Marjolin had been found in a heap of cabbages at the Market of the Innocents. He was sleeping under the shelter of a large white-hearted one, a broad leaf of which concealed his rosy childish face It was never known what poverty-stricken mother had laid him there. When he was found he was already a fine little fellow of two or three years of age, very plump and merry, but so backward and dense that he could scarcely stammer a few words, and only seemed able to smile. When one of the vegetable saleswomen found him lying under the big white cabbage she raised such a loud cry of surprise that her neighbours rushed up to see what was the matter, while the youngster, still in petticoats, and wrapped in a scrap of old blanket, held out his arms towards her. He could not tell who his mother was, but opened his eyes in wide astonishment as he squeezed against the shoulder of a stout tripe dealer who eventually took him up. The whole market busied itself about him throughout the day. He soon recovered confidence, ate slices of bread and butter, and smiled at all the women. The stout tripe dealer kept him for a time, then a neighbour took him; and a month later a third woman gave him shelter. When they asked him where his mother was, he waved his little hand with a pretty gesture which embraced all the women present. He became the adopted child of the place, always clinging to the skirts of one or another of the women, and always finding a corner of a bed and a share of a meal somewhere. Somehow, too, he managed to find clothes, and he even had a copper or two at the bottom of his ragged pockets. It was a buxom, ruddy girl dealing in medicinal herbs who gave him the name of Marjolin,* though no one knew why.
* Literally “Marjoram.”
When Marjolin was nearly four years of age, old Mother Chantemesse also happened to find a child, a little girl, lying on the footway of the Rue Saint Denis, near the corner of the market. Judging by the little one’s size, she seemed to be a couple of years old, but she could already chatter like a magpie, murdering her words in an incessant childish babble. Old Mother Chantemesse after a time gathered that her name was Cadine, and that on the previous evening her mother had left her sitting on a doorstep, with instructions to wait till she returned. The child had fallen asleep there, and did not cry. She related that she was beaten at home; and she gladly followed Mother Chantemesse, seemingly quite enchanted with that huge square, where there were so many people and such piles of vegetables. Mother Chantemesse, a retail dealer by trade, was a crusty but very worthy woman, approaching her sixtieth year. She was extremely fond of children, and had lost three boys of her own when they were mere babies. She came to the opinion that the chit she had found “was far too wide awake to kick the bucket,” and so she adopted her.
One evening, however, as she was going off home with her right hand clasping Cadine’s, Marjolin came up and unceremoniously caught hold of her left hand.
“Nay, my lad,” said the old woman, stopping, “the place is filled. Have you left your big Therese, then? What a fickle little gadabout you are!”
The boy gazed at her with his smiling eyes, without letting go of her hand. He looked so pretty with his curly hair that she could not resist him. “Well, come along, then, you little scamp,” said she; “I’ll put you to bed as well.”
Thus she made her appearance in the Rue au Lard, where she lived, with a child clinging to either hand. Marjolin made himself quite at home there. When the two children proved too noisy the old woman cuffed them, delighted to shout and worry herself, and wash the youngsters, and pack them away beneath the blankets. She had fixed them up a little bed in an old costermonger’s barrow, the wheels and shafts of which had disappeared. It was like a big cradle, a trifle hard, but retaining a strong scent of the vegetables which it had long kept fresh and cool beneath a covering of damp cloths. And there, when four years old, Cadine and Marjolin slept locked in each other’s arms.
They grew up together, and were always to be seen with their arms about one another’s waist. At night time old Mother Chantemesse heard them prattling softly. Cadine’s clear treble went chattering on for hours together, while Marjolin listened with occasional expressions of astonishment vented in a deeper tone. The girl was a mischievous young creature, and concocted all sorts of stories to frighten her companion; telling him, for instance, that she had one night seen a man, dressed all in white, looking at them and putting out a great red tongue, at the foot of the bed. Marjolin quite perspired with terror, and anxiously asked for further particulars; but the girl would then begin to jeer at him, and end by calling him a big donkey. At other times they were not so peaceably disposed, but kicked each other beneath the blankets. Cadine would pull up her legs, and try to restrain her laughter as Marjolin missed his aim, and sent his feet banging against the wall. When this happened, old Madame Chantemesse was obliged to get up to put the bed-clothes straight again; and, by way of sending the children to sleep, she would administer a box on the ear to both of them. For a long time their bed was a sort of playground. They carried their toys into it, and munched stolen carrots and turnips as they lay side by side. Every morning their adopted mother was amazed at the strange things she found in the bed — pebbles, leaves, apple cores, and dolls made out of scraps of rags. When the very cold weather came, she went off to her work, leaving them sleeping there, Cadine’s black mop mingling with Marjolin’s sunny curls, and their mouths so near together that they looked as though they were keeping each other warm with their breath.
The room in the Rue au Lard was a big, dilapidated garret, with a single window, the panes of which were dimmed by the rain. The children would play at hide-and-seek in the tall walnut wardrobe and underneath Mother Chantemesse’s colossal bed. There were also two or three tables in the room, and they crawled under these on all fours. They found the place a very charming playground, on account of the dim light and the vegetables scattered about in the dark corners. The street itself, too, narrow and very quiet, with a broad arcade opening into the Rue de la Lingerie, provided them with plenty of entertainment. The door of the house was by the side of the arcade; it was a low door and could only be opened half way owing to the near proximity of the greasy corkscrew staircase. The house, which had a projecting pent roof and a bulging front, dark with damp, and displaying greenish drain-sinks near the windows of each floor, also served as a big toy for the young couple. They spent their mornings below in throwing stones up into the drain-sinks, and the stones thereupon fell down the pipes with a very merry clatter. In thus amusing themselves, however, they managed to break a couple of windows, and filled the drains with stones, so that Mother Chantemesse, who had lived in the house for three and forty years, narrowly escaped being turned out of it.
Cadine and Marjolin then directed their attention to the vans and drays and tumbrels which were drawn up in the quiet street. They clambered on to the wheels, swung from the dangling chains, and larked about amongst the piles of boxes and hampers. Here also were the back premises of the commission agents of the Rue de la Poterie — huge, gloomy warehouses, each day filled and emptied afresh, and affording a constant succession of delightful hiding-places, where the youngsters buried themselves amidst the scent of dried fruits, oranges, and fresh apples. When they got tired of playing in his way, they went off to join old Madame Chantemesse at the Market of the Innocents. They arrived there arm-in-arm, laughing gaily as they crossed the streets with never the slightest fear of being run over by the endless vehicles. They knew the pavement well, and plunged their little legs knee-deep in the vegetable refuse without ever slipping. They jeered merrily at any porter in heavy boots who, in stepping over an artichoke stem, fell sprawling full-length upon the ground. They were the rosy-cheeked familiar spirits of those greasy streets. They were to be seen everywhere.
On rainy days they walked gravely beneath the shelter of a ragged old umbrella, with which Mother Chantemesse had protected her stock-in-trade for twenty years, and sticking it up in a corner of the market they called it their house. On sunny days they romped to such a degree that when evening came they were almost too tired to move. They bathed their feet in the fountains, dammed up the gutters, or hid themselves beneath piles of vegetables, and remained there prattling to each other just as they did in bed at night. People passing some huge mountain of cos or cabbage lettuces often heard a muffled sound of chatter coming from it. And when the green-stuff was removed, the two children would be discovered lying side by side on their couch of verdure, their eyes glistening uneasily like those of birds discovered in the depth of a thicket. As time went on, Cadine could not get along without Marjolin, and Marjolin began to cry when he lost sight of Cadine. If they happened to get separated, they sought one another behind the petticoats of every stallkeeper in the markets, amongst the boxes and under the cabbages. If was, indeed, chiefly under the cabbages that they grew up and learned to love each other.
Marjolin was nearly eight years old, and Cadine six, when old Madame Chantemesse began to reproach them for their idleness. She told them that she would interest them in her business, and pay them a sou a day to assist her in paring her vegetables. During the first few days the children displayed eager zeal; they squatted down on either side of the big flat basket with little knives in their hands, and worked away energetically. Mother Chantemesse made a specialty of pared vegetables; on her stall, covered with a strip of damp black lining, were little lots of potatoes, turnips, carrots, and white onions, arranged in pyramids of four — three at the base and one at the apex, all quite ready to be popped into the pans of dilatory housewives. She also had bundles duly stringed in readiness for the soup-pot — four leeks, three carrots, a parsnip, two turnips, and a couple of springs of celery. Then there were finely cut vegetables for julienne soup laid out on squares of paper, cabbages cut into quarters, and little heaps of tomatoes and slices of pumpkin which gleamed like red stars and golden crescents amidst the pale hues of the other vegetables. Cadine evinced much more dexterity than Marjolin, although she was younger. The peelings of the potatoes she pared were so thin that you could see through them; she tied up the bundles for the soup-pot so artistically that they looked like bouquets; and she had a way of making the little heaps she set up, though they contained but three carrots or turnips, look like very big ones. The passers-by would stop and smile when she called out in her shrill childish voice: “Madame! madame! come and try me! Each little pile for two sous.”
She had her regular customers, and her little piles and bundles were widely known. Old Mother Chantemesse, seated between the two children, would indulge in a silent laugh which made her bosom rise almost to her chin, at seeing them working away so seriously. She paid them their daily sous most faithfully. But they soon began to weary of the little heaps and bundles; they were growing up, and began to dream of some more lucrative business. Marjolin remained very childish for his years, and this irritated Cadine. He had no more brains than a cabbage, she often said. And it was, indeed, quite useless for her to devise any plan for him to make money; he never earned any. He could not even do an errand satisfactorily. The girl, on the other hand, was very shrewd. When but eight years old she obtained employment from one of those women who sit on a bench in the neighbourhood of the markets provided with a basket of lemons, and employ a troop of children to go about selling them. Carrying the lemons in her hands and offering them at two for three sous, Cadine thrust them under every woman’s nose, and ran after every passer-by. Her hands empty, she hastened back for a fresh supply. She was paid two sous for every dozen lemons that she sold, and on good days she could earn some five or six sous. During the following year she hawked caps at nine sous apiece, which proved a more profitable business; only she had to keep a sharp look-out, as street trading of this kind is forbidden unless one be licensed. However, she scented a policeman at a distance of a hundred yards; and the caps forthwith disappeared under her skirts, whilst she began to munch an apple with an air of guileless innocence. Then she took to selling pastry, cakes, cherry-tarts, gingerbread, and thick yellow maize biscuits on wicker trays. Marjolin, however, ate up nearly the whole of her stock-in-trade. At last, when she was eleven years old, she succeeded in realising a grand idea which had long been worrying her. In a couple of months she put by four francs, bought a small hotte,* and then set up as a dealer in birds’ food.
* A basket carried on the back. — Translator.
It was a big affair. She got up early in the morning and purchased her stock of groundsel, millet, and bird-cake from the wholesale dealers. Then she set out on her day’s work, crossing the river, and perambulating the Latin Quarter from the Rue Saint Jacques to the Rue Dauphine, and even to the Luxembourg. Marjolin used to accompany her, but she would not let him carry the basket. He was only fit to call out, she said; and so, in his thick, drawling voice, he would raise the cry, “Chickweed for the little birds!”
Then Cadine herself, with her flute-like voice, would start on a strange scale of notes ending in a clear, protracted alto, “Chickweed for the little birds!”
They each took one side of the road, and looked up in the air as they walked along. In those days Marjolin wore a big scarlet waistcoat which hung down to his knees; it had belonged to the defunct Monsieur Chantemesse, who had been a cab-driver. Cadine for her part wore a white and blue check gown, made out of an old tartan of Madame Chantemesse’s. All the canaries in the garrets of the Latin Quarter knew them; and, as they passed along, repeating their cry, each echoing the other’s voice, every cage poured out a song.
Cadine sold water-cress, too. “Two sous a bunch! Two sous a bunch!” And Marjolin went into the shops to offer it for sale. “Fine water-cress! Health for the body! Fine fresh water-cress!”
However, the new central markets had just been erected, and the girl would stand gazing in ecstacy at the avenue of flower stalls which runs through the fruit pavilion. Here on either hand, from end to end, big clumps of flowers bloom as in the borders of a garden walk. It is a perfect harvest, sweet with perfume, a double hedge of blossoms, between which the girls of the neighbourhood love to walk, smiling the while, though almost stifled by the heavy perfume. And on the top tiers of the stalls are artificial flowers, with paper leaves, in which dewdrops are simulated by drops of gum; and memorial wreaths of black and white beads rippling with bluish reflections. Cadine’s rosy nostrils would dilate with feline sensuality; she would linger as long as possible in that sweet freshness, and carry as much of the perfume away with her as she could. When her hair bobbed under Marjolin’s nose he would remark that it smelt of pinks. She said that she had given over using pomatum; that is was quite sufficient for her to stroll through the flower walk in order to scent her hair. Next she began to intrigue and scheme with such success that she was engaged by one of the stallkeepers. And then Marjolin declared that she smelt sweet from head to foot. She lived in the midst of roses, lilacs, wall-flowers, and lilies of the valley; and Marjolin would playfully smell at her skirts, feign a momentary hesitation, and then exclaim, “Ah, that’s lily of the valley!” Next he would sniff at her waist and bodice: “Ah, that’s wall-flowers!” And at her sleeves and wrists: “Ah, that’s lilac!” And at her neck, and her cheeks and lips: “Ah, but that’s roses!” he would cry. Cadine used to laugh at him, and call him a “silly stupid,” and tell him to get away, because he was tickling her with the tip of his nose. As she spoke her breath smelt of jasmine. She was verily a bouquet, full of warmth and life.
She now got up at four o’clock every morning to assist her mistress in her purchases. Each day they bought armfuls of flowers from the suburban florists, with bundles of moss, and bundles of fern fronds, and periwinkle leaves to garnish the bouquets. Cadine would gaze with amazement at the diamonds and Valenciennes worn by the daughters of the great gardeners of Montreuil, who came to the markets amidst their roses.
On the saints’ days of popular observance, such as Saint Mary’s, Saint Peter’s, and Saint Joseph’s days, the sale of flowers began at two o’clock. More than a hundred thousand francs’ worth of cut flowers would be sold on the footways, and some of the retail dealers would make as much as two hundred francs in a few hours. On days like those only Cadine’s curly locks peered over the mounds of pansies, mignonette, and marguerites. She was quite drowned and lost in the flood of flowers. Then she would spend all her time in mounting bouquets on bits of rush. In a few weeks she acquired considerable skillfulness in her business, and manifested no little originality. Her bouquets did not always please everybody, however. Sometimes they made one smile, sometimes they alarmed the eyes. Red predominated in them, mottled with violent tints of blue, yellow, and violet of a barbaric charm. On the mornings when she pinched Marjolin, and teased him till she made him cry, she made up fierce-looking bouquets, suggestive of her own bad temper, bouquets with strong rough scents and glaring irritating colours. On other days, however, when she was softened by some thrill of joy or sorrow, her bouquets would assume a tone of silvery grey, very soft and subdued, and delicately perfumed.
Then, too, she would set roses, as sanguineous as open hearts, in lakes of snow-white pinks; arrange bunches of tawny iris that shot up in tufts of flame from foliage that seemed scared by the brilliance of the flowers; work elaborate designs, as complicated as those of Smyrna rugs, adding flower to flower, as on a canvas; and prepare rippling fanlike bouquets spreading out with all the delicacy of lace. Here was a cluster of flowers of delicious purity, there a fat nosegay, whatever one might dream of for the hand of a marchioness or a fish-wife; all the charming quaint fancies, in short, which the brain of a sharp-witted child of twelve, budding into womanhood, could devise.
There were only two flowers for which Cadine retained respect; white lilac, which by the bundle of eight or ten sprays cost from fifteen to twenty francs in the winter time; and camellias, which were still more costly, and arrived in boxes of a dozen, lying on beds of moss, and covered with cotton wool. She handled these as delicately as though they were jewels, holding her breath for fear of dimming their lustre, and fastening their short stems to springs of cane with the tenderest care. She spoke of them with serious reverence. She told Marjolin one day that a speckless white camellia was a very rare and exceptionally lovely thing, and, as she was making him admire one, he exclaimed: “Yes; it’s pretty; but I prefer your neck, you know. It’s much more soft and transparent than the camellia, and there are some little blue and pink veins just like the pencillings on a flower.” Then, drawing near and sniffing, he murmured: “Ah! you smell of orange blossom to-day.”
Cadine was self-willed, and did not get on well in the position of a servant, so she ended by setting up in business on her own account. As she was only thirteen at the time, and could not hope for a big trade and a stall in the flower avenue, she took to selling one-sou bunches of violets pricked into a bed of moss in an osier tray which she carried hanging from her neck. All day long she wandered about the markets and their precincts with her little bit of hanging garden. She loved this continual stroll, which relieved the numbness of her limbs after long hours spent, with bent knees, on a low chair, making bouquets. She fastened her violets together with marvellous deftness as she walked along. She counted out six or eight flowers, according to the season, doubled a sprig of cane in half, added a leaf, twisted some damp thread round the whole, and broke off the thread with her strong young teeth. The little bunches seemed to spring spontaneously from the layer of moss, so rapidly did she stick them into it.
Along the footways, amidst the jostling of the street traffic, her nimble fingers were ever flowering though she gave them not a glance, but boldly scanned the shops and passers-by. Sometimes she would rest in a doorway for a moment; and alongside the gutters, greasy with kitchen slops, she sat, as it were a patch of springtime, a suggestion of green woods, and purple blossoms. Her flowers still betokened her frame of mind, her fits of bad temper and her thrills of tenderness. Sometimes they bristled and glowered with anger amidst their crumpled leaves; at other times they spoke only of love and peacefulness as they smiled in their prim collars. As Cadine passed along, she left a sweet perfume behind her; Marjolin followed her devoutly. From head to foot she now exhaled but one scent, and the lad repeated that she was herself a violet, a great big violet.
“Do you remember the day when we went to Romainville together?” he would say; “Romainville, where there are so many violets. The scent was just the same. Oh! don’t change again — you smell too sweetly.”
And she did not change again. This was her last trade. Still, she often neglected her osier tray to go rambling about the neighbourhood. The building of the central markets — as yet incomplete — provided both children with endless opportunities for amusement. They made their way into the midst of the work-yards through some gap or other between the planks; they descended into the foundations, and climbed up to the cast-iron pillars. Every nook, every piece of the framework witnessed their games and quarrels; the pavilions grew up under the touch of their little hands. From all this arose the affection which they felt for the great markets, and which the latter seemed to return. They were on familiar terms with that gigantic pile, old friends as they were, who had seen each pin and bolt put into place. They felt no fear of the huge monster; but slapped it with their childish hands, treated it like a good friend, a chum whose presence brought no constraint. And the markets seemed to smile at these two light-hearted children, whose love was the song, the idyll of their immensity.
Cadine alone now slept at Mother Chantemesse’s. The old woman had packed Marjolin off to a neighbour’s. This made the two children very unhappy. Still, they contrived to spend much of their time together. In the daytime they would hide themselves away in the warehouses of the Rue au Lard, behind piles of apples and cases of oranges; and in the evening they would dive into the cellars beneath the poultry market, and secret themselves among the huge hampers of feathers which stood near the blocks where the poultry was killed. They were quite alone there, amidst the strong smell of the poultry, and with never a sound but the sudden crowing of some rooster to break upon their babble and their laughter. The feathers amidst which they found themselves were of all sorts — turkey’s feathers, long and black; goose quills, white and flexible; the downy plumage of ducks, soft like cotton wool; and the ruddy and mottled feathers of fowls, which at the faintest breath flew up in a cloud like a swarm of flies buzzing in the sun. And then in wintertime there was the purple plumage of the pheasants, the ashen grey of the larks, the splotched silk of the partridges, quails, and thrushes. And all these feathers freshly plucked were still warm and odoriferous, seemingly endowed with life. The spot was as cosy as a nest; at times a quiver as of flapping wings sped by, and Marjolin and Cadine, nestling amidst all the plumage, often imagined that they were being carried aloft by one of those huge birds with outspread pinions that one hears of in the fairy tales.
As time went on their childish affection took the inevitable turn. Veritable offsprings of Nature, knowing naught of social conventions and restraints, they loved one another in all innocence and guilelessness. They mated even as the birds of the air mate, even as youth and maid mated in primeval times, because such is Nature’s law. At sixteen Cadine was a dusky town gipsy, greedy and sensual, whilst Marjolin, now eighteen, was a tall, strapping fellow, as handsome a youth as could be met, but still with his mental faculties quite undeveloped. He had lived, indeed, a mere animal life, which had strengthened his frame, but left his intellect in a rudimentary state.
When old Madame Chantemesse realised the turn that things were taking she wrathfully upbraided Cadine and struck out vigorously at her with her broom. But the hussy only laughed and dodged the blows, and then hied off to her lover. And gradually the markets became their home, their manger, their aviary, where they lived and loved amidst the meat, the butter, the vegetables, and the feathers.
They discovered another little paradise in the pavilion where butter, eggs, and cheese were sold wholesale. Enormous walls of empty baskets were here piled up every morning, and amidst these Cadine and Marjolin burrowed and hollowed out a dark lair for themselves. A mere partition of osier-work separated them from the market crowd, whose loud voices rang out all around them. They often shook with laughter when people, without the least suspicion of their presence, stopped to talk together a few yards away from them. On these occasions they would contrive peepholes, and spy through them, and when cherries were in season Cadine tossed the stones in the faces of all the old women who passed along — a pastime which amused them the more as the startled old crones could never make out whence the hail of cherry-stones had come. They also prowled about the depths of the cellars, knowing every gloomy corner of them, and contriving to get through the most carefully locked gates. One of their favourite amusements was to visit the track of the subterranean railway, which had been laid under the markets, and which those who planned the latter had intended to connect with the different goods’ stations of Paris. Sections of this railway were laid beneath each of the covered ways, between the cellars of each pavilion; the work, indeed, was in such an advanced state that turn-tables had been put into position at all the points of intersection, and were in readiness for use. After much examination, Cadine and Marjolin had at last succeeded in discovering a loose plank in the hoarding which enclosed the track, and they had managed to convert it into a door, by which they could easily gain access to the line. There they were quite shut off from the world, though they could hear the continuous rumbling of the street traffic over their heads.
The line stretched through deserted vaults, here and there illumined by a glimmer of light filtering through iron gratings, while in certain dark corners gas jets were burning. And Cadine and Marjolin rambled about as in the secret recesses of some castle of their own, secure from all interruption, and rejoicing in the buzzy silence, the murky glimmer, and subterranean secrecy, which imparted a touch of melodrama to their experiences. All sorts of smells were wafted through the hoarding from the neighbouring cellars; the musty smell of vegetables, the pungency of fish, the overpowering stench of cheese, and the warm reek of poultry.
At other times, on clear nights and fine dawns, they would climb on to the roofs, ascending thither by the steep staircases of the turrets at the angles of the pavilions. Up above they found fields of leads, endless promenades and squares, a stretch of undulating country which belonged to them. They rambled round the square roofs of the pavilions, followed the course of the long roofs of the covered ways, climbed and descended the slopes, and lost themselves in endless perambulations of discovery. And when they grew tired of the lower levels they ascended still higher, venturing up the iron ladders, on which Cadine’s skirts flapped like flags. Then they ran along the second tier of roofs beneath the open heavens. There was nothing save the stars above them. All sorts of sounds rose up from the echoing markets, a clattering and rumbling, a vague roar as of a distant tempest heard at nighttime. At that height the morning breeze swept away the evil smells, the foul breath of the awaking markets. They would kiss one another on the edge of the gutterings like sparrows frisking on the house-tops. The rising fires of the sun illumined their faces with a ruddy glow. Cadine laughed with pleasure at being so high up in the air, and her neck shone with iridescent tints like a dove’s; while Marjolin bent down to look at the street still wrapped in gloom, with his hands clutching hold of the leads like the feet of a wood-pigeon. When they descended to earth again, joyful from their excursion in the fresh air, they would remark to one another that they were coming back from the country.
It was in the tripe market that they had made the acquaintance of Claude Lantier. They went there every day, impelled thereto by an animal taste for blood, the cruel instinct of urchins who find amusement in the sight of severed heads. A ruddy stream flowed along the gutters round the pavilion; they dipped the tips of their shoes in it, and dammed it up with leaves, so as to form large pools of blood. They took a strong interest in the arrival of the loads of offal in carts which always smelt offensively, despite all the drenchings of water they got; they watched the unloading of the bundles of sheep’s trotters, which were piled up on the ground like filthy paving-stones, of the huge stiffened tongues, bleeding at their torn roots, and of the massive bell-shaped bullocks’ hearts. But the spectacle which, above all others, made them quiver with delight was that of the big dripping hampers, full of sheep’s heads, with greasy horns and black muzzles, and strips of woolly skin dangling from bleeding flesh. The sight of these conjured up in their minds the idea of some guillotine casting into the baskets the heads of countless victims.
They followed the baskets into the depths of the cellar, watching them glide down the rails laid over the steps, and listening to the rasping noise which the casters of these osier waggons made in their descent. Down below there was a scene of exquisite horror. They entered into a charnel-house atmosphere, and walked along through murky puddles, amidst which every now and then purple eyes seem to be glistening. At times the soles of their boots stuck to the ground, at others they splashed through the horrible mire, anxious and yet delighted. The gas jets burned low, like blinking, bloodshot eyes. Near the water-taps, in the pale light falling through the gratings, they came upon the blocks; and there they remained in rapture watching the tripe men, who, in aprons stiffened by gory splashings, broke the sheep’s heads one after another with a blow of their mallets. They lingered there for hours, waiting till all the baskets were empty, fascinated by the crackling of the bones, unable to tear themselves away till all was over. Sometimes an attendant passed behind them, cleansing the cellar with a hose; floods of water rushed out with a sluice-like roar, but although the violence of the discharge actually ate away the surface of the flagstones, it was powerless to remove the ruddy stains and stench of blood.
Cadine and Marjolin were sure of meeting Claude between four and five in the afternoon at the wholesale auction of the bullocks’ lights. He was always there amidst the tripe dealers’ carts backed up against the kerb-stones and the blue-bloused, white-aproned men who jostled him and deafened his ears by their loud bids. But he never felt their elbows; he stood in a sort of ecstatic trance before the huge hanging lights, and often told Cadine and Marjolin that there was no finer sight to be seen. The lights were of a soft rosy hue, gradually deepening and turning at the lower edges to a rich carmine; and Claude compared them to watered satin, finding no other term to describe the soft silkiness of those flowing lengths of flesh which drooped in broad folds like ballet dancers’ skirts. He thought, too, of gauze and lace allowing a glimpse of pinky skin; and when a ray of sunshine fell upon the lights and girdled them with gold an expression of languorous rapture came into his eyes, and he felt happier than if he had been privileged to contemplate the Greek goddesses in their sovereign nudity, or the chatelaines of romance in their brocaded robes.
The artist became a great friend of the two young scapegraces. He loved beautiful animals, and such undoubtedly they were. For a long time he dreamt of a colossal picture which should represent the loves of Cadine and Marjolin in the central markets, amidst the vegetables, the fish, and the meat. He would have depicted them seated on some couch of food, their arms circling each other’s waists, and their lips exchanging an idyllic kiss. In this conception he saw a manifesto proclaiming the positivism of art — modern art, experimental and materialistic. And it seemed to him also that it would be a smart satire on the school which wishes every painting to embody an “idea,” a slap for the old traditions and all they represented. But during a couple of years he began study after study without succeeding in giving the particular “note” he desired. In this way he spoilt fifteen canvases. His failure filled him with rancour; however, he continued to associate with his two models from a sort of hopeless love for his abortive picture. When he met them prowling about in the afternoon, he often scoured the neighbourhood with them, strolling around with his hands in his pockets, and deeply interested in the life of the streets.
They all three trudged along together, dragging their heels over the footways and monopolising their whole breadth so as to force others to step down into the road. With their noses in the air they sniffed in the odours of Paris, and could have recognised every corner blindfold by the spirituous emanations of the wine shops, the hot puffs that came from the bakehouses and confectioners’, and the musty odours wafted from the fruiterers’. They would make the circuit of the whole district. They delighted in passing through the rotunda of the corn market, that huge massive stone cage where sacks of flour were piled up on every side, and where their footsteps echoed in the silence of the resonant roof. They were fond, too, of the little narrow streets in the neighbourhood, which had become as deserted, as black, and as mournful as though they formed part of an abandoned city. These were the Rue Babille, the Rue Sauval, the Rue des Deux Ecus, and the Rue de Viarmes, this last pallid from its proximity to the millers’ stores, and at four o’clock lively by reason of the corn exchange held there. It was generally at this point that they started on their round. They made their way slowly along the Rue Vauvilliers, glancing as they went at the windows of the low eating-houses, and thus reaching the miserably narrow Rue des Prouvaires, where Claude blinked his eyes as he saw one of the covered ways of the market, at the far end of which, framed round by this huge iron nave, appeared a side entrance of St. Eustache with its rose and its tiers of arched windows. And then, with an air of defiance, he would remark that all the middle ages and the Renaissance put together were less mighty than the central markets. Afterwards, as they paced the broad new streets, the Rue du Pont Neuf and the Rue des Halles, he explained modern life with its wide footways, its lofty houses, and its luxurious shops, to the two urchins. He predicted, too, the advent of new and truly original art, whose approach he could divine, and despair filled him that its revelation should seemingly be beyond his own powers.
Cadine and Marjolin, however, preferred the provincial quietness of the Rue des Bourdonnais, where one can play at marbles without fear of being run over. The girl perked her head affectedly as she passed the wholesale glove and hosiery stores, at each door of which bareheaded assistants, with their pens stuck in their ears, stood watching her with a weary gaze. And she and her lover had yet a stronger preference for such bits of olden Paris as still existed: the Rue de la Poterie and the Rue de la Lingerie, with their butter and egg and cheese dealers; the Rue de la Ferronerie and the Rue de l’Aiguillerie (the beautiful streets of far-away times), with their dark narrow shops; and especially the Rue Courtalon, a dank, dirty by-way running from the Place Sainte Opportune to the Rue Saint Denis, and intersected by foul-smelling alleys where they had romped in their younger days. In the Rue Saint Denis they entered into the land of dainties; and they smiled upon the dried apples, the “Spanishwood,” the prunes, and the sugar-candy in the windows of the grocers and druggists. Their ramblings always set them dreaming of a feast of good things, and inspired them with a desire to glut themselves on the contents of the windows. To them the district seemed like some huge table, always laid with an everlasting dessert into which they longed to plunge their fingers.
They devoted but a moment to visiting the other blocks of tumble-down old houses, the Rue Pirouette, the Rue de Mondetour, the Rue de la Petite Truanderie, and the Rue de la Grande Truanderie, for they took little interest in the shops of the dealers in edible snails, cooked vegetables, tripe, and drink. In the Rue de la Grand Truanderie, however, there was a soap factory, an oasis of sweetness in the midst of all the foul odours, and Marjolin was fond of standing outside it till some one happened to enter or come out, so that the perfume which swept through the doorway might blow full in his face. Then with all speed they returned to the Rue Pierre Lescot and the Rue Rambuteau. Cadine was extremely fond of salted provisions; she stood in admiration before the bundles of red-herrings, the barrels of anchovies and capers, and the little casks of gherkins and olives, standing on end with wooden spoons inside them. The smell of the vinegar titillated her throat; the pungent odour of the rolled cod, smoked salmon, bacon and ham, and the sharp acidity of the baskets of lemons, made her mouth water longingly. She was also fond of feasting her eyes on the boxes of sardines piled up in metallic columns amidst the cases and sacks. In the Rue Montorgueil and the Rue Montmartre were other tempting-looking groceries and restaurants, from whose basements appetising odours were wafted, with glorious shows of game and poultry, and preserved-provision shops, which last displayed beside their doors open kegs overflowing with yellow sourkrout suggestive of old lacework. Then they lingered in the Rue Coquilliere, inhaling the odour of truffles from the premises of a notable dealer in comestibles, which threw so strong a perfume into the street that Cadine and Marjolin closed their eyes and imagined they were swallowing all kinds of delicious things. These perfumes, however, distressed Claude. They made him realise the emptiness of his stomach, he said; and, leaving the “two animals” to feast on the odour of the truffles — the most penetrating odour to be found in all the neighbourhood — he went off again to the corn market by way of the Rue Oblin, studying on his road the old women who sold green-stuff in the doorways and the displays of cheap pottery spread out on the foot-pavements.
Such were their rambles in common; but when Cadine set out alone with her bunches of violets she often went farther afield, making it a point to visit certain shops for which she had a particular partiality. She had an especial weakness for the Taboureau bakery establishment, one of the windows of which was exclusively devoted to pastry. She would follow the Rue Turbigo and retrace her steps a dozen times in order to pass again and again before the almond cakes, the savarins, the St. Honore tarts, the fruit tarts, and the various dishes containing bunlike babas redolent of rum, eclairs combining the finger biscuit with chocolate, and choux a la crème, little rounds of pastry overflowing with whipped white of egg. The glass jars full of dry biscuits, macaroons, and madeleines also made her mouth water; and the bright shop with its big mirrors, its marble slabs, its gilding, its bread-bins of ornamental ironwork, and its second window in which long glistening loaves were displayed slantwise, with one end resting on a crystal shelf whilst above they were upheld by a brass rod, was so warm and odoriferous of baked dough that her features expanded with pleasure when, yielding to temptation, she went in to buy a brioche for two sous.
Another shop, one in front of the Square des Innocents, also filled her with gluttonous inquisitiveness, a fever of longing desire. This shop made a specialty of forcemeat pasties. In addition to the ordinary ones there were pasties of pike and pasties of truffled foie gras; and the girl would gaze yearningly at them, saying to herself that she would really have to eat one some day.
Cadine also had her moments of vanity and coquetry. When these fits were on her, she bought herself in imagination some of the magnificent dresses displayed in the windows of the “Fabriques de France” which made the Pointe Saint Eustache gaudy with their pieces of bright stuff hanging from the first floor to the footway and flapping in the breeze. Somewhat incommoded by the flat basket hanging before her, amidst the crowd of market women in dirty aprons gazing at future Sunday dresses, the girl would feel the woollens, flannels, and cottons to test the texture and suppleness of the material; and she would promise herself a gown of bright-coloured flannelling, flowered print, or scarlet poplin. Sometimes even from amongst the pieces draped and set off to advantage by the window-dressers she would choose some soft sky-blue or apple-green silk, and dream of wearing it with pink ribbons. In the evenings she would dazzle herself with the displays in the windows of the big jewellers in the Rue Montmartre. That terrible street deafened her with its ceaseless flow of vehicles, and the streaming crowd never ceased to jostle her; still she did not stir, but remained feasting her eyes on the blazing splendour set out in the light of the reflecting lamps which hung outside the windows. On one side all was white with the bright glitter of silver: watches in rows, chains hanging, spoons and forks laid crossways, cups, snuff-boxes, napkin-rings, and combs arranged on shelves. The silver thimbles, dotting a porcelain stand covered with a glass shade, had an especial attraction for her. Then on the other side the windows glistened with the tawny glow of gold. A cascade of long pendant chains descended from above, rippling with ruddy gleams; small ladies’ watches, with the backs of their cases displayed, sparkled like fallen stars; wedding rings clustered round slender rods; bracelets, broaches, and other costly ornaments glittered on the black velvet linings of their cases; jewelled rings set their stands aglow with blue, green, yellow, and violet flamelets; while on every tier of the shelves superposed rows of earrings and crosses and lockets hung against the crystal like the rich fringes of altar-cloths. The glow of this gold illumined the street half way across with a sun-like radiance. And Cadine, as she gazed at it, almost fancied that she was in presence of something holy, or on the threshold of the Emperor’s treasure chamber. She would for a long time scrutinise all this show of gaudy jewellery, adapted to the taste of the fish-wives, and carefully read the large figures on the tickets affixed to each article; and eventually she would select for herself a pair of earrings — pear-shaped drops of imitation coral hanging from golden roses.
One morning Claude caught her standing in ecstasy before a hair-dresser’s window in the Rue Saint Honore. She was gazing at the display of hair with an expression of intense envy. High up in the window was a streaming cascade of long manes, soft wisps, loose tresses, frizzy falls, undulating comb-curls, a perfect cataract of silky and bristling hair, real and artificial, now in coils of a flaming red, now in thick black crops, now in pale golden locks, and even in snowy white ones for the coquette of sixty. In cardboard boxes down below were cleverly arranged fringes, curling side-ringlets, and carefully combed chignons glossy with pomade. And amidst this framework, in a sort of shrine beneath the ravelled ends of the hanging locks, there revolved the bust of a woman, arrayed in a wrapper of cherry-coloured satin fastened between the breasts with a brass brooch. The figure wore a lofty bridal coiffure picked out with sprigs of orange blossom, and smiled with a dollish smile. Its eyes were pale blue; its eyebrows were very stiff and of exaggerated length; and its waxen cheeks and shoulders bore evident traces of the heat and smoke of the gas. Cadine waited till the revolving figure again displayed its smiling face, and as its profile showed more distinctly and it slowly went round from left to right she felt perfectly happy. Claude, however, was indignant, and, shaking Cadine, he asked her what she was doing in front of “that abomination, that corpse-like hussy picked up at the Morgue!” He flew into a temper with the “dummy’s” cadaverous face and shoulders, that disfigurement of the beautiful, and remarked that artists painted nothing but that unreal type of woman nowadays. Cadine, however, remained unconvinced by his oratory, and considered the lady extremely beautiful. Then, resisting the attempts of the artist to drag her away by the arm, and scratching her black mop in vexation, she pointed to an enormous ruddy tail, severed from the quarters of some vigorous mare, and told him she would have liked to have a crop of hair like that.
During the long rambles when Claude, Cadine, and Marjolin prowled about the neighbourhood of the markets, they saw the iron ribs of the giant building at the end of every street. Wherever they turned they caught sudden glimpses of it; the horizon was always bounded by it; merely the aspect under which it was seen varied. Claude was perpetually turning round, and particularly in the Rue Montmartre, after passing the church. From that point the markets, seen obliquely in the distance, filled him with enthusiasm. A huge arcade, a giant, gaping gateway, was open before him; then came the crowding pavilions with their lower and upper roofs, their countless Venetian shutters and endless blinds, a vision, as it were, of superposed houses and palaces; a Babylon of metal of Hindoo delicacy of workmanship, intersected by hanging terraces, aerial galleries, and flying bridges poised over space. The trio always returned to this city round which they strolled, unable to stray more than a hundred yards away. They came back to it during the hot afternoons when the Venetian shutters were closed and the blinds lowered. In the covered ways all seemed to be asleep, the ashy greyness was streaked by yellow bars of sunlight falling through the high windows. Only a subdued murmur broke the silence; the steps of a few hurrying passers-by resounded on the footways; whilst the badge-wearing porters sat in rows on the stone ledges at the corners of the pavilions, taking off their boots and nursing their aching feet. The quietude was that of a colossus at rest, interrupted at times by some cock-crow rising from the cellars below.
Claude, Cadine, and Marjolin then often went to see the empty hampers piled upon the drays, which came to fetch them every afternoon so that they might be sent back to the consignors. There were mountains of them, labelled with black letters and figures, in front of the salesmen’s warehouses in the Rue Berger. The porters arranged them symmetrically, tier by tier, on the vehicles. When the pile rose, however, to the height of a first floor, the porter who stood below balancing the next batch of hampers had to make a spring in order to toss them up to his mate, who was perched aloft with arms extended. Claude, who delighted in feats of strength and dexterity, would stand for hours watching the flight of these masses of osier, and would burst into a hearty laugh whenever too vigorous a toss sent them flying over the pile into the roadway beyond. He was fond, too, of the footways of the Rue Rambuteau and the Rue du Pont Neuf, near the fruit market, where the retail dealers congregated. The sight of the vegetables displayed in the open air, on trestle-tables covered with damp black rags, was full of charm for him. At four in the afternoon the whole of this nook of greenery was aglow with sunshine; and Claude wandered between the stalls, inspecting the bright-coloured heads of the saleswomen with keen artistic relish. The younger ones, with their hair in nets, had already lost all freshness of complexion through the rough life they led; while the older ones were bent and shrivelled, with wrinkled, flaring faces showing under the yellow kerchiefs bound round their heads. Cadine and Marjolin refused to accompany him hither, as they could perceive old Mother Chantemesse shaking her fist at them, in her anger at seeing them prowling about together. He joined them again, however, on the opposite footway, where he found a splendid subject for a picture in the stallkeepers squatting under their huge umbrellas of faded red, blue, and violet, which, mounted upon poles, filled the whole market-side with bumps, and showed conspicuously against the fiery glow of the sinking sun, whose rays faded amidst the carrots and the turnips. One tattered harridan, a century old, was sheltering three spare-looking lettuces beneath an umbrella of pink silk, shockingly split and stained.
Cadine and Marjolin had struck up an acquaintance with Leon, Quenu’s apprentice, one day when he was taking a pie to a house in the neighbourhood. They saw him cautiously raise the lid of his pan in a secluded corner of the Rue de Mondetour, and delicately take out a ball of forcemeat. They smiled at the sight, which gave them a very high opinion of Leon. And the idea came to Cadine that she might at last satisfy one of her most ardent longings. Indeed, the very next time that she met the lad with his basket she made herself very agreeable, and induced him to offer her a forcemeat ball. But, although she laughed and licked her fingers, she experienced some disappointment. The forcemeat did not prove nearly so nice as she had anticipated. On the other hand, the lad, with his sly, greedy phiz and his white garments, which made him look like a girl going to her first communion, somewhat took her fancy.
She invited him to a monster lunch which she gave amongst the hampers in the auction room at the butter market. The three of them — herself, Marjolin, and Leon — completely secluded themselves from the world within four walls of osier. The feast was laid out on a large flat basket. There were pears, nuts, cream-cheese, shrimps, fried potatoes, and radishes. The cheese came from a fruiterer’s in the Rue de la Cossonnerie, and was a present; and a “frier” of the Rue de la Grande Truanderie had given Cadine credit for two sous’ worth of potatoes. The rest of the feast, the pears, the nuts, the shrimps, and the radishes, had been pilfered from different parts of the market. It was a delicious treat; and Leon, desirous of returning the hospitality, gave a supper in his bedroom at one o’clock in the morning. The bill of fare included cold black-pudding, slices of polony, a piece of salt pork, some gherkins, and some goose-fat. The Quenu–Gradelles’ shop had provided everything. And matters did not stop there. Dainty suppers alternated with delicate luncheons, and invitation upon invitation. Three times a week there were banquets, either amidst the hampers or in Leon’s garret, where Florent, on the nights when he lay awake, could hear a stifled sound of munching and rippling laughter until day began to break.
The loves of Cadine and Marjolin now took another turn. The youth played the gallant, and just as another might entertain his innamorata at a champagne supper en tete a tete in a private room, he led Cadine into some quiet corner of the market cellars to munch apples or sprigs of celery. One day he stole a red-herring, which they devoured with immense enjoyment on the roof of the fish market beside the guttering. There was not a single shady nook in the whole place where they did not indulge in secret feasts. The district, with its rows of open shops full of fruit and cakes and preserves, was no longer a closed paradise, in front of which they prowled with greedy, covetous appetites. As they passed the shops they now extended their hands and pilfered a prune, a few cherries, or a bit of cod. They also provisioned themselves at the markets, keeping a sharp look-out as they made their way between the stalls, picking up everything that fell, and often assisting the fall by a push of their shoulders.
In spite, however, of all the marauding, some terrible scores had to be run up with the “frier” of the Rue de la Grand Truanderie. This “frier,” whose shanty leaned against a tumble-down house, and was propped up by heavy joists, green with moss, made a display of boiled mussels lying in large earthenware bowls filled to the brim with clear water; of dishes of little yellow dabs stiffened by too thick a coating of paste; of squares of tripe simmering in a pan; and of grilled herrings, black and charred, and so hard that if you tapped them they sounded like wood. On certain weeks Cadine owed the frier as much as twenty sous, a crushing debt, which required the sale of an incalculable number of bunches of violets, for she could count upon no assistance from Marjolin. Moreover, she was bound to return Leon’s hospitalities; and she even felt some little shame at never being able to offer him a scrap of meat. He himself had now taken to purloining entire hams. As a rule, he stowed everything away under his shirt; and at night when he reached his bedroom he drew from his bosom hunks of polony, slices of pate de foie gras, and bundles of pork rind. They had to do without bread, and there was nothing to drink; but no matter. One night Marjolin saw Leon kiss Cadine between two mouthfuls; however, he only laughed. He could have smashed the little fellow with a blow from his fist, but he felt no jealousy in respect of Cadine. He treated her simply as a comrade with whom he had chummed for years.
Claude never participated in these feasts. Having caught Cadine one day stealing a beet-root from a little hamper lined with hay, he had pulled her ears and given her a sound rating. These thieving propensities made her perfect as a ne’er-do-well. However, in spite of himself, he could not help feeling a sort of admiration for these sensual, pilfering, greedy creatures, who preyed upon everything that lay about, feasting off the crumbs that fell from the giant’s table.
At last Marjolin nominally took service under Gavard, happy in having nothing to do except to listen to his master’s flow of talk, while Cadine still continued to sell violets, quite accustomed by this time to old Mother Chantemesse’s scoldings. They were still the same children as ever, giving way to their instincts and appetites without the slightest shame — they were the growth of the slimy pavements of the market district, where, even in fine weather, the mud remains black and sticky. However, as Cadine walked along the footways, mechanically twisting her bunches of violets, she was sometimes disturbed by disquieting reveries; and Marjolin, too, suffered from an uneasiness which he could not explain. He would occasionally leave the girl and miss some ramble or feast in order to go and gaze at Madame Quenu through the windows of her pork shop. She was so handsome and plump and round that it did him good to look at her. As he stood gazing at her, he felt full and satisfied, as though he had just eaten or drunk something extremely nice. And when he went off, a sort of hunger and thirst to see her again suddenly came upon him. This had been going on for a couple of months. At first he had looked at her with the respectful glance which he bestowed upon the shop-fronts of the grocers and provision dealers; but subsequently, when he and Cadine had taken to general pilfering, he began to regard her smooth cheeks much as he regarded the barrels of olives and boxes of dried apples.
For some time past Marjolin had seen handsome Lisa every day, in the morning. She would pass Gavard’s stall, and stop for a moment or two to chat with the poultry dealer. She now did her marketing herself, so that she might be cheated as little as possible, she said. The truth, however, was that she wished to make Gavard speak out. In the pork shop he was always distrustful, but at his stall he chatted and talked with the utmost freedom. Now, Lisa had made up her mind to ascertain from him exactly what took place in the little room at Monsieur Lebigre’s; for she had no great confidence in her secret police office, Mademoiselle Saget. In a short time she learnt from the incorrigible chatterbox a lot of vague details which very much alarmed her. Two days after her explanation with Quenu she returned home from the market looking very pale. She beckoned to her husband to follow her into the dining-room, and having carefully closed the door she said to him: “Is your brother determined to send us to the scaffold, then? Why did you conceal from me what you knew?”
Quenu declared that he knew nothing. He even swore a great oath that he had not returned to Monsieur Lebigre’s, and would never go there again.
“You will do well not to do so,” replied Lisa, shrugging her shoulders, “unless you want to get yourself into a serious scrape. Florent is up to some evil trick, I’m certain of it! I have just learned quite sufficient to show me where he is going. He’s going back to Cayenne, do you hear?”
Then, after a pause, she continued in calmer ones: “Oh, the unhappy man! He had everything here that he could wish for. He might have redeemed his character; he had nothing but good examples before him. But no, it is in his blood! He will come to a violent end with his politics! I insist upon there being an end to all this! You hear me, Quenu? I gave you due warning long ago!”
She spoke the last words very incisively. Quenu bent his head, as if awaiting sentence.
“To begin with,” continued Lisa, “he shall cease to take his meals here. It will be quite sufficient if we give him a bed. He is earning money; let him feed himself.”
Quenu seemed on the point of protesting, but his wife silenced him by adding energetically:
“Make your choice between him and me. If he remains here, I swear to you that I will go away, and take my daughter with me. Do you want me to tell you the whole truth about him? He is a man capable of anything; he has come here to bring discord into our household. But I will set things right, you may depend on it. You have your choice between him and me; you hear me?”
Then, leaving her husband in silent consternation, she returned to the shop, where she served a customer with her usual affable smile. The fact was that, having artfully inveigled Gavard into a political discussion, the poultry dealer had told her that she would soon see how the land lay, that they were going to make a clean sweep of everything, and that two determined men like her brother-in-law and himself would suffice to set the fire blazing. This was the evil trick of which she had spoken to Quenu, some conspiracy to which Gavard was always making mysterious allusions with a sniggering grin from which he seemingly desired a great deal to be inferred. And in imagination Lisa already saw the gendarmes invading the pork shop, gagging herself, her husband, and Pauline, and casting them into some underground dungeon.
In the evening, at dinner, she evinced an icy frigidity. She made no offers to serve Florent, but several times remarked: “It’s very strange what an amount of bread we’ve got through lately.”
Florent at last understood. He felt that he was being treated like a poor relation who is gradually turned out of doors. For the last two months Lisa had dressed him in Quenu’s old trousers and coats; and, as he was as thin as his brother was fat, these ragged garments had a most extraordinary appearance upon him. She also turned her oldest linen over to him: pocket-handkerchiefs which had been darned a score of times, ragged towels, sheets which were only fit to be cut up into dusters and dish-cloths, and worn-out shirts, distended by Quenu’s corpulent figure, and so short that they would have served Florent as under-vests. Moreover, he no longer found around him the same good-natured kindliness as in the earlier days. The whole household seemed to shrug its shoulders after the example set by handsome Lisa. Auguste and Augustine turned their backs upon him, and little Pauline, with the cruel frankness of childhood, let fall some bitter remarks about the stains on his coat and the holes in his shirt. However, during the last days he suffered most at table. He scarcely dared to eat, as he saw the mother and daughter fix their gaze upon him whenever he cut himself a piece of bread. Quenu meantime peered into his plate, to avoid having to take any part in what went on.
That which most tortured Florent was his inability to invent a reason for leaving the house. During a week he kept on revolving in his mind a sentence expressing his resolve to take his meals elsewhere, but could not bring himself to utter it. Indeed, this man of tender nature lived in such a world of illusions that he feared he might hurt his brother and sister-in-law by ceasing to lunch and dine with them. It had taken him over two months to detect Lisa’s latent hostility; and even now he was sometimes inclined to think that he must be mistaken, and that she was in reality kindly disposed towards him. Unselfishness with him extended to forgetfulness of his requirements; it was no longer a virtue, but utter indifference to self, an absolute obliteration of personality. Even when he recognised that he was being gradually turned out of the house, his mind never for a moment dwelt upon his share in old Gradelle’s fortune, or upon the accounts which Lisa had offered him. He had already planned out his expenditure for the future; reckoning that with what Madame Verlaque still allowed him to retain of his salary, and the thirty francs a month which a pupil, obtained through La Normande, paid him he would be able to spend eighteen sous on his breakfast and twenty-six sous on his dinner. This, he thought, would be ample. And so, at last, taking as his excuse the lessons which he was giving his new pupil, he emboldened himself one morning to pretend that it would be impossible for him in future to come to the house at mealtimes. He blushed as he gave utterance to this laboriously constructed lie, which had given him so much trouble, and continued apologetically:
“You mustn’t be offended; the boy only has those hours free. I can easily get something to eat, you know; and I will come and have a chat with you in the evenings.”
Beautiful Lisa maintained her icy reserve, and this increased Florent’s feeling of trouble. In order to have no cause for self-reproach she had been unwilling to send him about his business, preferring to wait till he should weary of the situation and go of his own accord. Now he was going, and it was a good riddance; and she studiously refrained from all show of kindliness for fear it might induce him to remain. Quenu, however, showed some signs of emotion, and exclaimed: “Don’t think of putting yourself about; take your meals elsewhere by all means, if it is more convenient. It isn’t we who are turning you way; you’ll at all events dine with us sometimes on Sundays, eh?”
Florent hurried off. His heart was very heavy. When he had gone, the beautiful Lisa did not venture to reproach her husband for his weakness in giving that invitation for Sundays. She had conquered, and again breathed freely amongst the light oak of her dining-room, where she would have liked to burn some sugar to drive away the odour of perverse leanness which seemed to linger about. Moreover, she continued to remain on the defensive; and at the end of another week she felt more alarmed than ever. She only occasionally saw Florent in the evenings, and began to have all sorts of dreadful thoughts, imagining that her brother-in-law was constructing some infernal machine upstairs in Augustine’s bedroom, or else making signals which would result in barricades covering the whole neighbourhood. Gavard, who had become gloomy, merely nodded or shook his head when she spoke to him, and left his stall for days together in Marjolin’s charge. The beautiful Lisa, however, determined that she would get to the bottom of affairs. She knew that Florent had obtained a day’s leave, and intended to spend it with Claude Lantier, at Madame Francois’s, at Nanterre. As he would start in the morning, and remain away till night, she conceived the idea of inviting Gavard to dinner. He would be sure to talk freely, at table, she thought. But throughout the morning she was unable to meet the poultry dealer, and so in the afternoon she went back again to the markets.
Marjolin was in the stall alone. He used to drowse there for hours, recouping himself from the fatigue of his long rambles. He generally sat upon one chair with his legs resting upon another, and his head leaning against a little dresser. In the wintertime he took a keen delight in lolling there and contemplating the display of game; the bucks hanging head downwards, with their fore-legs broken and twisted round their necks; the larks festooning the stall like garlands; the big ruddy hares, the mottled partridges, the water-fowl of a bronze-grey hue, the Russian black cocks and hazel hens, which arrived in a packing of oat straw and charcoal;* and the pheasants, the magnificent pheasants, with their scarlet hoods, their stomachers of green satin, their mantles of embossed gold, and their flaming tails, that trailed like trains of court robes. All this show of plumage reminded Marjolin of his rambles in the cellars with Cadine amongst the hampers of feathers.
* The baskets in which these are sent to Paris are identical with those which in many provinces of Russia serve the moujiks as cradles for their infants. — Translator.
That afternoon the beautiful Lisa found Marjolin in the midst of the poultry. It was warm, and whiffs of hot air passed along the narrow alleys of the pavilion. She was obliged to stoop before she could see him stretched out inside the stall, below the bare flesh of the birds. From the hooked bar up above hung fat geese, the hooks sticking in the bleeding wounds of their long stiffened necks, while their huge bodies bulged out, glowing ruddily beneath their fine down, and, with their snowy tails and wings, suggesting nudity encompassed by fine linen. And also hanging from the bar, with ears thrown back and feet parted as though they were bent on some vigorous leap, were grey rabbits whose turned-up tails gleamed whitely, whilst their heads, with sharp teeth and dim eyes, laughed with the grin of death. On the counter of the stall plucked fowls showed their strained fleshy breasts; pigeons, crowded on osier trays, displayed the soft bare skin of innocents; ducks, with skin of rougher texture, exhibited their webbed feet; and three magnificent turkeys, speckled with blue dots, like freshly-shaven chins, slumbered on their backs amidst the black fans of their expanded tails. On plates near by were giblets, livers, gizzards, necks, feet, and wings; while an oval dish contained a skinned and gutted rabbit, with its four legs wide apart, its head bleeding, and is kidneys showing through its gashed belly. A streamlet of dark blood, after trickling along its back to its tail, had fallen drop by drop, staining the whiteness of the dish. Marjolin had not even taken the trouble to wipe the block, near which the rabbit’s feet were still lying. He reclined there with his eyes half closed, encompassed by other piles of dead poultry which crowded the shelves of the stall, poultry in paper wrappers like bouquets, rows upon rows of protuberant breasts and bent legs showing confusedly. And amidst all this mass of food, the young fellow’s big, fair figure, the flesh of his cheeks, hands, and powerful neck covered with ruddy down seemed as soft as that of the magnificent turkeys, and as plump as the breasts of the fat geese.
When he caught sight of Lisa, he at once sprang up, blushing at having been caught sprawling in this way. He always seemed very nervous and ill at ease in Madame Quenu’s presence; and when she asked him if Monsieur Gavard was there, he stammered out: “No, I don’t think so. He was here a little while ago, but he want away again.”
Lisa looked at him, smiling; she had a great liking for him. But feeling something warm brush against her hand, which was hanging by her side, she raised a little shriek. Some live rabbits were thrusting their noses out of a box under the counter of the stall, and sniffing at her skirts.
“Oh,” she exclaimed with a laugh, “it’s your rabbits that are tickling me.”
Then she stooped and attempted to stroke a white rabbit, which darted in alarm into a corner of the box.
“Will Monsieur Gavard be back soon, do you think?” she asked, as she again rose erect.
Marjolin once more replied that he did not know; then in a hesitating way he continued: “He’s very likely gone down into the cellars. He told me, I think, that he was going there.”
“Well, I think I’ll wait for him, then,” replied Lisa. “Could you let him know that I am here? or I might go down to him, perhaps. Yes, that’s a good idea; I’ve been intending to go and have a look at the cellars for these last five years. You’ll take me down, won’t you, and explain things to me?”
Marjolin blushed crimson, and, hurrying out of the stall, walked on in front of her, leaving the poultry to look after itself. “Of course I will,” said he. “I’ll do anything you wish, Madame Lisa.”
When they got down below, the beautiful Lisa felt quite suffocated by the dank atmosphere of the cellar. She stood at the bottom step, and raised her eyes to look at the vaulted roofing of red and white bricks arching slightly between the iron ribs upheld by small columns. What made her hesitate more than the gloominess of the place was a warm, penetrating odour, the exhalations of large numbers of living creatures, which irritated her nostrils and throat.
“What a nasty smell!” she exclaimed. “It must be very unhealthy down here.”
“It never does me any harm,” replied Marjolin in astonishment. “There’s nothing unpleasant about the smell when you’ve got accustomed to it; and it’s very warm and cosy down here in the wintertime.”
As Lisa followed him, however, she declared that the strong scent of the poultry quite turned her stomach, and that she would certainly not be able to eat a fowl for the next two months. All around her, the storerooms, the small cabins where the stallkeepers keep their live stock, formed regular streets, intersecting each other at right angles. There were only a few scattered gas lights, and the little alleys seemed wrapped in sleep like the lanes of a village where the inhabitants have all gone to bed. Marjolin made Lisa feel the close-meshed wiring, stretched on a framework of cast iron; and as she made her way along one of the streets she amused herself by reading the names of the different tenants, which were inscribed on blue labels.
“Monsieur Gavard’s place is quite at the far end,” said the young man, still walking on.
They turned to the left, and found themselves in a sort of blind alley, a dark, gloomy spot where not a ray of light penetrated. Gavard was not there.
“Oh, it makes no difference,” said Marjolin. “I can show you our birds just the same. I have a key of the storeroom.”
Lisa followed him into the darkness.
“You don’t suppose that I can see your birds in this black oven, do you?” she asked, laughing.
Marjolin did not reply at once; but presently he stammered out that there was always a candle in the storeroom. He was fumbling about the lock, and seemed quite unable to find the keyhole. As Lisa came up to help him, she felt a hot breath on her neck; and when the young man had at last succeeded in opening the door and lighted the candle, she saw that he was trembling.
“You silly fellow!” she exclaimed, “to get yourself into such a state just because a door won’t open! Why, you’re no better than a girl, in spite of your big fists!”
She stepped inside the storeroom. Gavard had rented two compartments, which he had thrown into one by removing the partition between them. In the dirt on the floor wallowed the larger birds — the geese, turkeys, and ducks — while up above, on tiers of shelves, were boxes with barred fronts containing fowls and rabbits. The grating of the storeroom was so coated with dust and cobwebs that it looked as though covered with grey blinds. The woodwork down below was rotting, and covered with filth. Lisa, however, not wishing to vex Marjolin, refrained from any further expression of disgust. She pushed her fingers between the bars of the boxes, and began to lament the fate of the unhappy fowls, which were so closely huddled together and could not even stand upright. Then she stroked a duck with a broken leg which was squatting in a corner, and the young man told her that it would be killed that very evening, for fear lest it should die during the night.
“But what do they do for food?” asked Lisa.
Thereupon he explained to her that poultry would not eat in the dark, and that it was necessary to light a candle and wait there till they had finished their meal.
“It amuses me to watch them,” he continued; “I often stay here with a light for hours altogether. You should see how they peck away; and when I hide the flame of the candle with my hand they all stand stock-still with their necks in the air, just as though the sun had set. It is against the rules to leave a lighted candle here and go away. One of the dealers, old Mother Palette — you know her, don’t you? — nearly burned the whole place down the other day. A fowl must have knocked the candle over into the straw while she was away.”
“A pretty thing, isn’t it,” said Lisa, “for fowls to insist upon having the chandeliers lighted up every time they take a meal?”
This idea made her laugh. Then she came out of the storeroom, wiping her feet, and holding up her skirts to keep them from the filth. Marjolin blew out the candle and locked the door. Lisa felt rather nervous at finding herself in the dark again with this big young fellow, and so she hastened on in front.
“I’m glad I came, all the same,” she presently said, as he joined her. “There is a great deal more under these markets than I ever imagined. But I must make haste now and get home again. They’ll wonder what has become of me at the shop. If Monsieur Gavard comes back, tell him that I want to speak to him immediately.”
“I expect he’s in the killing-room,” said Marjolin. “We’ll go and see, if you like.”
Lisa made no reply. She felt oppressed by the close atmosphere which warmed her face. She was quite flushed, and her bodice, generally so still and lifeless, began to heave. Moreover, the sound of Marjolin’s hurrying steps behind her filled her with an uneasy feeling. At last she stepped aside, and let him go on in front. The lanes of this underground village were still fast asleep. Lisa noticed that her companion was taking the longest way. When they came out in front of the railway track he told her that he had wished to show it to her; and they stood for a moment or two looking through the chinks in the hoarding of heavy beams. Then Marjolin proposed to take her on to the line; but she refused, saying that it was not worth while, as she could see things well enough where she was.
As they returned to the poultry cellars they found old Madame Palette in front of her storeroom, removing the cords of a large square hamper, in which a furious fluttering of wings and scraping of feet could be heard. As she unfastened the last knot the lid suddenly flew open, as though shot up by a spring, and some big geese thrust out their heads and necks. Then, in wild alarm, they sprang from their prison and rushed away, craning their necks, and filling the dark cellars with a frightful noise of hissing and clattering of beaks. Lisa could not help laughing, in spite of the lamentations of the old woman, who swore like a carter as she caught hold of two of the absconding birds and dragged them back by the neck. Marjolin, meantime, set off in pursuit of a third. They could hear him running along the narrow alleys, hunting for the runaway, and delighting in the chase. Then, far off in the distance, they heard the sounds of a struggle, and presently Marjolin came back again, bringing the goose with him. Mother Palette, a sallow-faced old woman, took it in her arms and clasped it for a moment to her bosom, in the classic attitude of Leda.
“Well, well, I’m sure I don’t know what I should have done if you hadn’t been here,” said she. “The other day I had a regular fight with one of the brutes; but I had my knife with me, and I cut its throat.”
Marjolin was quite out of breath. When they reached the stone blocks where the poultry were killed, and where the gas burnt more brightly, Lisa could see that he was perspiring, and had bold, glistening eyes. She thought he looked very handsome like that, with his broad shoulders, big flushed face, and fair curly hair, and she looked at him so complacently, with that air of admiration which women feel they may safely express for quite young lads, that he relapsed into timid bashfulness again.
“Well, Monsieur Gavard isn’t here, you see,” she said. “You’ve only made me waste my time.”
Marjolin, however, began rapidly explaining the killing of the poultry to her. Five huge stone slabs stretched out in the direction of the Rue Rambuteau under the yellow light of the gas jets. A woman was killing fowls at one end; and this led him to tell Lisa that the birds were plucked almost before they were dead, the operation thus being much easier. Then he wanted her to feel the feathers which were lying in heaps on the stone slabs; and told her that they were sorted and sold for as much as nine sous the pound, according to their quality. To satisfy him, she was also obliged to plunge her hand into the big hampers full of down. Then he turned the water-taps, of which there was one by every pillar. There was no end to the particulars he gave. The blood, he said, streamed along the stone blocks, and collected into pools on the paved floor, which attendants sluiced with water every two hours, removing the more recent stains with coarse brushes.
When Lisa stooped over the drain which carries away the swillings, Marjolin found a fresh text for talk. On rainy days, said he, the water sometimes rose through this orifice and flooded the place. It had once risen a foot high; and they had been obliged to transport all the poultry to the other end of the cellar, which is on a higher level. He laughed as he recalled the wild flutter of the terrified creatures. However, he had now finished, and it seemed as though there remained nothing else for him to show, when all at once he bethought himself of the ventilator. Thereupon he took Lisa off to the far end of the cellar, and told her to look up; and inside one of the turrets at the corner angles of the pavilion she observed a sort of escape-pipe, by which the foul atmosphere of the storerooms ascended into space.
Here, in this corner, reeking with abominable odours, Marjolin’s nostrils quivered, and his breath came and went violently. His long stroll with Lisa in these cellars, full of warm animal perfumes, had gradually intoxicated him.
She had again turned towards him. “Well,” said she, “it was very kind of you to show me all this, and when you come to the shop I will give you something.”
Whilst speaking she took hold of his soft chin, as she often did, without recognising that he was no longer a child; and perhaps she allowed her hand to linger there a little longer than was her wont. At all events, Marjolin, usually so bashful, was thrilled by the caress, and all at once he impetuously sprang forward, clasped Lisa by the shoulders, and pressed his lips to her soft cheeks. She raised no cry, but turned very pale at this sudden attack, which showed her how imprudent she had been. And then, freeing herself from the embrace, she raised her arm, as she had seen men do in slaughter houses, clenched her comely fist, and knocked Marjolin down with a single blow, planted straight between his eyes; and as he fell his head came into collision with one of the stone slabs, and was split open. Just at that moment the hoarse and prolonged crowing of a cock sounded through the gloom.
Handsome Lisa, however, remained perfectly cool. Her lips were tightly compressed, and her bosom had recovered its wonted immobility. Up above she could hear the heavy rumbling of the markets, and through the vent-holes alongside the Rue Rambuteau the noise of the street traffic made its way into the oppressive silence of the cellar. Lisa reflected that her own strong arm had saved her; and then, fearing lest some one should come and find her there, she hastened off, without giving a glance at Marjolin. As she climbed the steps, after passing through the grated entrance of the cellars, the daylight brought her great relief.
She returned to the shop, quite calm, and only looking a little pale.
“You’ve been a long time,” Quenu said to her.
“I can’t find Gavard. I have looked for him everywhere,” she quietly replied. “We shall have to eat our leg of mutton without him.”
Then she filled the lard pot, which she noticed was empty; and cut some pork chops for her friend Madame Taboureau, who had sent her little servant for them. The blows which she dealt with her cleaver reminded her of Marjolin. She felt that she had nothing to reproach herself with. She had acted like an honest woman. She was not going to disturb her peace of mind; she was too happy to do anything to compromise herself. However, she glanced at Quenu, whose neck was coarse and ruddy, and whose shaven chin looked as rough as knotted wood; whereas Marjolin’s chin and neck resembled rosy satin. But then she must not think of him any more, for he was no longer a child. She regretted it, and could not help thinking that children grew up much too quickly.
A slight flush came back to her cheeks, and Quenu considered that she looked wonderfully blooming. He came and sat down beside her at the counter for a moment or two. “You ought to go out oftener,” said he; “it does you good. We’ll go to the theatre together one of these nights, if you like; to the Gaite, eh? Madame Taboureau has been to see the piece they are playing there, and she declares it’s splendid.”
Lisa smiled, and said they would see about it, and then once more she took herself off. Quenu thought that it was too good of her to take so much trouble in running about after that brute Gavard. In point of fact, however, she had simply gone upstairs to Florent’s bedroom, the key of which was hanging from a nail in the kitchen. She hoped to find out something or other by an inspection of this room, since the poultry dealer had failed her. She went slowly round it, examining the bed, the mantelpiece, and every corner. The window with the little balcony was open, and the budding pomegranate was steeped in the golden beams of the setting sun. The room looked to her as though Augustine had never left it — had slept there only the night before. There seemed to be nothing masculine about the place. She was quite surprised, for she had expected to find some suspicious-looking chests, and coffers with strong locks. She went to feel Augustine’s summer gown, which was still hanging against the wall. Then she sat down at the table, and began to read an unfinished page of manuscript, in which the word “revolution” occurred twice. This alarmed her, and she opened the drawer, which she saw was full of papers. But her sense of honour awoke within her in presence of the secret which the rickety deal table so badly guarded. She remained bending over the papers, trying to understand them without touching them, in a state of great emotion, when the shrill song of the chaffinch, on whose cage streamed a ray of sunshine, made her start. She closed the drawer. It was a base thing that she had contemplated, she thought.
Then, as she lingered by the window, reflecting that she ought to go and ask counsel of Abbe Roustan, who was a very sensible man, she saw a crowd of people round a stretcher in the market square below. The night was falling, still she distinctly recognised Cadine weeping in the midst of the crowd; while Florent and Claude, whose boots were white with dust, stood together talking earnestly at the edge of the footway. She hurried downstairs again, surprised to see them back so soon, and scarcely had she reached her counter when Mademoiselle Saget entered the shop.
“They have found that scamp of a Marjolin in the cellar, with his head split open,” exclaimed the old maid. “Won’t you come to see him, Madame Quenu?”
Lisa crossed the road to look at him. The young fellow was lying on his back on the stretcher, looking very pale. His eyes were closed, and a stiff wisp of his fair hair was clotted with blood. The bystanders, however, declared that there was no serious harm done, and, besides, the scamp had only himself to blame, for he was always playing all sorts of wild pranks in the cellars. It was generally supposed that he had been trying to jump over one of the stone blocks — one of his favourite amusements — and had fallen with his head against the slab.
“I dare say that hussy there gave him a shove,” remarked Mademoiselle Saget, pointing to Cadine, who was weeping. “They are always larking together.”
Meantime the fresh air had restored Marjolin to consciousness, and he opened his eyes in wide astonishment. He looked round at everybody, and then, observing Lisa bending over him, he gently smiled at her with an expression of mingled humility and affection. He seemed to have forgotten all that had happened. Lisa, feeling relieved, said that he ought to be taken to the hospital at once, and promised to go and see him there, and take him some oranges and biscuits. However, Marjolin’s head had fallen back, and when the stretcher was carried away Cadine followed it, with her flat basket slung round her neck, and her hot tears rolling down upon the bunches of violets in their mossy bed. She certainly had no thoughts for the flowers that she was thus scalding with her bitter grief.
As Lisa went back to her shop, she heard Claude say, as he shook hands with Florent and parted from him: “Ah! the confounded young scamp! He’s quite spoiled my day for me! Still, we had a very enjoyable time, didn’t we?”
Claude and Florent had returned both worried and happy, bringing with them the pleasant freshness of the country air. Madame Francois had disposed of all her vegetables that morning before daylight; and they had all three gone to the Golden Compasses, in the Rue Montorgueil, to get the cart. Here, in the middle of Paris, they found a foretaste of the country. Behind the Restaurant Philippe, with its frontage of gilt woodwork rising to the first floor, there was a yard like that of a farm, dirty, teeming with life, reeking with the odour of manure and straw. Bands of fowls were pecking at the soft ground. Sheds and staircases and galleries of greeny wood clung to the old houses around, and at the far end, in a shanty of big beams, was Balthazar, harnessed to the cart, and eating the oats in his nosebag. He went down the Rue Montorgueil at a slow trot, seemingly well pleased to return to Nanterre so soon. However, he was not going home without a load. Madame Francois had a contract with the company which undertook the scavenging of the markets, and twice a week she carried off with her a load of leaves, forked up from the mass of refuse which littered the square. It made excellent manure. In a few minutes the cart was filled to overflowing. Claude and Florent stretched themselves out on the deep bed of greenery; Madame Francois grasped her reins, and Balthazar went off at his slow, steady pace, his head somewhat bent by reason of there being so many passengers to pull along.
This excursion had been talked of for a long time past. Madame Francois laughed cheerily. She was partial to the two men, and promised them an omelette au lard as had never been eaten, said she, in “that villainous Paris.” Florent and Claude revelled in the thought of this day of lounging idleness which as yet had scarcely begun to dawn. Nanterre seemed to be some distant paradise into which they would presently enter.
“Are you quite comfortable?” Madame Francois asked as the cart turned into the Rue du Pont Neuf.
Claude declared that their couch was as soft as a bridal bed. Lying on their backs, with their hands crossed under their heads, both men were looking up at the pale sky from which the stars were vanishing. All along the Rue de Rivoli they kept unbroken silence, waiting till they should have got clear of the houses, and listening to the worthy woman as she chattered to Balthazar: “Take your time, old man,” she said to him in kindly tones. “We’re in no hurry; we shall be sure to get there at last.”
On reaching the Champs Elysees, when the artist saw nothing but tree-tops on either side of him, and the great green mass of the Tuileries gardens in the distance, he woke up, as it were, and began to talk. When the cart had passed the end of the Rue du Roule he had caught a glimpse of the side entrance of Saint Eustache under the giant roofing of one of the market covered-ways. He was constantly referring to this view of the church, and tried to give it a symbolical meaning.
“It’s an odd mixture,” he said, “that bit of church framed round by an avenue of cast iron. The one will kill the other; the iron will slay the stone, and the time is not very far off. Do you believe in chance, Florent? For my part, I don’t think that it was any mere chance of position that set a rose-window of Saint Eustache right in the middle of the central markets. No; there’s a whole manifesto in it. It is modern art, realism, naturalism — whatever you like to call it — that has grown up and dominates ancient art. Don’t you agree with me?”
Then, as Florent still kept silence, Claude continued: “Besides, that church is a piece of bastard architecture, made up of the dying gasp of the middle ages, and the first stammering of the Renaissance. Have you noticed what sort of churches are built nowadays? They resemble all kinds of things — libraries, observatories, pigeon-cotes, barracks; and surely no one can imagine that the Deity dwells in such places. The pious old builders are all dead and gone; and it would be better to cease erecting those hideous carcasses of stone, in which we have no belief to enshrine. Since the beginning of the century there has only been one large original pile of buildings erected in Paris — a pile in accordance with modern developments — and that’s the central markets. You hear me, Florent? Ah! they are a fine bit of building, though they but faintly indicate what we shall see in the twentieth century! And so, you see, Saint Eustache is done for! It stands there with its rose-windows, deserted by worshippers, while the markets spread out by its side and teem with noisy life. Yes! that’s how I understand it all, my friend.”
“Ah! Monsieur Claude,” said Madame Francois, laughing, “the woman who cut your tongue-string certainly earned her money. Look at Balthazar laying his ears back to listen to you. Come, come, get along, Balthazar!”
The cart was slowly making its way up the incline. At this early hour of the morning the avenue, with its double lines of iron chairs on either pathway, and its lawns, dotted with flowerbeds and clumps of shrubbery, stretching away under the blue shadows of the trees, was quite deserted; however, at the Rond–Point a lady and gentleman on horseback passed the cart at a gentle trot. Florent, who had made himself a pillow with a bundle of cabbage-leaves, was still gazing at the sky, in which a far-stretching rosy glow was appearing. Every now and then he would close his eyes, the better to enjoy the fresh breeze of the morning as it fanned his face. He was so happy to escape from the markets, and travel on through the pure air, that he remained speechless, and did not even listen to what was being said around him.
“And then, too, what fine jokers are those fellows who imprison art in a toy-box!” resumed Claude, after a pause. “They are always repeating the same idiotic words: ‘You can’t create art out of science,’ says one; ‘Mechanical appliances kill poetry,’ says another; and a pack of fools wail over the fate of the flowers, as though anybody wished the flowers any harm! I’m sick of all such twaddle; I should like to answer all that snivelling with some work of open defiance. I should take a pleasure in shocking those good people. Shall I tell you what was the finest thing I ever produced since I first began to work, and the one which I recall with the greatest pleasure? It’s quite a story. When I was at my Aunt Lisa’s on Christmas Eve last year that idiot of an Auguste, the assistant, was setting out the shop-window. Well, he quite irritated me by the weak, spiritless way in which he arranged the display; and at last I requested him to take himself off, saying that I would group the things myself in a proper manner. You see, I had plenty of bright colours to work with — the red of the tongues, the yellow of the hams, the blue of the paper shavings, the rosy pink of the things that had been cut into, the green of the sprigs of heath, and the black of the black-puddings — ah! a magnificent black, which I have never managed to produce on my palette. And naturally, the crepine, the small sausages, the chitterlings, and the crumbed trotters provided me with delicate greys and browns. I produced a perfect work of art. I took the dishes, the plates, the pans, and the jars, and arranged the different colours; and I devised a wonderful picture of still life, with subtle scales of tints leading up to brilliant flashes of colour. The red tongues seemed to thrust themselves out like greedy flames, and the black-puddings, surrounded by pale sausages, suggested a dark night fraught with terrible indigestion. I had produced, you see, a picture symbolical of the gluttony of Christmas Eve, when people meet and sup — the midnight feasting, the ravenous gorging of stomachs void and faint after all the singing of hymns.* At the top of everything a huge turkey exhibited its white breast, marbled blackly by the truffles showing through its skin. It was something barbaric and superb, suggesting a paunch amidst a halo of glory; but there was such a cutting, sarcastic touch about it all that people crowded to the window, alarmed by the fierce flare of the shop-front. When my aunt Lisa came back from the kitchen she was quite frightened, and thought I’d set the fat in the shop on fire; and she considered the appearance of the turkey so indelicate that she turned me out of the place while Auguste re-arranged the window after his own idiotic fashion. Such brutes will never understand the language of a red splotch by the side of a grey one. Ah, well! that was my masterpiece. I have never done anything better.”
* An allusion to the “midnight mass” usually celebrated in Roman Catholic churches on Christmas Eve. — Translator.
He relapsed into silence, smiling and dwelling with gratification on this reminiscence. The cart had now reached the Arc de Triomphe, and strong currents of air swept from the avenues across the expanse of open ground. Florent sat up, and inhaled with zest the first odours of grass wafted from the fortifications. He turned his back on Paris, anxious to behold the country in the distance. At the corner of the Rue de Longchamp, Madame Francois pointed out to him the spot where she had picked him up. This rendered him thoughtful, and he gazed at her as she sat there, so healthy-looking and serene, with her arms slightly extended so as to grasp the reins. She looked even handsomer than Lisa, with her neckerchief tied over her head, her robust glow of health, and her brusque, kindly air. When she gave a slight cluck with her tongue, Balthazar pricked up his ears and rattled down the road at a quicker pace.
On arriving at Nanterre, the cart turned to the left into a narrow lane, skirted some blank walls, and finally came to a standstill at the end of a sort of blind alley. It was the end of the world, Madame Francois used to say. The load of vegetable leaves now had to be discharged. Claude and Florent would not hear of the journeyman gardener, who was planting lettuces, leaving his work, but armed themselves with pitchforks and proceeded to toss the leaves into the manure pit. This occupation afforded them much amusement. Claude had quite a liking for manure, since it symbolises the world and its life. The strippings and parings of the vegetables, the scourings of the markets, the refuse that fell from that colossal table, remained full of life, and returned to the spot where the vegetables had previously sprouted, to warm and nourish fresh generations of cabbages, turnips, and carrots. They rose again in fertile crops, and once more went to spread themselves out upon the market square. Paris rotted everything, and returned everything to the soil, which never wearied of repairing the ravages of death.
“Ah!” exclaimed Claude, as he plied his fork for the last time, “here’s a cabbage-stalk that I’m sure I recognise. It has grown up at least half a score of times in that corner yonder by the apricot tree.”
This remark made Florent laugh. But he soon became grave again, and strolled slowly through the kitchen garden, while Claude made a sketch of the stable, and Madame Francois got breakfast ready. The kitchen garden was a long strip of ground, divided in the middle by a narrow path; it rose slightly, and at the top end, on raising the head, you could perceive the low barracks of Mont Valerien. Green hedges separated it from other plots of land, and these lofty walls of hawthorn fringed the horizon with a curtain of greenery in such wise that of all the surrounding country Mont Valerien alone seemed to rise inquisitively on tip-toe in order to peer into Madame Francois’s close. Great peacefulness came from the countryside which could not be seen. Along the kitchen garden, between the four hedges, the May sun shone with a languid heat, a silence disturbed only by the buzzing of insects, a somnolence suggestive of painless parturition. Every now and then a faint cracking sound, a soft sigh, made one fancy that one could hear the vegetables sprout into being. The patches of spinach and sorrel, the borders of radishes, carrots, and turnips, the beds of potatoes and cabbages, spread out in even regularity, displaying their dark leaf-mould between their tufts of greenery. Farther away, the trenched lettuces, onions, leeks, and celery, planted by line in long straight rows, looked like soldiers on parade; while the peas and beans were beginning to twine their slender tendrils round a forest of sticks, which, when June came, they would transform into a thick and verdant wood. There was not a weed to be seen. The garden resembled two parallel strips of carpet of a geometrical pattern of green on a reddish ground, which were carefully swept every morning. Borders of thyme grew like greyish fringe along each side of the pathway.
Florent paced backwards and forwards amidst the perfume of the thyme, which the sun was warming. He felt profoundly happy in the peacefulness and cleanliness of the garden. For nearly a year past he had only seen vegetables bruised and crushed by the jolting of the market-carts; vegetables torn up on the previous evening, and still bleeding. He rejoiced to find them at home, in peace in the dark mould, and sound in every part. The cabbages had a bulky, prosperous appearance; the carrots looked bright and gay; and the lettuces lounged in line with an air of careless indolence. And as he looked at them all, the markets which he had left behind him that morning seemed to him like a vast mortuary, an abode of death, where only corpses could be found, a charnel-house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction. He slackened his steps, and rested in that kitchen garden, as after a long perambulation amidst deafening noises and repulsive odours. The uproar and the sickening humidity of the fish market had departed from him; and he felt as though he were being born anew in the pure fresh air. Claude was right, he thought. The markets were a sphere of death. The soil was the life, the eternal cradle, the health of the world.
“The omelet’s ready!” suddenly cried Madame Francois.
When they were all three seated round the table in the kitchen, with the door thrown open to the sunshine, they ate their breakfast with such light-hearted gaiety that Madame Francois looked at Florent in amazement, repeating between each mouthful: “You’re quite altered. You’re ten years younger. It is that villainous Paris which makes you seem so gloomy. You’ve got a little sunshine in your eyes now. Ah! those big towns do one’s health no good, you ought to come and live here.”
Claude laughed, and retorted that Paris was a glorious place. He stuck up for it and all that belonged to it, even to its gutters; though at the same time retaining a keen affection for the country.
In the afternoon Madame Francois and Florent found themselves alone at the end of the garden, in a corner planted with a few fruit trees. Seated on the ground, they talked somewhat seriously together. The good woman advised Florent with an affectionate and quite maternal kindness. She asked him endless questions about his life, and his intentions for the future, and begged him to remember that he might always count upon her, if ever he thought that she could in the slightest degree contribute to his happiness. Florent was deeply touched. No woman had ever spoken to him in that way before. Madame Francois seemed to him like some healthy, robust plant that had grown up with the vegetables in the leaf-mould of the garden; while the Lisas, the Normans, and other pretty women of the markets appeared to him like flesh of doubtful freshness decked out for exhibition. He here enjoyed several hours of perfect well-being, delivered from all that reek of food which sickened him in the markets, and reviving to new life amidst the fertile atmosphere of the country, like that cabbage stalk which Claude declared he had seen sprout up more than half a score of times.
The two men took leave of Madame Francois at about five o’clock. They had decided to walk back to Paris; and the market gardener accompanied them into the lane. As she bade good-bye to Florent, she kept his hand in her own for a moment, and said gently: “If ever anything happens to trouble you, remember to come to me.”
For a quarter of an hour Florent walked on without speaking, already getting gloomy again, and reflecting that he was leaving health behind him. The road to Courbevoie was white with dust. However, both men were fond of long walks and the ringing of stout boots on the hard ground. Little clouds of dust rose up behind their heels at every step, while the rays of the sinking sun darted obliquely over the avenue, lengthening their shadows in such wise that their heads reached the other side of the road, and journeyed along the opposite footway.
Claude, swinging his arms, and taking long, regular strides, complacently watched these two shadows, whilst enjoying the rhythmical cadence of his steps, which he accentuated by a motion of his shoulders. Presently, however, as though just awaking from a dream, he exclaimed: “Do you know the ‘Battle of the Fat and the Thin’?”
Florent, surprised by the question, replied in the negative; and thereupon Claude waxed enthusiastic, talking of that series of prints in very eulogical fashion. He mentioned certain incidents: the Fat, so swollen that they almost burst, preparing their evening debauch, while the Thin, bent double by fasting, looked in from the street with the appearance of envious laths; and then, again, the Fat, with hanging cheeks, driving off one of the Thin, who had been audacious enough to introduce himself into their midst in lowly humility, and who looked like a ninepin amongst a population of balls.
In these designs Claude detected the entire drama of human life, and he ended by classifying men into Fat and Thin, two hostile groups, one of which devours the other, and grows fat and sleek and enjoys itself.
“Cain,” said he, “was certainly one of the Fat, and Abel one of the Thin. Ever since that first murder, there have been rampant appetites which have drained the life-blood of small eaters. It’s a continual preying of the stronger upon the weaker; each swallowing his neighbour, and then getting swallowed in his turn. Beware of the Fat, my friend.”
He relapsed into silence for a moment, still watching their two shadows, which the setting sun elongated more than ever. Then he murmured: “You see, we belong to the Thin — you and I. Those who are no more corpulent than we are don’t take up much room in the sunlight, eh?”
Florent glanced at the two shadows, and smiled. But Claude waxed angry, and exclaimed: “You make a mistake if you think it is a laughing matter. For my own part, I greatly suffer from being one of the Thin. If I were one of the Fat, I could paint at my ease; I should have a fine studio, and sell my pictures for their weight in gold. But, instead of that, I’m one of the Thin; and I have to grind my life out in producing things which simply make the Fat ones shrug their shoulders. I shall die of it all in the end, I’m sure of it, with my skin clinging to my bones, and so flattened that they will be able to bury me between two leaves of a book. And you, too, you are one of the Thin, a wonderful one; the very king of Thin, in fact! Do you remember your quarrel with the fish-wives? It was magnificent; all those colossal bosoms flying at your scraggy breast! Oh! they were simply acting from natural instinct; they were pursuing one of the Thin just as cats pursue a mouse. The Fat, you know, have an instinctive hatred of the Thin, to such an extent that they must needs drive the latter from their sight, either by means of their teeth or their feet. And that is why, if I were in your place, I should take my precautions. The Quenus belong to the Fat, and so do the Mehudins; indeed, you have none but Fat ones around you. I should feel uneasy under such circumstances.”
“And what about Gavard, and Mademoiselle Saget, and your friend Marjolin?” asked Florent, still smiling.
“Oh, if you like, I will classify all our acquaintances for you,” replied Claude. “I’ve had their heads in a portfolio in my studio for a long time past, with memoranda of the order to which they belong. Gavard is one of the Fat, but of the kind which pretends to belong to the Thin. The variety is by no means uncommon. Mademoiselle Saget and Madame Lecoeur belong to the Thin, but to a variety which is much to be feared — the Thin ones whom envy drives to despair, and who are capable of anything in their craving to fatten themselves. My friend Marjolin, little Cadine, and La Sarriette are three Fat ones, still innocent, however, and having nothing but the guileless hunger of youth. I may remark that the Fat, so long as they’ve not grown old, are charming creatures. Monsieur Lebigre is one of the Fat — don’t you think so? As for your political friends, Charvet, Clemence, Logre, and Lacaille, they mostly belong to the Thin. I only except that big animal Alexandre, and that prodigy Robine, who has caused me a vast amount of annoyance.”
The artist continued to talk in this strain from the Pont de Neuilly to the Arc de Triomphe. He returned to some of those whom he had already mentioned, and completed their portraits with a few characteristic touches. Logre, he said, was one of the Thin whose belly had been placed between his shoulders. Beautiful Lisa was all stomach, and the beautiful Norman all bosom. Mademoiselle Saget, in her earlier life, must have certainly lost some opportunity to fatten herself, for she detested the Fat, while, at the same time, she despised the Thin. As for Gavard, he was compromising his position as one of the Fat, and would end by becoming as flat as a bug.
“And what about Madame Francois?” Florent asked.
Claude seemed much embarrassed by this question. He cast about for an answer, and at last stammered:
“Madame Francois, Madame Francois — well, no, I really don’t know; I never thought about classifying her. But she’s a dear good soul, and that’s quite sufficient. She’s neither one of the Fat nor one of the Thin!”
They both laughed. They were now in front of the Arc de Triomphe. The sun, over by the hills of Suresnes, was so low on the horizon that their colossal shadows streaked the whiteness of the great structure even above the huge groups of statuary, like strokes made with a piece of charcoal. This increased Claude’s merriment, he waved his arms and bent his body; and then, as he started on his way again, he said; “Did you notice — just as the sun set our two heads shot up to the sky!”
But Florent no longer smiled. Paris was grasping him again, that Paris which now frightened him so much, after having cost him so many tears at Cayenne. When he reached the markets night was falling, and there was a suffocating smell. He bent his head as he once more returned to the nightmare of endless food, whilst preserving the sweet yet sad recollection of that day of bright health odorous with the perfume of thyme.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02