It was the beautiful Norman who had made the last bid. Florent recognised her as she stood in the line of fish-wives crowding against the iron rails which surrounded the enclosure. The morning was fresh and sharp, and there was a row of tippets above the display of big white aprons, covering the prominent bosoms and stomachs and sturdy shoulders. With high-set chignon set off with curls, and white and dainty skin, the beautiful Norman flaunted her lace bow amidst tangled shocks of hair covered with dirty kerchiefs, red noses eloquent of drink, sneering mouths, and battered faces suggestive of old pots. And she also recognised Madame Quenu's cousin, and was so surprised to see him there that she began gossiping to her neighbours about him.
The uproar of voices had become so great that Monsieur Verlaque renounced all further attempt to explain matters to Florent. On the footway close by, men were calling out the larger fish with prolonged shouts, which sounded as though they came from gigantic speaking-trumpets; and there was one individual who roared "Mussels! Mussels!" in such a hoarse, cracked, clamorous voice that the very roofs of the market shook. Some sacks of mussels were turned upside down, and their contents poured into hampers, while others were emptied with shovels. And there was a ceaseless procession of basket-trays containing skate, soles, mackerel, conger-eels, and salmon, carried backwards and forwards amidst the ever-increasing cackle and pushing of the fish-women as they crowded against the iron rails which creaked with their pressure. The humpbacked crier, now fairly on the job, waved his skinny arms in the air and protruded his jaws. Presently, seemingly lashed into a state of frenzy by the flood of figures that spurted from his lips, he sprang upon a stool, where, with his mouth twisted spasmodically and his hair streaming behind him, he could force nothing more than unintelligible hisses from his parched throat. And in the meantime, up above, the collector of municipal dues, a little old man, muffled in a collar of imitation astrachan, remained with nothing but his nose showing under his black velvet skullcap. And the tall, dark-complexioned female clerk, with eyes shining calmly in her face, which had been slightly reddened by the cold, sat on her high wooden chair, quietly writing, apparently unruffled by the continuous rattle which came from the hunchback below her.
"That fellow Logre is wonderful," muttered Monsieur Verlaque with a smile. "He is the best crier in the markets. I believe he could make people buy boot soles in the belief they were fish!"
Then he and Florent went back into the pavilion. As they again passed the spot where the fresh water fish was being sold by auction, and where the bidding seemed much quieter, Monsieur Verlaque explained that French river fishing was in a bad way.[*] The crier here, a fair, sorry-looking fellow, who scarcely moved his arms, was disposing of some lots of eels and crawfish in a monotonous voice, while the assistants fished fresh supplies out of the stone basins with their short-handled nets.
[*] M. Zola refers, of course, to the earlier years of the Second Empire. Under the present republican Government, which has largely fostered fish culture, matters have considerably improved.—Translator.
However, the crowd round the salesmen's desks was still increasing. Monsieur Verlaque played his part as Florent's instructor in the most conscientious manner, clearing the way by means of his elbows, and guiding his successor through the busiest parts. The upper-class retail dealers were there, quietly waiting for some of the finer fish, or loading the porters with their purchases of turbot, tunny, and salmon. The street-hawkers who had clubbed together to buy lots of herrings and small flat-fish were dividing them on the pavement. There were also some people of the smaller middle class, from distant parts of the city, who had come down at four o'clock in the morning to buy a really fresh fish, and had ended by allowing some enormous lot, costing from forty to fifty francs, to be knocked down to them, with the result that they would be obliged to spend the whole day in getting their friends and acquaintances to take the surplus off their hands. Every now and then some violent pushing would force a gap through part of the crowd. A fish-wife, who had got tightly jammed, freed herself, shaking her fists and pouring out a torrent of abuse. Then a compact mass of people again collected, and Florent, almost suffocated, declared that he had seen quite enough, and understood all that was necessary.
As Monsieur Verlaque was helping him to extricate himself from the crowd, they found themselves face to face with the handsome Norman. She remained stock-still in front of them, and with her queenly air inquired:
"Well, is it quite settled? You are going to desert us, Monsieur Verlaque?"
"Yes, yes," replied the little man; "I am going to take a rest in the country, at Clamart. The smell of the fish is bad for me, it seems. Here, this is the gentleman who is going to take my place."
So speaking he turned round to introduce Florent to her. The handsome Norman almost choked; however, as Florent went off, he fancied he could hear her whisper to her neighbours, with a laugh: "Well, we shall have some fine fun now, see if we don't!"
The fish-wives had begun to set out their stalls. From all the taps at the corners of the marble slabs water was gushing freely; and there was a rustling sound all round, like the plashing of rain, a streaming of stiff jets of water hissing and spurting. And then, from the lower side of the sloping slabs, great drops fell with a softened murmur, splashing on the flagstones where a mass of tiny streams flowed along here and there, turning holes and depressions into miniature lakes, and afterwards gliding in a thousand rills down the slope towards the Rue Rambuteau. A moist haze ascended, a sort of rainy dust, bringing fresh whiffs of air to Florent's face, whiffs of that salt, pungent sea breeze which he remembered so well; while in such fish as was already laid out he once more beheld the rosy nacres, gleaming corals, and milky pearls, all the rippling colour and glaucous pallidity of the ocean world.
That first morning left him much in doubt; indeed, he regretted that he had yielded to Lisa's insistence. Ever since his escape from the greasy drowsiness of the kitchen he had been accusing himself of base weakness with such violence that tears had almost risen in his eyes. But he did not dare to go back on his word. He was a little afraid of Lisa, and could see the curl of her lips and the look of mute reproach upon her handsome face. He felt that she was too serious a woman to be trifled with. However, Gavard happily inspired him with a consoling thought. On the evening of the day on which Monsieur Verlaque had conducted him through the auction sales, Gavard took him aside and told him, with a good deal of hesitation, that "the poor devil" was not at all well off. And after various remarks about the scoundrelly Government which ground the life out of its servants without allowing them even the means to die in comfort, he ended by hinting that it would be charitable on Florent's part to surrender a part of his salary to the old inspector. Florent welcomed the suggestion with delight. It was only right, he considered, for he looked upon himself simply as Monsieur Verlaque's temporary substitute; and besides, he himself really required nothing, as he boarded and lodged with his brother. Gavard added that he thought if Florent gave up fifty francs out of the hundred and fifty which he would receive monthly, the arrangement would be everything that could be desired; and, lowering his voice, he added that it would not be for long, for the poor fellow was consumptive to his very bones. Finally it was settled that Florent should see Monsieur Verlaque's wife, and arrange matters with her, to avoid any possibility of hurting the old man's feelings.
The thought of this kindly action afforded Florent great relief, and he now accepted his duties with the object of doing good, thus continuing to play the part which he had been fulfilling all his life. However, he made the poultry dealer promise that he would not speak of the matter to anyone; and as Gavard also felt a vague fear of Lisa, he kept the secret, which was really very meritorious in him.
And now the whole pork shop seemed happy. Handsome Lisa manifested the greatest friendliness towards her brother-in-law. She took care that he went to bed early, so as to be able to rise in good time; she kept his breakfast hot for him; and she no longer felt ashamed at being seen talking to him on the footway, now that he wore a laced cap. Quenu, quite delighted by all these good signs, sat down to table in the evening between his wife and brother with a lighter heart than ever. They often lingered over dinner till nine o'clock, leaving the shop in Augustine's charge, and indulging in a leisurely digestion interspersed with gossip about the neighbourhood, and the dogmatic opinions of Lisa on political topics; Florent also had to relate how matters had gone in the fish market that day. He gradually grew less frigid, and began to taste the happiness of a well-regulated existence. There was a well-to-do comfort and trimness about the light yellowish dining room which had a softening influence upon him as soon as he crossed its threshold. Handsome Lisa's kindly attentions wrapped him, as it were, in cotton-wool; and mutual esteem and concord reigned paramount.
Gavard, however, considered the Quenu-Gradelles' home to be too drowsy. He forgave Lisa her weakness for the Emperor, because, he said, one ought never to discuss politics with women, and beautiful Madame Quenu was, after all, a very worthy person, who managed her business admirably. Nevertheless, he much preferred to spend his evenings at Monsieur Lebigre's, where he met a group of friends who shared his own opinions. Thus when Florent was appointed to the inspectorship of the fish market, Gavard began to lead him astray, taking him off for hours, and prompting him to lead a bachelor's life now that he had obtained a berth.
Monsieur Lebigre was the proprietor of a very fine establishment, fitted up in the modern luxurious style. Occupying the right-hand corner of the Rue Pirouette, and looking on to the Rue Rambuteau, it formed, with its four small Norwegian pines in green-painted tubs flanking the doorway, a worthy pendant to the big pork shop of the Quenu-Gradelles. Through the clear glass windows you could see the interior, which was decorated with festoons of foliage, vine branches, and grapes, painted on a soft green ground. The floor was tiled with large black and white squares. At the far end was the yawning cellar entrance, above which rose a spiral staircase hung with red drapery, and leading to the billiard-room on the first floor. The counter or "bar" on the right looked especially rich, and glittered like polished silver. Its zinc-work, hanging with a broad bulging border over the sub-structure of white and red marble, edged it with a rippling sheet of metal as if it were some high altar laden with embroidery. At one end, over a gas stove, stood porcelain pots, decorated with circles of brass, and containing punch and hot wine. At the other extremity was a tall and richly sculptured marble fountain, from which a fine stream of water, so steady and continuous that it looked as though it were motionless, flowed into a basin. In the centre, edged on three sides by the sloping zinc surface of the counter, was a second basin for rinsing and cooling purposes, where quart bottles of draught wine, partially empty, reared their greenish necks. Then on the counter, to the right and left of this central basin, were batches of glasses symmetrically arranged: little glasses for brandy, thick tumblers for draught wine, cup glasses for brandied fruits, glasses for absinthe, glass mugs for beer, and tall goblets, all turned upside down and reflecting the glitter of the counter. On the left, moreover, was a metal urn, serving as a receptacle for gratuities; whilst a similar one on the right bristled with a fan-like arrangement of coffee spoons.
Monsieur Lebigre was generally to be found enthroned behind his counter upon a seat covered with buttoned crimson leather. Within easy reach of his hand were the liqueurs in cut-glass decanters protruding from the compartments of a stand. His round back rested against a huge mirror which completely filled the panel behind him; across it ran two glass shelves supporting an array of jars and bottles. Upon one of them the glass jars of preserved fruits, cherries, plums, and peaches, stood out darkly; while on the other, between symmetrically arranged packets of finger biscuits, were bright flasks of soft green and red and yellow glass, suggesting strange mysterious liqueurs, or floral extracts of exquisite limpidity. Standing on the glass shelf in the white glow of the mirror, these flasks, flashing as if on fire, seemed to be suspended in the air.
To give his premises the appearance of a cafe, Monsieur Lebigre had placed two small tables of bronzed iron and four chairs against the wall, in front of the counter. A chandelier with five lights and frosted globes hung down from the ceiling. On the left was a round gilt timepiece, above a tourniquet[*] fixed to the wall. Then at the far end came the private "cabinet," a corner of the shop shut off by a partition glazed with frosted glass of a small square pattern. In the daytime this little room received a dim light from a window that looked on to the Rue Pirouette; and in the evening, a gas jet burnt over the two tables painted to resemble marble. It was there that Gavard and his political friends met each evening after dinner. They looked upon themselves as being quite at home there, and had prevailed on the landlord to reserve the place for them. When Monsieur Lebigre had closed the door of the glazed partition, they knew themselves to be so safely screened from intrusion that they spoke quite unreservedly of the great "sweep out" which they were fond of discussing. No unprivileged customer would have dared to enter.
[*] This is a kind of dial turning on a pivot, and usually enclosed in a brass frame, from which radiate a few small handles or spokes. Round the face of the dial—usually of paper—are various numerals, and between the face and its glass covering is a small marble or wooden ball. The appliance is used in lieu of dice or coins when two or more customers are "tossing" for drinks. Each in turn sends the dial spinning round, and wins or loses according to the numeral against which the ball rests when the dial stops. As I can find no English name for the appliance, I have thought it best to describe it.—Translator.
On the first day that Gavard took Florent off he gave him some particulars of Monsieur Lebigre. He was a good fellow, he said, who sometimes came to drink his coffee with them; and, as he had said one day that he had fought in '48, no one felt the least constraint in his presence. He spoke but little, and seemed rather thick-headed. As the gentlemen passed him on their way to the private room they grasped his hand in silence across the glasses and bottles. By his side on the crimson leather seat behind the counter there was generally a fair little woman, whom he had engaged as counter assistant in addition to the white-aproned waiter who attended to the tables and the billiard-room. The young woman's name was Rose, and she seemed a very gentle and submissive being. Gavard, with a wink of his eye, told Florent that he fancied Lebigre had a weakness for her. It was she, by the way, who waited upon the friends in the private room, coming and going, with her happy, humble air, amidst the stormiest political discussions.
Upon the day on which the poultry dealer took Florent to Lebigre's to present him to his friends, the only person whom the pair found in the little room when they entered it was a man of some fifty years of age, of a mild and thoughtful appearance. He wore a rather shabby-looking hat and a long chestnut-coloured overcoat, and sat, with his chin resting on the ivory knob of a thick cane, in front of a glass mug full of beer. His mouth was so completely concealed by a vigorous growth of beard that his face had a dumb, lipless appearance.
"How are you, Robine?" exclaimed Gavard.
Robine silently thrust out his hand, without making any reply, though his eyes softened into a slight smile of welcome. Then he let his chin drop on to the knob of his cane again, and looked at Florent over his beer. Florent had made Gavard swear to keep his story a secret for fear of some dangerous indiscretion; and he was not displeased to observe a touch of distrust in the discreet demeanour of the gentleman with the heavy beard. However, he was really mistaken in this, for Robine never talked more than he did now. He was always the first to arrive, just as the clock struck eight; and he always sat in the same corner, never letting go his hold of his cane, and never taking off either his hat or his overcoat. No one had ever seen him without his hat upon his head. He remained there listening to the talk of the others till midnight, taking four hours to empty his mug of beer, and gazing successively at the different speakers as though he heard them with his eyes. When Florent afterwards questioned Gavard about Robine, the poultry dealer spoke of the latter as though he held him in high esteem. Robine, he asserted, was an extremely clever and able man, and, though he was unable to say exactly where he had given proof of his hostility to the established order of things, he declared that he was one of the most dreaded of the Government's opponents. He lived in the Rue Saint Denis, in rooms to which no one as a rule could gain admission. The poultry dealer, however, asserted that he himself had once been in them. The wax floors, he said, were protected by strips of green linen; and there were covers over the furniture, and an alabaster timepiece with columns. He had caught a glimpse of the back of a lady, who was just disappearing through one doorway as he was entering by another, and had taken her to be Madame Robine. She appeared to be an old lady of very genteel appearance, with her hair arranged in corkscrew curls; but of this he could not be quite certain. No one knew why they had taken up their abode amidst all the uproar of a business neighbourhood; for the husband did nothing at all, spending his days no one knew how and living on no one knew what, though he made his appearance every evening as though he were tired but delighted with some excursion into the highest regions of politics.
"Well, have you read the speech from the throne?" asked Gavard, taking up a newspaper that was lying on the table.
Robine shrugged his shoulders. Just at that moment, however, the door of the glazed partition clattered noisily, and a hunchback made his appearance. Florent at once recognised the deformed crier of the fish market, though his hands were now washed and he was neatly dressed, with his neck encircled by a great red muffler, one end of which hung down over his hump like the skirt of a Venetian cloak.
"Ah, here's Logre!" exclaimed the poultry dealer. "Now we shall hear what he thinks about the speech from the throne."
Logre, however, was apparently furious. To begin with he almost broke the pegs off in hanging up his hat and muffler. Then he threw himself violently into a chair, and brought his fist down on the table, while tossing away the newspaper.
"Do you think I read their fearful lies?" he cried.
Then he gave vent to the anger raging within him. "Did ever anyone hear," he cried, "of masters making such fools of their people? For two whole hours I've been waiting for my pay! There were ten of us in the office kicking our heels there. Then at last Monsieur Manoury arrived in a cab. Where he had come from I don't know, and don't care, but I'm quite sure it wasn't any respectable place. Those salesmen are all a parcel of thieves and libertines! And then, too, the hog actually gave me all my money in small change!"
Robine expressed his sympathy with Logre by the slight movement of his eyelids. But suddenly the hunchback bethought him of a victim upon whom to pour out his wrath. "Rose! Rose!" he cried, stretching his head out of the little room.
The young woman quickly responded to the call, trembling all over.
"Well," shouted Logre, "what do you stand staring at me like that for? Much good that'll do! You saw me come in, didn't you? Why haven't you brought me my glass of black coffee, then?"
Gavard ordered two similar glasses, and Rose made all haste to bring what was required, while Logre glared sternly at the glasses and little sugar trays as if studying them. When he had taken a drink he seemed to grow somewhat calmer.
"But it's Charvet who must be getting bored," he said presently. "He is waiting outside on the pavement for Clemence."
Charvet, however, now made his appearance, followed by Clemence. He was a tall, scraggy young man, carefully shaved, with a skinny nose and thin lips. He lived in the Rue Vavin, behind the Luxembourg, and called himself a professor. In politics he was a disciple of Hebert.[*] He wore his hair very long, and the collar and lapels of his threadbare frock-coat were broadly turned back. Affecting the manner and speech of a member of the National Convention, he would pour out such a flood of bitter words and make such a haughty display of pedantic learning that he generally crushed his adversaries. Gavard was afraid of him, though he would not confess it; still, in Charvet's absence he would say that he really went too far. Robine, for his part, expressed approval of everything with his eyes. Logre sometimes opposed Charvet on the question of salaries; but the other was really the autocrat of the coterie, having the greatest fund of information and the most overbearing manner. For more than ten years he and Clemence had lived together as man and wife, in accordance with a previously arranged contract, the terms of which were strictly observed by both parties to it. Florent looked at the young woman with some little surprise, but at last he recollected where he had previously seen her. This was at the fish auction. She was, indeed, none other than the tall dark female clerk whom he had observed writing with outstretched fingers, after the manner of one who had been carefully instructed in the art of holding a pen.
[*] Hebert, as the reader will remember, was the furious demagogue with the foul tongue and poisoned pen who edited the Pere Duchesne at the time of the first French Revolution. We had a revival of his politics and his journal in Paris during the Commune of 1871.—Translator.
Rose made her appearance at the heels of the two newcomers. Without saying a word she placed a mug of beer before Charvet and a tray before Clemence, who in a leisurely way began to compound a glass of "grog," pouring some hot water over a slice of lemon, which she crushed with her spoon, and glancing carefully at the decanter as she poured out some rum, so as not to add more of it than a small liqueur glass could contain.
Gavard now presented Florent to the company, but more especially to Charvet. He introduced them to one another as professors, and very able men, who would be sure to get on well together. But it was probable that he had already been guilty of some indiscretion, for all the men at once shook hands with a tight and somewhat masonic squeeze of each other's fingers. Charvet, for his part, showed himself almost amiable; and whether he and the others knew anything of Florent's antecedents, they at all events indulged in no embarrassing allusions.
"Did Manoury pay you in small change?" Logre asked Clemence.
She answered affirmatively, and produced a roll of francs and another of two-franc pieces, and unwrapped them. Charvet watched her, and his eyes followed the rolls as she replaced them in her pocket, after counting their contents and satisfying herself that they were correct.
"We have our accounts to settle," he said in a low voice.
"Yes, we'll settle up to-night," the young woman replied. "But we are about even, I should think. I've breakfasted with you four times, haven't I? But I lent you a hundred sous last week, you know."
Florent, surprised at hearing this, discreetly turned his head away. Then Clemence slipped the last roll of silver into her pocket, drank a little of her grog, and, leaning against the glazed partition, quietly settled herself down to listen to the men talking politics. Gavard had taken up the newspaper again, and, in tones which he strove to render comic, was reading out some passages of the speech from the throne which had been delivered that morning at the opening of the Chambers. Charvet made fine sport of the official phraseology; there was not a single line of it which he did not tear to pieces. One sentence afforded especial amusement to them all. It was this: "We are confident, gentlemen, that, leaning on your lights[*] and the conservative sentiments of the country, we shall succeed in increasing the national prosperity day by day."
[*] In the sense of illumination of mind. It has been necessary to give a literal translation of this phrase to enable the reader to realise the point of subsequent witticisms in which Clemence and Gavard indulge. —Translator.
Logre rose up and repeated this sentence, and by speaking through his nose succeeded fairly well in mimicking the Emperor's drawling voice.
"It's lovely, that prosperity of his; why, everyone's dying of hunger!" said Charvet.
"Trade is shocking," asserted Gavard.
"And what in the name of goodness is the meaning of anybody 'leaning on lights'?" continued Clemence, who prided herself upon literary culture.
Robine himself even allowed a faint laugh to escape from the depths of his beard. The discussion began to grow warm. The party fell foul of the Corps Legislatif, and spoke of it with great severity. Logre did not cease ranting, and Florent found him the same as when he cried the fish at the auctions—protruding his jaws and hurling his words forward with a wave of the arm, whilst retaining the crouching attitude of a snarling dog. Indeed, he talked politics in just the same furious manner as he offered a tray full of soles for sale.
Charvet, on the other hand, became quieter and colder amidst the smoke of the pipes and the fumes of the gas which were now filling the little den; and his voice assumed a dry incisive tone, sharp like a guillotine blade, while Robine gently wagged his head without once removing his chin from the ivory knob of his cane. However, some remark of Gavard's led the conversation to the subject of women.
"Woman," declared Charvet drily, "is the equal of man; and, that being so, she ought not to inconvenience him in the management of his life. Marriage is a partnership, in which everything should be halved. Isn't that so, Clemence?"
"Clearly so," replied the young woman, leaning back with her head against the wall and gazing into the air.
However, Florent now saw Lacaille, the costermonger, and Alexandre, the porter, Claude Lantier's friend, come into the little room. In the past these two had long remained at the other table in the sanctum; they did not belong to the same class as the others. By the help of politics, however, their chairs had drawn nearer, and they had ended by forming part of the circle. Charvet, in whose eyes they represented "the people," did his best to indoctrinate them with his advanced political theories, while Gavard played the part of the shopkeeper free from all social prejudices by clinking glasses with them. Alexandre was a cheerful, good-humoured giant, with the manner of a big merry lad. Lacaille, on the other hand, was embittered; his hair was already grizzling; and, bent and wearied by his ceaseless perambulations through the streets of Paris, he would at times glance loweringly at the placid figure of Robine, and his sound boots and heavy coat.
That evening both Lacaille and Alexandre called for a liqueur glass of brandy, and then the conversation was renewed with increased warmth and excitement, the party being now quite complete. A little later, while the door of the cabinet was left ajar, Florent caught sight of Mademoiselle Saget standing in front of the counter. She had taken a bottle from under her apron, and was watching Rose as the latter poured into it a large measureful of black-currant syrup and a smaller one of brandy. Then the bottle disappeared under the apron again, and Mademoiselle Saget, with her hands out of sight, remained talking in the bright glow of the counter, face to face with the big mirror, in which the flasks and bottles of liqueurs were reflected like rows of Venetian lanterns. In the evening all the metal and glass of the establishment helped to illuminate it with wonderful brilliancy. The old maid, standing there in her black skirts, looked almost like some big strange insect amidst all the crude brightness. Florent noticed that she was trying to inveigle Rose into a conversation, and shrewdly suspected that she had caught sight of him through the half open doorway. Since he had been on duty at the markets he had met her at almost every step, loitering in one or another of the covered ways, and generally in the company of Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette. He had noticed also that the three women stealthily examined him, and seemed lost in amazement at seeing him installed in the position of inspector. That evening, however, Rose was no doubt loath to enter into conversation with the old maid, for the latter at last turned round, apparently with the intention of approaching Monsieur Lebigre, who was playing piquet with a customer at one of the bronzed tables. Creeping quietly along, Mademoiselle Saget had at last managed to install herself beside the partition of the cabinet, when she was observed by Gavard, who detested her.
"Shut the door, Florent!" he cried unceremoniously. "We can't even be by ourselves, it seems!"
When midnight came and Lacaille went away he exchanged a few whispered words with Monsieur Lebigre, and as the latter shook hands with him he slipped four five-franc pieces into his palm, without anyone noticing it. "That'll make twenty-two francs that you'll have to pay to-morrow, remember," he whispered in his ear. "The person who lends the money won't do it for less in future. Don't forget, too, that you owe three days' truck hire. You must pay everything off."
Then Monsieur Lebigre wished the friends good night. He was very sleepy and should sleep well, he said, with a yawn which revealed his big teeth, while Rose gazed at him with an air of submissive humility. However, he gave her a push, and told her to go and turn out the gas in the little room.
On reaching the pavement, Gavard stumbled and nearly fell. And being in a humorous vein, he thereupon exclaimed: "Confound it all! At any rate, I don't seem to be leaning on anybody's lights."
This remark seemed to amuse the others, and the party broke up. A little later Florent returned to Lebigre's, and indeed he became quite attached to the "cabinet," finding a seductive charm in Robine's contemplative silence, Logre's fiery outbursts, and Charvet's cool venom. When he went home, he did not at once retire to bed. He had grown very fond of his attic, that girlish bedroom, where Augustine had left scraps of ribbons, souvenirs, and other feminine trifles lying about. There still remained some hair-pins on the mantelpiece, with gilt cardboard boxes of buttons and lozenges, cutout pictures, and empty pomade pots that retained an odour of jasmine. Then there were some reels of thread, needles, and a missal lying by the side of a soiled Dream-book in the drawer of the rickety deal table. A white summer dress with yellow spots hung forgotten from a nail; while upon the board which served as a toilet-table a big stain behind the water-jug showed where a bottle of bandoline had been overturned. The little chamber, with its narrow iron bed, its two rush-bottomed chairs, and its faded grey wallpaper, was instinct with innocent simplicity. The plain white curtains, the childishness suggested by the cardboard boxes and the Dream-book, and the clumsy coquetry which had stained the walls, all charmed Florent and brought him back to dreams of youth. He would have preferred not to have known that plain, wiry-haired Augustine, but to have been able to imagine that he was occupying the room of a sister, some bright sweet girl of whose budding womanhood every trifle around him spoke.
Yet another pleasure which he took was to lean out of the garret window at nighttime. In front of it was a narrow ledge of roof, enclosed by an iron railing, and forming a sort of balcony, on which Augustine had grown a pomegranate in a box. Since the nights had turned cold, Florent had brought the pomegranate indoors and kept it by the foot of his bed till morning. He would linger for a few minutes by the open window, inhaling deep draughts of the sharp fresh air which was wafted up from the Seine, over the housetops of the Rue de Rivoli. Below him the roofs of the markets spread confusedly in a grey expanse, like slumbering lakes on whose surface the furtive reflection of a pane of glass gleamed every now and then like a silvery ripple. Farther away the roofs of the meat and poultry pavilions lay in deeper gloom, and became mere masses of shadow barring the horizon. Florent delighted in the great stretch of open sky in front of him, in that spreading expanse of the markets which amidst all the narrow city streets brought him a dim vision of some strip of sea coast, of the still grey waters of a bay scarce quivering from the roll of the distant billows. He used to lose himself in dreams as he stood there; each night he conjured up the vision of some fresh coast line. To return in mind to the eight years of despair which he had spent away from France rendered him both very sad and very happy. Then at last, shivering all over, he would close the window. Often, as he stood in front of the fireplace taking off his collar, the photograph of Auguste and Augustine would fill him with disquietude. They seemed to be watching him as they stood there, hand in hand, smiling faintly.
Florent's first few weeks at the fish market were very painful to him. The Mehudins treated him with open hostility, which infected the whole market with a spirit of opposition. The beautiful Norman intended to revenge herself on the handsome Lisa, and the latter's cousin seemed a victim ready to hand.
The Mehudins came from Rouen. Louise's mother still related how she had first arrived in Paris with a basket of eels. She had ever afterwards remained in the fish trade. She had married a man employed in the Octroi service, who had died leaving her with two little girls. It was she who by her full figure and glowing freshness had won for herself in earlier days the nickname of "the beautiful Norman," which her eldest daughter had inherited. Now five and sixty years of age, Madame Mehudin had become flabby and shapeless, and the damp air of the fish market had rendered her voice rough and hoarse, and given a bluish tinge to her skin. Sedentary life had made her extremely bulky, and her head was thrown backwards by the exuberance of her bosom. She had never been willing to renounce the fashions of her younger days, but still wore the flowered gown, the yellow kerchief, and turban-like head-gear of the classic fish-wife, besides retaining the latter's loud voice and rapidity of gesture as she stood with her hands on her hips, shouting out the whole abusive vocabulary of her calling.
She looked back regretfully to the old Marche des Innocents, which the new central markets had supplanted. She would talk of the ancient rights of the market "ladies," and mingle stories of fisticuffs exchanged with the police with reminiscences of the visits she had paid the Court in the time of Charles X and Louis Philippe, dressed in silk, and carrying a bouquet of flowers in her hand. Old Mother Mehudin, as she was now generally called, had for a long time been the banner-bearer of the Sisterhood of the Virgin at St. Leu. She would relate that in the processions in the church there she had worn a dress and cap of tulle trimmed with satin ribbons, whilst holding aloft in her puffy fingers the gilded staff of the richly-fringed silk standard on which the figure of the Holy Mother was embroidered.
According to the gossip of the neighbourhood, the old woman had made a fairly substantial fortune, though the only signs of it were the massive gold ornaments with which she loaded her neck and arms and bosom on important occasions. Her two daughters got on badly together as they grew up. The younger one, Claire, an idle, fair-complexioned girl, complained of the ill-treatment which she received from her sister Louise, protesting, in her languid voice, that she could never submit to be the other's servant. As they would certainly have ended by coming to blows, their mother separated them. She gave her stall in the fish market to Louise, while Claire, whom the smell of the skate and the herrings affected in the lungs, installed herself among the fresh water fish. And from that time the old mother, although she pretended to have retired from business altogether, would flit from one stall to the other, still interfering in the selling of the fish, and causing her daughters continual annoyance by the foul insolence with which she would at times speak to customers.
Claire was a fantastical creature, very gentle in her manner, and yet continually at loggerheads with others. People said that she invariably followed her own whimsical inclinations. In spite of her dreamy, girlish face she was imbued with a nature of silent firmness, a spirit of independence which prompted her to live apart; she never took things as other people did, but would one day evince perfect fairness, and the next day arrant injustice. She would sometimes throw the market into confusion by suddenly increasing or lowering the prices at her stall, without anyone being able to guess her reason for doing so. She herself would refuse to explain her motive. By the time she reached her thirtieth year, her delicate physique and fine skin, which the water of the tanks seemed to keep continually fresh and soft, her small, faintly-marked face and lissome limbs would probably become heavy, coarse, and flabby, till she would look like some faded saint that had stepped from a stained-glass window into the degrading sphere of the markets. At twenty-two, however, Claire, in the midst of her carp and eels, was, to use Claude Lantier's expression, a Murillo. A Murillo, that is, whose hair was often in disorder, who wore heavy shoes and clumsily cut dresses, which left her without any figure. But she was free from all coquetry, and she assumed an air of scornful contempt when Louise, displaying her bows and ribbons, chaffed her about her clumsily knotted neckerchiefs. Moreover, she was virtuous; it was said that the son of a rich shopkeeper in the neighbourhood had gone abroad in despair at having failed to induce her to listen to his suit.
Louise, the beautiful Norman, was of a different nature. She had been engaged to be married to a clerk in the corn market; but a sack of flour falling upon the young man had broken his back and killed him. Not very long afterwards Louise had given birth to a boy. In the Mehudins' circle of acquaintance she was looked upon as a widow; and the old fish-wife in conversation would occasionally refer to the time when her son-in-law was alive.
The Mehudins were a power in the markets. When Monsieur Verlaque had finished instructing Florent in his new duties, he advised him to conciliate certain of the stall-holders, if he wished his life to be endurable; and he even carried his sympathy so far as to put him in possession of the little secrets of the office, such as the various little breaches of rule that it was necessary to wink at, and those at which he would have to feign stern displeasure; and also the circumstances under which he might accept a small present. A market inspector is at once a constable and a magistrate; he has to maintain proper order and cleanliness, and settle in a conciliatory spirit all disputes between buyers and sellers. Florent, who was of a weak disposition put on an artificial sternness when he was obliged to exercise his authority, and generally over-acted his part. Moreover, his gloomy, pariah-like face and bitterness of spirit, the result of long suffering, were against him.
The beautiful Norman's idea was to involve him in some quarrel or other. She had sworn that he would not keep his berth a fortnight. "That fat Lisa's much mistaken," said she one morning on meeting Madame Lecoeur, "if she thinks that she's going to put people over us. We don't want such ugly wretches here. That sweetheart of hers is a perfect fright!"
After the auctions, when Florent commenced his round of inspection, strolling slowly through the dripping alleys, he could plainly see the beautiful Norman watching him with an impudent smile on her face. Her stall, which was in the second row on the left, near the fresh water fish department faced the Rue Rambuteau. She would turn round, however, and never take her eyes off her victim whilst making fun of him with her neighbours. And when he passed in front of her, slowly examining the slabs, she feigned hilarious merriment, slapped her fish with her hand, and turned her jets of water on at full stream, flooding the pathway. Nevertheless Florent remained perfectly calm.
At last, one morning as was bound to happen, war broke out. As Florent reached La Normande's stall that day an unbearable stench assailed his nostrils. On the marble slab, in addition to part of a magnificent salmon, showing its soft roseate flesh, there lay some turbots of creamy whiteness, a few conger-eels pierced with black pins to mark their divisions, several pairs of soles, and some bass and red mullet—in fact, quite a display of fresh fish. But in the midst of it, amongst all these fish whose eyes still gleamed and whose gills were of a bright crimson, there lay a huge skate of a ruddy tinge, splotched with dark stains—superb, indeed, with all its strange colourings. Unfortunately, it was rotten; its tail was falling off and the ribs of its fins were breaking through the skin.
"You must throw that skate away," said Florent as he came up.
The beautiful Norman broke into a slight laugh. Florent raised his eyes and saw her standing before him, with her back against the bronze lamp post which lighted the stalls in her division. She had mounted upon a box to keep her feet out of the damp, and appeared very tall as he glanced at her. She looked also handsomer than usual, with her hair arranged in little curls, her sly face slightly bent, her lips compressed, and her hands showing somewhat too rosily against her big white apron. Florent had never before seen her decked with so much jewellery. She had long pendants in her ears, a chain round her neck, a brooch in her dress body, and quite a collection of rings on two fingers of her left hand and one of her right.
As she still continued to look slyly at Florent, without making any reply, the latter continued: "Do you hear? You must remove that skate."
He had not yet noticed the presence of old Madame Mehudin, who sat all of a heap on a chair in a corner. She now got up, however, and, with her fists resting on the marble slap, insolently exclaimed: "Dear me! And why is she to throw her skate away? You won't pay her for it, I'll bet!"
Florent immediately understood the position. The women at the other stalls began to titter, and he felt that he was surrounded by covert rebellion, which a word might cause to blaze forth. He therefore restrained himself, and in person drew the refuse-pail from under the stall and dropped the skate into it. Old Madame Mehudin had already stuck her hands on her hips, while the beautiful Norman, who had not spoken a word, burst into another malicious laugh as Florent strode sternly away amidst a chorus of jeers, which he pretended not to hear.
Each day now some new trick was played upon him, and he was obliged to walk through the market alleys as warily as though he were in a hostile country. He was splashed with water from the sponges employed to cleanse the slabs; he stumbled and almost fell over slippery refuse intentionally spread in his way; and even the porters contrived to run their baskets against the nape of his neck. One day, moreover, when two of the fish-wives were quarrelling, and he hastened up to prevent them coming to blows, he was obliged to duck in order to escape being slapped on either cheek by a shower of little dabs which passed over his head. There was a general outburst of laughter on this occasion, and Florent always believed that the two fish-wives were in league with the Mehudins. However, his old-time experiences as a teacher had endowed him with angelic patience, and he was able to maintain a magisterial coolness of manner even when anger was hotly rising within him, and his whole being quivered with a sense of humiliation. Still, the young scamps of the Rue de l'Estrapade had never manifested the savagery of these fish-wives, the cruel tenacity of these huge females, whose massive figures heaved and shook with a giant-like joy whenever he fell into any trap. They stared him out of countenance with their red faces; and in the coarse tones of their voices and the impudent gesture of their hands he could read volumes of filthy abuse levelled at himself. Gavard would have been quite in his element amidst all these petticoats, and would have freely cuffed them all round; but Florent, who had always been afraid of women, gradually felt overwhelmed as by a sort of nightmare in which giant women, buxom beyond all imagination, danced threateningly around him, shouting at him in hoarse voices and brandishing bare arms, as massive as any prize-fighter's.
Amongst this hoard of females, however, Florent had one friend. Claire unhesitatingly declared that the new inspector was a very good fellow. When he passed in front of her, pursued by the coarse abuse of the others, she gave him a pleasant smile, sitting nonchalantly behind her stall, with unruly errant locks of pale hair straying over her neck and her brow, and the bodice of her dress pinned all askew. He also often saw her dipping her hands into her tanks, transferring the fish from one compartment to another, and amusing herself by turning on the brass taps, shaped like little dolphins with open mouths, from which the water poured in streamlets. Amidst the rustling sound of the water she had some of the quivering grace of a girl who has just been bathing and has hurriedly slipped on her clothes.
One morning she was particularly amiable. She called the inspector to her to show him a huge eel which had been the wonder of the market when exhibited at the auction. She opened the grating, which she had previously closed over the basin in whose depths the eel seemed to be lying sound asleep.
"Wait a moment," she said, "and I'll show it to you."
Then she gently slipped her bare arm into the water; it was not a very plump arm, and its veins showed softly blue beneath its satiny skin. As soon as the eel felt her touch, it rapidly twisted round, and seemed to fill the narrow trough with its glistening greenish coils. And directly it had settled down to rest again Claire once more stirred it with her fingertips.
"It is an enormous creature," Florent felt bound to say. "I have rarely seen such a fine one."
Claire thereupon confessed to him that she had at first been frightened of eels; but now she had learned how to tighten her grip so that they could not slip away. From another compartment she took a smaller one, which began to wriggle both with head and tail, as she held it about the middle in her closed fist. This made her laugh. She let it go, then seized another and another, scouring the basin and stirring up the whole heap of snaky-looking creatures with her slim fingers.
Afterwards she began to speak of the slackness of trade. The hawkers on the foot-pavement of the covered way did the regular saleswomen a great deal of injury, she said. Meantime her bare arm, which she had not wiped, was glistening and dripping with water. Big drops trickled from each finger.
"Oh," she exclaimed suddenly, "I must show you my carp, too!"
She now removed another grating, and, using both hands, lifted out a large carp, which began to flap its tail and gasp. It was too big to be held conveniently, so she sought another one. This was smaller, and she could hold it with one hand, but the latter was forced slightly open by the panting of the sides each time that the fish gasped. To amuse herself it occurred to Claire to pop the tip of her thumb into the carp's mouth whilst it was dilated. "It won't bite," said she with her gentle laugh; "it's not spiteful. No more are the crawfishes; I'm not the least afraid of them."
She plunged her arm into the water again, and from a compartment full of a confused crawling mass brought up a crawfish that had caught her little finger in its claws. She gave the creature a shake, but it no doubt gripped her too tightly, for she turned very red, and snapped off its claw with a quick, angry gesture, though still continuing to smile.
"By the way," she continued quickly, to conceal her emotion, "I wouldn't trust myself with a pike; he'd cut off my fingers like a knife."
She thereupon showed him some big pike arranged in order of size upon clean scoured shelves, beside some bronze-hued tench and little heaps of gudgeon. Her hands were now quite slimy with handling the carp, and as she stood there in the dampness rising from the tanks, she held them outstretched over the dripping fish on the stall. She seemed enveloped by an odour of spawn, that heavy scent which rises from among the reeds and water-lilies when the fish, languid in the sunlight, discharge their eggs. Then she wiped her hands on her apron, still smiling the placid smile of a girl who knew nothing of passion in that quivering atmosphere of the frigid loves of the river.
The kindliness which Claire showed to Florent was but a slight consolation to him. By stopping to talk to the girl he only drew upon himself still coarser jeers from the other stallkeepers. Claire shrugged her shoulders, and said that her mother was an old jade, and her sister a worthless creature. The injustice of the market folk towards the new inspector filled her with indignation. The war between them, however, grew more bitter every day. Florent had serious thoughts of resigning his post; indeed, he would not have retained it for another twenty-four hours if he had not been afraid that Lisa might imagine him to be a coward. He was frightened of what she might say and what she might think. She was naturally well aware of the contest which was going on between the fish-wives and their inspector; for the whole echoing market resounded with it, and the entire neighbourhood discussed each fresh incident with endless comments.
"Ah, well," Lisa would often say in the evening, after dinner, "I'd soon bring them to reason if I had anything to do with them! Why, they are a lot of dirty jades that I wouldn't touch with the tip of my finger! That Normande is the lowest of the low! I'd soon crush her, that I would! You should really use your authority, Florent. You are wrong to behave as you do. Put your foot down, and they'll all come to their senses very quickly, you'll see."
A terrible climax was presently reached. One morning the servant of Madame Taboureau, the baker, came to the market to buy a brill; and the beautiful Norman, having noticed her lingering near her stall for several minutes, began to make overtures to her in a coaxing way: "Come and see me; I'll suit you," she said. "Would you like a pair of soles, or a fine turbot?"
Then as the servant at last came up, and sniffed at a brill with that dissatisfied pout which buyers assume in the hope of getting what they want at a lower price, La Normande continued:
"Just feel the weight of that, now," and so saying she laid the brill, wrapped in a sheet of thick yellow paper, on the woman's open palm.
The servant, a mournful little woman from Auvergne, felt the weight of the brill, and examined its gills, still pouting, and saying not a word.
"And how much do you want for it?" she asked presently, in a reluctant tone.
"Fifteen francs," replied La Normande.
At this the servant hastily laid the brill on the stall again, and seemed anxious to hurry away, but the other detained her. "Wait a moment," said she. "What do you offer?"
"No, no, I can't take it. It is much too dear."
"Come, now, make me an offer."
"Well, will you take eight francs?"
Old Madame Mehudin, who was there, suddenly seemed to wake up, and broke out into a contemptuous laugh. Did people think that she and her daughter stole the fish they sold? "Eight francs for a brill that size!" she exclaimed. "You'll be wanting one for nothing next, to use as a cooling plaster!"
Meantime La Normande turned her head away, as though greatly offended. However, the servant came back twice and offered nine francs; and finally she increased her bid to ten.
"All right, come on, give me your money!" cried the fish-girl, seeing that the woman was now really going away.
The servant took her stand in front of the stall and entered into a friendly gossip with old Madame Mehudin. Madame Taboureau, she said, was so exacting! She had got some people coming to dinner that evening, some cousins from Blois a notary and his wife. Madame Taboureau's family, she added, was a very respectable one, and she herself, although only a baker, had received an excellent education.
"You'll clean it nicely for me, won't you?" added the woman, pausing in her chatter.
With a jerk of her finger La Normande had removed the fish's entrails and tossed them into a pail. Then she slipped a corner of her apron under its gills to wipe away a few grains of sand. "There, my dear," she said, putting the fish into the servant's basket, "you'll come back to thank me."
Certainly the servant did come back a quarter of an hour afterwards, but it was with a flushed, red face. She had been crying, and her little body was trembling all over with anger. Tossing the brill on to the marble slab, she pointed to a broad gash in its belly that reached the bone. Then a flood of broken words burst from her throat, which was still contracted by sobbing: "Madame Taboureau won't have it. She says she couldn't put it on her table. She told me, too, that I was an idiot, and let myself be cheated by anyone. You can see for yourself that the fish is spoilt. I never thought of turning it round; I quite trusted you. Give me my ten francs back."
"You should look at what you buy," the handsome Norman calmly observed.
And then, as the servant was just raising her voice again, old Madame Mehudin got up. "Just you shut up!" she cried. "We're not going to take back a fish that's been knocking about in other people's houses. How do we know that you didn't let it fall and damage it yourself?"
"I! I damage it!" The little servant was choking with indignation. "Ah! you're a couple of thieves!" she cried, sobbing bitterly. "Yes, a couple of thieves! Madame Taboureau herself told me so!"
Matters then became uproarious. Boiling over with rage and brandishing their fists, both mother and daughter fairly exploded; while the poor little servant, quite bewildered by their voices, the one hoarse and the other shrill, which belaboured her with insults as though they were battledores and she a shuttlecock, sobbed on more bitterly than ever.
"Be off with you! Your Madame Taboureau would like to be half as fresh as that fish is! She'd like us to sew it up for her, no doubt!"
"A whole fish for ten francs! What'll she want next!"
Then came coarse words and foul accusations. Had the servant been the most worthless of her sex she could not have been more bitterly upbraided.
Florent, whom the market keeper had gone to fetch, made his appearance when the quarrel was at its hottest. The whole pavilion seemed to be in a state of insurrection. The fish-wives, who manifest the keenest jealousy of each other when the sale of a penny herring is in question, display a united front when a quarrel arises with a buyer. They sang the popular old ditty, "The baker's wife has heaps of crowns, which cost her precious little"; they stamped their feet, and goaded the Mehudins as though the latter were dogs which they were urging on to bite and devour. And there were even some, having stalls at the other end of the alley, who rushed up wildly, as though they meant to spring at the chignon of the poor little woman, she meantime being quite submerged by the flood of insulting abuse poured upon her.
"Return mademoiselle her ten francs," said Florent sternly, when he had learned what had taken place.
But old Madame Mehudin had her blood up. "As for you, my little man," quoth she, "go to blazes! Here, that's how I'll return the ten francs!"
As she spoke, she flung the brill with all her force at the head of Madame Taboureau's servant, who received it full in the face. The blood spurted from her nose, and the brill, after adhering for a moment to her cheeks, fell to the ground and burst with a flop like that of a wet clout. This brutal act threw Florent into a fury. The beautiful Norman felt frightened and recoiled, as he cried out: "I suspend you for a week, and I will have your licence withdrawn. You hear me?"
Then, as the other fish-wives were still jeering behind him, he turned round with such a threatening air that they quailed like wild beasts mastered by the tamer, and tried to assume an expression of innocence. When the Mehudins had returned the ten francs, Florent peremptorily ordered them to cease selling at once. The old woman was choking with rage, while the daughter kept silent, but turned very white. She, the beautiful Norman, to be driven out of her stall!
Claire said in her quiet voice that it served her mother and sister right, a remark which nearly resulted in the two girls tearing each other's hair out that evening when they returned home to the Rue Pirouette. However, when the Mehudins came back to the market at the week's end, they remained very quiet, reserved, and curt of speech, though full of a cold-blooded wrath. Moreover, they found the pavilion quite calm and restored to order again. From that day forward the beautiful Norman must have harboured the thought of some terrible vengeance. She felt that she really had Lisa to thank for what had happened. She had met her, the day after the battle, carrying her head so high, that she had sworn she would make her pay dearly for her glance of triumph. She held interminable confabulations with Madame Saget, Madame Lecoeur, and La Sarriette, in quiet corners of the market; however, all their chatter about the shameless conduct which they slanderously ascribed to Lisa and her cousin, and about the hairs which they declared were found in Quenu's chitterlings, brought La Normande little consolation. She was trying to think of some very malicious plan of vengeance, which would strike her rival to the heart.
Her child was growing up in the fish market in all freedom and neglect. When but three years old the youngster had been brought there, and day by day remained squatting on some rag amidst the fish. He would fall asleep beside the big tunnies as though he were one of them, and awake among the mackerel and whiting. The little rascal smelt of fish as strongly as though he were some big fish's offspring. For a long time his favourite pastime, whenever his mother's back was turned, was to build walls and houses of herrings; and he would also play at soldiers on the marble slab, arranging the red gurnets in confronting lines, pushing them against each other, and battering their heads, while imitating the sound of drum and trumpet with his lips; after which he would throw them all into a heap again, and exclaim that they were dead. When he grew older he would prowl about his aunt Claire's stall to get hold of the bladders of the carp and pike which she gutted. He placed them on the ground and made them burst, an amusement which afforded him vast delight. When he was seven he rushed about the alleys, crawled under the stalls, ferreted amongst the zinc bound fish boxes, and became the spoiled pet of all the women. Whenever they showed him something fresh which pleased him, he would clasp his hands and exclaim in ecstasy, "Oh, isn't it stunning!" Muche was the exact word which he used; muche being the equivalent of "stunning" in the lingo of the markets; and he used the expression so often that it clung to him as a nickname. He became known all over the place as "Muche." It was Muche here, there and everywhere; no one called him anything else. He was to be met with in every nook; in out-of-the-way corners of the offices in the auction pavilion; among the piles of oyster baskets, and betwixt the buckets where the refuse was thrown. With a pinky fairness of skin, he was like a young barbel frisking and gliding about in deep water. He was as fond of running, streaming water as any young fry. He was ever dabbling in the pools in the alleys. He wetted himself with the drippings from the tables, and when no one was looking often slyly turned on the taps, rejoicing in the bursting gush of water. But it was especially beside the fountains near the cellar steps that his mother went to seek him in the evening, and she would bring him thence with his hands quite blue, and his shoes, and even his pockets, full of water.
At seven years old Muche was as pretty as an angel, and as coarse in his manners as any carter. He had curly chestnut hair, beautiful eyes, and an innocent-looking mouth which gave vent to language that even a gendarme would have hesitated to use. Brought up amidst all the ribaldry and profanity of the markets, he had the whole vocabulary of the place on the tip of his tongue. With his hands on his hips he often mimicked Grandmother Mehudin in her anger, and at these times the coarsest and vilest expressions would stream from his lips in a voice of crystalline purity that might have belonged to some little chorister chanting the Ave Maria. He would even try to assume a hoarse roughness of tone, seek to degrade and taint that exquisite freshness of childhood which made him resemble a bambino on the Madonna's knees. The fish-wives laughed at him till they cried; and he, encouraged, could scarcely say a couple of words without rapping out an oath. But in spite of all this he still remained charming, understanding nothing of the dirt amidst which he lived, kept in vigorous health by the fresh breezes and sharp odours of the fish market, and reciting his vocabulary of coarse indecencies with as pure a face as though he were saying his prayers.
The winter was approaching, and Muche seemed very sensitive to the cold. As soon as the chilly weather set in he manifested a strong predilection for the inspector's office. This was situated in the left-hand corner of the pavilion, on the side of the Rue Rambuteau. The furniture consisted of a table, a stack of drawers, an easy-chair, two other chairs, and a stove. It was this stove which attracted Muche. Florent quite worshipped children, and when he saw the little fellow, with his dripping legs, gazing wistfully through the window, he made him come inside. His first conversation with the lad caused him profound amazement. Muche sat down in front of the stove, and in his quiet voice exclaimed: "I'll just toast my toes, do you see? It's d——d cold this morning." Then he broke into a rippling laugh, and added: "Aunt Claire looks awfully blue this morning. Is it true, sir, that you are sweet on her?"
Amazed though he was, Florent felt quite interested in the odd little fellow. The handsome Norman retained her surly bearing, but allowed her son to frequent the inspector's office without a word of objection. Florent consequently concluded that he had the mother's permission to receive the boy, and every afternoon he asked him in; by degrees forming the idea of turning him into a steady, respectable young fellow. He could almost fancy that his brother Quenu had grown little again, and that they were both in the big room in the Rue Royer-Collard once more. The life which his self-sacrificing nature pictured to him as perfect happiness was a life spent with some young being who would never grow up, whom he could go on teaching for ever, and in whose innocence he might still love his fellow man. On the third day of his acquaintance with Muche he brought an alphabet to the office, and the lad delighted him by the intelligence he manifested. He learned his letters with all the sharp precocity which marks the Parisian street arab, and derived great amusement from the woodcuts illustrating the alphabet.
He found opportunities, too, for plenty of fine fun in the little office, where the stove still remained the chief attraction and a source of endless enjoyment. At first he cooked potatoes and chestnuts at it, but presently these seemed insipid, and he thereupon stole some gudgeons from his aunt Claire, roasted them one by one, suspended from a string in front of the glowing fire, and then devoured them with gusto, though he had no bread. One day he even brought a carp with him; but it was impossible to roast it sufficiently, and it made such a smell in the office that both window and door had to be thrown open. Sometimes, when the odour of all these culinary operations became too strong, Florent would throw the fish into the street, but as a rule he only laughed. By the end of a couple of months Muche was able to read fairly well, and his copy-books did him credit.
Meantime, every evening the lad wearied his mother with his talk about his good friend Florent. His good friend Florent had drawn him pictures of trees and of men in huts, said he. His good friend Florent waved his arm and said that men would be far better if they all knew how to read. And at last La Normande heard so much about Florent that she seemed to be almost intimate with this man against whom she harboured so much rancour. One day she shut Muche up at home to prevent him from going to the inspector's, but he cried so bitterly that she gave him his liberty again on the following morning. There was very little determination about her, in spite of her broad shoulders and bold looks. When the lad told her how nice and warm he had been in the office, and came back to her with his clothes quite dry, she felt a sort of vague gratitude, a pleasure in knowing that he had found a shelter-place where he could sit with his feet in front of a fire. Later on, she was quite touched when he read her some words from a scrap of soiled newspaper wrapped round a slice of conger-eel. By degrees, indeed, she began to think, though without admitting it, that Florent could not really be a bad sort of fellow. She felt respect for his knowledge, mingled with an increasing curiosity to see more of him and learn something of his life. Then, all at once, she found an excuse for gratifying this inquisitiveness. She would use it as a means of vengeance. It would be fine fun to make friends with Florent and embroil him with that great fat Lisa.
"Does your good friend Florent ever speak to you about me?" she asked Muche one morning as she was dressing him.
"Oh, no," replied the boy. "We enjoy ourselves."
"Well, you can tell him that I've quite forgiven him, and that I'm much obliged to him for having taught you to read."
Thenceforward the child was entrusted with some message every day. He went backwards and forwards from his mother to the inspector, and from the inspector to his mother, charged with kindly words and questions and answers, which he repeated mechanically without knowing their meaning. He might, indeed, have been safely trusted with the most compromising communications. However, the beautiful Norman felt afraid of appearing timid, and so one day she herself went to the inspector's office and sat down on the second chair, while Muche was having his writing lesson. She proved very suave and complimentary, and Florent was by far the more embarrassed of the two. They only spoke of the lad; and when Florent expressed a fear that he might not be able to continue the lessons in the office, La Normande invited him to come to their home in the evening. She spoke also of payment; but at this he blushed, and said that he certainly would not come if any mention were made of money. Thereupon the young woman determined in her own mind that she would recompense him with presents of choice fish.
Peace was thus made between them; the beautiful Norman even took Florent under her protection. Apart from this, however, the whole market was becoming reconciled to the new inspector, the fish-wives arriving at the conclusion that he was really a better fellow than Monsieur Verlaque, notwithstanding his strange eyes. It was only old Madame Mehudin who still shrugged her shoulders, full of rancour as she was against the "long lanky-guts," as she contemptuously called him. And then, too, a strange thing happened. One morning, when Florent stopped with a smile before Claire's tanks, the girl dropped an eel which she was holding and angrily turned her back upon him, her cheeks quite swollen and reddened by temper. The inspector was so much astonished that he spoke to La Normande about it.
"Oh, never mind her," said the young woman; "she's cracked. She makes a point of always differing from everybody else. She only behaved like that to annoy me."
La Normande was now triumphant—she strutted about her stall, and became more coquettish than ever, arranging her hair in the most elaborate manner. Meeting the handsome Lisa one day she returned her look of scorn, and even burst out laughing in her face. The certainty she felt of driving the mistress of the pork shop to despair by winning her cousin from her endowed her with a gay, sonorous laugh, which rolled up from her chest and rippled her white plump neck. She now had the whim of dressing Muche very showily in a little Highland costume and velvet bonnet. The lad had never previously worn anything but a tattered blouse. It unfortunately happened, however, that just about this time he again became very fond of the water. The ice had melted and the weather was mild, so he gave his Scotch jacket a bath, turning the fountain tap on at full flow and letting the water pour down his arm from his elbow to his hand. He called this "playing at gutters." Then a little later, when his mother came up and caught him, she found him with two other young scamps watching a couple of little fishes swimming about in his velvet cap, which he had filled with water.
For nearly eight months Florent lived in the markets, feeling continual drowsiness. After his seven years of suffering he had lighted upon such calm quietude, such unbroken regularity of life, that he was scarcely conscious of existing. He gave himself up to this jog-trot peacefulness with a dazed sort of feeling, continually experiencing surprise at finding himself each morning in the same armchair in the little office. This office with its bare hut-like appearance had a charm for him. He here found a quiet and secluded refuge amidst that ceaseless roar of the markets which made him dream of some surging sea spreading around him, and isolating him from the world. Gradually, however, a vague nervousness began to prey upon him; he became discontented, accused himself of faults which he could not define, and began to rebel against the emptiness which he experienced more and more acutely in mind and body. Then, too, the evil smells of the fish market brought him nausea. By degrees he became unhinged, his vague boredom developing into restless, nervous excitement.
All his days were precisely alike, spent among the same sounds and the same odours. In the mornings the noisy buzzing of the auction sales resounded in his ears like a distant echo of bells; and sometimes, when there was a delay in the arrival of the fish, the auctions continued till very late. Upon these occasions he remained in the pavilion till noon, disturbed at every moment by quarrels and disputes, which he endeavoured to settle with scrupulous justice. Hours elapsed before he could get free of some miserable matter or other which was exciting the market. He paced up and down amidst the crush and uproar of the sales, slowly perambulating the alleys and occasionally stopping in front of the stalls which fringed the Rue Rambuteau, and where lay rosy heaps of prawns and baskets of boiled lobsters with tails tied backwards, while live ones were gradually dying as they sprawled over the marble slabs. And then he would watch gentlemen in silk hats and black gloves bargaining with the fish-wives, and finally going off with boiled lobsters wrapped in paper in the pockets of their frock-coats.[*] Farther away, at the temporary stalls, where the commoner sorts of fish were sold, he would recognise the bareheaded women of the neighbourhood, who always came at the same hour to make their purchases.
[*] The little fish-basket for the use of customers, so familiar in London, is not known in Paris.—Translator.
At times he took an interest in some well-dressed lady trailing her lace petticoats over the damp stones, and escorted by a servant in a white apron; and he would follow her at a little distance on noticing how the fish-wives shrugged their shoulders at sight of her air of disgust. The medley of hampers and baskets and bags, the crowd of skirts flitting along the damp alleys, occupied his attention until lunchtime. He took a delight in the dripping water and the fresh breeze as he passed from the acrid smell of the shell-fish to the pungent odour of the salted fish. It was always with the latter that he brought his official round of inspection to a close. The cases of red herrings, the Nantes sardines on their layers of leaves, and the rolled cod, exposed for sale under the eyes of stout, faded fish-wives, brought him thoughts of a voyage necessitating a vast supply of salted provisions.
In the afternoon the markets became quieter, grew drowsy; and Florent then shut himself up in his office, made out his reports, and enjoyed the happiest hours of his day. If he happened to go out and cross the fish market, he found it almost deserted. There was no longer the crushing and pushing and uproar of ten o'clock in the morning. The fish-wives, seated behind their stalls, leant back knitting, while a few belated purchasers prowled about casting sidelong glances at the remaining fish, with the thoughtful eyes and compressed lips of women closely calculating the price of their dinner. At last the twilight fell, there was a noise of boxes being moved, and the fish was laid for the night on beds of ice; and then, after witnessing the closing of the gates, Florent went off, seemingly carrying the fish market along with him in his clothes and his beard and his hair.
For the first few months this penetrating odour caused him no great discomfort. The winter was a severe one, the frosts converted the alleys into slippery mirrors, and the fountains and marble slabs were fringed with a lacework of ice. In the mornings it was necessary to place little braziers underneath the taps before a drop of water could be drawn. The frozen fish had twisted tails; and, dull of hue and hard to the touch like unpolished metal, gave out a ringing sound akin to that of pale cast-iron when it snaps. Until February the pavilion presented a most mournful appearance: it was deserted, and wrapped in a bristling shroud of ice. But with March came a thaw, with mild weather and fogs and rain. Then the fish became soft again, and unpleasant odours mingled with the smell of mud wafted from the neighbouring streets. These odours were as yet vague, tempered by the moisture which clung to the ground. But in the blazing June afternoons a reeking stench arose, and the atmosphere became heavy with a pestilential haze. The upper windows were then opened, and huge blinds of grey canvas were drawn beneath the burning sky. Nevertheless, a fiery rain seemed to be pouring down, heating the market as though it were a big stove, and there was not a breath of air to waft away the noxious emanations from the fish. A visible steam went up from the stalls.
The masses of food amongst which Florent lived now began to cause him the greatest discomfort. The disgust with which the pork shop had filled him came back in a still more intolerable fashion. He almost sickened as he passed these masses of fish, which, despite all the water lavished upon them, turned bad under a sudden whiff of hot air. Even when he shut himself up in his office his discomfort continued, for the abominable odour forced its way through the chinks in the woodwork of the window and door. When the sky was grey and leaden, the little room remained quite dark; and then the day was like a long twilight in the depths of some fetid march. He was often attacked by fits of nervous excitement, and felt a craving desire to walk; and he would then descend into the cellars by the broad staircase opening in the middle of the pavilion. In the pent-up air down below, in the dim light of the occasional gas jets, he once more found the refreshing coolness diffused by pure cold water. He would stand in front of the big tank where the reserve stock of live fish was kept, and listen to the ceaseless murmur of the four streamlets of water falling from the four corners of the central urn, and then spreading into a broad stream and gliding beneath the locked gratings of the basins with a gentle and continuous flow. This subterranean spring, this stream murmuring in the gloom, had a tranquillising effect upon him. Of an evening, too, he delighted in the fine sunsets which threw the delicate lacework of the market buildings blackly against the red glow of the heavens. The dancing dust of the last sun rays streamed through every opening, through every chink of the Venetian shutters, and the whole was like some luminous transparency on which the slender shafts of the columns, the elegant curves of the girders, and the geometrical tracery of the roofs were minutely outlined. Florent feasted his eyes on this mighty diagram washed in with Indian ink on phosphorescent vellum, and his mind reverted to his old fancy of a colossal machine with wheels and levers and beams espied in the crimson glow of the fires blazing beneath its boilers. At each consecutive hour of the day the changing play of the light—from the bluish haze of early morning and the black shadows of noon to the flaring of the sinking sun and the paling of its fires in the ashy grey of the twilight—revealed the markets under a new aspect; but on the flaming evenings, when the foul smells arose and forced their way across the broad yellow beams like hot puffs of steam, Florent again experienced discomfort, and his dream changed, and he imagined himself in some gigantic knacker's boiling-house where the fat of a whole people was being melted down.
The coarseness of the market people, whose words and gestures seemed to be infected with the evil smell of the place, also made him suffer. He was very tolerant, and showed no mock modesty; still, these impudent women often embarrassed him. Madame Francois, whom he had again met, was the only one with whom he felt at ease. She showed such pleasure on learning he had found a berth and was quite comfortable and out of worry, as she put it, that he was quite touched. The laughter of Lisa, the handsome Norman, and the others disquieted him; but of Madame Francois he would willingly have made a confidante. She never laughed mockingly at him; when she did laugh, it was like a woman rejoicing at another's happiness. She was a brave, plucky creature, too; hers was a hard business in winter, during the frosts, and the rainy weather was still more trying. On some mornings Florent saw her arrive in a pouring deluge which had been slowly, coldly falling ever since the previous night. Between Nanterre and Paris the wheels of her cart had sunk up to the axles in mud, and Balthazar was caked with mire to his belly. His mistress would pity him and sympathise with him as she wiped him down with some old aprons.
"The poor creatures are very sensitive," said she; "a mere nothing gives them a cold. Ah, my poor old Balthazar! I really thought that we had tumbled into the Seine as we crossed the Neuilly bridge, the rain came down in such a deluge!"
While Balthazar was housed in the inn stable his mistress remained in the pouring rain to sell her vegetables. The footway was transformed into a lake of liquid mud. The cabbages, carrots, and turnips were pelted by the grey water, quite drowned by the muddy torrent that rushed along the pavement. There was no longer any of that glorious greenery so apparent on bright mornings. The market gardeners, cowering in their heavy cloaks beneath the downpour, swore at the municipality which, after due inquiry, had declared that rain was in no way injurious to vegetables, and that there was accordingly no necessity to erect any shelters.
Those rainy mornings greatly worried Florent, who thought about Madame Francois. He always managed to slip away and get a word with her. But he never found her at all low-spirited. She shook herself like a poodle, saying that she was quite used to such weather, and was not made of sugar, to melt away beneath a few drops of rain. However, he made her seek refuge for a few minutes in one of the covered ways, and frequently even took her to Monsieur Lebigre's, where they had some hot wine together. While she with her peaceful face beamed on him in all friendliness, he felt quite delighted with the healthy odour of the fields which she brought into the midst of the foul market atmosphere. She exhaled a scent of earth, hay, fresh air, and open skies.
"You must come to Nanterre, my lad," she said to him, "and look at my kitchen garden. I have put borders of thyme everywhere. How bad your villainous Paris does smell!"
Then she went off, dripping. Florent, on his side, felt quite re-invigorated when he parted from her. He tried, too the effect of work upon the nervous depression from which he suffered. He was a man of a very methodical temperament, and sometimes carried out his plans for the allotment of his time with a strictness that bordered on mania. He shut himself up two evenings a week in order to write an exhaustive work on Cayenne. His modest bedroom was excellently adapted, he thought, to calm his mind and incline him to work. He lighted his fire, saw that the pomegranate at the foot of the bed was looking all right, and then seated himself at the little table, and remained working till midnight. He had pushed the missal and Dream-book back in the drawer, which was now filling with notes, memoranda, manuscripts of all kinds. The work on Cayenne made but slow progress, however, as it was constantly being interrupted by other projects, plans for enormous undertakings which he sketched out in a few words. He successively drafted an outline of a complete reform of the administrative system of the markets, a scheme for transforming the city dues, levied on produce as it entered Paris, into taxes levied upon the sales, a new system of victualling the poorer neighbourhoods, and, lastly, a somewhat vague socialist enactment for the storing in common warehouses of all the provisions brought to the markets, and the ensuring of a minimum daily supply to each household in Paris. As he sat there, with his head bent over his table, and his mind absorbed in thoughts of all these weighty matters, his gloomy figure cast a great black shadow on the soft peacefulness of the garret. Sometimes a chaffinch which he had picked up one snowy day in the market would mistake the lamplight for the day, and break the silence, which only the scratching of Florent's pen on his paper disturbed, by a cry.