her hands out of sight, remained talking in the bright glow of the counter, face to face with the big mirror, in which the flasks and bottles of liqueurs were reflected like rows of Venetian lanterns. In the evening all the metal and glass of the establishment helped to illuminate it with wonderful brilliancy. The old maid, standing there in her black skirts, looked almost like some big strange insect amidst all the crude brightness. Florent noticed that she was trying to inveigle Rose into a conversation, and shrewdly suspected that she had caught sight of him through the half open doorway. Since he had been on duty at the markets he had met her at almost every step, loitering in one or another of the covered ways, and generally in the company of Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette. He had noticed also that the three women stealthily examined him, and seemed lost in amazement at seeing him installed in the position of inspector. That evening, however, Rose was no doubt loath to enter into conversation with the old maid, for the latter at last turned round, apparently with the intention of approaching Monsieur Lebigre, who was playing piquet with a customer at one of the bronzed tables. Creeping quietly along, Mademoiselle Saget had at last managed to install herself beside the partition of the cabinet, when she was observed by Gavard, who detested her.
“Shut the door, Florent!” he cried unceremoniously. “We can’t even be by ourselves, it seems!”
When midnight came and Lacaille went away he exchanged a few whispered words with Monsieur Lebigre, and as the latter shook hands with him he slipped four five-franc pieces into his palm, without anyone noticing it. “That’ll make twenty-two francs that you’ll have to pay to-morrow, remember,” he whispered in his ear. “The person who lends the money won’t do it for less in future. Don’t forget, too, that you owe three days’ truck hire. You must pay everything off.”
Then Monsieur Lebigre wished the friends good night. He was very sleepy and should sleep well, he said, with a yawn which revealed his big teeth, while Rose gazed at him with an air of submissive humility. However, he gave her a push, and told her to go and turn out the gas in the little room.
On reaching the pavement, Gavard stumbled and nearly fell. And being in a humorous vein, he thereupon exclaimed: “Confound it all! At any rate, I don’t seem to be leaning on anybody’s lights.”
This remark seemed to amuse the others, and the party broke up. A little later Florent returned to Lebigre’s, and indeed he became quite attached to the “cabinet,” finding a seductive charm in Robine’s contemplative silence, Logre’s fiery outbursts, and Charvet’s cool venom. When he went home, he did not at once retire to bed. He had grown very fond of his attic, that girlish bedroom, where Augustine had left scraps of ribbons, souvenirs, and other feminine trifles lying about. There still remained some hair-pins on the mantelpiece, with gilt cardboard boxes of buttons and lozenges, cutout pictures, and empty pomade pots that retained an odour of jasmine. Then there were some reels of thread, needles, and a missal lying by the side of a soiled Dream-book in the drawer of the rickety deal table. A white summer dress with yellow spots hung forgotten from a nail; while upon the board which served as a toilet-table a big stain behind the water-jug showed where a bottle of bandoline had been overturned. The little chamber, with its narrow iron bed, its two rush-bottomed chairs, and its faded grey wallpaper, was instinct with innocent simplicity. The plain white curtains, the childishness suggested by the cardboard boxes and the Dream-book, and the clumsy coquetry which had stained the walls, all charmed Florent and brought him back to dreams of youth. He would have preferred not to have known that plain, wiry-haired Augustine, but to have been able to imagine that he was occupying the room of a sister, some bright sweet girl of whose budding womanhood every trifle around him spoke.
Yet another pleasure which he took was to lean out of the garret window at nighttime. In front of it was a narrow ledge of roof, enclosed by an iron railing, and forming a sort of balcony, on which Augustine had grown a pomegranate in a box. Since the nights had turned cold, Florent had brought the pomegranate indoors and kept it by the foot of his bed till morning. He would linger for a few minutes by the open window, inhaling deep draughts of the sharp fresh air which was wafted up from the Seine, over the housetops of the Rue de Rivoli. Below him the roofs of the markets spread confusedly in a grey expanse, like slumbering lakes on whose surface the furtive reflection of a pane of glass gleamed every now and then like a silvery ripple. Farther away the roofs of the meat and poultry pavilions lay in deeper gloom, and became mere masses of shadow barring the horizon. Florent delighted in the great stretch of open sky in front of him, in that spreading expanse of the markets which amidst all the narrow city streets brought him a dim vision of some strip of sea coast, of the still grey waters of a bay scarce quivering from the roll of the distant billows. He used to lose himself in dreams as he stood there; each night he conjured up the vision of some fresh coast line. To return in mind to the eight years of despair which he had spent away from France rendered him both very sad and very happy. Then at last, shivering all over, he would close the window. Often, as he stood in front of the fireplace taking off his collar, the photograph of Auguste and Augustine would fill him with disquietude. They seemed to be watching him as they stood there, hand in hand, smiling faintly.
Florent’s first few weeks at the fish market were very painful to him. The Mehudins treated him with open hostility, which infected the whole market with a spirit of opposition. The beautiful Norman intended to revenge herself on the handsome Lisa, and the latter’s cousin seemed a victim ready to hand.
The Mehudins came from Rouen. Louise’s mother still related how she had first arrived in Paris with a basket of eels. She had ever afterwards remained in the fish trade. She had married a man employed in the Octroi service, who had died leaving her with two little girls. It was she who by her full figure and glowing freshness had won for herself in earlier days the nickname of “the beautiful Norman,” which her eldest daughter had inherited. Now five and sixty years of age, Madame Mehudin had become flabby and shapeless, and the damp air of the fish market had rendered her voice rough and hoarse, and given a bluish tinge to her skin. Sedentary life had made her extremely bulky, and her head was thrown backwards by the exuberance of her bosom. She had never been willing to renounce the fashions of her younger days, but still wore the flowered gown, the yellow kerchief, and turban-like head-gear of the classic fish-wife, besides retaining the latter’s loud voice and rapidity of gesture as she stood with her hands on her hips, shouting out the whole abusive vocabulary of her calling.
She looked back regretfully to the old Marche des Innocents, which the new central markets had supplanted. She would talk of the ancient rights of the market “ladies,” and mingle stories of fisticuffs exchanged with the police with reminiscences of the visits she had paid the Court in the time of Charles X and Louis Philippe, dressed in silk, and carrying a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Old Mother Mehudin, as she was now generally called, had for a long time been the banner-bearer of the Sisterhood of the Virgin at St. Leu. She would relate that in the processions in the church there she had worn a dress and cap of tulle trimmed with satin ribbons, whilst holding aloft in her puffy fingers the gilded staff of the richly-fringed silk standard on which the figure of the Holy Mother was embroidered.
According to the gossip of the neighbourhood, the old woman had made a fairly substantial fortune, though the only signs of it were the massive gold ornaments with which she loaded her neck and arms and bosom on important occasions. Her two daughters got on badly together as they grew up. The younger one, Claire, an idle, fair-complexioned girl, complained of the ill-treatment which she received from her sister Louise, protesting, in her languid voice, that she could never submit to be the other’s servant. As they would certainly have ended by coming to blows, their mother separated them. She gave her stall in the fish market to Louise, while Claire, whom the smell of the skate and the herrings affected in the lungs, installed herself among the fresh water fish. And from that time the old mother, although she pretended to have retired from business altogether, would flit from one stall to the other, still interfering in the selling of the fish, and causing her daughters continual annoyance by the foul insolence with which she would at times speak to customers.
Claire was a fantastical creature, very gentle in her manner, and yet continually at loggerheads with others. People said that she invariably followed her own whimsical inclinations. In spite of her dreamy, girlish face she was imbued with a nature of silent firmness, a spirit of independence which prompted her to live apart; she never took things as other people did, but would one day evince perfect fairness, and the next day arrant injustice. She would sometimes throw the market into confusion by suddenly increasing or lowering the prices at her stall, without anyone being able to guess her reason for doing so. She herself would refuse to explain her motive. By the time she reached her thirtieth year, her delicate physique and fine skin, which the water of the tanks seemed to keep continually fresh and soft, her small, faintly-marked face and lissome limbs would probably become heavy, coarse, and flabby, till she would look like some faded saint that had stepped from a stained-glass window into the degrading sphere of the markets. At twenty-two, however, Claire, in the midst of her carp and eels, was, to use Claude Lantier’s expression, a Murillo. A Murillo, that is, whose hair was often in disorder, who wore heavy shoes and clumsily cut dresses, which left her without any figure. But she was free from all coquetry, and she assumed an air of scornful contempt when Louise, displaying her bows and ribbons, chaffed her about her clumsily knotted neckerchiefs. Moreover, she was virtuous; it was said that the son of a rich shopkeeper in the neighbourhood had gone abroad in despair at having failed to induce her to listen to his suit.
Louise, the beautiful Norman, was of a different nature. She had been engaged to be married to a clerk in the corn market; but a sack of flour falling upon the young man had broken his back and killed him. Not very long afterwards Louise had given birth to a boy. In the Mehudins’ circle of acquaintance she was looked upon as a widow; and the old fish-wife in conversation would occasionally refer to the time when her son-in-law was alive.
The Mehudins were a power in the markets. When Monsieur Verlaque had finished instructing Florent in his new duties, he advised him to conciliate certain of the stall-holders, if he wished his life to be endurable; and he even carried his sympathy so far as to put him in possession of the little secrets of the office, such as the various little breaches of rule that it was necessary to wink at, and those at which he would have to feign stern displeasure; and also the circumstances under which he might accept a small present. A market inspector is at once a constable and a magistrate; he has to maintain proper order and cleanliness, and settle in a conciliatory spirit all disputes between buyers and sellers. Florent, who was of a weak disposition put on an artificial sternness when he was obliged to exercise his authority, and generally over-acted his part. Moreover, his gloomy, pariah-like face and bitterness of spirit, the result of long suffering, were against him.
The beautiful Norman’s idea was to involve him in some quarrel or other. She had sworn that he would not keep his berth a fortnight. “That fat Lisa’s much mistaken,” said she one morning on meeting Madame Lecoeur, “if she thinks that she’s going to put people over us. We don’t want such ugly wretches here. That sweetheart of hers is a perfect fright!”
After the auctions, when Florent commenced his round of inspection, strolling slowly through the dripping alleys, he could plainly see the beautiful Norman watching him with an impudent smile on her face. Her stall, which was in the second row on the left, near the fresh water fish department faced the Rue Rambuteau. She would turn round, however, and never take her eyes off her victim whilst making fun of him with her neighbours. And when he passed in front of her, slowly examining the slabs, she feigned hilarious merriment, slapped her fish with her hand, and turned her jets of water on at full stream, flooding the pathway. Nevertheless Florent remained perfectly calm.
At last, one morning as was bound to happen, war broke out. As Florent reached La Normande’s stall that day an unbearable stench assailed his nostrils. On the marble slab, in addition to part of a magnificent salmon, showing its soft roseate flesh, there lay some turbots of creamy whiteness, a few conger-eels pierced with black pins to mark their divisions, several pairs of soles, and some bass and red mullet — in fact, quite a display of fresh fish. But in the midst of it, amongst all these fish whose eyes still gleamed and whose gills were of a bright crimson, there lay a huge skate of a ruddy tinge, splotched with dark stains — superb, indeed, with all its strange colourings. Unfortunately, it was rotten; its tail was falling off and the ribs of its fins were breaking through the skin.
“You must throw that skate away,” said Florent as he came up.
The beautiful Norman broke into a slight laugh. Florent raised his eyes and saw her standing before him, with her back against the bronze lamp post which lighted the stalls in her division. She had mounted upon a box to keep her feet out of the damp, and appeared very tall as he glanced at her. She looked also handsomer than usual, with her hair arranged in little curls, her sly face slightly bent, her lips compressed, and her hands showing somewhat too rosily against her big white apron. Florent had never before seen her decked with so much jewellery. She had long pendants in her ears, a chain round her neck, a brooch in her dress body, and quite a collection of rings on two fingers of her left hand and one of her right.
As she still continued to look slyly at Florent, without making any reply, the latter continued: “Do you hear? You must remove that skate.”
He had not yet noticed the presence of old Madame Mehudin, who sat all of a heap on a chair in a corner. She now got up, however, and, with her fists resting on the marble slap, insolently exclaimed: “Dear me! And why is she to throw her skate away? You won’t pay her for it, I’ll bet!”
Florent immediately understood the position. The women at the other stalls began to titter, and he felt that he was surrounded by covert rebellion, which a word might cause to blaze forth. He therefore restrained himself, and in person drew the refuse-pail from under the stall and dropped the skate into it. Old Madame Mehudin had already stuck her hands on her hips, while the beautiful Norman, who had not spoken a word, burst into another malicious laugh as Florent strode sternly away amidst a chorus of jeers, which he pretended not to hear.
Each day now some new trick was played upon him, and he was obliged to walk through the market alleys as warily as though he were in a hostile country. He was splashed with water from the sponges employed to cleanse the slabs; he stumbled and almost fell over slippery refuse intentionally spread in his way; and even the porters contrived to run their baskets against the nape of his neck. One day, moreover, when two of the fish-wives were quarrelling, and he hastened up to prevent them coming to blows, he was obliged to duck in order to escape being slapped on either cheek by a shower of little dabs which passed over his head. There was a general outburst of laughter on this occasion, and Florent always believed that the two fish-wives were in league with the Mehudins. However, his old-time experiences as a teacher had endowed him with angelic patience, and he was able to maintain a magisterial coolness of manner even when anger was hotly rising within him, and his whole being quivered with a sense of humiliation. Still, the young scamps of the Rue de l’Estrapade had never manifested the savagery of these fish-wives, the cruel tenacity of these huge females, whose massive figures heaved and shook with a giant-like joy whenever he fell into any trap. They stared him out of countenance with their red faces; and in the coarse tones of their voices and the impudent gesture of their hands he could read volumes of filthy abuse levelled at himself. Gavard would have been quite in his element amidst all these petticoats, and would have freely cuffed them all round; but Florent, who had always been afraid of women, gradually felt overwhelmed as by a sort of nightmare in which giant women, buxom beyond all imagination, danced threateningly around him, shouting at him in hoarse voices and brandishing bare arms, as massive as any prize-fighter’s.
Amongst this hoard of females, however, Florent had one friend. Claire unhesitatingly declared that the new inspector was a very good fellow. When he passed in front of her, pursued by the coarse abuse of the others, she gave him a pleasant smile, sitting nonchalantly behind her stall, with unruly errant locks of pale hair straying over her neck and her brow, and the bodice of her dress pinned all askew. He also often saw her dipping her hands into her tanks, transferring the fish from one compartment to another, and amusing herself by turning on the brass taps, shaped like little dolphins with open mouths, from which the water poured in streamlets. Amidst the rustling sound of the water she had some of the quivering grace of a girl who has just been bathing and has hurriedly slipped on her clothes.
One morning she was particularly amiable. She called the inspector to her to show him a huge eel which had been the wonder of the market when exhibited at the auction. She opened the grating, which she had previously closed over the basin in whose depths the eel seemed to be lying sound asleep.
“Wait a moment,” she said, “and I’ll show it to you.”
Then she gently slipped her bare arm into the water; it was not a very plump arm, and its veins showed softly blue beneath its satiny skin. As soon as the eel felt her touch, it rapidly twisted round, and seemed to fill the narrow trough with its glistening greenish coils. And directly it had settled down to rest again Claire once more stirred it with her fingertips.
“It is an enormous creature,” Florent felt bound to say. “I have rarely seen such a fine one.”
Claire thereupon confessed to him that she had at first been frightened of eels; but now she had learned how to tighten her grip so that they could not slip away. From another compartment she took a smaller one, which began to wriggle both with head and tail, as she held it about the middle in her closed fist. This made her laugh. She let it go, then seized another and another, scouring the basin and stirring up the whole heap of snaky-looking creatures with her slim fingers.
Afterwards she began to speak of the slackness of trade. The hawkers on the foot-pavement of the covered way did the regular saleswomen a great deal of injury, she said. Meantime her bare arm, which she had not wiped, was glistening and dripping with water. Big drops trickled from each finger.
“Oh,” she exclaimed suddenly, “I must show you my carp, too!”
She now removed another grating, and, using both hands, lifted out a large carp, which began to flap its tail and gasp. It was too big to be held conveniently, so she sought another one. This was smaller, and she could hold it with one hand, but the latter was forced slightly open by the panting of the sides each time that the fish gasped. To amuse herself it occurred to Claire to pop the tip of her thumb into the carp’s mouth whilst it was dilated. “It won’t bite,” said she with her gentle laugh; “it’s not spiteful. No more are the crawfishes; I’m not the least afraid of them.”
She plunged her arm into the water again, and from a compartment full of a confused crawling mass brought up a crawfish that had caught her little finger in its claws. She gave the creature a shake, but it no doubt gripped her too tightly, for she turned very red, and snapped off its claw with a quick, angry gesture, though still continuing to smile.
“By the way,” she continued quickly, to conceal her emotion, “I wouldn’t trust myself with a pike; he’d cut off my fingers like a knife.”
She thereupon showed him some big pike arranged in order of size upon clean scoured shelves, beside some bronze-hued tench and little heaps of gudgeon. Her hands were now quite slimy with handling the carp, and as she stood there in the dampness rising from the tanks, she held them outstretched over the dripping fish on the stall. She seemed enveloped by an odour of spawn, that heavy scent which rises from among the reeds and water-lilies when the fish, languid in the sunlight, discharge their eggs. Then she wiped her hands on her apron, still smiling the placid smile of a girl who knew nothing of passion in that quivering atmosphere of the frigid loves of the river.
The kindliness which Claire showed to Florent was but a slight consolation to him. By stopping to talk to the girl he only drew upon himself still coarser jeers from the other stallkeepers. Claire shrugged her shoulders, and said that her mother was an old jade, and her sister a worthless creature. The injustice of the market folk towards the new inspector filled her with indignation. The war between them, however, grew more bitter every day. Florent had serious thoughts of resigning his post; indeed, he would not have retained it for another twenty-four hours if he had not been afraid that Lisa might imagine him to be a coward. He was frightened of what she might say and what she might think. She was naturally well aware of the contest which was going on between the fish-wives and their inspector; for the whole echoing market resounded with it, and the entire neighbourhood discussed each fresh incident with endless comments.
“Ah, well,” Lisa would often say in the evening, after dinner, “I’d soon bring them to reason if I had anything to do with them! Why, they are a lot of dirty jades that I wouldn’t touch with the tip of my finger! That Normande is the lowest of the low! I’d soon crush her, that I would! You should really use your authority, Florent. You are wrong to behave as you do. Put your foot down, and they’ll all come to their senses very quickly, you’ll see.”
A terrible climax was presently reached. One morning the servant of Madame Taboureau, the baker, came to the market to buy a brill; and the beautiful Norman, having noticed her lingering near her stall for several minutes, began to make overtures to her in a coaxing way: “Come and see me; I’ll suit you,” she said. “Would you like a pair of soles, or a fine turbot?”
Then as the servant at last came up, and sniffed at a brill with that dissatisfied pout which buyers assume in the hope of getting what they want at a lower price, La Normande continued:
“Just feel the weight of that, now,” and so saying she laid the brill, wrapped in a sheet of thick yellow paper, on the woman’s open palm.
The servant, a mournful little woman from Auvergne, felt the weight of the brill, and examined its gills, still pouting, and saying not a word.
“And how much do you want for it?” she asked presently, in a reluctant tone.
“Fifteen francs,” replied La Normande.
At this the servant hastily laid the brill on the stall again, and seemed anxious to hurry away, but the other detained her. “Wait a moment,” said she. “What do you offer?”
“No, no, I can’t take it. It is much too dear.”
“Come, now, make me an offer.”
“Well, will you take eight francs?”
Old Madame Mehudin, who was there, suddenly seemed to wake up, and broke out into a contemptuous laugh. Did people think that she and her daughter stole the fish they sold? “Eight francs for a brill that size!” she exclaimed. “You’ll be wanting one for nothing next, to use as a cooling plaster!”
Meantime La Normande turned her head away, as though greatly offended. However, the servant came back twice and offered nine francs; and finally she increased her bid to ten.
“All right, come on, give me your money!” cried the fish-girl, seeing that the woman was now really going away.
The servant took her stand in front of the stall and entered into a friendly gossip with old Madame Mehudin. Madame Taboureau, she said, was so exacting! She had got some people coming to dinner that evening, some cousins from Blois a notary and his wife. Madame Taboureau’s family, she added, was a very respectable one, and she herself, although only a baker, had received an excellent education.
“You’ll clean it nicely for me, won’t you?” added the woman, pausing in her chatter.
With a jerk of her finger La Normande had removed the fish’s entrails and tossed them into a pail. Then she slipped a corner of her apron under its gills to wipe away a few grains of sand. “There, my dear,” she said, putting the fish into the servant’s basket, “you’ll come back to thank me.”
Certainly the servant did come back a quarter of an hour afterwards, but it was with a flushed, red face. She had been crying, and her little body was trembling all over with anger. Tossing the brill on to the marble slab, she pointed to a broad gash in its belly that reached the bone. Then a flood of broken words burst from her throat, which was still contracted by sobbing: “Madame Taboureau won’t have it. She says she couldn’t put it on her table. She told me, too, that I was an idiot, and let myself be cheated by anyone. You can see for yourself that the fish is spoilt. I never thought of turning it round; I quite trusted you. Give me my ten francs back.”
“You should look at what you buy,” the handsome Norman calmly observed.
And then, as the servant was just raising her voice again, old Madame Mehudin got up. “Just you shut up!” she cried. “We’re not going to take back a fish that’s been knocking about in other people’s houses. How do we know that you didn’t let it fall and damage it yourself?”
“I! I damage it!” The little servant was choking with indignation. “Ah! you’re a couple of thieves!” she cried, sobbing bitterly. “Yes, a couple of thieves! Madame Taboureau herself told me so!”
Matters then became uproarious. Boiling over with rage and brandishing their fists, both mother and daughter fairly exploded; while the poor little servant, quite bewildered by their voices, the one hoarse and the other shrill, which belaboured her with insults as though they were battledores and she a shuttlecock, sobbed on more bitterly than ever.
“Be off with you! Your Madame Taboureau would like to be half as fresh as that fish is! She’d like us to sew it up for her, no doubt!”
“A whole fish for ten francs! What’ll she want next!”
Then came coarse words and foul accusations. Had the servant been the most worthless of her sex she could not have been more bitterly upbraided.
Florent, whom the market keeper had gone to fetch, made his appearance when the quarrel was at its hottest. The whole pavilion seemed to be in a state of insurrection. The fish-wives, who manifest the keenest jealousy of each other when the sale of a penny herring is in question, display a united front when a quarrel arises with a buyer. They sang the popular old ditty, “The baker’s wife has heaps of crowns, which cost her precious little”; they stamped their feet, and goaded the Mehudins as though the latter were dogs which they were urging on to bite and devour. And there were even some, having stalls at the other end of the alley, who rushed up wildly, as though they meant to spring at the chignon of the poor little woman, she meantime being quite submerged by the flood of insulting abuse poured upon her.
“Return mademoiselle her ten francs,” said Florent sternly, when he had learned what had taken place.
But old Madame Mehudin had her blood up. “As for you, my little man,” quoth she, “go to blazes! Here, that’s how I’ll return the ten francs!”
As she spoke, she flung the brill with all her force at the head of Madame Taboureau’s servant, who received it full in the face. The blood spurted from her nose, and the brill, after adhering for a moment to her cheeks, fell to the ground and burst with a flop like that of a wet clout. This brutal act threw Florent into a fury. The beautiful Norman felt frightened and recoiled, as he cried out: “I suspend you for a week, and I will have your licence withdrawn. You hear me?”
Then, as the other fish-wives were still jeering behind him, he turned round with such a threatening air that they quailed like wild beasts mastered by the tamer, and tried to assume an expression of innocence. When the Mehudins had returned the ten francs, Florent peremptorily ordered them to cease selling at once. The old woman was choking with rage, while the daughter kept silent, but turned very white. She, the beautiful Norman, to be driven out of her stall!
Claire said in her quiet voice that it served her mother and sister right, a remark which nearly resulted in the two girls tearing each other’s hair out that evening when they returned home to the Rue Pirouette. However, when the Mehudins came back to the market at the week’s end, they remained very quiet, reserved, and curt of speech, though full of a cold-blooded wrath. Moreover, they found the pavilion quite calm and restored to order again. From that day forward the beautiful Norman must have harboured the thought of some terrible vengeance. She felt that she really had Lisa to thank for what had happened. She had met her, the day after the battle, carrying her head so high, that she had sworn she would make her pay dearly for her glance of triumph. She held interminable confabulations with Madame Saget, Madame Lecoeur, and La Sarriette, in quiet corners of the market; however, all their chatter about the shameless conduct which they slanderously ascribed to Lisa and her cousin, and about the hairs which they declared were found in Quenu’s chitterlings, brought La Normande little consolation. She was trying to think of some very malicious plan of vengeance, which would strike her rival to the heart.
Her child was growing up in the fish market in all freedom and neglect. When but three years old the youngster had been brought there, and day by day remained squatting on some rag amidst the fish. He would fall asleep beside the big tunnies as though he were one of them, and awake among the mackerel and whiting. The little rascal smelt of fish as strongly as though he were some big fish’s offspring. For a long time his favourite pastime, whenever his mother’s back was turned, was to build walls and houses of herrings; and he would also play at soldiers on the marble slab, arranging the red gurnets in confronting lines, pushing them against each other, and battering their heads, while imitating the sound of drum and trumpet with his lips; after which he would throw them all into a heap again, and exclaim that they were dead. When he grew older he would prowl about his aunt Claire’s stall to get hold of the bladders of the carp and pike which she gutted. He placed them on the ground and made them burst, an amusement which afforded him vast delight. When he was seven he rushed about the alleys, crawled under the stalls, ferreted amongst the zinc bound fish boxes, and became the spoiled pet of all the women. Whenever they showed him something fresh which pleased him, he would clasp his hands and exclaim in ecstasy, “Oh, isn’t it stunning!” Muche was the exact word which he used; muche being the equivalent of “stunning” in the lingo of the markets; and he used the expression so often that it clung to him as a nickname. He became known all over the place as “Muche.” It was Muche here, there and everywhere; no one called him anything else. He was to be met with in every nook; in out-of-the-way corners of the offices in the auction pavilion; among the piles of oyster baskets, and betwixt the buckets where the refuse was thrown. With a pinky fairness of skin, he was like a young barbel frisking and gliding about in deep water. He was as fond of running, streaming water as any young fry. He was ever dabbling in the pools in the alleys. He wetted himself with the drippings from the tables, and when no one was looking often slyly turned on the taps, rejoicing in the bursting gush of water. But it was especially beside the fountains near the cellar steps that his mother went to seek him in the evening, and she would bring him thence with his hands quite blue, and his shoes, and even his pockets, full of water.
At seven years old Muche was as pretty as an angel, and as coarse in his manners as any carter. He had curly chestnut hair, beautiful eyes, and an innocent-looking mouth which gave vent to language that even a gendarme would have hesitated to use. Brought up amidst all the ribaldry and profanity of the markets, he had the whole vocabulary of the place on the tip of his tongue. With his hands on his hips he often mimicked Grandmother Mehudin in her anger, and at these times the coarsest and vilest expressions would stream from his lips in a voice of crystalline purity that might have belonged to some little chorister chanting the Ave Maria. He would even try to assume a hoarse roughness of tone, seek to degrade and taint that exquisite freshness of childhood which made him resemble a bambino on the Madonna’s knees. The fish-wives laughed at him till they cried; and he, encouraged, could scarcely say a couple of words without rapping out an oath. But in spite of all this he still remained charming, understanding nothing of the dirt amidst which he lived, kept in vigorous health by the fresh breezes and sharp odours of the fish market, and reciting his vocabulary of coarse indecencies with as pure a face as though he were saying his prayers.
The winter was approaching, and Muche seemed very sensitive to the cold. As soon as the chilly weather set in he manifested a strong predilection for the inspector’s office. This was situated in the left-hand corner of the pavilion, on the side of the Rue Rambuteau. The furniture consisted of a table, a stack of drawers, an easy-chair, two other chairs, and a stove. It was this stove which attracted Muche. Florent quite worshipped children, and when he saw the little fellow, with his dripping legs, gazing wistfully through the window, he made him come inside. His first conversation with the lad caused him profound amazement. Muche sat down in front of the stove, and in his quiet voice exclaimed: “I’ll just toast my toes, do you see? It’s d —— d cold this morning.” Then he broke into a rippling laugh, and added: “Aunt Claire looks awfully blue this morning. Is it true, sir, that you are sweet on her?”
Amazed though he was, Florent felt quite interested in the odd little fellow. The handsome Norman retained her surly bearing, but allowed her son to frequent the inspector’s office without a word of objection. Florent consequently concluded that he had the mother’s permission to receive the boy, and every afternoon he asked him in; by degrees forming the idea of turning him into a steady, respectable young fellow. He could almost fancy that his brother Quenu had grown little again, and that they were both in the big room in the Rue Royer–Collard once more. The life which his self-sacrificing nature pictured to him as perfect happiness was a life spent with some young being who would never grow up, whom he could go on teaching for ever, and in whose innocence he might still love his fellow man. On the third day of his acquaintance with Muche he brought an alphabet to the office, and the lad delighted him by the intelligence he manifested. He learned his letters with all the sharp precocity which marks the Parisian street arab, and derived great amusement from the woodcuts illustrating the alphabet.
He found opportunities, too, for plenty of fine fun in the little office, where the stove still remained the chief attraction and a source of endless enjoyment. At first he cooked potatoes and chestnuts at it, but presently these seemed insipid, and he thereupon stole some gudgeons from his aunt Claire, roasted them one by one, suspended from a string in front of the glowing fire, and then devoured them with gusto, though he had no bread. One day he even brought a carp with him; but it was impossible to roast it sufficiently, and it made such a smell in the office that both window and door had to be thrown open. Sometimes, when the odour of all these culinary operations became too strong, Florent would throw the fish into the street, but as a rule he only laughed. By the end of a couple of months Muche was able to read fairly well, and his copy-books did him credit.
Meantime, every evening the lad wearied his mother with his talk about his good friend Florent. His good friend Florent had drawn him pictures of trees and of men in huts, said he. His good friend Florent waved his arm and said that men would be far better if they all knew how to read. And at last La Normande heard so much about Florent that she seemed to be almost intimate with this man against whom she harboured so much rancour. One day she shut Muche up at home to prevent him from going to the inspector’s, but he cried so bitterly that she gave him his liberty again on the following morning. There was very little determination about her, in spite of her broad shoulders and bold looks. When the lad told her how nice and warm he had been in the office, and came back to her with his clothes quite dry, she felt a sort of vague gratitude, a pleasure in knowing that he had found a shelter-place where he could sit with his feet in front of a fire. Later on, she was quite touched when he read her some words from a scrap of soiled newspaper wrapped round a slice of conger-eel. By degrees, indeed, she began to think, though without admitting it, that Florent could not really be a bad sort of fellow. She felt respect for his knowledge, mingled with an increasing curiosity to see more of him and learn something of his life. Then, all at once, she found an excuse for gratifying this inquisitiveness. She would use it as a means of vengeance. It would be fine fun to make friends with Florent and embroil him with that great fat Lisa.
“Does your good friend Florent ever speak to you about me?” she asked Muche one morning as she was dressing him.
“Oh, no,” replied the boy. “We enjoy ourselves.”
“Well, you can tell him that I’ve quite forgiven him, and that I’m much obliged to him for having taught you to read.”
Thenceforward the child was entrusted with some message every day. He went backwards and forwards from his mother to the inspector, and from the inspector to his mother, charged with kindly words and questions and answers, which he repeated mechanically without knowing their meaning. He might, indeed, have been safely trusted with the most compromising communications. However, the beautiful Norman felt afraid of appearing timid, and so one day she herself went to the inspector’s office and sat down on the second chair, while Muche was having his writing lesson. She proved very suave and complimentary, and Florent was by far the more embarrassed of the two. They only spoke of the lad; and when Florent expressed a fear that he might not be able to continue the lessons in the office, La Normande invited him to come to their home in the evening. She spoke also of payment; but at this he blushed, and said that he certainly would not come if any mention were made of money. Thereupon the young woman determined in her own mind that she would recompense him with presents of choice fish.
Peace was thus made between them; the beautiful Norman even took Florent under her protection. Apart from this, however, the whole market was becoming reconciled to the new inspector, the fish-wives arriving at the conclusion that he was really a better fellow than Monsieur Verlaque, notwithstanding his strange eyes. It was only old Madame Mehudin who still shrugged her shoulders, full of rancour as she was against the “long lanky-guts,” as she contemptuously called him. And then, too, a strange thing happened. One morning, when Florent stopped with a smile before Claire’s tanks, the girl dropped an eel which she was holding and angrily turned her back upon him, her cheeks quite swollen and reddened by temper. The inspector was so much astonished that he spoke to La Normande about it.
“Oh, never mind her,” said the young woman; “she’s cracked. She makes a point of always differing from everybody else. She only behaved like that to annoy me.”
La Normande was now triumphant — she strutted about her stall, and became more coquettish than ever, arranging her hair in the most elaborate manner. Meeting the handsome Lisa one day she returned her look of scorn, and even burst out laughing in her face. The certainty she felt of driving the mistress of the pork shop to despair by winning her cousin from her endowed her with a gay, sonorous laugh, which rolled up from her chest and rippled her white plump neck. She now had the whim of dressing Muche very showily in a little Highland costume and velvet bonnet. The lad had never previously worn anything but a tattered blouse. It unfortunately happened, however, that just about this time he again became very fond of the water. The ice had melted and the weather was mild, so he gave his Scotch jacket a bath, turning the fountain tap on at full flow and letting the water pour down his arm from his elbow to his hand. He called this “playing at gutters.” Then a little later, when his mother came up and caught him, she found him with two other young scamps watching a couple of little fishes swimming about in his velvet cap, which he had filled with water.
For nearly eight months Florent lived in the markets, feeling continual drowsiness. After his seven years of suffering he had lighted upon such calm quietude, such unbroken regularity of life, that he was scarcely conscious of existing. He gave himself up to this jog-trot peacefulness with a dazed sort of feeling, continually experiencing surprise at finding himself each morning in the same armchair in the little office. This office with its bare hut-like appearance had a charm for him. He here found a quiet and secluded refuge amidst that ceaseless roar of the markets which made him dream of some surging sea spreading around him, and isolating him from the world. Gradually, however, a vague nervousness began to prey upon him; he became discontented, accused himself of faults which he could not define, and began to rebel against the emptiness which he experienced more and more acutely in mind and body. Then, too, the evil smells of the fish market brought him nausea. By degrees he became unhinged, his vague boredom developing into restless, nervous excitement.
All his days were precisely alike, spent among the same sounds and the same odours. In the mornings the noisy buzzing of the auction sales resounded in his ears like a distant echo of bells; and sometimes, when there was a delay in the arrival of the fish, the auctions continued till very late. Upon these occasions he remained in the pavilion till noon, disturbed at every moment by quarrels and disputes, which he endeavoured to settle with scrupulous justice. Hours elapsed before he could get free of some miserable matter or other which was exciting the market. He paced up and down amidst the crush and uproar of the sales, slowly perambulating the alleys and occasionally stopping in front of the stalls which fringed the Rue Rambuteau, and where lay rosy heaps of prawns and baskets of boiled lobsters with tails tied backwards, while live ones were gradually dying as they sprawled over the marble slabs. And then he would watch gentlemen in silk hats and black gloves bargaining with the fish-wives, and finally going off with boiled lobsters wrapped in paper in the pockets of their frock-coats.* Farther away, at the temporary stalls, where the commoner sorts of fish were sold, he would recognise the bareheaded women of the neighbourhood, who always came at the same hour to make their purchases.
* The little fish-basket for the use of customers, so familiar in London, is not known in Paris. — Translator.
At times he took an interest in some well-dressed lady trailing her lace petticoats over the damp stones, and escorted by a servant in a white apron; and he would follow her at a little distance on noticing how the fish-wives shrugged their shoulders at sight of her air of disgust. The medley of hampers and baskets and bags, the crowd of skirts flitting along the damp alleys, occupied his attention until lunchtime. He took a delight in the dripping water and the fresh breeze as he passed from the acrid smell of the shell-fish to the pungent odour of the salted fish. It was always with the latter that he brought his official round of inspection to a close. The cases of red herrings, the Nantes sardines on their layers of leaves, and the rolled cod, exposed for sale under the eyes of stout, faded fish-wives, brought him thoughts of a voyage necessitating a vast supply of salted provisions.
In the afternoon the markets became quieter, grew drowsy; and Florent then shut himself up in his office, made out his reports, and enjoyed the happiest hours of his day. If he happened to go out and cross the fish market, he found it almost deserted. There was no longer the crushing and pushing and uproar of ten o’clock in the morning. The fish-wives, seated behind their stalls, leant back knitting, while a few belated purchasers prowled about casting sidelong glances at the remaining fish, with the thoughtful eyes and compressed lips of women closely calculating the price of their dinner. At last the twilight fell, there was a noise of boxes being moved, and the fish was laid for the night on beds of ice; and then, after witnessing the closing of the gates, Florent went off, seemingly carrying the fish market along with him in his clothes and his beard and his hair.
For the first few months this penetrating odour caused him no great discomfort. The winter was a severe one, the frosts converted the alleys into slippery mirrors, and the fountains and marble slabs were fringed with a lacework of ice. In the mornings it was necessary to place little braziers underneath the taps before a drop of water could be drawn. The frozen fish had twisted tails; and, dull of hue and hard to the touch like unpolished metal, gave out a ringing sound akin to that of pale cast-iron when it snaps. Until February the pavilion presented a most mournful appearance: it was deserted, and wrapped in a bristling shroud of ice. But with March came a thaw, with mild weather and fogs and rain. Then the fish became soft again, and unpleasant odours mingled with the smell of mud wafted from the neighbouring streets. These odours were as yet vague, tempered by the moisture which clung to the ground. But in the blazing June afternoons a reeking stench arose, and the atmosphere became heavy with a pestilential haze. The upper windows were then opened, and huge blinds of grey canvas were drawn beneath the burning sky. Nevertheless, a fiery rain seemed to be pouring down, heating the market as though it were a big stove, and there was not a breath of air to waft away the noxious emanations from the fish. A visible steam went up from the stalls.
The masses of food amongst which Florent lived now began to cause him the greatest discomfort. The disgust with which the pork shop had filled him came back in a still more intolerable fashion. He almost sickened as he passed these masses of fish, which, despite all the water lavished upon them, turned bad under a sudden whiff of hot air. Even when he shut himself up in his office his discomfort continued, for the abominable odour forced its way through the chinks in the woodwork of the window and door. When the sky was grey and leaden, the little room remained quite dark; and then the day was like a long twilight in the depths of some fetid march. He was often attacked by fits of nervous excitement, and felt a craving desire to walk; and he would then descend into the cellars by the broad staircase opening in the middle of the pavilion. In the pent-up air down below, in the dim light of the occasional gas jets, he once more found the refreshing coolness diffused by pure cold water. He would stand in front of the big tank where the reserve stock of live fish was kept, and listen to the ceaseless murmur of the four streamlets of water falling from the four corners of the central urn, and then spreading into a broad stream and gliding beneath the locked gratings of the basins with a gentle and continuous flow. This subterranean spring, this stream murmuring in the gloom, had a tranquillising effect upon him. Of an evening, too, he delighted in the fine sunsets which threw the delicate lacework of the market buildings blackly against the red glow of the heavens. The dancing dust of the last sun rays streamed through every opening, through every chink of the Venetian shutters, and the whole was like some luminous transparency on which the slender shafts of the columns, the elegant curves of the girders, and the geometrical tracery of the roofs were minutely outlined. Florent feasted his eyes on this mighty diagram washed in with Indian ink on phosphorescent vellum, and his mind reverted to his old fancy of a colossal machine with wheels and levers and beams espied in the crimson glow of the fires blazing beneath its boilers. At each consecutive hour of the day the changing play of the light — from the bluish haze of early morning and the black shadows of noon to the flaring of the sinking sun and the paling of its fires in the ashy grey of the twilight — revealed the markets under a new aspect; but on the flaming evenings, when the foul smells arose and forced their way across the broad yellow beams like hot puffs of steam, Florent again experienced discomfort, and his dream changed, and he imagined himself in some gigantic knacker’s boiling-house where the fat of a whole people was being melted down.
The coarseness of the market people, whose words and gestures seemed to be infected with the evil smell of the place, also made him suffer. He was very tolerant, and showed no mock modesty; still, these impudent women often embarrassed him. Madame Francois, whom he had again met, was the only one with whom he felt at ease. She showed such pleasure on learning he had found a berth and was quite comfortable and out of worry, as she put it, that he was quite touched. The laughter of Lisa, the handsome Norman, and the others disquieted him; but of Madame Francois he would willingly have made a confidante. She never laughed mockingly at him; when she did laugh, it was like a woman rejoicing at another’s happiness. She was a brave, plucky creature, too; hers was a hard business in winter, during the frosts, and the rainy weather was still more trying. On some mornings Florent saw her arrive in a pouring deluge which had been slowly, coldly falling ever since the previous night. Between Nanterre and Paris the wheels of her cart had sunk up to the axles in mud, and Balthazar was caked with mire to his belly. His mistress would pity him and sympathise with him as she wiped him down with some old aprons.
“The poor creatures are very sensitive,” said she; “a mere nothing gives them a cold. Ah, my poor old Balthazar! I really thought that we had tumbled into the Seine as we crossed the Neuilly bridge, the rain came down in such a deluge!”
While Balthazar was housed in the inn stable his mistress remained in the pouring rain to sell her vegetables. The footway was transformed into a lake of liquid mud. The cabbages, carrots, and turnips were pelted by the grey water, quite drowned by the muddy torrent that rushed along the pavement. There was no longer any of that glorious greenery so apparent on bright mornings. The market gardeners, cowering in their heavy cloaks beneath the downpour, swore at the municipality which, after due inquiry, had declared that rain was in no way injurious to vegetables, and that there was accordingly no necessity to erect any shelters.
Those rainy mornings greatly worried Florent, who thought about Madame Francois. He always managed to slip away and get a word with her. But he never found her at all low-spirited. She shook herself like a poodle, saying that she was quite used to such weather, and was not made of sugar, to melt away beneath a few drops of rain. However, he made her seek refuge for a few minutes in one of the covered ways, and frequently even took her to Monsieur Lebigre’s, where they had some hot wine together. While she with her peaceful face beamed on him in all friendliness, he felt quite delighted with the healthy odour of the fields which she brought into the midst of the foul market atmosphere. She exhaled a scent of earth, hay, fresh air, and open skies.
“You must come to Nanterre, my lad,” she said to him, “and look at my kitchen garden. I have put borders of thyme everywhere. How bad your villainous Paris does smell!”
Then she went off, dripping. Florent, on his side, felt quite re-invigorated when he parted from her. He tried, too the effect of work upon the nervous depression from which he suffered. He was a man of a very methodical temperament, and sometimes carried out his plans for the allotment of his time with a strictness that bordered on mania. He shut himself up two evenings a week in order to write an exhaustive work on Cayenne. His modest bedroom was excellently adapted, he thought, to calm his mind and incline him to work. He lighted his fire, saw that the pomegranate at the foot of the bed was looking all right, and then seated himself at the little table, and remained working till midnight. He had pushed the missal and Dream-book back in the drawer, which was now filling with notes, memoranda, manuscripts of all kinds. The work on Cayenne made but slow progress, however, as it was constantly being interrupted by other projects, plans for enormous undertakings which he sketched out in a few words. He successively drafted an outline of a complete reform of the administrative system of the markets, a scheme for transforming the city dues, levied on produce as it entered Paris, into taxes levied upon the sales, a new system of victualling the poorer neighbourhoods, and, lastly, a somewhat vague socialist enactment for the storing in common warehouses of all the provisions brought to the markets, and the ensuring of a minimum daily supply to each household in Paris. As he sat there, with his head bent over his table, and his mind absorbed in thoughts of all these weighty matters, his gloomy figure cast a great black shadow on the soft peacefulness of the garret. Sometimes a chaffinch which he had picked up one snowy day in the market would mistake the lamplight for the day, and break the silence, which only the scratching of Florent’s pen on his paper disturbed, by a cry.
Florent was fated to revert to politics. He had suffered too much through them not to make them the dearest occupation of his life. Under other conditions he might have become a good provincial schoolmaster, happy in the peaceful life of some little town. But he had been treated as though he were a wolf, and felt as though he had been marked out by exile for some great combative task. His nervous discomfort was the outcome of his long reveries at Cayenne, the brooding bitterness he had felt at his unmerited sufferings, and the vows he had secretly sworn to avenge humanity and justice — the former scourged with a whip, and the latter trodden under foot. Those colossal markets and their teeming odoriferous masses of food had hastened the crisis. To Florent they appeared symbolical of some glutted, digesting beast, of Paris, wallowing in its fat and silently upholding the Empire. He seemed to be encircled by swelling forms and sleek, fat faces, which ever and ever protested against his own martyrlike scragginess and sallow, discontented visage. To him the markets were like the stomach of the shopkeeping classes, the stomach of all the folks of average rectitude puffing itself out, rejoicing, glistening in the sunshine, and declaring that everything was for the best, since peaceable people had never before grown so beautifully fat. As these thoughts passed through his mind Florent clenched his fists, and felt ready for a struggle, more irritated now by the thought of his exile than he had been when he first returned to France. Hatred resumed entire possession of him. He often let his pen drop and became absorbed in dreams. The dying fire cast a bright glow upon his face; the lamp burned smokily, and the chaffinch fell asleep again on one leg, with its head tucked under its wing.
Sometimes Auguste, on coming upstairs at eleven o’clock and seeing the light shining under the door, would knock, before going to bed. Florent admitted him with some impatience. The assistant sat down in front of the fire, speaking but little, and never saying why he had come. His eyes would all the time remain fixed upon the photograph of himself and Augustine in their Sunday finery. Florent came to the conclusion that the young man took a pleasure in visiting the room for the simple reason that it had been occupied by his sweetheart; and one evening he asked him with a smile if he had guessed rightly.
“Well, perhaps it is so,” replied Auguste, very much surprised at the discovery which he himself now made of the reasons which actuated him. “I’d really never thought of that before. I came to see you without knowing why. But if I were to tell Augustine, how she’d laugh!”
Whenever he showed himself at all loquacious, his one eternal theme was the pork shop which he was going to set up with Augustine at Plaisance. He seemed so perfectly assured of arranging his life in accordance with his desires, that Florent grew to feel a sort of respect for him, mingled with irritation. After all, the young fellow was very resolute and energetic, in spite of his seeming stupidity. He made straight for the goal he had in view, and would doubtless reach it in perfect assurance and happiness. On the evenings of these visits from the apprentice, Florent could not settle down to work again; he went off to bed in a discontented mood, and did not recover his equilibrium till the thought passed through his mind, “Why, that Auguste is a perfect animal!”
Every month he went to Clamart to see Monsieur Verlaque. These visits were almost a delight to him. The poor man still lingered on, to the great astonishment of Gavard, who had not expected him to last for more than six months. Every time that Florent went to see him Verlaque would declare that he was feeling better, and was most anxious to resume his work again. But the days glided by, and he had serious relapses. Florent would sit by his bedside, chat about the fish market, and do what he could to enliven him. He deposited on the pedestal table the fifty francs which he surrendered to him each month; and the old inspector, though the payment had been agreed upon, invariably protested, and seemed disinclined to take the money. Then they would begin to speak of something else, and the coins remained lying on the table. When Florent went away, Madame Verlaque always accompanied him to the street door. She was a gentle little woman, of a very tearful disposition. Her one topic of conversation was the expense necessitated by her husband’s illness, the costliness of chicken broth, butcher’s meat, Bordeaux wine, medicine, and doctors’ fees. Her doleful conversation greatly embarrassed Florent, and on the first few occasions he did not understand the drift of it. But at last, as the poor woman seemed always in a state of tears, and kept saying how happy and comfortable they had been when they had enjoyed the full salary of eighteen hundred francs a year, he timidly offered to make her a private allowance, to be kept secret from her husband. This offer, however, she declined, inconsistently declaring that the fifty francs were sufficient. But in the course of the month she frequently wrote to Florent, calling him their saviour. Her handwriting was small and fine, yet she would contrive to fill three pages of letter paper with humble, flowing sentences entreating the loan of ten francs; and this she at last did so regularly that wellnigh the whole of Florent’s hundred and fifty francs found its way to the Verlaques. The husband was probably unaware of it; however, the wife gratefully kissed Florent’s hands. This charity afforded him the greatest pleasure, and he concealed it as though it were some forbidden selfish indulgence.
“That rascal Verlaque is making a fool of you,” Gavard would sometimes say. “He’s coddling himself up finely now that you are doing the work and paying him an income.”
At last one day Florent replied:
“Oh, we’ve arranged matters together. I’m only to give him twenty-five francs a month in future.”
As a matter of fact, Florent had but little need of money. The Quenus continued to provide him with board and lodging; and the few francs which he kept by him sufficed to pay for the refreshment he took in the evening at Monsieur Lebigre’s. His life had gradually assumed all the regularity of clockwork. He worked in his bedroom, continued to teach little Muche twice a week from eight to nine o’clock, devoted an evening to Lisa, to avoid offending her, and spent the rest of his spare time in the little “cabinet” with Gavard and his friends.
When he went to the Mehudins’ there was a touch of tutorial stiffness in his gentle demeanour. He was pleased with the old house in the Rue Pirouette. On the ground floor he passed through the faint odours pervading the premises of the purveyor of cooked vegetables. Big pans of boiled spinach and sorrel stood cooling in the little backyard. Then he ascended the winding staircase, greasy and dark, with worn and bulging steps which sloped in a disquieting manner. The Mehudins occupied the whole of the second floor. Even when they had attained to comfortable circumstances the old mother had always declined to move into fresh quarters, despite all the supplications of her daughters, who dreamt of living in a new house in a fine broad street. But on this point the old woman was not to be moved; she had lived there, she said, and meant to die there. She contented herself, moreover, with a dark little closet, leaving the largest rooms to Claire and La Normande. The later, with the authority of the elder born, had taken possession of the room that overlooked the street; it was the best and largest of the suite. Claire was so much annoyed at her sister’s action in the matter that she refused to occupy the adjoining room, whose window overlooked the yard, and obstinately insisted on sleeping on the other side of the landing, in a sort of garret, which she did not even have whitewashed. However, she had her own key, and so was independent; directly anything happened to displease her she locked herself up in her own quarters.
As a rule, when Florent arrived the Mehudins were just finishing their dinner. Muche sprang to his neck, and for a moment the young man remained seated with the lad chattering between his legs. Then, when the oilcloth cover had been wiped, the lesson began on a corner of the table. The beautiful Norman gave Florent a cordial welcome. She generally began to knit or mend some linen, and would draw her chair up to the table and work by the light of the same lamp as the others; and she frequently put down her needle to listen to the lesson, which filled her with surprise. She soon began to feel warm esteem for this man who seemed so clever, who, in speaking to the little one, showed himself as gentle as a woman, and manifested angelic patience in again and again repeating the same instructions. She no longer considered him at all plain, but even felt somewhat jealous of beautiful Lisa. And then she drew her chair still nearer, and gazed at Florent with an embarrassing smile.
“But you are jogging my elbow, mother, and I can’t write,” Muche exclaimed angrily. “There! see what a blot you’ve made me make! Get further away, do!”
La Normande now gradually began to say a good many unpleasant things about beautiful Lisa. She pretended that the latter concealed her real age, that she laced her stays so tightly that she nearly suffocated herself, and that if she came down of a morning looking so trim and neat, without a single hair out of place, it must be because she looked perfectly hideous when in dishabille. Then La Normande would raise her arm a little, and say that there was no need for her to wear any stays to cramp and deform her figure. At these times the lessons would be interrupted, and Muche gazed with interest at his mother as she raised her arms. Florent listened to her, and even laughed, thinking to himself that women were very odd creatures. The rivalry between the beautiful Norman and beautiful Lisa amused him.
Muche, however, managed to finish his page of writing. Florent, who was a good penman, set him copies in large hand and round hand on slips of paper. The words he chose were very long and took up the whole line, and he evinced a marked partiality for such expressions as “tyrannically,” “liberticide,” “unconstitutional,” and “revolutionary.” At times also he made the boy copy such sentences as these: “The day of justice will surely come”; “The suffering of the just man is the condemnation of the oppressor”; “When the hour strikes, the guilty shall fall.” In preparing these copy slips he was, indeed, influenced by the ideas which haunted his brain; he would for the time become quite oblivious of Muche, the beautiful Norman, and all his surroundings. The lad would have copied Rousseau’s “Contrat Social” had he been told to do so; and thus, drawing each letter in turn, he filled page after page with lines of “tyrannically” and “unconstitutional.”
As long as the tutor remained there, old Madame Mehudin kept fidgeting round the table, muttering to herself. She still harboured terrible rancour against Florent; and asserted that it was folly to make the lad work in that way at a time when children should be in bed. She would certainly have turned that “spindle-shanks” out of the house, if the beautiful Norman, after a stormy scene, had not bluntly told her that she would go to live elsewhere if she were not allowed to receive whom she chose. However, the pair began quarrelling again on the subject every evening.
“You may say what you like,” exclaimed the old woman; “but he’s got treacherous eyes. And, besides, I’m always suspicious of those skinny people. A skinny man’s capable of anything. I’ve never come across a decent one yet. That one’s as flat as a board. And he’s got such an ugly face, too! Though I’m sixty-five and more, I’d precious soon send him about his business if he came a-courting of me!”
She said this because she had a shrewd idea of how matters were likely to turn out. And then she went on to speak in laudatory terms of Monsieur Lebigre, who, indeed, paid the greatest attention to the beautiful Norman. Apart from the handsome dowry which he imagined she would bring with her, he considered that she would be a magnificent acquisition to his counter. The old woman never missed an opportunity to sound his praises; there was no lankiness, at any rate, about him, said she; he was stout and strong, with a pair of calves which would have done honour even to one of the Emperor’s footmen.
However, La Normande shrugged her shoulders and snappishly replied: “What do I care whether he’s stout or not? I don’t want him or anybody. And besides, I shall do as I please.”
Then, if the old woman became too pointed in her remarks, the other added: “It’s no business of yours, and besides, it isn’t true. Hold your tongue and don’t worry me.” And thereupon she would go off into her room, banging the door behind her. Florent, however, had a yet more bitter enemy than Madame Mehudin in the house. As soon as ever he arrived there, Claire would get up without a word, take a candle, and go off to her own room on the other side of the landing; and she could be heard locking her door in a burst of sullen anger. One evening when her sister asked the tutor to dinner, she prepared her own food on the landing, and ate it in her bedroom; and now and again she secluded herself so closely that nothing was seen of her for a week at a time. She usually retained her appearance of soft lissomness, but periodically had a fit of iron rigidity, when her eyes blazed from under her pale tawny locks like those of a distrustful wild animal. Old Mother Mehudin, fancying that she might relieve herself in her company, only made her furious by speaking to her of Florent; and thereupon the old woman, in her exasperation, told everyone that she would have gone off and left her daughters to themselves had she not been afraid of their devouring each other if they remained alone together.
As Florent went away one evening, he passed in front of Claire’s door, which was standing wide open. He saw the girl look at him, and turn very red. Her hostile demeanour annoyed him; and it was only the timidity which he felt in the presence of women that restrained him from seeking an explanation of her conduct. On this particular evening he would certainly have addressed her if he had not detected Mademoiselle Saget’s pale face peering over the balustrade of the upper landing. So he went his way, but had not taken a dozen steps before Claire’s door was closed behind him with such violence as to shake the whole staircase. It was after this that Mademoiselle Saget, eager to propagate slander, went about repeating everywhere that Madame Quenu’s cousin was “carrying on” most dreadfully with both the Mehudin girls.
Florent, however, gave very little thought to these two handsome young women. His usual manner towards them was that of a man who has but little success with the sex. Certainly he had come to entertain a feeling of genuine friendship for La Normande, who really displayed a very good heart when her impetuous temper did not run away with her. But he never went any further than this. Moreover, the queenly proportions of her robust figure filled him with a kind of alarm; and of an evening, whenever she drew her chair up to the lamp and bent forward as though to look at Muche’s copy-book, he drew in his own sharp bony elbows and shrunken shoulders as if realising what a pitiful specimen of humanity he was by the side of that buxom, hardy creature so full of the life of ripe womanhood. Moreover, there was another reason why he recoiled from her. The smells of the markets distressed him; on finishing his duties of an evening he would have liked to escape from the fishy odour amidst which his days were spent; but, alas! beautiful though La Normande was, this odour seemed to adhere to her silky skin. She had tried every sort of aromatic oil, and bathed freely; but as soon as the freshening influence of the bath was over her blood again impregnated her skin with the faint odour of salmon, the musky perfume of smelts, and the pungent scent of herrings and skate. Her skirts, too, as she moved about, exhaled these fishy smells, and she walked as though amidst an atmosphere redolent of slimy seaweed. With her tall, goddess-like figure, her purity of form, and transparency of complexion she resembled some lovely antique marble that had rolled about in the depths of the sea and had been brought to land in some fisherman’s net.
Mademoiselle Saget, however, swore by all her gods that Florent was the young woman’s lover. According to her account, indeed, he courted both the sisters. She had quarrelled with the beautiful Norman about a ten-sou dab; and ever since this falling-out she had manifested warm friendship for handsome Lisa. By this means she hoped the sooner to arrive at a solution of what she called the Quenus’ mystery. Florent still continued to elude her curiosity, and she told her friends that she felt like a body without a soul, though she was careful not to reveal what was troubling her so grievously. A young girl infatuated with a hopeless passion could not have been in more distress than this terrible old woman at finding herself unable to solve the mystery of the Quenus’ cousin. She was constantly playing the spy on Florent, following him about, and watching him, in a burning rage at her failure to satisfy her rampant curiosity. Now that he had begun to visit the Mehudins she was for ever haunting the stairs and landings. She soon discovered that handsome Lisa was much annoyed at Florent visiting “those women,” and accordingly she called at the pork shop every morning with a budget of information. She went in shrivelled and shrunk by the frosty air, and, resting her hands on the heating-pan to warm them, remained in front of the counter buying nothing, but repeating in her shrill voice: “He was with them again yesterday; he seems to live there now. I heard La Normande call him ‘my dear’ on the staircase.”
She indulged like this in all sorts of lies in order to remain in the shop and continue warming her hands for a little longer. On the morning after the evening when she had heard Claire close her door behind Florent, she spun out her story for a good half hour, inventing all sorts of mendacious and abominable particulars.
Lisa, who had assumed a look of contemptuous scorn, said but little, simply encouraging Mademoiselle Saget’s gossip by her silence. At last, however, she interrupted her. “No, no,” she said; “I can’t really listen to all that. Is it possible that there can be such women?”
Thereupon Mademoiselle Saget told Lisa that unfortunately all women were not so well conducted as herself. And then she pretended to find all sorts of excuses for Florent: it wasn’t his fault; he was no doubt a bachelor; these women had very likely inveigled him in their snares. In this way she hinted questions without openly asking them. But Lisa preserved silence with respect to her cousin, merely shrugging her shoulders and compressing her lips. When Mademoiselle Saget at last went away, the mistress of the shop glanced with disgust at the cover of the heating-pan, the glistening metal of which had been tarnished by the impression of the old woman’s little hands.
“Augustine,” she cried, “bring a duster, and wipe the cover of the heating-pan. It’s quite filthy!”
The rivalry between the beautiful Lisa and the beautiful Norman now became formidable. The beautiful Norman flattered herself that she had carried a lover off from her enemy; and the beautiful Lisa was indignant with the hussy who, by luring the sly cousin to her home, would surely end by compromising them all. The natural temperament of each woman manifested itself in the hostilities which ensued. The one remained calm and scornful, like a lady who holds up her skirts to keep them from being soiled by the mud; while the other, much less subject to shame, displayed insolent gaiety and swaggered along the footways with the airs of a duellist seeking a cause of quarrel. Each of their skirmishes would be the talk of the fish market for the whole day. When the beautiful Norman saw the beautiful Lisa standing at the door of her shop, she would go out of her way in order to pass her, and brush against her with her apron; and then the angry glances of the two rivals crossed like rapiers, with the rapid flash and thrust of pointed steel. When the beautiful Lisa, on the other hand, went to the fish market, she assumed an expression of disgust on approaching the beautiful Norman’s stall. And then she proceeded to purchase some big fish — a turbot or a salmon — of a neighbouring dealer, spreading her money out on the marble slab as she did so, for she had noticed that this seemed to have a painful effect upon the “hussy,” who ceased laughing at the sight. To hear the two rivals speak, anyone would have supposed that the fish and pork they sold were quite unfit for food. However, their principal engagements took place when the beautiful Norman was seated at her stall and the beautiful Lisa at her counter, and they glowered blackly at each other across the Rue Rambuteau. They sat in state in their big white aprons, decked out with showy toilets and jewels, and the battle between them would commence early in the morning.
“Hallo, the fat woman’s got up!” the beautiful Norman would exclaim. “She ties herself up as tightly as her sausages! Ah, she’s got Saturday’s collar on again, and she’s still wearing that poplin dress!”
At the same moment, on the opposite side of the street, beautiful Lisa was saying to her shop girl: “Just look at that creature staring at us over yonder, Augustine! She’s getting quite deformed by the life she leads. Do you see her earrings? She’s wearing those big drops of hers, isn’t she? It makes one feel ashamed to see a girl like that with brilliants.”
All complaisance, Augustine echoed her mistress’s words.
When either of them was able to display a new ornament it was like scoring a victory — the other one almost choked with spleen. Every day they would scrutinise and count each other’s customers, and manifest the greatest annoyance if they thought that the “big thing over the way” was doing the better business. Then they spied out what each had for lunch. Each knew what the other ate, and even watched to see how she digested it. In the afternoon, while the one sat amidst her cooked meats and the other amidst her fish, they posed and gave themselves airs, as though they were queens of beauty. It was then that the victory of the day was decided. The beautiful Norman embroidered, selecting the most delicate and difficult work, and this aroused Lisa’s exasperation.
“Ah!” she said, speaking of her rival, “she had far better mend her boy’s stockings. He’s running about quite barefooted. Just look at that fine lady, with her red hands stinking of fish!”
For her part, Lisa usually knitted.
“She’s still at that same sock,” La Normande would say, as she watched her. “She eats so much that she goes to sleep over her work. I pity her poor husband if he’s waiting for those socks to keep his feet warm!”
They would sit glowering at each other with this implacable hostility until evening, taking note of every customer, and displaying such keen eyesight that they detected the smallest details of each other’s dress and person when other women declared that they could see nothing at such a distance. Mademoiselle Saget expressed the highest admiration for Madame Quenu’s wonderful sight when she one day detected a scratch on the fish-girl’s left cheek. With eyes like those, said the old maid, one might even see through a door. However, the victory often remained undecided when night fell; sometimes one or other of the rivals was temporarily crushed, but she took her revenge on the morrow. Several people of the neighbourhood actually laid wagers on these contests, some backing the beautiful Lisa and others the beautiful Norman.
At last they ended by forbidding their children to speak to one another. Pauline and Muche had formerly been good friends, notwithstanding the girl’s stiff petticoats and lady-like demeanour, and the lad’s tattered appearance, coarse language, and rough manners. They had at times played together at horses on the broad footway in front of the fish market, Pauline always being the horse and Muche the driver. One day, however, when the boy came in all simplicity to seek his playmate, Lisa turned him out of the house, declaring that he was a dirty little street arab.
“One can’t tell what may happen with children who have been so shockingly brought up,” she observed.
“Yes, indeed; you are quite right,” replied Mademoiselle Saget, who happened to be present.
When Muche, who was barely seven years old, came in tears to his mother to tell her of what had happened, La Normande broke out into a terrible passion. At the first moment she felt a strong inclination to rush over to the Quenu–Gradelles’ and smash everything in their shop. But eventually she contented herself with giving Muche a whipping.
“If ever I catch you going there again,” she cried, boiling over with anger, “you’ll get it hot from me, I can tell you!”
Florent, however, was the real victim of the two women. It was he, in truth, who had set them by the ears, and it was on his account that they were fighting each other. Ever since he had appeared upon the scene things had been going from bad to worse. He compromised and disturbed and embittered all these people, who had previously lived in such sleek peace and harmony. The beautiful Norman felt inclined to claw him when he lingered too long with the Quenus, and it was chiefly from an impulse of hostile rivalry that she desired to win him to herself. The beautiful Lisa, on her side, maintained a cold judicial bearing, and although extremely annoyed, forced herself to silence whenever she saw Florent leaving the pork shop to go to the Rue Pirouette.
Still, there was now much less cordiality than formerly round the Quenus’ dinner-table in the evening. The clean, prim dining-room seemed to have assumed an aspect of chilling severity. Florent divined a reproach, a sort of condemnation in the bright oak, the polished lamp, and the new matting. He scarcely dared to eat for fear of letting crumbs fall on the floor or soiling his plate. There was a guileless simplicity about him which prevented him from seeing how the land really lay. He still praised Lisa’s affectionate kindliness on all sides; and outwardly, indeed, she did continue to treat him with all gentleness.
“It is very strange,” she said to him one day with a smile, as though she were joking; “although you don’t eat at all badly now, you don’t get fatter. Your food doesn’t seem to do you any good.”
At this Quenu laughed aloud, and tapping his brother’s stomach, protested that the whole contents of the pork shop might pass through it without depositing a layer of fat as thick as a two-sou piece. However, Lisa’s insistence on this particular subject was instinct with that same suspicious dislike for fleshless men which Madame Mehudin manifested more outspokenly; and behind it all there was likewise a veiled allusion to the disorderly life which she imagined Florent was leading. She never, however, spoke a word to him about La Normande. Quenu had attempted a joke on the subject one evening, but Lisa had received it so icily that the good man had not ventured to refer to the matter again. They would remain seated at table for a few moments after dessert, and Florent, who had noticed his sister-in-law’s vexation if ever he went off too soon, tried to find something to talk about. On these occasions Lisa would be near him, and certainly he did not suffer in her presence from that fishy smell which assailed him when he was in the company of La Normande. The mistress of the pork shop, on the contrary, exhaled an odour of fat and rich meats. Moreover, not a thrill of life stirred her tight-fitting bodice; she was all massiveness and all sedateness. Gavard once said to Florent in confidence that Madame Quenu was no doubt handsome, but that for his part he did not admire such armour-plated women.
Lisa avoided talking to Quenu of Florent. She habitually prided herself on her patience, and considered, too, that it would not be proper to cause any unpleasantness between the brothers, unless some peremptory reason for her interference should arise. As she said, she could put up with a good deal, but, of course, she must not be tried too far. She had now reached the period of courteous tolerance, wearing an expressionless face, affecting perfect indifference and strict politeness, and carefully avoiding everything which might seem to hint that Florent was boarding and lodging with them without their receiving the slightest payment from him. Not, indeed, that she would have accepted any payment from him, she was above all that; still he might, at any rate, she thought, have lunched away from the house.
“We never seem to be alone now,” she remarked to Quenu one day. “If there is anything we want to say to one another we have to wait till we go upstairs at night.”
And then, one night when they were in bed, she said to him: “Your brother earns a hundred and fifty francs a month, doesn’t he? Well, it’s strange he can’t put a trifle by to buy himself some more linen. I’ve been obliged to give him three more of your old shirts.”
“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Quenu replied. “Florent’s not hard to please; and we must let him keep his money for himself.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” said Lisa, without pressing the matter further. “I didn’t mention it for that reason. Whether he spends his money well or ill, it isn’t our business.”
In her own mind she felt quite sure that he wasted his salary at the Mehudins’.
Only on one occasion did she break through her habitual calmness of demeanour, the quiet reserve which was the result of both natural temperament and preconceived design. The beautiful Norman had made Florent a present of a magnificent salmon. Feeling very much embarrassed with the fish, and not daring to refuse it, he brought it to Lisa.
“You can make a pasty of it,” he said ingenuously.
Lisa looked at him sternly with whitening lips. Then, striving to restrain her anger, she exclaimed: “Do you think that we are short of food? Thank God, we’ve got quite enough to eat here! Take it back!”
“Well, at any rate, cook it for me,” replied Florent, amazed by her anger; “I’ll eat it myself.”
At this she burst out furiously.
“The house isn’t an inn! Tell those who gave you the fish to cook it for you! I won’t have my pans tainted and infected! Take it back again! Do you hear?”
If he had not gone away with it, she would certainly have seized it and hurled it into the street. Florent took it to Monsieur Lebigre’s, where Rose was ordered to make a pasty of it; and one evening the pasty was eaten in the little “cabinet,” Gavard, who was present, “standing” some oysters for the occasion. Florent now gradually came more and more frequently to Monsieur Lebigre’s, till at last he was constantly to be met in the little private room. He there found an atmosphere of heated excitement in which his political feverishness could pulsate freely. At times, now, when he shut himself up in his garret to work, the quiet simplicity of the little room irritated him, his theoretical search for liberty proved quite insufficient, and it became necessary that he should go downstairs, sally out, and seek satisfaction in the trenchant axioms of Charvet and the wild outbursts of Logre. During the first few evenings the clamour and chatter had made him feel ill at ease; he was then quite conscious of their utter emptiness, but he felt a need of drowning his thoughts, of goading himself on to some extreme resolution which might calm his mental disquietude. The atmosphere of the little room, reeking with the odour of spirits and warm with tobacco smoke, intoxicated him and filled him with peculiar beatitude, prompting a kind of self-surrender which made him willing to acquiesce in the wildest ideas. He grew attached to those he met there, and looked for them and awaited their coming with a pleasure which increased with habit. Robine’s mild, bearded countenance, Clemence’s serious profile, Charvet’s fleshless pallor, Logre’s hump, Gavard, Alexandre, and Lacaille, all entered into his life, and assumed a larger and larger place in it. He took quite a sensual enjoyment in these meetings. When his fingers closed round the brass knob on the door of the little cabinet it seemed to be animated with life, to warm him, and turn of its own accord. Had he grasped the supple wrist of a woman he could not have felt a more thrilling emotion.
To tell the truth, very serious things took place in that little room. One evening, Logre, after indulging in wilder outbursts than usual, banged his fist upon the table, declaring that if they were men they would make a clean sweep of the Government. And he added that it was necessary they should come to an understanding without further delay, if they desired to be fully prepared when the time for action arrived. Then they all bent their heads together, discussed the matter in lower tones, and decided to form a little “group,” which should be ready for whatever might happen. From that day forward Gavard flattered himself that he was a member of a secret society, and was engaged in a conspiracy. The little circle received no new members, but Logre promised to put it into communication with other associations with which he was acquainted; and then, as soon as they held all Paris in their grasp, they would rise and make the Tuileries’ people dance. A series of endless discussions, renewed during several months, then began — discussions on questions of organisation, on questions of ways and means, on questions of strategy, and of the form of the future Government. As soon as Rose had brought Clemence’s grog, Charvet’s and Robine’s beer, the coffee for Logre, Gavard, and Florent, and the liqueur glasses of brandy for Lacaille and Alexandre, the door of the cabinet was carefully fastened, and the debate began.
Charvet and Florent were naturally those whose utterances were listened to with the greatest attention. Gavard had not been able to keep his tongue from wagging, but had gradually related the whole story of Cayenne; and Florent found himself surrounded by a halo of martyrdom. His words were received as though they were the expression of indisputable dogmas. One evening, however, the poultry dealer, vexed at hearing his friend, who happened to be absent, attacked, exclaimed: “Don’t say anything against Florent; he’s been to Cayenne!”
Charvet was rather annoyed by the advantage which this circumstance gave to Florent. “Cayenne, Cayenne,” he muttered between his teeth. “Ah, well, they were not so badly off there, after all.”
Then he attempted to prove that exile was a mere nothing, and that real suffering consisted in remaining in one’s oppressed country, gagged in presence of triumphant despotism. And besides, he urged, it wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t been arrested on the Second of December. Next, however, he hinted that those who had allowed themselves to be captured were imbeciles. His secret jealousy made him a systematic opponent of Florent; and the general discussions always ended in a duel between these two, who, while their companions listened in silence, would speak against one another for hours at a time, without either of them allowing that he was beaten.
One of the favourite subjects of discussion was that of the reorganisation of the country which would have to be effected on the morrow of their victory.
“We are the conquerors, are we not?” began Gavard.
And, triumph being taken for granted, everyone offered his opinion. There were two rival parties. Charvet, who was a disciple of Hebert, was supported by Logre and Robine; while Florent, who was always absorbed in humanitarian dreams, and called himself a Socialist, was backed by Alexandre and Lacaille. As for Gavard, he felt no repugnance for violent action; but, as he was often twitted about his fortune with no end of sarcastic witticisms which annoyed him, he declared himself a Communist.
“We must make a clean sweep of everything,” Charvet would curtly say, as though he were delivering a blow with a cleaver. “The trunk is rotten, and it must come down.”
“Yes! yes!” cried Logre, standing up that he might look taller, and making the partition shake with the excited motion of his hump. “Everything will be levelled to the ground; take my word for it. After that we shall see what to do.”
Robine signified approval by wagging his beard. His silence seemed instinct with delight whenever violent revolutionary propositions were made. His eyes assumed a soft ecstatic expression at the mention of the guillotine. He half closed them, as though he could see the machine, and was filled with pleasant emotion at the sight; and next he would gently rub his chin against the knob of his stick, with a subdued purr of satisfaction.
“All the same,” said Florent, in whose voice a vague touch of sadness lingered, “if you cut down the tree it will be necessary to preserve some seed. For my part, I think that the tree ought to be preserved, so that we may graft new life on it. The political revolution, you know, has already taken place; to-day we have got to think of the labourer, the working man. Our movement must be altogether a social one. I defy you to reject the claims of the people. They are weary of waiting, and are determined to have their share of happiness.”
These words aroused Alexandre’s enthusiasm. With a beaming, radiant face he declared that this was true, that the people were weary of waiting.
“And we will have our share,” added Lacaille, with a more menacing expression. “All the revolutions that have taken place have been for the good of the middle classes. We’ve had quite enough of that sort of thing, and the next one shall be for our benefit.”
From this moment disagreement set in. Gavard offered to make a division of his property, but Logre declined, asserting that he cared nothing for money. Then Charvet gradually overcame the tumult, till at last he alone was heard speaking.
“The selfishness of the different classes does more than anything else to uphold tyranny,” said he. “It is wrong of the people to display egotism. If they assist us they shall have their share. But why should I fight for the working man if the working man won’t fight for me? Moreover, that is not the question at present. Ten years of revolutionary dictatorship will be necessary to accustom a nation like France to the fitting enjoyment of liberty.”
“All the more so as the working man is not ripe for it, and requires to be directed,” said Clemence bluntly.
She but seldom spoke. This tall, serious looking girl, alone among so many men, listened to all the political chatter with a learnedly critical air. She leaned back against the partition, and every now and then sipped her grog whilst gazing at the speakers with frowning brows or inflated nostrils, thus silently signifying her approval or disapproval, and making it quite clear that she held decided opinions upon the most complicated matters. At times she would roll a cigarette, and puff slender whiffs of smoke from the corners of her mouth, whilst lending increased attention to what was being debated. It was as though she were presiding over the discussion, and would award the prize to the victor when it was finished. She certainly considered that it became her, as a woman, to display some reserve in her opinions, and to remain calm whilst the men grew more and more excited. Now and then, however, in the heat of the debate, she would let a word or a phrase escape her and “clench the matter” even for Charvet himself, as Gavard said. In her heart she believed herself the superior of all these fellows. The only one of them for whom she felt any respect was Robine, and she would thoughtfully contemplate his silent bearing.
Neither Florent nor any of the others paid any special attention to Clemence. They treated her just as though she were a man, shaking hands with her so roughly as almost to dislocate her arms. One evening Florent witnessed the periodical settlement of accounts between her and Charvet. She had just received her pay, and Charvet wanted to borrow ten francs from her; but she first of all insisted that they must reckon up how matters stood between them. They lived together in a voluntary partnership, each having complete control of his or her earnings, and strictly paying his or her expenses. By so doing, said they, they were under no obligations to one another, but retained entire freedom. Rent, food, washing, and amusements, were all noted down and added up. That evening, when the accounts had been verified, Clemence proved to Charvet that he already owed her five francs. Then she handed him the other ten which he wished to borrow, and exclaimed: “Recollect that you now owe me fifteen. I shall expect you to repay me on the fifth, when you get paid for teaching little Lehudier.”
When Rose was summoned to receive payment for the “drinks,” each produced the few coppers required to discharge his or her liability. Charvet laughingly called Clemence an aristocrat because she drank grog. She wanted to humiliate him, said he, and make him feel that he earned less than she did, which, as it happened, was the fact. Beneath his laugh, however, there was a feeling of bitterness that the girl should be better circumstanced than himself, for, in spite of his theory of the equality of the sexes, this lowered him.
Although the discussions in the little room had virtually no result, they served to exercise the speakers’ lungs. A tremendous hubbub proceeded from the sanctum, and the panes of frosted glass vibrated like drum-skins. Sometimes the uproar became so great that Rose, while languidly serving some blouse-wearing customer in the shop, would turn her head uneasily.
“Why, they’re surely fighting together in there,” the customer would say, as he put his glass down on the zinc-covered counter, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Oh, there’s no fear of that,” Monsieur Lebigre tranquilly replied. “It’s only some gentlemen talking together.”
Monsieur Lebigre, indeed, although very strict with his other customers, allowed the politicians to shout as loudly as they pleased, and never made the least remark on the subject. He would sit for hours together on the bench behind the counter, with his big head lolling drowsily against the mirror, whilst he watched Rose uncorking the bottles and giving a wipe here and there with her duster. And in spite of the somniferous effects of the wine fumes and the warm streaming gaslight, he would keep his ears open to the sounds proceeding from the little room. At times, when the voices grew noisier than usual, he got up from his seat and went to lean against the partition; and occasionally he even pushed the door open, and went inside and sat down there for a few minutes, giving Gavard a friendly slap on the thigh. And then he would nod approval of everything that was said. The poultry dealer asserted that although friend Lebigre hadn’t the stuff of an orator in him, they might safely reckon on him when the “shindy” came.
One morning, however, at the markets, when a tremendous row broke out between Rose and one of the fish-wives, through the former accidentally knocking over a basket of herrings, Florent heard Rose’s employer spoken of as a “dirty spy” in the pay of the police. And after he had succeeded in restoring peace, all sorts of stories about Monsieur Lebigre were poured into his ears. Yes, the wine seller was in the pay of the police, the fish-wives said; all the neighbourhood knew it. Before Mademoiselle Saget had begun to deal with him she had once met him entering the Prefecture to make his report. It was asserted, too, that he was a money-monger, a usurer, and lent petty sums by the day to costermongers, and let out barrows to them, exacting a scandalous rate of interest in return. Florent was greatly disturbed by all this, and felt it his duty to repeat it that evening to his fellow politicians. The latter, however, only shrugged their shoulders, and laughed at his uneasiness.
“Poor Florent!” Charvet exclaimed sarcastically; “he imagines the whole police force is on his track, just because he happens to have been sent to Cayenne!”
Gavard gave his word of honour that Lebigre was perfectly staunch and true, while Logre, for his part, manifested extreme irritation. He fumed and declared that it would be quite impossible for them to get on if everyone was to be accused of being a police spy; for his own part, he would rather stay at home, and have nothing more to do with politics. Why, hadn’t people even dared to say that he, Logre himself, who had fought in ‘48 and ‘51, and had twice narrowly escaped transportation, was a spy as well? As he shouted this out, he thrust his jaws forward, and glared at the others as though he would have liked to ram the conviction that he had nothing to do with the police down their throats. At the sight of his furious glances his companions made gestures of protestation. However, Lacaille, on hearing Monsieur Lebigre accused of usury, silently lowered his head.
The incident was forgotten in the discussions which ensued. Since Logre had suggested a conspiracy, Monsieur Lebigre had grasped the hands of the frequenters of the little room with more vigor than ever. Their custom, to tell the truth, was of but small value to him, for they never ordered more than one “drink” apiece. They drained the last drops just as they rose to leave, having been careful to allow a little to remain in their glasses, even during their most heated arguments. In this wise the one “shout” lasted throughout the evening. They shivered as they turned out into the cold dampness of the night, and for a moment or two remained standing on the footway with dazzled eyes and buzzing ears, as though surprised by the dark silence of the street. Rose, meanwhile, fastened the shutters behind them. Then, quite exhausted, at a loss for another word they shook hands, separated, and went their different ways, still mentally continuing the discussion of the evening, and regretting that they could not ram their particular theories down each other’s throats. Robine walked away, with his bent back bobbing up and down, in the direction of the Rue Rambuteau; whilst Charvet and Clemence went off through the markets on their return to the Luxembourg quarter, their heels sounding on the flag-stones in military fashion, whilst they still discussed some question of politics or philosophy, walking along side by side, but never arm-in-arm.
The conspiracy ripened very slowly. At the commencement of the summer the plotters had got no further than agreeing that it was necessary a stroke should be attempted. Florent, who had at first looked upon the whole business with a kind of distrust, had now, however, come to believe in the possibility of a revolutionary movement. He took up the matter seriously; making notes, and preparing plans in writing, while the others still did nothing but talk. For his part, he began to concentrate his whole life in the one persistent idea which made his brain throb night after night; and this to such a degree that he at last took his brother Quenu with him to Monsieur Lebigre’s, as though such a course were quite natural. Certainly he had no thought of doing anything improper. He still looked upon Quenu as in some degree his pupil, and may even have considered it his duty to start him on the proper path. Quenu was an absolute novice in politics, but after spending five or six evenings in the little room he found himself quite in accord with the others. When Lisa was not present he manifested much docility, a sort of respect for his brother’s opinions. But the greatest charm of the affair for him was really the mild dissipation of leaving his shop and shutting himself up in the little room where the others shouted so loudly, and where Clemence’s presence, in his opinion, gave a tinge of rakishness and romance to the proceedings. He now made all haste with his chitterlings in order that he might get away as early as possible, anxious to lose not a single word of the discussions, which seemed to him to be very brilliant, though he was not always able to follow them. The beautiful Lisa did not fail to notice his hurry to be gone, but as yet she refrained from saying anything. When Florent took him off, she simply went to the door-step, and watched them enter Monsieur Lebigre’s, her face paling somewhat, and a severe expression coming into her eyes.
One evening, as Mademoiselle Saget was peering out of her garret casement, she recognised Quenu’s shadow on the frosted glass of the “cabinet” window facing the Rue Pirouette. She had found her casement an excellent post of observation, as it overlooked that milky transparency, on which the gaslight threw silhouettes of the politicians, with noses suddenly appearing and disappearing, gaping jaws abruptly springing into sight and then vanishing, and huge arms, apparently destitute of bodies, waving hither and thither. This extraordinary jumble of detached limbs, these silent but frantic profiles, bore witness to the heated discussions that went on in the little room, and kept the old maid peering from behind her muslin curtains until the transparency turned black. She shrewdly suspected some “bit of trickery,” as she phrased it. By continual watching she had come to recognise the different shadows by their hands and hair and clothes. As she gazed upon the chaos of clenched fists, angry heads, and swaying shoulders, which seemed to have become detached from their trunks and to roll about one atop of the other, she would exclaim unhesitatingly, “Ah, there’s that big booby of a cousin; there’s that miserly old Gavard; and there’s the hunchback; and there’s that maypole of a Clemence!” Then, when the action of the shadow-play became more pronounced, and they all seemed to have lost control over themselves, she felt an irresistible impulse to go downstairs to try to find out what was happening. Thus she now made a point of buying her black-currant syrup at nights, pretending that she felt out-of-sorts in the morning, and was obliged to take a sip as soon as ever she was out of bed. On the evening when she noticed Quenu’s massive head shadowed on the transparency in close proximity to Charvet’s fist, she made her appearance at Monsieur Lebigre’s in a breathless condition. To gain more time, she made Rose rinse out her little bottle for her; however, she was about to return to her room when she heard the pork butcher exclaim with a sort of childish candour:
“No, indeed, we’ll stand for it no longer! We’ll make a clean sweep of all those humbugging Deputies and Ministers! Yes, we’ll send the whole lot packing.”
Eight o’clock had scarcely struck on the following morning when Mademoiselle Saget was already at the pork shop. She found Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette there, dipping their noses into the heating-pan, and buying hot sausages for breakfast. As the old maid had managed to draw them into her quarrel with La Normande with respect to the ten-sou dab, they had at once made friends again with Lisa, and they now had nothing but contempt for the handsome fish-girl, and assailed her and her sister as good-for-nothing hussies, whose only aim was to fleece men of their money. This opinion had been inspired by the assertions of Mademoiselle Saget, who had declared to Madame Lecoeur that Florent had induced one of the two girls to coquette with Gavard, and that the four of them had indulged in the wildest dissipation at Barratte’s — of course, at the poultry dealer’s expense. From the effects of this impudent story Madame Lecoeur had not yet recovered; she wore a doleful appearance, and her eyes were quite yellow with spleen.
That morning, however, it was for Madame Quenu that the old maid had a shock in store. She looked round the counter, and then in her most gentle voice remarked:
“I saw Monsieur Quenu last night. They seem to enjoy themselves immensely in that little room at Lebigre’s, if one may judge from the noise they make.”
Lisa had turned her head towards the street, listening very attentively, but apparently unwilling to show it. The old maid paused, hoping that one of the others would question her; and then, in a lower tone, she added: “They had a woman with them. Oh, I don’t mean Monsieur Quenu, of course! I didn’t say that; I don’t know —”
“It must be Clemence,” interrupted La Sarriette; “a big scraggy creature who gives herself all sorts of airs just because she went to boarding school. She lives with a threadbare usher. I’ve seen them together; they always look as though they were taking each other off to the police station.”
“Oh, yes; I know,” replied the old maid, who, indeed, knew everything about Charvet and Clemence, and whose only purpose was to alarm Lisa.
The mistress of the pork shop, however, never flinched. She seemed to be absorbed in watching something of great interest in the market yonder. Accordingly the old maid had recourse to stronger measures. “I think,” said she, addressing herself to Madame Lecoeur, “that you ought to advise your brother-in-law to be careful. Last night they were shouting out the most shocking things in that little room. Men really seem to lose their heads over politics. If anyone had heard them, it might have been a very serious matter for them.”
“Oh! Gavard will go his own way,” sighed Madame Lecoeur. “It only wanted this to fill my cup. I shall die of anxiety, I am sure, if he ever gets arrested.”
As she spoke, a gleam shot from her dim eyes. La Sarriette, however, laughed and wagged her little face, bright with the freshness of the morning air.
“You should hear what Jules says of those who speak against the Empire,” she remarked. “They ought all to be thrown into the Seine, he told me; for it seems there isn’t a single respectable person amongst them.”
“Oh! there’s no harm done, of course, so long as only people like myself hear their foolish talk,” resumed Mademoiselle Saget. “I’d rather cut my hand off, you know, than make mischief. Last night now, for instance, Monsieur Quenu was saying ——”
She again paused. Lisa had started slightly.
“Monsieur Quenu was saying that the Ministers and Deputies and all who are in power ought to be shot.”
At this Lisa turned sharply, her face quite white and her hands clenched beneath her apron.
“Quenu said that?” she curtly asked.
“Yes, indeed, and several other similar things that I can’t recollect now. I heard him myself. But don’t distress yourself like that, Madame Quenu. You know very well that I sha’n’t breathe a word. I’m quite old enough to know what might harm a man if it came out. Oh, no; it will go no further.”
Lisa had recovered her equanimity. She took a pride in the happy peacefulness of her home; she would not acknowledge that there had ever been the slightest difference between herself and her husband. And so now she shrugged her shoulders and said with a smile: “Oh, it’s all a pack of foolish nonsense.”
When the three others were in the street together they agreed that handsome Lisa had pulled a very doleful face; and they were unanimously of opinion that the mysterious goings-on of the cousin, the Mehudins, Gavard, and the Quenus would end in trouble. Madame Lecoeur inquired what was done to the people who got arrested “for politics,” but on this point Mademoiselle Saget could not enlighten her; she only knew that they were never seen again — no, never. And this induced La Sarriette to suggest that perhaps they were thrown into the Seine, as Jules had said they ought to be.
Lisa avoided all reference to the subject at breakfast and dinner that day; and even in the evening, when Florent and Quenu went off together to Monsieur Lebigre’s, there was no unwonted severity in her glance. On that particular evening, however, the question of framing a constitution for the future came under discussion, and it was one o’clock in the morning before the politicians could tear themselves away from the little room. The shutters had already been fastened, and they were obliged to leave by a small door, passing out one at a time with bent backs. Quenu returned home with an uneasy conscience. He opened the three or four doors on his way to bed as gently as possible, walking on tip-toe and stretching out his hands as he passed through the sitting-room, to avoid a collision with any of the furniture. The whole house seemed to be asleep. When he reached the bedroom, he was annoyed to find that Lisa had not extinguished the candle, which was burning with a tall, mournful flame in the midst of the deep silence. As Quenu took off his shoes, and put them down in a corner, the time-piece struck half past one with such a clear, ringing sound that he turned in alarm, almost frightened to move, and gazing with an expression of angry reproach at the shining gilded Gutenberg standing there, with his finger on a book. Lisa’s head was buried in her pillow, and Quenu could only see her back; but he divined that she was merely feigning sleep, and her conduct in turning her back upon him was so instinct with reproach that he felt sorely ill at ease. At last he slipped beneath the bed-clothes, blew out the candle, and lay perfectly still. He could have sworn that his wife was awake, though she did not speak to him; and presently he fell asleep, feeling intensely miserable, and lacking the courage to say good night.
He slept till late, and when he awoke he found himself sprawling in the middle of the bed with the eider-down quilt up to his chin, whilst Lisa sat in front of the secretaire, arranging some papers. His slumber had been so heavy that he had not heard her rise. However, he now took courage, and spoke to her from the depths of the alcove: “Why didn’t you wake me? What are you doing there?”
“I’m sorting the papers in these drawers,” she replied in her usual tone of voice.
Quenu felt relieved. But Lisa added: “One never knows what may happen. If the police were to come —”
“What! the police?”
“Yes, indeed, the police; for you’re mixing yourself up with politics now.”
At this Quenu sat up in bed, quite dazed and confounded by such a violent and unexpected attack.
“I mix myself up with politics! I mix myself up with politics!” he repeated. “It’s no concern of the police. I’ve nothing to do with any compromising matters.”
“No,” replied Lisa, shrugging her shoulders; “you merely talk about shooting everybody.”
“Yes. And you bawl it out in a public-house! Mademoiselle Saget heard you. All the neighbourhood knows by this time that you are a Red Republican!”
Quenu fell back in bed again. He was not perfectly awake as yet. Lisa’s words resounded in his ears as though he already heard the heavy tramp of gendarmes at the bedroom door. He looked at her as she sat there, with her hair already arranged, her figure tightly imprisoned in her stays, her whole appearance the same as it was on any other morning; and he felt more astonished than ever that she should be so neat and prim under such extraordinary circumstances.
“I leave you absolutely free, you know,” she continued, as she went on arranging the papers. “I don’t want to wear the breeches, as the saying goes. You are the master, and you are at liberty to endanger your position, compromise our credit, and ruin our business.”
Then, as Quenu tried to protest, she silenced him with a gesture. “No, no; don’t say anything,” she continued. “This is no quarrel, and I am not even asking an explanation from you. But if you had consulted me, and we had talked the matter over together, I might have intervened. Ah! it’s a great mistake to imagine that women understand nothing about politics. Shall I tell you what my politics are?”
She had risen from her seat whilst speaking, and was now walking to and fro between the bed and the window, wiping as she went some specks of dust from the bright mahogany of the mirrored wardrobe and the dressing-table.
“My politics are the politics of honest folks,” said she. “I’m grateful to the Government when business is prosperous, when I can eat my meals in peace and comfort, and can sleep at nights without being awakened by the firing of guns. There were pretty times in ‘48, were there not? You remember our uncle Gradelle, the worthy man, showing us his books for that year? He lost more than six thousand francs. Now that we have got the Empire, however, everything prospers. We sell our goods readily enough. You can’t deny it. Well, then, what is it that you want? How will you be better off when you have shot everybody?”
She took her stand in front of the little night-table, crossed her arms over her breast, and fixed her eyes upon Quenu, who had shuffled himself beneath the bed-clothes, almost out of sight. He attempted to explain what it was that his friends wanted, but he got quite confused in his endeavours to summarise Florent’s and Charvet’s political and social systems; and could only talk about the disregard shown to principles, the accession of the democracy to power, and the regeneration of society, in such a strange tangled way that Lisa shrugged her shoulders, quite unable to understand him. At last, however, he extricated himself from his difficulties by declaring that the Empire was the reign of licentiousness, swindling finance, and highway robbery. And, recalling an expression of Logre’s he added: “We are the prey of a band of adventurers, who are pillaging, violating, and assassinating France. We’ll have no more of them.”
Lisa, however, still shrugged her shoulders.
“Well, and is that all you have got to say?” she asked with perfect coolness. “What has all that got to do with me? Even supposing it were true, what then? Have I ever advised you to practise dishonest courses? Have I ever prompted you to dishonour your acceptances, or cheat your customers, or pile up money by fraudulent practices? Really, you’ll end by making me quite angry! We are honest folks, and we don’t pillage or assassinate anybody. That’s quite sufficient. What other folks do is no concern of ours. If they choose to be rogues it’s their affair.”
She looked quite majestic and triumphant; and again pacing the room, drawing herself up to her full height, she resumed: “A pretty notion it is that people are to let their business go to rack and ruin just to please those who are penniless. For my part, I’m in favour of making hay while the sun shines, and supporting a Government which promotes trade. If it does do dishonourable things, I prefer to know nothing about them. I know that I myself commit none, and that no one in the neighbourhood can point a finger at me. It’s only fools who go tilting at windmills. At the time of the last elections, you remember, Gavard said that the Emperor’s candidate had been bankrupt, and was mixed up in all sorts of scandalous matters. Well, perhaps that was true, I don’t deny it; but all the same, you acted wisely in voting for him, for all that was not in question; you were not asked to lend the man any money or to transact any business with him, but merely to show the Government that you were pleased with the prosperity of the pork trade.”
At this moment Quenu called to mind a sentence of Charvet’s, asserting that “the bloated bourgeois, the sleek shopkeepers, who backed up that Government of universal gormandising, ought to be hurled into the sewers before all others, for it was owing to them and their gluttonous egotism that tyranny had succeeded in mastering and preying upon the nation.” He was trying to complete this piece of eloquence when Lisa, carried off by her indignation, cut him short.
“Don’t talk such stuff! My conscience doesn’t reproach me with anything. I don’t owe a copper to anybody; I’m not mixed up in any dishonest business; I buy and sell good sound stuff; and I charge no more than others do. What you say may perhaps apply to people like our cousins, the Saccards. They pretend to be even ignorant that I am in Paris; but I am prouder than they are, and I don’t care a rap for their millions. It’s said that Saccard speculates in condemned buildings, and cheats and robs everybody. I’m not surprised to hear it, for he was always that way inclined. He loves money just for the sake of wallowing in it, and then tossing it out of his windows, like the imbecile he is. I can understand people attacking men of his stamp, who pile up excessive fortunes. For my part, if you care to know it, I have but a bad opinion of Saccard. But we — we who live so quietly and peaceably, who will need at least fifteen years to put by sufficient money to make ourselves comfortably independent, we who have no reason to meddle in politics, and whose only aim is to bring up our daughter respectably, and to see that our business prospers — why you must be joking to talk such stuff about us. We are honest folks!”
She came and sat down on the edge of the bed. Quenu was already much shaken in his opinions.
“Listen to me, now,” she resumed in a more serious voice. “You surely don’t want to see your own shop pillaged, your cellar emptied, and your money taken from you? If these men who meet at Monsieur Lebigre’s should prove triumphant, do you think that you would then lie as comfortably in your bed as you do now? And on going down into the kitchen, do you imagine that you would set about making your galantines as peacefully as you will presently? No, no, indeed! So why do you talk about overthrowing a Government which protects you, and enables you to put money by? You have a wife and a daughter, and your first duty is towards them. You would be in fault if you imperilled their happiness. It is only those who have neither home nor hearth, who have nothing to lose, who want to be shooting people. Surely you don’t want to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them! So stay quietly at home, you foolish fellow, sleep comfortably, eat well, make money, keep an easy conscience, and leave France to free herself of the Empire if the Empire annoys her. France can get on very well without you.”
She laughed her bright melodious laugh as she finished; and Quenu was now altogether convinced. Yes, she was right, after all; and she looked so charming, he thought, as she sat there on the edge of the bed, so trim, although it was so early, so bright, and so fresh in the dazzling whiteness of her linen. As he listened to her his eyes fell on their portraits hanging on either side of the fireplace. Yes, they were certainly honest folks; they had such a respectable, well-to-do air in their black clothes and their gilded frames! The bedroom, too, looked as though it belonged to people of some account in the world. The lace squares seemed to give a dignified appearance to the chairs; and the carpet, the curtains, and the vases decorated with painted landscapes — all spoke of their exertions to get on in the world and their taste for comfort. Thereupon he plunged yet further beneath the eider-down quilt, which kept him in a state of pleasant warmth. He began to feel that he had risked losing all these things at Monsieur Lebigre’s — his huge bed, his cosy room, and his business, on which his thoughts now dwelt with tender remorse. And from Lisa, from the furniture, from all his cosy surroundings, he derived a sense of comfort which thrilled him with a delightful, overpowering charm.
“You foolish fellow!” said his wife, seeing that he was now quite conquered. “A pretty business it was that you’d embarked upon; but you’d have had to reckon with Pauline and me, I can tell you! And now don’t bother your head any more about the Government. To begin with, all Governments are alike, and if we didn’t have this one, we should have another. A Government is necessary. But the one thing is to be able to live on, to spend one’s savings in peace and comfort when one grows old, and to know that one has gained one’s means honestly.”
Quenu nodded his head in acquiescence, and tried to commence a justification of his conduct.
“It was Gavard — ” he began.
But Lisa’s face again assumed a serious expression, and she interrupted him sharply.
“No, it was not Gavard. I know very well who it was; and it would be a great deal better if he would look after his own safety before compromising that of others.”
“Is it Florent you mean?” Quenu timidly inquired after a pause.
Lisa did not immediately reply. She got up and went back to the secretaire, as if trying to restrain herself.
“Yes, it is Florent,” she said presently, in incisive tones. “You know how patient I am. I would bear almost anything rather than come between you and your brother. The tie of relationship is a sacred thing. But the cup is filled to overflowing now. Since your brother came here things have been constantly getting worse and worse. But now, I won’t say anything more; it is better that I shouldn’t.”
There was another pause. Then, as her husband gazed up at the ceiling with an air of embarrassment, she continued, with increased violence:
“Really, he seems to ignore all that we have done for him. We have put ourselves to great inconvenience for his sake; we have given him Augustine’s bedroom, and the poor girl sleeps without a murmur in a stuffy little closet where she can scarcely breathe. We board and lodge him and give him every attention — but no, he takes it all quite as a matter of course. He is earning money, but what he does with it nobody knows; or, rather, one knows only too well.”
“But there’s his share of the inheritance, you know,” Quenu ventured to say, pained at hearing his brother attacked.
Lisa suddenly stiffened herself as though she were stunned, and her anger vanished.
“Yes, you are right; there is his share of the inheritance. Here is the statement of it, in this drawer. But he refused to take it; you remember, you were present, and heard him. That only proves that he is a brainless, worthless fellow. If he had had an idea in his head, he would have made something out of that money by now. For my own part, I should be very glad to get rid of it; it would be a relief to us. I have told him so twice, but he won’t listen to me. You ought to persuade him to take it. Talk to him about it, will you?”
Quenu growled something in reply; and Lisa refrained from pressing the point further, being of opinion that she had done all that could be expected of her.
“He is not like other men,” she resumed. “He’s not a comfortable sort of person to have in the house. I shouldn’t have said this if we hadn’t got talking on the subject. I don’t busy myself about his conduct, though it’s setting the whole neighbourhood gossiping about us. Let him eat and sleep here, and put us about, if he likes; we can get over that; but what I won’t tolerate is that he should involve us in his politics. If he tries to lead you off again, or compromises us in the least degree, I shall turn him out of the house without the least hesitation. I warn you, and now you understand!”
Florent was doomed. Lisa was making a great effort to restrain herself, to prevent the animosity which had long been rankling in her heart from flowing forth. But Florent and his ways jarred against her every instinct; he wounded her, frightened her, and made her quite miserable.
“A man who has made such a discreditable career,” she murmured, “who has never been able to get a roof of his own over his head! I can very well understand his partiality for bullets! He can go and stand in their way if he chooses; but let him leave honest folks to their families! And then, he isn’t pleasant to have about one! He reeks of fish in the evening at dinner! It prevents me from eating. He himself never lets a mouthful go past him, though it’s little better he seems to be for it all! He can’t even grow decently stout, the wretched fellow, to such a degree do his bad instincts prey on him!”
She had stepped up to the window whilst speaking, and now saw Florent crossing the Rue Rambuteau on his way to the fish market. There was a very large arrival of fish that morning; the tray-like baskets were covered with rippling silver, and the auction rooms roared with the hubbub of their sales. Lisa kept her eyes on the bony shoulders of her brother-in-law as he made his way into the pungent smells of the market, stooping beneath the sickening sensation which they brought him; and the glance with which she followed his steps was that of a woman bent on combat and resolved to be victorious.
When she turned round again, Quenu was getting up. As he sat on the edge of the bed in his night-shirt, still warm from the pleasant heat of the eider-down quilt and with his feet resting on the soft fluffy rug below him, he looked quite pale, quite distressed at the misunderstanding between his wife and his brother. Lisa, however, gave him one of her sweetest smiles, and he felt deeply touched when she handed him his socks.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15