Florent was fated to revert to politics. He had suffered too much through them not to make them the dearest occupation of his life. Under other conditions he might have become a good provincial schoolmaster, happy in the peaceful life of some little town. But he had been treated as though he were a wolf, and felt as though he had been marked out by exile for some great combative task. His nervous discomfort was the outcome of his long reveries at Cayenne, the brooding bitterness he had felt at his unmerited sufferings, and the vows he had secretly sworn to avenge humanity and justice—the former scourged with a whip, and the latter trodden under foot. Those colossal markets and their teeming odoriferous masses of food had hastened the crisis. To Florent they appeared symbolical of some glutted, digesting beast, of Paris, wallowing in its fat and silently upholding the Empire. He seemed to be encircled by swelling forms and sleek, fat faces, which ever and ever protested against his own martyrlike scragginess and sallow, discontented visage. To him the markets were like the stomach of the shopkeeping classes, the stomach of all the folks of average rectitude puffing itself out, rejoicing, glistening in the sunshine, and declaring that everything was for the best, since peaceable people had never before grown so beautifully fat. As these thoughts passed through his mind Florent clenched his fists, and felt ready for a struggle, more irritated now by the thought of his exile than he had been when he first returned to France. Hatred resumed entire possession of him. He often let his pen drop and became absorbed in dreams. The dying fire cast a bright glow upon his face; the lamp burned smokily, and the chaffinch fell asleep again on one leg, with its head tucked under its wing.
Sometimes Auguste, on coming upstairs at eleven o'clock and seeing the light shining under the door, would knock, before going to bed. Florent admitted him with some impatience. The assistant sat down in front of the fire, speaking but little, and never saying why he had come. His eyes would all the time remain fixed upon the photograph of himself and Augustine in their Sunday finery. Florent came to the conclusion that the young man took a pleasure in visiting the room for the simple reason that it had been occupied by his sweetheart; and one evening he asked him with a smile if he had guessed rightly.
"Well, perhaps it is so," replied Auguste, very much surprised at the discovery which he himself now made of the reasons which actuated him. "I'd really never thought of that before. I came to see you without knowing why. But if I were to tell Augustine, how she'd laugh!"
Whenever he showed himself at all loquacious, his one eternal theme was the pork shop which he was going to set up with Augustine at Plaisance. He seemed so perfectly assured of arranging his life in accordance with his desires, that Florent grew to feel a sort of respect for him, mingled with irritation. After all, the young fellow was very resolute and energetic, in spite of his seeming stupidity. He made straight for the goal he had in view, and would doubtless reach it in perfect assurance and happiness. On the evenings of these visits from the apprentice, Florent could not settle down to work again; he went off to bed in a discontented mood, and did not recover his equilibrium till the thought passed through his mind, "Why, that Auguste is a perfect animal!"
Every month he went to Clamart to see Monsieur Verlaque. These visits were almost a delight to him. The poor man still lingered on, to the great astonishment of Gavard, who had not expected him to last for more than six months. Every time that Florent went to see him Verlaque would declare that he was feeling better, and was most anxious to resume his work again. But the days glided by, and he had serious relapses. Florent would sit by his bedside, chat about the fish market, and do what he could to enliven him. He deposited on the pedestal table the fifty francs which he surrendered to him each month; and the old inspector, though the payment had been agreed upon, invariably protested, and seemed disinclined to take the money. Then they would begin to speak of something else, and the coins remained lying on the table. When Florent went away, Madame Verlaque always accompanied him to the street door. She was a gentle little woman, of a very tearful disposition. Her one topic of conversation was the expense necessitated by her husband's illness, the costliness of chicken broth, butcher's meat, Bordeaux wine, medicine, and doctors' fees. Her doleful conversation greatly embarrassed Florent, and on the first few occasions he did not understand the drift of it. But at last, as the poor woman seemed always in a state of tears, and kept saying how happy and comfortable they had been when they had enjoyed the full salary of eighteen hundred francs a year, he timidly offered to make her a private allowance, to be kept secret from her husband. This offer, however, she declined, inconsistently declaring that the fifty francs were sufficient. But in the course of the month she frequently wrote to Florent, calling him their saviour. Her handwriting was small and fine, yet she would contrive to fill three pages of letter paper with humble, flowing sentences entreating the loan of ten francs; and this she at last did so regularly that wellnigh the whole of Florent's hundred and fifty francs found its way to the Verlaques. The husband was probably unaware of it; however, the wife gratefully kissed Florent's hands. This charity afforded him the greatest pleasure, and he concealed it as though it were some forbidden selfish indulgence.
"That rascal Verlaque is making a fool of you," Gavard would sometimes say. "He's coddling himself up finely now that you are doing the work and paying him an income."
At last one day Florent replied:
"Oh, we've arranged matters together. I'm only to give him twenty-five francs a month in future."
As a matter of fact, Florent had but little need of money. The Quenus continued to provide him with board and lodging; and the few francs which he kept by him sufficed to pay for the refreshment he took in the evening at Monsieur Lebigre's. His life had gradually assumed all the regularity of clockwork. He worked in his bedroom, continued to teach little Muche twice a week from eight to nine o'clock, devoted an evening to Lisa, to avoid offending her, and spent the rest of his spare time in the little "cabinet" with Gavard and his friends.
When he went to the Mehudins' there was a touch of tutorial stiffness in his gentle demeanour. He was pleased with the old house in the Rue Pirouette. On the ground floor he passed through the faint odours pervading the premises of the purveyor of cooked vegetables. Big pans of boiled spinach and sorrel stood cooling in the little backyard. Then he ascended the winding staircase, greasy and dark, with worn and bulging steps which sloped in a disquieting manner. The Mehudins occupied the whole of the second floor. Even when they had attained to comfortable circumstances the old mother had always declined to move into fresh quarters, despite all the supplications of her daughters, who dreamt of living in a new house in a fine broad street. But on this point the old woman was not to be moved; she had lived there, she said, and meant to die there. She contented herself, moreover, with a dark little closet, leaving the largest rooms to Claire and La Normande. The later, with the authority of the elder born, had taken possession of the room that overlooked the street; it was the best and largest of the suite. Claire was so much annoyed at her sister's action in the matter that she refused to occupy the adjoining room, whose window overlooked the yard, and obstinately insisted on sleeping on the other side of the landing, in a sort of garret, which she did not even have whitewashed. However, she had her own key, and so was independent; directly anything happened to displease her she locked herself up in her own quarters.
As a rule, when Florent arrived the Mehudins were just finishing their dinner. Muche sprang to his neck, and for a moment the young man remained seated with the lad chattering between his legs. Then, when the oilcloth cover had been wiped, the lesson began on a corner of the table. The beautiful Norman gave Florent a cordial welcome. She generally began to knit or mend some linen, and would draw her chair up to the table and work by the light of the same lamp as the others; and she frequently put down her needle to listen to the lesson, which filled her with surprise. She soon began to feel warm esteem for this man who seemed so clever, who, in speaking to the little one, showed himself as gentle as a woman, and manifested angelic patience in again and again repeating the same instructions. She no longer considered him at all plain, but even felt somewhat jealous of beautiful Lisa. And then she drew her chair still nearer, and gazed at Florent with an embarrassing smile.
"But you are jogging my elbow, mother, and I can't write," Muche exclaimed angrily. "There! see what a blot you've made me make! Get further away, do!"
La Normande now gradually began to say a good many unpleasant things about beautiful Lisa. She pretended that the latter concealed her real age, that she laced her stays so tightly that she nearly suffocated herself, and that if she came down of a morning looking so trim and neat, without a single hair out of place, it must be because she looked perfectly hideous when in dishabille. Then La Normande would raise her arm a little, and say that there was no need for her to wear any stays to cramp and deform her figure. At these times the lessons would be interrupted, and Muche gazed with interest at his mother as she raised her arms. Florent listened to her, and even laughed, thinking to himself that women were very odd creatures. The rivalry between the beautiful Norman and beautiful Lisa amused him.
Muche, however, managed to finish his page of writing. Florent, who was a good penman, set him copies in large hand and round hand on slips of paper. The words he chose were very long and took up the whole line, and he evinced a marked partiality for such expressions as "tyrannically," "liberticide," "unconstitutional," and "revolutionary." At times also he made the boy copy such sentences as these: "The day of justice will surely come"; "The suffering of the just man is the condemnation of the oppressor"; "When the hour strikes, the guilty shall fall." In preparing these copy slips he was, indeed, influenced by the ideas which haunted his brain; he would for the time become quite oblivious of Muche, the beautiful Norman, and all his surroundings. The lad would have copied Rousseau's "Contrat Social" had he been told to do so; and thus, drawing each letter in turn, he filled page after page with lines of "tyrannically" and "unconstitutional."
As long as the tutor remained there, old Madame Mehudin kept fidgeting round the table, muttering to herself. She still harboured terrible rancour against Florent; and asserted that it was folly to make the lad work in that way at a time when children should be in bed. She would certainly have turned that "spindle-shanks" out of the house, if the beautiful Norman, after a stormy scene, had not bluntly told her that she would go to live elsewhere if she were not allowed to receive whom she chose. However, the pair began quarrelling again on the subject every evening.
"You may say what you like," exclaimed the old woman; "but he's got treacherous eyes. And, besides, I'm always suspicious of those skinny people. A skinny man's capable of anything. I've never come across a decent one yet. That one's as flat as a board. And he's got such an ugly face, too! Though I'm sixty-five and more, I'd precious soon send him about his business if he came a-courting of me!"
She said this because she had a shrewd idea of how matters were likely to turn out. And then she went on to speak in laudatory terms of Monsieur Lebigre, who, indeed, paid the greatest attention to the beautiful Norman. Apart from the handsome dowry which he imagined she would bring with her, he considered that she would be a magnificent acquisition to his counter. The old woman never missed an opportunity to sound his praises; there was no lankiness, at any rate, about him, said she; he was stout and strong, with a pair of calves which would have done honour even to one of the Emperor's footmen.
However, La Normande shrugged her shoulders and snappishly replied: "What do I care whether he's stout or not? I don't want him or anybody. And besides, I shall do as I please."
Then, if the old woman became too pointed in her remarks, the other added: "It's no business of yours, and besides, it isn't true. Hold your tongue and don't worry me." And thereupon she would go off into her room, banging the door behind her. Florent, however, had a yet more bitter enemy than Madame Mehudin in the house. As soon as ever he arrived there, Claire would get up without a word, take a candle, and go off to her own room on the other side of the landing; and she could be heard locking her door in a burst of sullen anger. One evening when her sister asked the tutor to dinner, she prepared her own food on the landing, and ate it in her bedroom; and now and again she secluded herself so closely that nothing was seen of her for a week at a time. She usually retained her appearance of soft lissomness, but periodically had a fit of iron rigidity, when her eyes blazed from under her pale tawny locks like those of a distrustful wild animal. Old Mother Mehudin, fancying that she might relieve herself in her company, only made her furious by speaking to her of Florent; and thereupon the old woman, in her exasperation, told everyone that she would have gone off and left her daughters to themselves had she not been afraid of their devouring each other if they remained alone together.
As Florent went away one evening, he passed in front of Claire's door, which was standing wide open. He saw the girl look at him, and turn very red. Her hostile demeanour annoyed him; and it was only the timidity which he felt in the presence of women that restrained him from seeking an explanation of her conduct. On this particular evening he would certainly have addressed her if he had not detected Mademoiselle Saget's pale face peering over the balustrade of the upper landing. So he went his way, but had not taken a dozen steps before Claire's door was closed behind him with such violence as to shake the whole staircase. It was after this that Mademoiselle Saget, eager to propagate slander, went about repeating everywhere that Madame Quenu's cousin was "carrying on" most dreadfully with both the Mehudin girls.
Florent, however, gave very little thought to these two handsome young women. His usual manner towards them was that of a man who has but little success with the sex. Certainly he had come to entertain a feeling of genuine friendship for La Normande, who really displayed a very good heart when her impetuous temper did not run away with her. But he never went any further than this. Moreover, the queenly proportions of her robust figure filled him with a kind of alarm; and of an evening, whenever she drew her chair up to the lamp and bent forward as though to look at Muche's copy-book, he drew in his own sharp bony elbows and shrunken shoulders as if realising what a pitiful specimen of humanity he was by the side of that buxom, hardy creature so full of the life of ripe womanhood. Moreover, there was another reason why he recoiled from her. The smells of the markets distressed him; on finishing his duties of an evening he would have liked to escape from the fishy odour amidst which his days were spent; but, alas! beautiful though La Normande was, this odour seemed to adhere to her silky skin. She had tried every sort of aromatic oil, and bathed freely; but as soon as the freshening influence of the bath was over her blood again impregnated her skin with the faint odour of salmon, the musky perfume of smelts, and the pungent scent of herrings and skate. Her skirts, too, as she moved about, exhaled these fishy smells, and she walked as though amidst an atmosphere redolent of slimy seaweed. With her tall, goddess-like figure, her purity of form, and transparency of complexion she resembled some lovely antique marble that had rolled about in the depths of the sea and had been brought to land in some fisherman's net.
Mademoiselle Saget, however, swore by all her gods that Florent was the young woman's lover. According to her account, indeed, he courted both the sisters. She had quarrelled with the beautiful Norman about a ten-sou dab; and ever since this falling-out she had manifested warm friendship for handsome Lisa. By this means she hoped the sooner to arrive at a solution of what she called the Quenus' mystery. Florent still continued to elude her curiosity, and she told her friends that she felt like a body without a soul, though she was careful not to reveal what was troubling her so grievously. A young girl infatuated with a hopeless passion could not have been in more distress than this terrible old woman at finding herself unable to solve the mystery of the Quenus' cousin. She was constantly playing the spy on Florent, following him about, and watching him, in a burning rage at her failure to satisfy her rampant curiosity. Now that he had begun to visit the Mehudins she was for ever haunting the stairs and landings. She soon discovered that handsome Lisa was much annoyed at Florent visiting "those women," and accordingly she called at the pork shop every morning with a budget of information. She went in shrivelled and shrunk by the frosty air, and, resting her hands on the heating-pan to warm them, remained in front of the counter buying nothing, but repeating in her shrill voice: "He was with them again yesterday; he seems to live there now. I heard La Normande call him 'my dear' on the staircase."
She indulged like this in all sorts of lies in order to remain in the shop and continue warming her hands for a little longer. On the morning after the evening when she had heard Claire close her door behind Florent, she spun out her story for a good half hour, inventing all sorts of mendacious and abominable particulars.
Lisa, who had assumed a look of contemptuous scorn, said but little, simply encouraging Mademoiselle Saget's gossip by her silence. At last, however, she interrupted her. "No, no," she said; "I can't really listen to all that. Is it possible that there can be such women?"
Thereupon Mademoiselle Saget told Lisa that unfortunately all women were not so well conducted as herself. And then she pretended to find all sorts of excuses for Florent: it wasn't his fault; he was no doubt a bachelor; these women had very likely inveigled him in their snares. In this way she hinted questions without openly asking them. But Lisa preserved silence with respect to her cousin, merely shrugging her shoulders and compressing her lips. When Mademoiselle Saget at last went away, the mistress of the shop glanced with disgust at the cover of the heating-pan, the glistening metal of which had been tarnished by the impression of the old woman's little hands.
"Augustine," she cried, "bring a duster, and wipe the cover of the heating-pan. It's quite filthy!"
The rivalry between the beautiful Lisa and the beautiful Norman now became formidable. The beautiful Norman flattered herself that she had carried a lover off from her enemy; and the beautiful Lisa was indignant with the hussy who, by luring the sly cousin to her home, would surely end by compromising them all. The natural temperament of each woman manifested itself in the hostilities which ensued. The one remained calm and scornful, like a lady who holds up her skirts to keep them from being soiled by the mud; while the other, much less subject to shame, displayed insolent gaiety and swaggered along the footways with the airs of a duellist seeking a cause of quarrel. Each of their skirmishes would be the talk of the fish market for the whole day. When the beautiful Norman saw the beautiful Lisa standing at the door of her shop, she would go out of her way in order to pass her, and brush against her with her apron; and then the angry glances of the two rivals crossed like rapiers, with the rapid flash and thrust of pointed steel. When the beautiful Lisa, on the other hand, went to the fish market, she assumed an expression of disgust on approaching the beautiful Norman's stall. And then she proceeded to purchase some big fish—a turbot or a salmon—of a neighbouring dealer, spreading her money out on the marble slab as she did so, for she had noticed that this seemed to have a painful effect upon the "hussy," who ceased laughing at the sight. To hear the two rivals speak, anyone would have supposed that the fish and pork they sold were quite unfit for food. However, their principal engagements took place when the beautiful Norman was seated at her stall and the beautiful Lisa at her counter, and they glowered blackly at each other across the Rue Rambuteau. They sat in state in their big white aprons, decked out with showy toilets and jewels, and the battle between them would commence early in the morning.
"Hallo, the fat woman's got up!" the beautiful Norman would exclaim. "She ties herself up as tightly as her sausages! Ah, she's got Saturday's collar on again, and she's still wearing that poplin dress!"
At the same moment, on the opposite side of the street, beautiful Lisa was saying to her shop girl: "Just look at that creature staring at us over yonder, Augustine! She's getting quite deformed by the life she leads. Do you see her earrings? She's wearing those big drops of hers, isn't she? It makes one feel ashamed to see a girl like that with brilliants."
All complaisance, Augustine echoed her mistress's words.
When either of them was able to display a new ornament it was like scoring a victory—the other one almost choked with spleen. Every day they would scrutinise and count each other's customers, and manifest the greatest annoyance if they thought that the "big thing over the way" was doing the better business. Then they spied out what each had for lunch. Each knew what the other ate, and even watched to see how she digested it. In the afternoon, while the one sat amidst her cooked meats and the other amidst her fish, they posed and gave themselves airs, as though they were queens of beauty. It was then that the victory of the day was decided. The beautiful Norman embroidered, selecting the most delicate and difficult work, and this aroused Lisa's exasperation.
"Ah!" she said, speaking of her rival, "she had far better mend her boy's stockings. He's running about quite barefooted. Just look at that fine lady, with her red hands stinking of fish!"
For her part, Lisa usually knitted.
"She's still at that same sock," La Normande would say, as she watched her. "She eats so much that she goes to sleep over her work. I pity her poor husband if he's waiting for those socks to keep his feet warm!"
They would sit glowering at each other with this implacable hostility until evening, taking note of every customer, and displaying such keen eyesight that they detected the smallest details of each other's dress and person when other women declared that they could see nothing at such a distance. Mademoiselle Saget expressed the highest admiration for Madame Quenu's wonderful sight when she one day detected a scratch on the fish-girl's left cheek. With eyes like those, said the old maid, one might even see through a door. However, the victory often remained undecided when night fell; sometimes one or other of the rivals was temporarily crushed, but she took her revenge on the morrow. Several people of the neighbourhood actually laid wagers on these contests, some backing the beautiful Lisa and others the beautiful Norman.
At last they ended by forbidding their children to speak to one another. Pauline and Muche had formerly been good friends, notwithstanding the girl's stiff petticoats and lady-like demeanour, and the lad's tattered appearance, coarse language, and rough manners. They had at times played together at horses on the broad footway in front of the fish market, Pauline always being the horse and Muche the driver. One day, however, when the boy came in all simplicity to seek his playmate, Lisa turned him out of the house, declaring that he was a dirty little street arab.
"One can't tell what may happen with children who have been so shockingly brought up," she observed.
"Yes, indeed; you are quite right," replied Mademoiselle Saget, who happened to be present.
When Muche, who was barely seven years old, came in tears to his mother to tell her of what had happened, La Normande broke out into a terrible passion. At the first moment she felt a strong inclination to rush over to the Quenu-Gradelles' and smash everything in their shop. But eventually she contented herself with giving Muche a whipping.
"If ever I catch you going there again," she cried, boiling over with anger, "you'll get it hot from me, I can tell you!"
Florent, however, was the real victim of the two women. It was he, in truth, who had set them by the ears, and it was on his account that they were fighting each other. Ever since he had appeared upon the scene things had been going from bad to worse. He compromised and disturbed and embittered all these people, who had previously lived in such sleek peace and harmony. The beautiful Norman felt inclined to claw him when he lingered too long with the Quenus, and it was chiefly from an impulse of hostile rivalry that she desired to win him to herself. The beautiful Lisa, on her side, maintained a cold judicial bearing, and although extremely annoyed, forced herself to silence whenever she saw Florent leaving the pork shop to go to the Rue Pirouette.
Still, there was now much less cordiality than formerly round the Quenus' dinner-table in the evening. The clean, prim dining-room seemed to have assumed an aspect of chilling severity. Florent divined a reproach, a sort of condemnation in the bright oak, the polished lamp, and the new matting. He scarcely dared to eat for fear of letting crumbs fall on the floor or soiling his plate. There was a guileless simplicity about him which prevented him from seeing how the land really lay. He still praised Lisa's affectionate kindliness on all sides; and outwardly, indeed, she did continue to treat him with all gentleness.
"It is very strange," she said to him one day with a smile, as though she were joking; "although you don't eat at all badly now, you don't get fatter. Your food doesn't seem to do you any good."
At this Quenu laughed aloud, and tapping his brother's stomach, protested that the whole contents of the pork shop might pass through it without depositing a layer of fat as thick as a two-sou piece. However, Lisa's insistence on this particular subject was instinct with that same suspicious dislike for fleshless men which Madame Mehudin manifested more outspokenly; and behind it all there was likewise a veiled allusion to the disorderly life which she imagined Florent was leading. She never, however, spoke a word to him about La Normande. Quenu had attempted a joke on the subject one evening, but Lisa had received it so icily that the good man had not ventured to refer to the matter again. They would remain seated at table for a few moments after dessert, and Florent, who had noticed his sister-in-law's vexation if ever he went off too soon, tried to find something to talk about. On these occasions Lisa would be near him, and certainly he did not suffer in her presence from that fishy smell which assailed him when he was in the company of La Normande. The mistress of the pork shop, on the contrary, exhaled an odour of fat and rich meats. Moreover, not a thrill of life stirred her tight-fitting bodice; she was all massiveness and all sedateness. Gavard once said to Florent in confidence that Madame Quenu was no doubt handsome, but that for his part he did not admire such armour-plated women.
Lisa avoided talking to Quenu of Florent. She habitually prided herself on her patience, and considered, too, that it would not be proper to cause any unpleasantness between the brothers, unless some peremptory reason for her interference should arise. As she said, she could put up with a good deal, but, of course, she must not be tried too far. She had now reached the period of courteous tolerance, wearing an expressionless face, affecting perfect indifference and strict politeness, and carefully avoiding everything which might seem to hint that Florent was boarding and lodging with them without their receiving the slightest payment from him. Not, indeed, that she would have accepted any payment from him, she was above all that; still he might, at any rate, she thought, have lunched away from the house.
"We never seem to be alone now," she remarked to Quenu one day. "If there is anything we want to say to one another we have to wait till we go upstairs at night."
And then, one night when they were in bed, she said to him: "Your brother earns a hundred and fifty francs a month, doesn't he? Well, it's strange he can't put a trifle by to buy himself some more linen. I've been obliged to give him three more of your old shirts."
"Oh, that doesn't matter," Quenu replied. "Florent's not hard to please; and we must let him keep his money for himself."
"Oh, yes, of course," said Lisa, without pressing the matter further. "I didn't mention it for that reason. Whether he spends his money well or ill, it isn't our business."
In her own mind she felt quite sure that he wasted his salary at the Mehudins'.
Only on one occasion did she break through her habitual calmness of demeanour, the quiet reserve which was the result of both natural temperament and preconceived design. The beautiful Norman had made Florent a present of a magnificent salmon. Feeling very much embarrassed with the fish, and not daring to refuse it, he brought it to Lisa.
"You can make a pasty of it," he said ingenuously.
Lisa looked at him sternly with whitening lips. Then, striving to restrain her anger, she exclaimed: "Do you think that we are short of food? Thank God, we've got quite enough to eat here! Take it back!"
"Well, at any rate, cook it for me," replied Florent, amazed by her anger; "I'll eat it myself."
At this she burst out furiously.
"The house isn't an inn! Tell those who gave you the fish to cook it for you! I won't have my pans tainted and infected! Take it back again! Do you hear?"
If he had not gone away with it, she would certainly have seized it and hurled it into the street. Florent took it to Monsieur Lebigre's, where Rose was ordered to make a pasty of it; and one evening the pasty was eaten in the little "cabinet," Gavard, who was present, "standing" some oysters for the occasion. Florent now gradually came more and more frequently to Monsieur Lebigre's, till at last he was constantly to be met in the little private room. He there found an atmosphere of heated excitement in which his political feverishness could pulsate freely. At times, now, when he shut himself up in his garret to work, the quiet simplicity of the little room irritated him, his theoretical search for liberty proved quite insufficient, and it became necessary that he should go downstairs, sally out, and seek satisfaction in the trenchant axioms of Charvet and the wild outbursts of Logre. During the first few evenings the clamour and chatter had made him feel ill at ease; he was then quite conscious of their utter emptiness, but he felt a need of drowning his thoughts, of goading himself on to some extreme resolution which might calm his mental disquietude. The atmosphere of the little room, reeking with the odour of spirits and warm with tobacco smoke, intoxicated him and filled him with peculiar beatitude, prompting a kind of self-surrender which made him willing to acquiesce in the wildest ideas. He grew attached to those he met there, and looked for them and awaited their coming with a pleasure which increased with habit. Robine's mild, bearded countenance, Clemence's serious profile, Charvet's fleshless pallor, Logre's hump, Gavard, Alexandre, and Lacaille, all entered into his life, and assumed a larger and larger place in it. He took quite a sensual enjoyment in these meetings. When his fingers closed round the brass knob on the door of the little cabinet it seemed to be animated with life, to warm him, and turn of its own accord. Had he grasped the supple wrist of a woman he could not have felt a more thrilling emotion.
To tell the truth, very serious things took place in that little room. One evening, Logre, after indulging in wilder outbursts than usual, banged his fist upon the table, declaring that if they were men they would make a clean sweep of the Government. And he added that it was necessary they should come to an understanding without further delay, if they desired to be fully prepared when the time for action arrived. Then they all bent their heads together, discussed the matter in lower tones, and decided to form a little "group," which should be ready for whatever might happen. From that day forward Gavard flattered himself that he was a member of a secret society, and was engaged in a conspiracy. The little circle received no new members, but Logre promised to put it into communication with other associations with which he was acquainted; and then, as soon as they held all Paris in their grasp, they would rise and make the Tuileries' people dance. A series of endless discussions, renewed during several months, then began—discussions on questions of organisation, on questions of ways and means, on questions of strategy, and of the form of the future Government. As soon as Rose had brought Clemence's grog, Charvet's and Robine's beer, the coffee for Logre, Gavard, and Florent, and the liqueur glasses of brandy for Lacaille and Alexandre, the door of the cabinet was carefully fastened, and the debate began.
Charvet and Florent were naturally those whose utterances were listened to with the greatest attention. Gavard had not been able to keep his tongue from wagging, but had gradually related the whole story of Cayenne; and Florent found himself surrounded by a halo of martyrdom. His words were received as though they were the expression of indisputable dogmas. One evening, however, the poultry dealer, vexed at hearing his friend, who happened to be absent, attacked, exclaimed: "Don't say anything against Florent; he's been to Cayenne!"
Charvet was rather annoyed by the advantage which this circumstance gave to Florent. "Cayenne, Cayenne," he muttered between his teeth. "Ah, well, they were not so badly off there, after all."
Then he attempted to prove that exile was a mere nothing, and that real suffering consisted in remaining in one's oppressed country, gagged in presence of triumphant despotism. And besides, he urged, it wasn't his fault that he hadn't been arrested on the Second of December. Next, however, he hinted that those who had allowed themselves to be captured were imbeciles. His secret jealousy made him a systematic opponent of Florent; and the general discussions always ended in a duel between these two, who, while their companions listened in silence, would speak against one another for hours at a time, without either of them allowing that he was beaten.
One of the favourite subjects of discussion was that of the reorganisation of the country which would have to be effected on the morrow of their victory.
"We are the conquerors, are we not?" began Gavard.
And, triumph being taken for granted, everyone offered his opinion. There were two rival parties. Charvet, who was a disciple of Hebert, was supported by Logre and Robine; while Florent, who was always absorbed in humanitarian dreams, and called himself a Socialist, was backed by Alexandre and Lacaille. As for Gavard, he felt no repugnance for violent action; but, as he was often twitted about his fortune with no end of sarcastic witticisms which annoyed him, he declared himself a Communist.
"We must make a clean sweep of everything," Charvet would curtly say, as though he were delivering a blow with a cleaver. "The trunk is rotten, and it must come down."
"Yes! yes!" cried Logre, standing up that he might look taller, and making the partition shake with the excited motion of his hump. "Everything will be levelled to the ground; take my word for it. After that we shall see what to do."
Robine signified approval by wagging his beard. His silence seemed instinct with delight whenever violent revolutionary propositions were made. His eyes assumed a soft ecstatic expression at the mention of the guillotine. He half closed them, as though he could see the machine, and was filled with pleasant emotion at the sight; and next he would gently rub his chin against the knob of his stick, with a subdued purr of satisfaction.
"All the same," said Florent, in whose voice a vague touch of sadness lingered, "if you cut down the tree it will be necessary to preserve some seed. For my part, I think that the tree ought to be preserved, so that we may graft new life on it. The political revolution, you know, has already taken place; to-day we have got to think of the labourer, the working man. Our movement must be altogether a social one. I defy you to reject the claims of the people. They are weary of waiting, and are determined to have their share of happiness."
These words aroused Alexandre's enthusiasm. With a beaming, radiant face he declared that this was true, that the people were weary of waiting.
"And we will have our share," added Lacaille, with a more menacing expression. "All the revolutions that have taken place have been for the good of the middle classes. We've had quite enough of that sort of thing, and the next one shall be for our benefit."
From this moment disagreement set in. Gavard offered to make a division of his property, but Logre declined, asserting that he cared nothing for money. Then Charvet gradually overcame the tumult, till at last he alone was heard speaking.
"The selfishness of the different classes does more than anything else to uphold tyranny," said he. "It is wrong of the people to display egotism. If they assist us they shall have their share. But why should I fight for the working man if the working man won't fight for me? Moreover, that is not the question at present. Ten years of revolutionary dictatorship will be necessary to accustom a nation like France to the fitting enjoyment of liberty."
"All the more so as the working man is not ripe for it, and requires to be directed," said Clemence bluntly.
She but seldom spoke. This tall, serious looking girl, alone among so many men, listened to all the political chatter with a learnedly critical air. She leaned back against the partition, and every now and then sipped her grog whilst gazing at the speakers with frowning brows or inflated nostrils, thus silently signifying her approval or disapproval, and making it quite clear that she held decided opinions upon the most complicated matters. At times she would roll a cigarette, and puff slender whiffs of smoke from the corners of her mouth, whilst lending increased attention to what was being debated. It was as though she were presiding over the discussion, and would award the prize to the victor when it was finished. She certainly considered that it became her, as a woman, to display some reserve in her opinions, and to remain calm whilst the men grew more and more excited. Now and then, however, in the heat of the debate, she would let a word or a phrase escape her and "clench the matter" even for Charvet himself, as Gavard said. In her heart she believed herself the superior of all these fellows. The only one of them for whom she felt any respect was Robine, and she would thoughtfully contemplate his silent bearing.
Neither Florent nor any of the others paid any special attention to Clemence. They treated her just as though she were a man, shaking hands with her so roughly as almost to dislocate her arms. One evening Florent witnessed the periodical settlement of accounts between her and Charvet. She had just received her pay, and Charvet wanted to borrow ten francs from her; but she first of all insisted that they must reckon up how matters stood between them. They lived together in a voluntary partnership, each having complete control of his or her earnings, and strictly paying his or her expenses. By so doing, said they, they were under no obligations to one another, but retained entire freedom. Rent, food, washing, and amusements, were all noted down and added up. That evening, when the accounts had been verified, Clemence proved to Charvet that he already owed her five francs. Then she handed him the other ten which he wished to borrow, and exclaimed: "Recollect that you now owe me fifteen. I shall expect you to repay me on the fifth, when you get paid for teaching little Lehudier."
When Rose was summoned to receive payment for the "drinks," each produced the few coppers required to discharge his or her liability. Charvet laughingly called Clemence an aristocrat because she drank grog. She wanted to humiliate him, said he, and make him feel that he earned less than she did, which, as it happened, was the fact. Beneath his laugh, however, there was a feeling of bitterness that the girl should be better circumstanced than himself, for, in spite of his theory of the equality of the sexes, this lowered him.
Although the discussions in the little room had virtually no result, they served to exercise the speakers' lungs. A tremendous hubbub proceeded from the sanctum, and the panes of frosted glass vibrated like drum-skins. Sometimes the uproar became so great that Rose, while languidly serving some blouse-wearing customer in the shop, would turn her head uneasily.
"Why, they're surely fighting together in there," the customer would say, as he put his glass down on the zinc-covered counter, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Oh, there's no fear of that," Monsieur Lebigre tranquilly replied. "It's only some gentlemen talking together."
Monsieur Lebigre, indeed, although very strict with his other customers, allowed the politicians to shout as loudly as they pleased, and never made the least remark on the subject. He would sit for hours together on the bench behind the counter, with his big head lolling drowsily against the mirror, whilst he watched Rose uncorking the bottles and giving a wipe here and there with her duster. And in spite of the somniferous effects of the wine fumes and the warm streaming gaslight, he would keep his ears open to the sounds proceeding from the little room. At times, when the voices grew noisier than usual, he got up from his seat and went to lean against the partition; and occasionally he even pushed the door open, and went inside and sat down there for a few minutes, giving Gavard a friendly slap on the thigh. And then he would nod approval of everything that was said. The poultry dealer asserted that although friend Lebigre hadn't the stuff of an orator in him, they might safely reckon on him when the "shindy" came.
One morning, however, at the markets, when a tremendous row broke out between Rose and one of the fish-wives, through the former accidentally knocking over a basket of herrings, Florent heard Rose's employer spoken of as a "dirty spy" in the pay of the police. And after he had succeeded in restoring peace, all sorts of stories about Monsieur Lebigre were poured into his ears. Yes, the wine seller was in the pay of the police, the fish-wives said; all the neighbourhood knew it. Before Mademoiselle Saget had begun to deal with him she had once met him entering the Prefecture to make his report. It was asserted, too, that he was a money-monger, a usurer, and lent petty sums by the day to costermongers, and let out barrows to them, exacting a scandalous rate of interest in return. Florent was greatly disturbed by all this, and felt it his duty to repeat it that evening to his fellow politicians. The latter, however, only shrugged their shoulders, and laughed at his uneasiness.
"Poor Florent!" Charvet exclaimed sarcastically; "he imagines the whole police force is on his track, just because he happens to have been sent to Cayenne!"
Gavard gave his word of honour that Lebigre was perfectly staunch and true, while Logre, for his part, manifested extreme irritation. He fumed and declared that it would be quite impossible for them to get on if everyone was to be accused of being a police spy; for his own part, he would rather stay at home, and have nothing more to do with politics. Why, hadn't people even dared to say that he, Logre himself, who had fought in '48 and '51, and had twice narrowly escaped transportation, was a spy as well? As he shouted this out, he thrust his jaws forward, and glared at the others as though he would have liked to ram the conviction that he had nothing to do with the police down their throats. At the sight of his furious glances his companions made gestures of protestation. However, Lacaille, on hearing Monsieur Lebigre accused of usury, silently lowered his head.
The incident was forgotten in the discussions which ensued. Since Logre had suggested a conspiracy, Monsieur Lebigre had grasped the hands of the frequenters of the little room with more vigor than ever. Their custom, to tell the truth, was of but small value to him, for they never ordered more than one "drink" apiece. They drained the last drops just as they rose to leave, having been careful to allow a little to remain in their glasses, even during their most heated arguments. In this wise the one "shout" lasted throughout the evening. They shivered as they turned out into the cold dampness of the night, and for a moment or two remained standing on the footway with dazzled eyes and buzzing ears, as though surprised by the dark silence of the street. Rose, meanwhile, fastened the shutters behind them. Then, quite exhausted, at a loss for another word they shook hands, separated, and went their different ways, still mentally continuing the discussion of the evening, and regretting that they could not ram their particular theories down each other's throats. Robine walked away, with his bent back bobbing up and down, in the direction of the Rue Rambuteau; whilst Charvet and Clemence went off through the markets on their return to the Luxembourg quarter, their heels sounding on the flag-stones in military fashion, whilst they still discussed some question of politics or philosophy, walking along side by side, but never arm-in-arm.
The conspiracy ripened very slowly. At the commencement of the summer the plotters had got no further than agreeing that it was necessary a stroke should be attempted. Florent, who had at first looked upon the whole business with a kind of distrust, had now, however, come to believe in the possibility of a revolutionary movement. He took up the matter seriously; making notes, and preparing plans in writing, while the others still did nothing but talk. For his part, he began to concentrate his whole life in the one persistent idea which made his brain throb night after night; and this to such a degree that he at last took his brother Quenu with him to Monsieur Lebigre's, as though such a course were quite natural. Certainly he had no thought of doing anything improper. He still looked upon Quenu as in some degree his pupil, and may even have considered it his duty to start him on the proper path. Quenu was an absolute novice in politics, but after spending five or six evenings in the little room he found himself quite in accord with the others. When Lisa was not present he manifested much docility, a sort of respect for his brother's opinions. But the greatest charm of the affair for him was really the mild dissipation of leaving his shop and shutting himself up in the little room where the others shouted so loudly, and where Clemence's presence, in his opinion, gave a tinge of rakishness and romance to the proceedings. He now made all haste with his chitterlings in order that he might get away as early as possible, anxious to lose not a single word of the discussions, which seemed to him to be very brilliant, though he was not always able to follow them. The beautiful Lisa did not fail to notice his hurry to be gone, but as yet she refrained from saying anything. When Florent took him off, she simply went to the door-step, and watched them enter Monsieur Lebigre's, her face paling somewhat, and a severe expression coming into her eyes.
One evening, as Mademoiselle Saget was peering out of her garret casement, she recognised Quenu's shadow on the frosted glass of the "cabinet" window facing the Rue Pirouette. She had found her casement an excellent post of observation, as it overlooked that milky transparency, on which the gaslight threw silhouettes of the politicians, with noses suddenly appearing and disappearing, gaping jaws abruptly springing into sight and then vanishing, and huge arms, apparently destitute of bodies, waving hither and thither. This extraordinary jumble of detached limbs, these silent but frantic profiles, bore witness to the heated discussions that went on in the little room, and kept the old maid peering from behind her muslin curtains until the transparency turned black. She shrewdly suspected some "bit of trickery," as she phrased it. By continual watching she had come to recognise the different shadows by their hands and hair and clothes. As she gazed upon the chaos of clenched fists, angry heads, and swaying shoulders, which seemed to have become detached from their trunks and to roll about one atop of the other, she would exclaim unhesitatingly, "Ah, there's that big booby of a cousin; there's that miserly old Gavard; and there's the hunchback; and there's that maypole of a Clemence!" Then, when the action of the shadow-play became more pronounced, and they all seemed to have lost control over themselves, she felt an irresistible impulse to go downstairs to try to find out what was happening. Thus she now made a point of buying her black-currant syrup at nights, pretending that she felt out-of-sorts in the morning, and was obliged to take a sip as soon as ever she was out of bed. On the evening when she noticed Quenu's massive head shadowed on the transparency in close proximity to Charvet's fist, she made her appearance at Monsieur Lebigre's in a breathless condition. To gain more time, she made Rose rinse out her little bottle for her; however, she was about to return to her room when she heard the pork butcher exclaim with a sort of childish candour:
"No, indeed, we'll stand for it no longer! We'll make a clean sweep of all those humbugging Deputies and Ministers! Yes, we'll send the whole lot packing."
Eight o'clock had scarcely struck on the following morning when Mademoiselle Saget was already at the pork shop. She found Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette there, dipping their noses into the heating-pan, and buying hot sausages for breakfast. As the old maid had managed to draw them into her quarrel with La Normande with respect to the ten-sou dab, they had at once made friends again with Lisa, and they now had nothing but contempt for the handsome fish-girl, and assailed her and her sister as good-for-nothing hussies, whose only aim was to fleece men of their money. This opinion had been inspired by the assertions of Mademoiselle Saget, who had declared to Madame Lecoeur that Florent had induced one of the two girls to coquette with Gavard, and that the four of them had indulged in the wildest dissipation at Barratte's—of course, at the poultry dealer's expense. From the effects of this impudent story Madame Lecoeur had not yet recovered; she wore a doleful appearance, and her eyes were quite yellow with spleen.
That morning, however, it was for Madame Quenu that the old maid had a shock in store. She looked round the counter, and then in her most gentle voice remarked:
"I saw Monsieur Quenu last night. They seem to enjoy themselves immensely in that little room at Lebigre's, if one may judge from the noise they make."
Lisa had turned her head towards the street, listening very attentively, but apparently unwilling to show it. The old maid paused, hoping that one of the others would question her; and then, in a lower tone, she added: "They had a woman with them. Oh, I don't mean Monsieur Quenu, of course! I didn't say that; I don't know—"
"It must be Clemence," interrupted La Sarriette; "a big scraggy creature who gives herself all sorts of airs just because she went to boarding school. She lives with a threadbare usher. I've seen them together; they always look as though they were taking each other off to the police station."
"Oh, yes; I know," replied the old maid, who, indeed, knew everything about Charvet and Clemence, and whose only purpose was to alarm Lisa.
The mistress of the pork shop, however, never flinched. She seemed to be absorbed in watching something of great interest in the market yonder. Accordingly the old maid had recourse to stronger measures. "I think," said she, addressing herself to Madame Lecoeur, "that you ought to advise your brother-in-law to be careful. Last night they were shouting out the most shocking things in that little room. Men really seem to lose their heads over politics. If anyone had heard them, it might have been a very serious matter for them."
"Oh! Gavard will go his own way," sighed Madame Lecoeur. "It only wanted this to fill my cup. I shall die of anxiety, I am sure, if he ever gets arrested."
As she spoke, a gleam shot from her dim eyes. La Sarriette, however, laughed and wagged her little face, bright with the freshness of the morning air.
"You should hear what Jules says of those who speak against the Empire," she remarked. "They ought all to be thrown into the Seine, he told me; for it seems there isn't a single respectable person amongst them."
"Oh! there's no harm done, of course, so long as only people like myself hear their foolish talk," resumed Mademoiselle Saget. "I'd rather cut my hand off, you know, than make mischief. Last night now, for instance, Monsieur Quenu was saying——"
She again paused. Lisa had started slightly.
"Monsieur Quenu was saying that the Ministers and Deputies and all who are in power ought to be shot."
At this Lisa turned sharply, her face quite white and her hands clenched beneath her apron.
"Quenu said that?" she curtly asked.
"Yes, indeed, and several other similar things that I can't recollect now. I heard him myself. But don't distress yourself like that, Madame Quenu. You know very well that I sha'n't breathe a word. I'm quite old enough to know what might harm a man if it came out. Oh, no; it will go no further."
Lisa had recovered her equanimity. She took a pride in the happy peacefulness of her home; she would not acknowledge that there had ever been the slightest difference between herself and her husband. And so now she shrugged her shoulders and said with a smile: "Oh, it's all a pack of foolish nonsense."
When the three others were in the street together they agreed that handsome Lisa had pulled a very doleful face; and they were unanimously of opinion that the mysterious goings-on of the cousin, the Mehudins, Gavard, and the Quenus would end in trouble. Madame Lecoeur inquired what was done to the people who got arrested "for politics," but on this point Mademoiselle Saget could not enlighten her; she only knew that they were never seen again—no, never. And this induced La Sarriette to suggest that perhaps they were thrown into the Seine, as Jules had said they ought to be.
Lisa avoided all reference to the subject at breakfast and dinner that day; and even in the evening, when Florent and Quenu went off together to Monsieur Lebigre's, there was no unwonted severity in her glance. On that particular evening, however, the question of framing a constitution for the future came under discussion, and it was one o'clock in the morning before the politicians could tear themselves away from the little room. The shutters had already been fastened, and they were obliged to leave by a small door, passing out one at a time with bent backs. Quenu returned home with an uneasy conscience. He opened the three or four doors on his way to bed as gently as possible, walking on tip-toe and stretching out his hands as he passed through the sitting-room, to avoid a collision with any of the furniture. The whole house seemed to be asleep. When he reached the bedroom, he was annoyed to find that Lisa had not extinguished the candle, which was burning with a tall, mournful flame in the midst of the deep silence. As Quenu took off his shoes, and put them down in a corner, the time-piece struck half past one with such a clear, ringing sound that he turned in alarm, almost frightened to move, and gazing with an expression of angry reproach at the shining gilded Gutenberg standing there, with his finger on a book. Lisa's head was buried in her pillow, and Quenu could only see her back; but he divined that she was merely feigning sleep, and her conduct in turning her back upon him was so instinct with reproach that he felt sorely ill at ease. At last he slipped beneath the bed-clothes, blew out the candle, and lay perfectly still. He could have sworn that his wife was awake, though she did not speak to him; and presently he fell asleep, feeling intensely miserable, and lacking the courage to say good night.
He slept till late, and when he awoke he found himself sprawling in the middle of the bed with the eider-down quilt up to his chin, whilst Lisa sat in front of the secretaire, arranging some papers. His slumber had been so heavy that he had not heard her rise. However, he now took courage, and spoke to her from the depths of the alcove: "Why didn't you wake me? What are you doing there?"
"I'm sorting the papers in these drawers," she replied in her usual tone of voice.
Quenu felt relieved. But Lisa added: "One never knows what may happen. If the police were to come—"
"What! the police?"
"Yes, indeed, the police; for you're mixing yourself up with politics now."
At this Quenu sat up in bed, quite dazed and confounded by such a violent and unexpected attack.
"I mix myself up with politics! I mix myself up with politics!" he repeated. "It's no concern of the police. I've nothing to do with any compromising matters."
"No," replied Lisa, shrugging her shoulders; "you merely talk about shooting everybody."
"Yes. And you bawl it out in a public-house! Mademoiselle Saget heard you. All the neighbourhood knows by this time that you are a Red Republican!"
Quenu fell back in bed again. He was not perfectly awake as yet. Lisa's words resounded in his ears as though he already heard the heavy tramp of gendarmes at the bedroom door. He looked at her as she sat there, with her hair already arranged, her figure tightly imprisoned in her stays, her whole appearance the same as it was on any other morning; and he felt more astonished than ever that she should be so neat and prim under such extraordinary circumstances.
"I leave you absolutely free, you know," she continued, as she went on arranging the papers. "I don't want to wear the breeches, as the saying goes. You are the master, and you are at liberty to endanger your position, compromise our credit, and ruin our business."
Then, as Quenu tried to protest, she silenced him with a gesture. "No, no; don't say anything," she continued. "This is no quarrel, and I am not even asking an explanation from you. But if you had consulted me, and we had talked the matter over together, I might have intervened. Ah! it's a great mistake to imagine that women understand nothing about politics. Shall I tell you what my politics are?"
She had risen from her seat whilst speaking, and was now walking to and fro between the bed and the window, wiping as she went some specks of dust from the bright mahogany of the mirrored wardrobe and the dressing-table.
"My politics are the politics of honest folks," said she. "I'm grateful to the Government when business is prosperous, when I can eat my meals in peace and comfort, and can sleep at nights without being awakened by the firing of guns. There were pretty times in '48, were there not? You remember our uncle Gradelle, the worthy man, showing us his books for that year? He lost more than six thousand francs. Now that we have got the Empire, however, everything prospers. We sell our goods readily enough. You can't deny it. Well, then, what is it that you want? How will you be better off when you have shot everybody?"
She took her stand in front of the little night-table, crossed her arms over her breast, and fixed her eyes upon Quenu, who had shuffled himself beneath the bed-clothes, almost out of sight. He attempted to explain what it was that his friends wanted, but he got quite confused in his endeavours to summarise Florent's and Charvet's political and social systems; and could only talk about the disregard shown to principles, the accession of the democracy to power, and the regeneration of society, in such a strange tangled way that Lisa shrugged her shoulders, quite unable to understand him. At last, however, he extricated himself from his difficulties by declaring that the Empire was the reign of licentiousness, swindling finance, and highway robbery. And, recalling an expression of Logre's he added: "We are the prey of a band of adventurers, who are pillaging, violating, and assassinating France. We'll have no more of them."
Lisa, however, still shrugged her shoulders.
"Well, and is that all you have got to say?" she asked with perfect coolness. "What has all that got to do with me? Even supposing it were true, what then? Have I ever advised you to practise dishonest courses? Have I ever prompted you to dishonour your acceptances, or cheat your customers, or pile up money by fraudulent practices? Really, you'll end by making me quite angry! We are honest folks, and we don't pillage or assassinate anybody. That's quite sufficient. What other folks do is no concern of ours. If they choose to be rogues it's their affair."
She looked quite majestic and triumphant; and again pacing the room, drawing herself up to her full height, she resumed: "A pretty notion it is that people are to let their business go to rack and ruin just to please those who are penniless. For my part, I'm in favour of making hay while the sun shines, and supporting a Government which promotes trade. If it does do dishonourable things, I prefer to know nothing about them. I know that I myself commit none, and that no one in the neighbourhood can point a finger at me. It's only fools who go tilting at windmills. At the time of the last elections, you remember, Gavard said that the Emperor's candidate had been bankrupt, and was mixed up in all sorts of scandalous matters. Well, perhaps that was true, I don't deny it; but all the same, you acted wisely in voting for him, for all that was not in question; you were not asked to lend the man any money or to transact any business with him, but merely to show the Government that you were pleased with the prosperity of the pork trade."
At this moment Quenu called to mind a sentence of Charvet's, asserting that "the bloated bourgeois, the sleek shopkeepers, who backed up that Government of universal gormandising, ought to be hurled into the sewers before all others, for it was owing to them and their gluttonous egotism that tyranny had succeeded in mastering and preying upon the nation." He was trying to complete this piece of eloquence when Lisa, carried off by her indignation, cut him short.
"Don't talk such stuff! My conscience doesn't reproach me with anything. I don't owe a copper to anybody; I'm not mixed up in any dishonest business; I buy and sell good sound stuff; and I charge no more than others do. What you say may perhaps apply to people like our cousins, the Saccards. They pretend to be even ignorant that I am in Paris; but I am prouder than they are, and I don't care a rap for their millions. It's said that Saccard speculates in condemned buildings, and cheats and robs everybody. I'm not surprised to hear it, for he was always that way inclined. He loves money just for the sake of wallowing in it, and then tossing it out of his windows, like the imbecile he is. I can understand people attacking men of his stamp, who pile up excessive fortunes. For my part, if you care to know it, I have but a bad opinion of Saccard. But we—we who live so quietly and peaceably, who will need at least fifteen years to put by sufficient money to make ourselves comfortably independent, we who have no reason to meddle in politics, and whose only aim is to bring up our daughter respectably, and to see that our business prospers—why you must be joking to talk such stuff about us. We are honest folks!"
She came and sat down on the edge of the bed. Quenu was already much shaken in his opinions.
"Listen to me, now," she resumed in a more serious voice. "You surely don't want to see your own shop pillaged, your cellar emptied, and your money taken from you? If these men who meet at Monsieur Lebigre's should prove triumphant, do you think that you would then lie as comfortably in your bed as you do now? And on going down into the kitchen, do you imagine that you would set about making your galantines as peacefully as you will presently? No, no, indeed! So why do you talk about overthrowing a Government which protects you, and enables you to put money by? You have a wife and a daughter, and your first duty is towards them. You would be in fault if you imperilled their happiness. It is only those who have neither home nor hearth, who have nothing to lose, who want to be shooting people. Surely you don't want to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them! So stay quietly at home, you foolish fellow, sleep comfortably, eat well, make money, keep an easy conscience, and leave France to free herself of the Empire if the Empire annoys her. France can get on very well without you."
She laughed her bright melodious laugh as she finished; and Quenu was now altogether convinced. Yes, she was right, after all; and she looked so charming, he thought, as she sat there on the edge of the bed, so trim, although it was so early, so bright, and so fresh in the dazzling whiteness of her linen. As he listened to her his eyes fell on their portraits hanging on either side of the fireplace. Yes, they were certainly honest folks; they had such a respectable, well-to-do air in their black clothes and their gilded frames! The bedroom, too, looked as though it belonged to people of some account in the world. The lace squares seemed to give a dignified appearance to the chairs; and the carpet, the curtains, and the vases decorated with painted landscapes—all spoke of their exertions to get on in the world and their taste for comfort. Thereupon he plunged yet further beneath the eider-down quilt, which kept him in a state of pleasant warmth. He began to feel that he had risked losing all these things at Monsieur Lebigre's—his huge bed, his cosy room, and his business, on which his thoughts now dwelt with tender remorse. And from Lisa, from the furniture, from all his cosy surroundings, he derived a sense of comfort which thrilled him with a delightful, overpowering charm.
"You foolish fellow!" said his wife, seeing that he was now quite conquered. "A pretty business it was that you'd embarked upon; but you'd have had to reckon with Pauline and me, I can tell you! And now don't bother your head any more about the Government. To begin with, all Governments are alike, and if we didn't have this one, we should have another. A Government is necessary. But the one thing is to be able to live on, to spend one's savings in peace and comfort when one grows old, and to know that one has gained one's means honestly."
Quenu nodded his head in acquiescence, and tried to commence a justification of his conduct.
"It was Gavard—," he began.
But Lisa's face again assumed a serious expression, and she interrupted him sharply.
"No, it was not Gavard. I know very well who it was; and it would be a great deal better if he would look after his own safety before compromising that of others."
"Is it Florent you mean?" Quenu timidly inquired after a pause.
Lisa did not immediately reply. She got up and went back to the secretaire, as if trying to restrain herself.
"Yes, it is Florent," she said presently, in incisive tones. "You know how patient I am. I would bear almost anything rather than come between you and your brother. The tie of relationship is a sacred thing. But the cup is filled to overflowing now. Since your brother came here things have been constantly getting worse and worse. But now, I won't say anything more; it is better that I shouldn't."
There was another pause. Then, as her husband gazed up at the ceiling with an air of embarrassment, she continued, with increased violence:
"Really, he seems to ignore all that we have done for him. We have put ourselves to great inconvenience for his sake; we have given him Augustine's bedroom, and the poor girl sleeps without a murmur in a stuffy little closet where she can scarcely breathe. We board and lodge him and give him every attention—but no, he takes it all quite as a matter of course. He is earning money, but what he does with it nobody knows; or, rather, one knows only too well."
"But there's his share of the inheritance, you know," Quenu ventured to say, pained at hearing his brother attacked.
Lisa suddenly stiffened herself as though she were stunned, and her anger vanished.
"Yes, you are right; there is his share of the inheritance. Here is the statement of it, in this drawer. But he refused to take it; you remember, you were present, and heard him. That only proves that he is a brainless, worthless fellow. If he had had an idea in his head, he would have made something out of that money by now. For my own part, I should be very glad to get rid of it; it would be a relief to us. I have told him so twice, but he won't listen to me. You ought to persuade him to take it. Talk to him about it, will you?"
Quenu growled something in reply; and Lisa refrained from pressing the point further, being of opinion that she had done all that could be expected of her.
"He is not like other men," she resumed. "He's not a comfortable sort of person to have in the house. I shouldn't have said this if we hadn't got talking on the subject. I don't busy myself about his conduct, though it's setting the whole neighbourhood gossiping about us. Let him eat and sleep here, and put us about, if he likes; we can get over that; but what I won't tolerate is that he should involve us in his politics. If he tries to lead you off again, or compromises us in the least degree, I shall turn him out of the house without the least hesitation. I warn you, and now you understand!"
Florent was doomed. Lisa was making a great effort to restrain herself, to prevent the animosity which had long been rankling in her heart from flowing forth. But Florent and his ways jarred against her every instinct; he wounded her, frightened her, and made her quite miserable.
"A man who has made such a discreditable career," she murmured, "who has never been able to get a roof of his own over his head! I can very well understand his partiality for bullets! He can go and stand in their way if he chooses; but let him leave honest folks to their families! And then, he isn't pleasant to have about one! He reeks of fish in the evening at dinner! It prevents me from eating. He himself never lets a mouthful go past him, though it's little better he seems to be for it all! He can't even grow decently stout, the wretched fellow, to such a degree do his bad instincts prey on him!"
She had stepped up to the window whilst speaking, and now saw Florent crossing the Rue Rambuteau on his way to the fish market. There was a very large arrival of fish that morning; the tray-like baskets were covered with rippling silver, and the auction rooms roared with the hubbub of their sales. Lisa kept her eyes on the bony shoulders of her brother-in-law as he made his way into the pungent smells of the market, stooping beneath the sickening sensation which they brought him; and the glance with which she followed his steps was that of a woman bent on combat and resolved to be victorious.
When she turned round again, Quenu was getting up. As he sat on the edge of the bed in his night-shirt, still warm from the pleasant heat of the eider-down quilt and with his feet resting on the soft fluffy rug below him, he looked quite pale, quite distressed at the misunderstanding between his wife and his brother. Lisa, however, gave him one of her sweetest smiles, and he felt deeply touched when she handed him his socks.
Marjolin had been found in a heap of cabbages at the Market of the Innocents. He was sleeping under the shelter of a large white-hearted one, a broad leaf of which concealed his rosy childish face It was never known what poverty-stricken mother had laid him there. When he was found he was already a fine little fellow of two or three years of age, very plump and merry, but so backward and dense that he could scarcely stammer a few words, and only seemed able to smile. When one of the vegetable saleswomen found him lying under the big white cabbage she raised such a loud cry of surprise that her neighbours rushed up to see what was the matter, while the youngster, still in petticoats, and wrapped in a scrap of old blanket, held out his arms towards her. He could not tell who his mother was, but opened his eyes in wide astonishment as he squeezed against the shoulder of a stout tripe dealer who eventually took him up. The whole market busied itself about him throughout the day. He soon recovered confidence, ate slices of bread and butter, and smiled at all the women. The stout tripe dealer kept him for a time, then a neighbour took him; and a month later a third woman gave him shelter. When they asked him where his mother was, he waved his little hand with a pretty gesture which embraced all the women present. He became the adopted child of the place, always clinging to the skirts of one or another of the women, and always finding a corner of a bed and a share of a meal somewhere. Somehow, too, he managed to find clothes, and he even had a copper or two at the bottom of his ragged pockets. It was a buxom, ruddy girl dealing in medicinal herbs who gave him the name of Marjolin,[*] though no one knew why.
[*] Literally "Marjoram."
When Marjolin was nearly four years of age, old Mother Chantemesse also happened to find a child, a little girl, lying on the footway of the Rue Saint Denis, near the corner of the market. Judging by the little one's size, she seemed to be a couple of years old, but she could already chatter like a magpie, murdering her words in an incessant childish babble. Old Mother Chantemesse after a time gathered that her name was Cadine, and that on the previous evening her mother had left her sitting on a doorstep, with instructions to wait till she returned. The child had fallen asleep there, and did not cry. She related that she was beaten at home; and she gladly followed Mother Chantemesse, seemingly quite enchanted with that huge square, where there were so many people and such piles of vegetables. Mother Chantemesse, a retail dealer by trade, was a crusty but very worthy woman, approaching her sixtieth year. She was extremely fond of children, and had lost three boys of her own when they were mere babies. She came to the opinion that the chit she had found "was far too wide awake to kick the bucket," and so she adopted her.
One evening, however, as she was going off home with her right hand clasping Cadine's, Marjolin came up and unceremoniously caught hold of her left hand.
"Nay, my lad," said the old woman, stopping, "the place is filled. Have you left your big Therese, then? What a fickle little gadabout you are!"
The boy gazed at her with his smiling eyes, without letting go of her hand. He looked so pretty with his curly hair that she could not resist him. "Well, come along, then, you little scamp," said she; "I'll put you to bed as well."
Thus she made her appearance in the Rue au Lard, where she lived, with a child clinging to either hand. Marjolin made himself quite at home there. When the two children proved too noisy the old woman cuffed them, delighted to shout and worry herself, and wash the youngsters, and pack them away beneath the blankets. She had fixed them up a little bed in an old costermonger's barrow, the wheels and shafts of which had disappeared. It was like a big cradle, a trifle hard, but retaining a strong scent of the vegetables which it had long kept fresh and cool beneath a covering of damp cloths. And there, when four years old, Cadine and Marjolin slept locked in each other's arms.
They grew up together, and were always to be seen with their arms about one another's waist. At night time old Mother Chantemesse heard them prattling softly. Cadine's clear treble went chattering on for hours together, while Marjolin listened with occasional expressions of astonishment vented in a deeper tone. The girl was a mischievous young creature, and concocted all sorts of stories to frighten her companion; telling him, for instance, that she had one night seen a man, dressed all in white, looking at them and putting out a great red tongue, at the foot of the bed. Marjolin quite perspired with terror, and anxiously asked for further particulars; but the girl would then begin to jeer at him, and end by calling him a big donkey. At other times they were not so peaceably disposed, but kicked each other beneath the blankets. Cadine would pull up her legs, and try to restrain her laughter as Marjolin missed his aim, and sent his feet banging against the wall. When this happened, old Madame Chantemesse was obliged to get up to put the bed-clothes straight again; and, by way of sending the children to sleep, she would administer a box on the ear to both of them. For a long time their bed was a sort of playground. They carried their toys into it, and munched stolen carrots and turnips as they lay side by side. Every morning their adopted mother was amazed at the strange things she found in the bed—pebbles, leaves, apple cores, and dolls made out of scraps of rags. When the very cold weather came, she went off to her work, leaving them sleeping there, Cadine's black mop mingling with Marjolin's sunny curls, and their mouths so near together that they looked as though they were keeping each other warm with their breath.
The room in the Rue au Lard was a big, dilapidated garret, with a single window, the panes of which were dimmed by the rain. The children would play at hide-and-seek in the tall walnut wardrobe and underneath Mother Chantemesse's colossal bed. There were also two or three tables in the room, and they crawled under these on all fours. They found the place a very charming playground, on account of the dim light and the vegetables scattered about in the dark corners. The street itself, too, narrow and very quiet, with a broad arcade opening into the Rue de la Lingerie, provided them with plenty of entertainment. The door of the house was by the side of the arcade; it was a low door and could only be opened half way owing to the near proximity of the greasy corkscrew staircase. The house, which had a projecting pent roof and a bulging front, dark with damp, and displaying greenish drain-sinks near the windows of each floor, also served as a big toy for the young couple. They spent their mornings below in throwing stones up into the drain-sinks, and the stones thereupon fell down the pipes with a very merry clatter. In thus amusing themselves, however, they managed to break a couple of windows, and filled the drains with stones, so that Mother Chantemesse, who had lived in the house for three and forty years, narrowly escaped being turned out of it.
Cadine and Marjolin then directed their attention to the vans and drays and tumbrels which were drawn up in the quiet street. They clambered on to the wheels, swung from the dangling chains, and larked about amongst the piles of boxes and hampers. Here also were the back premises of the commission agents of the Rue de la Poterie—huge, gloomy warehouses, each day filled and emptied afresh, and affording a constant succession of delightful hiding-places, where the youngsters buried themselves amidst the scent of dried fruits, oranges, and fresh apples. When they got tired of playing in his way, they went off to join old Madame Chantemesse at the Market of the Innocents. They arrived there arm-in-arm, laughing gaily as they crossed the streets with never the slightest fear of being run over by the endless vehicles. They knew the pavement well, and plunged their little legs knee-deep in the vegetable refuse without ever slipping. They jeered merrily at any porter in heavy boots who, in stepping over an artichoke stem, fell sprawling full-length upon the ground. They were the rosy-cheeked familiar spirits of those greasy streets. They were to be seen everywhere.
On rainy days they walked gravely beneath the shelter of a ragged old umbrella, with which Mother Chantemesse had protected her stock-in-trade for twenty years, and sticking it up in a corner of the market they called it their house. On sunny days they romped to such a degree that when evening came they were almost too tired to move. They bathed their feet in the fountains, dammed up the gutters, or hid themselves beneath piles of vegetables, and remained there prattling to each other just as they did in bed at night. People passing some huge mountain of cos or cabbage lettuces often heard a muffled sound of chatter coming from it. And when the green-stuff was removed, the two children would be discovered lying side by side on their couch of verdure, their eyes glistening uneasily like those of birds discovered in the depth of a thicket. As time went on, Cadine could not get along without Marjolin, and Marjolin began to cry when he lost sight of Cadine. If they happened to get separated, they sought one another behind the petticoats of every stallkeeper in the markets, amongst the boxes and under the cabbages. If was, indeed, chiefly under the cabbages that they grew up and learned to love each other.
Marjolin was nearly eight years old, and Cadine six, when old Madame Chantemesse began to reproach them for their idleness. She told them that she would interest them in her business, and pay them a sou a day to assist her in paring her vegetables. During the first few days the children displayed eager zeal; they squatted down on either side of the big flat basket with little knives in their hands, and worked away energetically. Mother Chantemesse made a specialty of pared vegetables; on her stall, covered with a strip of damp black lining, were little lots of potatoes, turnips, carrots, and white onions, arranged in pyramids of four—three at the base and one at the apex, all quite ready to be popped into the pans of dilatory housewives. She also had bundles duly stringed in readiness for the soup-pot—four leeks, three carrots, a parsnip, two turnips, and a couple of springs of celery. Then there were finely cut vegetables for julienne soup laid out on squares of paper, cabbages cut into quarters, and little heaps of tomatoes and slices of pumpkin which gleamed like red stars and golden crescents amidst the pale hues of the other vegetables. Cadine evinced much more dexterity than Marjolin, although she was younger. The peelings of the potatoes she pared were so thin that you could see through them; she tied up the bundles for the soup-pot so artistically that they looked like bouquets; and she had a way of making the little heaps she set up, though they contained but three carrots or turnips, look like very big ones. The passers-by would stop and smile when she called out in her shrill childish voice: "Madame! madame! come and try me! Each little pile for two sous."
She had her regular customers, and her little piles and bundles were widely known. Old Mother Chantemesse, seated between the two children, would indulge in a silent laugh which made her bosom rise almost to her chin, at seeing them working away so seriously. She paid them their daily sous most faithfully. But they soon began to weary of the little heaps and bundles; they were growing up, and began to dream of some more lucrative business. Marjolin remained very childish for his years, and this irritated Cadine. He had no more brains than a cabbage, she often said. And it was, indeed, quite useless for her to devise any plan for him to make money; he never earned any. He could not even do an errand satisfactorily. The girl, on the other hand, was very shrewd. When but eight years old she obtained employment from one of those women who sit on a bench in the neighbourhood of the markets provided with a basket of lemons, and employ a troop of children to go about selling them. Carrying the lemons in her hands and offering them at two for three sous, Cadine thrust them under every woman's nose, and ran after every passer-by. Her hands empty, she hastened back for a fresh supply. She was paid two sous for every dozen lemons that she sold, and on good days she could earn some five or six sous. During the following year she hawked caps at nine sous apiece, which proved a more profitable business; only she had to keep a sharp look-out, as street trading of this kind is forbidden unless one be licensed. However, she scented a policeman at a distance of a hundred yards; and the caps forthwith disappeared under her skirts, whilst she began to munch an apple with an air of guileless innocence. Then she took to selling pastry, cakes, cherry-tarts, gingerbread, and thick yellow maize biscuits on wicker trays. Marjolin, however, ate up nearly the whole of her stock-in-trade. At last, when she was eleven years old, she succeeded in realising a grand idea which had long been worrying her. In a couple of months she put by four francs, bought a small hotte,[*] and then set up as a dealer in birds' food.
[*] A basket carried on the back.—Translator.
It was a big affair. She got up early in the morning and purchased her stock of groundsel, millet, and bird-cake from the wholesale dealers. Then she set out on her day's work, crossing the river, and perambulating the Latin Quarter from the Rue Saint Jacques to the Rue Dauphine, and even to the Luxembourg. Marjolin used to accompany her, but she would not let him carry the basket. He was only fit to call out, she said; and so, in his thick, drawling voice, he would raise the cry, "Chickweed for the little birds!"
Then Cadine herself, with her flute-like voice, would start on a strange scale of notes ending in a clear, protracted alto, "Chickweed for the little birds!"
They each took one side of the road, and looked up in the air as they walked along. In those days Marjolin wore a big scarlet waistcoat which hung down to his knees; it had belonged to the defunct Monsieur Chantemesse, who had been a cab-driver. Cadine for her part wore a white and blue check gown, made out of an old tartan of Madame Chantemesse's. All the canaries in the garrets of the Latin Quarter knew them; and, as they passed along, repeating their cry, each echoing the other's voice, every cage poured out a song.
Cadine sold water-cress, too. "Two sous a bunch! Two sous a bunch!" And Marjolin went into the shops to offer it for sale. "Fine water-cress! Health for the body! Fine fresh water-cress!"
However, the new central markets had just been erected, and the girl would stand gazing in ecstacy at the avenue of flower stalls which runs through the fruit pavilion. Here on either hand, from end to end, big clumps of flowers bloom as in the borders of a garden walk. It is a perfect harvest, sweet with perfume, a double hedge of blossoms, between which the girls of the neighbourhood love to walk, smiling the while, though almost stifled by the heavy perfume. And on the top tiers of the stalls are artificial flowers, with paper leaves, in which dewdrops are simulated by drops of gum; and memorial wreaths of black and white beads rippling with bluish reflections. Cadine's rosy nostrils would dilate with feline sensuality; she would linger as long as possible in that sweet freshness, and carry as much of the perfume away with her as she could. When her hair bobbed under Marjolin's nose he would remark that it smelt of pinks. She said that she had given over using pomatum; that is was quite sufficient for her to stroll through the flower walk in order to scent her hair. Next she began to intrigue and scheme with such success that she was engaged by one of the stallkeepers. And then Marjolin declared that she smelt sweet from head to foot. She lived in the midst of roses, lilacs, wall-flowers, and lilies of the valley; and Marjolin would playfully smell at her skirts, feign a momentary hesitation, and then exclaim, "Ah, that's lily of the valley!" Next he would sniff at her waist and bodice: "Ah, that's wall-flowers!" And at her sleeves and wrists: "Ah, that's lilac!" And at her neck, and her cheeks and lips: "Ah, but that's roses!" he would cry. Cadine used to laugh at him, and call him a "silly stupid," and tell him to get away, because he was tickling her with the tip of his nose. As she spoke her breath smelt of jasmine. She was verily a bouquet, full of warmth and life.
She now got up at four o'clock every morning to assist her mistress in her purchases. Each day they bought armfuls of flowers from the suburban florists, with bundles of moss, and bundles of fern fronds, and periwinkle leaves to garnish the bouquets. Cadine would gaze with amazement at the diamonds and Valenciennes worn by the daughters of the great gardeners of Montreuil, who came to the markets amidst their roses.
On the saints' days of popular observance, such as Saint Mary's, Saint Peter's, and Saint Joseph's days, the sale of flowers began at two o'clock. More than a hundred thousand francs' worth of cut flowers would be sold on the footways, and some of the retail dealers would make as much as two hundred francs in a few hours. On days like those only Cadine's curly locks peered over the mounds of pansies, mignonette, and marguerites. She was quite drowned and lost in the flood of flowers. Then she would spend all her time in mounting bouquets on bits of rush. In a few weeks she acquired considerable skillfulness in her business, and manifested no little originality. Her bouquets did not always please everybody, however. Sometimes they made one smile, sometimes they alarmed the eyes. Red predominated in them, mottled with violent tints of blue, yellow, and violet of a barbaric charm. On the mornings when she pinched Marjolin, and teased him till she made him cry, she made up fierce-looking bouquets, suggestive of her own bad temper, bouquets with strong rough scents and glaring irritating colours. On other days, however, when she was softened by some thrill of joy or sorrow, her bouquets would assume a tone of silvery grey, very soft and subdued, and delicately perfumed.
Then, too, she would set roses, as sanguineous as open hearts, in lakes of snow-white pinks; arrange bunches of tawny iris that shot up in tufts of flame from foliage that seemed scared by the brilliance of the flowers; work elaborate designs, as complicated as those of Smyrna rugs, adding flower to flower, as on a canvas; and prepare rippling fanlike bouquets spreading out with all the delicacy of lace. Here was a cluster of flowers of delicious purity, there a fat nosegay, whatever one might dream of for the hand of a marchioness or a fish-wife; all the charming quaint fancies, in short, which the brain of a sharp-witted child of twelve, budding into womanhood, could devise.
There were only two flowers for which Cadine retained respect; white lilac, which by the bundle of eight or ten sprays cost from fifteen to twenty francs in the winter time; and camellias, which were still more costly, and arrived in boxes of a dozen, lying on beds of moss, and covered with cotton wool. She handled these as delicately as though they were jewels, holding her breath for fear of dimming their lustre, and fastening their short stems to springs of cane with the tenderest care. She spoke of them with serious reverence. She told Marjolin one day that a speckless white camellia was a very rare and exceptionally lovely thing, and, as she was making him admire one, he exclaimed: "Yes; it's pretty; but I prefer your neck, you know. It's much more soft and transparent than the camellia, and there are some little blue and pink veins just like the pencillings on a flower." Then, drawing near and sniffing, he murmured: "Ah! you smell of orange blossom to-day."
Cadine was self-willed, and did not get on well in the position of a servant, so she ended by setting up in business on her own account. As she was only thirteen at the time, and could not hope for a big trade and a stall in the flower avenue, she took to selling one-sou bunches of violets pricked into a bed of moss in an osier tray which she carried hanging from her neck. All day long she wandered about the markets and their precincts with her little bit of hanging garden. She loved this continual stroll, which relieved the numbness of her limbs after long hours spent, with bent knees, on a low chair, making bouquets. She fastened her violets together with marvellous deftness as she walked along. She counted out six or eight flowers, according to the season, doubled a sprig of cane in half, added a leaf, twisted some damp thread round the whole, and broke off the thread with her strong young teeth. The little bunches seemed to spring spontaneously from the layer of moss, so rapidly did she stick them into it.
Along the footways, amidst the jostling of the street traffic, her nimble fingers were ever flowering though she gave them not a glance, but boldly scanned the shops and passers-by. Sometimes she would rest in a doorway for a moment; and alongside the gutters, greasy with kitchen slops, she sat, as it were a patch of springtime, a suggestion of green woods, and purple blossoms. Her flowers still betokened her frame of mind, her fits of bad temper and her thrills of tenderness. Sometimes they bristled and glowered with anger amidst their crumpled leaves; at other times they spoke only of love and peacefulness as they smiled in their prim collars. As Cadine passed along, she left a sweet perfume behind her; Marjolin followed her devoutly. From head to foot she now exhaled but one scent, and the lad repeated that she was herself a violet, a great big violet.
"Do you remember the day when we went to Romainville together?" he would say; "Romainville, where there are so many violets. The scent was just the same. Oh! don't change again—you smell too sweetly."
And she did not change again. This was her last trade. Still, she often neglected her osier tray to go rambling about the neighbourhood. The building of the central markets—as yet incomplete—provided both children with endless opportunities for amusement. They made their way into the midst of the work-yards through some gap or other between the planks; they descended into the foundations, and climbed up to the cast-iron pillars. Every nook, every piece of the framework witnessed their games and quarrels; the pavilions grew up under the touch of their little hands. From all this arose the affection which they felt for the great markets, and which the latter seemed to return. They were on familiar terms with that gigantic pile, old friends as they were, who had seen each pin and bolt put into place. They felt no fear of the huge monster; but slapped it with their childish hands, treated it like a good friend, a chum whose presence brought no constraint. And the markets seemed to smile at these two light-hearted children, whose love was the song, the idyll of their immensity.
Cadine alone now slept at Mother Chantemesse's. The old woman had packed Marjolin off to a neighbour's. This made the two children very unhappy. Still, they contrived to spend much of their time together. In the daytime they would hide themselves away in the warehouses of the Rue au Lard, behind piles of apples and cases of oranges; and in the evening they would dive into the cellars beneath the poultry market, and secret themselves among the huge hampers of feathers which stood near the blocks where the poultry was killed. They were quite alone there, amidst the strong smell of the poultry, and with never a sound but the sudden crowing of some rooster to break upon their babble and their laughter. The feathers amidst which they found themselves were of all sorts—turkey's feathers, long and black; goose quills, white and flexible; the downy plumage of ducks, soft like cotton wool; and the ruddy and mottled feathers of fowls, which at the faintest breath flew up in a cloud like a swarm of flies buzzing in the sun. And then in wintertime there was the purple plumage of the pheasants, the ashen grey of the larks, the splotched silk of the partridges, quails, and thrushes. And all these feathers freshly plucked were still warm and odoriferous, seemingly endowed with life. The spot was as cosy as a nest; at times a quiver as of flapping wings sped by, and Marjolin and Cadine, nestling amidst all the plumage, often imagined that they were being carried aloft by one of those huge birds with outspread pinions that one hears of in the fairy tales.
As time went on their childish affection took the inevitable turn. Veritable offsprings of Nature, knowing naught of social conventions and restraints, they loved one another in all innocence and guilelessness. They mated even as the birds of the air mate, even as youth and maid mated in primeval times, because such is Nature's law. At sixteen Cadine was a dusky town gipsy, greedy and sensual, whilst Marjolin, now eighteen, was a tall, strapping fellow, as handsome a youth as could be met, but still with his mental faculties quite undeveloped. He had lived, indeed, a mere animal life, which had strengthened his frame, but left his intellect in a rudimentary state.