At about four o’clock on the afternoon of the following day Lisa betook herself to Saint Eustache. For the short walk across the square she had arrayed herself very seriously in a black silk gown and thick woollen shawl. The handsome Norman, who, from her stall in the fish market, watched her till she vanished into the church porch, was quite amazed.
“Hallo! So the fat thing’s gone in for priests now, has she?” she exclaimed, with a sneer. “Well, a little holy water may do her good!”
She was mistaken in her surmises, however, for Lisa was not a devotee. She did not observe the ordinances of the Church, but said that she did her best to lead an honest life, and that this was all that was necessary. At the same time, however, she disliked to hear religion spoken ill of, and often silenced Gavard, who delighted in scandalous stories of priests and their doings. Talk of that sort seemed to her altogether improper. Everyone, in her opinion, should be allowed to believe as they pleased, and every scruple should be respected. Besides, the majority of the clergy were most estimable men. She knew Abbe Roustan, of Saint Eustache — a distinguished priest, a man of shrewd sense, and one, she thought, whose friendship might be safely relied upon. And she would wind up by explaining that religion was absolutely necessary for the people; she looked upon it as a sort of police force that helped to maintain order, and without which no government would be possible. When Gavard went too far on this subject and asserted that the priests ought to be turned into the streets and have their shops shut up, Lisa, shrugged her shoulders and replied: “A great deal of good that would do! Why, before a month was over the people would be murdering one another in the streets, and you would be compelled to invent another God. That was just what happened in ‘93. You know very well that I’m not given to mixing with the priests, but for all that I say that they are necessary, as we couldn’t do without them.”
And so when Lisa happened to enter a church she always manifested the utmost decorum. She had bought a handsome missal, which she never opened, for use when she was invited to a funeral or a wedding. She knelt and rose at the proper times, and made a point of conducting herself with all propriety. She assumed, indeed, what she considered a sort of official demeanour, such as all well-to-do folks, tradespeople, and house-owners ought to observe with regard to religion.
As she entered Saint Eustache that afternoon she let the double doors, covered with green baize, faded and worn by the frequent touch of pious hands, close gently behind her. Then she dipped her fingers in the holy water and crossed herself in the correct fashion. And afterwards, with hushed footsteps, she made her way to the chapel of Saint Agnes, where two kneeling women with their faces buried in their hands were waiting, whilst the blue skirts of a third protruded from the confessional. Lisa seemed rather put out by the sight of these women, and, addressing a verger who happened to pass along, wearing a black skullcap and dragging his feet over the slabs, she inquired: “Is this Monsieur l’Abbe Roustan’s day for hearing confessions?”
The verger replied that his reverence had only two more penitents waiting, and that they would not detain him long, so that if Lisa would take a chair her turn would speedily come. She thanked him, without telling him that she had not come to confess; and, making up her mind to wait, she began to pace the church, going as far as the chief entrance, whence she gazed at the lofty, severe, bare nave stretching between the brightly coloured aisles. Raising her head a little, she examined the high altar, which she considered too plain, having no taste for the cold grandeur of stonework, but preferring the gilding and gaudy colouring of the side chapels. Those on the side of the Rue du Jour looked greyish in the light which filtered through their dusty windows, but on the side of the markets the sunset was lighting up the stained glass with lovely tints, limpid greens and yellows in particular, which reminded Lisa of the bottle of liqueurs in front of Monsieur Lebigre’s mirror. She came back by this side, which seemed to be warmed by the glow of light, and took a passing interest in the reliquaries, altar ornaments, and paintings steeped in prismatic reflections. The church was empty, quivering with the silence that fell from its vaulted roofing. Here and there a woman’s dress showed like a dark splotch amidst the vague yellow of the chairs; and a low buzzing came from the closed confessionals. As Lisa again passed the chapel of Saint Agnes she saw the blue dress still kneeling at Abbe Roustan’s feet.
“Why, if I’d wanted to confess I could have said everything in ten seconds,” she thought, proud of her irreproachable integrity.
Then she went on to the end of the church. Behind the high altar, in the gloom of a double row of pillars, is the chapel of the Blessed Virgin, damp and dark and silent. The dim stained windows only show the flowing crimson and violet robes of saints, which blaze like flames of mystic love in the solemn, silent adoration of the darkness. It is a weird, mysterious spot, like some crepuscular nook of paradise solely illumined by the gleaming stars of two tapers. The four brass lamps hanging from the roof remain unlighted, and are but faintly seen; on espying them you think of the golden censers which the angels swing before the throne of Mary. And kneeling on the chairs between the pillars there are always women surrendering themselves languorously to the dim spot’s voluptuous charm.
Lisa stood and gazed tranquilly around her. She did not feel the least emotion, but considered that it was a mistake not to light the lamps. Their brightness would have given the place a more cheerful look. The gloom even struck her as savouring of impropriety. Her face was warmed by the flames of some candles burning in a candelabrum by her side, and an old woman armed with a big knife was scraping off the wax which had trickled down and congealed into pale tears. And amidst the quivering silence, the mute ecstasy of adoration prevailing in the chapel, Lisa would distinctly hear the rumbling of the vehicles turning out of the Rue Montmartre, behind the scarlet and purple saints on the windows, whilst in the distance the markets roared without a moment’s pause.
Just as Lisa was leaving the chapel, she saw the younger of the Mehudins, Claire, the dealer in fresh water fish, come in. The girl lighted a taper at the candelabrum, and then went to kneel behind a pillar, her knees pressed upon the hard stones, and her face so pale beneath her loose fair hair that she seemed a corpse. And believing herself to be securely screened from observation, she gave way to violent emotion, and wept hot tears with a passionate outpouring of prayer which bent her like a rushing wind. Lisa looked on in amazement, for the Mehudins were not known to be particularly pious; indeed, Claire was accustomed to speak of religion and priests in such terms as to horrify one.
“What’s the meaning of this, I wonder?” pondered Lisa, as she again made her way to the chapel of Saint Agnes. “The hussy must have been poisoning some one or other.”
Abbe Roustan was at last coming out of his confessional. He was a handsome man, of some forty years of age, with a smiling, kindly air. When he recognised Madame Quenu he grasped her hand, called her “dear lady,” and conducted her to the vestry, where, taking off his surplice, he told her that he would be entirely at her service in a moment. They returned, the priest in his cassock, bareheaded, and Lisa strutting along in her shawl, and paced up and down in front of the side-chapels adjacent to the Rue du Jour. They conversed together in low tones. The sunlight was departing from the stained windows, the church was growing dark, and the retreating footsteps of the last worshippers sounded but faintly over the flagstones.
Lisa explained her doubts and scruples to Abbe Roustan. There had never been any question of religion between them; she never confessed, but merely consulted him in cases of difficulty, because he was shrewd and discreet, and she preferred him, as she sometimes said, to shady business men redolent of the galleys. The abbe, on his side, manifested inexhaustible complaisance. He looked up points of law for her in the Code, pointed out profitable investments, resolved her moral difficulties with great tact, recommended tradespeople to her, invariably having an answer ready however diverse and complicated her requirements might be. And he supplied all this help in a natural matter-of-fact way, without ever introducing the Deity into his talk, or seeking to obtain any advantage either for himself or the cause of religion. A word of thanks and a smile sufficed him. He seemed glad to have an opportunity of obliging the handsome Madame Quenu, of whom his housekeeper often spoke to him in terms of praise, as of a woman who was highly respected in the neighbourhood.
Their consultation that afternoon was of a peculiarly delicate nature. Lisa was anxious to know what steps she might legitimately take, as a woman of honour, with respect to her brother-in-law. Had she a right to keep a watch upon him, and to do what she could to prevent him from compromising her husband, her daughter, and herself? And then how far might she go in circumstances of pressing danger? She did not bluntly put these questions to the abbe, but asked them with such skilful circumlocutions that he was able to discuss the matter without entering into personalities. He brought forward arguments on both sides of the question, but the conclusion he came to was that a person of integrity was entitled, indeed bound, to prevent evil, and was justified in using whatever means might be necessary to ensure the triumph of that which was right and proper.
“That is my opinion, dear lady,” he said in conclusion. “The question of means is always a very grave one. It is a snare in which souls of average virtue often become entangled. But I know your scrupulous conscience. Deliberate carefully over each step you think of taking, and if it contains nothing repugnant to you, go on boldly. Pure natures have the marvelous gift of purifying all that they touch.”
Then, changing his tone of voice, he continued: “Pray give my kind regards to Monsieur Quenu. I’ll come in to kiss my dear little Pauline some time when I’m passing. And now good-bye, dear lady; remember that I’m always at your service.”
Thereupon he returned to the vestry. Lisa, on her way out, was curious to see if Claire was still praying, but the girl had gone back to her eels and carp; and in front of the Lady-chapel, which was already shrouded in darkness, there was now but a litter of chairs overturned by the ardent vehemence of the woman who had knelt there.
When the handsome Lisa again crossed the square, La Normande, who had been watching for her exit from the church, recognised her in the twilight by the rotundity of her skirts.
“Good gracious!” she exclaimed, “she’s been more than an hour in there! When the priests set about cleansing her of her sins, the choir-boys have to form in line to pass the buckets of filth and empty them in the street!”
The next morning Lisa went straight up to Florent’s bedroom and settled herself there with perfect equanimity. She felt certain that she would not be disturbed, and, moreover, she had made up her mind to tell a falsehood and say that she had come to see if the linen was clean, should Florent by any chance return. Whilst in the shop, however, she had observed him busily engaged in the fish market. Seating herself in front of the little table, she pulled out the drawer, placed it upon her knees, and began to examine its contents, taking the greatest care to restore them to their original positions.
First of all she came upon the opening chapters of the work on Cayenne; then upon the drafts of Florent’s various plans and projects, his schemes for converting the Octroi duties into taxes upon sales, for reforming the administrative system of the markets, and all the others. These pages of small writing, which she set herself to read, bored her extremely, and she was about to restore the drawer to its place, feeling convinced that Florent concealed the proofs of his wicked designs elsewhere, and already contemplating a searching visitation of his mattress, when she discovered a photograph of La Normande in an envelope. The impression was rather dark. La Normande was standing up with her right arm resting on a broken column. Decked out with all her jewels, and attired in a new silk dress, the fish-girl was smiling impudently, and Lisa, at the sight, forgot all about her brother-in-law, her fears, and the purpose for which she had come into the room. She became quite absorbed in her examination of the portrait, as often happens when one woman scrutinises the photograph of another at her ease, without fear of being seen. Never before had she so favourable an opportunity to study her rival. She scrutinised her hair, her nose, her mouth; held the photograph at a distance, and then brought it closer again. And, finally, with compressed lips, she read on the back of it, in a big, ugly scrawl: “Louise, to her friend, Florent.” This quite scandalised her; to her mind it was a confession, and she felt a strong impulse to take possession of the photograph, and keep it as a weapon against her enemy. However, she slowly replaced it in the envelope on coming to the conclusion that this course would be wrong, and reflecting that she would always know where to find it should she want it again.
Then, as she again began turning over the loose sheets of paper, it occurred to her to look at the back end of the drawer, where Florent had relegated Augustine’s needles and thread; and there, between the missal and the Dream-book, she discovered what she sought, some extremely compromising memoranda, simply screened from observation by a wrapper of grey paper.
That idea of an insurrection, of the overthrow of the Empire by means of an armed rising, which Logre had one evening propounded at Monsieur Lebigre’s, had slowly ripened in Florent’s feverish brain. He soon grew to see a duty, a mission in it. Therein undoubtedly lay the task to which his escape from Cayenne and his return to Paris predestined him. Believing in a call to avenge his leanness upon the city which wallowed in food while the upholders of right and equity were racked by hunger in exile, he took upon himself the duties of a justiciary, and dreamt of rising up, even in the midst of those markets, to sweep away the reign of gluttony and drunkenness. In a sensitive nature like his, this idea quickly took root. Everything about him assumed exaggerated proportions, the wildest fancies possessed him. He imagined that the markets had been conscious of his arrival, and had seized hold of him that they might enervate him and poison him with their stenches. Then, too, Lisa wanted to cast a spell over him, and for two or three days at a time he would avoid her, as though she were some dissolving agency which would destroy all his power of will should he approach too closely. However, these paroxysms of puerile fear, these wild surgings of his rebellious brain, always ended in thrills of the gentlest tenderness, with yearnings to love and be loved, which he concealed with a boyish shame.
It was more especially in the evening that his mind became blurred by all his wild imaginings. Depressed by his day’s work, but shunning sleep from a covert fear — the fear of the annihilation it brought with it — he would remain later than ever at Monsieur Lebigre’s, or at the Mehudins’; and on his return home he still refrained from going to bed, and sat up writing and preparing for the great insurrection. By slow degrees he devised a complete system of organisation. He divided Paris into twenty sections, one for each arrondissement. Each section would have a chief, a sort of general, under whose orders there were to be twenty lieutenants commanding twenty companies of affiliated associates. Every week, among the chiefs, there would be a consultation, which was to be held in a different place each time; and, the better to ensure secrecy and discretion, the associates would only come in contact with their respective lieutenants, these alone communicating with the chiefs of the sections. It also occurred to Florent that it would be as well that the companies should believe themselves charged with imaginary missions, as a means of putting the police upon a wrong scent.
As for the employment of the insurrectionary forces, that would be all simplicity. It would, of course, be necessary to wait till the companies were quite complete, and then advantage would be taken of the first public commotion. They would doubtless only have a certain number of guns used for sporting purposes in their possession, so they would commence by seizing the police stations and guard-houses, disarming the soldiers of the line; resorting to violence as little as possible, and inviting the men to make common cause with the people. Afterwards they would march upon the Corps Legislatif, and thence to the Hotel de Ville. This plan, to which Florent returned night after night, as though it were some dramatic scenario which relieved his over-excited nervous system, was as yet simply jotted down on scraps of paper, full of erasures, which showed how the writer had felt his way, and revealed each successive phase of his scientific yet puerile conception. When Lisa had glanced through the notes, without understanding some of them, she remained there trembling with fear; afraid to touch them further lest they should explode in her hands like live shells.
A last memorandum frightened her more than any of the others. It was a half sheet of paper on which Florent had sketched the distinguishing insignia which the chiefs and the lieutenants were to wear. By the side of these were rough drawings of the standards which the different companies were to carry; and notes in pencil even described what colours the banners should assume. The chiefs were to wear red scarves, and the lieutenants red armlets.
To Lisa this seemed like an immediate realisation of the rising; she saw all the men with their red badges marching past the pork shop, firing bullets into her mirrors and marble, and carrying off sausages and chitterlings from the window. The infamous projects of her brother-in-law were surely directed against herself — against her own happiness. She closed the drawer and looked round the room, reflecting that it was she herself who had provided this man with a home — that he slept between her sheets and used her furniture. And she was especially exasperated at his keeping his abominable infernal machine in that little deal table which she herself had used at Uncle Gradelle’s before her marriage — a perfectly innocent, rickety little table.
For a while she stood thinking what she should do. In the first place, it was useless to say anything to Quenu. For a moment it occurred to her to provoke an explanation with Florent, but she dismissed that idea, fearing lest he would only go and perpetrate his crime elsewhere, and maliciously make a point of compromising them. Then gradually growing somewhat calmer, she came to the conclusion that her best plan would be to keep a careful watch over her brother-in-law. It would be time enough to take further steps at the first sign of danger. She already had quite sufficient evidence to send him back to the galleys.
On returning to the shop again, she found Augustine in a state of great excitement. Little Pauline had disappeared more than half an hour before, and to Lisa’s anxious questions the young woman could only reply: “I don’t know where she can have got to, madame. She was on the pavement there with a little boy. I was watching them, and then I had to cut some ham for a gentleman, and I never saw them again.”
“I’ll wager it was Muche!” cried Lisa. “Ah, the young scoundrel!”
It was, indeed, Muche who had enticed Pauline away. The little girl, who was wearing a new blue-striped frock that day for the first time, had been anxious to exhibit it, and had accordingly taken her stand outside the shop, manifesting great propriety of bearing, and compressing her lips with the grave expression of a little woman of six who is afraid of soiling her clothes. Her short and stiffly-starched petticoats stood out like the skirts of a ballet girl, allowing a full view of her tightly stretched white stockings and little sky-blue boots. Her pinafore, which hung low about her neck, was finished off at the shoulders with an edging of embroidery, below which appeared her pretty little arms, bare and rosy. She had small turquoise rings in her ears, a cross at her neck, a blue velvet ribbon in her well-brushed hair; and she displayed all her mother’s plumpness and softness — the gracefulness, indeed, of a new doll.
Muche had caught sight of her from the market, where he was amusing himself by dropping little dead fishes into the gutter, following them along the kerb as the water carried them away, and declaring that they were swimming. However, the sight of Pauline standing in front of the shop and looking so smart and pretty made him cross over to her, capless as he was, with his blouse ragged, his trousers slipping down, and his whole appearance suggestive of a seven-year-old street-arab. His mother had certainly forbidden him to play any more with “that fat booby of a girl who was stuffed by her parents till she almost burst”; so he stood hesitating for a moment, but at last came up to Pauline, and wanted to feel her pretty striped frock. The little girl, who had at first felt flattered, then put on a prim air and stepped back, exclaiming in a tone of displeasure: “Leave me alone. Mother says I’m not to have anything to do with you.”
This brought a laugh to the lips of Muche, who was a wily, enterprising young scamp.
“What a little flat you are!” he retorted. “What does it matter what your mother says? Let’s go and play at shoving each other, eh?”
He doubtless nourished some wicked idea of dirtying the neat little girl; but she, on seeing him prepare to give her a push in the back, retreated as though about to return inside the shop. Muche thereupon adopted a flattering tone like a born cajoler.
“You silly! I didn’t mean it,” said he. “How nice you look like that! Is that little cross your mother’s?”
Pauline perked herself up, and replied that it was her own, whereupon Muche gently led her to the corner of the Rue Pirouette, touching her skirts the while and expressing his astonishment at their wonderful stiffness. All this pleased the little girl immensely. She had been very much vexed at not receiving any notice while she was exhibiting herself outside the shop. However, in spite of all Muche’s blandishments, she still refused to leave the footway.
“You stupid fatty!” thereupon exclaimed the youngster, relapsing into coarseness. “I’ll squat you down in the gutter if you don’t look out, Miss Fine-airs!”
The girl was dreadfully alarmed. Muche had caught hold of her by the hand; but, recognising his mistake in policy, he again put on a wheedling air, and began to fumble in his pocket.
“I’ve got a sou,” said he.
The sight of the coin had a soothing effect upon Pauline. The boy held up the sou with the tips of his fingers, and the temptation to follow it proved so great that the girl at last stepped down into the roadway. Muche’s diplomacy was eminently successful.
“What do you like best?” he asked.
Pauline gave no immediate answer. She could not make up her mind; there were so many things that she liked. Muche, however, ran over a whole list of dainties — liquorice, molasses, gum-balls, and powdered sugar. The powdered sugar made the girl ponder. One dipped one’s fingers into it and sucked them; it was very nice. For a while she gravely considered the matter. Then, at last making up her mind, she said:
“No, I like the mixed screws the best.”
Muche thereupon took hold of her arm, and she unresistingly allowed him to lead her away. They crossed the Rue Rambuteau, followed the broad footway skirting the markets, and went as far as a grocer’s shop in the Rue de la Cossonnerie which was celebrated for its mixed screws. These mixed screws are small screws of paper in which grocers put up all sorts of damaged odds and ends, broken sugar-plums, fragments of crystallised chestnuts — all the doubtful residuum of their jars of sweets. Muche showed himself very gallant, allowed Pauline to choose the screw — a blue one — paid his sou, and did not attempt to dispossess her of the sweets. Outside, on the footway, she emptied the miscellaneous collection of scraps into both pockets of her pinafore; and they were such little pockets that they were quite filled. Then in delight she began to munch the fragments one by one, wetting her fingers to catch the fine sugary dust, with such effect that she melted the scraps of sweets, and the pockets of her pinafore soon showed two brownish stains. Muche laughed slily to himself. He had his arm about the girl’s waist, and rumpled her frock at his ease whilst leading her round the corner of the Rue Pierre Lescot, in the direction of the Place des Innocents.
“You’ll come and play now, won’t you?” he asked. “That’s nice what you’ve got in your pockets, ain’t it? You see that I didn’t want to do you any harm, you big silly!”
Thereupon he plunged his own fingers into her pockets, and they entered the square together. To this spot, no doubt, he had all along intended to lure his victim. He did the honours of the square as though it were his own private property, and indeed it was a favourite haunt of his, where he often larked about for whole afternoons. Pauline had never before strayed so far from home, and would have wept like an abducted damsel had it not been that her pockets were full of sweets. The fountain in the middle of the flowered lawn was sending sheets of water down its tiers of basins, whilst, between the pilasters above, Jean Goujon’s nymphs, looking very white beside the dingy grey stonework, inclined their urns and displayed their nude graces in the grimy air of the Saint Denis quarter. The two children walked round the fountain, watching the water fall into the basins, and taking an interest in the grass, with thoughts, no doubt, of crossing the central lawn, or gliding into the clumps of holly and rhododendrons that bordered the railings of the square. Little Muche, however, who had now effectually rumpled the back of the pretty frock, said with his sly smile:
“Let’s play at throwing sand at each other, eh?”
Pauline had no will of her own left; and they began to throw the sand at each other, keeping their eyes closed meanwhile. The sand made its way in at the neck of the girl’s low bodice, and trickled down into her stockings and boots. Muche was delighted to see the white pinafore become quite yellow. But he doubtless considered that it was still far too clean.
“Let’s go and plant trees, shall we?” he exclaimed suddenly. “I know how to make such pretty gardens.”
“Really, gardens!” murmured Pauline full of admiration.
Then, as the keeper of the square happened to be absent, Muche told her to make some holes in one of the borders; and dropping on her knees in the middle of the soft mould, and leaning forward till she lay at full length on her stomach, she dug her pretty little arms into the ground. He, meantime, began to hunt for scraps of wood, and broke off branches. These were the garden-trees which he planted in the holes that Pauline made. He invariably complained, however, that the holes were not deep enough, and rated the girl as though she were an idle workman and he an indignant master. When she at last got up, she was black from head to foot. Her hair was full of mould, her face was smeared with it, she looked such a sight with her arms as black as a coalheaver’s that Muche clapped his hands with glee, and exclaimed: “Now we must water the trees. They won’t grow, you know, if we don’t water them.”
That was the finishing stroke. They went outside the square, scooped the gutter-water up in the palms of their hands, and then ran back to pour it over the bits of wood. On the way, Pauline, who was so fat that she couldn’t run properly, let the water trickle between her fingers on to her frock, so that by the time of her sixth journey she looked as if she had been rolled in the gutter. Muche chuckled with delight on beholding her dreadful condition. He made her sit down beside him under a rhododendron near the garden they had made, and told her that the trees were already beginning to grow. He had taken hold of her hand and called her his little wife.
“You’re not sorry now that you came, are you,” he asked, “instead of mooning about on the pavement, where there was nothing to do? I know all sorts of fun we can have in the streets; you must come with me again. You will, won’t you? But you mustn’t say anything to your mother, mind. If you say a word to her, I’ll pull your hair the next time I come past your shop.”
Pauline consented to everything; and then, as a last attention, Muche filled both pockets of her pinafore with mould. However, all the sweets were finished, and the girl began to get uneasy, and ceased playing. Muche thereupon started pinching her, and she burst into tears, sobbing that she wanted to go away. But at this the lad only grinned, and played the bully, threatening that he would not take her home at all. Then she grew terribly alarmed, and sobbed and gasped like a maiden in the power of a libertine. Muche would certainly have ended by punching her in order to stop her row, had not a shrill voice, the voice of Mademoiselle Saget, exclaimed, close by: “Why, I declare it’s Pauline! Leave her alone, you wicked young scoundrel!”
Then the old maid took the girl by the hand, with endless expressions of amazement at the pitiful condition of her clothes. Muche showed no alarm, but followed them, chuckling to himself, and declaring that it was Pauline who had wanted to come with him, and had tumbled down.
Mademoiselle Saget was a regular frequenter of the Square des Innocents. Every afternoon she would spend a good hour there to keep herself well posted in the gossip of the common people. On either side there is a long crescent of benches placed end to end; and on these the poor folks who stifle in the hovels of the neighbouring narrow streets assemble in crowds. There are withered, chilly-looking old women in tumbled caps, and young ones in loose jackets and carelessly fastened skirts, with bare heads and tired, faded faces, eloquent of the wretchedness of their lives. There are some men also: tidy old buffers, porters in greasy jackets, and equivocal-looking individuals in black silk hats, while the foot-path is overrun by a swarm of youngsters dragging toy carts without wheels about, filling pails with sand, and screaming and fighting; a dreadful crew, with ragged clothes and dirty noses, teeming in the sunshine like vermin.
Mademoiselle Saget was so slight and thin that she always managed to insinuate herself into a place on one of the benches. She listened to what was being said, and started a conversation with her neighbour, some sallow-faced workingman’s wife, who sat mending linen, from time to time producing handkerchiefs and stockings riddled with holes from a little basket patched up with string. Moreover, Mademoiselle Saget had plenty of acquaintances here. Amidst the excruciating squalling of the children, and the ceaseless rumble of the traffic in the Rue Saint Denis, she took part in no end of gossip, everlasting tales about the tradesmen of the neighbourhood, the grocers, the butchers, and the bakers, enough, indeed, to fill the columns of a local paper, and the whole envenomed by refusals of credit and covert envy, such as is always harboured by the poor. From these wretched creatures she also obtained the most disgusting revelations, the gossip of low lodging-houses and doorkeepers’ black-holes, all the filthy scandal of the neighbourhood, which tickled her inquisitive appetite like hot spice.
As she sat with her face turned towards the markets, she had immediately in front of her the square and its three blocks of houses, into the windows of which her eyes tried to pry. She seemed to gradually rise and traverse the successive floors right up to the garret skylights. She stared at the curtains; based an entire drama on the appearance of a head between two shutters; and, by simply gazing at the facades, ended by knowing the history of all the dwellers in these houses. The Baratte Restaurant, with its wine shop, its gilt wrought-iron marquise, forming a sort of terrace whence peeped the foliage of a few plants in flower-pots, and its four low storeys, all painted and decorated, had an especial interest for her. She gazed at its yellow columns standing out against a background of tender blue, at the whole of its imitation temple-front daubed on the facade of a decrepit, tumble-down house, crowned at the summit by a parapet of painted zinc. Behind the red-striped window-blinds she espied visions of nice little lunches, delicate suppers, and uproarious, unlimited orgies. And she did not hesitate to invent lies about the place. It was there, she declared, that Florent came to gorge with those two hussies, the Mehudins, on whom he lavished his money.
However, Pauline cried yet louder than before when the old maid took hold of her hand. Mademoiselle Saget at first led her towards the gate of the square; but before she got there she seemed to change her mind; for she sat down at the end of a bench and tried to pacify the child.
“Come, now, give over crying, or the policeman will lock you up,” she said to Pauline. “I’ll take you home safely. You know me, don’t you? I’m a good friend. Come, come, let me see how prettily you can smile.”
The child, however, was choking with sobs and wanted to go away. Mademoiselle Saget thereupon quietly allowed her to continue weeping, reserving further remarks till she should have finished. The poor little creature was shivering all over; her petticoats and stockings were wet through, and as she wiped her tears away with her dirty hands she plastered the whole of her face with earth to the very tips of her ears. When at last she became a little calmer the old maid resumed in a caressing tone: “Your mamma isn’t unkind, is she? She’s very fond of you, isn’t she?”
“Oh, yes, indeed,” replied Pauline, still sobbing.
“And your papa, he’s good to you, too, isn’t he? He doesn’t flog you, or quarrel with your mother, does he? What do they talk about when they go to bed?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m asleep then.”
“Do they talk about your cousin Florent?”
“I don’t know.”
Mademoiselle Saget thereupon assumed a severe expression, and got up as if about to go away.
“I’m afraid you are a little story-teller,” she said. “Don’t you know that it’s very wicked to tell stories? I shall go away and leave you, if you tell me lies, and then Muche will come back and pinch you.”
Pauline began to cry again at the threat of being abandoned. “Be quiet, be quiet, you wicked little imp!” cried the old maid shaking her. “There, there, now, I won’t go away. I’ll buy you a stick of barley-sugar; yes, a stick of barley-sugar! So you don’t love your cousin Florent, eh?”
“No, mamma says he isn’t good.”
“Ah, then, so you see your mother does say something.”
“One night when I was in bed with Mouton — I sleep with Mouton sometimes, you know — I heard her say to father, ‘Your brother has only escaped from the galleys to take us all back with him there.’”
Mademoiselle Saget gave vent to a faint cry, and sprang to her feet, quivering all over. A ray of light had just broken upon her. Then without a word she caught hold of Pauline’s hand and made her run till they reached the pork shop, her lips meanwhile compressed by an inward smile, and her eyes glistening with keen delight. At the corner of the Rue Pirouette, Muche, who had so far followed them, amused at seeing the girl running along in her muddy stockings, prudently disappeared.
Lisa was now in a state of terrible alarm; and when she saw her daughter so bedraggled and limp, her consternation was such that she turned the child round and round, without even thinking of beating her.
“She has been with little Muche,” said the old maid, in her malicious voice. “I took her away at once, and I’ve brought her home. I found them together in the square. I don’t know what they’ve been up to; but that young vagabond is capable of anything.”
Lisa could not find a word to say; and she did not know where to take hold of her daughter, so great was her disgust at the sight of the child’s muddy boots, soiled stockings, torn skirts, and filthy face and hands. The blue velvet ribbon, the earrings, and the necklet were all concealed beneath a crust of mud. But what put the finishing touch to Lisa’s exasperation was the discovery of the two pockets filled with mould. She stooped and emptied them, regardless of the pink and white flooring of the shop. And as she dragged Pauline away, she could only gasp: “Come along, you filthy thing!”
Quite enlivened by this scene, Mademoiselle Saget now hurriedly made her way across the Rue Rambuteau. Her little feet scarcely touched the ground; her joy seemed to carry her along like a breeze which fanned her with a caressing touch. She had at last found out what she had so much wanted to know! For nearly a year she had been consumed by curiosity, and now at a single stroke she had gained complete power over Florent! This was unhoped-for contentment, positive salvation, for she felt that Florent would have brought her to the tomb had she failed much longer in satisfying her curiosity about him. At present she was complete mistress of the whole neighbourhood of the markets. There was no longer any gap in her information. She could have narrated the secret history of every street, shop by shop. And thus, as she entered the fruit market, she fairly gasped with delight, in a perfect transport of pleasure.
“Hallo, Mademoiselle Saget,” cried La Sarriette from her stall, “what are you smiling to yourself like that about? Have you won the grand prize in the lottery?”
“No, no. Ah, my dear, if you only knew!”
Standing there amidst her fruit, La Sarriette, in her picturesque disarray, looked charming. Frizzy hair fell over her brow like vine branches. Her bare arms and neck, indeed all the rosy flesh she showed, bloomed with the freshness of peach and cherry. She had playfully hung some cherries on her ears, black cherries which dangled against her cheeks when she stooped, shaking with merry laughter. She was eating currants, and her merriment arose from the way in which she was smearing her face with them. Her lips were bright red, glistening with the juice of the fruit, as though they had been painted and perfumed with some seraglio face-paint. A perfume of plum exhaled from her gown, while from the kerchief carelessly fastened across her breast came an odour of strawberries.
Fruits of all kinds were piled around her in her narrow stall. On the shelves at the back were rows of melons, so-called “cantaloups” swarming with wart-like knots, “maraichers” whose skin was covered with grey lace-like netting, and “culs-de-singe” displaying smooth bare bumps. In front was an array of choice fruits, carefully arranged in baskets, and showing like smooth round cheeks seeking to hide themselves, or glimpses of sweet childish faces, half veiled by leaves. Especially was this the case with the peaches, the blushing peaches of Montreuil, with skin as delicate and clear as that of northern maidens, and the yellow, sun-burnt peaches from the south, brown like the damsels of Provence. The apricots, on their beds of moss, gleamed with the hue of amber or with that sunset glow which so warmly colours the necks of brunettes at the nape, just under the little wavy curls which fall below the chignon. The cherries, ranged one by one, resembled the short lips of smiling Chinese girls; the Montmorencies suggested the dumpy mouths of buxom women; the English ones were longer and graver-looking; the common black ones seemed as though they had been bruised and crushed by kisses; while the white-hearts, with their patches of rose and white, appeared to smile with mingled merriment and vexation. Then piles of apples and pears, built up with architectural symmetry, often in pyramids, displayed the ruddy glow of budding breasts and the gleaming sheen of shoulders, quite a show of nudity, lurking modestly behind a screen of fern-leaves. There were all sorts of varieties — little red ones so tiny that they seemed to be yet in the cradle, shapeless “rambours” for baking, “calvilles” in light yellow gowns, sanguineous-looking “Canadas,” blotched “chataignier” apples, fair freckled rennets and dusky russets. Then came the pears — the “blanquettes,” the “British queens,” the “Beurres,” the “messirejeans,” and the “duchesses”— some dumpy, some long and tapering, some with slender necks, and others with thick-set shoulders, their green and yellow bellies picked out at times with a splotch of carmine. By the side of these the transparent plums resembled tender, chlorotic virgins; the greengages and the Orleans plums paled as with modest innocence, while the mirabelles lay like golden beads of a rosary forgotten in a box amongst sticks of vanilla. And the strawberries exhaled a sweet perfume — a perfume of youth — especially those little ones which are gathered in the woods, and which are far more aromatic than the large ones grown in gardens, for these breathe an insipid odour suggestive of the watering-pot. Raspberries added their fragrance to the pure scent. The currants — red, white, and black — smiled with a knowing air; whilst the heavy clusters of grapes, laden with intoxication, lay languorously at the edges of their wicker baskets, over the sides of which dangled some of the berries, scorched by the hot caresses of the voluptuous sun.
It was there that La Sarriette lived in an orchard, as it were, in an atmosphere of sweet, intoxicating scents. The cheaper fruits — the cherries, plums, and strawberries — were piled up in front of her in paper-lined baskets, and the juice coming from their bruised ripeness stained the stall-front, and steamed, with a strong perfume, in the heat. She would feel quite giddy on those blazing July afternoons when the melons enveloped her with a powerful, vaporous odour of musk; and then with her loosened kerchief, fresh as she was with the springtide of life, she brought sudden temptation to all who saw her. It was she — it was her arms and necks which gave that semblance of amorous vitality to her fruit. On the stall next to her an old woman, a hideous old drunkard, displayed nothing but wrinkled apples, pears as flabby as herself, and cadaverous apricots of a witch-like sallowness. La Sarriette’s stall, however, spoke of love and passion. The cherries looked like the red kisses of her bright lips; the silky peaches were not more delicate than her neck; to the plums she seemed to have lent the skin from her brow and chin; while some of her own crimson blood coursed through the veins of the currants. All the scents of the avenue of flowers behind her stall were but insipid beside the aroma of vitality which exhaled from her open baskets and falling kerchief.
That day she was quite intoxicated by the scent of a large arrival of mirabelle plums, which filled the market. She could plainly see that Mademoiselle Saget had learnt some great piece of news, and she wished to make her talk. But the old maid stamped impatiently whilst she repeated: “No, no; I’ve no time. I’m in a great hurry to see Madame Lecoeur. I’ve just learnt something and no mistake. You can come with me, if you like.”
As a matter of fact, she had simply gone through the fruit market for the purpose of enticing La Sarriette to go with her. The girl could not refuse temptation. Monsieur Jules, clean-shaven and as fresh as a cherub, was seated there, swaying to and fro on his chair.
“Just look after the stall for a minute, will you?” La Sarriette said to him. “I’ll be back directly.”
Jules, however, got up and called after her, in a thick voice: “Not I; no fear! I’m off! I’m not going to wait an hour for you, as I did the other day. And, besides, those cursed plums of yours quite make my head ache.”
Then he calmly strolled off, with his hands in his pockets, and the stall was left to look after itself. Mademoiselle Saget went so fast that La Sarriette had to run. In the butter pavilion a neighbour of Madame Lecoeur’s told them that she was below in the cellar; and so, whilst La Sarriette went down to find her, the old maid installed herself amidst the cheeses.
The cellar under the butter market is a very gloomy spot. The rows of storerooms are protected by a very fine wire meshing, as a safeguard against fire; and the gas jets, which are very few and far between, glimmer like yellow splotches destitute of radiance in the heavy, malordorous atmosphere beneath the low vault. Madame Lecoeur, however, was at work on her butter at one of the tables placed parallel with the Rue Berger, and here a pale light filtered through the vent-holes. The tables, which are continually sluiced with a flood of water from the taps, are as white as though they were quite new. With her back turned to the pump in the rear, Madame Lecoeur was kneading her butter in a kind of oak box. She took some of different sorts which lay beside her, and mixed the varieties together, correcting one by another, just as is done in the blending of wines. Bent almost double, and showing sharp, bony shoulders, and arms bared to the elbows, as scraggy and knotted as pea-rods, she dug her fists into the greasy paste in front of her, which was assuming a whitish and chalky appearance. It was trying work, and she heaved a sigh at each fresh effort.
“Mademoiselle Saget wants to speak to you, aunt,” said La Sarriette.
Madame Lecoeur stopped her work, and pulled her cap over her hair with her greasy fingers, seemingly quite careless of staining it. “I’ve nearly finished. Ask her to wait a moment,” she said.
“She’s got something very particular to tell you,” continued La Sarriette.
“I won’t be more than a minute, my dear.”
Then she again plunged her arms into the butter, which buried them up to the elbows. Previously softened in warm water, it covered Madame Lecoeur’s parchment-like skin as with an oily film, and threw the big purple veins that streaked her flesh into strong relief. La Sarriette was quite disgusted by the sight of those hideous arms working so frantically amidst the melting mass. However, she could recall the time when her own pretty little hands had manipulated the butter for whole afternoons at a time. It had even been a sort of almond-paste to her, a cosmetic which had kept her skin white and her nails delicately pink; and even now her slender fingers retained the suppleness it had endowed them with.
“I don’t think that butter of yours will be very good, aunt,” she continued, after a pause. “Some of the sorts seem much too strong.”
“I’m quite aware of that,” replied Madame Lecoeur, between a couple of groans. “But what can I do? I must use everything up. There are some folks who insist upon having butter cheap, and so cheap butter must be made for them. Oh! it’s always quite good enough for those who buy it.”
La Sarriette reflected that she would hardly care to eat butter which had been worked by her aunt’s arms. Then she glanced at a little jar full of a sort of reddish dye. “Your colouring is too pale,” she said.
This colouring-matter —“raucourt,” as the Parisians call it is used to give the butter a fine yellow tint. The butter women imagine that its composition is known only to themselves, and keep it very secret. However, it is merely made from anotta;* though a composition of carrots and marigold is at times substituted for it.
* Anotta, which is obtained from the pulp surrounding the seeds of the Bixa Orellana, is used for a good many purposes besides the colouring of butter and cheese. It frequently enters into the composition of chocolate, and is employed to dye nankeen. Police court proceedings have also shown that it is well known to the London milkmen, who are in the habit of adding water to their merchandise. — Translator.
“Come, do be quick!” La Sarriette now exclaimed, for she was getting impatient, and was, moreover, no longer accustomed to the malodorous atmosphere of the cellar. “Mademoiselle Saget will be going. I fancy she’s got something very important to tell you abut my uncle Gavard.”
On hearing this, Madame Lecoeur abruptly ceased working. She at once abandoned both butter and dye, and did not even wait to wipe her arms. With a slight tap of her hand she settled her cap on her head again, and made her way up the steps, at her niece’s heels, anxiously repeating: “Do you really think that she’ll have gone away?”
She was reassured, however, on catching sight of Mademoiselle Saget amidst the cheeses. The old maid had taken good care not to go away before Madame Lecoeur’s arrival. The three women seated themselves at the far end of the stall, crowding closely together, and their faces almost touching one another. Mademoiselle Saget remained silent for two long minutes, and then, seeing that the others were burning with curiosity, she began, in her shrill voice: “You know that Florent! Well, I can tell you now where he comes from.”
For another moment she kept them in suspense; and then, in a deep, melodramatic voice, she said: “He comes from the galleys!”
The cheeses were reeking around the three women. On the two shelves at the far end of the stall were huge masses of butter: Brittany butters overflowing from baskets; Normandy butters, wrapped in canvas, and resembling models of stomachs over which some sculptor had thrown damp cloths to keep them from drying; while other great blocks had been cut into, fashioned into perpendicular rocky masses full of crevasses and valleys, and resembling fallen mountain crests gilded by the pale sun of an autumn evening.
Beneath the stall show-table, formed of a slab of red marble veined with grey, baskets of eggs gleamed with a chalky whiteness; while on layers of straw in boxes were Bondons, placed end to end, and Gournays, arranged like medals, forming darker patches tinted with green. But it was upon the table that the cheeses appeared in greatest profusion. Here, by the side of the pound-rolls of butter lying on white-beet leaves, spread a gigantic Cantal cheese, cloven here and there as by an axe; then came a golden-hued Cheshire, and next a Gruyere, resembling a wheel fallen from some barbarian chariot; whilst farther on were some Dutch cheeses, suggesting decapitated heads suffused with dry blood, and having all that hardness of skulls which in France has gained them the name of “death’s heads.” Amidst the heavy exhalations of these, a Parmesan set a spicy aroma. Then there came three Brie cheeses displayed on round platters, and looking like melancholy extinct moons. Two of them, very dry, were at the full; the third, in its second quarter, was melting away in a white cream, which had spread into a pool and flowed over the little wooden barriers with which an attempt had been made to arrest its course. Next came some Port Saluts, similar to antique discs, with exergues bearing their makers’ names in print. A Romantour, in its tin-foil wrapper, suggested a bar of nougat or some sweet cheese astray amidst all these pungent, fermenting curds. The Roqueforts under their glass covers also had a princely air, their fat faces marbled with blue and yellow, as though they were suffering from some unpleasant malady such as attacks the wealthy gluttons who eat too many truffles. And on a dish by the side of these, the hard grey goats’ milk cheeses, about the size of a child’s fist, resembled the pebbles which the billy-goats send rolling down the stony paths as they clamber along ahead of their flocks. Next came the strong smelling cheeses: the Mont d’Ors, of a bright yellow hue, and exhaling a comparatively mild odour; the Troyes, very thick, and bruised at the edges, and of a far more pungent smell, recalling the dampness of a cellar; the Camemberts, suggestive of high game; the square Neufchatels, Limbourgs, Marolles, and Pont l’Eveques, each adding its own particular sharp scent to the malodorous bouquet, till it became perfectly pestilential; the Livarots, ruddy in hue, and as irritating to the throat as sulphur fumes; and, lastly, stronger than all the others, the Olivets, wrapped in walnut leaves, like the carrion which peasants cover with branches as it lies rotting in the hedgerow under the blazing sun.
The heat of the afternoon had softened the cheeses; the patches of mould on their crusts were melting, and glistening with tints of ruddy bronze and verdigris. Beneath their cover of leaves, the skins of the Olivets seemed to be heaving as with the slow, deep respiration of a sleeping man. A Livarot was swarming with life; and in a fragile box behind the scales a Gerome flavoured with aniseed diffused such a pestilential smell that all around it the very flies had fallen lifeless on the gray-veined slap of ruddy marble.
This Gerome was almost immediately under Mademoiselle Saget’s nose; so she drew back, and leaned her head against the big sheets of white and yellow paper which were hanging in a corner.
“Yes,” she repeated, with an expression of disgust, “he comes from the galleys! Ah, those Quenu–Gradelles have no reason to put on so many airs!”
Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette, however, had burst into exclamations of astonishment: “It wasn’t possible, surely! What had he done to be sent to the galleys? Could anyone, now, have ever suspected that Madame Quenu, whose virtue was the pride of the whole neighbourhood, would choose a convict for a lover?”
“Ah, but you don’t understand at all!” cried the old maid impatiently. “Just listen, now, while I explain things. I was quite certain that I had seen that great lanky fellow somewhere before.”
Then she proceeded to tell them Florent’s story. She had recalled to mind a vague report which had circulated of a nephew of old Gradelle being transported to Cayenne for murdering six gendarmes at a barricade. She had even seen this nephew on one occasion in the Rue Pirouette. The pretended cousin was undoubtedly the same man. Then she began to bemoan her waning powers. Her memory was quite going, she said; she would soon be unable to remember anything. And she bewailed her perishing memory as bitterly as any learned man might bewail the loss of his notes representing the work of a life-time, on seeing them swept away by a gust of wind.
“Six gendarmes!” murmured La Sarriette, admiringly; “he must have a very heavy fist!”
“And he’s made away with plenty of others, as well,” added Mademoiselle Saget. “I shouldn’t advise you to meet him at night!”
“What a villain!” stammered out Madame Lecoeur, quite terrified.
The slanting beams of the sinking sun were now enfilading the pavilion, and the odour of the cheeses became stronger than ever. That of the Marolles seemed to predominate, borne hither and thither in powerful whiffs. Then, however, the wind appeared to change, and suddenly the emanations of the Limbourgs were wafted towards the three women, pungent and bitter, like the last gasps of a dying man.
“But in that case,” resumed Madame Lecoeur, “he must be fat Lisa’s brother-in-law. And we thought that he was her lover!”
The women exchanged glances. This aspect of the case took them by surprise. They were loth to give up their first theory. However, La Sarriette, turning to Mademoiselle Saget, remarked: “That must have been all wrong. Besides, you yourself say that he’s always running after the two Mehudin girls.”
“Certainly he is,” exclaimed Mademoiselle Saget sharply, fancying that her word was doubted. “He dangles about them every evening. But, after all, it’s no concern of ours, is it? We are virtuous women, and what he does makes no difference to us, the horrid scoundrel!”
“No, certainly not,” agreed the other two. “He’s a consummate villain.”
The affair was becoming tragical. Of course beautiful Lisa was now out of the question, but for this they found ample consolation in prophesying that Florent would bring about some frightful catastrophe. It was quite clear, they said, that he had got some base design in his head. When people like him escaped from gaol it was only to burn everything down; and if he had come to the markets it must assuredly be for some abominable purpose. Then they began to indulge in the wildest suppositions. The two dealers declared that they would put additional padlocks to the doors of their storerooms; and La Sarriette called to mind that a basket of peaches had been stolen from her during the previous week. Mademoiselle Saget, however, quite frightened the two others by informing them that that was not the way in which the Reds behaved; they despised such trifles as baskets of peaches; their plan was to band themselves together in companies of two or three hundred, kill everybody they came across, and then plunder and pillage at their ease. That was “politics,” she said, with the superior air of one who knew what she was talking about. Madame Lecoeur felt quite ill. She already saw Florent and his accomplices hiding in the cellars, and rushing out during the night to set the markets in flames and sack Paris.
“Ah! by the way,” suddenly exclaimed the old maid, “now I think of it, there’s all that money of old Gradelle’s! Dear me, dear me, those Quenus can’t be at all at their ease!”
She now looked quite gay again. The conversation took a fresh turn, and the others fell foul of the Quenus when Mademoiselle Saget had told them the history of the treasure discovered in the salting-tub, with every particular of which she was acquainted. She was even able to inform them of the exact amount of the money found — eighty-five thousand francs — though neither Lisa nor Quenu was aware of having revealed this to a living soul. However, it was clear that the Quenus had not given the great lanky fellow his share. He was too shabbily dressed for that. Perhaps he had never even heard of the discovery of the treasure. Plainly enough, they were all thieves in his family. Then the three women bent their heads together and spoke in lower tones. They were unanimously of opinion that it might perhaps be dangerous to attack the beautiful Lisa, but it was decidedly necessary that they should settle the Red Republican’s hash, so that he might no longer prey upon the purse of poor Monsieur Gavard.
At the mention of Gavard there came a pause. The gossips looked at each other with a circumspect air. And then, as they drew breath, they inhaled the odour of the Camemberts, whose gamy scent had overpowered the less penetrating emanations of the Marolles and the Limbourgs, and spread around with remarkable power. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flutelike note, came from the Parmesan, while the Bries contributed a soft, musty scent, the gentle, insipid sound, as it were, of damp tambourines. Next followed an overpowering refrain from the Livarots, and afterwards the Gerome, flavoured with aniseed, kept up the symphony with a high prolonged note, like that of a vocalist during a pause in the accompaniment.
“I have seen Madame Leonce,” Mademoiselle Saget at last continued, with a significant expression.
At this the two others became extremely attentive. Madame Leonce was the doorkeeper of the house where Gavard lived in the Rue de la Cossonnerie. It was an old house standing back, with its ground floor occupied by an importer of oranges and lemons, who had had the frontage coloured blue as high as the first floor. Madame Leonce acted as Gavard’s housekeeper, kept the keys of his cupboards and closets, and brought him up tisane when he happened to catch cold. She was a severe-looking woman, between fifty and sixty years of age, and spoke slowly, but at endless length. Mademoiselle Saget, who went to drink coffee with her every Wednesday evening, had cultivated her friendship more closely than ever since the poultry dealer had gone to lodge in the house. They would talk about the worthy man for hours at a time. They both professed the greatest affection for him, and a keen desire to ensure his comfort and happiness.
“Yes, I have seen Madame Leonce,” repeated the old maid. “We had a cup of coffee together last night. She was greatly worried. It seems that Monsieur Gavard never comes home now before one o’clock in the morning. Last Sunday she took him up some broth, as she thought he looked quite ill.”
“Oh, she knows very well what she’s about,” exclaimed Madame Lecoeur, whom these attentions to Gavard somewhat alarmed.
Mademoiselle Saget felt bound to defend her friend. “Oh, really, you are quite mistaken,” said she. “Madame Leonce is much above her position; she is quite a lady. If she wanted to enrich herself at Monsieur Gavard’s expense, she might easily have done so long ago. It seems that he leaves everything lying about in the most careless fashion. It’s about that, indeed, that I want to speak to you. But you’ll not repeat anything I say, will you? I am telling it you in strict confidence.”
Both the others swore that they would never breathe a word of what they might hear; and they craned out their necks with eager curiosity, whilst the old maid solemnly resumed: “Well, then, Monsieur Gavard has been behaving very strangely of late. He has been buying firearms — a great big pistol — one of those which revolve, you know. Madame Leonce says that things are awful, for this pistol is always lying about on the table or the mantelpiece; and she daren’t dust anywhere near it. But that isn’t all. His money —”
“His money!” echoed Madame Lecoeur, with blazing cheeks.
“Well, he’s disposed of all his stocks and shares. He’s sold everything, and keeps a great heap of gold in a cupboard.”
“A heap of gold!” exclaimed La Sarriette in ecstasy.
“Yes, a great heap of gold. It covers a whole shelf, and is quite dazzling. Madame Leonce told me that one morning Gavard opened the cupboard in her presence, and that the money quite blinded her, it shone so.”
There was another pause. The eyes of the three women were blinking as though the dazzling pile of gold was before them. Presently La Sarriette began to laugh.
“What a jolly time I would have with Jules if my uncle would give that money to me!” said she.
Madame Lecoeur, however, seemed quite overwhelmed by this revelation, crushed beneath the weight of the gold which she could not banish from her sight. Covetous envy thrilled her. But at last, raising her skinny arms and shrivelled hands, her finger-nails still stuffed with butter, she stammered in a voice full of bitter distress: “Oh, I mustn’t think of it! It’s too dreadful!”
“Well, it would all be yours, you know, if anything were to happen to Monsieur Gavard,” retorted Mademoiselle Saget. “If I were in your place, I would look after my interests. That revolver means nothing good, you may depend upon it. Monsieur Gavard has got into the hands of evil counsellors; and I’m afraid it will all end badly.”
Then the conversation again turned upon Florent. The three women assailed him more violently than ever. And afterwards, with perfect composure, they began to discuss what would be the result of all these dark goings-on so far as he and Gavard were concerned; certainly it would be no pleasant one if there was any gossiping. And thereupon they swore that they themselves would never repeat a word of what they knew; not, however, because that scoundrel Florent merited any consideration, but because it was necessary, at all costs, to save that worthy Monsieur Gavard from being compromised. Then they rose from their seats, and Mademoiselle Saget was burning as if to go away when the butter dealer asked her: “All the same, in case of accident, do you think that Madame Leonce can be trusted? I dare say she has the key of the cupboard.”
“Well, that’s more than I can tell you,” replied the old maid. “I believe she’s a very honest woman; but, after all, there’s no telling. There are circumstances, you know, which tempt the best of people. Anyhow, I’ve warned you both; and you must do what you think proper.”
As the three women stood there, taking leave of each other, the odour of the cheeses seemed to become more pestilential than ever. It was a cacophony of smells, ranging from the heavily oppressive odour of the Dutch cheeses and the Gruyeres to the alkaline pungency of the Olivets. From the Cantal, the Cheshire, and the goats’ milk cheeses there seemed to come a deep breath like the sound of a bassoon, amidst which the sharp, sudden whiffs of the Neufchatels, the Troyes, and the Mont d’Ors contributed short, detached notes. And then the different odours appeared to mingle one with another, the reek of the Limbourgs, the Port Saluts, the Geromes, the Marolles, the Livarots, and the Pont l’Eveques uniting in one general, overpowering stench sufficient to provoke asphyxia. And yet it almost seemed as though it were not the cheeses but the vile words of Madame Lecoeur and Mademoiselle Saget that diffused this awful odour.
“I’m very much obliged to you, indeed I am,” said the butter dealer. “If ever I get rich, you shall not find yourself forgotten.”
The old maid still lingered in the stall. Taking up a Bondon, she turned it round, and put it down on the slab again. Then she asked its price.
“To me!” she added, with a smile.
“Oh, nothing to you,” replied Madame Lecoeur. “I’ll make you a present of it.” And again she exclaimed: “Ah, if I were only rich!”
Mademoiselle Saget thereupon told her that some day or other she would be rich. The Bondon had already disappeared within the old maid’s bag. And now the butter dealer returned to the cellar, while Mademoiselle Saget escorted La Sarriette back to her stall. On reaching it they talked for a moment or two about Monsieur Jules. The fruits around them diffused a fresh scent of summer.
“It smells much nicer here than at your aunt’s,” said the old maid. “I felt quite ill a little time ago. I can’t think how she manages to exist there. But here it’s very sweet and pleasant. It makes you look quite rosy, my dear.”
La Sarriette began to laugh, for she was fond of compliments. Then she served a lady with a pound of mirabelle plums, telling her that they were as sweet as sugar.
“I should like to buy some of those mirabelles too,” murmured Mademoiselle Saget, when the lady had gone away; “only I want so few. A lone woman, you know.”
“Take a handful of them,” exclaimed the pretty brunette. “That won’t ruin me. Send Jules back to me if you see him, will you? You’ll most likely find him smoking his cigar on the first bench to the right as you turn out of the covered way.”
Mademoiselle Saget distended her fingers as widely as possible in order to take a handful of mirabelles, which joined the Bondon in the bag. Then she pretended to leave the market, but in reality made a detour by one of the covered ways, thinking, as she walked slowly along, that the mirabelles and Bondon would not make a very substantial dinner. When she was unable, during her afternoon perambulations, to wheedle stallkeepers into filling her bag for her, she was reduced to dining off the merest scraps. So she now slyly made her way back to the butter pavilions, where, on the side of the Rue Berger, at the back of the offices of the oyster salesmen, there were some stalls at which cooked meat was sold. Every morning little closed box-like carts, lined with zinc and furnished with ventilators, drew up in front of the larger Parisian kitchens and carried away the leavings of the restaurants, the embassies, and State Ministries. These leavings were conveyed to the market cellars and there sorted. By nine o’clock plates of food were displayed for sale at prices ranging from three to five sous, their contents comprising slices of meat, scraps of game, heads and tails of fishes, bits of galantine, stray vegetables, and, by way of dessert, cakes scarcely cut into, and other confectionery. Poor starving wretches, scantily-paid clerks, and women shivering with fever were to be seen crowding around, and the street lads occasionally amused themselves by hooting the pale-faced individuals, known to be misers, who only made their purchases after slyly glancing about them to see that they were not observed.* Mademoiselle Saget wriggled her way to a stall, the keeper of which boasted that the scraps she sold came exclusively from the Tuileries. One day, indeed, she had induced the old maid to buy a slice of leg of mutton by informing that it had come from the plate of the Emperor himself; and this slice of mutton, eaten with no little pride, had been a soothing consolation to Mademoiselle Saget’s vanity. The wariness of her approach to the stall was, moreover, solely caused by her desire to keep well with the neighbouring shop people, whose premises she was eternally haunting without ever buying anything. Her usual tactics were to quarrel with them as soon as she had managed to learn their histories, when she would bestow her patronage upon a fresh set, desert it in due course, and then gradually make friends again with those with whom she had quarrelled. In this way she made the complete circuit of the market neighbourhood, ferreting about in every shop and stall. Anyone would have imagined that she consumed an enormous amount of provisions, whereas, in point of fact, she lived solely upon presents and the few scraps which she was compelled to buy when people were not in the giving vein.
* The dealers in these scraps are called bijoutiers, or jewellers, whilst the scraps themselves are known as harlequins, the idea being that they are of all colours and shapes when mingled together, thus suggesting harlequin’s variegated attire. — Translator.
On that particular evening there was only a tall old man standing in front of the stall. He was sniffing at a plate containing a mixture of meat and fish. Mademoiselle Saget, in her turn, began to sniff at a plate of cold fried fish. The price of it was three sous, but, by dint of bargaining, she got it for two. The cold fish then vanished into the bag. Other customers now arrived, and with a uniform impulse lowered their noses over the plates. The smell of the stall was very disgusting, suggestive alike of greasy dishes and a dirty sink.*
* Particulars of the strange and repulsive trade in harlequins, which even nowadays is not extinct, will be found in Privat d’Anglemont’s well-known book Paris Anecdote, written at the very period with which M. Zola deals in the present work. My father, Henry Vizetelly, also gave some account of it in his Glances Back through Seventy Years, in a chapter describing the odd ways in which certain Parisians contrive to get a living. — Translator.
“Come and see me to-morrow,” the stallkeeper called out to the old maid, “and I’ll put something nice on one side for you. There’s going to be a grand dinner at the Tuileries to-night.”
Mademoiselle Saget was just promising to come, when, happening to turn round, she discovered Gavard looking at her and listening to what she was saying. She turned very red, and, contracting her skinny shoulders, hurried away, affecting not to recognise him. Gavard, however, followed her for a few yards, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself that he was no longer surprised at the old shrew’s malice, now he knew that “she poisoned herself with the filth carted away from the Tuileries.”
On the very next morning vague rumours began to circulate in the markets. Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette were in their own fashion keeping the oaths of silence they had taken. For her own part, Mademoiselle Saget warily held her tongue, leaving the two others to circulate the story of Florent’s antecedents. At first only a few meagre details were hawked about in low tones; then various versions of the facts got into circulation, incidents were exaggerated, and gradually quite a legend was constructed, in which Florent played the part of a perfect bogey man. He had killed ten gendarmes at the barricade in the Rue Greneta, said some; he had returned to France on a pirate ship whose crew scoured the seas to murder everyone they came across, said others; whilst a third set declared that ever since his arrival he had been observed prowling about at nighttime with suspicious-looking characters, of whom he was undoubtedly the leader. Soon the imaginative market women indulged in the highest flights of fancy, revelled in the most melodramatic ideas. There was talk of a band of smugglers plying their nefarious calling in the very heart of Paris, and of a vast central association formed for systematically robbing the stalls in the markets. Much pity was expressed for the Quenu–Gradelles, mingled with malicious allusions to their uncle’s fortune. That fortune was an endless subject of discussion. The general opinion was that Florent had returned to claim his share of the treasure; however, as no good reason was forthcoming to explain why the division had not taken place already, it was asserted that Florent was waiting for some opportunity which might enable him to pocket the whole amount. The Quenu–Gradelles would certainly be found murdered some morning, it was said; and a rumour spread that dreadful quarrels already took place every night between the two brothers and beautiful Lisa.
When these stories reached the ears of the beautiful Norman, she shrugged her shoulders and burst out laughing.
“Get away with you!” she cried, “you don’t know him. Why, the dear fellow’s as gentle as a lamb.”
She had recently refused the hand of Monsieur Lebigre, who had at last ventured upon a formal proposal. For two months past he had given the Mehudins a bottle of some liqueur every Sunday. It was Rose who brought it, and she was always charged with a compliment for La Normande, some pretty speech which she faithfully repeated, without appearing in the slightest degree embarrassed by the peculiar commission. When Monsieur Lebigre was rejected, he did not pine, but to show that he took no offence and was still hopeful, he sent Rose on the following Sunday with two bottles of champagne and a large bunch of flowers. She gave them into the handsome fish-girl’s own hands, repeating, as she did so, the wine dealer’s prose madrigal:
“Monsieur Lebigre begs you to drink this to his health, which has been greatly shaken by you know what. He hopes that you will one day be willing to cure him, by being for him as pretty and as sweet as these flowers.”
La Normande was much amused by the servant’s delighted air. She kissed her as she spoke to her of her master, and asked her if he wore braces, and snored at nights. Then she made her take the champagne and flowers back with her. “Tell Monsieur Lebigre,” said she, “that he’s not to send you here again. It quite vexes me to see you coming here so meekly, with your bottles under your arms.”
“Oh, he wishes me to come,” replied Rose, as she went away. “It is wrong of you to distress him. He is a very handsome man.”
La Normande, however, was quite conquered by Florent’s affectionate nature. She continued to follow Muche’s lessons of an evening in the lamplight, indulging the while in a dream of marrying this man who was so kind to children. She would still keep her fish stall, while he would doubtless rise to a position of importance in the administrative staff of the markets. This dream of hers, however, was scarcely furthered by the tutor’s respectful bearing towards her. He bowed to her, and kept himself at a distance, when she have liked to laugh with him, and love him as she knew how to love. But it was just this covert resistance on Florent’s part which continually brought her back to the dream of marrying him. She realised that he lived in a loftier sphere than her own; and by becoming his wife she imagined that her vanity would reap no little satisfaction.
She was greatly surprised when she learned the history of the man she loved. He had never mentioned a word of those things to her; and she scolded him about it. His extraordinary adventures only increased her tenderness for him, and for evenings together she made him relate all that had befallen him. She trembled with fear lest the police should discover him; but he reassured her, saying that the matter was now too old for the police to trouble their heads about it. One evening he told her of the woman on the Boulevard Montmartre, the woman in the pink bonnet, whose blood had dyed his hands. He still frequently thought of that poor creature. His anguish-stricken mind had often dwelt upon her during the clear nights he had passed in Cayenne; and he had returned to France with a wild dream of meeting her again on some footway in the bright sunshine, even though he could still feel her corpse-like weight across his legs. And yet, he thought, she might perhaps have recovered. At times he received quite a shock while he was walking through the streets, on fancying that he recognised her; and he followed pink bonnets and shawl-draped shoulders with a wildly beating heart. When he closed his eyes he could see her walking, and advancing towards him; but she let her shawl slip down, showing the two red stains on her chemisette; and then he saw that her face was pale as wax, and that her eyes were blank, and her lips distorted by pain. For a long time he suffered from not knowing her name, from being forced to look upon her as a mere shadow, whose recollection filled him with sorrow. Whenever any idea of woman crossed his mind it was always she that rose up before him, as the one pure, tender wife. He often found himself fancying that she might be looking for him on that boulevard where she had fallen dead, and that if she had met him a few seconds sooner she would have given him a life of joy. And he wished for no other wife; none other existed for him. When he spoke of her, his voice trembled to such a degree that La Normande, her wits quickened by her love, guessed his secret, and felt jealous.
“Oh, it’s really much better that you shouldn’t see her again,” she said maliciously. “She can’t look particularly nice by this time.”
Florent turned pale with horror at the vision which these words evoked. His love was rotting in her grave. He could not forgive La Normande’s savage cruelty, which henceforth made him see the grinning jaws and hollow eyes of a skeleton within that lovely pink bonnet. Whenever the fish-girl tried to joke with him on the subject he turned quite angry, and silenced her with almost coarse language.
That, however, which especially surprised the beautiful Norman in these revelations was the discovery that she had been quite mistaken in supposing that she was enticing a lover away from handsome Lisa. This so diminished her feeling of triumph, that for a week or so her love for Florent abated. She consoled herself, however, with the story of the inheritance, no longer calling Lisa a strait-laced prude, but a thief who kept back her brother-in-law’s money, and assumed sanctimonious airs to deceive people. Every evening, while Muche took his writing lesson, the conversation turned upon old Gradelle’s treasure.
“Did anyone ever hear of such an idea?” the fish-girl would exclaim, with a laugh. “Did the old man want to salt his money, since he put it in a salting-tub? Eighty-five thousand francs! That’s a nice sum of money! And, besides, the Quenus, no doubt, lied about it — there was perhaps two or three times as much. Ah, if I were in your place, I shouldn’t lose any time about claiming my share; indeed I shouldn’t.”
“I’ve no need of anything,” was Florent’s invariable answer. “I shouldn’t know what to do with the money if I had it.”
“Oh, you’re no man!” cried La Normande, losing all control over herself. “It’s pitiful! Can’t you see that the Quenus are laughing at you? That great fat thing passes all her husband’s old clothes over to you. I’m not saying this to hurt your feelings, but everybody makes remarks about it. Why, the whole neighbourhood has seen the greasy pair of trousers, which you’re now wearing, on your brother’s legs for three years and more! If I were in your place I’d throw their dirty rags in their faces, and insist upon my rights. Your share comes to forty-two thousand five hundred francs, doesn’t it? Well, I shouldn’t go out of the place till I’d got forty-two thousand five hundred francs.”
It was useless for Florent to explain to her that his sister-in-law had offered to pay him his share, that she was taking care of it for him, and that it was he himself who had refused to receive it. He entered into the most minute particulars, seeking to convince her of the Quenus’ honesty, but she sarcastically replied: “Oh, yes, I dare say! I know all about their honesty. That fat thing folds it up every morning and puts it away in her wardrobe for fear it should get soiled. Really, I quite pity you, my poor friend. It’s easy to gull you, for you can’t see any further than a child of five. One of these days she’ll simply put your money in her pocket, and you’ll never look on it again. Shall I go, now, and claim your share for you, just to see what she says? There’d be some fine fun, I can tell you! I’d either have the money, or I’d break everything in the house — I swear I would!”
“No, no, it’s no business of yours,” Florent replied, quite alarmed. “I’ll see about it; I may possibly be wanting some money soon.”
At this La Normande assumed an air of doubt, shrugged her shoulders, and told him that he was really too chicken-hearted. Her one great aim now was to embroil him with the Quenu–Gradelles, and she employed every means she could think of to effect her purpose, both anger and banter, as well as affectionate tenderness. She also cherished another design. When she had succeeded in marrying Florent, she would go and administer a sound cuffing to beautiful Lisa, if the latter did not yield up the money. As she lay awake in her bed at night she pictured every detail of the scene. She saw herself sitting down in the middle of the pork shop in the busiest part of the day, and making a terrible fuss. She brooded over this idea to such an extent, it obtained such a hold upon her, that she would have been willing to marry Florent simply in order to be able to go and demand old Gradelle’s forty-two thousand five hundred francs.
Old Madame Mehudin, exasperated by La Normande’s dismissal of Monsieur Lebigre, proclaimed everywhere that her daughter was mad, and that the “long spindle-shanks” must have administered some insidious drug to her. When she learned the Cayenne story, her anger was terrible. She called Florent a convict and murderer, and said it was no wonder that his villainy had kept him lank and flat. Her versions of Florent’s biography were the most horrible of all that were circulated in the neighbourhood. At home she kept a moderately quiet tongue in her head, and restricted herself to muttered indignation, and a show of locking up the drawer where the silver was kept whenever Florent arrived. One day, however, after a quarrel with her elder daughter, she exclaimed:
“Things can’t go on much longer like this! It is that vile man who is setting you against me. Take care that you don’t try me too far, or I’ll go and denounce him to the police. I will, as true as I stand here!”
“You’ll denounce him!” echoed La Normande, trembling violently, and clenching her fists. “You’d better not! Ah, if you weren’t my mother ——”
At this, Claire, who was a spectator of the quarrel, began to laugh, with a nervous laughter that seemed to rasp her throat. For some time past she had been gloomier and more erratic than ever, invariably showing red eyes and a pale face.
“Well, what would you do?” she asked. “Would you give her a cuffing? Perhaps you’d like to give me, your sister, one as well? I dare say it will end in that. But I’ll clear the house of him. I’ll go to the police to save mother the trouble.”
Then, as La Normande almost choked with the angry threats that rose to her throat, the younger girl added: “I’ll spare you the exertion of beating me. I’ll throw myself into the river as I come back over the bridge.”
Big tears were streaming from her eyes; and she rushed off to her bedroom, banging the doors violently behind her. Old Madame Mehudin said nothing more about denouncing Florent. Muche, however, told La Normande that he met his grandma talking with Monsieur Lebigre in every corner of the neighbourhood.
The rivalry between the beautiful Norman and the beautiful Lisa now assumed a less aggressive but more disturbing character. In the afternoon, when the red-striped canvas awning was drawn down in front of the pork shop, the fish-girl would remark that the big fat thing felt afraid, and was concealing herself. She was also much exasperated by the occasional lowering of the window-blind, on which was pictured a hunting-breakfast in a forest glade, with ladies and gentlemen in evening dress partaking of a red pasty, as big as themselves, on the yellow grass.
Beautiful Lisa, however, was by no means afraid. As soon as the sun began to sink she drew up the blind; and, as she sat knitting behind her counter, she serenely scanned the market square, where numerous urchins were poking about in the soil under the gratings which protected the roots of the plane-trees, while porters smoked their pipes on the benches along the footway, at either end of which was an advertisement column covered with theatrical posters, alternately green, yellow, red, and blue, like some harlequin’s costume. And while pretending to watch the passing vehicles, Lisa would really be scrutinising the beautiful Norman. She might occasionally be seen bending forward, as though her eyes were following the Bastille and Place Wagram omnibus to the Pointe Saint Eustache, where it always stopped for a time. But this was only a manoeuvre to enable her to get a better view of the fish-girl, who, as a set-off against the blind, retorted by covering her head and fish with large sheets of brown paper, on the pretext of warding off the rays of the setting sun. The advantage at present was on Lisa’s side, for as the time for striking the decisive blow approached she manifested the calmest serenity of bearing, whereas her rival, in spite of all her efforts to attain the same air of distinction, always lapsed into some piece of gross vulgarity, which she afterwards regretted. La Normande’s ambition was to look “like a lady.” Nothing irritated her more than to hear people extolling the good manners of her rival. This weak point of hers had not escaped old Madame Mehudin’s observation, and she now directed all her attacks upon it.
“I saw Madame Quenu standing at her door this evening,” she would say sometimes. “It is quite amazing how well she wears. And she’s so refined-looking, too; quite the lady, indeed. It’s the counter that does it, I’m sure. A fine counter gives a woman such a respectable look.”
In this remark there was a veiled allusion to Monsieur Lebigre’s proposal. The beautiful Norman would make no reply; but for a moment or two she would seem deep in thought. In her mind’s eye she saw herself behind the counter of the wine shop at the other corner of the street, forming a pendent, as it were, to beautiful Lisa. It was this that first shook her love for Florent.
To tell the truth, it was now becoming a very difficult thing to defend Florent. The whole neighbourhood was in arms against him; it seemed as though everyone had an immediate interest in exterminating him. Some of the market people swore that he had sold himself to the police; while others asserted that he had been seen in the butter-cellar, attempting to make holes in the wire grating, with the intention of tossing lighted matches through them. There was a vast increase of slander, a perfect flood of abuse, the source of which could not be exactly determined. The fish pavilion was the last one to join in the revolt against the inspector. The fish-wives liked Florent on account of his gentleness, and for some time they defended him; but, influenced by the stallkeepers of the butter and fruit pavilions, they at last gave way. Then hostilities began afresh between these huge, swelling women and the lean and lank inspector. He was lost in the whirl of the voluminous petticoats and buxom bodices which surged furiously around his scraggy shoulders. However, he understood nothing, but pursued his course towards the realisation of his one haunting idea.
At every hour of the day, and in every corner of the market, Mademoiselle Saget’s black bonnet was now to be seen in the midst of this outburst of indignation. Her little pale face seemed to multiply. She had sworn a terrible vengeance against the company which assembled in Monsieur Lebigre’s little cabinet. She accused them of having circulated the story that she lived on waste scraps of meat. The truth was that old Gavard had told the others one evening that the “old nanny-goat” who came to play the spy upon them gorged herself with the filth which the Bonapartist clique tossed away. Clemence felt quite ill on hearing this, and Robine hurriedly gulped down a draught of beer, as though to wash his throat. In Gavard’s opinion, the scraps of meat left on the Emperor’s plate were so much political ordure, the putrid remnants of all the filth of the reign. Thenceforth the party at Monsieur Lebigre’s looked on Mademoiselle Saget as a creature whom no one could touch except with tongs. She was regarded as some unclean animal that battened upon corruption. Clemence and Gavard circulated the story so freely in the markets that the old maid found herself seriously injured in her intercourse with the shopkeepers, who unceremoniously bade her go off to the scrap-stalls when she came to haggle and gossip at their establishments without the least intention of buying anything. This cut her off from her sources of information; and sometimes she was altogether ignorant of what was happening. She shed tears of rage, and in one such moment of anger she bluntly said to La Sarriette and Madame Lecoeur: “You needn’t give me any more hints: I’ll settle your Gavard’s hash for him now — that I will!”
The two women were rather startled, but refrained from all protestation. The next day, however, Mademoiselle Saget had calmed down, and again expressed much tender-hearted pity for that poor Monsieur Gavard who was so badly advised, and was certainly hastening to his ruin.
Gavard was undoubtedly compromising himself. Ever since the conspiracy had begun to ripen he had carried the revolver, which caused Madame Leonce so much alarm, in his pocket wherever he went. It was a big, formidable-looking weapon, which he had bought of the principal gunmaker in Paris. He exhibited it to all the women in the poultry market, like a schoolboy who has got some prohibited novel hidden in his desk. First he would allow the barrel to peer out of his pocket, and call attention to it with a wink. Then he affected a mysterious reticence, indulged in vague hints and insinuations — played, in short, the part of a man who revelled in feigning fear. The possession of this revolver gave him immense importance, placed him definitely amongst the dangerous characters of Paris. Sometimes, when he was safe inside his stall, he would consent to take it out of his pocket, and exhibit it to two or three of the women. He made them stand before him so as to conceal him with their petticoats, and then he brandished the weapon, cocked the lock, caused the breech to revolve, and took aim at one of the geese or turkeys that were hanging in the stall. He was immensely delighted at the alarm manifested by the women; but eventually reassured them by stating that the revolver was not loaded. However, he carried a supply of cartridges about with him, in a case which he opened with the most elaborate precautions. When he had allowed his friends to feel the weight of the cartridges, he would again place both weapon and ammunition in his pockets. And afterwards, crossing his arms over his breast, he would chatter away jubilantly for hours.
“A man’s a man when he’s got a weapon like that,” he would say with a swaggering air. “I don’t care a fig now for the gendarmes. A friend and I went to try it last Sunday on the plain of Saint Denis. Of course, you know, a man doesn’t tell everyone that he’s got a plaything of that sort. But, ah! my dears, we fired at a tree, and hit it every time. Ah, you’ll see, you’ll see. You’ll hear of Anatole one of these days, I can tell you.”
He had bestowed the name of Anatole upon the revolver; and he carried things so far that in a week’s time both weapon and cartridges were known to all the women in the pavilion. His friendship for Florent seemed to them suspicious; he was too sleek and rich to be visited with the hatred that was manifested towards the inspector; still, he lost the esteem of the shrewder heads amongst his acquaintances, and succeeded in terrifying the timid ones. This delighted him immensely.
“It is very imprudent for a man to carry firearms about with him,” said Mademoiselle Saget. “Monsieur Gavard’s revolver will end by playing him a nasty trick.”
Gavard now showed the most jubilant bearing at Monsieur Lebigre’s. Florent, since ceasing to take his meals with the Quenus, had come almost to live in the little “cabinet.” He breakfasted, dined, and constantly shut himself up there. In fact he had converted the place almost into a sort of private room of his own, where he left his old coats and books and papers lying about. Monsieur Lebigre had offered no objection to these proceedings; indeed, he had even removed one of the tables to make room for a cushioned bench, on which Florent could have slept had he felt so inclined. When the inspector manifested any scruples about taking advantage of Monsieur Lebigre’s kindness, the latter told him to do as he pleased, saying that the whole house was at his service. Logre also manifested great friendship for him, and even constituted himself his lieutenant. He was constantly discussing affairs with him, rendering an account of the steps he was supposed to take, and furnishing the names of newly affiliated associates. Logre, indeed, had now assumed the duties of organiser; on him rested the task of bringing the various plotters together, forming the different sections, and weaving each mesh of the gigantic net into which Paris was to fall at a given signal. Florent meantime remained the leader, the soul of the conspiracy.
However, much as the hunchback seemed to toil, he attained no appreciable result. Although he had loudly asserted that in each district of Paris he knew two or three groups of men as determined and trustworthy as those who met at Monsieur Lebigre’s, he had never yet given any precise information about them, but had merely mentioned a name here and there, and recounted stories of endless alleged secret expeditions, and the wonderful enthusiasm that the people manifested for the cause. He made a great point of the hand-grasps he had received. So-and-so, whom he thou’d and thee’d, had squeezed his fingers and declared he would join them. At the Gros Caillou a big, burly fellow, who would make a magnificent sectional leader, had almost dislocated his arm in his enthusiasm; while in the Rue Popincourt a whole group of working men had embraced him. He declared that at a day’s notice a hundred thousand active supporters could be gathered together. Each time that he made his appearance in the little room, wearing an exhausted air, and dropping with apparent fatigue on the bench, he launched into fresh variations of his usual reports, while Florent duly took notes of what he said, and relied on him to realise his many promises. And soon in Florent’s pockets the plot assumed life. The notes were looked upon as realities, as indisputable facts, upon which the entire plan of the rising was constructed. All that now remained to be done was to wait for a favourable opportunity, and Logre asserted with passionate gesticulations that the whole thing would go on wheels.
Florent was at last perfectly happy. His feet no longer seemed to tread the ground; he was borne aloft by his burning desire to pass sentence on all the wickedness he had seen committed. He had all the credulity of a little child, all the confidence of a hero. If Logre had told him that the Genius of Liberty perched on the Colonne de Juillet* would have come down and set itself at their head, he would hardly have expressed any surprise. In the evenings, at Monsieur Lebigre’s, he showed great enthusiasm and spoke effusively of the approaching battle, as though it were a festival to which all good and honest folks would be invited. But although Gavard in his delight began to play with his revolver, Charvet got more snappish than ever, and sniggered and shrugged his shoulders. His rival’s assumption of the leadership angered him extremely; indeed, quite disgusted him with politics. One evening when, arriving early, he happened to find himself alone with Logre and Lebigre, he frankly unbosomed himself.
* The column erected on the Place de la Bastille in memory of the Revolution of July 1830, by which Charles X was dethroned. — Translator.
“Why,” said he, “that fellow Florent hasn’t an idea about politics, and would have done far better to seek a berth as writing master in a ladies’ school! It would be nothing short of a misfortune if he were to succeed, for, with his visionary social sentimentalities, he would crush us down beneath his confounded working men! It’s all that, you know, which ruins the party. We don’t need any more tearful sentimentalists, humanitarian poets, people who kiss and slobber over each other for the merest scratch. But he won’t succeed! He’ll just get locked up, and that will be the end of it.”
Logre and the wine dealer made no remark, but allowed Charvet to talk on without interruption.
“And he’d have been locked up long ago,” he continued, “if he were anything as dangerous as he fancies he is. The airs he puts on just because he’s been to Cayenne are quite sickening. But I’m sure that the police knew of his return the very first day he set foot in Paris, and if they haven’t interfered with him it’s simply because they hold him in contempt.”
At this Logre gave a slight start.
“They’ve been dogging me for the last fifteen years,” resumed the Hebertist, with a touch of pride, “but you don’t hear me proclaiming it from the house-tops. However, he won’t catch me taking part in his riot. I’m not going to let myself be nabbed like a mere fool. I dare say he’s already got half a dozen spies at his heels, who will take him by the scruff of the neck whenever the authorities give the word.”
“Oh, dear, no! What an idea!” exclaimed Monsieur Lebigre, who usually observed complete silence. He was rather pale, and looked at Logre, who was gently rubbing his hump against the partition.
“That’s mere imagination,” murmured the hunchback.
“Very well; call it imagination, if you like,” replied the tutor; “but I know how these things are arranged. At all events, I don’t mean to let the ‘coppers’ nab me this time. You others, of course, will please yourselves, but if you take my advice — and you especially, Monsieur Lebigre — you’ll take care not to let your establishment be compromised, or the authorities will close it.”
At this Logre could not restrain a smile. On several subsequent occasions Charvet plied him and Lebigre with similar arguments, as though he wished to detach them from Florent’s project by frightening them; and he was much surprised at the calmness and confidence which they both continued to manifest. For his own part, he still came pretty regularly in the evening with Clemence. The tall brunette was no longer a clerk at the fish auctions — Monsieur Manoury had discharged her.
“Those salesmen are all scoundrels!” Logre growled, when he heard of her dismissal.
Thereupon Clemence, who, lolling back against the partition, was rolling a cigarette between her long, slim fingers, replied in a sharp voice: “Oh, it’s fair fighting! We don’t hold the same political views, you know. That fellow Manoury, who’s making no end of money, would lick the Emperor’s boots. For my part, if I were an auctioneer, I wouldn’t keep him in my service for an hour.”
The truth was that she had been indulging in some clumsy pleasantry, amusing herself one day by inscribing in the sale-book, alongside of the dabs and skate and mackerel sold by auction, the names of some of the best-known ladies and gentlemen of the Court. This bestowal of piscine names upon high dignitaries, these entries of the sale of duchesses and baronesses at thirty sous apiece, had caused Monsieur Manoury much alarm. Gavard was still laughing over it.
“Well, never mind!” said he, patting Clemence’s arm; “you are every inch a man, you are!”
Clemence had discovered a new method of mixing her grog. She began by filling her glass with hot water; and after adding some sugar she poured the rum drop by drop upon the slice of lemon floating on the surface, in such wise that it did not mix with the water. Then she lighted it and with a grave expression watched it blaze, slowly smoking her cigarette while the flame of the alcohol cast a greenish tinge over her face. “Grog,” however, was an expensive luxury in which she could not afford to indulge after she had lost her place. Charvet told her, with a strained laugh, that she was no longer a millionaire. She supported herself by giving French lessons, at a very early hour in the morning, to a young lady residing in the Rue de Miromesnil, who was perfecting her education in secrecy, unknown even to her maid. And so now Clemence merely ordered a glass of beer in the evenings, but this she drank, it must be admitted, with the most philosophical composure.
The evenings in the little sanctum were now far less noisy than they had been. Charvet would suddenly lapse into silence, pale with suppressed rage, when the others deserted him to listen to his rival. The thought that he had been the king of the place, had ruled the whole party with despotic power before Florent’s appearance there, gnawed at his heart, and he felt all the regretful pangs of a dethroned monarch. If he still came to the meetings, it was only because he could not resist the attraction of the little room where he had spent so many happy hours in tyrannising over Gavard and Robine. In those days even Logre’s hump had been his property, as well as Alexandre’s fleshy arms and Lacaille’s gloomy face. He had done what he liked with them, stuffed his opinions down their throats, belaboured their shoulders with his sceptre. But now he endured much bitterness of spirit; and ended by quite ceasing to speak, simply shrugging his shoulders and whistling disdainfully, without condescending to combat the absurdities vented in his presence. What exasperated him more than anything else was the gradual way in which he had been ousted from his position of predominance without being conscious of it. He could not see that Florent was in any way his superior, and after hearing the latter speak for hours, in his gentle and somewhat sad voice, he often remarked: “Why, the fellow’s a parson! He only wants a cassock!”
The others, however, to all appearance eagerly absorbed whatever the inspector said. When Charvet saw Florent’s clothes hanging from every peg, he pretended not to know where he could put his hat so that it would not be soiled. He swept away the papers that lay about the little room, declaring that there was no longer any comfort for anyone in the place since that “gentleman” had taken possession of it. He even complained to the landlord, and asked if the room belonged to a single customer or to the whole company. This invasion of his realm was indeed the last straw. Men were brutes, and he conceived an unspeakable scorn for humanity when he saw Logre and Monsieur Lebigre fixing their eyes on Florent with rapt attention. Gavard with his revolver irritated him, and Robine, who sat silent behind his glass of beer, seemed to him to be the only sensible person in the company, and one who doubtless judged people by their real value, and was not led away by mere words. As for Alexandre and Lacaille, they confirmed him in his belief that “the people” were mere fools, and would require at least ten years of revolutionary dictatorship to learn how to conduct themselves.
Logre, however, declared that the sections would soon be completely organised; and Florent began to assign the different parts that each would have to play. One evening, after a final discussion in which he again got worsted, Charvet rose up, took his hat, and exclaimed: “Well, I’ll wish you all good night. You can get your skulls cracked if it amuses you; but I would have you understand that I won’t take any part in the business. I have never abetted anybody’s ambition.”
Clemence, who had also risen and was putting on her shawl, coldly added: “The plan’s absurd.”
Then, as Robine sat watching their departure with a gentle glance, Charvet asked him if he were not coming with them; but Robine, having still some beer left in his glass, contented himself with shaking hands. Charvet and Clemence never returned again; and Lacaille one day informed the company that they now frequented a beer-house in the Rue Serpente. He had seen them through the window, gesticulating with great energy, in the midst of an attentive group of very young men.
Florent was never able to enlist Claude amongst his supporters. He had once entertained the idea of gaining him over to his own political views, of making a disciple of him, an assistant in his revolutionary task; and in order to initiate him he had taken him one evening to Monsieur Lebigre’s. Claude, however, spent the whole time in making a sketch of Robine, in his hat and chestnut cloak, and with his beard resting on the knob of his walking-stick.
“Really, you know,” he said to Florent, as they came away, “all that you have been saying inside there doesn’t interest me in the least. It may be very clever, but, for my own part, I see nothing in it. Still, you’ve got a splendid fellow there, that blessed Robine. He’s as deep as a well. I’ll come with you again some other time, but it won’t be for politics. I shall make sketches of Logre and Gavard, so as to put them with Robine in a picture which I was thinking about while you were discussing the question of — what do you call it? eh? Oh, the question of the two Chambers. Just fancy, now, a picture of Gavard and Logre and Robine talking politics, entrenched behind their glasses of beer! It would be the success of the Salon, my dear fellow, an overwhelming success, a genuine modern picture!”
Florent was grieved by the artist’s political scepticism; so he took him up to his bedroom, and kept him on the narrow balcony in front of the bluish mass of the markets, till two o’clock in the morning, lecturing him, and telling him that he was no man to show himself so indifferent to the happiness of his country.
“Well, you’re perhaps right,” replied Claude, shaking his head; “I’m an egotist. I can’t even say that I paint for the good of my country; for, in the first place, my sketches frighten everybody, and then, when I’m busy painting, I think about nothing but the pleasure I take in it. When I’m painting, it is as though I were tickling myself; it makes me laugh all over my body. Well, I can’t help it, you know; it’s my nature to be like that; and you can’t expect me to go and drown myself in consequence. Besides, France can get on very well without me, as my aunt Lisa says. And — may I be quite frank with you? — if I like you it’s because you seem to me to follow politics just as I follow painting. You titillate yourself, my good friend.”
Then, as Florent protested, he continued:
“Yes, yes; you are an artist in your own way; you dream of politics, and I’ll wager you spend hours here at night gazing at the stars and imagining they are the voting-papers of infinity. And then you titillate yourself with your ideas of truth and justice; and this is so evidently the case that those ideas of yours cause just as much alarm to commonplace middle-class folks as my sketches do. Between ourselves, now, do you imagine that if you were Robine I should take any pleasure in your friendship? Ah, no, my friend, you are a great poet!”
Then he began to joke on the subject, saying that politics caused him no trouble, and that he had got accustomed to hear people discussing them in beer shops and studios. This led him to speak of a cafe in the Rue Vauvilliers; the cafe on the ground-floor of the house where La Sarriette lodged. This smoky place, with its torn, velvet-cushioned seats, and marble table-tops discoloured by the drippings from coffee-cups, was the chief resort of the young people of the markets. Monsieur Jules reigned there over a company of porters, apprentices, and gentlemen in white blouses and velvet caps. Two curling “Newgate knockers” were glued against his temples; and to keep his neck white he had it scraped with a razor every Saturday at a hair-dresser’s in the Rue des Deux Ecus. At the cafe he gave the tone to his associates, especially when he played billiards with studied airs and graces, showing off his figure to the best advantage. After the game the company would begin to chat. They were a very reactionary set, taking a delight in the doings of “society.” For his part, Monsieur Jules read the lighter boulevardian newspapers, and knew the performers at the smaller theatres, talked familiarly of the celebrities of the day, and could always tell whether the piece first performed the previous evening had been a success or a failure. He had a weakness, however, for politics. His ideal man was Morny, as he curtly called him. He read the reports of the discussions of the Corps Legislatif, and laughed with glee over the slightest words that fell from Morny’s lips. Ah, Morny was the man to sit upon your rascally republicans! And he would assert that only the scum detested the Emperor, for his Majesty desired that all respectable people should have a good time of it.
“I’ve been to the cafe occasionally,” Claude said to Florent. “The young men there are vastly amusing, with their clay pipes and their talk about the Court balls! To hear them chatter you might almost fancy they were invited to the Tuileries. La Sarriette’s young man was making great fun of Gavard the other evening. He called him uncle. When La Sarriette came downstairs to look for him she was obliged to pay his bill. It cost her six francs, for he had lost at billiards, and the drinks they had played for were owing. And now, good night, my friend, and pleasant dreams. If ever you become a Minister, I’ll give you some hints on the beautifying of Paris.”
Florent was obliged to relinquish the hope of making a docile disciple of Claude. This was a source of grief to him, for, blinded though he was by his fanatical ardour, he at last grew conscious of the ever-increasing hostility which surrounded him. Even at the Mehudins’ he now met with a colder reception: the old woman would laugh slyly; Muche no longer obeyed him, and the beautiful Norman cast glances of hasty impatience at him, unable as she was to overcome his coldness. At the Quenus’, too, he had lost Auguste’s friendship. The assistant no longer came to see him in his room on the way to bed, being greatly alarmed by the reports which he heard concerning this man with whom he had previously shut himself up till midnight. Augustine had made her lover swear that he would never again be guilty of such imprudence; however, it was Lisa who turned the young man into Florent’s determined enemy by begging him and Augustine to defer their marriage till her cousin should vacate the little bedroom at the top of the house, as she did not want to give that poky dressing-room on the first floor to the new shop girl whom she would have to engage. From that time forward Auguste was anxious that the “convict” should be arrested. He had found such a pork shop as he had long dreamed of, not at Plaisance certainly, but at Montrouge, a little farther away. And now trade had much improved, and Augustine, with her silly, overgrown girl’s laugh, said that she was quite ready. So every night, whenever some slight noise awoke him, August was thrilled with delight as he imagined that the police were at last arresting Florent.
Nothing was said at the Quenu–Gradelles’ about all the rumours which circulated. There was a tacit understanding amongst the staff of the pork shop to keep silent respecting them in the presence of Quenu. The latter, somewhat saddened by the falling-out between his brother and his wife, sought consolation in stringing his sausages and salting his pork. Sometimes he would come and stand on his door-step, with his red face glowing brightly above his white apron, which his increasing corpulence stretched quite taut, and never did he suspect all the gossip which his appearance set on foot in the markets. Some of the women pitied him, and thought that he was losing flesh, though he was, indeed, stouter than ever; while others, on the contrary, reproached him for not having grown thin with shame at having such a brother as Florent. He, however, like one of those betrayed husbands who are always the last to know what has befallen them, continued in happy ignorance, displaying a light-heartedness which was quite affecting. He would stop some neighbour’s wife on the footway to ask her if she found his brawn or truffled boar’s head to her liking, and she would at once assume a sympathetic expression, and speak in a condoling way, as though all the pork on his premises had got jaundice.
“What do they all mean by looking at me with such a funereal air?” he asked Lisa one day. “Do you think I’m looking ill?”
Lisa, well aware that he was terribly afraid of illness, and groaned and made a dreadful disturbance if he suffered the slightest ailment, reassured him on this point, telling him that he was as blooming as a rose. The fine pork shop, however, was becoming gloomy; the mirrors seemed to pale, the marbles grew frigidly white, and the cooked meats on the counter stagnated in yellow fat or lakes of cloudy jelly. One day, even, Claude came into the shop to tell his aunt that the display in the window looked quite “in the dumps.” This was really the truth. The Strasburg tongues on their beds of blue paper-shavings had a melancholy whiteness of hue, like the tongues of invalids; and the whilom chubby hams seemed to be wasting away beneath their mournful green top-knots. Inside the shop, too, when customers asked for a black-pudding or ten sous’ worth of bacon, or half a pound of lard, they spoke in subdued, sorrowful voices, as though they were in the bed-chamber of a dying man. There were always two or three lachrymose women in front of the chilled heating-pan. Beautiful Lisa meantime discharged the duties of chief mourner with silent dignity. Her white apron fell more primly than ever over her black dress. Her hands, scrupulously clean and closely girded at the wrists by long white sleevelets, her face with its becoming air of sadness, plainly told all the neighbourhood, all the inquisitive gossips who streamed into the shop from morning to night, that they, the Quenu–Gradelles, were suffering from unmerited misfortune, but that she knew the cause of it, and would triumph over it at last. And sometimes she stooped to look at the two gold-fish, who also seemed ill at ease as they swam languidly around the aquarium in the window, and her glance seemed to promise them better days in the future.
Beautiful Lisa now only allowed herself one indulgence. She fearlessly patted Marjolin’s satiny chin. The young man had just come out of the hospital. His skull had healed, and he looked as fat and merry as ever; but even the little intelligence he had possessed had left him, he was now quite an idiot. The gash in his skull must have reached his brain, for he had become a mere animal. The mind of a child of five dwelt in his sturdy frame. He laughed and stammered, he could no longer pronounce his words properly, and he was as submissively obedient as a sheep. Cadine took entire possession of him again; surprised, at first, at the alteration in him, and then quite delighted at having this big fellow to do exactly as she liked with. He was her doll, her toy, her slave in all respects but one: she could not prevent him from going off to Madame Quenu’s every now and then. She thumped him, but he did not seem to feel her blows; as soon as she had slung her basket round her neck, and set off to sell her violets in the Rue du Pont Neuf and the Rue de Turbigo, he went to prowl about in front of the pork shop.
“Come in!” Lisa cried to him.
She generally gave him some gherkins, of which he was extremely fond; and he ate them, laughing in a childish way, whilst he stood in front of the counter. The sight of the handsome mistress of the shop filled him with rapture; he often clapped his hands with joy and began to jump about and vent little cries of pleasure, like a child delighted at something shown to it. On the first few occasions when he came to see her after leaving the hospital Lisa had feared that he might remember what had happened.
“Does your head still hurt you?” she asked him.
But he swayed about and burst into a merry laugh as he answered no; and then Lisa gently inquired: “You had a fall, hadn’t you?”
“Yes, a fall, fall, fall,” he sang, in a happy voice, tapping his skull the while.
Then, as though he were in a sort of ecstasy, he continued in lingering notes, as he gazed at Lisa, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!” This quite touched Madame Quenu. She had prevailed upon Gavard to keep him in his service. It was on the occasions when he so humbly vented his admiration that she caressed his chin, and told him that he was a good lad. He smiled with childish satisfaction, at times closing his eyes like some domestic pet fondled by its mistress; and Lisa thought to herself that she was making him some compensation for the blow with which she had felled him in the cellar of the poultry market.
However, the Quenus’ establishment still remained under a cloud. Florent sometimes ventured to show himself, and shook hands with his brother, while Lisa observed a frigid silence. He even dined with them sometimes on Sundays, at long intervals, and Quenu then made great efforts at gaiety, but could not succeed in imparting any cheerfulness to the meal. He ate badly, and ended by feeling altogether put out. One evening, after one of these icy family gatherings, he said to his wife with tears in his eyes:
“What can be the matter with me? Is it true that I’m not ill? Don’t you really see anything wrong in my appearance? I feel just as though I’d got a heavy weight somewhere inside me. And I’m so sad and depressed, too, without in the least knowing why. What can it be, do you think?”
“Oh, a little attack of indigestion, I dare say,” replied Lisa.
“No, no; it’s been going on too long for that; I feel quite crushed down. Yet the business is going on all right; I’ve no great worries, and I am leading just the same steady life as ever. But you, too, my dear, don’t look well; you seem melancholy. If there isn’t a change for the better soon, I shall send for the doctor.”
Lisa looked at him with a grave expression.
“There’s no need of a doctor,” she said, “things will soon be all right again. There’s something unhealthy in the atmosphere just now. All the neighbourhood is unwell.” Then, as if yielding to an impulse of anxious affection, she added: “Don’t worry yourself, my dear. I can’t have you falling ill; that would be the crowning blow.”
As a rule she sent him back to the kitchen, knowing that the noise of the choppers, the tuneful simmering of the fat, and the bubbling of the pans had a cheering effect upon him. In this way, too, she kept him at a distance from the indiscreet chatter of Mademoiselle Saget, who now spent whole mornings in the shop. The old maid seemed bent on arousing Lisa’s alarm, and thus driving her to some extreme step. She began by trying to obtain her confidence.
“What a lot of mischievous folks there are about!” she exclaimed; “folks who would be much better employed in minding their own business. If you only knew, my dear Madame Quenu — but no, really, I should never dare to repeat such things to you.”
And, as Madame Quenu replied that she was quite indifferent to gossip, and that it had no effect upon her, the old maid whispered into her ear across the counter: “Well, people say, you know, that Monsieur Florent isn’t your cousin at all.”
Then she gradually allowed Lisa to see that she knew the whole story; by way of proving that she had her quite at her mercy. When Lisa confessed the truth, equally as a matter of diplomacy, in order that she might have the assistance of some one who would keep her well posted in all the gossip of the neighbourhood, the old maid swore that for her own part she would be as mute as a fish, and deny the truth of the reports about Florent, even if she were to be led to the stake for it. And afterwards this drama brought her intense enjoyment; every morning she came to the shop with some fresh piece of disturbing news.
“You must be careful,” she whispered one day; “I have just heard two women in the tripe market talking about you know what. I can’t interrupt people and tell them they are lying, you know. It would look so strange. But the story’s got about, and it’s spreading farther every day. It can’t be stopped now, I fear; the truth will have to come out.”
A few days later she returned to the assault in all earnest. She made her appearance looking quite scared, and waited impatiently till there was no one in the shop, when she burst out in her sibilant voice:
“Do you know what people are saying now? Well, they say that all those men who meet at Monsieur Lebigre’s have got guns, and are going to break out again as they did in ‘48. It’s quite distressing to see such a worthy man as Monsieur Gavard — rich, too, and so respectable — leaguing himself with such scoundrels! I was very anxious to let you know, on account of your brother-in-law.”
“Oh, it’s mere nonsense, I’m sure; it can’t be serious,” rejoined Lisa, just to incite the old maid to tell her more.
“Not serious, indeed! Why, when one passes along the Rue Pirouette in the evening one can hear them screaming out in the most dreadful way. Oh! they make no mystery of it all. You know yourself how they tried to corrupt your husband. And the cartridges which I have seen them making from my own window, are they mere nonsense? Well, well, I’m only telling you this for your own good.”
“Oh! I’m sure of that, and I’m very much obliged to you,” replied Lisa; “but people do invent such stories, you know.”
“Ah, but this is no invention, unfortunately. The whole neighbourhood is talking of it. It is said, too, that if the police discover the matter there will be a great many people compromised — Monsieur Gavard, for instance.”
Madame Quenu shrugged her shoulders as though to say that Monsieur Gavard was an old fool, and that it would do him good to be locked up.
“Well, I merely mention Monsieur Gavard as I might mention any of the others, your brother-in-law, for instance,” resumed the old maid with a wily glance. “Your brother-in-law is the leader, it seems. That’s very annoying for you, and I’m very sorry indeed; for if the police were to make a descent here they might march Monsieur Quenu off as well. Two brothers, you know, they’re like two fingers of the same hand.”
Beautiful Lisa protested against this, but she turned very pale, for Mademoiselle Saget’s last thrust had touched a vulnerable point. From that day forward the old maid was ever bringing her stories of innocent people who had been thrown into prison for extending hospitality to criminal scoundrels. In the evening, when La Saget went to get her black-currant syrup at the wine dealer’s, she prepared her budget for the next morning. Rose was but little given to gossiping, and the old main reckoned chiefly on her own eyes and ears. She had been struck by Monsieur Lebigre’s extremely kind and obliging manner towards Florent, his eagerness to keep him at his establishment, all the polite civilities, for which the little money which the other spent in the house could never recoup him. And this conduct of Monsieur Lebigre’s surprised her the more as she was aware of the position in which the two men stood in respect to the beautiful Norman.
“It looks as though Lebigre were fattening him up for sale,” she reflected. “Whom can he want to sell him to, I wonder?”
One evening when she was in the bar she saw Logre fling himself on the bench in the sanctum, and heard him speak of his perambulations through the faubourgs, with the remark that he was dead beat. She cast a hasty glance at his feet, and saw that there was not a speck of dust on his boots. Then she smiled quietly, and went off with her black-currant syrup, her lips closely compressed.
She used to complete her budget of information on getting back to her window. It was very high up, commanding a view of all the neighbouring houses, and proved a source of endless enjoyment to her. She was constantly installed at it, as though it were an observatory from which she kept watch upon everything that went on in the neighbourhood. She was quite familiar with all the rooms opposite her, both on the right and the left, even to the smallest details of their furniture. She could have described, without the least omission, the habits of their tenants, have related if the latter’s homes were happy or the contrary, have told when and how they washed themselves, what they had for dinner, and who it was that came to see them. Then she obtained a side view of the markets, and not a woman could walk along the Rue Rambuteau without being seen by her; and she could have correctly stated whence the woman had come and whither she was going, what she had got in her basket, and, in short, every detail about her, her husband, her clothes, her children, and her means. “That’s Madame Loret, over there; she’s giving her son a fine education; that’s Madame Hutin, a poor little woman who’s dreadfully neglected by her husband; that’s Mademoiselle Cecile, the butcher’s daughter, a girl that no one will marry because she’s scrofulous.” In this way she could have continued jerking out biographical scraps for days together, deriving extraordinary amusement from the most trivial, uninteresting incidents. However, as soon as eight o’clock struck, she only had eyes for the frosted “cabinet” window on which appeared the black shadows of the coterie of politicians. She discovered the secession of Charvet and Clemence by missing their bony silhouettes from the milky transparency. Not an incident occurred in that room but she sooner or later learnt it by some sudden motion of those silent arms and heads. She acquired great skill in interpretation, and could divine the meaning of protruding noses, spreading fingers, gaping mouths, and shrugging shoulders; and in this way she followed the progress of the conspiracy step by step, in such wise that she could have told day by day how matters stood. One evening the terrible outcome of it all was revealed to her. She saw the shadow of Gavard’s revolver, a huge silhouette with pointed muzzle showing very blackly against the glimmering window. It kept appearing and disappearing so rapidly that it seemed as though the room was full of revolvers. Those were the firearms of which Mademoiselle Saget had spoken to Madame Quenu. On another evening she was much puzzled by the sight of endless lengths of some material or other, and came to the conclusion that the men must be manufacturing cartridges. The next morning, however, she made her appearance in the wine shop by eleven o’clock, on the pretext of asking Rose if she could let her have a candle, and, glancing furtively into the little sanctum, she espied a heap of red material lying on the table. This greatly alarmed her, and her next budget of news was one of decisive gravity.
“I don’t want to alarm you, Madame Quenu,” she said, “but matters are really looking very serious. Upon my word, I’m quite alarmed. You must on no account repeat what I am going to confide to you. They would murder me if they knew I had told you.”
Then, when Lisa had sworn to say nothing that might compromise her, she told her about the red material.
“I can’t think what it can be. There was a great heap of it. It looked just like rags soaked in blood. Logre, the hunchback, you know, put one of the pieces over his shoulder. He looked like a headsman. You may be sure this is some fresh trickery or other.”
Lisa made no reply, but seemed deep in thought whilst with lowered eyes, she handled a fork and mechanically arranged some piece of salt pork on a dish.
“If I were you,” resumed Mademoiselle Saget softly, “I shouldn’t be easy in mind; I should want to know the meaning of it all. Why shouldn’t you go upstairs and examine your brother-in-law’s bedroom?”
At this Lisa gave a slight start, let the fork drop, and glanced uneasily at the old maid, believing that she had discovered her intentions. But the other continued: “You would certainly be justified in doing so. There’s no knowing into what danger your brother-in-law may lead you, if you don’t put a check on him. They were talking about you yesterday at Madame Taboureau’s. Ah! you have a most devoted friend in her. Madame Taboureau said that you were much too easy-going, and that if she were you she would have put an end to all this long ago.”
“Madame Taboureau said that?” murmured Lisa thoughtfully.
“Yes, indeed she did; and Madame Taboureau is a woman whose advice is worth listening to. Try to find out the meaning of all those red bands; and if you do, you’ll tell me, won’t you?”
Lisa, however, was no longer listening to her. She was gazing abstractedly at the edible snails and Gervais cheeses between the festoons of sausages in the window. She seemed absorbed in a mental conflict, which brought two little furrows to her brow. The old maid, however, poked her nose over the dishes on the counter.
“Ah, some slices of saveloy!” she muttered, as though she were speaking to herself. “They’ll get very dry cut up like that. And that black-pudding’s broken, I see — a fork’s been stuck into it, I expect. It might be taken away — it’s soiling the dish.”
Lisa, still absent-minded, gave her the black-pudding and slices of saveloy. “You may take them,” she said, “if you would care for them.”
The black bag swallowed them up. Mademoiselle Saget was so accustomed to receiving presents that she had actually ceased to return thanks for them. Every morning she carried away all the scraps of the pork shop. And now she went off with the intention of obtaining her dessert from La Sarriette and Madame Lecoeur, by gossiping to them about Gavard.
When Lisa was alone again she installed herself on the bench, behind the counter, as though she thought she would be able to come to a sounder decision if she were comfortably seated. For the last week she had been very anxious. Florent had asked Quenu for five hundred francs one evening, in the easy, matter-of-course way of a man who had money lying to his credit at the pork shop. Quenu referred him to his wife. This was distasteful to Florent, who felt somewhat uneasy on applying to beautiful Lisa. But she immediately went up to her bedroom, brought the money down and gave it to him, without saying a word, or making the least inquiry as to what he intended to do with it. She merely remarked that she had made a note of the payment on the paper containing the particulars of Florent’s share of the inheritance. Three days later he took a thousand francs.
“It was scarcely worth while trying to make himself out so disinterested,” Lisa said to Quenu that night, as they went to bed. “I did quite right, you see, in keeping the account. By the way, I haven’t noted down the thousand francs I gave him to-day.”
She sat down at the secretaire, and glanced over the page of figures. Then she added: “I did well to leave a blank space. I’ll put down what I pay him on the margin. You’ll see, now, he’ll fritter it all away by degrees. That’s what I’ve been expecting for a long time past.”
Quenu said nothing, but went to bed feeling very much put out. Every time that his wife opened the secretaire the drawer gave out a mournful creak which pierced his heart. He even thought of remonstrating with his brother, and trying to prevent him from ruining himself with the Mehudins; but when the time came, he did not dare to do it. Two days later Florent asked for another fifteen hundred francs. Logre had said one evening that things would ripen much faster if they could only get some money. The next day he was enchanted to find these words of his, uttered quite at random, result in the receipt of a little pile of gold, which he promptly pocketed, sniggering as he did so, and his hunch fairly shaking with delight. From that time forward money was constantly being needed: one section wished to hire a room where they could meet, while another was compelled to provide for various needy patriots. Then there were arms and ammunition to be purchased, men to be enlisted, and private police expenses. Florent would have paid for anything. He had bethought himself of Uncle Gradelle’s treasure, and recalled La Normande’s advice. So he made repeated calls upon Lisa’s secretaire, being merely kept in check by the vague fear with which his sister-in-law’s grave face inspired him. Never, thought he, could he have spent his money in a holier cause. Logre now manifested the greatest enthusiasm, and wore the most wonderful rose-coloured neckerchiefs and the shiniest of varnished boots, the sight of which made Lacaille glower blackly.
“That makes three thousand francs in seven days,” Lisa remarked to Quenu. “What do you think of that? A pretty state of affairs, isn’t it? If he goes on at this rate his fifty thousand francs will last him barely four months. And yet it took old Gradelle forty years to put his fortune together!”
“It’s all your own fault!” cried Quenu. “There was no occasion for you to say anything to him about the money.”
Lisa gave her husband a severe glance. “It is his own,” she said; “and he is entitled to take it all. It’s not the giving him the money that vexes me, but the knowledge that he must make a bad use of it. I tell you again, as I have been telling you for a long time past, all this must come to an end.”
“Do whatever you like; I won’t prevent you,” at last exclaimed the pork butcher, who was tortured by his cupidity.
He still loved his brother; but the thought of fifty thousand francs squandered in four months was agony to him. As for his wife, after all Mademoiselle Saget’s chattering she guessed what became of the money. The old maid having ventured to refer to the inheritance, Lisa had taken advantage of the opportunity to let the neighbourhood know that Florent was drawing his share, and spending it after his own fashion.
It was on the following day that the story of the strips of red material impelled Lisa to take definite actin. For a few moments she remained struggling with herself whilst gazing at the depressed appearance of the shop. The sides of pork hung all around in a sullen fashion, and Mouton, seated beside a bowl of fat, displayed the ruffled coat and dim eyes of a cat who no longer digests his meals in peace. Thereupon Lisa called to Augustine and told her to attend to the counter, and she herself went up to Florent’s room.
When she entered it, she received quite a shock. The bed, hitherto so spotless, was quite ensanguined by a bundle of long red scarves dangling down to the floor. On the mantelpiece, between the gilt cardboard boxes and the old pomatum-pots, were several red armlets and clusters of red cockades, looking like pools of blood. And hanging from every nail and peg against the faded grey wallpaper were pieces of bunting, square flags — yellow, blue, green, and black — in which Lisa recognised the distinguishing banners of the twenty sections. The childish simplicity of the room seemed quite scared by all this revolutionary decoration. The aspect of guileless stupidity which the shop girl had left behind her, the white innocence of the curtains and furniture, now glared as with the reflection of a fire; while the photograph of Auguste and Augustine looked white with terror. Lisa walked round the room, examining the flags, the armlets, and the scarves, without touching any of them, as though she feared that the dreadful things might burn her. She was reflecting that she had not been mistaken, that it was indeed on these and similar things that Florent’s money had been spent. And to her this seemed an utter abomination, an incredibility which set her whole being surging with indignation. To think that her money, that money which had been so honestly earned, was being squandered to organise and defray the expenses of an insurrection!
She stood there, gazing at the expanded blossoms of the pomegranate on the balcony — blossoms which seemed to her like an additional supply of crimson cockades — and listening to the sharp notes of the chaffinch, which resembled the echo of a distant fusillade. And then it struck her that the insurrection might break out the next day, or perhaps that very evening. She fancied she could see the banners streaming in the air and the scarves advancing in line, while a sudden roll of drums broke on her ear. Then she hastily went downstairs again, without even glancing at the papers which were lying on the table. She stopped on the first floor, went into her own room, and dressed herself.
In this critical emergency Lisa arranged her hair with scrupulous care and perfect calmness. She was quite resolute; not a quiver of hesitation disturbed her; but a sterner expression than usual had come into her eyes. As she fastened her black silk dress, straining the waistband with all the strength of her fingers, she recalled Abbe Roustan’s words; and she questioned herself, and her conscience answered that she was going to fulfil a duty. By the time she drew her broidered shawl round her broad shoulders, she felt that she was about to perform a deed of high morality. She put on a pair of dark mauve gloves, secured a thick veil to her bonnet; and before leaving the room she double-locked the secretaire, with a hopeful expression on her face which seemed to say that that much worried piece of furniture would at last be able to sleep in peace again.
Quenu was exhibiting his white paunch at the shop door when his wife came down. He was surprised to see her going out in full dress at ten o’clock in the morning. “Hallo! Where are you off to?” he asked.
She pretended that she was going out with Madame Taboureau, and added that she would call at the Gaite Theatre to buy some tickets. Quenu hurried after her to tell her to secure some front seats, so that they might be able to see well. Then, as he returned to the shop, Lisa made her way to the cab-stand opposite St. Eustache, got into a cab, pulled down the blinds, and told the driver to go to the Gaite Theatre. She felt afraid of being followed. When she had booked two seats, however, she directed the cabman to drive her to the Palais de Justice. There, in front of the gate, she discharged him, and then quietly made her way through the halls and corridors to the Prefecture of Police.
She soon lost herself in a noisy crowd of police officers and gentlemen in long frock-coats, but at last gave a man half a franc to guide her to the Prefect’s rooms. She found, however, that the Prefect only received such persons as came with letters of audience; and she was shown into a small apartment, furnished after the style of a boarding-house parlour. A fat, bald-headed official, dressed in black from head to foot, received her there with sullen coldness. What was her business? he inquired. Thereupon she raised her veil, gave her name, and told her story, clearly and distinctly, without a pause. The bald man listened with a weary air.
“You are this man’s sister-in-law, are you not?” he inquired, when she had finished.
“Yes,” Lisa candidly replied. “We are honest, straight-forward people, and I am anxious that my husband should not be compromised.”
The official shrugged his shoulders, as though to say that the whole affair was a great nuisance.
“Do you know,” he said impatiently, “that I have been pestered with this business for more than a year past? Denunciation after denunciation has been sent to me, and I am being continually goaded and pressed to take action. You will understand that if I haven’t done so as yet, it is because I prefer to wait. We have good reasons for our conduct in the matter. Stay, now, here are the papers relating to it. I’ll let you see them.”
He laid before her an immense collection of papers in a blue wrapper. Lisa turned them over. They were like detached chapters of the story she had just been relating. The commissaires of police at Havre, Rouen, and Vernon notified Florent’s arrival within their respective jurisdictions. Then came a report which announced that he had taken up his residence with the Quenu–Gradelles. Next followed his appointment at the markets, an account of his mode of life, the spending of his evenings at Monsieur Lebigre’s; not a detail was deficient. Lisa, quite astounded as she was, noticed that the reports were in duplicate, so that they must have emanated from two different sources. And at last she came upon a pile of letters, anonymous letters of every shape, and in every description of handwriting. They brought her amazement to a climax. In one letter she recognised the villainous hand of Mademoiselle Saget, denouncing the people who met in the little sanctum at Lebigre’s. On a large piece of greasy paper she identified the heavy pot-hooks of Madame Lecoeur; and there was also a sheet of cream-laid note-paper, ornamented with a yellow pansy, and covered with the scrawls of La Sarriette and Monsieur Jules. These two letters warned the Government to beware of Gavard. Farther on Lisa recognised the coarse style of old Madame Mehudin, who in four pages of almost indecipherable scribble repeated all the wild stories about Florent that circulated in the markets. However, what startled her more than anything else was the discovery of a bill-head of her own establishment, with the inscription Quenu–Gradelle, Pork Butcher, on its face, whilst on the back of it Auguste had penned a denunciation of the man whom he looked upon as an obstacle to his marriage.
The official had acted upon a secret idea in placing these papers before her. “You don’t recognise any of these handwritings, do you?” he asked.
“No,” she stammered, rising from her seat, quite oppressed by what she had just learned; and she hastily pulled down her veil again to conceal the blush of confusion which was rising to her cheeks. Her silk dress rustled, and her dark gloves disappeared beneath her heavy shawl.
“You see, madame,” said the bald man with a faint smile, “your information comes a little late. But I promise you that your visit shall not be forgotten. And tell your husband not to stir. It is possible that something may happen soon that ——”
He did not complete his sentence, but, half rising from his armchair, made a slight bow to Lisa. It was a dismissal, and she took her leave. In the ante-room she caught sight of Logre and Monsieur Lebigre, who hastily turned their faces away; but she was more disturbed than they were. She went her way through the halls and along the corridors, feeling as if she were in the clutches of this system of police which, it now seemed to her, saw and knew everything. At last she came out upon the Place Dauphine. When she reached the Quai de l’Horloge she slackened her steps, and felt refreshed by the cool breeze blowing from the Seine.
She now had a keen perception of the utter uselessness of what she had done. Her husband was in no danger whatever; and this thought, whilst relieving her, left her a somewhat remorseful feeling. She was exasperated with Auguste and the women who had put her in such a ridiculous position. She walked on yet more slowly, watching the Seine as it flowed past. Barges, black with coal-dust, were floating down the greenish water; and all along the bank anglers were casting their lines. After all, it was not she who had betrayed Florent. This reflection suddenly occurred to her and astonished her. Would she have been guilty of a wicked action, then, if she had been his betrayer? She was quite perplexed; surprised at the possibility of her conscience having deceived her. Those anonymous letters seemed extremely base. She herself had gone openly to the authorities, given her name, and saved innocent people from being compromised. Then at the sudden thought of old Gradelle’s fortune she again examined herself, and felt ready to throw the money into the river if such a course should be necessary to remove the blight which had fallen on the pork shop. No, she was not avaricious, she was sure she wasn’t; it was no thought of money that had prompted her in what she had just done. As she crossed the Pont au Change she grew quite calm again, recovering all her superb equanimity. On the whole, it was much better, she felt, that others should have anticipated her at the Prefecture. She would not have to deceive Quenu, and she would sleep with an easier conscience.
“Have you booked the seats?” Quenu asked her when she returned home.
He wanted to see the tickets, and made Lisa explain to him the exact position the seats occupied in the dress-circle. Lisa had imagined that the police would make a descent upon the house immediately after receiving her information, and her proposal to go to the theatre had only been a wily scheme for getting Quenu out of the way while the officers were arresting Florent. She had contemplated taking him for an outing in the afternoon — one of those little jaunts which they occasionally allowed themselves. They would then drive in an open cab to the Bois de Boulogne, dine at a restaurant, and amuse themselves for an hour or two at some cafe concern. But there was no need to go out now, she thought; so she spent the rest of the day behind her counter, with a rosy glow on her face, and seeming brighter and gayer, as though she were recovering from some indisposition.
“You see, I told you it was fresh air you wanted!” exclaimed Quenu. “Your walk this morning has brightened you up wonderfully!”
“No, indeed,” she said after a pause, again assuming her look of severity; “the streets of Paris are not at all healthy places.”
In the evening they went to the Gaite to see the performance of “La Grace de Dieu.” Quenu, in a frock-coat and drab gloves, with his hair carefully pomatumed and combed, was occupied most of the time in hunting for the names of the performers in the programme. Lisa looked superb in her low dress as she rested her hands in their tight-fitting white gloves on the crimson velvet balustrade. They were both of them deeply affected by the misfortunes of Marie. The commander, they thought, was certainly a desperate villain; while Pierrot made them laugh from the first moment of his appearance on the stage. But at last Madame Quenu cried. The departure of the child, the prayer in the maiden’s chamber, the return of the poor mad creature, moistened her eyes with gentle tears, which she brushed away with her handkerchief.
However, the pleasure which the evening afforded her turned into a feeling of triumph when she caught sight of La Normande and her mother sitting in the upper gallery. She thereupon puffed herself out more than ever, sent Quenu off to the refreshment bar for a box of caramels, and began to play with her fan, a mother-of-pearl fan, elaborately gilt. The fish-girl was quite crushed; and bent her head down to listen to her mother, who was whispering to her. When the performance was over and beautiful Lisa and the beautiful Norman met in the vestibule they exchanged a vague smile.
Florent had dined early at Monsieur Lebigre’s that day. He was expecting Logre, who had promised to introduce to him a retired sergeant, a capable man, with whom they were to discuss the plan of attack upon the Palais Bourbon and the Hotel de Ville. The night closed in, and the fine rain, which had begun to fall in the afternoon, shrouded the vast markets in a leaden gloom. They loomed darkly against the copper-tinted sky, while wisps of murky cloud skimmed by almost on a level with the roofs, looking as though they were caught and torn by the points of the lightning-conductors. Florent felt depressed by the sight of the muddy streets, and the streaming yellowish rain which seemed to sweep the twilight away and extinguish it in the mire. He watched the crowds of people who had taken refuge on the foot-pavements of the covered ways, the umbrellas flitting past in the downpour, and the cabs that dashed with increased clatter and speed along the wellnigh deserted roads. Presently there was a rift in the clouds; and a red glow arose in the west. Then a whole army of street-sweepers came into sight at the end of the Rue Montmartre, driving a lake of liquid mud before them with their brooms.
Logre did not turn up with the sergeant; Gavard had gone to dine with some friends at Batignolles, and so Florent was reduced to spending the evening alone with Robine. He had all the talking to himself, and ended by feeling very low-spirited. His companion merely wagged his beard, and stretched out his hand every quarter of an hour to raise his glass of beer to his lips. At last Florent grew so bored that he went off to bed. Robine, however, though left to himself, still lingered there, contemplating his glass with an expression of deep thought. Rose and the waiter, who had hoped to shut up early, as the coterie of politicians was absent, had to wait a long half hour before he at last made up his mind to leave.
When Florent got to his room, he felt afraid to go to bed. He was suffering from one of those nervous attacks which sometimes plunged him into horrible nightmares until dawn. On the previous day he had been to Clamart to attend the funeral of Monsieur Verlaque, who had died after terrible sufferings; and he still felt sad at the recollection of the narrow coffin which he had seen lowered into the earth. Nor could he banish from his mind the image of Madame Verlaque, who, with a tearful voice, though there was not a tear in her eyes, kept following him and speaking to him about the coffin, which was not paid for, and of the cost of the funeral, which she was quite at a loss about, as she had not a copper in the place, for the druggist, on hearing of her husband’s death on the previous day, had insisted upon his bill being paid. So Florent had been obliged to advance the money for the coffin and other funeral expenses, and had even given the gratuities to the mutes. Just as he was going away, Madame Verlaque looked at him with such a heartbroken expression that he left her twenty francs.
And now Monsieur Verlaque’s death worried him very much. It affected his situation in the markets. He might lose his berth, or perhaps be formally appointed inspector. In either case he foresaw vexatious complications which might arouse the suspicions of the police. He would have been delighted if the insurrection could have broken out the very next day, so that he might at once have tossed the laced cap of his inspectorship into the streets. With his mind full of harassing thoughts like these, he stepped out upon the balcony, as though soliciting of the warm night some whiff of air to cool his fevered brow. The rain had laid the wind, and a stormy heat still reigned beneath the deep blue, cloudless heavens. The markets, washed by the downpour, spread out below him, similar in hue to the sky, and, like the sky, studded with the yellow stars of their gas lamps.
Leaning on the iron balustrade, Florent recollected that sooner or later he would certainly be punished for having accepted the inspectorship. It seemed to lie like a stain on his life. He had become an official of the Prefecture, forswearing himself, serving the Empire in spite of all the oaths he had taken in his exile. His anxiety to please Lisa, the charitable purpose to which he had devoted the salary he received, the just and scrupulous manner in which he had always struggled to carry out his duties, no longer seemed to him valid excuses for his base abandonment of principle. If he had suffered in the midst of all that sleek fatness, he had deserved to suffer. And before him arose a vision of the evil year which he had just spent, his persecution by the fish-wives, the sickening sensations he had felt on close, damp days, the continuous indigestion which had afflicted his delicate stomach, and the latent hostility which was gathering strength against him. All these things he now accepted as chastisement. That dull rumbling of hostility and spite, the cause of which he could not divine, must forebode some coming catastrophe before whose approach he already stooped, with the shame of one who knows there is a transgression that he must expiate. Then he felt furious with himself as he thought of the popular rising he was preparing; and reflected that he was no longer unsullied enough to achieve success.
In how many dreams he had indulged in that lofty little room, with his eyes wandering over the spreading roofs of the market pavilions! They usually appeared to him like grey seas that spoke to him of far-off countries. On moonless nights they would darken and turn into stagnant lakes of black and pestilential water. But on bright nights they became shimmering fountains of light, the moonbeams streaming over both tiers like water, gliding along the huge plates of zinc, and flowing over the edges of the vast superposed basins. Then frosty weather seemed to turn these roofs into rigid ice, like the Norwegian bays over which skaters skim; while the warm June nights lulled them into deep sleep. One December night, on opening his window, he had seen them white with snow, so lustrously white that they lighted up the coppery sky. Unsullied by a single footstep, they then stretched out like the lonely plains of the Far North, where never a sledge intrudes. Their silence was beautiful, their soft peacefulness suggestive of innocence.
And at each fresh aspect of the ever-changing panorama before him, Florent yielded to dreams which were now sweet, now full of bitter pain. The snow calmed him; the vast sheet of whiteness seemed to him like a veil of purity thrown over the filth of the markets. The bright, clear nights, the shimmering moonbeams, carried him away into the fairy-land of story-books. It was only the dark, black nights, the burning nights of June, when he beheld, as it were, a miasmatic marsh, the stagnant water of a dead and accursed sea, that filled him with gloom and grief; and then ever the same dreadful visions haunted his brain.
The markets were always there. He could never open the window and rest his elbows on the balustrade without having them before him, filling the horizon. He left the pavilions in the evening only to behold their endless roofs as he went to bed. They shut him off from the rest of Paris, ceaselessly intruded their huge bulk upon him, entered into every hour of his life. That night again horrible fancies came to him, fancies aggravated by the vague forebodings of evil which distressed him. The rain of the afternoon had filled the markets with malodorous dampness, and as they wallowed there in the centre of the city, like some drunken man lying, after his last bottle, under the table, they cast all their foul breath into his face. He seemed to see a thick vapour rising up from each pavilion. In the distance the meat and tripe markets reeked with the sickening steam of blood; nearer in, the vegetable and fruit pavilions diffused the odour of pungent cabbages, rotten apples, and decaying leaves; the butter and cheese exhaled a poisonous stench; from the fish market came a sharp, fresh gust; while from the ventilator in the tower of the poultry pavilion just below him, he could see a warm steam issuing, a fetid current rising in coils like the sooty smoke from a factory chimney. And all these exhalations coalesced above the roofs, drifted towards the neighbouring houses, and spread themselves out in a heavy cloud which stretched over the whole of Paris. It was as though the markets were bursting within their tight belt of iron, were beating the slumber of the gorged city with the stertorous fumes of their midnight indigestion.
However, on the footway down below Florent presently heard a sound of voices, the laughter of happy folks. Then the door of the passage was closed noisily. It was Quenu and Lisa coming home from the theatre. Stupefied and intoxicated, as it were, by the atmosphere he was breathing, Florent thereupon left the balcony, his nerves still painfully excited by the thought of the tempest which he could feel gathering round his head. The source of his misery was yonder, in those markets, heated by the day’s excesses. He closed the window with violence, and left them wallowing in the darkness, naked and perspiring beneath the stars.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02