However, much as the hunchback seemed to toil, he attained no appreciable result. Although he had loudly asserted that in each district of Paris he knew two or three groups of men as determined and trustworthy as those who met at Monsieur Lebigre's, he had never yet given any precise information about them, but had merely mentioned a name here and there, and recounted stories of endless alleged secret expeditions, and the wonderful enthusiasm that the people manifested for the cause. He made a great point of the hand-grasps he had received. So-and-so, whom he thou'd and thee'd, had squeezed his fingers and declared he would join them. At the Gros Caillou a big, burly fellow, who would make a magnificent sectional leader, had almost dislocated his arm in his enthusiasm; while in the Rue Popincourt a whole group of working men had embraced him. He declared that at a day's notice a hundred thousand active supporters could be gathered together. Each time that he made his appearance in the little room, wearing an exhausted air, and dropping with apparent fatigue on the bench, he launched into fresh variations of his usual reports, while Florent duly took notes of what he said, and relied on him to realise his many promises. And soon in Florent's pockets the plot assumed life. The notes were looked upon as realities, as indisputable facts, upon which the entire plan of the rising was constructed. All that now remained to be done was to wait for a favourable opportunity, and Logre asserted with passionate gesticulations that the whole thing would go on wheels.
Florent was at last perfectly happy. His feet no longer seemed to tread the ground; he was borne aloft by his burning desire to pass sentence on all the wickedness he had seen committed. He had all the credulity of a little child, all the confidence of a hero. If Logre had told him that the Genius of Liberty perched on the Colonne de Juillet[*] would have come down and set itself at their head, he would hardly have expressed any surprise. In the evenings, at Monsieur Lebigre's, he showed great enthusiasm and spoke effusively of the approaching battle, as though it were a festival to which all good and honest folks would be invited. But although Gavard in his delight began to play with his revolver, Charvet got more snappish than ever, and sniggered and shrugged his shoulders. His rival's assumption of the leadership angered him extremely; indeed, quite disgusted him with politics. One evening when, arriving early, he happened to find himself alone with Logre and Lebigre, he frankly unbosomed himself.
[*] The column erected on the Place de la Bastille in memory of the Revolution of July 1830, by which Charles X was dethroned.—Translator.
"Why," said he, "that fellow Florent hasn't an idea about politics, and would have done far better to seek a berth as writing master in a ladies' school! It would be nothing short of a misfortune if he were to succeed, for, with his visionary social sentimentalities, he would crush us down beneath his confounded working men! It's all that, you know, which ruins the party. We don't need any more tearful sentimentalists, humanitarian poets, people who kiss and slobber over each other for the merest scratch. But he won't succeed! He'll just get locked up, and that will be the end of it."
Logre and the wine dealer made no remark, but allowed Charvet to talk on without interruption.
"And he'd have been locked up long ago," he continued, "if he were anything as dangerous as he fancies he is. The airs he puts on just because he's been to Cayenne are quite sickening. But I'm sure that the police knew of his return the very first day he set foot in Paris, and if they haven't interfered with him it's simply because they hold him in contempt."
At this Logre gave a slight start.
"They've been dogging me for the last fifteen years," resumed the Hebertist, with a touch of pride, "but you don't hear me proclaiming it from the house-tops. However, he won't catch me taking part in his riot. I'm not going to let myself be nabbed like a mere fool. I dare say he's already got half a dozen spies at his heels, who will take him by the scruff of the neck whenever the authorities give the word."
"Oh, dear, no! What an idea!" exclaimed Monsieur Lebigre, who usually observed complete silence. He was rather pale, and looked at Logre, who was gently rubbing his hump against the partition.
"That's mere imagination," murmured the hunchback.
"Very well; call it imagination, if you like," replied the tutor; "but I know how these things are arranged. At all events, I don't mean to let the 'coppers' nab me this time. You others, of course, will please yourselves, but if you take my advice—and you especially, Monsieur Lebigre—you'll take care not to let your establishment be compromised, or the authorities will close it."
At this Logre could not restrain a smile. On several subsequent occasions Charvet plied him and Lebigre with similar arguments, as though he wished to detach them from Florent's project by frightening them; and he was much surprised at the calmness and confidence which they both continued to manifest. For his own part, he still came pretty regularly in the evening with Clemence. The tall brunette was no longer a clerk at the fish auctions—Monsieur Manoury had discharged her.
"Those salesmen are all scoundrels!" Logre growled, when he heard of her dismissal.
Thereupon Clemence, who, lolling back against the partition, was rolling a cigarette between her long, slim fingers, replied in a sharp voice: "Oh, it's fair fighting! We don't hold the same political views, you know. That fellow Manoury, who's making no end of money, would lick the Emperor's boots. For my part, if I were an auctioneer, I wouldn't keep him in my service for an hour."
The truth was that she had been indulging in some clumsy pleasantry, amusing herself one day by inscribing in the sale-book, alongside of the dabs and skate and mackerel sold by auction, the names of some of the best-known ladies and gentlemen of the Court. This bestowal of piscine names upon high dignitaries, these entries of the sale of duchesses and baronesses at thirty sous apiece, had caused Monsieur Manoury much alarm. Gavard was still laughing over it.
"Well, never mind!" said he, patting Clemence's arm; "you are every inch a man, you are!"
Clemence had discovered a new method of mixing her grog. She began by filling her glass with hot water; and after adding some sugar she poured the rum drop by drop upon the slice of lemon floating on the surface, in such wise that it did not mix with the water. Then she lighted it and with a grave expression watched it blaze, slowly smoking her cigarette while the flame of the alcohol cast a greenish tinge over her face. "Grog," however, was an expensive luxury in which she could not afford to indulge after she had lost her place. Charvet told her, with a strained laugh, that she was no longer a millionaire. She supported herself by giving French lessons, at a very early hour in the morning, to a young lady residing in the Rue de Miromesnil, who was perfecting her education in secrecy, unknown even to her maid. And so now Clemence merely ordered a glass of beer in the evenings, but this she drank, it must be admitted, with the most philosophical composure.
The evenings in the little sanctum were now far less noisy than they had been. Charvet would suddenly lapse into silence, pale with suppressed rage, when the others deserted him to listen to his rival. The thought that he had been the king of the place, had ruled the whole party with despotic power before Florent's appearance there, gnawed at his heart, and he felt all the regretful pangs of a dethroned monarch. If he still came to the meetings, it was only because he could not resist the attraction of the little room where he had spent so many happy hours in tyrannising over Gavard and Robine. In those days even Logre's hump had been his property, as well as Alexandre's fleshy arms and Lacaille's gloomy face. He had done what he liked with them, stuffed his opinions down their throats, belaboured their shoulders with his sceptre. But now he endured much bitterness of spirit; and ended by quite ceasing to speak, simply shrugging his shoulders and whistling disdainfully, without condescending to combat the absurdities vented in his presence. What exasperated him more than anything else was the gradual way in which he had been ousted from his position of predominance without being conscious of it. He could not see that Florent was in any way his superior, and after hearing the latter speak for hours, in his gentle and somewhat sad voice, he often remarked: "Why, the fellow's a parson! He only wants a cassock!"
The others, however, to all appearance eagerly absorbed whatever the inspector said. When Charvet saw Florent's clothes hanging from every peg, he pretended not to know where he could put his hat so that it would not be soiled. He swept away the papers that lay about the little room, declaring that there was no longer any comfort for anyone in the place since that "gentleman" had taken possession of it. He even complained to the landlord, and asked if the room belonged to a single customer or to the whole company. This invasion of his realm was indeed the last straw. Men were brutes, and he conceived an unspeakable scorn for humanity when he saw Logre and Monsieur Lebigre fixing their eyes on Florent with rapt attention. Gavard with his revolver irritated him, and Robine, who sat silent behind his glass of beer, seemed to him to be the only sensible person in the company, and one who doubtless judged people by their real value, and was not led away by mere words. As for Alexandre and Lacaille, they confirmed him in his belief that "the people" were mere fools, and would require at least ten years of revolutionary dictatorship to learn how to conduct themselves.
Logre, however, declared that the sections would soon be completely organised; and Florent began to assign the different parts that each would have to play. One evening, after a final discussion in which he again got worsted, Charvet rose up, took his hat, and exclaimed: "Well, I'll wish you all good night. You can get your skulls cracked if it amuses you; but I would have you understand that I won't take any part in the business. I have never abetted anybody's ambition."
Clemence, who had also risen and was putting on her shawl, coldly added: "The plan's absurd."
Then, as Robine sat watching their departure with a gentle glance, Charvet asked him if he were not coming with them; but Robine, having still some beer left in his glass, contented himself with shaking hands. Charvet and Clemence never returned again; and Lacaille one day informed the company that they now frequented a beer-house in the Rue Serpente. He had seen them through the window, gesticulating with great energy, in the midst of an attentive group of very young men.
Florent was never able to enlist Claude amongst his supporters. He had once entertained the idea of gaining him over to his own political views, of making a disciple of him, an assistant in his revolutionary task; and in order to initiate him he had taken him one evening to Monsieur Lebigre's. Claude, however, spent the whole time in making a sketch of Robine, in his hat and chestnut cloak, and with his beard resting on the knob of his walking-stick.
"Really, you know," he said to Florent, as they came away, "all that you have been saying inside there doesn't interest me in the least. It may be very clever, but, for my own part, I see nothing in it. Still, you've got a splendid fellow there, that blessed Robine. He's as deep as a well. I'll come with you again some other time, but it won't be for politics. I shall make sketches of Logre and Gavard, so as to put them with Robine in a picture which I was thinking about while you were discussing the question of—what do you call it? eh? Oh, the question of the two Chambers. Just fancy, now, a picture of Gavard and Logre and Robine talking politics, entrenched behind their glasses of beer! It would be the success of the Salon, my dear fellow, an overwhelming success, a genuine modern picture!"
Florent was grieved by the artist's political scepticism; so he took him up to his bedroom, and kept him on the narrow balcony in front of the bluish mass of the markets, till two o'clock in the morning, lecturing him, and telling him that he was no man to show himself so indifferent to the happiness of his country.
"Well, you're perhaps right," replied Claude, shaking his head; "I'm an egotist. I can't even say that I paint for the good of my country; for, in the first place, my sketches frighten everybody, and then, when I'm busy painting, I think about nothing but the pleasure I take in it. When I'm painting, it is as though I were tickling myself; it makes me laugh all over my body. Well, I can't help it, you know; it's my nature to be like that; and you can't expect me to go and drown myself in consequence. Besides, France can get on very well without me, as my aunt Lisa says. And—may I be quite frank with you?—if I like you it's because you seem to me to follow politics just as I follow painting. You titillate yourself, my good friend."
Then, as Florent protested, he continued:
"Yes, yes; you are an artist in your own way; you dream of politics, and I'll wager you spend hours here at night gazing at the stars and imagining they are the voting-papers of infinity. And then you titillate yourself with your ideas of truth and justice; and this is so evidently the case that those ideas of yours cause just as much alarm to commonplace middle-class folks as my sketches do. Between ourselves, now, do you imagine that if you were Robine I should take any pleasure in your friendship? Ah, no, my friend, you are a great poet!"
Then he began to joke on the subject, saying that politics caused him no trouble, and that he had got accustomed to hear people discussing them in beer shops and studios. This led him to speak of a cafe in the Rue Vauvilliers; the cafe on the ground-floor of the house where La Sarriette lodged. This smoky place, with its torn, velvet-cushioned seats, and marble table-tops discoloured by the drippings from coffee-cups, was the chief resort of the young people of the markets. Monsieur Jules reigned there over a company of porters, apprentices, and gentlemen in white blouses and velvet caps. Two curling "Newgate knockers" were glued against his temples; and to keep his neck white he had it scraped with a razor every Saturday at a hair-dresser's in the Rue des Deux Ecus. At the cafe he gave the tone to his associates, especially when he played billiards with studied airs and graces, showing off his figure to the best advantage. After the game the company would begin to chat. They were a very reactionary set, taking a delight in the doings of "society." For his part, Monsieur Jules read the lighter boulevardian newspapers, and knew the performers at the smaller theatres, talked familiarly of the celebrities of the day, and could always tell whether the piece first performed the previous evening had been a success or a failure. He had a weakness, however, for politics. His ideal man was Morny, as he curtly called him. He read the reports of the discussions of the Corps Legislatif, and laughed with glee over the slightest words that fell from Morny's lips. Ah, Morny was the man to sit upon your rascally republicans! And he would assert that only the scum detested the Emperor, for his Majesty desired that all respectable people should have a good time of it.
"I've been to the cafe occasionally," Claude said to Florent. "The young men there are vastly amusing, with their clay pipes and their talk about the Court balls! To hear them chatter you might almost fancy they were invited to the Tuileries. La Sarriette's young man was making great fun of Gavard the other evening. He called him uncle. When La Sarriette came downstairs to look for him she was obliged to pay his bill. It cost her six francs, for he had lost at billiards, and the drinks they had played for were owing. And now, good night, my friend, and pleasant dreams. If ever you become a Minister, I'll give you some hints on the beautifying of Paris."
Florent was obliged to relinquish the hope of making a docile disciple of Claude. This was a source of grief to him, for, blinded though he was by his fanatical ardour, he at last grew conscious of the ever-increasing hostility which surrounded him. Even at the Mehudins' he now met with a colder reception: the old woman would laugh slyly; Muche no longer obeyed him, and the beautiful Norman cast glances of hasty impatience at him, unable as she was to overcome his coldness. At the Quenus', too, he had lost Auguste's friendship. The assistant no longer came to see him in his room on the way to bed, being greatly alarmed by the reports which he heard concerning this man with whom he had previously shut himself up till midnight. Augustine had made her lover swear that he would never again be guilty of such imprudence; however, it was Lisa who turned the young man into Florent's determined enemy by begging him and Augustine to defer their marriage till her cousin should vacate the little bedroom at the top of the house, as she did not want to give that poky dressing-room on the first floor to the new shop girl whom she would have to engage. From that time forward Auguste was anxious that the "convict" should be arrested. He had found such a pork shop as he had long dreamed of, not at Plaisance certainly, but at Montrouge, a little farther away. And now trade had much improved, and Augustine, with her silly, overgrown girl's laugh, said that she was quite ready. So every night, whenever some slight noise awoke him, August was thrilled with delight as he imagined that the police were at last arresting Florent.
Nothing was said at the Quenu-Gradelles' about all the rumours which circulated. There was a tacit understanding amongst the staff of the pork shop to keep silent respecting them in the presence of Quenu. The latter, somewhat saddened by the falling-out between his brother and his wife, sought consolation in stringing his sausages and salting his pork. Sometimes he would come and stand on his door-step, with his red face glowing brightly above his white apron, which his increasing corpulence stretched quite taut, and never did he suspect all the gossip which his appearance set on foot in the markets. Some of the women pitied him, and thought that he was losing flesh, though he was, indeed, stouter than ever; while others, on the contrary, reproached him for not having grown thin with shame at having such a brother as Florent. He, however, like one of those betrayed husbands who are always the last to know what has befallen them, continued in happy ignorance, displaying a light-heartedness which was quite affecting. He would stop some neighbour's wife on the footway to ask her if she found his brawn or truffled boar's head to her liking, and she would at once assume a sympathetic expression, and speak in a condoling way, as though all the pork on his premises had got jaundice.
"What do they all mean by looking at me with such a funereal air?" he asked Lisa one day. "Do you think I'm looking ill?"
Lisa, well aware that he was terribly afraid of illness, and groaned and made a dreadful disturbance if he suffered the slightest ailment, reassured him on this point, telling him that he was as blooming as a rose. The fine pork shop, however, was becoming gloomy; the mirrors seemed to pale, the marbles grew frigidly white, and the cooked meats on the counter stagnated in yellow fat or lakes of cloudy jelly. One day, even, Claude came into the shop to tell his aunt that the display in the window looked quite "in the dumps." This was really the truth. The Strasburg tongues on their beds of blue paper-shavings had a melancholy whiteness of hue, like the tongues of invalids; and the whilom chubby hams seemed to be wasting away beneath their mournful green top-knots. Inside the shop, too, when customers asked for a black-pudding or ten sous' worth of bacon, or half a pound of lard, they spoke in subdued, sorrowful voices, as though they were in the bed-chamber of a dying man. There were always two or three lachrymose women in front of the chilled heating-pan. Beautiful Lisa meantime discharged the duties of chief mourner with silent dignity. Her white apron fell more primly than ever over her black dress. Her hands, scrupulously clean and closely girded at the wrists by long white sleevelets, her face with its becoming air of sadness, plainly told all the neighbourhood, all the inquisitive gossips who streamed into the shop from morning to night, that they, the Quenu-Gradelles, were suffering from unmerited misfortune, but that she knew the cause of it, and would triumph over it at last. And sometimes she stooped to look at the two gold-fish, who also seemed ill at ease as they swam languidly around the aquarium in the window, and her glance seemed to promise them better days in the future.
Beautiful Lisa now only allowed herself one indulgence. She fearlessly patted Marjolin's satiny chin. The young man had just come out of the hospital. His skull had healed, and he looked as fat and merry as ever; but even the little intelligence he had possessed had left him, he was now quite an idiot. The gash in his skull must have reached his brain, for he had become a mere animal. The mind of a child of five dwelt in his sturdy frame. He laughed and stammered, he could no longer pronounce his words properly, and he was as submissively obedient as a sheep. Cadine took entire possession of him again; surprised, at first, at the alteration in him, and then quite delighted at having this big fellow to do exactly as she liked with. He was her doll, her toy, her slave in all respects but one: she could not prevent him from going off to Madame Quenu's every now and then. She thumped him, but he did not seem to feel her blows; as soon as she had slung her basket round her neck, and set off to sell her violets in the Rue du Pont Neuf and the Rue de Turbigo, he went to prowl about in front of the pork shop.
"Come in!" Lisa cried to him.
She generally gave him some gherkins, of which he was extremely fond; and he ate them, laughing in a childish way, whilst he stood in front of the counter. The sight of the handsome mistress of the shop filled him with rapture; he often clapped his hands with joy and began to jump about and vent little cries of pleasure, like a child delighted at something shown to it. On the first few occasions when he came to see her after leaving the hospital Lisa had feared that he might remember what had happened.
"Does your head still hurt you?" she asked him.
But he swayed about and burst into a merry laugh as he answered no; and then Lisa gently inquired: "You had a fall, hadn't you?"
"Yes, a fall, fall, fall," he sang, in a happy voice, tapping his skull the while.
Then, as though he were in a sort of ecstasy, he continued in lingering notes, as he gazed at Lisa, "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!" This quite touched Madame Quenu. She had prevailed upon Gavard to keep him in his service. It was on the occasions when he so humbly vented his admiration that she caressed his chin, and told him that he was a good lad. He smiled with childish satisfaction, at times closing his eyes like some domestic pet fondled by its mistress; and Lisa thought to herself that she was making him some compensation for the blow with which she had felled him in the cellar of the poultry market.
However, the Quenus' establishment still remained under a cloud. Florent sometimes ventured to show himself, and shook hands with his brother, while Lisa observed a frigid silence. He even dined with them sometimes on Sundays, at long intervals, and Quenu then made great efforts at gaiety, but could not succeed in imparting any cheerfulness to the meal. He ate badly, and ended by feeling altogether put out. One evening, after one of these icy family gatherings, he said to his wife with tears in his eyes:
"What can be the matter with me? Is it true that I'm not ill? Don't you really see anything wrong in my appearance? I feel just as though I'd got a heavy weight somewhere inside me. And I'm so sad and depressed, too, without in the least knowing why. What can it be, do you think?"
"Oh, a little attack of indigestion, I dare say," replied Lisa.
"No, no; it's been going on too long for that; I feel quite crushed down. Yet the business is going on all right; I've no great worries, and I am leading just the same steady life as ever. But you, too, my dear, don't look well; you seem melancholy. If there isn't a change for the better soon, I shall send for the doctor."
Lisa looked at him with a grave expression.
"There's no need of a doctor," she said, "things will soon be all right again. There's something unhealthy in the atmosphere just now. All the neighbourhood is unwell." Then, as if yielding to an impulse of anxious affection, she added: "Don't worry yourself, my dear. I can't have you falling ill; that would be the crowning blow."
As a rule she sent him back to the kitchen, knowing that the noise of the choppers, the tuneful simmering of the fat, and the bubbling of the pans had a cheering effect upon him. In this way, too, she kept him at a distance from the indiscreet chatter of Mademoiselle Saget, who now spent whole mornings in the shop. The old maid seemed bent on arousing Lisa's alarm, and thus driving her to some extreme step. She began by trying to obtain her confidence.
"What a lot of mischievous folks there are about!" she exclaimed; "folks who would be much better employed in minding their own business. If you only knew, my dear Madame Quenu—but no, really, I should never dare to repeat such things to you."
And, as Madame Quenu replied that she was quite indifferent to gossip, and that it had no effect upon her, the old maid whispered into her ear across the counter: "Well, people say, you know, that Monsieur Florent isn't your cousin at all."
Then she gradually allowed Lisa to see that she knew the whole story; by way of proving that she had her quite at her mercy. When Lisa confessed the truth, equally as a matter of diplomacy, in order that she might have the assistance of some one who would keep her well posted in all the gossip of the neighbourhood, the old maid swore that for her own part she would be as mute as a fish, and deny the truth of the reports about Florent, even if she were to be led to the stake for it. And afterwards this drama brought her intense enjoyment; every morning she came to the shop with some fresh piece of disturbing news.
"You must be careful," she whispered one day; "I have just heard two women in the tripe market talking about you know what. I can't interrupt people and tell them they are lying, you know. It would look so strange. But the story's got about, and it's spreading farther every day. It can't be stopped now, I fear; the truth will have to come out."
A few days later she returned to the assault in all earnest. She made her appearance looking quite scared, and waited impatiently till there was no one in the shop, when she burst out in her sibilant voice:
"Do you know what people are saying now? Well, they say that all those men who meet at Monsieur Lebigre's have got guns, and are going to break out again as they did in '48. It's quite distressing to see such a worthy man as Monsieur Gavard—rich, too, and so respectable—leaguing himself with such scoundrels! I was very anxious to let you know, on account of your brother-in-law."
"Oh, it's mere nonsense, I'm sure; it can't be serious," rejoined Lisa, just to incite the old maid to tell her more.
"Not serious, indeed! Why, when one passes along the Rue Pirouette in the evening one can hear them screaming out in the most dreadful way. Oh! they make no mystery of it all. You know yourself how they tried to corrupt your husband. And the cartridges which I have seen them making from my own window, are they mere nonsense? Well, well, I'm only telling you this for your own good."
"Oh! I'm sure of that, and I'm very much obliged to you," replied Lisa; "but people do invent such stories, you know."
"Ah, but this is no invention, unfortunately. The whole neighbourhood is talking of it. It is said, too, that if the police discover the matter there will be a great many people compromised—Monsieur Gavard, for instance."
Madame Quenu shrugged her shoulders as though to say that Monsieur Gavard was an old fool, and that it would do him good to be locked up.
"Well, I merely mention Monsieur Gavard as I might mention any of the others, your brother-in-law, for instance," resumed the old maid with a wily glance. "Your brother-in-law is the leader, it seems. That's very annoying for you, and I'm very sorry indeed; for if the police were to make a descent here they might march Monsieur Quenu off as well. Two brothers, you know, they're like two fingers of the same hand."
Beautiful Lisa protested against this, but she turned very pale, for Mademoiselle Saget's last thrust had touched a vulnerable point. From that day forward the old maid was ever bringing her stories of innocent people who had been thrown into prison for extending hospitality to criminal scoundrels. In the evening, when La Saget went to get her black-currant syrup at the wine dealer's, she prepared her budget for the next morning. Rose was but little given to gossiping, and the old main reckoned chiefly on her own eyes and ears. She had been struck by Monsieur Lebigre's extremely kind and obliging manner towards Florent, his eagerness to keep him at his establishment, all the polite civilities, for which the little money which the other spent in the house could never recoup him. And this conduct of Monsieur Lebigre's surprised her the more as she was aware of the position in which the two men stood in respect to the beautiful Norman.
"It looks as though Lebigre were fattening him up for sale," she reflected. "Whom can he want to sell him to, I wonder?"
One evening when she was in the bar she saw Logre fling himself on the bench in the sanctum, and heard him speak of his perambulations through the faubourgs, with the remark that he was dead beat. She cast a hasty glance at his feet, and saw that there was not a speck of dust on his boots. Then she smiled quietly, and went off with her black-currant syrup, her lips closely compressed.
She used to complete her budget of information on getting back to her window. It was very high up, commanding a view of all the neighbouring houses, and proved a source of endless enjoyment to her. She was constantly installed at it, as though it were an observatory from which she kept watch upon everything that went on in the neighbourhood. She was quite familiar with all the rooms opposite her, both on the right and the left, even to the smallest details of their furniture. She could have described, without the least omission, the habits of their tenants, have related if the latter's homes were happy or the contrary, have told when and how they washed themselves, what they had for dinner, and who it was that came to see them. Then she obtained a side view of the markets, and not a woman could walk along the Rue Rambuteau without being seen by her; and she could have correctly stated whence the woman had come and whither she was going, what she had got in her basket, and, in short, every detail about her, her husband, her clothes, her children, and her means. "That's Madame Loret, over there; she's giving her son a fine education; that's Madame Hutin, a poor little woman who's dreadfully neglected by her husband; that's Mademoiselle Cecile, the butcher's daughter, a girl that no one will marry because she's scrofulous." In this way she could have continued jerking out biographical scraps for days together, deriving extraordinary amusement from the most trivial, uninteresting incidents. However, as soon as eight o'clock struck, she only had eyes for the frosted "cabinet" window on which appeared the black shadows of the coterie of politicians. She discovered the secession of Charvet and Clemence by missing their bony silhouettes from the milky transparency. Not an incident occurred in that room but she sooner or later learnt it by some sudden motion of those silent arms and heads. She acquired great skill in interpretation, and could divine the meaning of protruding noses, spreading fingers, gaping mouths, and shrugging shoulders; and in this way she followed the progress of the conspiracy step by step, in such wise that she could have told day by day how matters stood. One evening the terrible outcome of it all was revealed to her. She saw the shadow of Gavard's revolver, a huge silhouette with pointed muzzle showing very blackly against the glimmering window. It kept appearing and disappearing so rapidly that it seemed as though the room was full of revolvers. Those were the firearms of which Mademoiselle Saget had spoken to Madame Quenu. On another evening she was much puzzled by the sight of endless lengths of some material or other, and came to the conclusion that the men must be manufacturing cartridges. The next morning, however, she made her appearance in the wine shop by eleven o'clock, on the pretext of asking Rose if she could let her have a candle, and, glancing furtively into the little sanctum, she espied a heap of red material lying on the table. This greatly alarmed her, and her next budget of news was one of decisive gravity.
"I don't want to alarm you, Madame Quenu," she said, "but matters are really looking very serious. Upon my word, I'm quite alarmed. You must on no account repeat what I am going to confide to you. They would murder me if they knew I had told you."
Then, when Lisa had sworn to say nothing that might compromise her, she told her about the red material.
"I can't think what it can be. There was a great heap of it. It looked just like rags soaked in blood. Logre, the hunchback, you know, put one of the pieces over his shoulder. He looked like a headsman. You may be sure this is some fresh trickery or other."
Lisa made no reply, but seemed deep in thought whilst with lowered eyes, she handled a fork and mechanically arranged some piece of salt pork on a dish.
"If I were you," resumed Mademoiselle Saget softly, "I shouldn't be easy in mind; I should want to know the meaning of it all. Why shouldn't you go upstairs and examine your brother-in-law's bedroom?"
At this Lisa gave a slight start, let the fork drop, and glanced uneasily at the old maid, believing that she had discovered her intentions. But the other continued: "You would certainly be justified in doing so. There's no knowing into what danger your brother-in-law may lead you, if you don't put a check on him. They were talking about you yesterday at Madame Taboureau's. Ah! you have a most devoted friend in her. Madame Taboureau said that you were much too easy-going, and that if she were you she would have put an end to all this long ago."
"Madame Taboureau said that?" murmured Lisa thoughtfully.
"Yes, indeed she did; and Madame Taboureau is a woman whose advice is worth listening to. Try to find out the meaning of all those red bands; and if you do, you'll tell me, won't you?"
Lisa, however, was no longer listening to her. She was gazing abstractedly at the edible snails and Gervais cheeses between the festoons of sausages in the window. She seemed absorbed in a mental conflict, which brought two little furrows to her brow. The old maid, however, poked her nose over the dishes on the counter.
"Ah, some slices of saveloy!" she muttered, as though she were speaking to herself. "They'll get very dry cut up like that. And that black-pudding's broken, I see—a fork's been stuck into it, I expect. It might be taken away—it's soiling the dish."
Lisa, still absent-minded, gave her the black-pudding and slices of saveloy. "You may take them," she said, "if you would care for them."
The black bag swallowed them up. Mademoiselle Saget was so accustomed to receiving presents that she had actually ceased to return thanks for them. Every morning she carried away all the scraps of the pork shop. And now she went off with the intention of obtaining her dessert from La Sarriette and Madame Lecoeur, by gossiping to them about Gavard.
When Lisa was alone again she installed herself on the bench, behind the counter, as though she thought she would be able to come to a sounder decision if she were comfortably seated. For the last week she had been very anxious. Florent had asked Quenu for five hundred francs one evening, in the easy, matter-of-course way of a man who had money lying to his credit at the pork shop. Quenu referred him to his wife. This was distasteful to Florent, who felt somewhat uneasy on applying to beautiful Lisa. But she immediately went up to her bedroom, brought the money down and gave it to him, without saying a word, or making the least inquiry as to what he intended to do with it. She merely remarked that she had made a note of the payment on the paper containing the particulars of Florent's share of the inheritance. Three days later he took a thousand francs.
"It was scarcely worth while trying to make himself out so disinterested," Lisa said to Quenu that night, as they went to bed. "I did quite right, you see, in keeping the account. By the way, I haven't noted down the thousand francs I gave him to-day."
She sat down at the secretaire, and glanced over the page of figures. Then she added: "I did well to leave a blank space. I'll put down what I pay him on the margin. You'll see, now, he'll fritter it all away by degrees. That's what I've been expecting for a long time past."
Quenu said nothing, but went to bed feeling very much put out. Every time that his wife opened the secretaire the drawer gave out a mournful creak which pierced his heart. He even thought of remonstrating with his brother, and trying to prevent him from ruining himself with the Mehudins; but when the time came, he did not dare to do it. Two days later Florent asked for another fifteen hundred francs. Logre had said one evening that things would ripen much faster if they could only get some money. The next day he was enchanted to find these words of his, uttered quite at random, result in the receipt of a little pile of gold, which he promptly pocketed, sniggering as he did so, and his hunch fairly shaking with delight. From that time forward money was constantly being needed: one section wished to hire a room where they could meet, while another was compelled to provide for various needy patriots. Then there were arms and ammunition to be purchased, men to be enlisted, and private police expenses. Florent would have paid for anything. He had bethought himself of Uncle Gradelle's treasure, and recalled La Normande's advice. So he made repeated calls upon Lisa's secretaire, being merely kept in check by the vague fear with which his sister-in-law's grave face inspired him. Never, thought he, could he have spent his money in a holier cause. Logre now manifested the greatest enthusiasm, and wore the most wonderful rose-coloured neckerchiefs and the shiniest of varnished boots, the sight of which made Lacaille glower blackly.
"That makes three thousand francs in seven days," Lisa remarked to Quenu. "What do you think of that? A pretty state of affairs, isn't it? If he goes on at this rate his fifty thousand francs will last him barely four months. And yet it took old Gradelle forty years to put his fortune together!"
"It's all your own fault!" cried Quenu. "There was no occasion for you to say anything to him about the money."
Lisa gave her husband a severe glance. "It is his own," she said; "and he is entitled to take it all. It's not the giving him the money that vexes me, but the knowledge that he must make a bad use of it. I tell you again, as I have been telling you for a long time past, all this must come to an end."
"Do whatever you like; I won't prevent you," at last exclaimed the pork butcher, who was tortured by his cupidity.
He still loved his brother; but the thought of fifty thousand francs squandered in four months was agony to him. As for his wife, after all Mademoiselle Saget's chattering she guessed what became of the money. The old maid having ventured to refer to the inheritance, Lisa had taken advantage of the opportunity to let the neighbourhood know that Florent was drawing his share, and spending it after his own fashion.
It was on the following day that the story of the strips of red material impelled Lisa to take definite actin. For a few moments she remained struggling with herself whilst gazing at the depressed appearance of the shop. The sides of pork hung all around in a sullen fashion, and Mouton, seated beside a bowl of fat, displayed the ruffled coat and dim eyes of a cat who no longer digests his meals in peace. Thereupon Lisa called to Augustine and told her to attend to the counter, and she herself went up to Florent's room.
When she entered it, she received quite a shock. The bed, hitherto so spotless, was quite ensanguined by a bundle of long red scarves dangling down to the floor. On the mantelpiece, between the gilt cardboard boxes and the old pomatum-pots, were several red armlets and clusters of red cockades, looking like pools of blood. And hanging from every nail and peg against the faded grey wallpaper were pieces of bunting, square flags—yellow, blue, green, and black—in which Lisa recognised the distinguishing banners of the twenty sections. The childish simplicity of the room seemed quite scared by all this revolutionary decoration. The aspect of guileless stupidity which the shop girl had left behind her, the white innocence of the curtains and furniture, now glared as with the reflection of a fire; while the photograph of Auguste and Augustine looked white with terror. Lisa walked round the room, examining the flags, the armlets, and the scarves, without touching any of them, as though she feared that the dreadful things might burn her. She was reflecting that she had not been mistaken, that it was indeed on these and similar things that Florent's money had been spent. And to her this seemed an utter abomination, an incredibility which set her whole being surging with indignation. To think that her money, that money which had been so honestly earned, was being squandered to organise and defray the expenses of an insurrection!
She stood there, gazing at the expanded blossoms of the pomegranate on the balcony—blossoms which seemed to her like an additional supply of crimson cockades—and listening to the sharp notes of the chaffinch, which resembled the echo of a distant fusillade. And then it struck her that the insurrection might break out the next day, or perhaps that very evening. She fancied she could see the banners streaming in the air and the scarves advancing in line, while a sudden roll of drums broke on her ear. Then she hastily went downstairs again, without even glancing at the papers which were lying on the table. She stopped on the first floor, went into her own room, and dressed herself.
In this critical emergency Lisa arranged her hair with scrupulous care and perfect calmness. She was quite resolute; not a quiver of hesitation disturbed her; but a sterner expression than usual had come into her eyes. As she fastened her black silk dress, straining the waistband with all the strength of her fingers, she recalled Abbe Roustan's words; and she questioned herself, and her conscience answered that she was going to fulfil a duty. By the time she drew her broidered shawl round her broad shoulders, she felt that she was about to perform a deed of high morality. She put on a pair of dark mauve gloves, secured a thick veil to her bonnet; and before leaving the room she double-locked the secretaire, with a hopeful expression on her face which seemed to say that that much worried piece of furniture would at last be able to sleep in peace again.
Quenu was exhibiting his white paunch at the shop door when his wife came down. He was surprised to see her going out in full dress at ten o'clock in the morning. "Hallo! Where are you off to?" he asked.
She pretended that she was going out with Madame Taboureau, and added that she would call at the Gaite Theatre to buy some tickets. Quenu hurried after her to tell her to secure some front seats, so that they might be able to see well. Then, as he returned to the shop, Lisa made her way to the cab-stand opposite St. Eustache, got into a cab, pulled down the blinds, and told the driver to go to the Gaite Theatre. She felt afraid of being followed. When she had booked two seats, however, she directed the cabman to drive her to the Palais de Justice. There, in front of the gate, she discharged him, and then quietly made her way through the halls and corridors to the Prefecture of Police.
She soon lost herself in a noisy crowd of police officers and gentlemen in long frock-coats, but at last gave a man half a franc to guide her to the Prefect's rooms. She found, however, that the Prefect only received such persons as came with letters of audience; and she was shown into a small apartment, furnished after the style of a boarding-house parlour. A fat, bald-headed official, dressed in black from head to foot, received her there with sullen coldness. What was her business? he inquired. Thereupon she raised her veil, gave her name, and told her story, clearly and distinctly, without a pause. The bald man listened with a weary air.
"You are this man's sister-in-law, are you not?" he inquired, when she had finished.
"Yes," Lisa candidly replied. "We are honest, straight-forward people, and I am anxious that my husband should not be compromised."
The official shrugged his shoulders, as though to say that the whole affair was a great nuisance.
"Do you know," he said impatiently, "that I have been pestered with this business for more than a year past? Denunciation after denunciation has been sent to me, and I am being continually goaded and pressed to take action. You will understand that if I haven't done so as yet, it is because I prefer to wait. We have good reasons for our conduct in the matter. Stay, now, here are the papers relating to it. I'll let you see them."
He laid before her an immense collection of papers in a blue wrapper. Lisa turned them over. They were like detached chapters of the story she had just been relating. The commissaires of police at Havre, Rouen, and Vernon notified Florent's arrival within their respective jurisdictions. Then came a report which announced that he had taken up his residence with the Quenu-Gradelles. Next followed his appointment at the markets, an account of his mode of life, the spending of his evenings at Monsieur Lebigre's; not a detail was deficient. Lisa, quite astounded as she was, noticed that the reports were in duplicate, so that they must have emanated from two different sources. And at last she came upon a pile of letters, anonymous letters of every shape, and in every description of handwriting. They brought her amazement to a climax. In one letter she recognised the villainous hand of Mademoiselle Saget, denouncing the people who met in the little sanctum at Lebigre's. On a large piece of greasy paper she identified the heavy pot-hooks of Madame Lecoeur; and there was also a sheet of cream-laid note-paper, ornamented with a yellow pansy, and covered with the scrawls of La Sarriette and Monsieur Jules. These two letters warned the Government to beware of Gavard. Farther on Lisa recognised the coarse style of old Madame Mehudin, who in four pages of almost indecipherable scribble repeated all the wild stories about Florent that circulated in the markets. However, what startled her more than anything else was the discovery of a bill-head of her own establishment, with the inscription Quenu-Gradelle, Pork Butcher, on its face, whilst on the back of it Auguste had penned a denunciation of the man whom he looked upon as an obstacle to his marriage.
The official had acted upon a secret idea in placing these papers before her. "You don't recognise any of these handwritings, do you?" he asked.
"No," she stammered, rising from her seat, quite oppressed by what she had just learned; and she hastily pulled down her veil again to conceal the blush of confusion which was rising to her cheeks. Her silk dress rustled, and her dark gloves disappeared beneath her heavy shawl.
"You see, madame," said the bald man with a faint smile, "your information comes a little late. But I promise you that your visit shall not be forgotten. And tell your husband not to stir. It is possible that something may happen soon that——"
He did not complete his sentence, but, half rising from his armchair, made a slight bow to Lisa. It was a dismissal, and she took her leave. In the ante-room she caught sight of Logre and Monsieur Lebigre, who hastily turned their faces away; but she was more disturbed than they were. She went her way through the halls and along the corridors, feeling as if she were in the clutches of this system of police which, it now seemed to her, saw and knew everything. At last she came out upon the Place Dauphine. When she reached the Quai de l'Horloge she slackened her steps, and felt refreshed by the cool breeze blowing from the Seine.
She now had a keen perception of the utter uselessness of what she had done. Her husband was in no danger whatever; and this thought, whilst relieving her, left her a somewhat remorseful feeling. She was exasperated with Auguste and the women who had put her in such a ridiculous position. She walked on yet more slowly, watching the Seine as it flowed past. Barges, black with coal-dust, were floating down the greenish water; and all along the bank anglers were casting their lines. After all, it was not she who had betrayed Florent. This reflection suddenly occurred to her and astonished her. Would she have been guilty of a wicked action, then, if she had been his betrayer? She was quite perplexed; surprised at the possibility of her conscience having deceived her. Those anonymous letters seemed extremely base. She herself had gone openly to the authorities, given her name, and saved innocent people from being compromised. Then at the sudden thought of old Gradelle's fortune she again examined herself, and felt ready to throw the money into the river if such a course should be necessary to remove the blight which had fallen on the pork shop. No, she was not avaricious, she was sure she wasn't; it was no thought of money that had prompted her in what she had just done. As she crossed the Pont au Change she grew quite calm again, recovering all her superb equanimity. On the whole, it was much better, she felt, that others should have anticipated her at the Prefecture. She would not have to deceive Quenu, and she would sleep with an easier conscience.
"Have you booked the seats?" Quenu asked her when she returned home.
He wanted to see the tickets, and made Lisa explain to him the exact position the seats occupied in the dress-circle. Lisa had imagined that the police would make a descent upon the house immediately after receiving her information, and her proposal to go to the theatre had only been a wily scheme for getting Quenu out of the way while the officers were arresting Florent. She had contemplated taking him for an outing in the afternoon—one of those little jaunts which they occasionally allowed themselves. They would then drive in an open cab to the Bois de Boulogne, dine at a restaurant, and amuse themselves for an hour or two at some cafe concern. But there was no need to go out now, she thought; so she spent the rest of the day behind her counter, with a rosy glow on her face, and seeming brighter and gayer, as though she were recovering from some indisposition.
"You see, I told you it was fresh air you wanted!" exclaimed Quenu. "Your walk this morning has brightened you up wonderfully!"
"No, indeed," she said after a pause, again assuming her look of severity; "the streets of Paris are not at all healthy places."
In the evening they went to the Gaite to see the performance of "La Grace de Dieu." Quenu, in a frock-coat and drab gloves, with his hair carefully pomatumed and combed, was occupied most of the time in hunting for the names of the performers in the programme. Lisa looked superb in her low dress as she rested her hands in their tight-fitting white gloves on the crimson velvet balustrade. They were both of them deeply affected by the misfortunes of Marie. The commander, they thought, was certainly a desperate villain; while Pierrot made them laugh from the first moment of his appearance on the stage. But at last Madame Quenu cried. The departure of the child, the prayer in the maiden's chamber, the return of the poor mad creature, moistened her eyes with gentle tears, which she brushed away with her handkerchief.
However, the pleasure which the evening afforded her turned into a feeling of triumph when she caught sight of La Normande and her mother sitting in the upper gallery. She thereupon puffed herself out more than ever, sent Quenu off to the refreshment bar for a box of caramels, and began to play with her fan, a mother-of-pearl fan, elaborately gilt. The fish-girl was quite crushed; and bent her head down to listen to her mother, who was whispering to her. When the performance was over and beautiful Lisa and the beautiful Norman met in the vestibule they exchanged a vague smile.
Florent had dined early at Monsieur Lebigre's that day. He was expecting Logre, who had promised to introduce to him a retired sergeant, a capable man, with whom they were to discuss the plan of attack upon the Palais Bourbon and the Hotel de Ville. The night closed in, and the fine rain, which had begun to fall in the afternoon, shrouded the vast markets in a leaden gloom. They loomed darkly against the copper-tinted sky, while wisps of murky cloud skimmed by almost on a level with the roofs, looking as though they were caught and torn by the points of the lightning-conductors. Florent felt depressed by the sight of the muddy streets, and the streaming yellowish rain which seemed to sweep the twilight away and extinguish it in the mire. He watched the crowds of people who had taken refuge on the foot-pavements of the covered ways, the umbrellas flitting past in the downpour, and the cabs that dashed with increased clatter and speed along the wellnigh deserted roads. Presently there was a rift in the clouds; and a red glow arose in the west. Then a whole army of street-sweepers came into sight at the end of the Rue Montmartre, driving a lake of liquid mud before them with their brooms.
Logre did not turn up with the sergeant; Gavard had gone to dine with some friends at Batignolles, and so Florent was reduced to spending the evening alone with Robine. He had all the talking to himself, and ended by feeling very low-spirited. His companion merely wagged his beard, and stretched out his hand every quarter of an hour to raise his glass of beer to his lips. At last Florent grew so bored that he went off to bed. Robine, however, though left to himself, still lingered there, contemplating his glass with an expression of deep thought. Rose and the waiter, who had hoped to shut up early, as the coterie of politicians was absent, had to wait a long half hour before he at last made up his mind to leave.
When Florent got to his room, he felt afraid to go to bed. He was suffering from one of those nervous attacks which sometimes plunged him into horrible nightmares until dawn. On the previous day he had been to Clamart to attend the funeral of Monsieur Verlaque, who had died after terrible sufferings; and he still felt sad at the recollection of the narrow coffin which he had seen lowered into the earth. Nor could he banish from his mind the image of Madame Verlaque, who, with a tearful voice, though there was not a tear in her eyes, kept following him and speaking to him about the coffin, which was not paid for, and of the cost of the funeral, which she was quite at a loss about, as she had not a copper in the place, for the druggist, on hearing of her husband's death on the previous day, had insisted upon his bill being paid. So Florent had been obliged to advance the money for the coffin and other funeral expenses, and had even given the gratuities to the mutes. Just as he was going away, Madame Verlaque looked at him with such a heartbroken expression that he left her twenty francs.
And now Monsieur Verlaque's death worried him very much. It affected his situation in the markets. He might lose his berth, or perhaps be formally appointed inspector. In either case he foresaw vexatious complications which might arouse the suspicions of the police. He would have been delighted if the insurrection could have broken out the very next day, so that he might at once have tossed the laced cap of his inspectorship into the streets. With his mind full of harassing thoughts like these, he stepped out upon the balcony, as though soliciting of the warm night some whiff of air to cool his fevered brow. The rain had laid the wind, and a stormy heat still reigned beneath the deep blue, cloudless heavens. The markets, washed by the downpour, spread out below him, similar in hue to the sky, and, like the sky, studded with the yellow stars of their gas lamps.
Leaning on the iron balustrade, Florent recollected that sooner or later he would certainly be punished for having accepted the inspectorship. It seemed to lie like a stain on his life. He had become an official of the Prefecture, forswearing himself, serving the Empire in spite of all the oaths he had taken in his exile. His anxiety to please Lisa, the charitable purpose to which he had devoted the salary he received, the just and scrupulous manner in which he had always struggled to carry out his duties, no longer seemed to him valid excuses for his base abandonment of principle. If he had suffered in the midst of all that sleek fatness, he had deserved to suffer. And before him arose a vision of the evil year which he had just spent, his persecution by the fish-wives, the sickening sensations he had felt on close, damp days, the continuous indigestion which had afflicted his delicate stomach, and the latent hostility which was gathering strength against him. All these things he now accepted as chastisement. That dull rumbling of hostility and spite, the cause of which he could not divine, must forebode some coming catastrophe before whose approach he already stooped, with the shame of one who knows there is a transgression that he must expiate. Then he felt furious with himself as he thought of the popular rising he was preparing; and reflected that he was no longer unsullied enough to achieve success.
In how many dreams he had indulged in that lofty little room, with his eyes wandering over the spreading roofs of the market pavilions! They usually appeared to him like grey seas that spoke to him of far-off countries. On moonless nights they would darken and turn into stagnant lakes of black and pestilential water. But on bright nights they became shimmering fountains of light, the moonbeams streaming over both tiers like water, gliding along the huge plates of zinc, and flowing over the edges of the vast superposed basins. Then frosty weather seemed to turn these roofs into rigid ice, like the Norwegian bays over which skaters skim; while the warm June nights lulled them into deep sleep. One December night, on opening his window, he had seen them white with snow, so lustrously white that they lighted up the coppery sky. Unsullied by a single footstep, they then stretched out like the lonely plains of the Far North, where never a sledge intrudes. Their silence was beautiful, their soft peacefulness suggestive of innocence.
And at each fresh aspect of the ever-changing panorama before him, Florent yielded to dreams which were now sweet, now full of bitter pain. The snow calmed him; the vast sheet of whiteness seemed to him like a veil of purity thrown over the filth of the markets. The bright, clear nights, the shimmering moonbeams, carried him away into the fairy-land of story-books. It was only the dark, black nights, the burning nights of June, when he beheld, as it were, a miasmatic marsh, the stagnant water of a dead and accursed sea, that filled him with gloom and grief; and then ever the same dreadful visions haunted his brain.
The markets were always there. He could never open the window and rest his elbows on the balustrade without having them before him, filling the horizon. He left the pavilions in the evening only to behold their endless roofs as he went to bed. They shut him off from the rest of Paris, ceaselessly intruded their huge bulk upon him, entered into every hour of his life. That night again horrible fancies came to him, fancies aggravated by the vague forebodings of evil which distressed him. The rain of the afternoon had filled the markets with malodorous dampness, and as they wallowed there in the centre of the city, like some drunken man lying, after his last bottle, under the table, they cast all their foul breath into his face. He seemed to see a thick vapour rising up from each pavilion. In the distance the meat and tripe markets reeked with the sickening steam of blood; nearer in, the vegetable and fruit pavilions diffused the odour of pungent cabbages, rotten apples, and decaying leaves; the butter and cheese exhaled a poisonous stench; from the fish market came a sharp, fresh gust; while from the ventilator in the tower of the poultry pavilion just below him, he could see a warm steam issuing, a fetid current rising in coils like the sooty smoke from a factory chimney. And all these exhalations coalesced above the roofs, drifted towards the neighbouring houses, and spread themselves out in a heavy cloud which stretched over the whole of Paris. It was as though the markets were bursting within their tight belt of iron, were beating the slumber of the gorged city with the stertorous fumes of their midnight indigestion.
However, on the footway down below Florent presently heard a sound of voices, the laughter of happy folks. Then the door of the passage was closed noisily. It was Quenu and Lisa coming home from the theatre. Stupefied and intoxicated, as it were, by the atmosphere he was breathing, Florent thereupon left the balcony, his nerves still painfully excited by the thought of the tempest which he could feel gathering round his head. The source of his misery was yonder, in those markets, heated by the day's excesses. He closed the window with violence, and left them wallowing in the darkness, naked and perspiring beneath the stars.
A week later, Florent thought that he would at last be able to proceed to action. A sufficiently serious outburst of public dissatisfaction furnished an opportunity for launching his insurrectionary forces upon Paris. The Corps Legislatif, whose members had lately shown great variance of opinion respecting certain grants to the Imperial family, was now discussing a bill for the imposition of a very unpopular tax, at which the lower orders had already begun to growl. The Ministry, fearing a defeat, was straining every nerve. It was probable, thought Florent, that no better pretext for a rising would for a long time present itself.
One morning, at daybreak, he went to reconnoitre the neighbourhood of the Palais Bourbon. He forgot all about his duties as inspector, and lingered there, studying the approaches of the palace, till eight o'clock, without ever thinking that his absence would revolutionise the fish market. He perambulated all the surrounding streets, the Rue de Lille, the Rue de l'Universite, the Rue de Bourgogne, the Rue Saint Dominique, and even extended his examination to the Esplanade des Invalides, stopping at certain crossways, and measuring distances as he walked along. Then, on coming back to the Quai d'Orsay, he sat down on the parapet, and determined that the attack should be made simultaneously from all sides. The contingents from the Gros-Caillou district should arrive by way of the Champ de Mars; the sections from the north of Paris should come down by the Madeleine; while those from the west and the south would follow the quays, or make their way in small detachments through the then narrow streets of the Faubourg Saint Germain. However, the other side of the river, the Champs Elysees, with their open avenues, caused him some uneasiness; for he foresaw that cannon would be stationed there to sweep the quays. He thereupon modified several details of his plan, and marked down in a memorandum-book the different positions which the several sections should occupy during the combat. The chief attack, he concluded, must certainly be made from the Rue de Bourgogne and the Rue de l'Universite, while a diversion might be effected on the side of the river.
Whilst he thus pondered over his plans the eight o'clock sun, warming the nape of his neck, shone gaily on the broad footways, and gilded the columns of the great structure in front of him. In imagination he already saw the contemplated battle; clusters of men clinging round those columns, the gates burst open, the peristyle invaded; and then scraggy arms suddenly appearing high aloft and planting a banner there.
At last he slowly went his way homewards again with his gaze fixed upon the ground. But all at once a cooing sound made him look up, and he saw that he was passing through the garden of the Tuileries. A number of wood-pigeons, bridling their necks, were strutting over a lawn near by. Florent leant for a moment against the tub of an orange-tree, and looked at the grass and the pigeons steeped in sunshine. Right ahead under the chestnut-trees all was black. The garden was wrapped in a warm silence, broken only by the distant rumbling which came from behind the railings of the Rue de Rivoli. The scent of all the greenery affected Florent, reminding him of Madame Francois. However, a little girl ran past, trundling a hoop, and alarmed the pigeons. They flew off, and settled in a row on the arm of a marble statue of an antique wrestler standing in the middle of the lawn, and once more, but with less vivacity, they began to coo and bridle their necks.
As Florent was returning to the markets by way of the Rue Vauvilliers, he heard Claude Lantier calling to him. The artist was going down into the basement of the poultry pavilion. "Come with me!" he cried. "I'm looking for that brute Marjolin."
Florent followed, glad to forget his thoughts and to defer his return to the fish market for a little longer. Claude told him that his friend Marjolin now had nothing further to wish for: he had become an utter animal. Claude entertained an idea of making him pose on all-fours in future. Whenever he lost his temper over some disappointing sketch he came to spend whole hours in the idiot's company, never speaking, but striving to catch his expression when he laughed.
"He'll be feeding his pigeons, I dare say," he said; "but unfortunately I don't know whereabouts Monsieur Gavard's storeroom is."
They groped about the cellar. In the middle of it some water was trickling from a couple of taps in the dim gloom. The storerooms here are reserved for pigeons exclusively, and all along the trellising they heard faint cooings, like the hushed notes of birds nestling under the leaves when daylight is departing. Claude began to laugh as he heard it.
"It sounds as though all the lovers in Paris were embracing each other inside here, doesn't it?" he exclaimed to his companion.
However, they could not find a single storeroom open, and were beginning to think that Marjolin could not be in the cellar, when a sound of loud, smacking kisses made them suddenly halt before a door which stood slightly ajar. Claude pulled it open and beheld Marjolin, whom Cadine was kissing, whilst he, a mere dummy, offered his face without feeling the slightest thrill at the touch of her lips.
"Oh, so this is your little game, is it?" said Claude with a laugh.
"Oh," replied Cadine, quite unabashed, "he likes being kissed, because he feels afraid now in the dim light. You do feel frightened, don't you?"
Like the idiot he was, Marjolin stroked his face with his hands as though trying to find the kisses which the girl had just printed there. And he was beginning to stammer out that he was afraid, when Cadine continued: "And, besides, I came to help him; I've been feeding the pigeons."
Florent looked at the poor creatures. All along the shelves were rows of lidless boxes, in which pigeons, showing their motley plumage, crowded closely on their stiffened legs. Every now and then a tremor ran along the moving mass; and then the birds settled down again, and nothing was heard but their confused, subdued notes. Cadine had a saucepan near her; she filled her mouth with the water and tares which it contained, and then, taking up the pigeons one by one, shot the food down their throats with amazing rapidity. The poor creatures struggled and nearly choked, and finally fell down in the boxes with swimming eyes, intoxicated, as it were, by all the food which they were thus forced to swallow.[*]
[*] This is the customary mode of fattening pigeons at the Paris markets. The work is usually done by men who make a specialty of it, and are called gaveurs.—Translator.
"Poor creatures!" exclaimed Claude.
"Oh, so much the worse for them," said Cadine, who had now finished. "They are much nicer eating when they've been well fed. In a couple of hours or so all those over yonder will be given a dose of salt water. That makes their flesh white and tender. Then two hours afterwards they'll be killed. If you would like to see the killing, there are some here which are quite ready. Marjolin will settle their account for them in a jiffy."
Marjolin carried away a box containing some fifty pigeons, and Claude and Florent followed him. Squatting upon the ground near one of the water-taps, he placed the box by his side. Then he laid a framework of slender wooden bars on the top of a kind of zinc trough, and forthwith began to kill the pigeons. His knife flashed rapidly in his fingers, as he seized the birds by the wings, stunned them by a blow on the head from the knife-handle, and then thrust the point of the blade into their throats. They quivered for an instant, and ruffled their feathers as Marjolin laid them in a row, with their heads between the wooden bars above the zinc trough, into which their blood fell drop by drop. He repeated each different movement with the regularity of clockwork, the blows from the knife-handle falling with a monotonous tick-tack as he broke the birds' skulls, and his hand working backwards and forwards like a pendulum as he took up the living pigeons on one side and laid them down dead on the other. Soon, moreover, he worked with increasing rapidity, gloating over the massacre with glistening eyes, squatting there like a huge delighted bull-dog enjoying the sight of slaughtered vermin. "Tick-tack! Tick-tack!" whilst his tongue clucked as an accompaniment to the rhythmical movements of his knife. The pigeons hung down like wisps of silken stuff.
"Ah, you enjoy that, don't you, you great stupid?" exclaimed Cadine. "How comical those pigeons look when they bury their heads in their shoulders to hide their necks! They're horrid things, you know, and would give one nasty bites if they got the chance." Then she laughed more loudly at Marjolin's increasing, feverish haste; and added: "I've killed them sometimes myself, but I can't get on as quickly as he does. One day he killed a hundred in ten minutes."
The wooden frame was nearly full; the blood could be heard falling into the zinc trough; and as Claude happened to turn round he saw Florent looking so pale that he hurriedly led him away. When they got above-ground again he made him sit down on a step.
"Why, what's the matter with you?" he exclaimed, tapping him on the shoulder. "You're fainting away like a woman!"
"It's the smell of the cellar," murmured Florent, feeling a little ashamed of himself.
The truth was, however, that those pigeons, which were forced to swallow tares and salt water, and then had their skulls broken and their throats slit, had reminded him of the wood-pigeons of the Tuileries gardens, strutting over the green turf, with their satiny plumage flashing iridescently in the sunlight. He again heard them cooing on the arm of the marble wrestler amidst the hushed silence of the garden, while children trundled their hoops in the deep gloom of the chestnuts. And then, on seeing that big fair-haired animal massacring his boxful of birds, stunning them with the handle of his knife and driving its point into their throats, in the depths of that foul-smelling cellar, he had felt sick and faint, his legs had almost given way beneath him, while his eyelids quivered tremulously.
"Well, you'd never do for a soldier!" Claude said to him when he recovered from his faintness. "Those who sent you to Cayenne must have been very simple-minded folks to fear such a man as you! Why, my good fellow, if ever you do put yourself at the head of a rising, you won't dare to fire a shot. You'll be too much afraid of killing somebody."
Florent got up without making any reply. He had become very gloomy, his face was furrowed by deep wrinkles; and he walked off, leaving Claude to go back to the cellar alone. As he made his way towards the fish market his thoughts returned to his plan of attack, to the levies of armed men who were to invade the Palais Bourbon. Cannon would roar from the Champs Elysees; the gates would be burst open; blood would stain the steps, and men's brains would bespatter the pillars. A vision of the fight passed rapidly before him; and he beheld himself in the midst of it, deadly pale, and hiding his face in his hands, not daring to look around him.
As he was crossing the Rue du Pont Neuf he fancied he espied Auguste's pale face peering round the corner of the fruit pavilion. The assistant seemed to be watching for someone, and his eyes were starting from his head with an expression of intense excitement. Suddenly, however, he vanished and hastened back to the pork shop.
"What's the matter with him?" thought Florent. "Is he frightened of me, I wonder?"
Some very serious occurrences had taken place that morning at the Quenu-Gradelles'. Soon after daybreak, Auguste, breathless with excitement, had awakened his mistress to tell her that the police had come to arrest Monsieur Florent. And he added, with stammering incoherence, that the latter had gone out, and that he must have done so with the intention of escaping. Lisa, careless of appearances, at once hurried up to her brother-in-law's room in her dressing-wrapper, and took possession of La Normande's photograph, after glancing round to see if there was anything lying about that might compromise herself and Quenu. As she was making her way downstairs again, she met the police agents on the first floor. The commissary requested her to accompany them to Florent's room, where, after speaking to her for a moment in a low tone, he installed himself with his men, bidding her open the shop as usual so as to avoid giving the alarm to anyone. The trap was set.
Lisa's only worry in the matter was the terrible blow that the arrest would prove to poor Quenu. She was much afraid that if he learned that the police were in the house, he would spoil everything by his tears; so she made Auguste swear to observe the most rigid silence on the subject. Then she went back to her room, put on her stays, and concocted some story for the benefit of Quenu, who was still drowsy. Half an hour later she was standing at the door of the shop with all her usual neatness of appearance, her hair smooth and glossy, and her face glowing rosily. Auguste was quietly setting out the window. Quenu came for a moment on to the footway, yawning slightly, and ridding himself of all sleepiness in the fresh morning air. There was nothing to indicate the drama that was in preparation upstairs.
The commissary himself, however, gave the alarm to the neighbourhood by paying a domiciliary visit to the Mehudins' abode in the Rue Pirouette. He was in possession of the most precise information. In the anonymous letters which had been sent to the Prefecture, all sorts of statements were made respecting Florent's alleged intrigue with the beautiful Norman. Perhaps, thought the commissary, he had now taken refuge with her; and so, accompanied by two of his men, he proceeded to knock at the door in the name of the law. The Mehudins had only just got up. The old woman opened the door in a fury; but suddenly calmed down and began to smile when she learned the business on hand. She seated herself and fastened her clothes, while declaring to the officers: "We are honest folks here, and have nothing to be afraid of. You can search wherever you like."
However, as La Normande delayed to open the door of her room, the commissary told his men to break it open. The young woman was scarcely clad when the others entered, and this unceremonious invasion, which she could not understand, fairly exasperated her. She flushed crimson from anger rather than from shame, and seemed as though she were about to fly at the officers. The commissary, at the sight, stepped forward to protect his men, repeating in his cold voice: "In the name of the law! In the name of the law!"
Thereupon La Normande threw herself upon a chair, and burst into a wild fit of hysterical sobbing at finding herself so powerless. She was quite at a loss to understand what these men wanted with her. The commissary, however, had noticed how scantily she was clad, and taking a shawl from a peg, he flung it over her. Still she did not wrap it round her, but only sobbed the more bitterly as she watched the men roughly searching the apartment.
"But what have I done?" she at last stammered out. "What are you looking for here?"
Thereupon the commissary pronounced the name of Florent; and La Normande, catching sight of the old woman, who was standing at the door, cried out: "Oh, the wretch! This is her doing!" and she rushed at her mother.
She would have struck her if she had reached her; but the police agents held her back, and forcibly wrapped her in the shawl. Meanwhile, she struggled violently, and exclaimed in a choking voice:
"What do you take me for? That Florent has never been in this room, I tell you. There was nothing at all between us. People are always trying to injure me in the neighbourhood; but just let anyone come here and say anything before my face, and then you'll see! You'll lock me up afterwards, I dare say, but I don't mind that! Florent, indeed! What a lie! What nonsense!"
This flood of words seemed to calm her; and her anger now turned against Florent, who was the cause of all the trouble. Addressing the commissary, she sought to justify herself.
"I did not know his real character, sir," she said. "He had such a mild manner that he deceived us all. I was unwilling to believe all I heard, because I know people are so malicious. He only came here to give lessons to my little boy, and went away directly they were over. I gave him a meal here now and again, that's true and sometimes made him a present of a fine fish. That's all. But this will be a warning to me, and you won't catch me showing the same kindness to anyone again."
"But hasn't he given you any of his papers to take care of?" asked the commissary.
"Oh no, indeed! I swear it. I'd give them up to you at once if he had. I've had quite enough of this, I can tell you! It's no joke to see you tossing all my things about and ferreting everywhere in this way. Oh! you may look; there's nothing."
The officers, who examined every article of furniture, now wished to enter the little closet where Muche slept. The child had been awakened by the noise, and for the last few moments he had been crying bitterly, as though he imagined that he was going to be murdered.
"This is my boy's room," said La Normande, opening the door.
Muche, quite naked, ran up and threw his arms round his mother's neck. She pacified him, and laid him down in her own bed. The officers came out of the little room again almost immediately, and the commissary had just made up his mind to retire, when the child, still in tears, whispered in his mother's ear: "They'll take my copy-books. Don't let them have my copy-books."
"Oh, yes; that's true," cried La Normande; "there are some copy-books. Wait a moment, gentlemen, and I'll give them to you. I want you to see that I'm not hiding anything from you. Then, you'll find some of his writing inside these. You're quite at liberty to hang him as far as I'm concerned; you won't find me trying to cut him down."
Thereupon she handed Muche's books and the copies set by Florent to the commissary. But at this the boy sprang angrily out of bed, and began to scratch and bite his mother, who put him back again with a box on the ears. Then he began to bellow.
In the midst of the uproar, Mademoiselle Saget appeared on the threshold, craning her neck forward. Finding all the doors open, she had come in to offer her services to old Madame Mehudin. She spied about and listened, and expressed extreme pity for these poor women, who had no one to defend them. The commissary, however, had begun to read the copies with a grave air. The frequent repetition of such words as "tyrannically," "liberticide," "unconstitutional," and "revolutionary" made him frown; and on reading the sentence, "When the hour strikes, the guilty shall fall," he tapped his fingers on the paper and said: "This is very serious, very serious indeed."