You want me to go opposite?

One morning in November, Denise was giving her first orders in the
department when the Baudus’ servant came to tell her that Mademoiselle
Geneviève had passed a very bad night, and wished to see her cousin
immediately. For some time the young girl had been getting weaker and
weaker, and she had been obliged to take to her bed two days before.
“Say I am coming at once,” replied Denise, very anxious.
The blow which was finishing Genevieve was Colomban’s sudden
disappearance. At first, chaffed by Clara, he had stopped out several
nights; then, yielding to the mad desires of a quiet, chaste fellow, he
had become her obedient slave, and had not returned one Monday, but had
simply sent a farewell letter to Baudu, written in the studied terms of
a man about to commit suicide. Perhaps, at the bottom of this passion,
there was also the crafty calculation of a fellow delighted at escaping
a disastrous marriage. The draper’s business was in as bad a way as
his betrothed; the moment was propitious to break with them through any
stupidity. And every one cited him as an unfortunate victim of love.
When Denise arrived at The Old Elbeuf, Madame Baudu was there alone,
sitting motionless behind the pay-desk, with her small white face, eaten
up by anæmia, silent and quiet in the cold, deserted shop. There were
no assistants now. The servant dusted the shelves, and it was even a
question of replacing her by a charwoman. A dreary cold fell from the
ceiling, hours passed away without a customer coming to disturb this
silence, and the goods, no longer touched, became mustier and mustier
every day.
“What’s the matter?” asked Denise, anxiously. “Is Geneviève in danger?”
Madame Baudu did not reply at first. Her eyes filled with tears. Then
she stammered: “I don’t know; they don’t tell me anything. Ah, it’s all
over, it’s all over.”
And she cast a sombre glance around the dark old shop, as if she felt
her daughter and the shop disappearing together. The seventy thousand
francs, produce of the sale of their Rambouillet property, had melted
away in less than two years in this gulf of competition. In order to
struggle against The Ladies’ Paradise, which now kept men’s cloths and
materials for hunting and livery suits, the draper had made considerable
sacrifices. At last he had been definitely crushed by the swanskin cloth
and flannels sold by his rival, an assortment that had not its equal
in the market. Little by little his debts had increased, and, as a last
resource, he had resolved to mortgage the old building in the Rue de la
Michodière, where Finet, their ancestor, had founded the business; and
it was now only a question of days, the crumbling away had commenced,
the very ceilings seemed to be falling down and turning into dust, like
an old worm-eaten structure carried away by the wind.
“Your uncle is upstairs,” resumed Madame Baudu in her broken voice. “We
stay with her two hours each. Some one must look out here; oh! but only
as a precaution, for to tell the truths—-”
Her gesture finished the phrase. They would have put the shutters up had
it not been for their old commercial pride, which still propped them up
in the presence of the neighbourhood.
“Well, I’ll go up, aunt,” said Denise, whose heart was bleeding, amidst
this resigned despair that even the pieces of cloth themselves exhaled.
“Yes, go upstairs quick, my girl. She’s waiting for you. She’s been
asking for you all night. She has something to tell you.”
But just at that moment Baudu came down. The rising bile gave his yellow
face a greenish tinge, and his eyes were bloodshot. He was still walking
with the muffled step with which he had quitted the Sick room, and
murmur-ed, as if he might be heard upstairs, “She’s asleep.”
And, thoroughly worn out, he sat down on a chair, wiping his forehead
with a mechanical gesture, puffing like a man who has just finished some
hard work. A silence ensued, but at last he said to Denise: “You’ll see
her presently. When she is sleeping, she seems to me to be all right
There was again a silence. Face to face, the father and mother stood
looking at each other. Then, in a half whisper, he went over his grief
again, naming no one, addressing no one directly: “My head on the block,
I wouldn’t have believed it! He was the last one. I had brought him up
as a son. If any one had come and said to me, ‘They’ll take him away
from you as well; he’ll fall as well,’ I would have replied ‘Impossible,
it could not be.’ And he has fallen all the same! Ah! the scoundrel, he
who was so well up in real business, who had all my ideas! And all for
a young monkey, one of those dummies that parade at the windows of bad
houses! No! really, it’s enough to drive one mad!”
He shook his head, his eyes fell on the damp floor worn away by
generations of customers. Then he continued in a lower voice, “There are
moments when I feel myself the most culpable of all in our misfortune.
Yes, it’s my fault if our poor girl is upstairs devoured by fever. Ought
not I to have married them at once, without yielding to my stupid pride,
my obstinacy in refusing to leave them the house less prosperous than
before? Had I done that she would now have the man she loved, and
perhaps their united youthful strength would have accomplished the
miracle that I have failed to work. But I am an old fool, and saw
through nothing; I didn’t know that people fell ill over such things.
Really he was an extraordinary fellow: with such a gift for business,
and such probity, such simplicity of conduct, so orderly in every
way–in short, my pupil.”
He raised his head, still defending his ideas, in the person of the
shopman who had betrayed him. Denise could not bear to hear him accuse
himself, and she told him so, carried away by her emotion, on seeing him
so humble, with his eyes full of tears, he who used formerly to reign as
absolute master.
“Uncle, pray don’t apologise for him. He never loved Geneviève, he would
have run away sooner if you had tried to hasten the marriage. I have
spoken to him myself about it; he was perfectly well aware that my
cousin was suffering on his account, and you see that did not prevent
him leaving. Ask aunt.”
Without opening her lips, Madame Baudu confirmed these words by a nod.
The draper turned paler still, blinded by his tears. He stammered out:
“It must be in the blood, his father died last year through having led a
dissolute life.”
And he once more looked round the obscure shop, his eyes wandering from
the empty counters to the full shelves, then resting on Madame Baudu,
who was still at the pay-desk, waiting in vain for the customers who did
not come.
“Come,” said he, “it’s all over. They’ve ruined our business, and now
one of their hussies is killing our daughter.”
No one spoke. The rolling of the vehicles, which occasionally shook the
floor, passed like a funereal beating of drums in the still air, stifled
under the low ceiling. Suddenly, amidst this gloomy sadness of the old
dying shop, could be heard several heavy knocks, struck somewhere in
the house. It was Geneviève, who had just awoke, and was knocking with a
stick they had left near her bed.
“Let’s go up at once,” said Baudu, rising with a start. “Try and be
cheerful, she mustn’t know.”
He himself rubbed his eyes to efface the trace of his tears. As soon as
he had opened the door, on the first storey, they heard a frightened,
feeble voice crying: “Oh, I don’t like to be left alone. Don’t leave me;
I’m afraid to be left alone.” Then, when she perceived Denise, Geneviève
became calmer, and smiled joyfully. “You’ve come, then! How I’ve been
longing to see you since yesterday. I thought you also had abandoned
It was a piteous sight. The young girl’s room looked out on to the yard,
a little room lighted by a livid light At first her parents had put her
in their own room, in the front; but the sight of The Ladies’ Paradise
opposite affected her so much, that they had been obliged to bring
her back to her own again. And there she lay, so very thin, under the
bed-clothes, that one hardly suspected the form and existence of a human
body. Her skinny arms, consumed by a burning fever, were in a perpetual
movement of anxious, unconscious searching; whilst her black hair seemed
thicker still, and to be eating up her poor face with its voracious
vitality, that face in which was agonising the final degenerateness of
a family sprung up in the shade, in this cellar of old commercial Paris.
Denise, her heart bursting with pity, stood looking at her. She did not
at first speak, for fear of giving way to tears. At last she murmured:
“I came at once. Can I be of any use to you? You asked for me. Would you
like me to stay?”
“No, thanks. I don’t want anything. I only wanted to embrace you.”
Tears filled her eyes. Denise quickly leant over, and kissed her on both
cheeks, trembling to feel on her lips the flame of those hollow cheeks.
But Geneviève, stretching out her arms, seized and kept her in a
desperate embrace. Then she looked towards her father.
“Would you like me to stay?” repeated Denise. “Perhaps there is
something I can do for you.”
Geneviève’s glance was still obstinately fixed on her father, who
remained standing, with a stolid air, almost choking. He at last
understood, and went away, without saying a word; and they heard his
heavy footstep on the stairs.
“Tell me, is he with that woman?” asked the sick girl immediately,
seizing her cousin’s hand, and making her sit on the side of the bed.
“I want to know, and you are the only one can tell me. They’re living
together, aren’t they?” Denise, surprised by these questions, stammered,
and was obliged to confess the truth, the rumours that were current in
the shop. Clara, tired of this fellow, who was getting a nuisance to
her, had already broken with him, and Colomban, desolated, was pursuing
her everywhere, trying to obtain a meeting from time to time, with a
sort of canine humility. They said that he was going to take a situation
at the Grands Magasins du Louvre.
“If you still love him, he may return,” said Denise, to cheer the dying
girl with this last hope. “Get well quick, he will acknowledge his
errors, and marry you.”
Geneviève interrupted her. She had listened with all her soul, with an
intense passion that raised her in the bed. But she fell back almost
immediately. “No, I know it’s all over! I don’t say anything, because I
see papa crying, and I don’t wish to make mamma worse than she is. But I
am going, Denise, and if I called for you last night it was for fear of
going off before the morning. And to think that he is not happy after
And Denise having remonstrated, assuring her that she was not so bad as
all that, she cut her short again, suddenly throwing off the bed-clothes
with the chaste gesture of a virgin who has nothing to conceal in death.
Naked to the waist, she murmured: “Look at me! Is it possible?”
Trembling, Denise quitted the side of the bed, as if she feared to
destroy this fearful nudity with a breath. It was the last of the flesh,
a bride’s body used up by waiting, returned to the first infantile
slimness of her young days. Geneviève slowly covered herself up again,
saying: “You see I am no longer a woman. It would be wrong to wish for
him still!” There was a silence. Both continued to look at each other,
unable to find a word to say. It was Geneviève who resumed: “Come, don’t
stay any longer, you have your own affairs to look after. And thanks, I
was tormented by the wish to know, and am now satisfied. If you see him,
tell him I forgive him. Adieu, dear Denise. Kiss me once more, for it’s
the last time.” The young girl kissed her, protesting: “No, no, don’t
despair, all you want is loving care, nothing more.” But the sick girl,
shaking her head in an obstinate way, smiled, quite sure of what she
said. And as her cousin was making for the door, she exclaimed: “Wait a
minute, knock with this stick, so that papa may come up. I’m afraid to
stay alone.”
Then, when Baudu arrived in that small, gloomy room, where he spent
hours seated on a chair, she assumed an air of gaiety, saying to
Denise–“Don’t come to-morrow, I would rather not. But on Sunday I shall
expect you; you can spend the afternoon with me.”
The next morning, at six o’clock, Geneviève expired after four hours’
fearful agony. The funeral took place on a Saturday, a fearfully black,
gloomy day, under a sooty sky which hung over the shivering city. The
Old Elbeuf, hung with white linen, lighted up the street with a bright
spot, and the candles burning in the fading day seemed so many stars
drowned in the twilight The coffin was covered with wreaths and bouquets
of white roses; it was a narrow child’s coffin, placed in the obscure
passage of the house on a level with the pavement, so near the gutter
that the passing carriages had already splashed the coverings. The whole
neighbourhood exhaled a dampness, a cellar-like mouldy odour, with its
continual rush of pedestrians on the muddy pavement.
At nine o’clock Denise came over to stay with her aunt. But as the
funeral was starting, the latter–who had ceased weeping, her eyes burnt
with tears–begged her to follow the body and look after her uncle,
whose mute affliction and almost idiotic grief filled the family with
anxiety. Below, the young girl found the street full of people, for the
small traders in the neighbourhood were anxious to show the Baudus
a mark of sympathy, and in this eagerness there was also a sort of
manifestation against The Ladies’ Paradise, whom they accused of
causing Geneviève’s slow agony. All the victims of the monster were
there–Bédoré and sister from the hosier’s shop in the Rue Gaillon, the
furriers, Vanpouille Brothers, and Deslignières the toyman, and Piot
and Rivoire the furniture dealers; even Mademoiselle Tatin from the
underclothing shop, and the glover Quinette, long since cleared off by
bankruptcy, had made it a duty to come, the one from Batignolle, the
other from the Bastille, where they had been obliged to take situations.
Whilst waiting for the hearse, which was late, these people, tramping
about in the mud, cast glances of hatred towards The Ladies’ Paradise,
the bright windows and gay displays of which seemed an insult in face
of The Old Elbeuf, which, with its funeral trappings and glimmering
candles, cast a gloom over the other side of the street A few curious
faces appeared at the plate-glass windows; but the colossus maintained
the indifference of a machine going at full speed, unconscious of the
deaths it may cause on the road.
Denise looked round for her brother Jean, whom she at last perceived
standing before Bourras’s shop, and she went and asked him to walk with
his uncle, to assist him if he could not get along. For the last few
weeks Jean had been very grave, as if tormented by some worry. To-day,
buttoned up in his black frock-coat, a full grown man, earning his
twenty francs a day, he seemed so dignified and so sad that his sister
was surprised, for she had no idea he loved his cousin so much as that.
Desirous of sparing Pépé this needless grief, she had left him with
Madame Gras, intending to go and fetch him in the afternoon to see his
uncle and aunt.
The hearse had still not arrived, and Denise, greatly affected, was
watching the candles burn, when she was startled by a well-known voice
behind her. It was Bourras. He had called the chestnut-seller opposite,
in his little box, against the public-house, and said to him:
“I say, Vigouroux, just keep a look-out for me a bit, will you? You see
I’ve closed the door. If any one comes tell them to call again. But don’t
let that disturb you, no one will come.”
Then he took his stand on the pavement, waiting like the others. Denise,
feeling rather awkward, glanced at his shop. He entirely abandoned it
now; there was nothing left but a disorderly array of umbrellas eaten up
by the damp air, and canes blackened by the gas. The embellishments
that he had made, the delicate green paint work, the glasses, the gilded
sign, were all cracking, already getting dirty, presenting that rapid
and lamentable decrepitude of false luxury laid over ruins. But though
the old crevices were re-appearing, though the spots of damp had sprung
up over the gildings, the house still held its ground obstinately,
hanging on to the flanks of The Ladies’ Paradise like a dishonouring
wart, which, although cracked and rotten, refused to fall off.
“Ah! the scoundrels,” growled Bourras, “they won’t even let her be
carried away.”
The hearse, which had at last arrived, had just got into collision with
one of The Ladies’ Paradise vans, which was spinning along, shedding in
the mist its starry radiance, with the rapid trot of two superb horses.
And the old man cast on Denise an oblique glance, lighted up under his
bushy eyebrows. Slowly, the funeral started off, splashing through the
muddy pools, amid the silence of the omnibuses and carriages suddenly
pulled up. When the coffin, draped with white, crossed the Place
Gaillon, the sombre looks of the cortege were once more plunged into the
windows of the big shop, where two saleswomen alone had run up to look
on, pleased at this distraction. Baudu followed the hearse with a heavy
mechanical step, refusing by a sign the arm offered by Jean, who was
walking with him. Then, after a long-string of people, came three
mourning coaches. As they passed the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs,
Robineau ran up to join the cortege, very pale, and looking much older.
At Saint-Roch, a great many women were waiting, the small traders of
the neighbourhood, who had been afraid of the crowd at the house. The
manifestation was developing into quite a riot; and when, after the
service, the procession started off back, all the men followed, although
it was a long walk from the Rue Saint-Honoré to the Montmartre Cemetery.
They had to go up the Rue Saint-Roch, and once more pass The Ladies’
Paradise. It was a sort of obsession; this poor young girl’s body was
paraded round the big shop like the first victim fallen in time of
revolution. At the door some red flannels were flapping like so many
flags, and a display of carpets blazed forth in a florescence of
enormous roses and full-blown pæonies. Denise had got into one of the
coaches, being agitated by some smarting doubts, her heart oppressed by
such a feeling of grief that she had not the strength to walk At
that moment there was a stop, in the Rue du Dix-Décembre, before the
scaffolding of the new façade which still obstructed the thoroughfare.
‘And the young girl observed old Bourras, left behind, dragging along
with difficulty, close to the wheels of the coach in which she was
riding alone. He would never get as far as the cemetery, she thought. He
raised his head, looked at her, and all at once got into the coach.
“It’s my confounded knees,” exclaimed he. “Don’t draw back! Is it you
that we detest?”
She felt him to be friendly and furious as in former days. He grumbled,
declared that Baudu must be fearfully strong to be able to keep up after
such blows as he had received. The procession had resumed its slow pace;
and on leaning out, Denise saw her uncle walking with his heavy step,
which seemed to regulate the rumbling and painful march of the cortege.
She then threw herself back into the corner, listening to the endless
complaints of the old umbrella maker, rocked by the melancholy movement
of the coach.
“The police ought to clear the public thoroughfare, my word! They’ve
been blocking up our street for the last eighteen months with the
scaffolding of their façade, where a man was killed the other day. Never
mind! When they want to enlarge further they’ll have to throw bridges
over the street. They say there are now two thousand seven hundred
employees, and that the business will amount to a hundred millions this
year. A hundred millions! Just fancy, a hundred millions!”
Denise had nothing to say in reply. The procession had just turned
into the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, where it was stopped by a block of
vehicles. Bourras went on, with a vague expression in his eyes, as if he
were dreaming aloud. He still failed to understand the triumph
achieved by The Ladies’ Paradise, but he acknowledged the defeat of the
old-fashioned traders.
“Poor Robineau’s done for, he’s got the face of a drowning man. And the
Bédorés and the Vanpouilles, they can’t keep going; they’re like me,
played out Deslignières will die of apoplexy. Piot and Rivoire have the
yellow jaundice. Ah! we’re a fine lot; a pretty cortege of skeletons to
follow the poor child. It must be comical for those looking on to see
this string of bankrupts pass. Besides, it appears that the clean sweep
is to continue. The scoundrels are creating departments for flowers,
bonnets, perfumery, shoemaking, all sorts of things. Grognet, the
perfumer in the Rue de Grammont, can clear out, and I wouldn’t give ten
francs for Naud’s shoe-shop in the Rue d’Antin. The cholera has spread
as far as the Rue Sainte-Anne, where Lacassagne, at the feather and
flower shop, and Madame Chadeuil, whose bonnets are so well-known, will
be swept away before long. And after those, others; it will still go
on! All the businesses in the neighbourhood will suffer. When
counter-jumpers commence to sell soap and goloshes, they are quite
capable of dealing in fried potatoes. My word, the world is turning
upside down!”
The hearse was just then crossing the Place de la Trinité to ascend the
steep Rue Blanche, and from the corner of the gloomy coach Denise, who,
broken-hearted, was listening to the endless complaints of the old man,
could see the coffin as they issued from the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin.
Behind her uncle, marching along with the blind, mute face of an ox
about to be poleaxed, she seemed to hear the tramping of a flock of
sheep led to the slaughter-house, the discomfiture of the shops of a
whole district, the small traders dragging along their ruin, with the
thud of damp shoes, through the muddy streets of Paris. Bourras still
went on, in a deeper voice, as if slackened by the difficult ascent of
the Rue Blanche.
“As for me, I am settled. But I still hold on all the same, and won’t
let go. He’s just lost his appeal case. Ah! that’s cost me something,
what with nearly two years’ pleading, and the solicitors and the
barristers! Never mind, he won’t pass under my shop, the judges have
decided that such a work could not be considered as a legitimate case
of repairing. Fancy, he talked of creating underneath a light saloon to
judge the colours of the stuffs by gas-light, a subterranean room which
would have united the hosiery to the drapery department! And he can’t
get over it; he can’t swallow the fact that an old humbug like me should
stop his progress when everybody are on their knees before his money.
Never! I won’t! that’s understood. Very likely I may be worsted. Since I
have had to go to the money-lenders, I know the villain is looking after
my paper, in the hope to play me some villanous trick, no doubt. But
that doesn’t matter. He says ‘yes,’ and I say ‘no,’ and shall still say
‘no,’ even when I get between two boards like this poor little girl who
has just been nailed up.”
When they reached the Boulevard de Clichy, the coach went at a
quicker pace; one could hear the heavy breathing of the mourners, the
unconscious haste of the cortege, anxious to get the sad ceremony over.
What Bourras did not openly mention, was the frightful misery into which
he had fallen, bewildered amidst the confusion of the small trader who
is on the road to ruin and yet remains obstinate, under a shower of
protested bills. Denise, well acquainted with his situation, at last
interrupted the silence by saying, in a voice of entreaty:
“Monsieur Bourras, pray don’t stand out any longer. Let me arrange
matters for you.”
But he interrupted her with a violent gesture. “You be quiet. That’s
nobody’s business. You’re a good little girl, and I know you lead him
a hard life, this man who thought you were for sale like my house. But
what would you answer if I advised you to say ‘yes?’ You’d send me about
my business. Therefore, when I say ‘no,’ don’t you interfere in the
And the coach having stopped at the cemetery gate, he got out with the
young girl. The Baudus’ vault was situated in the first alley on the
left. In a few minutes the ceremony was terminated. Jean had drawn
away his uncle, who was looking into the grave with a gaping air. The
mourners wandered about amongst the neighbouring tombs, and the faces
of all these shopkeepers, their blood impoverished by living in their
unhealthy shops assumed an ugly suffering look under the leaden sky.
When the coffin slipped gently down, their blotched and pimpled cheeks
paled, and their bleared eyes, blinded with figures, turned away.
“We ought all to jump into this hole,” said Bourras to Denise, who had
kept close to him. “In burying this poor girl they are burying the whole
district. Oh! I know what I am saying, the old-fashioned business may go
and join the white roses they are throwing on to her coffin.”
Denise brought back her uncle and brother in a mourning coach. The day
was for her exceedingly dull and melancholy. In the first place, she
began to get anxious at Jean’s paleness, and when she understood that it
was on account of another woman, she tried to quiet him by opening her
purse, but he shook his head and refused, saying it was serious this
time, the niece of a very rich pastry-cook, who would not accept even
a bunch of violets. Afterwards, in the afternoon, when Denise went to
fetch Pépé from Madame Gras’s, the latter declared that he was getting
too big for her to keep any longer; another annoyance, for she would be
obliged to find him a school, perhaps send him away. And to crown all
she was thoroughly heart-broken, on bringing Pépé back to kiss his aunt
and uncle, to see the gloomy sadness of The Old Elbeuf. The shop was
closed, and the old couple were at the further end of the little room,
where they had forgotten to light the gas, notwithstanding the complete
obscurity of this winter’s day. They were now quite alone, face to face,
in the house, slowly emptied by ruin; and the death of their daughter
deepened the shady corners, and was like the supreme cracking which was
soon to break up the old rafters, eaten away by the damp. Beneath this
destruction, her uncle, unable to stop himself, still kept walking round
the table, with his funeral-like step, blind and silent; whilst her
aunt said nothing, she had fallen into a chair, with the white face of a
wounded person, whose blood was running away drop by drop. They did not
even weep when Pépé covered their cold cheeks with kisses. Denise was
choked with tears.
That same evening Mouret sent for the young girl to speak of a child’s
garment he wished to launch forth, a mixture of the Scotch and Zouave
costumes. And still trembling with pity, shocked at so much suffering,
she could not contain herself; she first ventured to speak of Bourras,
of that poor old man whom they were about to ruin. But, on hearing the
umbrella maker’s name, Mouret flew into a rage at once. The old madman,
as he called him, was the plague of his life, and spoilt his triumph
by his idiotic obstinacy in not giving up his house, that ignoble hovel
which was a disgrace to The Ladies’ Paradise, the only little corner
of the vast block that escaped his conquest. The matter was becoming a
regular nightmare; any one else but Denise speaking in favour of Bourras
would have run the risk of being dismissed immediately, so violently was
Mouret tortured by the sickly desire to kick the house down. In short,
what did they wish him to do? Could he leave this heap of ruins sticking
to The Ladies’ Paradise? It would be got rid of, the shop was to pass
through it. So touch the worse for the old fool! And he spoke of his
repeated proposals; he had offered him as much as a hundred thousand
francs. Wasn’t that fair? He never higgled, he gave the money required;
but in return he expected people to be reasonable, and allow him to
finish his work! Did any one ever try to stop the locomotives on a
railway? She listened to him, with drooping eyes, unable to find any
but purely sentimental reasons. The old man was so old, they might have
waited till his death; a failure would kill him. Then he added that he
was no longer able to prevent things going their course. Bourdoncle had
taken the matter up, for the board had resolved to put an end ta it. She
had nothing more to add, notwithstanding the grievous pity she felt for
her old friend.
After a painful silence, Mouret himself commenced to speak of the
Baudus, by expressing his sorrow at the death of their daughter. They
were very worthy people, very honest, but had been pursued by the worst
of luck. Then he resumed his arguments; at bottom, they had really
caused their own misfortune by obstinately sticking to the old ways in
their worm-eaten place; it was not astonishing that the place should be
falling about their heads. He had predicted it scores of times; she must
remember that he had charged her to warn her uncle of a fatal disaster,
if the latter still clung to his old-fashioned stupid ways. And the
catastrophe had arrived; no one in the world could now prevent it
They could not reasonably expect him to ruin himself to save the
neighbourhood. Besides, if he had been foolish enough to close The
Ladies’ Paradise, another big shop would have sprung up of itself next
door, for the idea was now starting from the four corners of the globe;
the triumph of these manufacturing and industrial cities was sown by
the spirit of the times, which was sweeping away the tumbling edifice
of former ages. Little by little Mouret warmed up, and found an
eloquent emotion with which to defend himself against the hatred of his
involuntary victims, the clamour of the small dying shops that was heard
around him. They could not keep their dead, he continued, they must bury
them; and with a gesture he sent down into the grave, swept away and
threw into the common hole the corpse of old-fashioned business, the
greenish, poisonous remains of which were becoming a disgrace to the
bright, sun-lighted streets of new Paris. No, no, he felt no remorse,
he was simply doing the work of his age, and she knew it; she, who loved
life, who had a passion for big affairs, concluded in the full glare of
publicity. Reduced to silence, she listened to him for some time, and
then went away, her soul full of trouble.
That night Denise slept but little. A sleeplessness, traversed by
nightmare, kept her turning over and over in her bed. It seemed to her
that she was quite little, and she burst into tears, in their garden at
Valognes, on seeing the blackcaps eat up the spiders, which themselves
devoured the flies. Was it then really true, this necessity for the
world to fatten on death, this struggle for existence which drove
people into the charnel-house of eternal destruction? Afterwards she saw
herself before the vault into which they had lowered Geneviève, then
she perceived her uncle and aunt in their obscure dining-room. In
the profound silence, a heavy voice, as of something tumbling down,
traversed the dead air; it was Bourras’s house giving way, as if
undermined by a high tide. The silence recommenced, more sinister than
ever, and a fresh rumbling was heard, then another, then another; the
Robineaus, the Bédorés, the Vanpouilles, cracked and fell down in their
turn, the small shops of the neighbourhood were disappearing beneath an
invisible pick, with a brusque, thundering noise, as of a tumbril being
emptied. Then an immense pity awoke her with a start. Heavens! what
tortures! There were families weeping, old men thrown out into the
street, all the poignant dramas that ruin conjures up. And she could
save nobody; and she felt that it was right, that all this misery was
necessary for the health of the Paris of the future. When day broke she
became calmer, a feeling of resigned melancholy kept her awake, turned
towards the windows through which the light was making its way. Yes, it
was the meed of blood that every revolution exacted from its martyrs,
every step forward was made over the bodies of the dead. Her fear
of being a wicked girl, of having assisted in the ruin of her
fellow-creatures, now melted into a heartfelt pity, in face of these
evils without remedy, which are the painful accompaniment of each
generation’s birth. She finished by seeking some possible comfort in her
goodness, she dreamed of the means to be employed in order to save her
relations at least from the final crash.
Mouret now appeared before her with his passionate face and caressing
eyes. He would certainly refuse her nothing; she felt sure he would
accord her all reasonable compensation. And her thoughts went astray
in trying to judge him. She knew his life, was aware of the calculating
nature of his former affections, his continual exploitation of woman,
mistresses taken up to further his own ends, and his intimacy with
Madame Desforges solely to get hold of Baron Hartmann, and all the
others, such as Clara and the rest, pleasure bought, paid for, and
thrown out on the pavement. But these beginnings of a love adventurer,
which were the talk of the shop, were gradually effaced by the strokes
of genius of this man, his victorious grace. He was seduction itself.
What she could never have forgiven was his former deception, his lover’s
coldness under the gallant comedy of his attentions. But she felt
herself to be entirely without rancour, now that he was suffering
through her. This suffering had elevated him. When she saw him tortured
by her refusal, atoning so fully for his former disdain for woman, he
seemed to have made amends for all his faults.
That morning Denise obtained from Mouret the compensation she might
judge legitimate the day the Baudus and old Bourras should succumb.
Weeks passed away, during which she went to see her uncle nearly every
afternoon, escaping from her counter for a few minutes, bringing her
smiling face and brave courage to enliven the sombre shop. She was
especially anxious about her aunt, who had fallen into a dull stupor
since Geneviève’s death; it seemed that her life was quitting her
hourly; and when people spoke to her she would reply with an astonished
air that she was not suffering, but that she simply felt as if overcome
by sleep. The neighbours shook their heads, saying she would not live
long to regret her daughter.
One day Denise was coming out of the Baudus’, when, on turning the
corner of the Place Oaillon, she heard a loud cry. The crowd rushed
forward, a panic arose, that breath of fear and pity which so
suddenly seizes a crowd. It was a brown omnibus, belonging to the
Bastille-Batignolles line, which had run over a man, coming out of the
Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, opposite the fountain. Upright on his seat,
with furious gestures, the driver was pulling in his two kicking horses,
and crying out, in a great passion:
“Confound you! Why don’t you look out, you idiot!”
The omnibus had now stopped, and the crowd had surrounded the wounded
man, and, strange to say, a policeman was soon on the spot. Still
standing up, invoking the testimony of the people on the knife-board,
who had also got up, to look over and see the wounded man, the coachman
was explaining the matter, with exasperated gestures, choked by his
increasing anger.
“It’s something fearful. This fellow was walking in the middle of the
road, quite at home. I called out, and he at once threw himself under
the wheels!”
A house-painter, who had run up, brush in hand, from a neighbouring
house, then said, in a sharp voice, amidst the clamour: “Don’t excite
yourself. I saw him, he threw himself under. He jumped in, head first.
Another unfortunate tired of life, no doubt.”
Others spoke up, and all agreed upon it being a case of suicide, whilst
the policeman pulled out his book and made his entry. Several ladies,
very pale, got out quickly, and ran away without looking back, filled
with horror by the soft shaking which had stirred them up when the
omnibus passed over the body. Denise approached, attracted by a
practical pity, which prompted her to interest herself in all sorts
of street accidents, wounded dogs, horses down, and tilers falling off
roofs. And she immediately recognised the unfortunate fellow who had
fainted away, his clothes covered with mud.
“It’s Monsieur Robineau,” cried she, in her grievous astonishment.
The policeman at once questioned the young girl, and she gave his name,
profession, and address. Thanks to the driver’s energy, the omnibus had
twisted round, and thus only Robineau’s legs had gone under the wheels,
but it was to be feared that they were both broken. Four men carried
the wounded draper to a chemist’s shop in the Rue Gaillon, whilst the
omnibus slowly resumed its journey.
“My stars!” said the driver, whipping up his horses, “I’ve done a famous
day’s work.”
Denise followed Robineau into the chemist’s. The latter, waiting for a
doctor who could not be found, declared there was no immediate danger,
and that the wounded man had better be taken home, as he lived in
the neighbourhood. A lad started off to the police-station to order a
stretcher, and Denise had the happy thought of going on in front and
preparing Madame Robineau for this frightful blow. But she had the
greatest trouble in the world to get into the street through the crowd,
which was struggling before the door. This crowd, attracted by death,
was increasing every minute; men, women, and children stood on tip-toe,
and held their own amidst a brutal pushing, and each new comer had his
version of the accident, so that at last it was said to be a husband
pitched out of the window by his wife’s lover.
In the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, Denise perceived Madame Robineau
on the threshold of the silk warehouse. This gave her a pretext for
stopping, and she talked on for a moment, trying to find a way of
breaking the terrible news. The shop presented the disorderly, abandoned
appearance of the last struggles of a dying business. It was the
inevitable end of the great battle of the silks; the Paris Paradise had
crushed its rival by a fresh reduction of a sou; it was now sold at four
francs nineteen sous, Gaujean’s silk had found its Waterloo. For the
last two months Robineau, reduced to all sorts of shifts, had been
leading a fearful life, trying to prevent a declaration of bankruptcy.
“I’ve just seen your husband pass through the Place Gaillon,” murmured
Denise, who had now entered the shop.
Madame Robineau, whom a secret anxiety seemed to be continually
attracting towards the street, said quickly: “Ah, just now, wasn’t it?
I’m waiting for him, he ought to be back; Monsieur Gaujean came up this
morning, and they have gone out together.”
She was still charming, delicate, and gay; but her advanced state of
pregnancy gave her a fatigued look, and she was more frightened, more
bewildered than ever, by these business matters, which she did not
understand, and which were all going wrong. As she often said, what was
the use of it all? Would it not be better to live quietly in some small
house, and be contented with modest fare?
“My dear child,” resumed she with her smile, which was becoming sadder,
“we have nothing to conceal from you. Things are not going on well,
and my poor darling is worried to death. To-day this Gaujean has been
tormenting him about some bills overdue. I was dying with anxiety at
being left here all alone.”
And she was returning to the door when Denise stopped her, having heard
the noise of the crowd and guessing that it was the wounded man being
brought along, surrounded by a mob of idlers anxious to see the end of
the affair. Then, with a parched throat, unable to find the consoling
words she would have wished, she had to explain the matter.
“Don’t be anxious, there’s no immediate danger. I’ve seen Monsieur
Robineau, he has met with an accident. They are just bringing him home,
pray don’t be frightened.”
The poor woman listened to her, white as a sheet, without clearly
understanding. The street was full of people, the drivers of the impeded
cabs were swearing, the men had laid down the stretcher before the shop
in order to open both glass doors.
“It was an accident,” continued Denise, resolved to conceal the attempt
at suicide. “He was on the pavement and slipped under the wheels of an
omnibus. Only his feet were hurt. They’ve sent for a doctor. There’s no
need to be anxious.”

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A shudder passed over Madame Robineau. She set up an inarticulate cry,
then ceased talking and ran to the stretcher, drawing the covering away
with her trembling hands. The men who had brought Robineau were waiting
to take him away as soon as the doctor arrived. They dared not touch
him, who had come round again, and whose sufferings were frightful at
the slightest movement. When he saw his wife his eyes filled with tears.
She embraced him, and stood looking fixedly at him, and weeping. In the
street the tumult was increasing; the people pressed forward as at a
theatre, with glistening eyes; some work-girls, escaped from a shop,
were almost pushing through the windows eager to see what was going on.
In order to avoid this feverish curiosity, and thinking, besides, that
it was not right to leave the shop open, Denise decided on letting the
metallic shutters down. She went and turned the winch, the wheels of
which gave out a plaintive cry, the sheets of iron slowly descended, like
the heavy draperies of a curtain falling on the catastrophe of a fifth
act. When she went in again, after closing the little round door in the
shutters, she found Madame Robineau still clasping her husband in
her arms, in the half-light which came from the two stars cut in the
shutters. The ruined shop seemed to be gliding into nothingness, the
two stars alone glittered on this sudden and brutal catastrophe of the
streets of Paris.
At last Madame Robineau recovered her speech. “Oh, my darling!–oh, my
darling! my darling!”
This was all she could say, and he, suffocated, confessed himself with a
cry of remorse when he saw her kneeling thus before him. When he did not
move he only felt the burning lead of his legs.
“Forgive me, I must have been mad. When the lawyer told me before
Gaujean that the posters would be put up tomorrow, I saw flames dancing
before me as if the walls were burning. After that I remember nothing
else. I came down the Rue de la Michodière–it seemed that The Paradise
people were laughing at me, that immense house seemed to crush me.. So,
when the omnibus came up, I thought of Lhomme and his arm, and threw
myself underneath the omnibus.”
Madame Robineau had slowly fallen on to the floor, horrified by this
confession. Heavens! he had tried to kill himself. She seized the hand
of her young friend, who leant over towards her quite overcome. The
wounded man, exhausted by emotion, had just fainted away again; and the
doctor not having arrived, two men went all over the neighbourhood for
him. The doorkeeper belonging to the house had gone off in his turn to
look for him.
“Pray, don’t be anxious,” repeated Denise, mechanically, herself also
Then Madame Robineau, seated on the floor, with her head against the
stretcher, her cheek placed on the mattress where her husband was lying,
relieved her heart “Oh! I must tell you. It’s all for me he wanted to
die. He’s always saying, ‘I’ve robbed you; it was not my money.’ And at
night he dreams of this money, waking up covered with perspiration,
calling himself an incapable fellow, saying that those who have no head
for business ought not to risk other people’s money. You know he has
always been nervous, his brain tormented. He finished by conjuring up
things that frightened me. He saw me in the street in tatters, begging,
his darling wife, whom he loved so tenderly, whom he longed to see rich
and happy.” But on turning round, she noticed he had opened his eyes;
and she continued in a trembling voice: “My darling, why have you done
this? You must think me very wicked! I assure you, I don’t care if we
are ruined. So long as we are together, we shall never be unhappy. Let
them take everything, and we will go away somewhere, where you won’t
hear any more about them. You can still work; you’ll see how happy we
shall be!”
She placed her forehead near her husband’s pale face, and both were
silent, in the emotion of their anguish. There was a pause. The shop
seemed to be sleeping, benumbed by the pale night which enveloped it;
whilst behind the thin shutters could be heard the noises of the street,
the life of the busy city, the rumble of the vehicles, and the hustling
and pushing of the passing crowd. At last Denise, who went every minute
to glance through the hall door, came back, exclaiming: “Here’s the
He was a young fellow, with bright eyes, whom the doorkeeper had found
and brought in. He preferred to examine the poor man before they put him
to bed. Only one of his legs, the left one, was broken above the ankle;
it was a simple fracture, no serious complication appeared likely to
result from it. And they were about to carry the stretcher into the
back-room when Gaujean arrived. He came to give them an account of
a last attempt to settle matters, an attempt which had failed; the
declaration of bankruptcy was definite.
“Dear me,” murmured he, “what’s the matter?”
In a few words, Denise informed him. Then he stopped, feeling rather
awkward, while Robineau said, in a feeble voice: “I don’t bear you any
ill-will, but all this is partly your fault.”
“Well, my dear fellow,” replied Gaujean, “it wanted stronger men than
us. You know I’m not in a much better state than you.”
They raised the stretcher; Robineau still found strength to say: “No,
no, stronger fellows than us would have given way as we have. I can
understand such obstinate old men as Bourras and Baudu standing out, but
you and I, who are young, who had accepted the new style of tilings! No,
Gaujean, it’s the last of a world.”
They carried him off. Madame Robineau embraced Denise with an eagerness
in which there was almost a feeling of joy, to have at last got rid of
all those worrying business matters. And, as Gaujean went away with the
young girl, he confessed to her that this poor devil of a Robineau was
right. It was idiotic to try and struggle against The Ladies’ Paradise.
He personally felt himself lost, if he did not give in. Last night, in
fact, he had secretly made a proposal to Hutin, who was just leaving for
Lyons. But he felt very doubtful, and tried to interest Denise in the
matter, aware, no doubt, of her powerfulness.
“My word,” said he, “so much the worse for the manufacturers! Every
one would laugh at me if I ruined myself in fighting for other people’s
benefit, when these fellows are struggling who shall make at the
cheapest price! As you said some time ago, the manufacturers have
only to follow the march of progress by a better organisation and new
methods. Everything will come all right; it suffices that the public are
Denise smiled and replied: “Go and say that to Monsieur Mouret himself.
Your visit will please him, and he’s not the man to display any rancour,
if you offer him even a centime profit per yard.”
Madame Baudu died in January, on a bright sunny afternoon. For some
weeks she had been unable to go down into the shop that a charwoman now
looked after. She was in bed, propped up by the pillows. Nothing but
her eyes seemed to be living in her white face, and, her head erect, she
kept them obstinately fixed on The Ladies’ Paradise opposite, through
the small curtains of the windows. Baudu, himself suffering from this
obsession, from the despairing fixity of her gaze, sometimes wanted
to draw the large curtains to. But she stopped him with an imploring
gesture, obstinately desirous of seeing the monster shop till the last
moment. It had now robbed her of everything, her business, her daughter;
she herself had gradually died away with The Old Elbeuf, losing a part
of her life as the shop lost its customers; the day it succumbed, she
had no more breath left When she felt she was dying, she still found the
strength to insist on her husband opening the two windows. It was
very mild, a bright day of sun gilded The Ladies’ Paradise, whilst the
bed-room of their old house shivered in the shade. Madame Baudu lay with
her fixed gaze, absorbed by the vision of the triumphal monument, the
clear, limpid windows, behind which a gallop of millions was passing.
Slowly her eyes grew dim, invaded by darkness; and when they at last
sunk in death, they remained wide open, still looking, drowned in tears.
Once more the ruined traders of the district followed the funeral
procession. There were the brothers Vanpouille, pale at the thought of
their December bills, paid by a supreme effort which they would never be
able to repeat. Bédoré, with his sister, leant on his cane, so full of
worry and anxiety that his liver complaint was getting worse every day.
Deslignières had had a fit, Piot and Rivoire walked on in silence, with
downcast looks, like men entirely played out. They dared not question
each other about those who had disappeared, Quinette, Mademoiselle
Tatin, and others, who were sinking, ruined, swept away by this
disastrous flood; without counting Robineau, still in bed, with his
broken leg. But they pointed with an especial air of interest to the new
tradesmen attacked by the plague; the perfumer Grognet, the milliner
Madame Chadeuil, Lacassagne, the flower maker, and Naud, the bootmaker,
still standing firm, but seized by the anxiety of the evil, which would
doubtless sweep them away in their turn. Baudu walked along behind the
hearse with the same heavy, stolid step as when he had followed his
daughter; whilst at the back of a mourning coach could be seen Bourras’s
sparkling eyes under his bushy eyebrows, and his hair of a snowy white.
Denise was in great trouble. For the last fifteen days she had been
worn out with fatigue and anxiety; she had been obliged to put Pépé to
school, and had been running about for Jean, who was so stricken with
the pastrycook’s niece, that he had implored his sister to go and ask
her hand in marriage. Then her aunt’s death, these repeated catastrophes
had quite overwhelmed the young girl. Mouret again offered his services,
giving her leave to do what she liked for her uncle and the others.
One morning she had an interview with him, at the news that Bourras was
turned into the street, and that Baudu was going to shut up shop. Then
she went out after breakfast in the hope of comforting these two, at
In the Rue de la Michodière, Bourras was standing on the pavement
opposite his house, from which he had been expelled the previous day by
a fine trick, a discovery of the lawyers; as Mouret held some bills, he
had easily obtained an order in bankruptcy against the umbrella-maker;
then he had given five hundred francs for the expiring lease at the sale
ordered by the court; so that the obstinate old man had allowed himself
to be deprived of, for five hundred francs, what he had refused to give
up for a hundred thousand. The architect, who came with his gang of
workmen, had been obliged to employ the police to get him out. The goods
had been taken and sold; but he still kept himself obstinately in the
corner where he slept, and from which they did not like to drive him,
out of pity. The workmen even attacked the roofing over his head.
They had taken off the rotten slates, the ceilings fell in, the walls
cracked, and yet he stuck there, under the naked old beams, amidst the
ruins of the shop. At last the police came, and he went away. But the
following morning he again appeared on the opposite side of the street,
after having spent the night in a lodging-house in the neighbourhood.
“Monsieur Bourras!” said Denise, kindly.
He did not hear her, his flaming eyes were devouring the workmen who
were attacking the front of the hovel with their picks. Through the
empty window-frames could be seen the inside of the house, the miserable
rooms, and the black staircase, where the sun had not penetrated for the
last two hundred years. .
“Ah! it’s you,” replied he, at last, when he recognised her. “A nice bit
of work they’re doing, eh? the robbers!”
She did not now dare to speak, stirred up by the lamentable sadness of
the old place, herself unable to take her eyes off the mouldy stones
that were falling. Above, in a corner of the ceiling of her old room, she
still perceived the name in black and shaky letters–Ernestine–written
with the flame of a candle, and the remembrance of those days of
misery came back to her, inspiring her with a tender sympathy for all
suffering. But the workmen, in order to knock one of the walls down at a
blow, had attacked it at its base. It was tottering.
“Should like to see it crush all of them,” growled Bourras, in a savage
There was a terrible cracking noise. The frightened workmen ran out into
the street. In falling down, the wall tottered and carried all the house
with it. No doubt the hovel was ripe for the fall–it could no longer
stand, with its flaws and cracks; a push had sufficed to cleave it
from top to bottom. It was a pitiful crumbling away, the razing of a
mud-house soddened by the rains. Not a board remained standing; there
was nothing on the ground but a heap of rubbish, the dung of the past
thrown at the street corner.
“Oh, heavens!” exclaimed the old man, as if the blow had resounded in
his very entrails.
He stood there gaping, never supposing it would have been over so quick.
And he looked at the gap, the hollow space at last left free on the
flanks of The Ladies’ Paradise. It was like the crushing of a gnat, the
final triumph over the annoying obstinacy of the infinitely small, the
whole isle invaded and conquered. The passers-by lingered to talk to the
workmen, who were crying out against these old buildings, only good for
killing people.
“Monsieur Bourras,” repeated Denise, trying to get him on one side, “you
know that you will not be abandoned. All your wants will be provided
He held up his head. “I have no wants. You’ve been sent by them, haven’t
you? Well, tell them that old Bourras still knows how to work, and that
he can find work wherever he likes. Really, it would be a fine thing to
offer charity to those they are assassinating!”
Then she implored him: “Pray accept, Monsieur Bourras; don’t give me
this grief.”
But he shook his bushy head. “No, no, it’s all over. Good-bye. Go and
live happily, you who are young, and don’t prevent old people sticking
to their ideas.”
He cast a last glance at the heap of rubbish, and then went away. She
watched him disappear, elbowed by the crowd on the pavement. He turned
the corner of the Place Gaillon, and all was over. For a moment, Denise
remained motionless, lost in thought. At last she went over to her
uncle’s. The draper was alone in the dark shop of The Old Elbeuf. The
charwoman only came morning and evening to do a little cooking, and
to take down and put up the shutters. He spent hours in this solitude,
often without being disturbed once during the whole day, bewildered, and
unable to find the goods when a stray customer happened to venture in.
And there in the half-light he marched about unceasingly, with that
heavy step he had at the two funerals, yielding to a sickly desire,
regular fits of forced marching, as if he were trying to rock his grief
to sleep.
“Are you feeling better, uncle?” asked Denise. He only stopped for
a second to glance at her. Then he started off again, going from the
pay-desk to an obscure corner.
“Yes, yes. Very well, thanks.”
She tried to find some consoling subject, some cheerful remark, but
could think of nothing. “Did you hear the noise? The house is down.”
“Ah! it’s true,” murmured he, with an astonished look, “that must have
been the house. I felt the ground tremble. Seeing them on the roof this
morning, I closed my door.”
And he made a vague movement, to imitate that such things no longer
interested him. Every time he arrived before the pay-desk, he looked at
the empty seat, that well-known velvet-covered seat, where his wife and
daughter had grown up. Then when his perpetual walking brought him to
the other end, he gazed at the shelves drowned in shadow, in which a few
pieces of cloth were gradually growing mouldy. It was a widowed house,
those he loved had disappeared, his business had come to a shameful
end, and he was left alone to commune with his dead heart, and his pride
brought low amidst all these catastrophes. He raised his eyes towards
the black ceiling, overcome by the sepulchral silence which reigned in
the little dining-room, the family nook, of which he had formerly loved
every part, even down to the stuffy odour. Not a breath was now heard in
the old house, his regular heavy step made the ancient walls resound, as
if he were walking over the tombs of his affections.
At last Denise approached the subject which had brought her. “Uncle, you
can’t stay like this. You must come to a decision.”
He replied, without stopping his walk–“No doubt; but what would you
have me do? I’ve tried to sell, but no one has come. One of these
mornings I shall shut up shop and go off.”
She was aware that a failure was no longer to be feared. The creditors
had preferred to come to an understanding before such a long series
of misfortunes. Everything paid, the old man would find himself in the
street, penniless.
“But what will you do, then?” murmured she, seeking some transition in
order to arrive at the offer she dared not make.
“I don’t know,” replied he. “They’ll pick me up all right.” He had
changed his route, going from the dining-room to the windows with their
lamentable displays, looking at the latter, every time he came to
them, with a gloomy expression. His gaze did not even turn towards the
triumphal façade of The Ladies’ Paradise, whose architectural lines ran
as far as the eye could see, to the right and to the left, at both
ends of the street. He was thoroughly annihilated, and had not even the
strength to get angry.
“Listen, uncle,” said Denise, greatly embarrassed; “perhaps there might
be a situation for you.” She stopped, and stammered. “Yes, I am charged
to offer you a situation as inspector.”
“Where?” asked Baudu.
“Opposite,” replied she; “in our shop. Six thousand francs a year; a
very easy place.”
Suddenly he stopped in front of her. But instead of getting angry as she
feared he would, he turned very pale, succumbing to a grievous emotion,
a feeling of bitter resignation.
“Opposite, opposite,” stammered he several times. “You want me to go
Denise herself was affected by this emotion. She recalled the long
struggle of the two shops, assisted at the funerals of Geneviève and
Madame Baudu, saw before her The Old Elbeuf overthrown, utterly ruined
by The Ladies’ Paradise. And the idea of her uncle taking a situation
opposite, and walking about in a white neck-tie, made her heart leap
with pity and revolt.
“Come, Denise, is it possible?” said he, simply, wringing his poor
trembling hands.
“No, no, uncle,” exclaimed she, in a sudden burst of her just and
excellent being. “It would be wrong. Forgive me, I beg of you.”
He resumed his walk, his step once more broke the funereal silence
of the house. And when she left him, he was still going on in that
obstinate locomotion of great griefs, which turn round themselves
without ever being able to get beyond.
Denise passed another sleepless night. She had just touched the bottom
of her powerlessness. Even in favour of her own people she was unable to
find any consolation. She had been obliged to assist to the bitter end
at this invincible work of life which requires death as its continual
seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this law of combat; but her
womanly soul was filled with a weeping pity, with a fraternal tenderness
at the idea of suffering humanity. For years, she herself had been
caught in the wheel-work of the machine. Had she not bled there? Had
they not bruised her, dismissed her, overwhelmed her with insults? Even
now she was frightened, when she felt herself chosen by the logic of
facts. Why her, a girl so puny? Why should her small hand suddenly
become so powerful amidst the monster’s work? And the force which was
sweeping everything away, carried her away in her turn, she, whose
coming was to be a revenge. Mouret had invented this mechanism for
crushing the world, and its brutal working shocked her; he had sown ruin
all over the neighbourhood, despoiled some, killed others; and yet she
loved him for the grandeur of his work, she loved him still more at
every excess of his power, notwithstanding the flood of tears which
overcame her, before the sacred misery of the vanquished.