We are in a little set of lodgings on the fourth floor in the Rue Veron at Montmartre. Nana and Fontan have invited a few friends to cut their Twelfth-Night cake with them. They are giving their housewarming, though they have been only three days settled.
They had no fixed intention of keeping house together, but the whole thing had come about suddenly in the first glow of the honeymoon. After her grand blowup, when she had turned the count and the banker so vigorously out of doors, Nana felt the world crumbling about her feet. She estimated the situation at a glance; the creditors would swoop down on her anteroom, would mix themselves up with her love affairs and threaten to sell her little all unless she continued to act sensibly. Then, too, there would be no end of disputes and carking anxieties if she attempted to save her furniture from their clutches. And so she preferred giving up everything. Besides, the flat in the Boulevard Haussmann was plaguing her to death. It was so stupid with its great gilded rooms! In her access of tenderness for Fontan she began dreaming of a pretty little bright chamber. Indeed, she returned to the old ideals of the florist days, when her highest ambition was to have a rosewood cupboard with a plate-glass door and a bed hung with blue “reps.” In the course of two days she sold what she could smuggle out of the house in the way of knickknacks and jewelry and then disappeared, taking with her ten thousand francs and never even warning the porter’s wife. It was a plunge into the dark, a merry spree; never a trace was left behind. In this way she would prevent the men from coming dangling after her. Fontain was very nice. He did not say no to anything but just let her do as she liked. Nay, he even displayed an admirable spirit of comradeship. He had, on his part, nearly seven thousand francs, and despite the fact that people accused him of stinginess, he consented to add them to the young woman’s ten thousand. The sum struck them as a solid foundation on which to begin housekeeping. And so they started away, drawing from their common hoard, in order to hire and furnish the two rooms in the Rue Veron, and sharing everything together like old friends. In the early days it was really delicious.
On Twelfth Night Mme Lerat and Louiset were the first to arrive. As Fontan had not yet come home, the old lady ventured to give expression to her fears, for she trembled to see her niece renouncing the chance of wealth.
“Oh, Aunt, I love him so dearly!” cried Nana, pressing her hands to her heart with the prettiest of gestures.
This phrase produced an extraordinary effect on Mme Lerat, and tears came into her eyes.
“That’s true,” she said with an air of conviction. “Love before all things!”
And with that she went into raptures over the prettiness of the rooms. Nana took her to see the bedroom, the parlor and the very kitchen. Gracious goodness, it wasn’t a vast place, but then, they had painted it afresh and put up new wallpapers. Besides, the sun shone merrily into it during the daytime.
Thereupon Mme Lerat detained the young woman in the bedroom, while Louiset installed himself behind the charwoman in the kitchen in order to watch a chicken being roasted. If, said Mme Lerat, she permitted herself to say what was in her mind, it was because Zoe had just been at her house. Zoe had stayed courageously in the breach because she was devoted to her mistress. Madame would pay her later on; she was in no anxiety about that! And amid the breakup of the Boulevard Haussmann establishment it was she who showed the creditors a bold front; it was she who conducted a dignified retreat, saving what she could from the wreck and telling everyone that her mistress was traveling. She never once gave them her address. Nay, through fear of being followed, she even deprived herself of the pleasure of calling on Madame. Nevertheless, that same morning she had run round to Mme Lerat’s because matters were taking a new turn. The evening before creditors in the persons of the upholsterer, the charcoal merchant and the laundress had put in an appearance and had offered to give Madame an extension of time. Nay, they had even proposed to advance Madame a very considerable amount if only Madame would return to her flat and conduct herself like a sensible person. The aunt repeated Zoe’s words. Without doubt there was a gentleman behind it all.
“I’ll never consent!” declared Nana in great disgust. “Ah, they’re a pretty lot those tradesmen! Do they think I’m to be sold so that they can get their bills paid? Why, look here, I’d rather die of hunger than deceive Fontan.”
“That’s what I said,” averred Mme Lerat. “’My niece,’ I said, ‘is too noble-hearted!’”
Nana, however, was much vexed to learn that La Mignotte was being sold and that Labordette was buying it for Caroline Hequet at an absurdly low price. It made her angry with that clique. Oh, they were a regular cheap lot, in spite of their airs and graces! Yes, by Jove, she was worth more than the whole lot of them!
“They can have their little joke out,” she concluded, “but money will never give them true happiness! Besides, you know, Aunt, I don’t even know now whether all that set are alive or not. I’m much too happy.”
At that very moment Mme Maloir entered, wearing one of those hats of which she alone understood the shape. It was delightful meeting again. Mme Maloir explained that magnificence frightened her and that NOW, from time to time, she would come back for her game of bezique. A second visit was paid to the different rooms in the lodgings, and in the kitchen Nana talked of economy in the presence of the charwoman, who was basting the fowl, and said that a servant would have cost too much and that she was herself desirous of looking after things. Louiset was gazing beatifically at the roasting process.
But presently there was a loud outburst of voices. Fontan had come in with Bosc and Prulliere, and the company could now sit down to table. The soup had been already served when Nana for the third time showed off the lodgings.
“Ah, dear children, how comfortable you are here!” Bosc kept repeating, simply for the sake of pleasing the chums who were standing the dinner. At bottom the subject of the “nook,” as he called it, nowise touched him.
In the bedroom he harped still more vigorously on the amiable note. Ordinarily he was wont to treat women like cattle, and the idea of a man bothering himself about one of the dirty brutes excited within him the only angry feelings of which, in his comprehensive, drunken disdain of the universe, he was still capable.
“Ah, ah, the villains,” he continued with a wink, “they’ve done this on the sly. Well, you were certainly right. It will be charming, and, by heaven, we’ll come and see you!”
But when Louiset arrived on the scene astride upon a broomstick, Prulliere chuckled spitefully and remarked:
“Well, I never! You’ve got a baby already?”
This struck everybody as very droll, and Mme Lerat and Mme Maloir shook with laughter. Nana, far from being vexed, laughed tenderly and said that unfortunately this was not the case. She would very much have liked it, both for the little one’s sake and for her own, but perhaps one would arrive all the same. Fontan, in his role of honest citizen, took Louiset in his arms and began playing with him and lisping.
“Never mind! It loves its daddy! Call me ‘Papa,’ you little blackguard!”
“Papa, Papa!” stammered the child.
The company overwhelmed him with caresses, but Bosc was bored and talked of sitting down to table. That was the only serious business in life. Nana asked her guests’ permission to put Louiset’s chair next her own. The dinner was very merry, but Bosc suffered from the near neighborhood of the child, from whom he had to defend his plate. Mme Lerat bored him too. She was in a melting mood and kept whispering to him all sorts of mysterious things about gentlemen of the first fashion who were still running after Nana. Twice he had to push away her knee, for she was positively invading him in her gushing, tearful mood. Prulliere behaved with great incivility toward Mme Maloir and did not once help her to anything. He was entirely taken up with Nana and looked annoyed at seeing her with Fontan. Besides, the turtle doves were kissing so excessively as to be becoming positive bores. Contrary to all known rules, they had elected to sit side by side.
“Devil take it! Why don’t you eat? You’ve got plenty of time ahead of you!” Bosc kept repeating with his mouth full. “Wait till we are gone!”
But Nana could not restrain herself. She was in a perfect ecstasy of love. Her face was as full of blushes as an innocent young girl’s, and her looks and her laughter seemed to overflow with tenderness. Gazing on Fontan, she overwhelmed him with pet names — “my doggie, my old bear, my kitten”— and whenever he passed her the water or the salt she bent forward and kissed him at random on lips, eyes, nose or ear. Then if she met with reproof she would return to the attack with the cleverest maneuvers and with infinite submissiveness and the supple cunning of a beaten cat would catch hold of his hand when no one was looking, in order to kiss it again. It seemed she must be touching something belonging to him. As to Fontan, he gave himself airs and let himself be adored with the utmost condescension. His great nose sniffed with entirely sensual content; his goat face, with its quaint, monstrous ugliness, positively glowed in the sunlight of devoted adoration lavished upon him by that superb woman who was so fair and so plump of limb. Occasionally he gave a kiss in return, as became a man who is having all the enjoyment and is yet willing to behave prettily.
“Well, you’re growing maddening!” cried Prulliere. “Get away from her, you fellow there!”
And he dismissed Fontan and changed covers, in order to take his place at Nana’s side. The company shouted and applauded at this and gave vent to some stiffish epigrammatic witticisms. Fontan counterfeited despair and assumed the quaint expression of Vulcan crying for Venus. Straightway Prulliere became very gallant, but Nana, whose foot he was groping for under the table, caught him a slap to make him keep quiet. No, no, she was certainly not going to become his mistress. A month ago she had begun to take a fancy to him because of his good looks, but now she detested him. If he pinched her again under pretense of picking up her napkin, she would throw her glass in his face!
Nevertheless, the evening passed off well. The company had naturally begun talking about the Varietes. Wasn’t that cad of a Bordenave going to go off the hooks after all? His nasty diseases kept reappearing and causing him such suffering that you couldn’t come within six yards of him nowadays. The day before during rehearsal he had been incessantly yelling at Simonne. There was a fellow whom the theatrical people wouldn’t shed many tears over. Nana announced that if he were to ask her to take another part she would jolly well send him to the rightabout. Moreover, she began talking of leaving the stage; the theater was not to compare with her home. Fontan, who was not in the present piece or in that which was then being rehearsed, also talked big about the joy of being entirely at liberty and of passing his evenings with his feet on the fender in the society of his little pet. And at this the rest exclaimed delightedly, treating their entertainers as lucky people and pretending to envy their felicity.
The Twelfth-Night cake had been cut and handed round. The bean had fallen to the lot of Mme Lerat, who popped it into Bosc’s glass. Whereupon there were shouts of “The king drinks! The king drinks!” Nana took advantage of this outburst of merriment and went and put her arms round Fontan’s neck again, kissing him and whispering in his ear. But Prulliere, laughing angrily, as became a pretty man, declared that they were not playing the game. Louiset, meanwhile, slept soundly on two chairs. It was nearing one o’clock when the company separated, shouting au revoir as they went downstairs.
For three weeks the existence of the pair of lovers was really charming. Nana fancied she was returning to those early days when her first silk dress had caused her infinite delight. She went out little and affected a life of solitude and simplicity. One morning early, when she had gone down to buy fish IN PROPRIA PERSONA in La Rouchefoucauld Market, she was vastly surprised to meet her old hair dresser Francis face to face. His getup was as scrupulously careful as ever: he wore the finest linen, and his frock coat was beyond reproach; in fact, Nana felt ashamed that he should see her in the street with a dressing jacket and disordered hair and down-at-heel shoes. But he had the tact, if possible, to intensify his politeness toward her. He did not permit himself a single inquiry and affected to believe that Madame was at present on her travels. Ah, but Madame had rendered many persons unhappy when she decided to travel! All the world had suffered loss. The young woman, however, ended by asking him questions, for a sudden fit of curiosity had made her forget her previous embarrassment. Seeing that the crowd was jostling them, she pushed him into a doorway and, still holding her little basket in one hand, stood chatting in front of him. What were people saying about her high jinks? Good heavens! The ladies to whom he went said this and that and all sorts of things. In fact, she had made a great noise and was enjoying a real boom: And Steiner? M. Steiner was in a very bad way, would make an ugly finish if he couldn’t hit on some new commercial operation. And Daguenet? Oh, HE was getting on swimmingly. M. Daguenet was settling down. Nana, under the exciting influence of various recollections, was just opening her mouth with a view to a further examination when she felt it would be awkward to utter Muffat’s name. Thereupon Francis smiled and spoke instead of her. As to Monsieur le Comte, it was all a great pity, so sad had been his sufferings since Madame’s departure.
He had been like a soul in pain — you might have met him wherever Madame was likely to be found. At last M. Mignon had come across him and had taken him home to his own place. This piece of news caused Nana to laugh a good deal. But her laughter was not of the easiest kind.
“Ah, he’s with Rose now,” she said. “Well then, you must know, Francis, I’ve done with him! Oh, the canting thing! It’s learned some pretty habits — can’t even go fasting for a week now! And to think that he used to swear he wouldn’t have any woman after me!”
She was raging inwardly.
“My leavings, if you please!” she continued. “A pretty Johnnie for Rose to go and treat herself to! Oh, I understand it all now: she wanted to have her revenge because I got that brute of a Steiner away from her. Ain’t it sly to get a man to come to her when I’ve chucked him out of doors?”
“M. Mignon doesn’t tell that tale,” said the hairdresser. “According to his account, it was Monsieur le Comte who chucked you out. Yes, and in a pretty disgusting way too — with a kick on the bottom!”
Nana became suddenly very pale.
“Eh, what?” she cried. “With a kick on my bottom? He’s going too far, he is! Look here, my little friend, it was I who threw him downstairs, the cuckold, for he is a cuckold, I must inform you. His countess is making him one with every man she meets — yes, even with that good-for-nothing of a Fauchery. And that Mignon, who goes loafing about the pavement in behalf of his harridan of a wife, whom nobody wants because she’s so lean! What a foul lot! What a foul lot!”
She was choking, and she paused for breath
“Oh, that’s what they say, is it? Very well, my little Francis, I’ll go and look ‘em up, I will. Shall you and I go to them at once? Yes, I’ll go, and we’ll see whether they will have the cheek to go telling about kicks on the bottom. Kick’s! I never took one from anybody! And nobody’s ever going to strike me — d’ye see? — for I’d smash the man who laid a finger on me!”
Nevertheless, the storm subsided at last. After all, they might jolly well what they liked! She looked upon them as so much filth underfoot! It would have soiled her to bother about people like that. She had a conscience of her own, she had! And Francis, seeing her thus giving herself away, what with her housewife’s costume and all, became familiar and, at parting, made so bold as to give her some good advice. It was wrong of her to be sacrificing everything for the sake of an infatuation; such infatuations ruined existence. She listened to him with bowed head while he spoke to her with a pained expression, as became a connoisseur who could not bear to see so fine a girl making such a hash of things.
“Well, that’s my affair,” she said at last “Thanks all the same, dear boy.” She shook his hand, which despite his perfect dress was always a little greasy, and then went off to buy her fish. During the day that story about the kick on the bottom occupied her thoughts. She even spoke about it to Fontan and again posed as a sturdy woman who was not going to stand the slightest flick from anybody. Fontan, as became a philosophic spirit, declared that all men of fashion were beasts whom it was one’s duty to despise. And from that moment forth Nana was full of very real disdain.
That same evening they went to the Bouffes-Parisiens Theatre to see a little woman of Fontan’s acquaintance make her debut in a part of some ten lines. It was close on one o’clock when they once more trudged up the heights of Montmartre. They had purchased a cake, a “mocha,” in the Rue de la Chaussee-d’Antin, and they ate it in bed, seeing that the night was not warm and it was not worth while lighting a fire. Sitting up side by side, with the bedclothes pulled up in front and the pillows piled up behind, they supped and talked about the little woman. Nana thought her plain and lacking in style. Fontan, lying on his stomach, passed up the pieces of cake which had been put between the candle and the matches on the edge of the night table. But they ended by quarreling.
“Oh, just to think of it!” cried Nana. “She’s got eyes like gimlet holes, and her hair’s the color of tow.”
“Hold your tongue, do!” said Fontan. “She has a superb head of hair and such fire in her looks! It’s lovely the way you women always tear each other to pieces!”
He looked annoyed.
“Come now, we’ve had enough of it!” he said at last in savage tones. “You know I don’t like being bored. Let’s go to sleep, or things’ll take a nasty turn.”
And he blew out the candle, but Nana was furious and went on talking. She was not going to be spoken to in that voice; she was accustomed to being treated with respect! As he did not vouchsafe any further answer, she was silenced, but she could not go to sleep and lay tossing to and fro.
“Great God, have you done moving about?” cried he suddenly, giving a brisk jump upward.
“It isn’t my fault if there are crumbs in the bed,” she said curtly.
In fact, there were crumbs in the bed. She felt them down to her middle; she was everywhere devoured by them. One single crumb was scorching her and making her scratch herself till she bled. Besides, when one eats a cake isn’t it usual to shake out the bedclothes afterward? Fontan, white with rage, had relit the candle, and they both got up and, barefooted and in their night dresses, they turned down the clothes and swept up the crumbs on the sheet with their hands. Fontan went to bed again, shivering, and told her to go to the devil when she advised him to wipe the soles of his feet carefully. And in the end she came back to her old position, but scarce had she stretched herself out than she danced again. There were fresh crumbs in the bed!
“By Jove, it was sure to happen!” she cried. “You’ve brought them back again under your feet. I can’t go on like this! No, I tell you, I can’t go on like this!”
And with that she was on the point of stepping over him in order to jump out of bed again, when Fontan in his longing for sleep grew desperate and dealt her a ringing box on the ear. The blow was so smart that Nana suddenly found herself lying down again with her head on the pillow.
She lay half stunned.
“Oh!” she ejaculated simply, sighing a child’s big sigh.
For a second or two he threatened her with a second slap, asking her at the same time if she meant to move again. Then he put out the light, settled himself squarely on his back and in a trice was snoring. But she buried her face in the pillow and began sobbing quietly to herself. It was cowardly of him to take advantage of his superior strength! She had experienced very real terror all the same, so terrible had that quaint mask of Fontan’s become. And her anger began dwindling down as though the blow had calmed her. She began to feel respect toward him and accordingly squeezed herself against the wall in order to leave him as much room as possible. She even ended by going to sleep, her cheek tingling, her eyes full of tears and feeling so deliciously depressed and wearied and submissive that she no longer noticed the crumbs. When she woke up in the morning she was holding Fontain in her naked arms and pressing him tightly against her breast. He would never begin it again, eh? Never again? She loved him too dearly. Why, it was even nice to be beaten if he struck the blow!
After that night a new life began. For a mere trifle — a yes, a no — Fontan would deal her a blow. She grew accustomed to it and pocketed everything. Sometimes she shed tears and threatened him, but he would pin her up against the wall and talk of strangling her, which had the effect of rendering her extremely obedient. As often as not, she sank down on a chair and sobbed for five minutes on end. But afterward she would forget all about it, grow very merry, fill the little lodgings with the sound of song and laughter and the rapid rustle of skirts. The worst of it was that Fontan was now in the habit of disappearing for the whole day and never returning home before midnight, for he was going to cafes and meeting his old friends again. Nana bore with everything. She was tremulous and caressing, her only fear being that she might never see him again if she reproached him. But on certain days, when she had neither Mme Maloir nor her aunt and Louiset with her, she grew mortally dull. Thus one Sunday, when she was bargaining for some pigeons at La Rochefoucauld Market, she was delighted to meet Satin, who, in her turn, was busy purchasing a bunch of radishes. Since the evening when the prince had drunk Fontan’s champagne they had lost sight of one another.
“What? It’s you! D’you live in our parts?” said Satin, astounded at seeing her in the street at that hour of the morning and in slippers too. “Oh, my poor, dear girl, you’re really ruined then!”
Nana knitted her brows as a sign that she was to hold her tongue, for they were surrounded by other women who wore dressing gowns and were without linen, while their disheveled tresses were white with fluff. In the morning, when the man picked up overnight had been newly dismissed, all the courtesans of the quarter were wont to come marketing here, their eyes heavy with sleep, their feet in old down-at-heel shoes and themselves full of the weariness and ill humor entailed by a night of boredom. From the four converging streets they came down into the market, looking still rather young in some cases and very pale and charming in their utter unconstraint; in others, hideous and old with bloated faces and peeling skin. The latter did not the least mind being seen thus outside working hours, and not one of them deigned to smile when the passers-by on the sidewalk turned round to look at them. Indeed, they were all very full of business and wore a disdainful expression, as became good housewives for whom men had ceased to exist. Just as Satin, for instance, was paying for her bunch of radishes a young man, who might have been a shop-boy going late to his work, threw her a passing greeting:
“Good morning, duckie.”
She straightened herself up at once and with the dignified manner becoming an offended queen remarked:
“What’s up with that swine there?”
Then she fancied she recognized him. Three days ago toward midnight, as the was coming back alone from the boulevards, she had talked to him at the corner of the Rue Labruyere for nearly half an hour, with a view to persuading him to come home with her. But this recollection only angered her the more.
“Fancy they’re brutes enough to shout things to you in broad daylight!” she continued. “When one’s out on business one ought to be respecifully treated, eh?”
Nana had ended by buying her pigeons, although she certainly had her doubts of their freshness. After which Satin wanted to show her where she lived in the Rue Rochefoucauld close by. And the moment they were alone Nana told her of her passion for Fontan. Arrived in front of the house, the girl stopped with her bundle of radishes under her arm and listened eagerly to a final detail which the other imparted to her. Nana fibbed away and vowed that it was she who had turned Count Muffat out of doors with a perfect hail of kicks on the posterior.
“Oh how smart!” Satin repeated. “How very smart! Kicks, eh? And he never said a word, did he? What a blooming coward! I wish I’d been there to see his ugly mug! My dear girl, you were quite right. A pin for the coin! When I’M on with a mash I starve for it! You’ll come and see me, eh? You promise? It’s the left-hand door. Knock three knocks, for there’s a whole heap of damned squints about.”
After that whenever Nana grew too weary of life she went down and saw Satin. She was always sure of finding her, for the girl never went out before six in the evening. Satin occupied a couple of rooms which a chemist had furnished for her in order to save her from the clutches of the police, but in little more than a twelvemonth she had broken the furniture, knocked in the chairs, dirtied the curtains, and that in a manner so furiously filthy and untidy that the lodgings seemed as though inhabited by a pack of mad cats. On the mornings when she grew disgusted with herself and thought about cleaning up a bit, chair rails and strips of curtain would come off in her hands during her struggle with superincumbent dirt. On such days the place was fouler than ever, and it was impossible to enter it, owing to the things which had fallen down across the doorway. At length she ended by leaving her house severely alone. When the lamp was lit the cupboard with plate-glass doors, the clock and what remained of the curtains still served to impose on the men. Besides, for six months past her landlord had been threatening to evict her. Well then, for whom should she be keeping the furniture nice? For him more than anyone else, perhaps! And so whenever she got up in a merry mood she would shout “Gee up!” and give the sides of the cupboard and the chest of drawers such a tremendous kick that they cracked again.
Nana nearly always found her in bed. Even on the days when Satin went out to do her marketing she felt so tired on her return upstairs that she flung herself down on the bed and went to sleep again. During the day she dragged herself about and dozed off on chairs. Indeed, she did not emerge from this languid condition till the evening drew on and the gas was lit outside. Nana felt very comfortable at Satin’s, sitting doing nothing on the untidy bed, while basins stood about on the floor at her feet and petticoats which had been bemired last night hung over the backs of armchairs and stained them with mud. They had long gossips together and were endlessly confidential, while Satin lay on her stomach in her nightgown, waving her legs above her head and smoking cigarettes as she listened. Sometimes on such afternoons as they had troubles to retail they treated themselves to absinthe in order, as they termed it, “to forget.” Satin did not go downstairs or put on a petticoat but simply went and leaned over the banisters and shouted her order to the portress’s little girl, a chit of ten, who when she brought up the absinthe in a glass would look furtively at the lady’s bare legs. Every conversation led up to one subject — the beastliness of the men. Nana was overpowering on the subject of Fontan. She could not say a dozen words without lapsing into endless repetitions of his sayings and his doings. But Satin, like a good-natured girl, would listen unwearyingly to everlasting accounts of how Nana had watched for him at the window, how they had fallen out over a burnt dish of hash and how they had made it up in bed after hours of silent sulking. In her desire to be always talking about these things Nana had got to tell of every slap that he dealt her. Last week he had given her a swollen eye; nay, the night before he had given her such a box on the ear as to throw her across the night table, and all because he could not find his slippers. And the other woman did not evince any astonishment but blew out cigarette smoke and only paused a moment to remark that, for her part, she always ducked under, which sent the gentleman pretty nearly sprawling. Both of them settled down with a will to these anecdotes about blows; they grew supremely happy and excited over these same idiotic doings about which they told one another a hundred times or more, while they gave themselves up to the soft and pleasing sense of weariness which was sure to follow the drubbings they talked of. It was the delight of rediscussing Fontan’s blows and of explaining his works and his ways, down to the very manner in which he took off his boots, which brought Nana back daily to Satin’s place. The latter, moreover, used to end by growing sympathetic in her turn and would cite even more violent cases, as, for instance, that of a pastry cook who had left her for dead on the floor. Yet she loved him, in spite of it all! Then came the days on which Nana cried and declared that things could not go on as they were doing. Satin would escort her back to her own door and would linger an hour out in the street to see that he did not murder her. And the next day the two women would rejoice over the reconciliation the whole afternoon through. Yet though they did not say so, they preferred the days when threshings were, so to speak, in the air, for then their comfortable indignation was all the stronger.
They became inseparable. Yet Satin never went to Nana’s, Fontan having announced that he would have no trollops in his house. They used to go out together, and thus it was that Satin one day took her friend to see another woman. This woman turned out to be that very Mme Robert who had interested Nana and inspired her with a certain respect ever since she had refused to come to her supper. Mme Robert lived in the Rue Mosnier, a silent, new street in the Quartier de l’Europe, where there were no shops, and the handsome houses with their small, limited flats were peopled by ladies. It was five o’clock, and along the silent pavements in the quiet, aristocratic shelter of the tall white houses were drawn up the broughams of stock-exchange people and merchants, while men walked hastily about, looking up at the windows, where women in dressing jackets seemed to be awaiting them. At first Nana refused to go up, remarking with some constraint that she had not the pleasure of the lady’s acquaintance. But Satin would take no refusal. She was only desirous of paying a civil call, for Mme Robert, whom she had met in a restaurant the day before, had made herself extremely agreeable and had got her to promise to come and see her. And at last Nana consented. At the top of the stairs a little drowsy maid informed them that Madame had not come home yet, but she ushered them into the drawing room notwithstanding and left them there.
“The deuce, it’s a smart show!” whispered Satin. It was a stiff, middle-class room, hung with dark-colored fabrics, and suggested the conventional taste of a Parisian shopkeeper who has retired on his fortune. Nana was struck and did her best to make merry about it. But Satin showed annoyance and spoke up for Mme Robert’s strict adherence to the proprieties. She was always to be met in the society of elderly, grave-looking men, on whose arms she leaned. At present she had a retired chocolate seller in tow, a serious soul. Whenever he came to see her he was so charmed by the solid, handsome way in which the house was arranged that he had himself announced and addressed its mistress as “dear child.”
“Look, here she is!” continued Satin, pointing to a photograph which stood in front of the clock. Nana scrutinized the portrait for a second or so. It represented a very dark brunette with a longish face and lips pursed up in a discreet smile. “A thoroughly fashionable lady,” one might have said of the likeness, “but one who is rather more reserved than the rest.”
“It’s strange,” murmured Nana at length, “but I’ve certainly seen that face somewhere. Where, I don’t remember. But it can’t have been in a pretty place — oh no, I’m sure it wasn’t in a pretty place.”
And turning toward her friend, she added, “So she’s made you promise to come and see her? What does she want with you?”
“What does she want with me? ‘Gad! To talk, I expect — to be with me a bit. It’s her politeness.”
Nana looked steadily at Satin. “Tut, tut,” she said softly. After all, it didn’t matter to her! Yet seeing that the lady was keeping them waiting, she declared that she would not stay longer, and accordingly they both took their departure.
The next day Fontan informed Nana that he was not coming home to dinner, and she went down early to find Satin with a view to treating her at a restaurant. The choice of the restaurant involved infinite debate. Satin proposed various brewery bars, which Nana thought detestable, and at last persuaded her to dine at Laure’s. This was a table d’hote in the Rue des Martyrs, where the dinner cost three francs.
Tired of waiting for the dinner hour and not knowing what to do out in the street, the pair went up to Laure’s twenty minutes too early. The three dining rooms there were still empty, and they sat down at a table in the very saloon where Laure Piedefer was enthroned on a high bench behind a bar. This Laure was a lady of some fifty summers, whose swelling contours were tightly laced by belts and corsets. Women kept entering in quick procession, and each, in passing, craned upward so as to overtop the saucers raised on the counter and kissed Laure on the mouth with tender familiarity, while the monstrous creature tried, with tears in her eyes, to divide her attentions among them in such a way as to make no one jealous. On the other hand, the servant who waited on the ladies was a tall, lean woman. She seemed wasted with disease, and her eyes were ringed with dark lines and glowed with somber fire. Very rapidly the three saloons filled up. There were some hundred customers, and they had seated themselves wherever they could find vacant places. The majority were nearing the age of forty: their flesh was puffy and so bloated by vice as almost to hide the outlines of their flaccid mouths. But amid all these gross bosoms and figures some slim, pretty girls were observable. These still wore a modest expression despite their impudent gestures, for they were only beginners in their art, who had started life in the ballrooms of the slums and had been brought to Laure’s by some customer or other. Here the tribe of bloated women, excited by the sweet scent of their youth, jostled one another and, while treating them to dainties, formed a perfect court round them, much as old amorous bachelors might have done. As to the men, they were not numerous. There were ten or fifteen of them at the outside, and if we except four tall fellows who had come to see the sight and were cracking jokes and taking things easy, they behaved humbly enough amid this whelming flood of petticoats.
“I say, their stew’s very good, ain’t it?” said Satin.
Nana nodded with much satisfaction. It was the old substantial dinner you get in a country hotel and consisted of vol-au-vent a la financiere, fowl boiled in rice, beans with a sauce and vanilla creams, iced and flavored with burnt sugar. The ladies made an especial onslaught on the boiled fowl and rice: their stays seemed about to burst; they wiped their lips with slow, luxurious movements. At first Nana had been afraid of meeting old friends who might have asked her silly questions, but she grew calm at last, for she recognized no one she knew among that extremely motley throng, where faded dresses and lamentable hats contrasted strangely with handsome costumes, the wearers of which fraternized in vice with their shabbier neighbors. She was momentarily interested, however, at the sight of a young man with short curly hair and insolent face who kept a whole tableful of vastly fat women breathlessly attentive to his slightest caprice. But when the young man began to laugh his bosom swelled.
“Good lack, it’s a woman!”
She let a little cry escape as she spoke, and Satin, who was stuffing herself with boiled fowl, lifted up her head and whispered:
“Oh yes! I know her. A smart lot, eh? They do just fight for her.”
Nana pouted disgustingly. She could not understand the thing as yet. Nevertheless, she remarked in her sensible tone that there was no disputing about tastes or colors, for you never could tell what you yourself might one day have a liking for. So she ate her cream with an air of philosophy, though she was perfectly well aware that Satin with her great blue virginal eyes was throwing the neighboring tables into a state of great excitement. There was one woman in particular, a powerful, fair-haired person who sat close to her and made herself extremely agreeable. She seemed all aglow with affection and pushed toward the girl so eagerly that Nana was on the point of interfering.
But at that very moment a woman who was entering the room gave her a shock of surprise. Indeed, she had recognized Mme Robert. The latter, looking, as was her wont, like a pretty brown mouse, nodded familiarly to the tall, lean serving maid and came and leaned upon Laure’s counter. Then both women exchanged a long kiss. Nana thought such an attention on the part of a woman so distinguished looking very amusing, the more so because Mme Robert had quite altered her usual modest expression. On the contrary, her eye roved about the saloon as she kept up a whispered conversation. Laure had resumed her seat and once more settled herself down with all the majesty of an old image of Vice, whose face has been worn and polished by the kisses of the faithful. Above the range of loaded plates she sat enthroned in all the opulence which a hotelkeeper enjoys after forty years of activity, and as she sat there she swayed her bloated following of large women, in comparison with the biggest of whom she seemed monstrous.
But Mme Robert had caught sight of Satin, and leaving Laure, she ran up and behaved charmingly, telling her how much she regretted not having been at home the day before. When Satin, however, who was ravished at this treatment, insisted on finding room for her at the table, she vowed she had already dined. She had simply come up to look about her. As she stood talking behind her new friend’s chair she leaned lightly on her shoulders and in a smiling, coaxing manner remarked:
“Now when shall I see you? If you were free —”
Nana unluckily failed to hear more. The conversation vexed her, and she was dying to tell this honest lady a few home truths. But the sight of a troop of new arrivals paralyzed her. It was composed of smart, fashionably dressed women who were wearing their diamonds. Under the influence of perverse impulse they had made up a party to come to Laure’s — whom, by the by, they all treated with great familiarity — to eat the three-franc dinner while flashing their jewels of great price in the jealous and astonished eyes of poor, bedraggled prostitutes. The moment they entered, talking and laughing in their shrill, clear tones and seeming to bring sunshine with them from the outside world, Nana turned her head rapidly away. Much to her annoyance she had recognized Lucy Stewart and Maria Blond among them, and for nearly five minutes, during which the ladies chatted with Laure before passing into the saloon beyond, she kept her head down and seemed deeply occupied in rolling bread pills on the cloth in front of her. But when at length she was able to look round, what was her astonishment to observe the chair next to hers vacant! Satin had vanished.
“Gracious, where can she be?” she loudly ejaculated.
The sturdy, fair woman who had been overwhelming Satin with civil attentions laughed ill-temperedly, and when Nana, whom the laugh irritated, looked threatening she remarked in a soft, drawling way:
“It’s certainly not me that’s done you this turn; it’s the other one!”
Thereupon Nana understood that they would most likely make game of her and so said nothing more. She even kept her seat for some moments, as she did not wish to show how angry she felt. She could hear Lucy Stewart laughing at the end of the next saloon, where she was treating a whole table of little women who had come from the public balls at Montmartre and La Chapelle. It was very hot; the servant was carrying away piles of dirty plates with a strong scent of boiled fowl and rice, while the four gentlemen had ended by regaling quite half a dozen couples with capital wine in the hope of making them tipsy and hearing some pretty stiffish things. What at present most exasperated Nana was the thought of paying for Satin’s dinner. There was a wench for you, who allowed herself to be amused and then made off with never a thank-you in company with the first petticoat that came by! Without doubt it was only a matter of three francs, but she felt it was hard lines all the same — her way of doing it was too disgusting. Nevertheless, she paid up, throwing the six francs at Laure, whom at the moment she despised more than the mud in the street. In the Rue des Martyrs Nana felt her bitterness increasing. She was certainly not going to run after Satin! It was a nice filthy business for one to be poking one’s nose into! But her evening was spoiled, and she walked slowly up again toward Montmartre, raging against Mme Robert in particular. Gracious goodness, that woman had a fine cheek to go playing the lady — yes, the lady in the dustbin! She now felt sure she had met her at the Papillon, a wretched public-house ball in the Rue des Poissonniers, where men conquered her scruples for thirty sous. And to think a thing like that got hold of important functionaries with her modest looks! And to think she refused suppers to which one did her the honor of inviting her because, forsooth, she was playing the virtuous game! Oh yes, she’d get virtued! It was always those conceited prudes who went the most fearful lengths in low corners nobody knew anything about.
Revolving these matters, Nana at length reached her home in the Rue Veron and was taken aback on observing a light in the window. Fontan had come home in a sulk, for he, too, had been deserted by the friend who had been dining with him. He listened coldly to her explanations while she trembled lest he should strike her. It scared her to find him at home, seeing that she had not expected him before one in the morning, and she told him a fib and confessed that she had certainly spent six francs, but in Mme Maloir’s society. He was not ruffled, however, and he handed her a letter which, though addressed to her, he had quietly opened. It was a letter from Georges, who was still a prisoner at Les Fondettes and comforted himself weekly with the composition of glowing pages. Nana loved to be written to, especially when the letters were full of grand, loverlike expressions with a sprinkling of vows. She used to read them to everybody. Fontan was familiar with the style employed by Georges and appreciated it. But that evening she was so afraid of a scene that she affected complete indifference, skimming through the letter with a sulky expression and flinging it aside as soon as read. Fontan had begun beating a tattoo on a windowpane; the thought of going to bed so early bored him, and yet he did not know how to employ his evening. He turned briskly round:
“Suppose we answer that young vagabond at once,” he said.
It was the custom for him to write the letters in reply. He was wont to vie with the other in point of style. Then, too, he used to be delighted when Nana, grown enthusiastic after the letter had been read over aloud, would kiss him with the announcement that nobody but he could “say things like that.” Thus their latent affections would be stirred, and they would end with mutual adoration.
“As you will,” she replied. “I’ll make tea, and we’ll go to bed after.”
Thereupon Fontan installed himself at the table on which pen, ink and paper were at the same time grandly displayed. He curved his arm; he drew a long face.
“My heart’s own,” he began aloud.
And for more than an hour he applied himself to his task, polishing here, weighing a phrase there, while he sat with his head between his hands and laughed inwardly whenever he hit upon a peculiarly tender expression. Nana had already consumed two cups of tea in silence, when at last he read out the letter in the level voice and with the two or three emphatic gestures peculiar to such performances on the stage. It was five pages long, and he spoke therein of “the delicious hours passed at La Mignotte, those hours of which the memory lingered like subtle perfume.” He vowed “eternal fidelity to that springtide of love” and ended by declaring that his sole wish was to “recommence that happy time if, indeed, happiness can recommence.”
“I say that out of politeness, y’know,” he explained. “The moment it becomes laughable — eh, what! I think she’s felt it, she has!”
He glowed with triumph. But Nana was unskillful; she still suspected an outbreak and now was mistaken enough not to fling her arms round his neck in a burst of admiration. She thought the letter a respectable performance, nothing more. Thereupon he was much annoyed. If his letter did not please her she might write another! And so instead of bursting out in loverlike speeches and exchanging kisses, as their wont was, they sat coldly facing one another at the table. Nevertheless, she poured him out a cup of tea.
“Here’s a filthy mess,” he cried after dipping his lips in the mixture. “You’ve put salt in it, you have!”
Nana was unlucky enough to shrug her shoulders, and at that he grew furious.
“Aha! Things are taking a wrong turn tonight!”
And with that the quarrel began. It was only ten by the clock, and this was a way of killing time. So he lashed himself into a rage and threw in Nana’s teeth a whole string of insults and all kinds of accusations which followed one another so closely that she had no time to defend herself. She was dirty; she was stupid; she had knocked about in all sorts of low places! After that he waxed frantic over the money question. Did he spend six francs when he dined out? No, somebody was treating him to a dinner; otherwise he would have eaten his ordinary meal at home. And to think of spending them on that old procuress of a Maloir, a jade he would chuck out of the house tomorrow! Yes, by jingo, they would get into a nice mess if he and she were to go throwing six francs out of the window every day!
“Now to begin with, I want your accounts,” he shouted. “Let’s see; hand over the money! Now where do we stand?”
All his sordid avaricious instincts came to the surface. Nana was cowed and scared, and she made haste to fetch their remaining cash out of the desk and to bring it him. Up to that time the key had lain on this common treasury, from which they had drawn as freely as they wished.
“How’s this?” he said when he had counted up the money. “There are scarcely seven thousand francs remaining out of seventeen thousand, and we’ve only been together three months. The thing’s impossible.”
He rushed forward, gave the desk a savage shake and brought the drawer forward in order to ransack it in the light of the lamp. But it actually contained only six thousand eight hundred and odd francs. Thereupon the tempest burst forth.
“Ten thousand francs in three months!” he yelled. “By God! What have you done with it all? Eh? Answer! It all goes to your jade of an aunt, eh? Or you’re keeping men; that’s plain! Will you answer?”
“Oh well, if you must get in a rage!” said Nana. “Why, the calculation’s easily made! You haven’t allowed for the furniture; besides, I’ve had to buy linen. Money goes quickly when one’s settling in a new place.”
But while requiring explanations he refused to listen to them.
“Yes, it goes a deal too quickly!” he rejoined more calmly. “And look here, little girl, I’ve had enough of this mutual housekeeping. You know those seven thousand francs are mine. Yes, and as I’ve got ‘em, I shall keep ‘em! Hang it, the moment you become wasteful I get anxious not to be ruined. To each man his own.”
And he pocketed the money in a lordly way while Nana gazed at him, dumfounded. He continued speaking complaisantly:
“You must understand I’m not such a fool as to keep aunts and likewise children who don’t belong to me. You were pleased to spend your own money — well, that’s your affair! But my money — no, that’s sacred! When in the future you cook a leg of mutton I’ll pay for half of it. We’ll settle up tonight — there!”
Straightway Nana rebelled. She could not help shouting:
“Come, I say, it’s you who’ve run through my ten thousand francs. It’s a dirty trick, I tell you!”
But he did not stop to discuss matters further, for he dealt her a random box on the ear across the table, remarking as he did so:
“Let’s have that again!”
She let him have it again despite his blow. Whereupon he fell upon her and kicked and cuffed her heartily. Soon he had reduced her to such a state that she ended, as her wont was, by undressing and going to bed in a flood of tears.
He was out of breath and was going to bed, in his turn, when he noticed the letter he had written to Georges lying on the table. Whereupon he folded it up carefully and, turning toward the bed, remarked in threatening accents:
“It’s very well written, and I’m going to post it myself because I don’t like women’s fancies. Now don’t go moaning any more; it puts my teeth on edge.”
Nana, who was crying and gasping, thereupon held her breath. When he was in bed she choked with emotion and threw herself upon his breast with a wild burst of sobs. Their scuffles always ended thus, for she trembled at the thought of losing him and, like a coward, wanted always to feel that he belonged entirely to her, despite everything. Twice he pushed her magnificently away, but the warm embrace of this woman who was begging for mercy with great, tearful eyes, as some faithful brute might do, finally aroused desire. And he became royally condescending without, however, lowering his dignity before any of her advances. In fact, he let himself be caressed and taken by force, as became a man whose forgiveness is worth the trouble of winning. Then he was seized with anxiety, fearing that Nana was playing a part with a view to regaining possession of the treasury key. The light had been extinguished when he felt it necessary to reaffirm his will and pleasure.
“You must know, my girl, that this is really very serious and that I keep the money.”
Nana, who was falling asleep with her arms round his neck, uttered a sublime sentiment.
“Yes, you need fear nothing! I’ll work for both of us!”
But from that evening onward their life in common became more and more difficult. From one week’s end to the other the noise of slaps filled the air and resembled the ticking of a clock by which they regulated their existence. Through dint of being much beaten Nana became as pliable as fine linen; her skin grew delicate and pink and white and so soft to the touch and clear to the view that she may be said to have grown more good looking than ever. Prulliere, moreover, began running after her like a madman, coming in when Fontan was away and pushing her into corners in order to snatch an embrace. But she used to struggle out of his grasp, full of indignation and blushing with shame. It disgusted her to think of him wanting to deceive a friend. Prulliere would thereupon begin sneering with a wrathful expression. Why, she was growing jolly stupid nowadays! How could she take up with such an ape? For, indeed, Fontan was a regular ape with that great swingeing nose of his. Oh, he had an ugly mug! Besides, the man knocked her about too!
“It’s possible I like him as he is,” she one day made answer in the quiet voice peculiar to a woman who confesses to an abominable taste.
Bosc contented himself by dining with them as often as possible. He shrugged his shoulders behind Prulliere’s back — a pretty fellow, to be sure, but a frivolous! Bosc had on more than one occasion assisted at domestic scenes, and at dessert, when Fontan slapped Nana, he went on chewing solemnly, for the thing struck him as being quite in the course of nature. In order to give some return for his dinner he used always to go into ecstasies over their happiness. He declared himself a philosopher who had given up everything, glory included. At times Prulliere and Fontan lolled back in their chairs, losing count of time in front of the empty table, while with theatrical gestures and intonation they discussed their former successes till two in the morning. But he would sit by, lost in thought, finishing the brandy bottle in silence and only occasionally emitting a little contemptuous sniff. Where was Talma’s tradition? Nowhere. Very well, let them leave him jolly well alone! It was too stupid to go on as they were doing!
One evening he found Nana in tears. She took off her dressing jacket in order to show him her back and her arms, which were black and blue. He looked at her skin without being tempted to abuse the opportunity, as that ass of a Prulliere would have been. Then, sententiously:
“My dear girl, where there are women there are sure to be ructions. It was Napoleon who said that, I think. Wash yourself with salt water. Salt water’s the very thing for those little knocks. Tut, tut, you’ll get others as bad, but don’t complain so long as no bones are broken. I’m inviting myself to dinner, you know; I’ve spotted a leg of mutton.”
But Mme Lerat had less philosophy. Every time Nana showed her a fresh bruise on the white skin she screamed aloud. They were killing her niece; things couldn’t go on as they were doing. As a matter of fact, Fontan had turned Mme Lerat out of doors and had declared that he would not have her at his house in the future, and ever since that day, when he returned home and she happened to be there, she had to make off through the kitchen, which was a horrible humiliation to her. Accordingly she never ceased inveighing against that brutal individual. She especially blamed his ill breeding, pursing up her lips, as she did so, like a highly respectable lady whom nobody could possibly remonstrate with on the subject of good manners.
“Oh, you notice it at once,” she used to tell Nana; “he hasn’t the barest notion of the very smallest proprieties. His mother must have been common! Don’t deny it — the thing’s obvious! I don’t speak on my own account, though a person of my years has a right to respectful treatment, but YOU— how do YOU manage to put up with his bad manners? For though I don’t want to flatter myself, I’ve always taught you how to behave, and among our own people you always enjoyed the best possible advice. We were all very well bred in our family, weren’t we now?”
Nana used never to protest but would listen with bowed head.
“Then, too,” continued the aunt, “you’ve only known perfect gentlemen hitherto. We were talking of that very topic with Zoe at my place yesterday evening. She can’t understand it any more than I can. ‘How is it,’ she said, ‘that Madame, who used to have that perfect gentleman, Monsieur le Comte, at her beck and call’— for between you and me, it seems you drove him silly —’how is it that Madame lets herself be made into mincemeat by that clown of a fellow?’ I remarked at the time that you might put up with the beatings but that I would never have allowed him to be lacking in proper respect. In fact, there isn’t a word to be said for him. I wouldn’t have his portrait in my room even! And you ruin yourself for such a bird as that; yes, you ruin yourself, my darling; you toil and you moil, when there are so many others and such rich men, too, some of them even connected with the government! Ah well, it’s not I who ought to be telling you this, of course! But all the same, when next he tries any of his dirty tricks on I should cut him short with a ‘Monsieur, what d’you take me for?’ You know how to say it in that grand way of yours! It would downright cripple him.”
Thereupon Nana burst into sobs and stammered out:
“Oh, Aunt, I love him!”
The fact of the matter was that Mme Lerat was beginning to feel anxious at the painful way her niece doled out the sparse, occasional francs destined to pay for little Louis’s board and lodging. Doubtless she was willing to make sacrifices and to keep the child by her whatever might happen while waiting for more prosperous times, but the thought that Fontan was preventing her and the brat and its mother from swimming in a sea of gold made her so savage that she was ready to deny the very existence of true love. Accordingly she ended up with the following severe remarks:
“Now listen, some fine day when he’s taken the skin off your back, you’ll come and knock at my door, and I’ll open it to you.”
Soon money began to engross Nana’s whole attention. Fontan had caused the seven thousand francs to vanish away. Without doubt they were quite safe; indeed, she would never have dared ask him questions about them, for she was wont to be blushingly diffident with that bird, as Mme Lerat called him. She trembled lest he should think her capable of quarreling with him about halfpence. He had certainly promised to subscribe toward their common household expenses, and in the early days he had given out three francs every morning. But he was as exacting as a boarder; he wanted everything for his three francs — butter, meat, early fruit and early vegetables — and if she ventured to make an observation, if she hinted that you could not have everything in the market for three francs, he flew into a temper and treated her as a useless, wasteful woman, a confounded donkey whom the tradespeople were robbing. Moreover, he was always ready to threaten that he would take lodgings somewhere else. At the end of a month on certain mornings he had forgotten to deposit the three francs on the chest of drawers, and she had ventured to ask for them in a timid, roundabout way. Whereupon there had been such bitter disputes and he had seized every pretext to render her life so miserable that she had found it best no longer to count upon him. Whenever, however, he had omitted to leave behind the three one-franc pieces and found a dinner awaiting him all the same, he grew as merry as a sandboy, kissed Nana gallantly and waltzed with the chairs. And she was so charmed by this conduct that she at length got to hope that nothing would be found on the chest of drawers, despite the difficulty she experienced in making both ends meet. One day she even returned him his three francs, telling him a tale to the effect that she still had yesterday’s money. As he had given her nothing then, he hesitated for some moments, as though he dreaded a lecture. But she gazed at him with her loving eyes and hugged him in such utter self-surrender that he pocketed the money again with that little convulsive twitch or the fingers peculiar to a miser when he regains possession of that which has been well-nigh lost. From that day forth he never troubled himself about money again or inquired whence it came. But when there were potatoes on the table he looked intoxicated with delight and would laugh and smack his lips before her turkeys and legs of mutton, though of course this did not prevent his dealing Nana sundry sharp smacks, as though to keep his hand in amid all his happiness.
Nana had indeed found means to provide for all needs, and the place on certain days overflowed with good things. Twice a week, regularly, Bosc had indigestion. One evening as Mme Lerat was withdrawing from the scene in high dudgeon because she had noticed a copious dinner she was not destined to eat in process of preparation, she could not prevent herself asking brutally who paid for it all. Nana was taken by surprise; she grew foolish and began crying.
“Ah, that’s a pretty business,” said the aunt, who had divined her meaning.
Nana had resigned herself to it for the sake of enjoying peace in her own home. Then, too, the Tricon was to blame. She had come across her in the Rue de Laval one fine day when Fontan had gone out raging about a dish of cod. She had accordingly consented to the proposals made her by the Tricon, who happened just then to be in difficulty. As Fontan never came in before six o’clock, she made arrangements for her afternoons and used to bring back forty francs, sixty francs, sometimes more. She might have made it a matter of ten and fifteen louis had she been able to maintain her former position, but as matters stood she was very glad thus to earn enough to keep the pot boiling. At night she used to forget all her sorrows when Bosc sat there bursting with dinner and Fontan leaned on his elbows and with an expression of lofty superiority becoming a man who is loved for his own sake allowed her to kiss him on the eyelids.
In due course Nana’s very adoration of her darling, her dear old duck, which was all the more passionately blind, seeing that now she paid for everything, plunged her back into the muddiest depths of her calling. She roamed the streets and loitered on the pavement in quest of a five-franc piece, just as when she was a slipshod baggage years ago. One Sunday at La Rochefoucauld Market she had made her peace with Satin after having flown at her with furious reproaches about Mme Robert. But Satin had been content to answer that when one didn’t like a thing there was no reason why one should want to disgust others with it. And Nana, who was by way of being wide-minded, had accepted the philosophic view that you never can tell where your tastes will lead you and had forgiven her. Her curiosity was even excited, and she began questioning her about obscure vices and was astounded to be adding to her information at her time of life and with her knowledge. She burst out laughing and gave vent to various expressions of surprise. It struck her as so queer, and yet she was a little shocked by it, for she was really quite the philistine outside the pale of her own habits. So she went back to Laure’s and fed there when Fontan was dining out. She derived much amusement from the stories and the amours and the jealousies which inflamed the female customers without hindering their appetites in the slightest degree. Nevertheless, she still was not quite in it, as she herself phrased it. The vast Laure, meltingly maternal as ever, used often to invite her to pass a day or two at her Asnieries Villa, a country house containing seven spare bedrooms. But she used to refuse; she was afraid. Satin, however, swore she was mistaken about it, that gentlemen from Paris swung you in swings and played tonneau with you, and so she promised to come at some future time when it would be possible for her to leave town.
At that time Nana was much tormented by circumstances and not at all festively inclined. She needed money, and when the Tricon did not want her, which too often happened, she had no notion where to bestow her charms. Then began a series of wild descents upon the Parisian pavement, plunges into the baser sort of vice, whose votaries prowl in muddy bystreets under the restless flicker of gas lamps. Nana went back to the public-house balls in the suburbs, where she had kicked up her heels in the early ill-shod days. She revisited the dark corners on the outer boulevards, where when she was fifteen years old men used to hug her while her father was looking for her in order to give her a hiding. Both the women would speed along, visiting all the ballrooms and restaurants in a quarter and climbing innumerable staircases which were wet with spittle and spilled beer, or they would stroll quietly about, going up streets and planting themselves in front of carriage gates. Satin, who had served her apprenticeship in the Quartier Latin, used to take Nana to Bullier’s and the public houses in the Boulevard Saint-Michel. But the vacations were drawing on, and the Quarter looked too starved. Eventually they always returned to the principal boulevards, for it was there they ran the best chance of getting what they wanted. From the heights of Montmartre to the observatory plateau they scoured the whole town in the way we have been describing. They were out on rainy evenings, when their boots got worn down, and on hot evenings, when their linen clung to their skins. There were long periods of waiting and endless periods of walking; there were jostlings and disputes and the nameless, brutal caresses of the stray passer-by who was taken by them to some miserable furnished room and came swearing down the greasy stairs afterward.
The summer was drawing to a close, a stormy summer of burning nights. The pair used to start out together after dinner, toward nine o’clock. On the pavements of the Rue Notre Dame de la Lorette two long files of women scudded along with tucked-up skirts and bent heads, keeping close to the shops but never once glancing at the displays in the shopwindows as they hurried busily down toward the boulevards. This was the hungry exodus from the Quartier Breda which took place nightly when the street lamps had just been lit. Nana and Satin used to skirt the church and then march off along the Rue le Peletier. When they were some hundred yards from the Cafe Riche and had fairly reached their scene of operations they would shake out the skirts of their dresses, which up till that moment they had been holding carefully up, and begin sweeping the pavements, regardless of dust. With much swaying of the hips they strolled delicately along, slackening their pace when they crossed the bright light thrown from one of the great cafes. With shoulders thrown back, shrill and noisy laughter and many backward glances at the men who turned to look at them, they marched about and were completely in their element. In the shadow of night their artificially whitened faces, their rouged lips and their darkened eyelids became as charming and suggestive as if the inmates of a make-believe trumpery oriental bazaar had been sent forth into the open street. Till eleven at night they sauntered gaily along among the rudely jostling crowds, contenting themselves with an occasional “dirty ass!” hurled after the clumsy people whose boot heels had torn a flounce or two from their dresses. Little familiar salutations would pass between them and the cafe waiters, and at times they would stop and chat in front of a small table and accept of drinks, which they consumed with much deliberation, as became people not sorry to sit down for a bit while waiting for the theaters to empty. But as night advanced, if they had not made one or two trips in the direction of the Rue la Rochefoucauld, they became abject strumpets, and their hunt for men grew more ferocious than ever. Beneath the trees in the darkening and fast-emptying boulevards fierce bargainings took place, accompanied by oaths and blows. Respectable family parties — fathers, mothers and daughters — who were used to such scenes, would pass quietly by the while without quickening their pace. Afterward, when they had walked from the opera to the GYMNASE some half-score times and in the deepening night men were rapidly dropping off homeward for good and all, Nana and Satin kept to the sidewalk in the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre. There up till two o’clock in the morning restaurants, bars and ham-and-beef shops were brightly lit up, while a noisy mob of women hung obstinately round the doors of the cafes. This suburb was the only corner of night Paris which was still alight and still alive, the only market still open to nocturnal bargains. These last were openly struck between group and group and from one end of the street to the other, just as in the wide and open corridor of a disorderly house. On such evenings as the pair came home without having had any success they used to wrangle together. The Rue Notre Dame de la Lorette stretched dark and deserted in front of them. Here and there the crawling shadow of a woman was discernible, for the Quarter was going home and going home late, and poor creatures, exasperated at a night of fruitless loitering, were unwilling to give up the chase and would still stand, disputing in hoarse voices with any strayed reveler they could catch at the corner of the Rue Breda or the Rue Fontaine.
Nevertheless, some windfalls came in their way now and then in the shape of louis picked up in the society of elegant gentlemen, who slipped their decorations into their pockets as they went upstairs with them. Satin had an especially keen scent for these. On rainy evenings, when the dripping city exhaled an unpleasant odor suggestive of a great untidy bed, she knew that the soft weather and the fetid reek of the town’s holes and corners were sure to send the men mad. And so she watched the best dressed among them, for she knew by their pale eyes what their state was. On such nights it was as though a fit of fleshly madness were passing over Paris. The girl was rather nervous certainly, for the most modish gentlemen were always the most obscene. All the varnish would crack off a man, and the brute beast would show itself, exacting, monstrous in lust, a past master in corruption. But besides being nervous, that trollop of a Satin was lacking in respect. She would blurt out awful things in front of dignified gentlemen in carriages and assure them that their coachmen were better bred than they because they behaved respectfully toward the women and did not half kill them with their diabolical tricks and suggestions. The way in which smart people sprawled head over heels into all the cesspools of vice still caused Nana some surprise, for she had a few prejudices remaining, though Satin was rapidly destroying them.
“Well then,” she used to say when talking seriously about the matter, “there’s no such thing as virtue left, is there?”
From one end of the social ladder to the other everybody was on the loose! Good gracious! Some nice things ought to be going on in Paris between nine o’clock in the evening and three in the morning! And with that she began making very merry and declaring that if one could only have looked into every room one would have seen some funny sights — the little people going it head over ears and a good lot of swells, too, playing the swine rather harder than the rest. Oh, she was finishing her education!
One evenlng when she came to call for Satin she recognized the Marquis de Chouard. He was coming downstairs with quaking legs; his face was ashen white, and he leaned heavily on the banisters. She pretended to be blowing her nose. Upstairs she found Satin amid indescribable filth. No household work had been done for a week; her bed was disgusting, and ewers and basins were standing about in all directions. Nana expressed surprise at her knowing the marquis. Oh yes, she knew him! He had jolly well bored her confectioner and her when they were together. At present he used to come back now and then, but he nearly bothered her life out, going sniffing into all the dirty corners — yes, even into her slippers!
“Yes, dear girl, my slippers! Oh, he’s the dirtiest old beast, always wanting one to do things!”
The sincerity of these low debauches rendered Nana especially uneasy. Seeing the courtesans around her slowly dying of it every day, she recalled to mind the comedy of pleasure she had taken part in when she was in the heyday of success. Moreover, Satin inspired her with an awful fear of the police. She was full of anecdotes about them. Formerly she had been the mistress of a plain-clothes man, had consented to this in order to be left in peace, and on two occasions he had prevented her from being put “on the lists.” But at present she was in a great fright, for if she were to be nabbed again there was a clear case against her. You had only to listen to her! For the sake of perquisites the police used to take up as many women as possible. They laid hold of everybody and quieted you with a slap if you shouted, for they were sure of being defended in their actions and rewarded, even when they had taken a virtuous girl among the rest. In the summer they would swoop upon the boulevard in parties of twelve or fifteen, surround a whole long reach of sidewalk and fish up as many as thirty women in an evening. Satin, however, knew the likely places, and the moment she saw a plain-clothes man heaving in sight she took to her heels, while the long lines of women on the pavements scattered in consternation and fled through the surrounding crowd. The dread of the law and of the magistracy was such that certain women would stand as though paralyzed in the doorways of the cafes while the raid was sweeping the avenue without. But Satin was even more afraid of being denounced, for her pastry cook had proved blackguard enough to threaten to sell her when she had left him. Yes, that was a fake by which men lived on their mistresses! Then, too, there were the dirty women who delivered you up out of sheer treachery if you were prettier than they! Nana listened to these recitals and felt her terrors growing upon her. She had always trembled before the law, that unknown power, that form of revenge practiced by men able and willing to crush her in the certain absence of all defenders. Saint-Lazare she pictured as a grave, a dark hole, in which they buried live women after they had cut off their hair. She admitted that it was only necessary to leave Fontan and seek powerful protectors. But as matters stood it was in vain that Satin talked to her of certain lists of women’s names, which it was the duty of the plainclothes men to consult, and of certain photographs accompanying the lists, the originals of which were on no account to be touched. The reassurance did not make her tremble the less, and she still saw herself hustled and dragged along and finally subjected to the official medical inspection. The thought of the official armchair filled her with shame and anguish, for had she not bade it defiance a score of times?
Now it so happened that one evening toward the close of September, as she was walking with Satin in the Boulevard Poissonniere, the latter suddenly began tearing along at a terrible pace. And when Nana asked her what she meant thereby:
“It’s the plain-clothes men!” whispered Satin. “Off with you! Off with you!” A wild stampede took place amid the surging crowd. Skirts streamed out behind and were torn. There were blows and shrieks. A woman fell down. The crowd of bystanders stood hilariously watching this rough police raid while the plain-clothes men rapidly narrowed their circle. Meanwhile Nana had lost Satin. Her legs were failing her, and she would have been taken up for a certainty had not a man caught her by the arm and led her away in front of the angry police. It was Prulliere, and he had just recognized her. Without saying a word he turned down the Rue Rougemont with her. It was just then quite deserted, and she was able to regain breath there, but at first her faintness and exhaustion were such that he had to support her. She did not even thank him.
“Look here,” he said, “you must recover a bit. Come up to my rooms.”
He lodged in the Rue Bergere close by. But she straightened herself up at once.
“No, I don’t want to.”
Thereupon he waxed coarse and rejoined:
“Why don’t you want to, eh? Why, everybody visits my rooms.”
“Because I don’t.”
In her opinion that explained everything. She was too fond of Fontan to betray him with one of his friends. The other people ceased to count the moment there was no pleasure in the business, and necessity compelled her to it. In view of her idiotic obstinacy Prulliere, as became a pretty fellow whose vanity had been wounded, did a cowardly thing.
“Very well, do as you like!” he cried. “Only I don’t side with you, my dear. You must get out of the scrape by yourself.”
And with that he left her. Terrors got hold of her again, and scurrying past shops and turning white whenever a man drew nigh, she fetched an immense compass before reaching Montmartre.
On the morrow, while still suffering from the shock of last night’s terrors, Nana went to her aunt’s and at the foot of a small empty street in the Batignolles found herself face to face with Labordette. At first they both appeared embarrassed, for with his usual complaisance he was busy on a secret errand. Nevertheless, he was the first to regain his self-possession and to announce himself fortunate in meeting her. Yes, certainly, everybody was still wondering at Nana’s total eclipse. People were asking for her, and old friends were pining. And with that he grew quite paternal and ended by sermonizing.
“Frankly speaking, between you and me, my dear, the thing’s getting stupid. One can understand a mash, but to go to that extent, to be trampled on like that and to get nothing but knocks! Are you playing up for the ‘Virtue Prizes’ then?”
She listened to him with an embarrassed expression. But when he told her about Rose, who was triumphantly enjoying her conquest of Count Muffat, a flame came into her eyes.
“Oh, if I wanted to —” she muttered.
As became an obliging friend, he at once offered to act as intercessor. But she refused his help, and he thereupon attacked her in an opposite quarter.
He informed her that Bordenave was busy mounting a play of Fauchery’s containing a splendid part for her.
“What, a play with a part!” she cried in amazement. “But he’s in it and he’s told me nothing about it!”
She did not mention Fontan by name. However, she grew calm again directly and declared that she would never go on the stage again. Labordette doubtless remained unconvinced, for he continued with smiling insistence.
“You know, you need fear nothing with me. I get your Muffat ready for you, and you go on the stage again, and I bring him to you like a little dog!”
“No!” she cried decisively.
And she left him. Her heroic conduct made her tenderly pitiful toward herself. No blackguard of a man would ever have sacrificed himself like that without trumpeting the fact abroad. Nevertheless, she was struck by one thing: Labordette had given her exactly the same advice as Francis had given her. That evening when Fontan came home she questioned him about Fauchery’s piece. The former had been back at the Varietes for two months past. Why then had he not told her about the part?
“What part?” he said in his ill-humored tone. “The grand lady’s part, maybe? The deuce, you believe you’ve got talent then! Why, such a part would utterly do for you, my girl! You’re meant for comic business — there’s no denying it!”
She was dreadfully wounded. All that evening he kept chaffing her, calling her Mlle Mars. But the harder he hit the more bravely she suffered, for she derived a certain bitter satisfaction from this heroic devotion of hers, which rendered her very great and very loving in her own eyes. Ever since she had gone with other men in order to supply his wants her love for him had increased, and the fatigues and disgusts encountered outside only added to the flame. He was fast becoming a sort of pet vice for which she paid, a necessity of existence it was impossible to do without, seeing that blows only stimulated her desires. He, on his part, seeing what a good tame thing she had become, ended by abusing his privileges. She was getting on his nerves, and he began to conceive so fierce a loathing for her that he forgot to keep count of his real interests. When Bosc made his customary remarks to him he cried out in exasperation, for which there was no apparent cause, that he had had enough of her and of her good dinners and that he would shortly chuck her out of doors if only for the sake of making another woman a present of his seven thousand francs. Indeed, that was how their liaison ended.
One evening Nana came in toward eleven o’clock and found the door bolted. She tapped once — there was no answer; twice — still no answer. Meanwhile she saw light under the door, and Fontan inside did not trouble to move. She rapped again unwearyingly; she called him and began to get annoyed. At length Fontan’s voice became audible; he spoke slowly and rather unctuously and uttered but this one word.
She beat on the door with her fists.
She banged hard enough to smash in the woodwork.
And for upward of a quarter of an hour the same foul expression buffeted her, answering like a jeering echo to every blow wherewith she shook the door. At length, seeing that she was not growing tired, he opened sharply, planted himself on the threshold, folded his arms and said in the same cold, brutal voice:
“By God, have you done yet? What d’you want? Are you going to let us sleep in peace, eh? You can quite see I’ve got company tonight.”
He was certainly not alone, for Nana perceived the little woman from the Bouffes with the untidy tow hair and the gimlet-hole eyes, standing enjoying herself in her shift among the furniture she had paid for. But Fontan stepped out on the landing. He looked terrible, and he spread out and crooked his great fingers as if they were pincers.
“Hook it or I’ll strangle you!”
rhereupon Nana burst into a nervous fit of sobbing. She was frightened and she made off. This time it was she that was being kicked out of doors. And in her fury the thought of Muffat suddenly occurred to her. Ah, to be sure, Fontan, of all men, ought never to have done her such a turn!
When she was out in the street her first thought was to go and sleep with Satin, provided the girl had no one with her. She met her in front of her house, for she, too, had been turned out of doors by her landlord. He had just had a padlock affixed to her door — quite illegally, of course, seeing that she had her own furniture. She swore and talked of having him up before the commissary of police. In the meantime, as midnight was striking, they had to begin thinking of finding a bed. And Satin, deeming it unwise to let the plain-clothes men into her secrets, ended by taking Nana to a woman who kept a little hotel in the Rue de Laval. Here they were assigned a narrow room on the first floor, the window of which opened on the courtyard. Satin remarked:
“I should gladly have gone to Mme Robert’s. There’s always a corner there for me. But with you it’s out of the question. She’s getting absurdly jealous; she beat me the other night.”
When they had shut themselves in, Nana, who had not yet relieved her feelings, burst into tears and again and again recounted Fontan’s dirty behavior. Satin listened complaisantly, comforted her, grew even more angry than she in denunciation of the male sex.
“Oh, the pigs, the pigs! Look here, we’ll have nothing more to do with them!”
Then she helped Nana to undress with all the small, busy attentions, becoming a humble little friend. She kept saying coaxingly:
“Let’s go to bed as fast as we can, pet. We shall be better off there! Oh, how silly you are to get crusty about things! I tell you, they’re dirty brutes. Don’t think any more about ‘em. I— I love you very much. Don’t cry, and oblige your own little darling girl.”
And once in bed, she forthwith took Nana in her arms and soothed and comforted her. She refused to hear Fontan’s name mentioned again, and each time it recurred to her friend’s lips she stopped it with a kiss. Her lips pouted in pretty indignation; her hair lay loose about her, and her face glowed with tenderness and childlike beauty. Little by little her soft embrace compelled Nana to dry her tears. She was touched and replied to Satin’s caresses. When two o’clock struck the candle was still burning, and a sound of soft, smothered laughter and lovers’ talk was audible in the room.
But suddenly a loud noise came up from the lower floors of the hotel, and Satin, with next to nothing on, got up and listened intently.
“The police!” she said, growing very pale.
“Oh, blast our bad luck! We’re bloody well done for!”
Often had she told stories about the raids on hotel made by the plainclothes men. But that particular night neither of them had suspected anything when they took shelter in the Rue de Laval. At the sound of the word “police” Nana lost her head. She jumped out of bed and ran across the room with the scared look of a madwoman about to jump out of the window. Luckily, however, the little courtyard was roofed with glass, which was covered with an iron-wire grating at the level of the girls’ bedroom. At sight of this she ceased to hesitate; she stepped over the window prop, and with her chemise flying and her legs bared to the night air she vanished in the gloom.
“Stop! Stop!” said Satin in a great fright. “You’ll kill yourself.”
Then as they began hammering at the door, she shut the window like a good-natured girl and threw her friend’s clothes down into a cupboard. She was already resigned to her fate and comforted herself with the thought that, after all, if she were to be put on the official list she would no longer be so “beastly frightened” as of yore. So she pretended to be heavy with sleep. She yawned; she palavered and ended by opening the door to a tall, burly fellow with an unkempt beard, who said to her:
“Show your hands! You’ve got no needle pricks on them: you don’t work. Now then, dress!”
“But I’m not a dressmaker; I’m a burnisher,” Satin brazenly declared.
Nevertheless, she dressed with much docility, knowing that argument was out of the question. Cries were ringing through the hotel; a girl was clinging to doorposts and refusing to budge an inch. Another girl, in bed with a lover, who was answering for her legality, was acting the honest woman who had been grossly insulted and spoke of bringing an action against the prefect of police. For close on an hour there was a noise of heavy shoes on the stairs, of fists hammering on doors, of shrill disputes terminating in sobs, of petticoats rustling along the walls, of all the sounds, in fact, attendant on the sudden awakening and scared departure of a flock of women as they were roughly packed off by three plain-clothes men, headed by a little oily-mannered, fair-haired commissary of police. After they had gone the hotel relapsed into deep silence.
Nobody had betrayed her; Nana was saved. Shivering and half dead with fear, she came groping back into the room. Her bare feet were cut and bleeding, for they had been torn by the grating. For a long while she remained sitting on the edge of the bed, listening and listening. Toward morning, however, she went to sleep again, and at eight o’clock, when she woke up, she escaped from the hotel and ran to her aunt’s. When Mme Lerat, who happened just then to be drinking her morning coffee with Zoe, beheld her bedraggled plight and haggard face, she took note of the hour and at once understood the state of the case.
“It’s come to it, eh?” she cried. “I certainly told you that he would take the skin off your back one of these days. Well, well, come in; you’ll always find a kind welcome here.”
Zoe had risen from her chair and was muttering with respectful familiarity:
“Madame is restored to us at last. I was waiting for Madame.”
But Mme Lerat insisted on Nana’s going and kissing Louiset at once, because, she said, the child took delight in his mother’s nice ways. Louiset, a sickly child with poor blood, was still asleep, and when Nana bent over his white, scrofulous face, the memory of all she had undergone during the last few months brought a choking lump into her throat.
“Oh, my poor little one, my poor little one!” she gasped, bursting into a final fit of sobbing.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02