This made him laugh

The next day Denise had scarcely been downstairs half an hour, when
Madame Aurélie said to her in her sharp voice: “You are wanted at the
director’s office, mademoiselle.”
The girl found Mouret alone, in his spacious room hung with green rep.
He had suddenly remembered that “unkempt girl,” as Bourdoncle called
her; and he, who usually detested the part of fault-finder, had thought
of sending for her and stirring her up a bit, if she were still dressed
in the style of a country wench. On the previous day, despite his
jocularity, he had experienced a feeling of wounded pride, on seeing
the elegance of one of his saleswomen questioned in Madame Desforges’s
presence. He harboured a mixed sentiment with regard to Denise, a
commingling, as it were, of sympathy and anger.
“We engaged you, mademoiselle,” he commenced, “out of regard for your
uncle, and you must not put us under the sad necessity—-”
But all at once he stopped. On the other side of his table stood
Denise, upright, serious, and pale. Her silk gown was no longer too
big for her, but fitted tightly to her pretty figure, displayed the
pure lines of her virgin shoulders; and if her hair, knotted in thick
tresses, still appeared somewhat wild, she had at least tried to keep
it in order. After falling asleep with her clothes on, her eyes red
with weeping, she had, on waking at about four o’clock, felt ashamed of
her nervous sensibility, and had immediately set about taking-in her
dress; besides spending an hour before the tiny looking-glass, combing
her hair, which she was unable to reduce as much as she would have
liked to.
“Ah! thank heavens!” said Mouret, “you look better this morning. But
there’s still that dreadful hair!” With these words he rose from his
seat and stepped up to her to try and smooth her rebellious tresses in
the same familiar way as Madame Aurélie on the previous day. “There!
Just tuck that in behind your ear,” he said, “The chignon is too high.”
She did not speak, but let him arrange her hair. In spite of her vow
to be strong and brave she had reached the office full of misgivings,
feeling certain that she had been summoned to be informed of her
dismissal. And Mouret’s evident kindliness did not reassure her; she
was still afraid of him, feeling whenever near him that uneasiness
which she attributed to natural anxiety in the presence of a powerful
man on whom her future depended. And when he saw her thus trembling
under his hands, which were grazing her neck, he began to regret his
good-natured impulse, for he feared above all to lose his authority.
“In short, mademoiselle,” he resumed, once more placing the table
between himself and her, “try and look to your appearance. You are no
longer at Valognes; study our Parisian young ladies. If your uncle’s
name has sufficed to gain you admittance to our house, I at least
trust that you will seek to justify the good opinion I formed of you
from your appearance. Unfortunately, everybody here is not of the same
opinion as myself. Let this be a warning to you. Don’t make me tell a
He treated her like a child, with more pity than kindness, his
curiosity simply awakened by the troublous, womanly charm which he
divined was springing up in this poor awkward girl. And she, whilst he
was lecturing her, having suddenly perceived the portrait of Madame
Hédouin, whose handsome regular face was smiling gravely in its gold
frame–felt herself shivering again, despite the encouraging words he
addressed to her. That was the dead lady, she whom people accused him
of having killed, in order to found the house with the blood of her
Mouret was still speaking. “Now you may go,” he said at last, sitting
down and taking up his pen. And thereupon she went off, heaving a deep
sigh of relief.
From that day onward, Denise put forth all her courage. Beneath her
attacks of sensitiveness, a strong sense of reason was constantly
working, quite a feeling of bravery at finding herself weak and alone,
with a cheerful determination to carry out her self-imposed task. She
made very little stir but went straight ahead to her goal, overcoming
all obstacles, and that simply and naturally, for her nature was one of
unconquerable sweetness.
At first she had to surmount the terrible fatigues of her work in the
department. The piles of garments strained her arms to such a degree
that during the first six weeks she cried with pain when she turned
over at night, her back aching and her shoulders bruised. But she
suffered still more from her shoes, heavy shoes which she had brought
from Valognes; lack of money preventing her from replacing them by
light boots. Always on her legs, trotting about from morning to night,
scolded if she were seen leaning for a moment against a partition,
her feet, small like those of a child, became swollen by prolonged
imprisonment in those torturing bluchers; the heels throbbed with fever
and the soles were covered with blisters, the skin of which chafed off
and stuck to her stockings. She experienced, too, a shattering of her
whole frame; the constant weariness of her legs painfully affected her
system and her face was ever pale. And yet she, so spare and frail,
resisted courageously, whilst a great many other saleswomen, attacked
by special maladies, were obliged to quit the business. Her readiness
to suffer, her valiant stubbornness sustained her, smiling and upright,
however, even when she felt ready to give way, thoroughly worn out by
labour to which many men would have succumbed.
Another torment was to have the whole department against her. To
physical martyrdom was added the secret persecutions of her comrades.
Two months of patience and gentleness had not disarmed them. She was
constantly exposed to offensive remarks, cruel inventions, a series of
slights which cut her to the heart, in her longing for affection. For
a long time the others joked over her unfortunate first appearance;
and such nicknames as “clogs” and “numbskull” were bestowed on her.
Then those who missed a sale were advised to go to Valognes; in
short, she passed for the fool of the place. And afterwards when she
revealed herself to be a remarkably clever saleswoman, well up in the
mechanism of the house, the others conspired to deprive her of all
good customers. Marguerite and Clara pursued her with instinctive
hatred, allying themselves together in order that they might not be
swallowed up by this new-comer, whom they really feared in spite of
their affected disdain. As for Madame Aurélie, she was hurt by the
proud reserve displayed by Denise, who did not hover round her skirts
with an air of caressing admiration; and she therefore abandoned her
to the rancour of her favourites, the preferred ones of her court, who
were always on their knees, feeding her with the continual flattery
which could alone impart any amiability to her proud domineering
nature. For a while, the second-hand, Madame Frédéric, appeared not to
enter into the conspiracy, but this must have been by inadvertence, for
she showed herself equally harsh directly she saw to what annoyances
her good-nature was likely to expose her. Then the abandonment became
complete, they all made a butt of the “unkempt girl,” who lived on in
an hourly struggle, only managing by dint of the greatest courage to
hold her own in the department.
Such then was her life now. She had to smile, look brave and gracious
in a silk gown which did not belong to her, and she was ever suffering
from fatigue, badly treated, under the continual menace of a brutal
dismissal. Her room was her only refuge, the only spot where she
could indulge in the luxury of a cry, when she had suffered too much
during the day. But a terrible coldness fell from the zinc roof, now
covered with the December snow; she was obliged to nestle in her iron
bedstead, pile all her clothes over her, and weep under the counterpane
to prevent the frost from chapping her face. Mouret never spoke to her
now; when she noticed Bourdoncle’s severe looks during business hours
she trembled, for she divined in him a born enemy who would not forgive
her the slightest fault. And amidst this general hostility, inspector
Jouve’s strange friendliness astonished her. If he met her in any
out-of-the-way corner he smiled at her and made some amiable remark;
twice, too, he had saved her from being reprimanded without any show of
gratitude on her part, for she was more troubled than touched by his
protecting airs.
One evening, after dinner, while the young ladies were setting the
cupboards in order, Joseph came to inform Denise that a young man
wanted her below. She went down, feeling very anxious.
“Hallo!” said Clara, “the ‘unkempt girl’ has got a follower then.”
“He must be hard up for a sweetheart,” declared Marguerite.
Meantime, downstairs at the door, Denise found her brother Jean. She
had formally prohibited him from coming to the shop in this way, as it
looked so bad. But she did not dare to scold him, so excited did he
appear, bareheaded, out of breath through running all the way from the
Faubourg du Temple.
“Have you got ten francs?” he stammered. “Give me ten francs, or I’m a
lost man.”
With his flowing locks and handsome girlish face the young rascal
looked so comical, whilst launching out this melodramatic phrase,
that she could have smiled had it not been for the anguish which his
application for money caused her.
“What! ten francs?” she murmured. “Whatever’s the matter?”
Thereupon he blushed, and explained that he had met a friend’s sister.
Denise stopped him, feeling embarrassed and not wishing to know any
more about it. Twice already had he rushed in to obtain similar loans,
but on the first occasion it had only been a matter of twenty-five
sous, and on the next of thirty. He was, however, always getting into
bad company.
“I can’t give you ten francs,” she resumed. “Pépé’s board isn’t paid
yet, and I’ve only just the money for it. I shall have hardly enough
to buy a pair of boots, which I want very badly. You are really not
reasonable, Jean. It’s too bad of you.”
“Well, I’m lost,” he repeated, with a tragical gesture. “Just listen,
little sister; she’s a tall, dark girl; we went to the café with her
brother. I never thought the drinks would—-”
She had to interrupt him again, and as tears were coming into his eyes,
she took out her purse and slipped a ten-franc piece into his hand. He
at once set up a laugh.
“I was sure of it!–But on my honour! never again! A fellow would have
to be a regular scamp.”
And thereupon he ran off, after kissing his sister, like a madman. The
assistants in the shop seemed quite astonished.
That night Denise did not sleep much. Since her entry into The
Ladies’ Paradise, money had been her cruel anxiety. She was still
a probationer, without a salary; the other girls in her department
frequently prevented her from selling, and she only just managed to
pay Pépé’s board and lodging, thanks to the unimportant customers they
were good enough to leave her. It was a time of black misery–misery
in a silk dress. She was often obliged to spend the night in repairing
her small stock of clothes, darning her linen, mending her chemises
as if they had been lace; without mentioning the patches that she put
on her shoes, as cleverly as any bootmaker could have done. She even
risked washing things in her hand basin. But her old woollen dress was
an especial source of anxiety to her; she had no other, and was forced
to put it on every evening when she quitted the uniform silk, and this
wore it terribly; a stain on it gave her quite a fever, the least rent
was a catastrophe. And she had nothing, not a sou, not even enough to
buy the trifling articles which a woman always wants; she had even been
obliged to wait a fortnight to renew her stock of needles and cotton.
Thus it was a real disaster when Jean, with his love affairs, suddenly
swooped down and pillaged her purse. A franc-piece taken out of it left
an abyss which she did not know how to fill up. As for finding ten
francs on the morrow it was not to be thought of for a moment. All that
night she was haunted by nightmare in which she saw Pépé thrown into
the street, whilst she turned the paving stones over with her bruised
fingers to see if there might not be some money underneath them.
It happened that the next day she had to play the part of the
well-dressed girl. Some well-known customers came in, and Madame
Aurélie summoned her several times in order that she might show off
the new styles. And whilst she was posing there, with the stereotyped
graces of a fashion-plate, she thought all the time of Pépé’s board and
lodging, which she had promised to pay that evening. She would contrive
to do without any boots for another month; but even on adding the
thirty francs left her of Pépé’s money to the four francs which she had
saved up sou by sou, there would never be more than thirty-four francs,
and where was she to find six francs to complete the sum she required?
It was an anguish in which her heart failed her.
“You will notice that the shoulders are quite free,” Madame Aurélie was
saying. “It’s very fashionable and very convenient. The young person
can fold her arms.”
“Oh! easily,” replied Denise, who continued to smile amiably. “One
can’t feel it. I am sure you will like it, madame.”
She was now blaming herself for having gone to fetch Pépé from
Madame Gras’ on the previous Sunday, to take him for a walk in the
Champs-Elysées. The poor child so seldom went out with her! But she had
been obliged to buy him some gingerbread and a little spade, and then
take him to see Punch and Judy, and all that had cost twenty-nine sous.
Really Jean could not think much about the little one, or he would not
be so foolish. Everything fell upon her shoulders.
“Of course, if it does not suit you, madame–” resumed the first-hand.
“Just put this other cloak on, mademoiselle, so that the lady may
And Denise then walked slowly round, wearing the cloak and saying:
“This is warmer. It’s this year’s fashion.”
And beneath her professional graces she continued worrying and worrying
until the evening, at a loss as to where she might find this money. The
young ladies, who were very busy, left her an important sale; but it
was only Tuesday, and she must wait four days before drawing any cash.
After dinner she decided to postpone her visit to Madame Gras till
the morrow. She would excuse herself, say she had been detained, and
before then she would perhaps have obtained the six francs. As Denise
avoided the slightest expense, she went to bed early. What could she do
out-of-doors, penniless and wild, and still frightened by the big city
in which she only knew the streets around the shop? After venturing
as far as the Palais-Royal for the sake of a little fresh air, she
would quickly return, lock herself in her room and set about sewing or
Along the corridor conducting to the bed-rooms reigned a barrack-like
promiscuity–the girls, who were often not very tidy, would gossip
there over dirty water and dirty linen, break into frequent quarrels
and patch up continual reconciliations. They were prohibited from
going up to their rooms in the day-time; they did not live there, but
merely slept there at night, climbing the stairs only at the last
minute, and coming down again in the morning when still half asleep,
hardly awakened by a rapid wash; and this hurry-skurry which night and
morning swept through the corridor, the fatigue of thirteen hours’
work which threw them all on their beds thoroughly worn out, made the
upper part of the house like an inn traversed by tired and illtempered
travellers. Denise had no friend. Of all the young ladies, one alone,
Pauline Cugnot, showed her a little affection; and the mantle and
under-clothing departments being close to one another, and in open war,
the sympathy between the two saleswomen had hitherto been confined
to a few rare words hastily exchanged. Pauline certainly occupied a
neighbouring room, to the right of Denise’s; but as she disappeared
immediately after dinner and only returned at eleven o’clock, the
latter simply heard her get into bed, and never met her after business
That evening, Denise had made up her mind to play the part of bootmaker
once more. She was holding her shoes, turning them about and wondering
how she could make them last another month. At last she decided to take
a strong needle and sew on the soles, which were threatening to leave
the uppers. Meantime a collar and a pair of cuffs were soaking in a
basinful of soapsuds.
Every evening she heard the same sounds, the girls coming up one by
one, brief whispered conversations, bursts of laughter and sometimes
disputes which they stifled as much as possible. Then the beds creaked,
the tired occupants yawned, and fell into heavy slumber. Denise’s left
hand neighbour often talked in her sleep, which at first frightened
her very much. Perhaps others, like herself, stopped up to mend their
things, in spite of the regulations; but if so they probably took the
same precautions as she did, moving with prudent care, and avoiding the
least noise, for a quivering silence prevailed behind the closed doors.
It had struck eleven some ten minutes previously when a sound of
footsteps made Denise raise her head. Another young lady late, thought
she. And she realised that it was Pauline, by hearing the door next to
her own open.
But she was astonished when Pauline quietly came back into the passage
and knocked at her door.
“Make haste, it’s me!”
The saleswomen were forbidden to visit each other in their rooms, and
Denise quickly unlocked her door, in order that her neighbour might
not be caught by Madame Cabin, who was supposed to see this regulation
strictly carried out.
“Was she there?” asked Denise, when the other had entered.
“Who? Madame Cabin?” replied Pauline. “Oh, I’m not afraid of her,
she’s easily settled with a five-franc piece!” And then she added:
“I’ve wanted to have a talk with you for a long time past. But it’s
impossible to do so downstairs. Besides, you looked so down-hearted
to-night at table.”
Denise thanked her, and, touched by her good-natured air invited her
to sit down. But in the bewilderment, caused by this unexpected visit
she had not laid down the shoe she was mending, and Pauline at once
perceived it. She shook her head, looked round and espied the collar
and cuffs in the basin.
“My poor child, I thought as much,” resumed she. “Ah, I know what it
is! When I first came up from Chartres, and old Cugnot didn’t send me a
sou, I many a time washed my own chemises! Yes, yes, my chemises! I had
only two, and there was always one in soak.”
She sat down, still out of breath from running. Her broad face,
with small bright eyes, and big tender mouth, possessed a certain
grace, notwithstanding its rather coarse features. And, without any
transition, all of a sudden, she began to relate her story; her
childhood at the mill; old Cugnot ruined by a law-suit; she sent to
Paris to make her fortune with twenty francs in her pocket; then her
start as a saleswoman in a shop at Batignolles, then at The Ladies’
Paradise–a terrible start, every suffering and privation imaginable;
and at last her present life, the two hundred francs she earned each
month, the pleasures she indulged in, the carelessness in which
she allowed her days to glide away. Some jewellery, a brooch, and
watch-chain, glistened on her close-fitting gown of dark-blue cloth;
and she smiled from under a velvet toque ornamented with a large grey
Denise had turned very red, worried with reference to her shoe; and
began to stammer out an explanation.
“But the same thing happened to me,” repeated Pauline. “Come, come, I’m
older than you, I’m over twenty-six, though I don’t look it. Just tell
me your little troubles.”
Thereupon Denise yielded to this friendship so frankly offered. She
sat down in her petticoat, with an old shawl over her shoulders, near
Pauline in full dress; and an interesting gossip ensued.
It was freezing in the room, the cold seemed to run down the
bare prison-like walls; but they were so fully taken up by their
conversation that they did not notice that their fingers were almost
frost-bitten. Little by little, Denise opened her heart entirely, spoke
of Jean and Pépé, and of how grievously the money question tortured
her; which led them both to abuse the young ladies in the mantle
department. Pauline relieved her mind. “Oh, the hussies!” said she, “if
they treated you in a proper way, you might make more than a hundred
francs a month.”
“Everybody is down on me, and I’m sure I don’t know why,” answered
Denise, beginning to cry. “Look at Monsieur Bourdoncle, he’s always
watching me, trying to find me in fault just as if I were in his way.
Old Jouve is about the only one—-”
The other interrupted her. “What, that old ape of an inspector! Ah! my
dear, don’t you trust him. He may display his decoration as much as
he likes, but there’s a story about something that happened to him in
our department. But what a child you are to grieve like this! What a
misfortune it is to be so sensitive! Of course, what is happening to
you happens to every one; they are making you pay your footing.”
Then carried away by her good heart she caught hold of Denise’s hands
and kissed her. The money-question was a graver one. Certainly a poor
girl could not support her two brothers, pay the little one’s board
and lodging, and stand treat for the big one’s sweethearts with the
few paltry sous she picked up from the others’ cast-off customers; for
it was to be feared that she would not get any salary until business
improved in March.
“Listen to me, it’s impossible for you to live in this way any longer.
If I were you—-” said Pauline.
But a noise in the corridor stopped her. It was probably Marguerite,
who was accused of prowling about at night to spy upon the others.
Pauline, who was still pressing her friend’s hand, looked at her for
a moment in silence, listening. Then, with an air of affectionate
conviction, she began to whisper to her.
Denise did not understand at first, and when she did, she withdrew her
hands, looking very confused by what her friend had told her. “Oh! no,”
she replied simply.
“Then,” continued Pauline, “you’ll never manage, I tell you so,
plainly. Here are the figures: forty francs for the little one, a
five-franc piece now and again for the big one; and then there’s
yourself, you can’t always go about dressed like a pauper, with shoes
that make the other girls laugh at you; yes, really, your shoes do you
a deal of harm. It would be much better to do as I tell you.”
“No, no,” repeated Denise.
“Well! you are very foolish. It’s inevitable, my dear, we all come to
it sooner or later. Look at me, I was a probationer, like you, without
a sou. We are boarded and lodged, it’s true; but there’s our dress;
besides, it’s impossible to go without a copper in one’s pocket and
shut oneself up in one’s room, watching the flies. So you see girls
forcibly drift into it.”
She then spoke of her first admirer, a lawyer’s clerk whom she had
met at a party at Meudon. After him, had come a post-office clerk.
And, finally, ever since the autumn, she had been keeping company with
a salesman at the Bon Marché, a very nice tall fellow. However, her
advice had no effect whatever upon Denise.
“No,” the latter replied in a tone of decision; and a fresh silence
fell. In the small cold room they were smiling at each other, greatly
affected by this whispered conversation. “Besides, one must have
affection for some one,” she resumed, her cheeks quite scarlet.
Pauline was astonished. She set up a laugh, and embraced her a second
time exclaiming: “But, my darling, when you meet and like each other!
You are really droll! Look here, would you like Baugé to take us
somewhere in the country on Sunday? He’ll bring one of his friends.”
“No,” again said Denise in her gently obstinate way.
Then Pauline insisted no further. Each was free to act as she pleased.
What she had said was out of pure kindness of heart, for she felt
really grieved to see a comrade so miserable. And as it was nearly
midnight, she got up to leave. But before doing so she forced Denise to
accept the six francs she wanted to make up Pépé’s board-money, begging
her not to trouble about the matter, but to repay her the amount
whenever she earned more.
“Now,” she added, “blow your candle out, so that they may not see which
door opens; you can light it again immediately afterwards.”
The candle having been extinguished, they shook hands; and then Pauline
ran off to her room, giving no sign of her passage through the darkness
save the vague rustling of her petticoats amidst the deep slumber that
had fallen on the occupants of the other little rooms.
Before going to bed Denise wished to finish her boot and do her
washing. The cold became sharper still as the night advanced; but
she did not feel it, the conversation had stirred her heart’s blood.
She was not shocked; it seemed to her that every woman had a right
to arrange her life as she liked, when she was alone and free in the
world. For her own part, however, she had never given way to such
ideas; her sense of right and her healthy nature naturally maintained
her in the respectability in which she had always lived. At last,
towards one o’clock she went to bed. No, she thought, she did not
love any one. So what was the use of upsetting her life, the maternal
devotion which she had vowed for her two brothers? However, she did not
sleep; insomnia gained upon her and a crowd of indistinct forms flitted
before her closed eyes, then vanished in the darkness.
From that time forward Denise took an interest in the love-stories of
the department. During slack times the girls were constantly occupied
with their amatory affairs. Gossiping tales flew about, stories of
adventures which amused them all for a week. Clara was a scandal and
merely remained at the shop under pretence of leading a respectable
life in order to shield herself from her family; for she was mortally
afraid of old Prunaire, who had threatened to come to Paris and
break her arms and legs with his clogs. Marguerite, on the contrary,
behaved very well, and was not known to have any lover; which caused
some surprise, for all knew of the circumstances which had led to her
arrival in Paris. The young women also joked about Madame Frédéric,
declaring that she was discreetly connected with certain great
personages; but the truth was they knew nothing of her love-affairs;
for she disappeared every evening, stiff as starch with her widow’s
sulkiness, and apparently always in a great hurry, though nobody
knew whither she hastened so eagerly. As for the tittle-tattle about
Madame Aurélie this was certainly false; mere invention, spread abroad
by discontented saleswomen just for fun. Perhaps she had formerly
displayed rather more than a motherly feeling for one of her son’s
friends, but she now occupied too high a position in the business to
indulge in such childishness. Then there was the flock, the crowd of
the girls going off in the evening, nine out of every ten having young
men waiting for them at the door. On the Place Gaillon, along the Rue
de la Michodière, and the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, there was always a
troop of motionless sentries watching for the girls’ departure; and,
when the _défilé_ began, each gave his arm to his lady and walked
away. It was like the stage-door exit of some theatre where figurantes
What most troubled Denise, however, was that she had discovered
Colomban’s secret. He was continually to be seen on the other side of
the street, on the threshold of The Old Elbeuf, his eyes raised and
never quitting the young ladies of the jacket and mantle department.
When he espied Denise watching him he blushed and turned away his head,
as if afraid that she might betray him to Geneviève, although there
had been no further connection between the Baudus and their niece
since her engagement at The Ladies’ Paradise. At first, on seeing his
despairing airs, she had fancied that he was in love with Marguerite,
for Marguerite, being very well-conducted, and sleeping in the house,
was not easy to approach. But great was her astonishment to find that
Colomban’s ardent glances were intended for Clara. For months past he
had been devoured by passion in this way, remaining on the other side
of the street and lacking the courage to declare himself; and this for
a girl who was perfectly free, who lived in the Rue Louis-le-Grand,
and whom he could have spoken to any evening! Clara herself appeared
to have no idea of her conquest. Denise’s discovery filled her with
painful emotion. Was love so idiotic then? What! this fellow, who had
real happiness within his reach, was ruining his life for the sake of
that good-for-nothing girl whom he adored as reverently as if she had
been a saint! From that day forward she felt a heart pang each time she
espied Geneviève’s pale suffering face behind the greeny panes of The
Old Elbeuf.
In the evening, Denise could not help thinking a great deal, on seeing
the young ladies march off with their sweethearts. She was sometimes
obliged to reply by a smile to a friendly nod from Pauline, for whom
Baugé waited regularly every evening at half-past eight, beside the
fountain on the Place Gaillon. Then, after going out the last and
taking a furtive walk, always alone, she was invariably the first
to return, going upstairs to work, or to sleep, her head full of
dreams, inquisitive as to the outdoor life of the others, of which she
knew nothing. She certainly did not envy them, she was happy in her
solitude, in the unsociableness in which she shut herself up, as in a
hiding-place; but all the same her imagination carried her away, she
would try to guess things, picture the pleasures constantly described
before her, the cafés, the restaurants, the theatres, the Sundays spent
on the river and in the country taverns. Quite a weariness of mind, a
desire mingled with lassitude resulted from these imaginings; and she
seemed to have already had her fill of amusements which she had never
However, there was but little room for dangerous dreams in her daily
working life. During the thirteen hours of hard toil in the shop,
there was no time for any display of affection between the salesmen
and the saleswomen. If the continual fight for money had not abolished
all sexual difference, the unceasing press of business which occupied
their minds and fatigued their bodies would have sufficed to stifle
desire. But very few love-affairs had been known in the establishment
amidst the various hostilities and friendships between the men and
the women, the constant elbowing from department to department. They
were all nothing but pieces of mechanism forced to contribute of the
working of the immense machine, abdicating all individuality and simply
contributing their strength to the total, commonplace, phalansterian
power. It was only outside the shop that they resumed their individual
lives, with a sudden flaming of awakened passion.
Denise, however, one day saw Albert Lhomme slip a note into the hand
of a young lady in the under-clothing department, after several times
passing by with an air of indifference. The dead season, which lasts
from December to February, was commencing; and she now had periods of
rest, hours spent on her feet with her eyes wandering all over the
shop whilst waiting for customers. The young ladies of her department
were especially friendly with the salesmen who served the lace, but
their intimacy never seemed to go any further than whispered banter.
In the lace department there was a second-hand, a gay young spark who
pursued Clara with all sorts of suggestive stories, simply by way of
a joke–for he really cared so little for her that he made no effort
to meet her out of doors; and thus it was from counter to counter, the
gentlemen and the young ladies would exchange winks, nods, and remarks,
which they alone understood. At times with their backs half turned and
a dreamy look on their faces in order to put the terrible Bourdoncle
off the scent, they would indulge in some sly gossip. As for Deloche,
he long contented himself with smiling at Denise when he met her; but,
getting bolder, he at last occasionally murmured a friendly word. On
the day she had noticed Madame Aurélie’s son giving a note to the young
lady in the under-linen department, it precisely happened that Deloche
was asking her if she had enjoyed her lunch, feeling a desire to say
something, and unable to think of anything more amiable. He also saw
the billet pass; and as he glanced at the young girl, they both blushed
at thought of this intrigue carried on under their eyes.
But despite all these occurrences which gradually awoke the woman in
her, Denise still retained her infantile peace of mind. The one thing
that stirred her heart was to meet Hutin. But even this was only
gratitude in her eyes; she simply thought herself touched by the young
man’s politeness. He could not bring a customer to the department
without making her feel quite confused. Several times, on returning
from a pay-desk, she found herself making a _détour_, and traversing
the silk hall though she had no business there, her bosom heaving the
while with emotion. One afternoon she met Mouret there and he seemed
to follow her with a smile. He paid scarcely any attention to her now,
only addressing a few words to her from time to time, to give her a few
hints about her toilet, and to joke with her, as an impossible girl, a
little savage, almost a boy, whom he would never manage to transform
into a coquette, notwithstanding all his knowledge of women. Sometimes
indeed he even ventured to laugh at her and tease her, without caring
to acknowledge to himself the troublous feeling, the charm which this
little saleswoman, with such a comical head of hair, inspired in
him. And that afternoon at sight of his mute smile, Denise trembled,
as if she were in fault. Did he know why she was crossing the silk
department, when she could not herself have explained what had impelled
her to make such a _détour_?
Hutin, moreover, did not seem to be at all aware of the young girl’s
grateful looks. The shop-girls were not his style, he affected to
despise them, boasting more than ever of his pretended adventures with
the lady customers.
One day a baroness had beamed on him, he would relate, and on another
occasion he had fascinated the wife of an eminent architect. But as
a matter of fact his only conquests were among girls at cafés and
music-halls. Like all young men in the drapery line, he had a mania for
spending, battling throughout the week with a miser’s greediness, with
the sole object of squandering his money on Sundays on the race-courses
or in the restaurants and dancing-saloons. He never thought of saving
a penny, but spent his salary as soon as he drew it, absolutely
indifferent about the future. Favier did not join him in these pleasure
parties. Hutin and he, so friendly in the shop, bowed to each other
at the door, where all further intercourse between them ceased. A
great many of the shopmen, always side by side indoors, became perfect
strangers, ignorant of each other’s lives, as soon as they set foot in
the streets. However, Hutin, had an intimate–Liénard of the woollen
department. Both lived in the same lodging-house, the Hôtel de Smyrne,
in the Rue Sainte-Anne, a murky building entirely inhabited by shop
assistants. In the morning they arrived at the Paradise together; and
in the evening, the first who found himself free, after the folding
was done, waited for the other at the Café Saint-Roch, in the Rue
Saint-Roch, a little place where many employees of The Ladies’ Paradise
met, brawling, drinking, and playing cards amidst the smoke of their
pipes. They often stopped there till one in the morning, until indeed
the tired landlord turned them out. For the last month, however,
they had been spending three evenings a week at a free-and-easy at
Montmartre; whither they would take their friends in order to fan the
success of Mademoiselle Laure, a music-hall singer, Hutin’s latest
conquest, whose talent they applauded with such violent rapping of
their walking-sticks and such clamorous shouts that on two occasions
the police had been obliged to interfere.
The winter passed in this way, and at last Denise obtained a fixed
salary of three hundred francs a-year. It was quite time she did so for
her shoes were completely worn out. For the last month she had avoided
going out, for fear of bursting them altogether.
“What a noise you make with your shoes, mademoiselle!” Madame Aurélie
very often remarked, with an irritated look. “It’s intolerable. What’s
the matter with your feet?”
On the day when Denise came down wearing a pair of cloth boots,
which had cost her five francs, Marguerite and Clara expressed their
astonishment in a kind of half whisper, so as to be heard. “Hullo! the
unkempt one, has given up her goloshes,” said the former.
“Ah,” retorted the other, “she must have cried over them. They were her
In point of fact, there was a general uprising against Denise. The
girls of her department had discovered her friendship with Pauline, and
thought they detected a certain bravado in this display of affection
for a saleswoman of a rival counter. They spoke of treason, accused her
of going and repeating their slightest words to their enemies. The war
between the two departments became more violent than ever, it had never
waxed so warm; angry words were exchanged like cannon shots, and a slap
even was given one evening behind some boxes of chemises. Possibly this
long-standing quarrel arose from the fact that the young ladies in the
under-linen department wore woollen gowns, whilst those of the mantles
wore silk. In any case, the former spoke of their neighbours with the
shocked air of respectable women; and facts proved that they were
right, for it had been remarked that the silk dresses appeared to lead
to dissolute habits among the young ladies who wore them. Clara was
taunted with her troop of lovers; even Marguerite had her child thrown
in her teeth, as it were; whilst Madame Frédéric was accused of all
sorts of secret passions. And all this solely on account of Denise!
“Now, young ladies, no ugly words; behave yourselves!” Madame Aurélie
would say with her imperial air, amidst the rising passions of her
little kingdom. “Show who you are.”
At heart she preferred to remain neutral. As she confessed one day,
when talking to Mouret, these girls were all about the same, one was
no better than another. But she suddenly became impassioned when she
learnt from Bourdoncle that he had just caught her son downstairs
kissing a young girl belonging to the under-linen department, the
saleswoman to whom he had passed several letters. It was abominable,
and she roundly accused the under-linen department of having laid a
trap for Albert. Yes, it was a got-up affair against herself, they
were trying to dishonour her by ruining an inexperienced boy, after
finding it impossible to attack her department. Her only object however
in making such a noise was to complicate the business, for she was
well aware of her son’s character and knew him to be capable of all
sorts of stupid things. For a time the matter threatened to assume a
serious aspect; Mignot, the glove salesman, was mixed up in it. He
was a great friend of Albert’s, and the rumour circulated that he
favoured the girls whom Albert sent him and who rummaged in his boxes
for hours together. There was also a story about some Suède kid gloves
given to the saleswoman of the under-linen department, which was never
properly cleared up. At last the scandal was stifled out of regard for
Madame Aurélie, whom Mouret himself treated with deference. Bourdoncle
contented himself a week later with dismissing, for some slight
offence, the girl who had allowed herself to be kissed. At all events
if the managers closed their eyes to the terrible doings of their
employees out of doors, they did not tolerate the least nonsense in the
And it was Denise who suffered for all this. Madame Aurélie, although
perfectly well aware of what was going on, nourished a secret rancour
against her; and seeing her laughing one evening with Pauline she also
took it for bravado, concluding that they were gossiping over her son’s
love-affairs. And she thereupon sought to increase the girl’s isolation
in the department. For some time she had been thinking of inviting the
young ladies to spend a Sunday at Les Rigolles near Rambouillet where
she had bought a country house with the first hundred thousand francs
she had saved; and she suddenly decided to do so; it would be a means
of punishing Denise, of putting her openly on one side. She was the
only one not invited. For a fortnight in advance, nothing was talked of
but this pleasure party; the girls kept their eyes on the sky already
warmed by the May sunshine, and mapped out the whole day, looking
forward to all sorts of pleasures: donkey-riding, milk and brown bread.
And they were to be all women, which was more amusing still! As a rule,
Madame Aurélie killed her holidays like this, in going out with lady
friends; for she was so little accustomed to being at home, she always
felt so uncomfortable, so out of her element on the rare occasions
when she could dine with her husband and son, that she preferred
even not to avail herself of the opportunity but to go and dine at a
restaurant. Lhomme went his own way, enraptured to resume his bachelor
existence, and Albert, greatly relieved, hastened off to his beauties;
so that, unaccustomed to home-life, feeling they were in each other’s
way, bored to death whenever they were together on a Sunday, they paid
nothing more than flying visits to the house, as to some common hotel
where people take a bed for the night. With respect to the excursion
to Rambouillet, Madame Aurélie simply declared that considerations of
propriety would not allow Albert to join them, and that the father
himself would display great tact by refusing to come; a declaration
which enchanted both men. However, the happy day was drawing near, and
the girls chattered away more than ever, relating their preparations
in the way of dress, just as if they were going on a six months’ tour,
whilst Denise had to listen to them, pale and silent in her abandonment.
“Ah, they make you wild, don’t they?” said Pauline to her one morning.
“If I were you I would just catch them nicely! They are going to enjoy
themselves. I would enjoy myself too. Come with us on Sunday, Baugé is
going to take me to Joinville.”
“No, thanks,” said the girl with her quiet obstinacy.
“But why not? Are you still afraid of being made love to?”
And thereupon Pauline laughed heartily. Denise also smiled. She
knew how such things came about; it was always during some similar
excursions that the young ladies had made the acquaintance of their
“Come,” resumed Pauline, “I assure you that Baugé won’t bring any one.
We shall be all by ourselves. As you don’t want me to, I won’t go and
marry you off, of course.”
Denise hesitated, tormented by such a strong desire to go that the
blood rushed to her cheeks. Since the girls had been talking about
their country pleasures she had felt stifled, overcome by a longing
for fresh air, dreaming of tall grass into which she might sink to the
neck, and of giant trees whose shadows would flow over her like so
much cooling water. Her childhood, spent amidst the rich verdure of Le
Cotentin, was awakening with a regret for sun and air.
“Well! yes,” said she at last.
Then everything was soon arranged. Baugé was to come and fetch them at
eight o’clock, on the Place Gaillon; whence they would take a cab to
the Vincennes Station. Denise, whose twenty-five francs a month was
quickly exhausted by the children, had only been able to do up her old
black woollen dress by trimming it with some strips of check poplin;
but she had made herself a bonnet, by covering a shape with some silk
and ornamenting it with blue ribbon. In this quiet attire she looked
very young, like an overgrown girl, displaying all the cleanliness
of careful poverty, and somewhat shamefaced, and embarrassed by her
luxuriant hair, which waved round the bareness of her bonnet. Pauline,
on the contrary, displayed a pretty spring costume in silk, striped
white and violet, a feathered bonnet, with bows matching the dress,
and jewels about her neck and rings on her fingers, which gave her
the appearance of a well-to-do tradesman’s wife. It was like a Sunday
revenge on the woollen gown which she was obliged to wear throughout
the week in the shop; whereas Denise, who wore her uniform silk from
Monday to Saturday, resumed, on Sundays, her thin woollen dress of
poverty-stricken aspect.
“There’s Baugé,” said Pauline, pointing to a tall young man standing
near the fountain.
And thereupon she introduced her lover, and Denise felt at her ease
at once, he seemed such a nice fellow. Big, and strong as an ox, with
a long Flemish face, in which his expressionless eyes twinkled with
infantile puerility, Baugé was the younger son of a grocer of Dunkerque
and had come to Paris, almost driven from home by his father and
brother, who thought him a fearful dunce. However, he now made three
thousand five hundred francs a year at the Bon Marché. Certainly in
some things he was rather stupid, but he proved a very good hand in the
linen department.
“And the cab?” asked Pauline.
They had to go on foot as far as the Boulevard. The sun was already
warming the streets and the glorious May morning seemed to be smiling
on the pavements. There was not a cloud in the sky; all was gay in the
blue air, transparent as crystal. An involuntary smile played about
Denise’s lips; she breathed freely; it seemed to her that her bosom
was throwing off a stifling fit of six months duration. At last she no
longer felt the stuffy air and the heavy stones of The Ladies’ Paradise
weighing her down! She had the prospect of a long day in the country
before her! and it was like a new lease of life, an infinite delight,
into which she entered with all the glee of a little child. However,
when they were in the cab, she turned her eyes away, feeling ill at
ease as Pauline bent over to kiss her lover.
“Oh, look!” said she, her head still at the window, “there’s Monsieur
Lhomme. How he does walk!”
“He’s got his French horn,” added Pauline, leaning out. “What an old
fool he is! One would think he was running off to meet his girl!”
Lhomme, with his nose in the air, and his instrument under his arm,
was spinning along past the Gymnase Theatre, laughing with delight at
the thought of the treat in store for him. He was about to spend the
day with a friend, a flautist at a petty theatre, in whose rooms a
few amateurs indulged in a little chamber-music on Sundays as soon as
breakfast was over.
“At eight o’clock! what a madman!” resumed Pauline. “And you know that
Madame Aurélie and her clique must have taken the Rambouillet train
that left at half-past six. It’s very certain the husband and wife
won’t come across each other to-day.”
Both then began talking of the Rambouillet excursion. They did not
wish it to be rainy for the others, because they themselves might
suffer as well; still, if a cloud could only burst over there without
a drop falling at Joinville, it would be funny all the same. Then they
attacked Clara, who hardly knew how to spend the money she made by her
vices. Hadn’t she bought three pairs of boots all at the same time, and
thrown them away the next day, after slashing them with her scissors,
on account of her feet, which were covered with corns? In fact, the
young ladies were just as bad as the young men, they squandered
everything, never saving a sou, but wasting two or three hundred francs
a month on dress and dainties.
“But he’s only got one arm,” all of a sudden said Baugé, who had kept
his eyes on Lhomme. “How does he manage to play the French horn?”
Pauline, who sometimes amused herself by playing on her lover’s
stupidity, thereupon told him that the cashier kept the instrument up
by leaning it against a wall. He thoroughly believed her, and thought
it very ingenious. And when, stricken with remorse, she explained to
him that Lhomme had adapted to his stump a system of claws which he
made use of as fingers, he shook his head, full of doubt and declaring
that they wouldn’t make him swallow that.

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“You are really too stupid!” she retorted, laughing. “Never mind, I
love you all the same.”
They reached the station of the Vincennes line just in time for a
train. Baugé paid; but Denise had previously declared that she wished
to defray her share of the expenses; they would settle up in the
evening. They took second-class tickets, and found the train full
of a gay, noisy throng. At Nogent, a wedding-party got out, amidst
a storm of laughter. Then, at last they arrived at Joinville, and
went straight to the island to order lunch; and afterwards lingered
there, strolling along, under the tall poplars beside the Marne.
It was rather cold in the shade, a sharp breeze was blowing in the
sunshine, gathering strength as it swept from the distance over a
plain dotted with cultivated fields, on the other side of the river.
Denise lingered behind Pauline and her lover, who walked along with
their arms round each other’s waists. She had picked a handful of
buttercups, and was watching the flow of the river, happy, but her
heart beating and her head drooping, each time that Baugé leant over
to kiss his sweetheart. Her eyes filled with tears. And yet she was
not suffering. What could be the matter with her that she experienced
this feeling of suffocation? Why did this vast landscape, amidst which
she had looked forward to so much enjoyment, fill her with a vague
regret that she could not explain? However, at lunch, Pauline’s noisy
laughter bewildered her. That young woman, who loved the suburbs
with the passion of an actress living in the gas-light, in the heavy
atmosphere of a crowd, wanted to lunch in an arbour, notwithstanding
the sharp wind. She made merry over the sudden gusts which blew up the
table-cloth, and thought the arbour very funny in its bareness, with
its freshly-painted trellis-work which cast a reflection on the cloth.
She ate ravenously, devouring everything with the voracity of one who,
being badly fed at the shop, made up for it out of doors by giving
herself an indigestion of all the things she liked. This was indeed her
vice, she spent most of her money on cakes and indigestible dainties,
tit-bits of all kinds, which she hastily nibbled in leisure moments.
Now, however, as Denise seemed to have had enough with the eggs, fried
fish, and stewed chicken, she restrained herself, not daring to order
any strawberries which were still very dear, for fear of running the
bill up too high.
“Now, what are we going to do?” asked Baugé, when the coffee was served.
As a rule Pauline and he returned to Paris to dine, and finish their
outing in some theatre. But at Denise’s request, they decided to
remain at Joinville all day: it would be droll, they would take a fill
of the country. So they wandered about the fields all the afternoon.
They spoke for a moment of going for a row, but abandoned the idea
as Baugé was not a good waterman. However, their strolls along the
pathways ended by bringing them back to the banks of the Marne, all
the same, and they became interested in all the river life, the
squadrons of yawls and skiffs, and the young men who formed the crews.
The sun was setting and they were returning towards Joinville, when
they saw two boats coming down stream at a racing speed, their crews
meantime exchanging volleys of insults, in which the repeated cries of
“Sawbones!” and “Counter-jumpers!” predominated.
“Hallo!” said Pauline, “it’s Monsieur Hutin.”
“Yes,” replied Baugé, shading his face with his hand, “I recognise his
mahogany boat. The other one is manned by students, no doubt.”
Thereupon he explained the deadly hatred existing between the students
and the shopmen. Denise, on hearing Hutin’s name mentioned, had
suddenly stopped, and with fixed eyes followed the frail skiff. She
tried to distinguish the young man among the rowers, but could only
manage to make out the white dresses of two women, one of whom, who was
steering, wore a red hat. Then the voices of the disputants died away
amidst the loud flow of the river.
“Pitch ’em in, the sawbones!”
“Duck ’em, the counter-jumpers!”
In the evening they returned to the restaurant on the island. But it
had turned very chilly and they were obliged to dine in one of the
closed rooms, where the table-cloths were still damp from the humidity
of winter. At six o’clock the tables were already crowded, yet the
excursionists still hurried in, looking for vacant corners; and the
waiters continued bringing in more chairs and forms, putting the plates
closer and closer together and crowding the people up. Cold as it had
been before, the atmosphere now became stifling and they had to open
the windows. Out of doors, the day was waning, a greenish twilight fell
from the poplars so quickly that the landlord, unprepared for these
repasts under cover, and having no lamps, was obliged to put a candle
on each table. What with the laughter, the calls and the clatter of
plates and dishes the uproar became deafening; the candles flared and
guttered in the draught from the open windows, whilst moths fluttered
about in the air warmed by the odour of the food, and traversed by
sudden cold gusts of wind.
“What fun they’re having, eh?” said Pauline, very busy with a plate of
stewed eels, which she declared extraordinary. And she leant over to
add: “Didn’t you see Monsieur Albert over there?”
It was really young Lhomme, in the midst of three questionable women.
Already intoxicated, he was knocking his glass on the table, and
talking of drubbing the waiter if he did not bring some _liqueurs_
“Well!” resumed Pauline, “there’s a family for you! the mother is at
Rambouillet, the father in Paris, and the son at Joinville; they won’t
tread on one another’s toes to-day!”
Denise, though she detested noise, was smiling and tasting the delight
of being unable to think, amid such uproar. But all at once they heard
a commotion in the other room, a burst of voices which drowned all
others. Men were yelling, and must have come to blows, for one could
hear a scuffle, chairs falling, quite a struggle indeed, amid which the
river-cries again resounded:
“Duck ’em, the counter-jumpers!”
“Pitch ’em in, the sawbones!”
And when the landlord’s loud voice had calmed this tempest, Hutin,
wearing a red jersey, and with a little cap at the back of his head,
suddenly made his appearance, having on his arm the tall, fair girl,
who had been steering his boat and who by way of wearing the crew’s
colours, had planted a bunch of poppies behind her ear. Clamorous
applause greeted their entry; and Hutin, his face beaming with pride
at thus being remarked, threw his chest forward and assumed a nautical
rolling gait, displaying the while a bruised cheek, quite blue from a
blow he had received. Behind him and his companion followed the crew.
They took a table by storm, and the uproar became deafening.
“It appears,” explained Baugé, after listening to the conversation
behind him, “it appears that the students recognised the woman with
Hutin as an old friend from their neighbourhood, who now sings in a
music-hall at Montmartre. So they were kicking up a row about her.”
“In any case,” said Pauline, stiffly, “she’s precious ugly, with her
carroty hair. Really, I don’t know where Monsieur Hutin picks them up,
but they’re an ugly, dirty lot.”
Denise had turned pale, and felt an icy coldness, as if her heart’s
blood were flowing away, drop by drop. Already, on seeing the boats
from the bank she had felt a shiver; but now she no longer had any
doubt at seeing that girl with Hutin. With trembling hands, and a
choking sensation in her throat, she suddenly ceased to eat.
“What’s the matter?” asked her friend.
“Nothing,” she stammered, “but it’s rather warm here.”
However Hutin’s table was close to theirs, and when Hutin perceived
Baugé, whom he knew, he commenced a conversation in a shrill voice, in
order to attract further attention.
“I say,” he cried, “are you as virtuous as ever at the Bon Marché?”
“Not so much as all that,” replied Baugé, turning very red.
“That won’t do! You know there’s a confessional box at your place for
the salesmen who venture to look at the young ladies there. No, no! A
house where they insist on their employees marrying, that won’t do for
The other fellows began to laugh, and Liénard who was one of Hutin’s
crew added some jocular remark about the Louvre establishment at which
Pauline herself burst into a merry peal.
Baugé, however, was annoyed by the joke about the staid propriety and
innocence of his establishment, and all at once he retorted: “Oh, you
needn’t talk, you are not so well off at The Ladies’ Paradise. Sacked
for the slightest thing! And a governor too who is always smirking
round his lady customers.”
Hutin no longer listened to him, but began to praise the Place Clichy
establishment. He knew a girl there who was so inexpressibly dignified
that customers dared not speak to her for fear of humiliating her.
Then, drawing up closer, he related that he had made a hundred and
fifteen francs that week; oh! a capital week. Favier had been left
behind with merely fifty-two francs, in fact the whole lot had been
floored. And it could be seen that he was telling the truth. He was
squandering his cash as fast as possible and did not mean to go to bed
till he had rid himself of the hundred and fifteen francs. Then, as he
gradually became intoxicated, he fell foul of Robineau, that fool of a
second-hand who affected to keep himself apart, to such a point that he
refused to walk down the street with one of his salesmen.
“Shut up,” said Liénard; “you talk too much, old man.”
The heat had yet increased, the candles were guttering down on to the
wine-stained table-cloths; and through the open windows, whenever the
noise within ceased for an instant, there came a distant prolonged
murmur, the voice of the river, and of the lofty poplars falling asleep
in the calm night. Baugé had just called for the bill, seeing that
Denise was no better; indeed she was now quite white, choking from the
tears she withheld; however, the waiter did not appear, and she had to
submit to more of Hutin’s loud talk. He was now boasting of being much
superior to Liénard, because Liénard simply squandered his father’s
money, whereas he, Hutin, spent his own earnings, the fruit of his
intelligence. At last Baugé paid, and the two girls went out.
Denise heaved a sigh of relief. For a moment she had thought she was
going to die in that suffocating heat, amidst all those cries; and she
still attributed her faintness to want of air. At present she could
breathe freely in the freshness of the starry night.
As the two young women were leaving the garden of the restaurant, a
timid voice murmured in the shade: “Good evening, ladies.”
It was Deloche. They had not seen him at the further end of the front
room, where he had been dining alone, after coming from Paris on foot,
for the pleasure of the walk. On recognising his friendly voice,
Denise, suffering as she was, yielded mechanically to the need of some
“Monsieur Deloche,” said she, “are you coming back with us? Give me
your arm.”
Pauline and Baugé had already gone on in front. They were astonished,
never thinking it would turn out like that, and with that fellow above
all. However, as there was still an hour before the train started,
they went to the end of the island, following the bank, under the tall
poplars; and, from time to time, they turned round, murmuring: “But
where have they got to? Ah, there they are. It’s rather funny, all the
At first Denise and Deloche remained silent. The uproar from the
restaurant was slowly dying away, changing into a musical sweetness
in the calmness of the night; and still feverish from that furnace,
whose lights were disappearing one by one behind the foliage, they
went further in amidst the coolness of the trees. Opposite them there
was a sort of shadowy wall, a mass of shadow so dense that they could
not even distinguish any trace of the path. However, they went forward
quietly, without fear. Then, their eyes getting more accustomed to the
darkness, they saw on the right hand the trunks of the poplar trees,
resembling sombre columns upholding the domes of their branches,
between which gleamed the stars; whilst the water occasionally shone
like a mirror. The wind was falling and they no longer heard anything
but the loud flow of the stream.
“I am very pleased to have met you,” stammered Deloche at last, making
up his mind to speak first. “You can’t think how happy you render me in
consenting to walk with me.”
And, aided by the darkness, after many awkward attempts, he ventured to
tell her that he loved her. He had long wanted to write to her and tell
her so; but perhaps she would never have known it had it not been for
that lovely night coming to his assistance, that water which murmured
so softly, and those trees which screened them with their shade.
However, she did not reply; she continued to walk by his side with the
same suffering air. And he was trying to gaze into her face, when all
at once he heard a sob.
“Oh! good heavens!” he exclaimed, “you are crying, mademoiselle, you
are crying! Have I offended you?”
“No, no,” she murmured.
She strove to keep back her tears, but could not do so. Even whilst she
was at table, she had thought that her heart was about to burst. And
now in the darkness she surrendered herself to her sensibility, stifled
by her sobs and thinking that if Hutin had been in Deloche’s place and
had said such tender things to her, she would have been unable to say
nay. But this self-confession suddenly filled her with confusion, and a
burning flush of shame suffused her face.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” continued Deloche, almost crying also.
“No, but listen,” she replied, her voice still trembling; “I am not at
all angry with you. But never speak to me again as you have just done.
Oh! you’re a good fellow, and I’m quite willing to be your friend, but
nothing more. You understand–your friend.”
He quivered, and after a few steps taken in silence, he stammered: “In
fact, you don’t love me?”
And then as she spared him the pain of a brutal “no,” he resumed in a
soft, heart-broken voice: “Oh, I was prepared for it. I have never had
any luck, I know I can never be happy. At home, they used to beat me.
In Paris, I’ve always been a drudge. You see, when a chap doesn’t know
how to rob other fellows of their sweethearts, and is too awkward to
earn as much as the others, why the best thing he can do is to go into
some corner and die. Never fear, I shan’t torment you any more. As for
loving you, you can’t prevent me, can you? I shall love you like a dog.
There, everything escapes me, that’s my luck in life.”
And then he, too, burst into tears. She tried to console him, and in
their friendly effusion they found they belonged to the same part
of the country–she to Valognes, he to Briquebec, eight miles from
each other, and this proved a fresh tie. His father, a poor, needy
process-server, sickly jealous, had been wont to drub him, exasperated
by his long pale face and tow-like hair, which, said he, did not belong
to the family. Then they got to talking of the vast Cotentin pastures,
surrounded with quick-set hedges, of the shady paths and lanes winding
beneath elm trees, and of the grass grown roads, like alleys in a park.
Around them the night was yet paling and they could distinguish the
rushes on the banks, and the lacework of the foliage, black against the
twinkling stars; and a peacefulness came over them, they forgot their
troubles, brought closer together, to a cordial feeling of friendship,
by their ill-luck.
“Well?” asked Pauline of Denise, taking her aside when they reached the
The young girl, who understood her friend’s meaning by her smile and
stare of tender curiosity, turned very red and answered: “Oh! no,
my dear. Remember what I told you. But he belongs to my part of the
country. We were talking about Valognes.”
Pauline and Baugé were perplexed, put out in their ideas, not knowing
what to think. Deloche left them on the Place de la Bastille; like
all young probationers, he slept in the house, and had to be back by
eleven o’clock. Not wishing to go in with him, Denise, who had obtained
what was called “theatre leave” which allowed her to remain out till
past midnight, accepted Baugé’s invitation to accompany Pauline to his
home in the Rue Saint-Roch. They took a cab, and on the way Denise was
stupefied to learn that her friend would not return to The Paradise
till the morrow, having squared matters with Madame Cabin by giving
her a five-franc piece. Baugé, who did the honours of his room, which
was furnished with some old Empire furniture, given him by his father,
got angry when Denise spoke of settling up, but at last accepted the
fifteen francs twelve sous which she had laid on the chest of drawers;
however, he insisted on making her a cup of tea, and after struggling
with a spirit-lamp and saucepan, was obliged to go and fetch some
sugar. Midnight struck as he was pouring out the tea.
“I must be off,” said Denise.
“Presently,” replied Pauline. “The theatres don’t close so early.”
Denise however felt uncomfortable in that bachelor’s room and a quarter
of an hour later she contrived to slip away.
The private door which conducted to Mouret’s apartments and to the
assistants’ bedrooms was in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin. Madame Cabin
opened it by pulling a string and then gave a glance in order to see
who was returning. A night-light was burning dimly in the hall, and
Denise on finding herself in this uncertain glimmer, hesitated, and
was seized with fear, for a moment previously, on turning the corner
of the street, she had seen the door close on the shadowy figure of a
man. It must have been the governor coming home from a party; and the
idea that he was there in the dark possibly waiting for her, caused
her one of those strange fears with which he still inspired her,
without any reasonable cause. Some one was certainly moving about on
the first-floor, for she heard a creaking of boots, whereupon quite
losing her head, she opened a door which led into the shop, and which
was always left unlocked for the night-watch to make his rounds. On
entering she found herself in the printed cotton department.
“Good heavens! what shall I do?” she stammered, in her emotion.
Then the idea occurred to her that there was another door upstairs
leading to the bedrooms; but to reach it she would have to go right
across the shop. She preferred this, however, notwithstanding the
darkness reigning in the galleries. Not a gas-jet was burning there;
only a few lighted oil-lamps hung here and there from the branches
of the chandeliers; and these scattered lights, like yellow specks
fading away in the gloom, resembled the lanterns hung up in mines. Big
shadows loomed before her; she could hardly distinguish the piles of
goods, which assumed all sorts of threatening aspects–now they looked
like fallen columns, now like squatting beasts, and now like lurking
thieves. The heavy silence, broken by distant breathing, moreover
increased the darkness. However, she found her way. From the linen
department on her left came a paler gleam, bluey, like a house front
under a summer sky at night; then she wished to cross the central hall,
but on running up against some piles of printed calico, she thought it
safer to traverse the hosiery department, and then the woollen one.
There she was frightened by a loud noise of snoring. It was Joseph, the
messenger, sleeping behind some mourning articles. She then quickly
ran into the hall where the skylight cast a sort of crepuscular light,
which made it appear larger, and, with its motionless shelves, and
the shadows of its yard-measures describing reversed crosses, lent it
the awe-inspiring aspect of a church at night. And she, indeed full
of fear, now fairly fled. In the mercery and glove departments she
nearly trod on some more assistants, and only felt safe when she at
last found herself on the staircase. But up above, just outside the
mantle department, she was again seized with terror on perceiving a
lantern twinkling in the darkness and moving forward. It was the patrol
of two firemen, marking their passage on the faces of the indicators.
She stood still for a moment failing to understand their business, and
watched them passing from among the shawls to the furniture, and then
on to the under-linen department, terrified the while by their strange
manœuvres, by the grating of their keys and the closing of the iron
doors which shut with a resounding clang. When they approached, she
took refuge in the lace department, but suddenly heard herself called
by name and thereupon ran off to the door conducting to the private
stairs. She had recognised Deloche’s voice. He slept in his department,
on a little iron bedstead which he set up himself every evening; and
he was not asleep yet, but with open eyes was rememorating aloud the
pleasant hours he had spent that evening.
“What! it’s you, mademoiselle?” said Mouret, whom Denise despite
all her manœuvring found before her on the staircase, a small
pocket-candleholder in his hand.
She stammered, and tried to explain that she had been to look for
something. But he was not angry. He gazed at her with his paternal, and
at the same time inquisitive, air.
“You had permission to go to the theatre, then?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And have you enjoyed yourself? What theatre did you go to?”
“I have been in the country, sir.”
This made him laugh. Then laying a certain stress on his words, he
added: “All alone?”
“No, sir; with a lady friend,” she replied, her cheeks burning, shocked
as she was by the suspicion which his words implied.
He said no more; but he was still looking at her in her simple black
dress and bonnet trimmed with a strip of blue ribbon. Was this little
savage going to turn out a pretty girl? She looked all the better for
her day in the open air, quite charming indeed with her splendid hair
waving over her forehead. And he, who during the last six months had
treated her like a child, sometimes giving her advice, yielding to a
desire to inform himself, to a wicked wish to know how a woman grew up
and became lost in Paris, no longer laughed, but experienced a feeling
of surprise and fear mingled with tenderness. No doubt it was a lover
who was improving her like this. At this thought he felt as if pecked
to the heart by a favourite bird, with which he had been playing.
“Good night, sir,” murmured Denise, continuing on her way without
He did not answer, but remained watching her till she had disappeared.
And then he entered his own apartments.