She had not yielded

The first Sunday in August every one was busy with the stock-taking,
which had to be finished by the evening. Early in the morning all the
employees were at their posts, as on a week-day, and the work commenced
with closed doors, in the immense establishment, entirely free from
customers.
Denise, however, had not come down with the other young ladies at eight
o’clock. Confined to her room for the last five days by a sprained
ankle, caused when going up stairs to the work-rooms, she was going on
much better; but, sure of Madame Aurélie’s indulgence, she did not hurry
down, and sat putting her boots on with difficulty, resolved, however,
to show herself in the department. The young ladies’ bed-rooms now
occupied the entire fifth storey of the new buildings, along the Rue
Monsigny; there were sixty of them, on either side of a corridor, and
they were much more comfortable than formerly, although still
furnished with the iron bedstead, large wardrobe, and little mahogany
toilet-table. The private life of the saleswomen became more refined and
elegant there, they displayed a taste for scented soap and fine linen,
quite a natural ascent towards middle-class ways as their positions
improved, although high words and banging doors were still sometimes
heard amidst the hôtel-like gust that carried them away, morning and
evening. Denise, being second-hand in her department, had one of the
largest rooms, the two attic windows of which looked into the street.
Being much better off now, she indulged in several little luxuries, a
red eider-down coverlet for the bed, covered with Maltese lace, a small
carpet in front of the wardrobe, and two blue-glass vases containing a
few faded roses on the toilet table.
When she got her boots on she tried to walk across the room; but was
obliged to lean against the furniture, being still rather lame. But that
would soon come right again, she thought. At the same time, she had been
quite right in refusing the invitation to dine at uncle Baudu’s that
evening, and in asking her aunt to take Pépé out for a walk, for she
had placed him with Madame Gras again. Jean, who had been to see her the
previous day, was to dine at his uncle’s also. She continued to try to
walk, resolved to go to bed early, in order to rest her leg, when Madame
Cabin, the housekeeper, knocked and gave her a letter, with an air of
mystery.
The door closed. Denise, astonished by this woman’s discreet smile,
opened the letter. She dropped on to a chair; it was a letter from
Mouret, in which he expressed himself delighted at her recovery, and
begged her to go down and dine with him that evening, as she could not
go out. The tone of this note, at once familiar and paternal, was in no
way offensive; but it was impossible for her to mistake its meaning. The
Ladies’ Paradise well knew the real signification of these invitations,
which were legendary: Clara had dined, others as well, all those the
governor had specially remarked. After dinner, as the witlings were
wont to say, came the dessert. And the young girl’s white cheeks were
gradually invaded by a flow of blood.
The letter slipped on to her knees, and Denise, her heart beating
violently, remained with her eyes fixed on the blinding light of one of
the windows. This was the confession she must have made to herself, in
this very room, during her sleepless moments: if she still trembled when
he passed, she now knew it was not from fear; and her former uneasiness,
her old terror, could have been nothing but the frightened ignorance of
love, the disorder of her growing affections, in her youthful wildness.
She did not argue with herself, she simply felt that she had always
loved him from the hour she had shuddered and stammered before him.
She had loved him when she had feared him as a pitiless master; she had
loved him when her distracted heart was dreaming of Hutin, unconsciously
yielding to a desire for affection. Perhaps she might have given herself
to another, but she had never loved any but this man, whose mere look
terrified her. And her whole past life came back to her, unfolding
itself in the blinding light of the window: the hardships of her start,
that sweet walk under the shady trees of the Tuileries Gardens, and,
lastly, the desires with which he had enveloped her ever since her
return. The letter dropped on the ground, Denise still gazed at the
window, dazzled by the glare of the sun.
Suddenly there was a knock. She hastened to pick up the letter and
conceal it in her pocket. It was Pauline, who, having slipped away under
some pretext, had come for a little gossip.
“How are you, my dear? We never meet now—-”
But as it was against the rules to go up into the bed-rooms, and, above
all, for two to be shut in together, Denise took her to the end of the
passage, into the ladies’ drawing-room, a gallant present from Mouret
to the young ladies, who could spend their evenings there till eleven
o’clock. The apartment, decorated in white and gold, of the vulgar
nudity of an hôtel room, was furnished with a piano, a central table,
and some arm-chairs and sofas protected with white covers. But, after
a few evenings spent together, in the first novelty of the thing, the
saleswomen never went into the place without coming to high words at
once. They required educating to it, the little trading city was wanting
in accord. Meanwhile, almost the only one that went there in the evening
was the second-hand in the corset department, Miss Powell, who strummed
away at Chopin on the piano, and whose coveted talent ended by driving
the others away.
“You see my ankle’s better now,” said Denise, “I was going downstairs.”
“Well!” exclaimed the other, “what zeal! I’d take it easy if I had the
chance!”
They both sat down on a sofa. Pauline’s attitude had changed since her
friend had been promoted to be second-hand in the ready-made department.
With her good-natured cordiality was mingled a shade of respect, a sort
of surprise to feel the puny little saleswoman of former days on the
road to fortune. Denise liked her very much, and confided in her alone,
amidst the continual gallop of the two hundred women that the firm now
employed.
“What’s the matter?” asked Pauline, quickly, when she remarked the young
girl’s troubled looks.
“Oh! nothing,” replied the latter, with an awkward smile.
“Yes, yes; there’s something the matter with you. Have you no faith in
me, that you have given up telling me your troubles?”
Then Denise, in the emotion that was swelling her bosom–an emotion
she could not control–abandoned herself to her feelings. She gave her
friend the letter, stammering: “Look! he has just written to me.”
Between themselves, they had never openly spoken of Mouret. But this
very silence was like a confession of their secret pre-occupations.
Pauline knew everything. After having read the letter, she clasped
Denise in her arms, and softly murmured: “My dear, to speak frankly, I
thought it was already done. Don’t be shocked; I assure you the whole
shop must think as I do. Naturally! he appointed you as second-hand
so quickly, then he’s always after you. It’s obvious!” She kissed
her affectionately, and then asked her: “You will go this evening, of
course?”
Denise looked at her without replying. All at once she burst into tears,
her head on Pauline’s shoulder. The latter was quite astonished.’
“Come, try and calm yourself; there’s nothing in the affair to upset you
like this.”
“No, no; let me be,” stammered Denise. “If you only knew what trouble I
am in! Since I received that letter, I have felt beside myself. Let me
have a good cry, that will relieve me.”
Full of pity, though not understanding, Pauline endeavoured to console
her. In the first place, he had thrown up Clara. It was said he still
visited a lady outside, but that was not proved. Then she explained that
one could not be jealous of a man in such a position. He had too much
money; he was the master, after all Denise listened to her, and had she
been ignorant of her love, she could no longer have doubted it after
the suffering she felt at the name of Clara and the allusion to
Madame Desforges, which made her heart bleed. She could hear Clara’s
disagreeable voice, she could see Madame Desforges dragging her about
the different departments with the scorn of a rich lady for a poor
shop-girl.
“So you would go yourself?” asked she.
Pauline, without pausing to think, cried out: “Of course, how can one do
otherwise!” Then reflecting, she added: “Not now, but formerly, because
now I am going to marry Bauge, and it would not be right.”
In fact, Bauge, who had left the Bon Marche for The Ladies’ Paradise,
was going to marry her about the middle of the month. Bourdoncle did
not like these married couples; they had managed, however, to get the
necessary permission, and even hoped to obtain a fortnight’s holiday for
their honeymoon.
“There you are,” declared Denise, “when a man loves a girl he ought to
marry her. Bauge is going to marry you.” Pauline laughed heartily. “But
my dear, it isn’t the same thing. Baugé is going to marry me because he
is Bauge. He’s my equal, that’s a natural thing. Whilst Monsieur Mouret!
Do you think Monsieur Mouret can marry his saleswomen?”
“Oh! no, oh! no,” exclaimed the young girl, shocked by the absurdity the
question, “and that’s why he ought not to have written to me.”
This argument completely astonished Pauline. Her coarse face, with her
small tender eyes, assumed quite an expression of maternal compassion.
Then she got up, opened the piano, and softly played with one finger,
“King Dagobert,” to enliven the situation, no doubt. Into the nakedness
of the drawingroom, the white coverings of which seemed to increase the
emptiness, came the noises from the street, the distant melopoia of a
woman crying out green peas. Denise had thrown herself back on the sofa,
her head against the wood-work, shaken by a fresh flood of sobs, which
she stifled in her handkerchief.
“Again!” resumed Pauline, turning round. “Really you are not reasonable.
Why did you bring me here? We ought to have stopped in your room.”
She knelt down before her, and commenced lecturing her again. How many
others would like to be in her place! Besides, if the thing did not
please her, it was very simple: she had only to say no, without worrying
herself like this. But she should reflect before risking her position
by a refusal which was inexplicable, considering she had no engagement
elsewhere. Was it such a terrible thing after all? and the reprimand
was finishing up by some pleasantries, gaily whispered, when a sound of
footsteps was heard in the passage. Pauline ran to the door and looked
out. “Hush! Madame Aurélie!” she murmured. “I’m off, and just you dry
your eyes. She need not know what’s up.” When Denise was alone, she got
up, and forced back her tears; and, her hands still trembling, with the
fear of being caught there doing nothing, she closed the piano, which
her friend had left open. But on hearing Madame Aurélie knocking at her
door, she left the drawing-room.
“What! you are up!” exclaimed the first-hand. “It’s very thoughtless
of you, my dear child. I was just coming up to see how you were, and to
tell you that we did not require you downstairs.”
Denise assured her that she felt very much better, that it would do her
good to do something to amuse herself.
“I sha’nt tire myself, madame. You can place me on a chair, and I’ll do
some writing.”
Both then went downstairs. Madame Aurélie, who was most attentive,
insisted on Denise leaning on her shoulder. She must have noticed the
young girl’s red eyes, for she was stealthily examining her. No doubt
she was aware of a great deal of what was going on.
It was an unexpected victory: Denise had at last conquered the
department. After struggling for six months, amidst her torments as
drudge and fag, without disarming her comrades’ ill-will, she had in a
few weeks entirely overcome them, and now saw them around her submissive
and respectful. Madame Aurélie’s sudden affection had greatly assisted
her in this ungrateful task of softening her comrades’ hearts towards
her. It was whispered that the first-hand was Mouret’s obliging
factotum, that she rendered him many delicate services; and she took the
young girl under her protection with such warmth that the latter must
have been recommended to her in a very special manner. But Denise had
also brought all her charm into play in order to disarm her enemies.
The task was all the more difficult from the fact that she had to obtain
their pardon for her appointment to the situation of second-hand. The
young ladies spoke of this as an injustice, accused her of having earned
it at dessert, with the governor; and even added a lot of abominable
details. But in spite of their revolt, the title of second-hand
influenced them, Denise assumed a certain authority which astonished and
overawed the most hostile spirits. Soon after, she even found flatterers
amongst the new hands; and her sweetness and modesty finished the
conquest. Marguerite came over to her side. Clara was the only one to
continue her ill-natured ways, still venturing on the old insult of
the “unkempt girl,” which no one now saw the fun of. During her short
intimacy with Mouret, she had taken advantage of it to neglect her work,
being of a wonderfully idle, gossiping nature; then, as he had quickly
tired of her, she did not even recriminate, incapable of jealousy in
the disorderly abandon of her existence, perfectly satisfied to have
profited from it to the extent of being allowed to stand about doing
nothing. But, at the same time, she considered that Denise had robbed
her of Madame Frederic’s place. She would never have accepted it, on
account of the worry; but she was vexed at the want of politeness, for
she had the same claims as the other one, and prior claims too.
“Hullo! there’s the young mother being trotted out after her
confinement,” murmured she, on seeing Madame Aurélie bringing Denise in
on her arm.
Marguerite shrugged her shoulders, saying, “I dare say you think that’s
a good joke!”
Nine o’clock struck. Outside, an ardent blue sky was warming the
streets.
Cabs were rolling toward the railway stations, the whole population
dressed out in Sunday clothes, was streaming in long rows towards the
suburban woods.
Inside the building, inundated with sun through the large open bays, the
cooped-up staff had just commenced the stocktaking. They had closed
the doors; people stopped on the pavement, looking through the windows,
astonished at this shutting-up when an extraordinary activity was going
on inside. There was, from one end of the galleries to the other, from
the top floor to the bottom, a continual movement of employees, their
arms in the air, and parcels flying about above their heads; and
all this amidst a tempest of cries and a calling out of prices, the
confusion of which ascended and became a deafening roar. Each of the
thirty-nine departments did its work apart, without troubling about its
neighbour. At this early hour the shelves had hardly been touched, there
were only a few bales of goods on the floors; the machine would have to
get up more steam if they were to finish that evening.
“Why have you come down?” asked Marguerite of Denise, good-naturedly.
“You’ll only make yourself worse, and we are quite enough to do the
work.”
“That’s what I told her,” declared Madame Aurélie, “but she insisted on
coming down to help us.”
All the young ladies flocked round Denise. The work was interrupted even
for a time. They complimented her, listening with various exclamations
to the story of her sprained ankle. At last Madame Aurélie made her sit
down at a table; and it was understood that she should merely write
down the articles as they were called out. On such a day as this they
requisitioned any employee capable of holding a pen: the inspectors, the
cashiers, the clerks, even down to the shop messengers; and the various
departments divided amongst themselves these assistants of a day to get
the work over quicker. It was thus that Denise found herself installed
near Lhomme the cashier and Joseph the messenger, both bending over
large sheets of paper.
“Five mantles, cloth, fur trimming, third size, at two hundred and forty
francs!” cried Marguerite. “Four ditto, first size, at two hundred and
twenty!”
The work once more commenced. Behind Marguerite three saleswomen were
emptying the cupboards, classifying the articles, giving them to her in
bundles; and, when she had called them out, she threw them on the table,
where they were gradually heaping up in enormous piles. Lhomme wrote
down the articles, Joseph kept another list for the clearinghouse.
Whilst this was going on, Madame Aurélie herself, assisted by three
other saleswomen, was counting the silk garments, which Denise entered
on the sheets. Clara was employed in looking after the heaps, to arrange
them in such a manner that they should occupy the least space possible
on the tables. But she was not paying much attention to her work, for
the heaps were already tumbling down.
“I say,” asked she of a little saleswoman who had joined that winter,
“are they going to give you a rise? You know the second-hand is to
have two thousand francs, which, with her commission, will bring her in
nearly seven thousand.”
The little saleswoman, without ceasing to pass some cloaks down, replied
that if they didn’t give her eight hundred francs she would take her
hook. The rises were always given the day after the stock-taking; it
was also the epoch at which, the amount of business done during the year
being known, the managers of the departments drew their commission on
the increase of this figure, compared with that of the preceding year.
Thus, notwithstanding the bustle and uproar of the work, the impassioned
gossiping went on everywhere. Between two articles called out, they
talked of nothing but money. The rumour ran that Madame Aurélie would
exceed twenty-five thousand francs; and this immense sum greatly excited
the young ladies. Marguerite, the best saleswoman after Denise, had made
four thousand five hundred francs, fifteen hundred francs salary, and
about three thousand francs commission; whilst Clara had not made two
thousand five hundred francs altogether.
“I don’t care a button for their rises!” resumed the latter, still
talking to the little saleswoman. “If papa were dead, I would jolly
soon clear out of this! But what exasperates me is to see seven thousand
francs given to that strip of a girl! What do you say?”
Madame Aurélie violently interrupted the conversation, turning round
with her imperial air. “Be quiet, young ladies! We can’t hear ourselves
speak, my word of honour!”
Then she resumed calling out: “Seven mantles, old style, Sicilian, first
size, at a hundred and thirty! Three pelisses, surah, second size, at a
hundred and fifty! Have you got that down, Mademoiselle Baudu?”
“Yes, madame.”
Clara then had to look after the armfuls of garments piled on the
tables. She pushed them about, and made more room. But she soon left
them again to reply to a salesman, who was looking for her. It was the
glover, Mignot, escaped from his department. He whispered a request for
twenty francs; he already owed her thirty, a loan effected the day after
a race, after having lost his week’s salary on a horse; this time he had
squandered his commission, drawn over night, and had not ten sous for
his Sunday. Clara had only ten francs about her, which she lent him with
a fairly good grace. And they went on talking, spoke of a party of six,
indulged in at a restaurant at Bougival, where the women had paid their
share: it was much better, they all felt perfectly at their ease like
that. Then Mignot, who wanted his twenty francs, went and bent over
Lhomme’s shoulder. The latter, stopped in his writing, appeared greatly
troubled. However, he dared not refuse, and was looking for the money
in his purse, when Madame Aurélie, astonished not to hear Marguerite’s
voice, which had been interrupted, perceived Mignot, and understood at
once. She roughly sent him back to his department, saying she didn’t
want any one to come and distract her young ladies from their work. The
truth is, she dreaded this young man, a bosom friend of Albert’s, the
accomplice of his doubtful tricks, which she trembled to see turn out
badly some day. Therefore, when Mignot had got his ten francs, and had
run away, she could not help saying to her husband:
“Is it possible to let a fellow like that get over you!”
“But, my dear, I really could not refuse the young man.” She closed his
mouth with a shrug of her substantial shoulders. Then, as the saleswomen
were slyly grinning at this family explanation, she resumed with
severity: “Now, Mademoiselle Vadon, don’t let’s go to sleep.”
“Twenty cloaks, cashmere extra, fourth size, at eighteen francs and a
half,” resumed Marguerite in her sing-song voice.
Lhomme, with his head bowed down, had resumed writing. They had
gradually raised his salary to nine thousand francs a year; and he was
very humble before Madame Aurélie, who still brought nearly triple as
much into the family.
For a while the work pushed forward. Figures flew about, the parcels
of garments rained thick and fast on the tables, But Clara had invented
another amusement: she was teasing the messenger, Joseph, about
a passion that he was said to nourish for a young lady in the
pattern-room. This young lady, already twenty-eight years old, thin and
pale, was a protege of Madame Desforges, who had wanted to make Mouret
engage her as a saleswoman, backing up her recommendation with a
touching story: an orphan, the last of the De Fontenailles, an old and
noble family of Poitou, thrown into the streets of Paris with a drunken
father, but yet virtuous amidst this misfortune, with an education too
limited, unfortunately, to take a place as governess or music-mistress.
Mouret generally got angry when any one recommended to him these
broken-down gentlewomen; there was not, said he, a class of creatures
more incapable, more insupportable, more narrow-minded than these
gentlewomen; and, besides, a saleswoman could not be improvised,
she must serve an apprenticeship, it was a complicated and delicate
business. However, he took Madame Desforges’s protege, but put her in
the pattern-room, in the same way as he had already found places, to
oblige friends, for two countesses and a baroness in the advertising
department, where they addressed envelopes, etc. Mademoiselle de
Fontenailles earned three francs a day, which just enabled her to live
in her modest room, in the Rue d’Argenteuil. It was on seeing her, with
her sad look and such shabby clothes, that Joseph’s heart, very tender
under his rough soldier’s manner, had been touched. He did not confess,
but he blushed, when the young ladies in the ready-made department
chaffed him; for the pattern-room was not far off, and they had often
observed him prowling about the doorway.
“Joseph is somewhat absent-minded,” murmured Clara. “His nose is always
turned towards the under-linen department.”
They had requisitioned Mademoiselle de Fontenailles there, and she was
assisting at the outfitting counter. As the messenger was continually
glancing in that direction, the saleswomen began to laugh. He became
very confused, and plunged into his accounts; whilst Marguerite, in
order to arrest the flood of gaiety which was tickling her throat, cried
out louder stills “Fourteen jackets, English cloth, second size, at
fifteen francs!”
At this, Madame Aurélie, who was engaged in calling out some cloaks,
could not make herself heard. She interfered with a wounded air, and
a majestic slowness: “A little softer, mademoiselle. We are not in a
market. And you are all very unreasonable, to be amusing yourselves with
these childish matters, when our time is so precious.”
Just at that moment, as Clara was not paying any attention to the
parcels, a catastrophe took place. Some mantles tumbled down, and all
the heaps on the tables, dragged down with them, fell one after the
other, so that the carpet was strewn with them.
“There! what did I say!” cried the first-hand, beside herself. “Pray be
more careful, Mademoiselle Prunaire; it’s intolerable!”
But a hum ran along: Mouret and Bourdoncle, making their round of
inspection, had just appeared. The voices started again, the pens
sputtered along, whilst Clara hastened to pick up the garments. The
governor did not interrupt the work. He stood there several minutes,
mute, smiling; and it was on his lips alone that a slight feverish
shivering was visible in his gay and victorious face of stock-taking
days. When he perceived Denise, he nearly gave way to a gesture of
astonishment. She had come down, then? His eyes met Madame Aurélie’s.
Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he went away into the under-linen
department.
However, Denise, warned by the slight noise, had raised her head. And,
after having recognised Mouret, she had immediately bent over her
work again, without ostentation. Since she had been writing in this
mechanical way, amidst the regular calling-out of the articles, a
peaceful feeling had stolen over her. She had always yielded thus to
the first excesses of her sensitiveness: the tears suffocated her,
her passion doubled her torments; then she regained her self-command,
finding a grand, calm courage, a strength of will, quiet but inexorable.
Now, with her limpid eyes, and pale complexion, she was free from all
agitation, entirely given up to her work, resolved to crush her heart
and to do nothing but her will.
Ten o’clock struck, the uproar of the stock-taking was increasing in the
activity of the departments. And amidst the cries incessantly raised,
crossing each other on all sides, the same news was circulating with
surprising rapidity: every salesman knew that Mouret had written that
morning inviting Denise to dinner. The indiscretion came from Pauline.
On going downstairs, still excited, she had met Deloche in the lace
department, and, without noticing that Liénard was talking to the young
man, she immediately relieved her mind of the secret.
“It’s done, my dear fellow. She’s just received a letter. He invites her
for this evening.”
Deloche turned very pale. He had understood, for he often questioned
Pauline; they spoke of their common friend every day, of Mouret’s love
for her, of the famous invitation which would finish by bringing the
adventure to an issue. She frequently scolded him for his secret love
for Denise, with whom he would never succeed, and she shrugged her
shoulders whenever he expressed his approval of the girl’s conduct in
resisting the governor.
“Her foot’s better, she’s coming down,” continued Pauline.
“Pray don’t put on that funeral face. It’s a piece of good luck for her,
this invitation.” And she hastened back to her department.
“Ah! good!” murmured Liénard, who had heard all, “you’re talking about
the young girl with the sprain. You were quite right to be so quick in
defending her last night at the café!”
He also ran off; but before he had returned to the woollen department,
he had already related the story to four or five fellows. In less than
ten minutes, it had gone the round of the whole shop.
Liénard’s last remark referred to a scene which had taken place the
previous evening, at the Café Saint-Roch. Deloche and he were now
constantly together. The former had taken Hutin’s room at the Hôtel de
Smyme, when that gentleman, appointed second-hand, had hired a suite of
three rooms; and the two shopmen came to The Ladies’ Paradise together
in the morning, and waited for each other in the evening in order to go
away together. Their rooms, which were next door to each other, looked
into the same black yard, a narrow well, the odour from which poisoned
the hôtel. They got on very well together, notwithstanding their
difference of character, the one carelessly squandering the money he
drew from his father, the other penniless, perpetually tortured by ideas
of saving, both having, however, a point in common, their unskilfulness
as salesmen, which left them to vegetate at their counters, without any
increase of salary. After leaving the shop, they spent the greater part
of their time at the Café Saint-Roch. Quite free from customers during
the day, this café filled up about halfpast eight with an overflowing
crowd of employees, that crowd of shopmen disgorged into the street from
the great door in the Place Gaillon. Then burst forth a deafening uproar
of clinking dominoes, bursts of laughter and yelping voices, amidst the
thick smoke of the pipes. Beer and coffee were in great demand. Seated
in the left-hand corner, Liénard went in for the dearest drinks, whilst
Deloche contented himself with a glass of beer, which he would take
four hours to drink. It was there that the latter had heard Favier, at a
neighbouring table, relate some abominable things about Denise, the way
in which she had “hooked” the governor, by pulling her dress up whenever
she went upstairs in front of him. He had with difficulty restrained
himself from striking him. Then, as the other went off, saying that
the young girl went down every night to join her lover, he called him a
liar, feeling mad with rage.
“What a blackguard! It’s a lie, it’s a lie, I tell you!”
And in the emotion which was agitating him, he let out too much, with a
stammering voice, entirely opening his heart.
“I know her, and it isn’t true. She has never had any affection except
for one man; yes, for Monsieur Hutin, and even he has never noticed it,
he can’t even boast of ever having as much as touched her.”
The report of this quarrel, exaggerated, misconstrued, was already
affording amusement for the whole shop, when the story of Mouret’s
letter was circulated. In fact, it was to a salesman in the silk
department that Liénard first confided the news. With the silk-vendors
the stock-taking was going on rapidly. Favier and two shopmen, mounted
on stools, were emptying the shelves, passing the pieces of stuff to
Hutin as they went on, the latter, standing on a table, calling out the
figures, after consulting the tickets; and he then dropped the pieces,
which, rising slowly like an autumn tide, were gradually encumbering the
floor. Other men were writing, Albert Lhomme was also helping them,
his face pale and heavy after a night spent in a low public-house at La
Chapelle. A ray of sun fell from the glazed roof of the hall, through
which could be seen the ardent blue of the sky.
“Draw those blinds!” cried out Bouthemont, very busy superintending the
work. “The sun is unbearable!”
Favier, who was stretching to reach a piece, grumbled under his breath:
“A nice thing to shut people up a lovely day like this! No fear of it
raining on a stock-taking day! And they keep us under lock and key like
a lot of convicts when all Paris is out-doors!”
He passed the piece to Hutin. On the ticket was the measurement,
diminished at each sale by the quantity sold, which greatly simplified
the work. The second-hand cried out: “Fancy silk, small check,
twenty-one yards, at six francs and a half.”
And the silk went to increase the heap on the floor. Then he continued
a conversation commenced, by saying to Favier: “So he wanted to fight
you?”
“Yes, I was quietly drinking my glass of beer. It was hardly worth
while contradicting me, she has just received a letter from the governor
inviting her to dinner. The whole shop is talking about it.”
“What! it wasn’t done!”
Favier handed him another piece.
“A caution, isn’t it? One would have staked his life on it. It seemed
like an old connection.”
“Ditto, twenty-five yards!” cried Hutin.
The dull thud of the piece was heard, whilst he added in a lower tone:
“She carried on fearfully, you know, at that old fool Bourras’s.”
The whole department was now joking about the affair, without, however,
allowing the work to suffer. The young girl’s name passed from mouth to
mouth, the fellows arched their backs and winked. Bouthemont himself,
who took a rare delight in such gay stories, could not help adding his
joke, the bad taste of which filled his heart with joy. Albert,
waking up a bit, swore he had seen Denise with two soldiers at the
Gros-Caillou. At that moment Mignot came down, with the twenty francs he
had just borrowed, and he stopped to slip ten francs into Albert’s
hand, making an appointment with him for the evening; a projected lark,
restrained for want of money, but still possible, notwithstanding the
smallness of the sum. But handsome Mignot, when he heard about the
famous letter, made such an abominable remark, that Bouthemont was
obliged to interfere.
“That’s enough, gentlemen. It isn’t our business. Go on, Monsiéur
Hutin.”
“Fancy silk, small check, thirty-two yards, at six francs and a half,”
cried out the latter.
The pens started off again, the parcels fell regularly, the flood of
stuffs still increased, as if the overflow of a river had emptied itself
there. And the calling out of the fancy silks never ceased. Favier, in a
half whisper, remarked that the stock was in a nice state; the governors
would be enchanted; that big stupid of a Bouthemont might be the best
buyer in Paris, but as a salesman he was not worth his salt. Hutin
smiled, delighted, approving by a friendly look; for after having
himself introduced Bouthemont into The Ladies’ Paradise, in order to
drive out Robineau, he was now undermining him also, with the firm
intention of robbing him of his place. It was the same war as formerly,
treacherous insinuations whispered in the partners’ ears, an excessive
display of zeal in order to push one’s-self forward, a regular campaign
carried on with affable cunning. However, Favier, towards whom Hutin was
displaying some fresh condescension, took a look at the latter, thin and
cold, with his bilious face, as if to count the mouthfuls in this short,
squat little man, and looking as though he were waiting till his
comrade had swallowed up Bouthemont, in order to eat him afterwards.
He, Favier,’ hoped to get the second-hand’s place, should his friend be
appointed manager. Then, they would see. And both, consumed by the fever
which was raging from one end of the shop to the other, talked of the
probable rises of salary, without ceasing to call out the stock of fancy
silks; they felt sure Bouthemont would reach thirty thousand francs
that year; Hutin would exceed ten thousand; Favier estimated his pay and
commission at five thousand five hundred. The amount of business in the
department was increasing yearly, the salesmen were promoted and their
salaries doubled, like officers in time of war.
“Won’t those fancy silks soon be finished?” asked Bouthemont suddenly,
with an annoyed air. “What a miserable spring, always raining! People
have bought nothing but black silks.”
His fat, jovial face became cloudy; he looked at the growing heap on the
floor, whilst Hutin called out louder still, in a sonorous voice, not
free from triumph–“Fancy silks, small check, twenty-eight yards, at six
francs and a half.”
There was still another shelf-full. Favier, whose arms were beginning
to feel tired, was now going very slowly. As he handed Hutin the last
pieces he resumed in a low tone–“Oh! I say, I forgot. Have you heard
that the second-hand in the ready-made department once had a regular
fancy for you?”
The young man seemed greatly surprised. “What! How do you mean?”
“Yes, that great booby Deloche let it out to us. I remember her casting
sheep’s eyes at you some time back.”
Since his appointment as second-hand Hutin had thrown up his music-hall
singers and gone in for governesses. Greatly flattered at heart, he
replied with a scornful air, “I like them a little better stuffed,
my boy; besides, it won’t do to take up with anybody, as the governor
does.” He stopped to call out–
“White Poult silk, thirty-five yards, at eight francs fifteen sous.”
“Oh! at last!” murmured Bouthemont, greatly relieved.
But a bell rang, it was the second table, to which Favier belonged. He
got off the stool, another salesman took his place, and he was obliged
to step over the mountain of pieces of stuff with which the floor was
encumbered. Similar heaps were scattered about in very department; the
shelves, the boxes, the cupboards were being gradually emptied, whilst
the goods were overflowing on every side, under-foot, between the
counters and the tables, in a continual rising. In the linen department
was heard the heavy falling of the bales of calico; in the mercery
department there was a clicking of boxes; and distant rumbling sounds
came from the furniture department. Every sort of voice was heard
together, shrill voices, thick voices; figures whizzed through the air,
a rustling clamour reigned in the immense nave–the clamour of the
forests in January when the wind is whistling through the branches.
Favier at last got clear and went up the dining-room staircase. Since
the enlargement of The Ladies’ Paradise the refectories had been shifted
to the fourth storey in the new buildings. As he hurried up he came upon
Deloche and Liénard, so he fell back on Mignot, who was following on his
heels.
“The deuce!” said he, in the corridor leading to the kitchen, opposite
the blackboard on which the bill of fare was inscribed, “you can see
it’s stock-taking day. A regular feast! Chicken, or leg of mutton, and
artichokes! Their mutton won’t be much of a success!”
Mignot sniggered, murmuring, “Every one’s going in for chicken, then!”
However, Deloche and Liénard had taken their portions and had gone away.
Favier then leant over at the wicket and called out–“Chicken!”
But he had to wait; one of the kitchen helps had cut his finger in
carving, and this caused some confusion. Favier stood there, with
his face to the opening, looking into the kitchen with its giant
appliances–the central range, over which two rails fixed to the
ceiling brought forward, by a system of chains and pullies, the colossal
coppers, which four men could not have lifted. Several cooks, quite
white in the sombre red of the furnace, were attending to the evening
soup coppers, mounted on iron ladders, armed with skimmers fixed on long
handles. Then against the wall were grills large enough to roast
martyrs on, saucepans big enough to cook a whole sheep in, a monumental
plate-warmer, and a marble well kept full by a continual stream of
water. To the left could be seen a washing-up place, stone sinks as
large as ponds; whilst on the other side to the right, was an immense
meat-safe, in which some large joints of red meat were hanging on steel
hooks. A machine for peeling potatoes was working with the tic-tac of
a mill. Two small trucks laden with freshly-picked salad were being
wheeled along by some kitchen helps into the fresh air under a fountain.
“Chicken,” repeated Favier, getting impatient. Then, turning round, he
added in a lower tone, “There’s one fellow cut himself. It’s disgusting,
it’s running over the food.”
Mignot wanted to see. Quite a string of shopmen had now arrived; there
was a good deal of laughing and pushing. The two young men, their
heads at the wicket, exchanged their remarks before this phalansterian
kitchen, in which the least utensils, even the spits and larding pins,
assumed gigantic proportions. Two thousand luncheons and two thousand
dinners had to be served, and the number of employees was increasing
every week. It was quite an abyss, into which was thrown daily something
like forty-five bushels of potatoes, one hundred and twenty pounds of
butter, and sixteen hundred pounds of meat; and at each meal they had to
broach three casks of wine, over a hundred and fifty gallons were served
out at the wine counter.
“Ah! at last!” murmured Favier when the cook reappeared with a large
pan, out of which he handed him the leg of a fowl.
“Chicken,” said Mignot behind him.
And with their plates in their hands they both entered the refectory,
after having taken their wine at the counter; whilst behind them the
word “Chicken” was repeated without ceasing, regularly, and one could
hear the cook picking up the pieces with his fork with a rapid and
measured sound.
The men’s dining-room was now an immense apartment, where places for
five hundred at each of the three dinners could easily be laid. There
were long mahogany tables, placed parallel across the room, and at
either end were similar tables reserved for the managers of departments
and the inspectors; whilst in the centre was a counter for the extras.
Large windows, right and left, lighted up with a white light this
gallery, of which the ceiling, notwithstanding its being four yards
high, seemed very low, crushed by the enormous development of the other
dimensions. The sole ornament on the walls, painted a light yellow,
were the napkin cupboards. After this first refectory came that of
the messengers and carmen, where the meals were served irregularly,
according to the necessities of the work.
“What! you’ve got a leg as well, Mignot?” said Favier, as he took his
place at one of the tables opposite his companion.
Other young men now sat down around them. There was no tablecloth, the
plates gave out a cracked sound on the bare mahogany, and every one was
crying out in this particular corner, for the number of legs was really
prodigious.
“These chickens are all legs!” remarked Mignot.
Those who had pieces of the carcase were greatly discontented. However,
the food had been much better since the late improvements. Mouret
no longer treated with a contractor at a fixed sum; he had taken the
kitchen into his own hands, organising it like one of the departments,
with a head-cook, under-cooks, and an inspector; and if he spent more
he got more work out of the staff–a practical humane calculation which
long terrified Bourdoncle.
“Mine is pretty tender, all the same,” said Mignot. “Pass over the
bread!”
The big loaf was sent round, and after cutting a slice for himself he
dug the knife into the crust A few dilatory ones now hurried in, taking
their places; a ferocious appetite, increased by the morning’s work,
ran along the immense tables from one end to the other. There was an
increasing clatter of forks, a sound of bottles being emptied, the noise
of glasses laid down too violently, the grinding rumble of five hundred
pairs of powerful jaws working with wonderful energy. And the talk,
still very rare, was stifled in the mouths full of food.
Deloche, however, seated between Bauge and Liénard, found himself nearly
opposite Favier. They had glanced at each other with a rancorous look.
The neighbours whispered, aware of their quarrel the previous day.
Then they laughed at poor Deloche’s ill-luck, always famishing, always
falling on to the worst piece at table, by a sort of cruel fatality.
This time he had come in for the neck of a chicken and bits of the
carcase. Without saying a word he let them joke away, swallowing large
mouthfuls of bread, and picking the neck with the infinite art of a
fellow who entertains a great respect for meat.
“Why don’t you complain?” asked Bauge.
But he shrugged his shoulders. What would be the good? It was always the
same. When he ventured to complain things went worse than ever.
“You know the Bobbin fellows have got their club now,” said Mignot, all
at once. “Yes, my boy, the ‘Bobbin Club.’ It’s held at a tavern in the
Rue Saint-Honoré, where they hire a room on Saturdays.”
He was speaking of the mercery salesmen. The whole table began to joke.
Between two mouthfuls, with his voice still thick, each one made some
remark, added a detail; the obstinate readers alone remained mute,
absorbed, their noses buried in some newspapers. It could not be denied;
shopmen were gradually assuming a better style; nearly half of them now
spoke English or German. It was no longer good form to go and kick up
a row at Bullier, to prowl about the music-halls for the pleasure of
hissing ugly singers. No; a score of them got together and formed a
club.
“Have they a piano like the linen-drapers?” asked Liénard.
“I should rather think they have a piano!” exclaimed Mignot. “And they
play, my boy, and sing! There’s even one of them, little Bavoux, who
recites verses.”
The gaiety redoubled, they chaffed little Bavoux, but still beneath this
laughter there lay a great respect. They then spoke of a piece at the
Vaudeville, in which a counter-jumper played a nasty part, which annoyed
several of them, whilst others were anxiously wondering what time they
would get away, having invitations to pass the evening at friends’
houses; and from all points were heard similar conversations amidst
the increasing noise of the crockery. To drive out the odour of the
food–the warm steam which rose from the five hundred plates–the
windows had been opened, while the lowered blinds were scorching in
the heavy August sun. An ardent breath came in from the street, golden
reflections yellowed the ceiling, bathing in a reddish light the
perspiring eaters.
“A nice thing to shut people up such a fine Sunday as this!” repeated
Favier.
This reflection brought them back to the stock-taking. It was a splendid
year. And they went on to speak of the salaries–the rises–the eternal
subject, the stirring question which occupied them all. It was always
thus on chicken days, a wonderful excitement declared itself, the noise
at last became insupportable. When the waiters brought the artichokes
one could not hear one’s self speak. The inspector on duty had orders to
be indulgent.
“By the way,” cried out Favier, “you’ve heard the news?”
But his voice was drowned. Mignot was asking: “Who doesn’t like
artichoke; I’ll sell my dessert for an artichoke.”
No one replied. Everybody liked artichoke. This lunch would be counted
amongst the good ones, for peaches were to be given for dessert.
“He has invited her to dinner, my dear fellow,” said Favier to his
right-hand neighbour, finishing his story. “What! you didn’t know it?”


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The whole table knew it, they were tired of talking about it since the
first thing in the morning. And the same poor jokes passed from mouth
to mouth. Deloche had turned pale again. He looked at them, his eyes
finishing by resting on Favier, who was persisting in repeating:
“If he’s not had her, he’s going to. And he won’t be the first; oh! no,
he won’t be the first.”
He was also looking at Deloche. He added with a provoking air: “Those
who like bones can have her for a crown!” Suddenly, he ducked his head.
Deloche, yielding to an irresistible movement, had just thrown his last
glass of wine into his tormentor’s face, stammering: “Take that, you
infernal liar! I ought to have drenched you yesterday!”

It caused quite a scandal. A few drops had spurted on Favier’s
neighbours, whilst he only had his hair slightly wetted: the wine,
thrown by an awkward hand, had fallen the other side of the table. But
the others got angry, asking if she was his mistress that he defended
her in this way? What a brute! he deserved a good sound drubbing to
teach him manners. However, their voices fell, an inspector was observed
coming along, and it was useless to introduce the management into the
quarrel. Favier contented himself with saying:
“If it had caught me, you would have seen some sport!” Then the affair
wound up in jeers. When Deloche, still trembling, wished to drink to
hide his confusion, and seized his empty glass mechanically, they burst
out laughing. He laid his glass down again awkwardly, and commenced
sucking the leaves of the artichoke he had already eaten.
“Pass Deloche the water bottle,” said Mignot, quietly; “he’s thirsty.”
The laughter increased. The young men took their clean plates from the
piles standing on the table, at equal distances, whilst the waiters
handed round the dessert, which consisted of peaches, in baskets. And
they all held their sides when Mignot added, with a grin:
“Each man to his taste. Deloche takes wine with his peaches.”
The latter sat motionless, with his head hanging down, as if deaf to the
joking going on around him: he was full of a despairing regret for what
he had just done. These fellows were right–what right had he to defend
her? They would now think all sorts of villanous things: he could have
killed himself for having thus compromised her, in attempting to prove
her innocence. This was always his luck, he might just as well kill
himself at once, for he could not even yield to the promptings of his
heart without doing some stupid thing. And the fears came into his eyes.
Was it not always his fault if the whole shop was talking of the letter
written by the governor? He heard them grinning and making abominable
remarks about this invitation, of which Liénard alone had been informed;
and he accused himself, he ought not to have let Pauline speak before
the latter; he was really responsible for the annoying indiscretion
committed.
“Why did you go and relate that?” he murmured at last, in a voice full
of grief. “It’s very bad.”
“I?” replied Liénard; “but I only told it to one or two persons,
enjoining secrecy. One never knows how these things get about!”
When Deloche made up his mind to drink a glass of water the whole table
burst out laughing again. They had finished and were lolling back on
their chairs waiting for the bell recalling them to work. They had not
asked for many extras at the great central counter, the more so as the
firm treated them to coffee that day. The cups were steaming, perspiring
faces shone under the light vapours, floating like the blue clouds
from cigarettes. At the windows the blinds hung motionless, without the
slightest flapping. One of them, drawn up, admitted a ray of sunshine
which traversed the room and gilded the ceiling. The uproar of the
voices beat on the walls with such force that the bell was at first
only heard by those at the tables near the door. They got up, and
the confusion of the departure filled the corridors for a long time.
Deloche, however, remained behind to escape the malicious remarks that
were still being made. Baugé even went out before him, and Baugé was, as
a rule, the last to leave, going a circuitous way so as to meet Pauline
as she went to the ladies’ dining-room; a manouvre arranged between
them–the only chance of seeing each other for a minute during business
hours. But this time, just as they were indulging in a loving kiss in a
corner of the passage they were surprised by Denise, who was also going
up to lunch. She was walking slowly on account of her foot.
“Oh! my dear,” stammered Pauline, very red, “don’t say anything, will
you?”
Baugé, with his big limbs and giant proportions, was trembling like
a little boy. He murmured, “They’d very soon pitch us out. Though our
marriage may be announced, they don’t allow any kissing, the animals!”
Denise, greatly agitated, affected not to have seen them; and Baugé
disappeared just as Deloche, who was going the longest way round,
appeared in his turn. He tried to apologise, stammering out phrases that
Denise did not at first catch. Then, as he blamed Pauline for having
spoken before Liénard, and she stood there looking very embarrassed,
Denise at last understood the whispered phrases she had heard around her
all the morning. It was the story of the letter that was circulating.
She was again seized by the shudder with which this letter had agitated
her; she felt herself disrobed by all these men.
“But I didn’t know,” repeated Pauline. “Besides, there’s nothing bad in
the letter. Let them gossip; they’re jealous, of course!”
“My dear,” said Denise at last, with her prudent air, “I don’t blame
you in any way! You’ve spoken nothing but the truth. I _have_ received a
letter, and it is my duty to answer it.”
Deloche went away heart-broken, having understood that the young girl
accepted the situation and would keep the appointment that evening. When
the two young ladies had lunched in a small room adjoining the large
dining-room, and in which the women were served much more comfortably,
Pauline had to assist Denise downstairs, for the latter’s foot was
worse.
Down below in the afternoon warmth the stock-taking was roaring louder
than ever. The moment for the supreme effort had arrived, when before
the work, behindhand since the morning, every force was put forth in
order to finish that evening. The voices got louder still, one saw
nothing but the waving of arms continually emptying the shelves,
throwing the goods down, and it was impossible to get along, the tide of
the bales and piles of goods on the floor rose as high as the counters.
A sea of heads, of brandished fists, of limbs flying about, seemed to
extend to the very depths of the departments, like the distant confusion
of a riot. It was the last fever of the clearance, the machine nearly
ready to burst; whilst along the plate-glass windows, round the closed
shop, a few rare pedestrians continued to pass, pale with the
stifling boredom of a summer Sunday. On the pavement in the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin were planted three tall girls, bareheaded and
sluttish-looking, impudently sticking their faces against the windows,
trying to see the curious work going on inside.
When Denise returned to the ready-made department Madame Aurélie left
Marguerite to finish calling out the garments. There was still a lot of
checking to be done, for which, desirous of silence, she retired into
the pattern-room, taking the young girl with her.
“Come with me, we’ll do the checking; then you can add up the totals.”
But as she wished to leave the door open, in order to look after the
young ladies, the noise came in, and they could not hear much better.
It was a large, square room, furnished simply with some chairs and three
long tables. In one corner were the great machine knives, for cutting
up the patterns. Entire pieces were consumed; they sent away every year
more than sixty thousand francs’ worth of material, cut up in strips.
From morning to night, the knives were cutting up silk, wool, and linen,
with a scythe-like noise. Then the books had to be got together,
gummed or sewn. And there was also between the two windows, a little
printing-press for the tickets.
“Not so loud, please!” cried Madame Aurélie, now and again, quite unable
to hear Denise reading out the articles.
When the checking of the first lists was finished, she left the young
girl at one of the tables, absorbed in the adding-up. But she returned
almost immediately, and placed Mademoiselle de Fontenailles near her;
the under-linen department not wanting her any longer, had sent her to
Madame Aurélie. She could also do some adding-up, it would save time.
But the appearance of the marchioness, as Clara ill-naturedly called
her, had disturbed the department. They laughed and joked at poor
Joseph, their ferocious sallies could be heard in the pattern-room.
“Don’t draw back, you are not at all in my way,” said Denise, seized
with pity for the poor girl. “My inkstand will suffice, we’ll dip
together.”
Mademoiselle de Fontenailles, dulled and stultified by her unfortunate
position, could not even find a word of gratitude. She appeared to be
a woman who drank, her thinness had a livid appearance, and her hands
alone, white and delicate, attested the distinction of her birth.
The laughter ceased all at once, and the work resumed its regular roar.
It was Mouret who was once more going through the departments. But he
stopped and looked round for Denise, surprised not to see her there.
He made a sign to Madame Aurélie; and both drew aside, talking in a low
tone for a moment. He must be questioning her. She indicated with her
eyes the pattern-room, then seemed to be making a report. No doubt she
was relating that the young girl had been weeping that morning.
“Very good!” said Mouret, aloud, coming nearer. “Show me the lists.”
“This way, sir,” said the first-hand. “We have run away from the noise.”
He followed her into the next room. Clara was not duped by this
manouvre, and said they had better go and fetch a bed at once. But
Marguerite threw her the garments at a quicker rate, in order to take
up her attention and close her mouth. Wasn’t the second-hand a good
comrade? Her affairs did not concern any one. The department was
becoming an accomplice, the young ladies got more agitated than ever,
Lhomme and Joseph affected not to see or hear anything. And Jouve,
the inspector, who, passing by, had remarked Madame Aurélie’s tactics,
commenced walking up and down before the pattern-room door, with the
regular step of a sentry guarding the will and pleasure of a superior.
“Give Monsieur Mouret the lists,” said the first-hand.
Denise gave them, and sat there with her eyes raised. She had slightly
started, but had conquered herself, and retained a fine calm look,
although her cheeks were pale. For a moment, Mouret appeared to be
absorbed in the list of articles, without a look for the young girl.
A silence reigned, Madame Aurélie then went up to Mademoiselle de
Fontenailles, who had not even turned her head, appeared dissatisfied
with her counting, and said to her in a half whisper:
“Go and help with the parcels. You are not used to figures.”
The latter got up, and returned to the department, where she was greeted
by a whispering on all sides. Joseph, exposed to the laughing eyes
of these young minxes, was writing anyhow. Clara, delighted with this
assistant who arrived, was yet very rough with her, hating her as she
hated all the women in the shop. What an idiotic thing to yield to the
love of a workman, when one was a marchioness! And yet she envied her
this love.
“Very good!” repeated Mouret, still affecting to read.
However Madame Aurélie hardly knew how to get away in her turn in a
decent fashion. She stamped about, went to look at the knives, furious
with her husband for not inventing a pretext for calling her; but he was
never any good for serious matters, he would have died of thirst close
to a pond. It was Marguerite who was intelligent enough to go and ask
the first-hand a question.
“I’m coming,” replied the latter.
And her dignity being now protected, having a pretext in the eyes of the
young ladies who were watching her, she at last left Denise and Mouret
alone together, going out with her imperial air, her profile so noble,
that the saleswomen did not even dare to smile. Mouret had slowly laid
the lists on the table, and stood looking at the young girl, who had
remained seated, pen in hand. She did not avert her gaze, but she had
turned paler.
“You will come this evening?” asked he.
“No, sir, I cannot. My brothers are to be at uncle’s to-night, and I
have promised to dine with them.”
“But your foot! You walk with such difficulty.”
“Oh, I can get so far very well. I feel much better since the morning.”
He had now turned pale in his turn, before this quiet refusal. A nervous
revolt agitated his lips. However, he restrained himself, and resumed
with the air of a good-natured master simply interesting himself in one
of his young ladies: “Come now, if I begged of you–You know what great
esteem I have for you.”
Denise retained her respectful attitude. “I am greatly touched, sir, by
your kindness to me, and I thank you for this invitation. But I repeat,
I cannot; my brothers expect me.”
She persisted in not understanding. The door remained open, and she felt
that the whole shop was pushing her on to yield. Pauline had amicably
called her a great simpleton, the others would laugh at her if she
refused the invitation. Madame Aurélie, who had gone away, Marguerite,
whose rising voice she could hear, Lhomme, with his motionless, discreet
attitude, all these people were wishing for her fall, throwing her
into the governor’s arms. And the distant roar of the stock-taking,
the millions of goods called out on all sides, thrown about in every
direction, were like a warm wind, carrying the breath of passion
straight towards her. There was a silence. Now and again, Mouret’s voice
was drowned by the noise which accompanied him, with the formidable
uproar of a kingly fortune gained in battle.
“When will you come, then?” asked he again. “Tomorrow?”
This simple question troubled Denise. She lost her calmness for a
moment, and stammered: “I don’t know–I can’t—-”
He smiled, and tried to take her hand, which she withheld. “What are you
afraid of?”
But she quickly raised her head, looked him straight in the face, and
said, smiling, with her sweet, brave look: “I am afraid of nothing, sir.
I can do as I like, can’t I? I don’t wish to, that’s all!”
As she finished speaking, she was surprised by hearing a creaking noise,
and on turning round saw the door slowly closing. It was Jouve, the
inspector, who had taken upon himself to pull it to. The doors were a
part of his duty, none should ever remain open. And he gravely resumed
his position as sentinel. No one appeared to have noticed this door
being closed in such a simple manner. Clara alone risked a strong remark
in Mademoiselle de Fontenailles’s ear, but the latter’s face remained
expressionless.
Denise, however, had got up. Mouret was saying to her in a low and
trembling voice: “Listen, Denise, I love you. You have long known it,
pray don’t be so cruel as to play the ignorant. And don’t fear anything.
Many a time I’ve thought of calling you into my office. We should have
been alone, I should only have had to lock the door. But I did not wish
to; you see I speak to you here, where any one can enter. I love you,
Denise!” She was standing up, very pale, listening to him, still looking
straight into his face. “Tell me. Why do you refuse? Have you no wants?
Your brothers are a heavy burden. Anything you might ask me, anything
you might require of me—-”
With a word, she stopped him: “Thanks, I now earn more than I want.”
“But it’s perfect liberty that I am offering you, an existence of
pleasure and luxury. I will set you up in a home of your own. I will
assure you a little fortune.”
“No, thanks; I should soon get tired of doing nothing. I earned my own
living before I was ten years old.”
He was almost mad. This was the first one who did not yield. He had only
had to stoop to pick up the others, they all awaited his pleasure
like submissive slaves; and this one said no, without even giving a
reasonable pretext. His desire, long restrained, goaded by resistance,
became stronger than ever. Perhaps he had not offered enough, he
thought, and he doubled his offers; he pressed her more and more.
“No, no, thanks,” replied she each time, without faltering. Then he
allowed this cry from his heart to escape him: “But don’t you see that I
am suffering! Yes, it’s stupid, but I am suffering like a child!”
Tears came into his eyes. A fresh silence reigned. They could still hear
behind the closed door the softened roar of the stock-taking. It was
like a dying note of triumph, the accompaniment became more discreet, in
this defeat of the master. “And yet if I liked–” said he in an ardent
voice, seizing her hands.
She left them in his, her eyes turned pale, her whole strength was
deserting her. A warmth came from this man’s burning hands, filling her
with a delicious cowardice. Good heavens! how she loved him, and with
what delight she could have hung on his neck and remained there!
“I will! I will!” repeated he, in his passionate excitement “I expect
you to-night, otherwise I will take measures.”
He was becoming brutal. She set up a low cry; the pain she felt at her
wrists restored her courage. With an angry shake she disengaged herself.
Then, very stiff, looking taller in her weakness: “No, leave me alone!
I am not a Clara, to be thrown over in a day. Besides, you love another;
yes, that lady who comes here. Stay with her. I do not accept half an
affection.”
He was struck with surprise. What was she saying, and what did she want?
The girls he had picked up in the shop had never asked to be loved. He
ought to have laughed at such an idea, and this attitude of tender pride
completely conquered his heart.
“Now, sir, please open the door,” resumed she. “It is not proper to be
shut up together in this way.”
He obeyed; and with his temples throbbing, hardly knowing how to conceal
his anguish, he recalled Madame Aurélie, and broke out angrily about the
stock of cloaks, saying that the prices must be lowered, until every one
had been got rid of. Such was the rule of the house–a clean sweep was
made every year, they sold at sixty per cent, loss rather than keep an
old model or any stale material. At that moment, Bourdoncle, seeking
Mouret, was waiting for him outside, stopped before the closed door
by Jouve, who had said a word in his ear with a grave air. He got very
impatient, without, however, summoning up the courage to interrupt the
governor’s tête-à-tête. Was it possible? such a day too, and with that
puny creature! And when Mouret at last came out Bourdoncle spoke to
him about the fancy silks, of which the stock left on hand would be
enormous. This was a relief for Mouret, who could now cry out at
his ease. What the devil was Bouthemont thinking about? He went off,
declaring that he could not allow a buyer to display such a want of
sense as to buy beyond the requirements of the business.
“What is the matter with him?” murmured Madame Aurélie, quite overcome
by his reproaches.
And the young ladies looked at each other with a surprised air. At six
o’clock the stock-taking was finished. The sun was still shining–a
blonde summer sun, of which the golden reflection streamed through
the glazed roofs of the halls. In the heavy air of the streets, tired
families were already returning from the suburbs, loaded with bouquets,
dragging their children along. One by one, the departments had become
silent. Nothing was now heard in the depths of the galleries but the
lingering calls of a few men clearing a last shelf. Then even these
voices ceased, and there remained of the bustle of the day nothing but a
shivering, above the formidable piles of goods. The shelves, cupboards,
boxes, and band-boxes, were now empty: not a yard of stuff, not an
object of any sort had remained in its place. The vast establishment
presented nothing but the carcase of its usual appearance, the woodwork
was absolutely bare, as on the day of entering into possession. This
nakedness was the visible proof of the complete and exact taking of the
stock. And on the ground was sixteen million francs’ worth of goods, a
rising sea, which had finished by submerging the tables and counters.
The shopmen, drowned up to the shoulders, had commenced to put each
article back into its place. They expected to finish about ten o’clock.
When Madame Aurélie, who went to the first dinner, returned to the
dining-room, she announced the amount of business done during the year,
which the totals of the various departments had just given. The figure
was eighty million francs, ten millions more than the preceding year.
The only real decrease was on the fancy silks.
“If Monsieur Mouret is not satisfied, I should like to know what more he
wants,” added the first-hand. “See! he’s over there, at the top of the
grand staircase, looking furious.”
The young ladies went to look at him. He was standing alone, with a
sombre countenance, above the millions scattered at his feet.
“Madame,” said Denise, at this moment, “would you kindly let me go away
now? I can’t do any more good on account of my foot, and as I am to dine
at my uncle’s with my brothers—-”
They were all astonished. She had not yielded, then! Madame Aurélie
hesitated, and seemed inclined to prohibit her going out, her voice
sharp and disagreeable; whilst Clara shrugged her shoulders, full of
incredulity. That wouldn’t do! it was very simple–the governor no
longer wanted her! When Pauline learnt this, she was in the baby-linen
department with Deloche, and the sudden joy exhibited by the young man
made her very angry. That did him a lot of good, didn’t it? Perhaps
he was pleased to see that his friend had been stupid enough to miss
a fortune? And Bourdoncle, who did not dare to approach Mouret in
his ferocious isolation, marched up and down amidst these rumours, in
despair also, and full of anxiety. However, Denise went downstairs. As
she arrived at the bottom of the left-hand staircase, slowly, supporting
herself by the banister, she came upon a group of grinning salesmen.
Her name was pronounced, and she felt that they were talking about her
adventure. They had not noticed her.
“Oh! all that’s put on, you know,” Favier was saying. “She’s full of
vice! Yes, I know some one she wanted to take by force.”
And he looked at Hutin, who, in order to preserve his dignity as
second-hand, was standing a certain distance apart, without joining
in their conversation. But he was so flattered by the air of envy with
which the others were contemplating him, that he deigned to murmur: “She
was a regular nuisance to me, that girl!”
Denise, wounded to the heart, clung to the banister. They must have seen
her, for they all disappeared, laughing. He was right, she thought,
and she accused herself of her former ignorance, when she used to think
about him. But what a coward he was, and how she scorned him now! A
great trouble had seized her: was it not strange that she should have
found the strength just now to repulse a man whom she adored, when she
used to feel herself so feeble in bygone days before this worthless
fellow, whom she had only dreamed off? Her sense of reason and her
bravery foundered before these contradictions of her being, in which she
could not read clearly. She hastened to cross the hall. Then a sort of
instinct prompted her to raise her head, whilst an inspector opened the
door, closed since the morning. And she perceived Mouret, who was still
at the top of the stairs, on the great central landing, dominating
the gallery. But he had forgotten the stock-taking, he did not see his
empire, this building bursting with riches. Everything had disappeared,
his former glorious victories, his future colossal fortune. With a
desponding look he was watching Denise’s departure, and when she had
passed the door everything disappeared, a darkness came over the house.