A week later, Florent thought that he would at last be able to proceed to action. A sufficiently serious outburst of public dissatisfaction furnished an opportunity for launching his insurrectionary forces upon Paris. The Corps Legislatif, whose members had lately shown great variance of opinion respecting certain grants to the Imperial family, was now discussing a bill for the imposition of a very unpopular tax, at which the lower orders had already begun to growl. The Ministry, fearing a defeat, was straining every nerve. It was probable, thought Florent, that no better pretext for a rising would for a long time present itself.
One morning, at daybreak, he went to reconnoitre the neighbourhood of the Palais Bourbon. He forgot all about his duties as inspector, and lingered there, studying the approaches of the palace, till eight o’clock, without ever thinking that his absence would revolutionise the fish market. He perambulated all the surrounding streets, the Rue de Lille, the Rue de l’Universite, the Rue de Bourgogne, the Rue Saint Dominique, and even extended his examination to the Esplanade des Invalides, stopping at certain crossways, and measuring distances as he walked along. Then, on coming back to the Quai d’Orsay, he sat down on the parapet, and determined that the attack should be made simultaneously from all sides. The contingents from the Gros–Caillou district should arrive by way of the Champ de Mars; the sections from the north of Paris should come down by the Madeleine; while those from the west and the south would follow the quays, or make their way in small detachments through the then narrow streets of the Faubourg Saint Germain. However, the other side of the river, the Champs Elysees, with their open avenues, caused him some uneasiness; for he foresaw that cannon would be stationed there to sweep the quays. He thereupon modified several details of his plan, and marked down in a memorandum-book the different positions which the several sections should occupy during the combat. The chief attack, he concluded, must certainly be made from the Rue de Bourgogne and the Rue de l’Universite, while a diversion might be effected on the side of the river.
Whilst he thus pondered over his plans the eight o’clock sun, warming the nape of his neck, shone gaily on the broad footways, and gilded the columns of the great structure in front of him. In imagination he already saw the contemplated battle; clusters of men clinging round those columns, the gates burst open, the peristyle invaded; and then scraggy arms suddenly appearing high aloft and planting a banner there.
At last he slowly went his way homewards again with his gaze fixed upon the ground. But all at once a cooing sound made him look up, and he saw that he was passing through the garden of the Tuileries. A number of wood-pigeons, bridling their necks, were strutting over a lawn near by. Florent leant for a moment against the tub of an orange-tree, and looked at the grass and the pigeons steeped in sunshine. Right ahead under the chestnut-trees all was black. The garden was wrapped in a warm silence, broken only by the distant rumbling which came from behind the railings of the Rue de Rivoli. The scent of all the greenery affected Florent, reminding him of Madame Francois. However, a little girl ran past, trundling a hoop, and alarmed the pigeons. They flew off, and settled in a row on the arm of a marble statue of an antique wrestler standing in the middle of the lawn, and once more, but with less vivacity, they began to coo and bridle their necks.
As Florent was returning to the markets by way of the Rue Vauvilliers, he heard Claude Lantier calling to him. The artist was going down into the basement of the poultry pavilion. “Come with me!” he cried. “I’m looking for that brute Marjolin.”
Florent followed, glad to forget his thoughts and to defer his return to the fish market for a little longer. Claude told him that his friend Marjolin now had nothing further to wish for: he had become an utter animal. Claude entertained an idea of making him pose on all-fours in future. Whenever he lost his temper over some disappointing sketch he came to spend whole hours in the idiot’s company, never speaking, but striving to catch his expression when he laughed.
“He’ll be feeding his pigeons, I dare say,” he said; “but unfortunately I don’t know whereabouts Monsieur Gavard’s storeroom is.”
They groped about the cellar. In the middle of it some water was trickling from a couple of taps in the dim gloom. The storerooms here are reserved for pigeons exclusively, and all along the trellising they heard faint cooings, like the hushed notes of birds nestling under the leaves when daylight is departing. Claude began to laugh as he heard it.
“It sounds as though all the lovers in Paris were embracing each other inside here, doesn’t it?” he exclaimed to his companion.
However, they could not find a single storeroom open, and were beginning to think that Marjolin could not be in the cellar, when a sound of loud, smacking kisses made them suddenly halt before a door which stood slightly ajar. Claude pulled it open and beheld Marjolin, whom Cadine was kissing, whilst he, a mere dummy, offered his face without feeling the slightest thrill at the touch of her lips.
“Oh, so this is your little game, is it?” said Claude with a laugh.
“Oh,” replied Cadine, quite unabashed, “he likes being kissed, because he feels afraid now in the dim light. You do feel frightened, don’t you?”
Like the idiot he was, Marjolin stroked his face with his hands as though trying to find the kisses which the girl had just printed there. And he was beginning to stammer out that he was afraid, when Cadine continued: “And, besides, I came to help him; I’ve been feeding the pigeons.”
Florent looked at the poor creatures. All along the shelves were rows of lidless boxes, in which pigeons, showing their motley plumage, crowded closely on their stiffened legs. Every now and then a tremor ran along the moving mass; and then the birds settled down again, and nothing was heard but their confused, subdued notes. Cadine had a saucepan near her; she filled her mouth with the water and tares which it contained, and then, taking up the pigeons one by one, shot the food down their throats with amazing rapidity. The poor creatures struggled and nearly choked, and finally fell down in the boxes with swimming eyes, intoxicated, as it were, by all the food which they were thus forced to swallow.*
* This is the customary mode of fattening pigeons at the Paris markets. The work is usually done by men who make a specialty of it, and are called gaveurs. — Translator.
“Poor creatures!” exclaimed Claude.
“Oh, so much the worse for them,” said Cadine, who had now finished. “They are much nicer eating when they’ve been well fed. In a couple of hours or so all those over yonder will be given a dose of salt water. That makes their flesh white and tender. Then two hours afterwards they’ll be killed. If you would like to see the killing, there are some here which are quite ready. Marjolin will settle their account for them in a jiffy.”
Marjolin carried away a box containing some fifty pigeons, and Claude and Florent followed him. Squatting upon the ground near one of the water-taps, he placed the box by his side. Then he laid a framework of slender wooden bars on the top of a kind of zinc trough, and forthwith began to kill the pigeons. His knife flashed rapidly in his fingers, as he seized the birds by the wings, stunned them by a blow on the head from the knife-handle, and then thrust the point of the blade into their throats. They quivered for an instant, and ruffled their feathers as Marjolin laid them in a row, with their heads between the wooden bars above the zinc trough, into which their blood fell drop by drop. He repeated each different movement with the regularity of clockwork, the blows from the knife-handle falling with a monotonous tick-tack as he broke the birds’ skulls, and his hand working backwards and forwards like a pendulum as he took up the living pigeons on one side and laid them down dead on the other. Soon, moreover, he worked with increasing rapidity, gloating over the massacre with glistening eyes, squatting there like a huge delighted bull-dog enjoying the sight of slaughtered vermin. “Tick-tack! Tick-tack!” whilst his tongue clucked as an accompaniment to the rhythmical movements of his knife. The pigeons hung down like wisps of silken stuff.
“Ah, you enjoy that, don’t you, you great stupid?” exclaimed Cadine. “How comical those pigeons look when they bury their heads in their shoulders to hide their necks! They’re horrid things, you know, and would give one nasty bites if they got the chance.” Then she laughed more loudly at Marjolin’s increasing, feverish haste; and added: “I’ve killed them sometimes myself, but I can’t get on as quickly as he does. One day he killed a hundred in ten minutes.”
The wooden frame was nearly full; the blood could be heard falling into the zinc trough; and as Claude happened to turn round he saw Florent looking so pale that he hurriedly led him away. When they got above-ground again he made him sit down on a step.
“Why, what’s the matter with you?” he exclaimed, tapping him on the shoulder. “You’re fainting away like a woman!”
“It’s the smell of the cellar,” murmured Florent, feeling a little ashamed of himself.
The truth was, however, that those pigeons, which were forced to swallow tares and salt water, and then had their skulls broken and their throats slit, had reminded him of the wood-pigeons of the Tuileries gardens, strutting over the green turf, with their satiny plumage flashing iridescently in the sunlight. He again heard them cooing on the arm of the marble wrestler amidst the hushed silence of the garden, while children trundled their hoops in the deep gloom of the chestnuts. And then, on seeing that big fair-haired animal massacring his boxful of birds, stunning them with the handle of his knife and driving its point into their throats, in the depths of that foul-smelling cellar, he had felt sick and faint, his legs had almost given way beneath him, while his eyelids quivered tremulously.
“Well, you’d never do for a soldier!” Claude said to him when he recovered from his faintness. “Those who sent you to Cayenne must have been very simple-minded folks to fear such a man as you! Why, my good fellow, if ever you do put yourself at the head of a rising, you won’t dare to fire a shot. You’ll be too much afraid of killing somebody.”
Florent got up without making any reply. He had become very gloomy, his face was furrowed by deep wrinkles; and he walked off, leaving Claude to go back to the cellar alone. As he made his way towards the fish market his thoughts returned to his plan of attack, to the levies of armed men who were to invade the Palais Bourbon. Cannon would roar from the Champs Elysees; the gates would be burst open; blood would stain the steps, and men’s brains would bespatter the pillars. A vision of the fight passed rapidly before him; and he beheld himself in the midst of it, deadly pale, and hiding his face in his hands, not daring to look around him.
As he was crossing the Rue du Pont Neuf he fancied he espied Auguste’s pale face peering round the corner of the fruit pavilion. The assistant seemed to be watching for someone, and his eyes were starting from his head with an expression of intense excitement. Suddenly, however, he vanished and hastened back to the pork shop.
“What’s the matter with him?” thought Florent. “Is he frightened of me, I wonder?”
Some very serious occurrences had taken place that morning at the Quenu–Gradelles’. Soon after daybreak, Auguste, breathless with excitement, had awakened his mistress to tell her that the police had come to arrest Monsieur Florent. And he added, with stammering incoherence, that the latter had gone out, and that he must have done so with the intention of escaping. Lisa, careless of appearances, at once hurried up to her brother-in-law’s room in her dressing-wrapper, and took possession of La Normande’s photograph, after glancing round to see if there was anything lying about that might compromise herself and Quenu. As she was making her way downstairs again, she met the police agents on the first floor. The commissary requested her to accompany them to Florent’s room, where, after speaking to her for a moment in a low tone, he installed himself with his men, bidding her open the shop as usual so as to avoid giving the alarm to anyone. The trap was set.
Lisa’s only worry in the matter was the terrible blow that the arrest would prove to poor Quenu. She was much afraid that if he learned that the police were in the house, he would spoil everything by his tears; so she made Auguste swear to observe the most rigid silence on the subject. Then she went back to her room, put on her stays, and concocted some story for the benefit of Quenu, who was still drowsy. Half an hour later she was standing at the door of the shop with all her usual neatness of appearance, her hair smooth and glossy, and her face glowing rosily. Auguste was quietly setting out the window. Quenu came for a moment on to the footway, yawning slightly, and ridding himself of all sleepiness in the fresh morning air. There was nothing to indicate the drama that was in preparation upstairs.
The commissary himself, however, gave the alarm to the neighbourhood by paying a domiciliary visit to the Mehudins’ abode in the Rue Pirouette. He was in possession of the most precise information. In the anonymous letters which had been sent to the Prefecture, all sorts of statements were made respecting Florent’s alleged intrigue with the beautiful Norman. Perhaps, thought the commissary, he had now taken refuge with her; and so, accompanied by two of his men, he proceeded to knock at the door in the name of the law. The Mehudins had only just got up. The old woman opened the door in a fury; but suddenly calmed down and began to smile when she learned the business on hand. She seated herself and fastened her clothes, while declaring to the officers: “We are honest folks here, and have nothing to be afraid of. You can search wherever you like.”
However, as La Normande delayed to open the door of her room, the commissary told his men to break it open. The young woman was scarcely clad when the others entered, and this unceremonious invasion, which she could not understand, fairly exasperated her. She flushed crimson from anger rather than from shame, and seemed as though she were about to fly at the officers. The commissary, at the sight, stepped forward to protect his men, repeating in his cold voice: “In the name of the law! In the name of the law!”
Thereupon La Normande threw herself upon a chair, and burst into a wild fit of hysterical sobbing at finding herself so powerless. She was quite at a loss to understand what these men wanted with her. The commissary, however, had noticed how scantily she was clad, and taking a shawl from a peg, he flung it over her. Still she did not wrap it round her, but only sobbed the more bitterly as she watched the men roughly searching the apartment.
“But what have I done?” she at last stammered out. “What are you looking for here?”
Thereupon the commissary pronounced the name of Florent; and La Normande, catching sight of the old woman, who was standing at the door, cried out: “Oh, the wretch! This is her doing!” and she rushed at her mother.
She would have struck her if she had reached her; but the police agents held her back, and forcibly wrapped her in the shawl. Meanwhile, she struggled violently, and exclaimed in a choking voice:
“What do you take me for? That Florent has never been in this room, I tell you. There was nothing at all between us. People are always trying to injure me in the neighbourhood; but just let anyone come here and say anything before my face, and then you’ll see! You’ll lock me up afterwards, I dare say, but I don’t mind that! Florent, indeed! What a lie! What nonsense!”
This flood of words seemed to calm her; and her anger now turned against Florent, who was the cause of all the trouble. Addressing the commissary, she sought to justify herself.
“I did not know his real character, sir,” she said. “He had such a mild manner that he deceived us all. I was unwilling to believe all I heard, because I know people are so malicious. He only came here to give lessons to my little boy, and went away directly they were over. I gave him a meal here now and again, that’s true and sometimes made him a present of a fine fish. That’s all. But this will be a warning to me, and you won’t catch me showing the same kindness to anyone again.”
“But hasn’t he given you any of his papers to take care of?” asked the commissary.
“Oh no, indeed! I swear it. I’d give them up to you at once if he had. I’ve had quite enough of this, I can tell you! It’s no joke to see you tossing all my things about and ferreting everywhere in this way. Oh! you may look; there’s nothing.”
The officers, who examined every article of furniture, now wished to enter the little closet where Muche slept. The child had been awakened by the noise, and for the last few moments he had been crying bitterly, as though he imagined that he was going to be murdered.
“This is my boy’s room,” said La Normande, opening the door.
Muche, quite naked, ran up and threw his arms round his mother’s neck. She pacified him, and laid him down in her own bed. The officers came out of the little room again almost immediately, and the commissary had just made up his mind to retire, when the child, still in tears, whispered in his mother’s ear: “They’ll take my copy-books. Don’t let them have my copy-books.”
“Oh, yes; that’s true,” cried La Normande; “there are some copy-books. Wait a moment, gentlemen, and I’ll give them to you. I want you to see that I’m not hiding anything from you. Then, you’ll find some of his writing inside these. You’re quite at liberty to hang him as far as I’m concerned; you won’t find me trying to cut him down.”
Thereupon she handed Muche’s books and the copies set by Florent to the commissary. But at this the boy sprang angrily out of bed, and began to scratch and bite his mother, who put him back again with a box on the ears. Then he began to bellow.
In the midst of the uproar, Mademoiselle Saget appeared on the threshold, craning her neck forward. Finding all the doors open, she had come in to offer her services to old Madame Mehudin. She spied about and listened, and expressed extreme pity for these poor women, who had no one to defend them. The commissary, however, had begun to read the copies with a grave air. The frequent repetition of such words as “tyrannically,” “liberticide,” “unconstitutional,” and “revolutionary” made him frown; and on reading the sentence, “When the hour strikes, the guilty shall fall,” he tapped his fingers on the paper and said: “This is very serious, very serious indeed.”
Thereupon he gave the books to one of his men, and went off. Claire, who had hitherto not shown herself, now opened her door, and watched the police officers go down the stairs. And afterwards she came into her sister’s bedroom, which she had not entered for a year. Mademoiselle Saget appeared to be on the best of terms with La Normande, and was hanging over her in a caressing way, bringing the shawl forward to cover her the better, and listening to her angry indignation with an expression of the deepest sympathy.
“You wretched coward!” exclaimed Claire, planting herself in front of her sister.
La Normande sprang up, quivering with anger, and let the shawl fall to the floor.
“Ah, you’ve been playing the spy, have you?” she screamed. “Dare to repeat what you’ve just said!”
“You wretched coward!” repeated Claire, in still more insulting tones than before.
Thereupon La Normande struck Claire with all her force; and in return Claire, turning terribly pale, sprang upon her sister and dug her nails into her neck. They struggled together for a moment or two, tearing at each other’s hair and trying to choke one another. Claire, fragile though she was, pushed La Normande backward with such tremendous violence that they both fell against the wardrobe, smashing the mirror on its front. Muche was roaring, and old Madame Mehudin called to Mademoiselle Saget to come and help her separate the sisters. Claire, however, shook herself free.
“Coward! Coward!” she cried; “I’ll go and tell the poor fellow that it is you who have betrayed him.”
Her mother, however, blocked the doorway, and would not let her pass, while La Normande seized her from behind, and then, Mademoiselle Saget coming to the assistance of the other two, the three of them dragged Claire into her bedroom and locked the door upon her, in spite of all her frantic resistance. In her rage she tried to kick the door down, and smashed everything in the room. Soon afterwards, however, nothing could be heard except a furious scratching, the sound of metal scarping at the plaster. The girl was trying to loosen the door hinges with the points of her scissors.
“She would have murdered me if she had had a knife,” said La Normande, looking about for her clothes, in order to dress herself. “She’ll be doing something dreadful, you’ll see, one of these days, with that jealousy of hers! We mustn’t let her get out on any account: she’d bring the whole neighbourhood down upon us!”
Mademoiselle Saget went off in all haste. She reached the corner of the Rue Pirouette just as the commissary of police was re-entering the side passage of the Quenu–Gradelles’ house. She grasped the situation at once, and entered the shop with such glistening eyes that Lisa enjoined silence by a gesture which called her attention to the presence of Quenu, who was hanging up some pieces of salt pork. As soon as he had returned to the kitchen, the old maid in a low voice described the scenes that had just taken place at the Mehudins’. Lisa, as she bent over the counter, with her hand resting on a dish of larded veal, listened to her with the happy face of one who triumphs. Then, as a customer entered the shop, and asked for a couple of pig’s trotters, Lisa wrapped them up, and handed them over with a thoughtful air.
“For my own part, I bear La Normande no ill-will,” she said to Mademoiselle Saget, when they were alone again. “I used to be very fond of her, and have always been sorry that other people made mischief between us. The proof that I’ve no animosity against her is here in this photograph, which I saved from falling into the hands of the police, and which I’m quite ready to give her back if she will come and ask me for it herself.”
She took the photograph out of her pocket as she spoke. Mademoiselle Saget scrutinised it and sniggered as she read the inscription, “Louise, to her dear friend Florent.”
“I’m not sure you’ll be acting wisely,” she said in her cutting voice. “You’d do better to keep it.”
“No, no,” replied Lisa; “I’m anxious for all this silly nonsense to come to an end. To-day is the day of reconciliation. We’ve had enough unpleasantness, and the neighbourhood’s now going to be quiet and peaceful again.”
“Well, well, shall I go and tell La Normande that you are expecting her?” asked the old maid.
“Yes; I shall be very glad if you will.”
Mademoiselle Saget then made her way back to the Rue Pirouette, and greatly frightened the fish-girl by telling her that she had just seen her photograph in Lisa’s pocket. She could not, however, at once prevail upon her to comply with her rival’s terms. La Normande propounded conditions of her own. She would go, but Madame Quenu must come to the door of the shop to receive her. Thus the old maid was obliged to make another couple of journeys between the two rivals before their meeting could be satisfactorily arranged. At last, however, to her great delight, she succeeded in negotiating the peace which was destined to cause so much talk and excitement. As she passed Claire’s door for the last time she still heard the sound of the scissors scraping away at the plaster.
When she had at last carried a definite reply to Madame Quenu, Mademoiselle Saget hurried off to find Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette; and all three of them took up their position on the footway at the corner of the fish market, just in front of the pork shop. Here they would be certain to have a good view of every detail of the meeting. They felt extremely impatient, and while pretending to chat together kept an anxious look-out in the direction of the Rue Pirouette, along which La Normande must come. The news of the reconciliation was already travelling through the markets, and while some saleswomen stood up behind their stalls trying to get a view of what was taking place, others, still more inquisitive, actually left their places and took up a position in the covered way. Every eye in the markets was directed upon the pork shop; the whole neighbourhood was on the tip-toe of expectation.
It was a very solemn affair. When La Normande at last turned the corner of the Rue Pirouette the excitement was so great that the women held their breath.
“She has got her diamonds on,” murmured La Sarriette.
“Just look how she stalks along,” added Madame Lecoeur; “the stuck-up creature!”
The beautiful Norman was, indeed, advancing with the mien of a queen who condescends to make peace. She had made a most careful toilet, frizzing her hair and turning up a corner of her apron to display her cashmere skirt. She had even put on a new and rich lace bow. Conscious that the whole market was staring at her, she assumed a still haughtier air as she approached the pork shop. When she reached the door she stopped.
“Now it’s beautiful Lisa’s turn,” remarked Mademoiselle Saget. “Mind you pay attention.”
Beautiful Lisa smilingly quitted her counter. She crossed the shop-floor at a leisurely pace, and came and offered her hand to the beautiful Norman. She also was smartly dressed, with her dazzling linen and scrupulous neatness. A murmur ran through the crowd of fish-wives, all their heads gathered close together, and animated chatter ensued. The two women had gone inside the shop, and the crepines in the window prevented them from being clearly seen. However, they seemed to be conversing affectionately, addressing pretty compliments to one another.
“See!” suddenly exclaimed Mademoiselle Saget, “the beautiful Norman’s buying something! What is it she’s buying? It’s a chitterling, I believe! Ah! Look! look! You didn’t see it, did you? Well, beautiful Lisa just gave her the photograph; she slipped it into her hand with the chitterling.”
Fresh salutations were then seen to pass between the two women; and the beautiful Lisa, exceeding even the courtesies which had been agreed upon, accompanied the beautiful Norman to the footway. There they stood laughing together, exhibiting themselves to the neighbourhood like a couple of good friends. The markets were quite delighted; and the saleswomen returned to their stalls, declaring that everything had passed off extremely well.
Mademoiselle Saget, however, detained Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette. The drama was not over yet. All three kept their eyes fixed on the house opposite with such keen curiosity that they seemed trying to penetrate the very walls. To pass the time away they once more began to talk of the beautiful Norman.
“She’s without a lover now,” remarked Madame Lecoeur.
“Oh! she’s got Monsieur Lebigre,” replied La Sarriette, with a laugh.
“But surely Monsieur Lebigre won’t have anything more to say to her.”
Mademoiselle Saget shrugged her shoulders. “Ah, you don’t know him,” she said. “He won’t care a straw about all this business. He knows what he’s about, and La Normande is rich. They’ll come together in a couple of months, you’ll see. Old Madame Mehudin’s been scheming to bring about their marriage for a long time past.”
“Well, anyway,” retorted the butter dealer, “the commissary found Florent at her lodgings.”
“No, no, indeed; I’m sure I never told you that. The long spindle-shanks had gone way,” replied the old maid. She paused to take a breath; then resumed in an indignant tone, “What distressed me most was to hear of all the abominable things that the villain had taught little Muche. You’d really never believe it. There was a whole bundle of papers.”
“What sort of abominable things?” asked La Sarriette with interest.
“Oh, all kinds of filth. The commissary said there was quite sufficient there to hang him. The fellow’s a perfect monster! To go and demoralise a child! Why, it’s almost past believing! Little Muche is certainly a scamp, but that’s no reason why he should be given over to the ‘Reds,’ is it?”
“Certainly not,” assented the two others.
“However, all these mysterious goings-on will come to an end now. You remember my telling you once that there was some strange goings-on at the Quenus’? Well, you see, I was right in my conclusions, wasn’t I? Thank God, however, the neighbourhood will now be able to breathe easily. It was high time strong steps were taken, for things had got to such a pitch that one actually felt afraid of being murdered in broad daylight. There was no pleasure in life. All the dreadful stories and reports one heard were enough to worry one to death. And it was all owing to that man, that dreadful Florent. Now beautiful Lisa and the beautiful Norman have sensibly made friends again. It was their duty to do so for the sake of the peace and quietness of us all. Everything will go on satisfactorily now, you’ll find. Ah! there’s poor Monsieur Quenu laughing yonder!”
Quenu had again come on to the footway, and was joking with Madame Taboureau’s little servant. He seemed quite gay and skittish that morning. He took hold of the little servant’s hands, and squeezed her fingers so tightly, in the exuberance of his spirits, that he made her cry out. Lisa had the greatest trouble to get him to go back into the kitchen. She was impatiently pacing about the shop, fearing lest Florent should make his appearance; and she called to her husband to come away, dreading a meeting between him and his brother.
“She’s getting quite vexed,” said Mademoiselle Saget. “Poor Monsieur Quenu, you see, knows nothing at all about what’s taking place. Just look at him there, laughing like a child! Madame Taboureau, you know, said that she should have nothing more to do with the Quenus if they persisted in bringing themselves into discredit by keeping that Florent with them.”
“Well, now, I suppose, they will stick to the fortune,” remarked Madame Lecoeur.
“Oh, no, indeed, my dear. The other one has had his share already.”
“Really? How do you know that?”
“Oh, it’s clear enough, that is!” replied the old maid after a momentary hesitation, but without giving any proof of her assertions. “He’s had even more than his share. The Quenus will be several thousand francs out of pocket. Money flies, you know, when a man has such vices as he has. I dare say you don’t know that there was another woman mixed up in it all. Yes, indeed, old Madame Verlaque, the wife of the former inspector; you know the sallow-faced thing well enough.”
The others protested that it surely wasn’t possible. Why, Madame Verlaque was positively hideous!
“What! do you think me a liar?” cried Mademoiselle Saget, with angry indignation. “Why, her letters to him have been found, a whole pile of letters, in which she asks for money, ten and twenty francs at a time. There’s no doubt at all about it. I’m quite certain in my own mind that they killed the husband between them.”
La Sarriette and Madame Lecoeur were convinced; but they were beginning to get very impatient. They had been waiting on the footway for more than an hour, and feared that somebody might be robbing their stalls during their long absence. So Mademoiselle Saget began to give them some further interesting information to keep them from going off. Florent could not have taken to flight, said she; he was certain to return, and it would be very interesting to see him arrested. Then she went on to describe the trap that had been laid for him, while Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette continued scrutinising the house from top to bottom, keeping watch upon every opening, and at each moment expecting to see the hats of the detectives appear at one of the doors or windows.
“Who would ever imagine, now, that the place was full of police?” observed the butter dealer.
“Oh! they’re in the garret at the top,” said the old maid. “They’ve left the window open, you see, just as they found it. Look! I think I can see one of them hiding behind the pomegranate on the balcony.”
The others excitedly craned out their necks, but could see nothing.
“Ah, no, it’s only a shadow,” continued Mademoiselle Saget. “The little curtains even are perfectly still. The detectives must be sitting down in the room, and keeping quiet.”
Just at that moment the women caught sight of Gavard coming out of the fish market with a thoughtful air. They looked at him with glistening eyes, without speaking. They had drawn close to one another, and stood there rigid in their drooping skirts. The poultry dealer came up to them.
“Have you seen Florent go by?” he asked.
They replied that they had not.
“I want to speak to him at once,” continued Gavard. “He isn’t in the fish market. He must have gone up to his room. But you would have seen him, though, if he had.”
The women had turned rather pale. They still kept looking at each other with a knowing expression, their lips twitching slightly every now and then. “We have only been here some five minutes, said Madame Lecoeur unblushingly, as her brother-in-law still stood hesitating.
“Well, then, I’ll go upstairs and see. I’ll risk the five flights,” rejoined Gavard with a laugh.
La Sarriette stepped forward as though she wished to detain him, but her aunt took hold of her arm and drew her back.
“Let him alone, you big simpleton!” she whispered. “It’s the best thing that can happen to him. It’ll teach him to treat us with respect in future.”
“He won’t say again that I ate tainted meat,” muttered Mademoiselle Saget in a low tone.
They said nothing more. La Sarriette was very red; but the two others still remained quite yellow. But they now averted their heads, feeling confused by each other’s looks, and at a loss what to do with their hands, which they buried beneath their aprons. Presently their eyes instinctively came back to the house, penetrating the walls, as it were, following Gavard in his progress up the stairs. When they imagined that he had entered Florent’s room they again exchanged furtive glances. La Sarriette laughed nervously. All at once they fancied they could see the window curtains moving, and this led them to believe that a struggle was taking place. But the house-front remained as tranquil as ever in the sunshine; and another quarter of an hour of unbroken quietness passed away, during which the three women’s nervous excitement became more and more intense. They were beginning to feel quite faint when a man hurriedly came out of the passage and ran off to get a cab. Five minutes later Gavard appeared, followed by two police officers. Lisa, who had stepped out on to the footway on observing the cab, hastily hurried back into the shop.
Gavard was very pale. The police had searched him upstairs, and had discovered the revolver and cartridge case in his possession. Judging by the commissary’s stern expression on hearing his name, the poultry dealer deemed himself lost. This was a terrible ending to his plotting that had never entered into his calculations. The Tuileries would never forgive him! His legs gave way beneath him as though the firing party was already awaiting him outside. When he got into the street, however, his vanity lent him sufficient strength to walk erect; and he even managed to force a smile, as he knew the market people were looking at him. They should see him die bravely, he resolved.
However, La Sarriette and Madame Lecoeur rushed up to him and anxiously inquired what was the matter; and the butter dealer began to cry, while La Sarriette embraced her uncle, manifesting the deepest emotion. As Gavard held her clasped in his arms, he slipped a key into her hand, and whispered in her ear: “Take everything, and burn the papers.”
Then he got into the cab with the same mien as he would have ascended the scaffold. As the vehicle disappeared round the corner of the Rue Pierre Lescot, Madame Lecoeur observed La Sarriette trying to hide the key in her pocket.
“It’s of no use you trying that little game on me, my dear,” she exclaimed, clenching her teeth; “I saw him slip it into your hand. As true as there’s a God in Heaven, I’ll go to the gaol and tell him everything, if you don’t treat me properly.”
“Of course I shall treat you properly, aunt, dear,” replied La Sarriette, with an embarrassed smile.
“Very well, then, let us go to his rooms at once. It’s of no use to give the police time to poke their dirty hands in the cupboards.”
Mademoiselle Saget, who had been listening with gleaming eyes, followed them, running along in the rear as quickly as her short legs could carry her. She had no thought, now, of waiting for Florent. From the Rue Rambuteau to the Rue de la Cossonnerie she manifested the most humble obsequiousness, and volunteered to explain matters to Madame Leonce, the doorkeeper.
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” the butter dealer curtly replied.
However, on reaching the house a preliminary parley — as Mademoiselle Saget had opined — proved to be necessary. Madame Leonce refused to allow the women to go up to her tenant’s room. She put on an expression of severe austerity, and seemed greatly shocked by the sight of La Sarriette’s loosely fastened fichu. However, after the old maid had whispered a few words to her and she was shown the key, she gave way. When they got upstairs she surrendered the rooms and furniture to the others article by article, apparently as heartbroken as if she had been compelled to show a party of burglars the place where her own money was secreted.
“There, take everything and have done with it!” she cried at last, throwing herself into an arm-chair.
La Sarriette was already eagerly trying the key in the locks of different closets. Madame Lecoeur, all suspicion, pressed her so closely that she exclaimed: “Really, aunt, you get in my way. Do leave my arms free, at any rate.”
At last they succeeded in opening a wardrobe opposite the window, between the fireplace and the bed. And then all four women broke into exclamations. On the middle shelf lay some ten thousand francs in gold, methodically arranged in little piles. Gavard, who had prudently deposited the bulk of his fortune in the hands of a notary, had kept this sum by him for the purposes of the coming outbreak. He had been wont to say with great solemnity that his contribution to the revolution was quite ready. The fact was that he had sold out certain stock, and every night took an intense delight in contemplating those ten thousand francs, gloating over them, and finding something quite roysterous and insurrectional in their appearance. Sometimes when he was in bed he dreamed that a fight was going on in the wardrobe; he could hear guns being fired there, paving-stones being torn up and piled into barricades, and voices shouting in clamorous triumph; and he said to himself that it was his money fighting against the Government.
La Sarriette, however, had stretched out her hands with a cry of delight.
“Paws off, little one!” exclaimed Madame Lecoeur in a hoarse voice.
As she stood there in the reflection of the gold, she looked yellower than ever — her face discoloured by biliousness, her eyes glowing feverishly from the liver complaint which was secretly undermining her. Behind her Mademoiselle Saget on tip-toe was gazing ecstatically into the wardrobe, and Madame Leonce had now risen from her seat, and was growling sulkily.
“My uncle said I was to take everything,” declared the girl.
“And am I to have nothing, then; I who have done so much for him?” cried the doorkeeper.
Madame Lecoeur was almost choking with excitement. She pushed the others away, and clung hold of the wardrobe, screaming: “It all belongs to me! I am his nearest relative. You are a pack of thieves, you are! I’d rather throw it all out of the window than see you have it!”
Then silence fell, and they all four stood glowering at each other. The kerchief that La Sarriette wore over her breast was now altogether unfastened, and she displayed her bosom heaving with warm life, her moist red lips, her rosy nostrils. Madame Lecoeur grew still more sour as she saw how lovely the girl looked in the excitement of her longing desire.
“Well,” she said in a lower tone, “we won’t fight about it. You are his niece, and I’ll divide the money with you. We will each take a pile in turn.”
Thereupon they pushed the other two aside. The butter dealer took the first pile, which at once disappeared within her skirts. Then La Sarriette took a pile. They kept a close watch upon one another, ready to fight at the slightest attempt at cheating. Their fingers were thrust forward in turn, the hideous knotted fingers of the aunt and the white fingers of the niece, soft and supple as silk. Slowly they filled their pockets. When there was only one pile left, La Sarriette objected to her aunt taking it, as she had commenced; and she suddenly divided it between Mademoiselle Saget and Madame Leonce, who had watched them pocket the gold with feverish impatience.
“Much obliged to you!” snarled the doorkeeper. “Fifty francs for having coddled him up with tisane and broth! The old deceiver told me he had no relatives!”
Before locking the wardrobe up again, Madame Lecoeur searched it thoroughly from top to bottom. It contained all the political works which were forbidden admission into the country, the pamphlets printed at Brussels, the scandalous histories of the Bonapartes, and the foreign caricatures ridiculing the Emperor. One of Gavard’s greatest delights was to shut himself up with a friend, and show him all these compromising things.
“He told me that I was to burn all the papers,” said La Sarriette.
“Oh, nonsense! we’ve no fire, and it would take up too long. The police will soon be here! We must get out of this!”
They all four hastened off; but they had not reached the bottom of the stairs before the police met them, and made Madame Leonce return with them upstairs. The three others, making themselves as small as possible, hurriedly escaped into the street. They walked away in single file at a brisk pace; the aunt and niece considerably incommoded by the weight of their drooping pockets. Mademoiselle Saget had kept her fifty francs in her closed fist, and remained deep in thought, brooding over a plan for extracting something more from the heavy pockets in front of her.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, as they reached the corner of the fish market, “we’ve got here at a lucky moment. There’s Florent yonder, just going to walk into the trap.”
Florent, indeed, was just then returning to the markets after his prolonged perambulation. He went into his office to change his coat, and then set about his daily duties, seeing that the marble slabs were properly washed, and slowly strolling along the alleys. He fancied that the fish-wives looked at him in a somewhat strange manner; they chuckled too, and smiled significantly as he passed them. Some new vexation, he thought, was in store for him. For some time past those huge, terrible women had not allowed him a day’s peace. However, as he passed the Mehudins’ stall he was very much surprised to hear the old woman address him in a honeyed tone: “There’s just been a gentleman inquiring for you, Monsieur Florent; a middle-aged gentleman. He’s gone to wait for you in your room.”
As the old fish-wife, who was squatting, all of a heap, on her chair, spoke these words, she felt such a delicious thrill of satisfied vengeance that her huge body fairly quivered. Florent, still doubtful, glanced at the beautiful Norman; but the young woman, now completely reconciled with her mother, turned on her tap and slapped her fish, pretending not to hear what was being said.
“You are quite sure?” said Florent to Mother Mehudin.
“Oh, yes, indeed. Isn’t that so, Louise?” said the old woman in a shriller voice.
Florent concluded that it must be some one who wanted to see him about the great business, and he resolved to go up to his room. He was just about to leave the pavilion, when, happening to turn round, he observed the beautiful Norman watching him with a grave expression on her face. Then he passed in front of the three gossips.
“Do you notice that there’s no one in the pork shop?” remarked Mademoiselle Saget. “Beautiful Lisa’s not the woman to compromise herself.”
The shop was, indeed, quite empty. The front of the house was still bright with sunshine; the building looked like some honest, prosperous pile guilelessly warming itself in the morning rays. Up above, the pomegranate on the balcony was in full bloom. As Florent crossed the roadway he gave a friendly nod to Logre and Monsieur Lebigre, who appeared to be enjoying the fresh air on the doorstep of the latter’s establishment. They returned his greeting with a smile. Florent was then about to enter the side-passage, when he fancied he saw Auguste’s pale face hastily vanishing from its dark and narrow depths. Thereupon he turned back and glanced into the shop to make sure that the middle-aged gentleman was not waiting for him there. But he saw no one but Mouton, who sat on a block displaying his double chin and bristling whiskers, and gazed at him defiantly with his great yellow eyes. And when he had at last made up his mind to enter the passage, Lisa’s face appeared behind the little curtain of a glazed door at the back of the shop.
A hush had fallen over the fish market. All the huge paunches and bosoms held their breath, waiting till Florent should disappear from sight. Then there was an uproarious outbreak; and the bosoms heaved wildly and the paunches nearly burst with malicious delight. The joke had succeeded. Nothing could be more comical. As old Mother Mehudin vented her merriment she shook and quivered like a wine-skin that is being emptied. Her story of the middle-aged gentleman went the round of the market, and the fish-wives found it extremely amusing. At last the long spindle-shanks was collared, and they would no longer always have his miserable face and gaol-bird’s expression before their eyes. They all wished him a pleasant journey, and trusted that they might get a handsome fellow for their next inspector. And in their delight they rushed about from one stall to another, and felt inclined to dance round their marble slabs like a lot of holiday-making schoolgirls. The beautiful Norman, however, watched this outbreak of joy in a rigid attitude, not daring to move for fear she should burst into tears; and she kept her hands pressed upon a big skate to cool her feverish excitement.
“You see how those Mehudins turn their backs upon him now that he’s come to grief,” said Madame Lecoeur.
“Well, and they’re quite right too,” replied Mademoiselle Saget. “Besides, matters are settled now, my dear, and we’re to have no more disputes. You’ve every reason to be satisfied; leave the others to act as they please.”
“It’s only the old woman who is laughing,” La Sarriette remarked; “La Normande looks anything but happy.”
Meantime, upstairs in his bedroom, Florent allowed himself to be taken as unresistingly as a sheep. The police officers sprang roughly upon him, expecting, no doubt, that they would meet with a desperate resistance. He quietly begged them to leave go of him; and then sat down on a chair while they packed up his papers, and the red scarves, armlets, and banners. He did not seem at all surprised at this ending; indeed, it was something of a relief to him, though he would not frankly confess it. But he suffered acutely at thought of the bitter hatred which had sent him into that room; he recalled Auguste’s pale face and the sniggering looks of the fish-wives; he bethought himself of old Madame Mehudin’s words, La Normande’s silence, and the empty shop downstairs. The markets were leagued against him, he reflected; the whole neighbourhood had conspired to hand him over to the police. The mud of those greasy streets had risen up all around to overwhelm him!
And amidst all the round faces which flitted before his mind’s eye there suddenly appeared that of Quenu, and a spasm of mortal agony contracted his heart.
“Come, get along downstairs!” exclaimed one of the officers, roughly.
Florent rose and proceeded to go downstairs. When he reached the second floor he asked to be allowed to return; he had forgotten something, he said. But the officers refused to let him go back, and began to hustle him forward. Then he besought them to let him return to his room again, and even offered them the money he had in his pocket. Two of them at last consented to return with him, threatening to blow his brains out should he attempt to play them any trick; and they drew their revolvers out of their pockets as they spoke. However, on reaching his room once more Florent simply went straight to the chaffinch’s cage, took the bird out of it, kissed it between its wings, and set it at liberty. He watched it fly away through the open window, into the sunshine, and alight, as though giddy, on the roof of the fish market. Then it flew off again and disappeared over the markets in the direction of the Square des Innocents. For a moment longer Florent remained face to face with the sky, the free and open sky; and he thought of the wood-pigeons cooing in the garden of the Tuileries, and of those other pigeons down in the market cellars with their throats slit by Marjolin’s knife. Then he felt quite broken, and turned and followed the officers, who were putting their revolvers back into their pockets as they shrugged their shoulders.
On reaching the bottom of the stairs, Florent stopped before the door which led into the kitchen. The commissary, who was waiting for him there, seemed almost touched by his gentle submissiveness, and asked him: “Would you like to say good-bye to your brother?”
For a moment Florent hesitated. He looked at the door. A tremendous noise of cleavers and pans came from the kitchen. Lisa, with the design of keeping her husband occupied, had persuaded him to make the black-puddings in the morning instead of in the evening, as was his wont. The onions were simmering on the fire, and over all the noisy uproar Florent could hear Quenu’s joyous voice exclaiming, “Ah, dash it all, the pudding will be excellent, that it will! Auguste, hand me the fat!”
Florent thanked the commissary, but refused his offer. He was afraid to return any more into that warm kitchen, reeking with the odour of boiling onions, and so he went on past the door, happy in the thought that his brother knew nothing of what had happened to him, and hastening his steps as if to spare the establishment all further worry. However, on emerging into the open sunshine of the street he felt a touch of shame, and got into the cab with bent back and ashen face. He was conscious that the fish market was gazing at him in triumph; it seemed to him, indeed, as though the whole neighbourhood had gathered there to rejoice at his fall.
“What a villainous expression he’s got!” said Mademoiselle Saget.
“Yes, indeed, he looks just like a thief caught with his hand in somebody’s till,” added Madame Lecoeur.
“I once saw a man guillotined who looked exactly like he does,” asserted La Sarriette, showing her white teeth.
They stepped forward, lengthened their necks, and tried to see into the cab. Just as it was starting, however, the old maid tugged sharply at the skirts of her companions, and pointed to Claire, who was coming round the corner of the Rue Pirouette, looking like a mad creature, with her hair loose and her nails bleeding. She had at last succeeded in opening her door. When she discovered that she was too late, and that Florent was being taken off, she darted after the cab, but checked herself almost immediately with a gesture of impotent rage, and shook her fists at the receding wheels. Then, with her face quite crimson beneath the fine plaster dust with which she was covered, she ran back again towards the Rue Pirouette.
“Had he promised to marry her, eh?” exclaimed La Sarriette, laughing. “The silly fool must be quite cracked.”
Little by little the neighbourhood calmed down, though throughout the day groups of people constantly assembled and discussed the events of the morning. The pork shop was the object of much inquisitive curiosity. Lisa avoided appearing there, and left the counter in charge of Augustine. In the afternoon she felt bound to tell Quenu of what had happened, for fear the news might cause him too great a shock should he hear it from some gossiping neighbour. She waited till she was alone with him in the kitchen, knowing that there he was always most cheerful, and would weep less than if he were anywhere else. Moreover, she communicated her tidings with all sorts of motherly precautions. Nevertheless, as soon as he knew the truth he fell on the chopping-block, and began to cry like a calf.
“Now, now, my poor dear, don’t give way like that; you’ll make yourself quite ill,” exclaimed Lisa, taking him in her arms.
His tears were inundating his white apron, the whole of his massive, torpid form quivered with grief. He seemed to be sinking, melting away. When he was at last able to speak, he stammered: “Oh, you don’t know how good he was to me when we lived together in the Rue Royer–Collard! He did everything. He swept the room and cooked the meals. He loved me as though I were his own child; and after his day’s work he used to come back splashed with mud, and so tired that he could scarcely move, while I stayed warm and comfortable in the house, and had nothing to do but eat. And now they’re going to shoot him!”
At this Lisa protested, saying that he would certainly not be shot. But Quenu only shook his head.
“I haven’t loved him half as much as I ought to have done,” he continued. “I can see that very well now. I had a wicked heart, and I hesitated about giving him his half of the money.”
“Why, I offered it to him a dozen times and more!” Lisa interrupted. “I’m sure we’ve nothing to reproach ourselves with.”
“Oh, yes, I know that you are everything that is good, and that you would have given him every copper. But I hesitated, I didn’t like to part with it; and now it will be a sorrow to me for the rest of my life. I shall always think that if I’d shared the fortune with him he wouldn’t have gone wrong a second time. Oh, yes; it’s my fault! It is I who have driven him to this.”
Then Lisa, expostulating still more gently, assured him that he had nothing to blame himself for, and even expressed some pity for Florent. But he was really very culpable, she said, and if he had had more money he would probably have perpetrated greater follies. Gradually she gave her husband to understand that it was impossible matters could have had any other termination, and that now everything would go on much better. Quenu was still weeping, wiping his cheeks with his apron, trying to suppress his sobs to listen to her, and then breaking into a wilder fit of tears than before. His fingers had mechanically sought a heap of sausage-meat lying on the block, and he was digging holes in it, and roughly kneading it together.
“And how unwell you were feeling, you know,” Lisa continued. “It was all because our life had got so shifted out of its usual course. I was very anxious, though I didn’t tell you so, at seeing you getting so low.”
“Yes, wasn’t I?” he murmured, ceasing to sob for a moment.
“And the business has been quite under a cloud this year. It was as though a spell had been cast on it. Come, now, don’t take on so; you’ll see that everything will look up again now. You must take care of yourself, you know, for my sake and your daughter’s. You have duties to us as well as to others, remember.”
Quenu was now kneading the sausage-meat more gently. Another burst of emotion was thrilling him, but it was a softer emotion, which was already bringing a vague smile to his grief-stricken face. Lisa felt that she had convinced him, and she turned and called to Pauline, who was playing in the shop, and sat her on Quenu’s knee.
“Tell your father, Pauline, that he ought not to give way like this. Ask him nicely not to go on distressing us so.”
The child did as she was told, and their fat, sleek forms united in a general embrace. They all three looked at one another, already feeling cured of that twelve months’ depression from which they had but just emerged. Their big, round faces smiled, and Lisa softly repeated, “And after all, my dear, there are only we three, you know, only we three.”
Two months later Florent was again sentenced to transportation. The affair caused a great stir. The newspapers published all possible details, and gave portraits of the accused, sketches of the banners and scarves, and plans of the places where the conspirators had met. For a fortnight nothing but the great plot of the central markets was talked of in Paris. The police kept on launching more and more alarming reports, and it was at last even declared that the whole of the Montmartre Quarter was undermined. The excitement in the Corps Legislatif was so intense that the members of the Centre and the Right forgot their temporary disagreement over the Imperial Grant Bill, and became reconciled. And then by an overwhelming majority they voted the unpopular tax, of which even the lower classes, in the panic which was sweeping over the city, dared no longer complain.
The trial lasted a week. Florent was very much surprised at the number of accomplices with which he found himself credited. Out of the twenty and more who were placed in the dock with him, he knew only some six or seven. After the sentence of the court had been read, he fancied he could see Robine’s innocent-looking hat and back going off quietly through the crowd. Logre was acquitted, as was also Lacaille; Alexandre was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for his child-like complicity in the conspiracy; while as for Gavard, he, like Florent, was condemned to transportation. This was a heavy blow, which quite crushed him amidst the final enjoyment that he derived from those lengthy proceedings in which he had managed to make himself so conspicuous. He was paying very dearly for the way in which he had vented the spirit of perpetual opposition peculiar to the Paris shopkeeping classes. Two big tears coursed down his scared face — the face of a white-haired child.
And then one morning in August, amidst the busy awakening of the markets, Claude Lantier, sauntering about in the thick of the arriving vegetables, with his waist tightly girded by his red sash, came to grasp Madame Francois’s hand close by Saint Eustache. She was sitting on her carrots and turnips, and her long face looked very sad. The artist, too, was gloomy, notwithstanding the bright sun which was already softening the deep-green velvet of the mountains of cabbages.
“Well, it’s all over now,” he said. “They are sending him back again. He’s already on his way to Brest, I believe.”
Madame Francois made a gesture of mute grief. Then she gently waved her hand around, and murmured in a low voice; “Ah, it is all Paris’s doing, this villainous Paris!”
“No, no, not quite that; but I know whose doing it is, the contemptible creatures!” exclaimed Claude, clenching his fists. “Do you know, Madame Francois, there was nothing too ridiculous for those fellows in the court to say! Why, they even went ferreting in a child’s copy-books! That great idiot of a Public Prosecutor made a tremendous fuss over them, and ranted about the respect due to children, and the wickedness of demagogical education! It makes me quite sick to think of it all!”
A shudder of disgust shook him, and then, burying himself more deeply in his discoloured cloak, he resumed: “To think of it! A man who was as gentle as a girl! Why, I saw him turn quite faint at seeing a pigeon killed! I couldn’t help smiling with pity when I saw him between two gendarmes. Ah, well, we shall never see him again! He won’t come back this time.”
“He ought to have listened to me,” said Madame Francois, after a pause, “and have come to live at Nanterre with my fowls and rabbits. I was very fond of him, you see, for I could tell that he was a good-hearted fellow. Ah, we might have been so happy together! It’s a sad pity. Well, we must bear it as best we can, Monsieur Claude. Come and see me one of these days. I’ll have an omelet ready for you.”
Her eyes were dim with tears; but all at once she sprang up like a brave woman who bears her sorrows with fortitude.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, “here’s old Mother Chantemesse coming to buy some turnips of me. The fat old lady’s as sprightly as ever!”
Claude went off, and strolled about the footways. The dawn had risen in the white sheaf of light at the end of the Rue Rambuteau; and the sun, now level with the house-tops, was diffusing rosy rays which already fell in warm patches on the pavements. Claude was conscious of a gay awakening in the huge resonant markets — indeed, all over the neighbourhood — crowded with piles of food. It was like the joy that comes after cure, the mirth of folks who are at last relieved of a heavy weight which has been pulling them down. He saw La Sarriette displaying a gold chain and singing amidst her plums and strawberries, while she playfully pulled the moustaches of Monsieur Jules, who was arrayed in a velvet jacket. He also caught sight of Madame Lecoeur and Mademoiselle Saget passing along one of the covered ways, and looking less sallow than usual — indeed, almost rosy — as they laughed like bosom friends over some amusing story. In the fish market, old Madame Mehudin, who had returned to her stall, was slapping her fish, abusing customers, and snubbing the new inspector, a presumptuous young man whom she had sworn to spank; while Claire, seemingly more languid and indolent than ever, extended her hands, blue from immersion in the water of her tanks, to gather together a great heap of edible snails, shimmering with silvery slime. In the tripe market Auguste and Augustine, with the foolish expression of newly-married people, had just been purchasing some pigs’ trotters, and were starting off in a trap for their pork shop at Montrouge. Then, as it was now eight o’clock and already quite warm, Claude, on again coming to the Rue Rambuteau, perceived Muche and Pauline playing at horses. Muche was crawling along on all-fours, while Pauline sat on his back, and clung to his hair to keep herself from falling. However, a moving shadow which fell from the eaves of the market roof made Claude look up; and he then espied Cadine and Marjolin aloft, kissing and warming themselves in the sunshine, parading their loves before the whole neighbourhood like a pair of light-hearted animals.
Claude shook his fist at them. All this joyousness down below and on high exasperated him. He reviled the Fat; the Fat, he declared, had conquered the Thin. All around him he could see none but the Fat protruding their paunches, bursting with robust health, and greeting with delight another day of gorging and digestion. And a last blow was dealt to him by the spectacle which he perceived on either hand as he halted opposite the Rue Pirouette.
On his right, the beautiful Norman, or the beautiful Madame Lebigre, as she was now called, stood at the door of her shop. Her husband had at length been granted the privilege of adding a State tobacco agency* to his wine shop, a long-cherished dream of his which he had finally been able to realise through the great services he had rendered to the authorities. And to Claude the beautiful Madame Lebigre looked superb, with her silk dress and her frizzed hair, quite ready to take her seat behind her counter, whither all the gentlemen in the neighbourhood flocked to buy their cigars and packets of tobacco. She had become quite distinguished, quite the lady. The shop behind her had been newly painted, with borders of twining vine-branches showing against a soft background; the zinc-plated wine-counter gleamed brightly, and in the tall mirror the flasks of liqueurs set brighter flashes of colour than ever. And the mistress of all these things stood smiling radiantly at the bright sunshine.
* Most readers will remember that the tobacco trade is a State monopoly in France. The retail tobacconists are merely Government agents. — Translator.
Then, on Claude’s left, the beautiful Lisa blocked up the doorway of her shop as she stood on the threshold. Never before had her linen shone with such dazzling whiteness; never had her serene face and rosy cheeks appeared in a more lustrous setting of glossy locks. She displayed the deep calmness of repletion, a massive tranquillity unruffled even by a smile. She was a picture of absolute quietude, of perfect felicity, not only cloudless but lifeless, the simple felicity of basking in the warm atmosphere. Her tightly stretched bodice seemed to be still digesting the happiness of yesterday; while her dimpled hands, hidden in the folds of her apron, did not even trouble to grasp at the happiness of to-day, certain as they were that it would come of itself. And the shop-window at her side seemed to display the same felicity. It had recovered from its former blight; the tongues lolled out, red and healthy; the hams had regained their old chubbiness of form; the festoons of sausages no longer wore that mournful air which had so greatly distressed Quenu. Hearty laughter, accompanied by a jubilant clattering of pans, sounded from the kitchen in the rear. The whole place again reeked with fat health. The flitches of bacon and the sides of pork that hung against the marble showed roundly like paunches, triumphant paunches, whilst Lisa, with her imposing breadth of shoulders and dignity of mien, bade the markets good morning with those big eyes of hers which so clearly bespoke a gross feeder.
However, the two women bowed to each other. Beautiful Madame Lebigre and beautiful Madame Quenu exchanged a friendly salute.
And then Claude, who had certainly forgotten to dine on the previous day, was thrilled with anger at seeing them standing there, looking so healthy and well-to-do with their buxom bosoms; and tightening his sash, he growled in a tone of irritation:
“What blackguards respectable people are!”
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Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15