This was the first time he had seen her so completely conquered

Every Saturday, between four and six, Madame Desforges offered a cup
of tea and a few sweet biscuits to those friends who were kind enough
to visit her. She occupied the third floor of a house at the corner
of the Rue de Rivoli and the Rue d’Alger; and the windows of her two
drawing-rooms overlooked the gardens of the Tuileries.
That Saturday, just as a footman was about to introduce him into the
principal drawing-room, Mouret from the anteroom perceived, through
an open doorway, Madame Desforges crossing the smaller salon. She
stopped on seeing him, and he went in that way, bowing to her with a
ceremonious air. But when the footman had closed the door, he quickly
caught hold of the young woman’s hand, and tenderly kissed it.
“Take care, I have company!” she remarked, in a low voice, glancing
towards the door of the larger room. “I’ve just come to fetch this fan
to show them,” and so saying she playfully tapped him on the face with
the tip of the fan she held. She was dark and inclined to stoutness,
and had big jealous eyes.
However, he still held her hand and inquired: “Will he come?”
“Certainly,” she replied: “I have his promise.”
They both referred to Baron Hartmann, the director of the Crédit
Immobilier. Madame Desforges, daughter of a Councillor of State, was
the widow of a speculator, who had left her a fortune, underrated
to the point of nothingness by some and greatly over-estimated by
others. During her husband’s lifetime she had already known Baron
Hartmann, whose financial tips had proved very useful to them; and
later on, after her husband’s death, the connection had been kept up
in a discreet fashion; for she never courted notoriety in any way,
and was received everywhere in the upper-middle class to which she
belonged. Even now too when she had other lovers–the passion of the
banker, a sceptical, crafty man, having subsided into a mere paternal
affection–she displayed such delicate reserve and tact, such adroit
knowledge of the world that appearances were saved, and no one would
have ventured to openly express any doubt of her conduct. Having met
Mouret at a mutual friend’s she had at first detested him; but had
been carried away by the violent love which he professed for her, and
since he had begun manœuvring to approach Baron Hartmann through her,
she had gradually got to love him with real and profound tenderness,
adoring him with all the violence of a woman of thirty-five, who only
acknowledged the age of twenty-nine, and distressed at feeling him
younger than herself, which made her tremble lest she should lose him.
“Does he know about it?” he resumed.
“No, you’ll explain the affair to him yourself,” was her reply.
Meantime she looked at him, reflecting that he couldn’t know anything
or he would not employ her in this way with the baron, whom he appeared
to consider simply as an old friend of hers. However, Mouret still held
her hand and called her his good Henriette, at which she felt her heart
melting. Then silently she presented her lips, pressed them to his, and
whispered: “Remember they’re waiting for me. Come in behind me.”
A murmur of voices, deadened by the heavy hangings, came from the
principal drawing-room. Madame Desforges went in, leaving the folding
doors open behind her, and handed the fan to one of the four ladies who
were seated in the middle of the room.
“There it is,” said she; “I didn’t know exactly where it was. My maid
would never have found it.” And turning round she added in her cheerful
way: “Come in, Monsieur Mouret, come through the little drawing-room;
it will be less solemn.”
Mouret bowed to the ladies, whom he knew. The drawing-room, with its
Louis XVI. furniture upholstered in flowered brocatel, its gilded
bronzes and large green plants, had a pleasant, cozy, feminine aspect,
albeit the ceiling was so lofty; and through the two windows could be
seen the chestnut trees of the Tuileries Gardens, whose leaves were
blowing about in the October wind.
“But this Chantilly isn’t at all bad!” exclaimed Madam Bourdelais, who
had taken the fan.
She was a short fair woman of thirty, with a delicate nose and
sparkling eyes. A former school-fellow of Henriette’s, married to
a chief clerk at the Ministry of Finances, and belonging to an old
middle-class family, she managed her household and three children with
rare activity, good grace, and exquisite knowledge of practical life.
“And you paid twenty-five francs for it?” she resumed, examining each
mesh of the lace. “At Luc, I think you said, to a country-woman? No, it
isn’t dear; still you had to get it mounted, hadn’t you?”
“Of course,” replied Madame Desforges. “The mounting cost me two
hundred francs.”
Madame Bourdelais began to laugh. And that was what Henriette called a
bargain! Two hundred francs for a plain ivory mount, with a monogram!
And that for a mere piece of Chantilly, over which she had perhaps
saved five francs. Similar fans could be had, ready mounted, for a
hundred and twenty francs, and she named a shop in the Rue Poissonnière
where she had seen them.
However, the fan was handed round to all the ladies. Madame Guibal
barely glanced at it. She was a tall, slim woman, with red hair, and
a face full of indifference, in which her grey eyes, belying her
unconcerned air, occasionally cast a hungry gleam of selfishness. She
was never seen out with her husband, a barrister well-known at the
Palais de Justice, who led, it was said, a pretty free life between his
briefs and his pleasures.
“Oh,” she murmured, passing the fan to Madame de Boves, “I’ve scarcely
bought one in my life. One always receives too many of such things.”
“You are fortunate, my dear, in having a gallant husband,” answered the
countess in a tone of delicate irony. And bending over to her daughter,
a tall girl of twenty, she added: “Just look at the monogram, Blanche.
What pretty work! It’s the monogram that must have increased the price
of the mounting like that.”
Madame de Boves had just turned forty. She was a superb woman, with the
neck and shoulders of a goddess, a large regular face, and big sleepy
eyes. Her husband, an Inspector-General of the State Studs, had married
her for her beauty. She appeared quite moved by the delicacy of the
monogram, seized indeed by a desire which so stirred her as to make her
turn pale; and suddenly turning she continued: “Give us your opinion,
Monsieur Mouret. Is it too dear–two hundred francs for this mount?”
Mouret had remained standing among the five women, smiling and
affecting an interest in what interested them. He took the fan,
examined it, and was about to give his opinion, when the footman opened
the door and announced:
“Madame Marty.”
There then entered a thin, ugly woman, disfigured by small-pox but
dressed with elaborate elegance. She seemed of uncertain age, her
five-and-thirty years sometimes appearing equal to thirty, and
sometimes to forty, according to the intensity of the nervous fever
which so often agitated her. A red leather bag, which she had not been
willing to leave in the anteroom, hung from her right hand.
“Dear madame,” said she to Henriette, “you will excuse me bringing
my bag. Just fancy, as I was coming, along I went into The Paradise,
and as I have again been very extravagant, I did not like to leave
it in my cab for fear of being robbed.” Then, having perceived
Mouret, she resumed laughing: “Ah! sir, I didn’t mean to give you an
advertisement, for I didn’t know you were here. But you really have
some extraordinarily fine lace just now.”
This turned the attention from the fan, which the young man laid on
the table. The ladies were now all anxious to see what Madame Marty
had bought. She was known to be very extravagant, totally unable to
resist certain temptations. Strict in her conduct, incapable of any
sexual transgression she proved weak and cowardly before the least
bit of finery. Daughter of a clerk of small means, she was ruining
her husband, the fifth-class professor at the Lycée Bonaparte, who in
order to meet the constantly increasing expenses of the household was
compelled to double his income of six thousand francs by giving private
lessons. However, she did not open her bag, but held it tightly on her
lap, and began to talk about her daughter Valentine, a girl of fourteen
whom she dressed like herself, in all the fashionable novelties to
whose irresistible fascination she succumbed.
“You know,” said she, “they are making girls’ dresses trimmed with
narrow lace this winter. So when I saw a very pretty Valenciennes—-”
Thereupon she at last decided to open her bag; and the ladies were
craning their necks, when, amidst the silence, the door-bell was heard.
“It’s my husband,” stammered Madame Marty, in great confusion. “He
promised to call for me on leaving the Lycée Bonaparte.”
Forthwith she shut her bag again, and instinctively hid it away under
her chair. All the ladies set up a laugh. This made her blush for her
precipitation, and she took the bag on her knees again, explaining,
however, that men never understood matters and that they need not know
“Monsieur de Boves, Monsieur de Vallagnosc,” announced the footman.
It was quite a surprise. Madame de Boves herself did not expect her
husband. The latter, a fine man, wearing a moustache and an imperial
in the correct military fashion so much liked at the Tuileries, kissed
the hand of Madame Desforges, whom he had known as a young girl at her
father’s. And then he made way so that his companion, a tall, pale
fellow, of an aristocratic poverty of blood, might in his turn make his
bow to the lady of the house. However, the conversation had hardly been
resumed when two exclamations rang out.
“What! Is that you, Paul?”
“Why, Octave!”
Mouret and Vallagnosc thereupon shook hands, much to Madame Desforges’s
surprise. They knew each other, then? Of course, they had grown up side
by side at the college at Plassans, and it was quite by chance they had
not met at her house before. However, jesting together and with their
hands still united they stepped into the little drawing-room, just as
the servant brought in the tea, a china service on a silver waiter,
which he placed near Madame Desforges, on a small round marble table
with a light brass mounting. The ladies drew up and began talking in
louder tones, raising a cross-fire of endless chatter; whilst Monsieur
de Boves, standing behind them leant over every now and then to put
in a word or two with the gallantry of a handsome functionary. The
spacious room, so prettily and cheerfully furnished, became merrier
still with these gossiping voices interspersed with laughter.
“Ah! Paul, old boy,” repeated Mouret.
He was seated near Vallagnosc, on a sofa. And alone in the little
drawing-room–which looked very coquettish with its hangings of
buttercup silk–out of hearing of the ladies, and not even seeing them,
except through the open doorway, the two old friends commenced grinning
whilst they scrutinized each other and exchanged slaps on the knees.
Their whole youthful career was recalled, the old college at Plassans,
with its two courtyards, its damp class-rooms, and the dining-hall in
which they had consumed so much cod-fish, and the dormitories where the
pillows flew from bed to bed as soon as the monitor began to snore.
Paul, who belonged to an old parliamentary family, noble, poor, and
proud, had proved a good scholar, always at the top of his class and
continually held up as an example by the master, who prophesied a
brilliant future for him; whereas Octave had remained at the bottom,
amongst the dunces, but nevertheless fat and jolly, indulging in all
sorts of pleasures outside. Notwithstanding the difference in their
characters, a fast friendship had rendered them inseparable until they
were examined for their bachelor’s degrees, which they took, the one
with honours, the other in just a passable manner after two vexatious
rebuffs. Then they went out into the world, each on his own side, and
had now met again, after the lapse of ten years, already changed and
looking older.
“Well,” asked Mouret, “what’s become of you?”
“Nothing at all,” replied the other.
Vallagnosc indeed, despite the pleasure of this meeting, retained a
tired and disenchanted air; and as his friend, somewhat astonished,
insisted, saying: “But you must do something. What do you do?” he
merely replied: “Nothing.”
Octave began to laugh. Nothing! that wasn’t enough. Little by little,
however, he succeeded in learning Paul’s story. It was the usual story
of penniless young men, who think themselves obliged by their birth
to choose a liberal profession and bury themselves in a sort of vain
mediocrity, happy even when they escape starvation, notwithstanding
their numerous degrees. For his part he had studied law by a sort of
family tradition; and had then remained a burden on his widowed mother,
who already hardly knew how to dispose of her two daughters. Having at
last got quite ashamed of his position he had left the three women to
vegetate on the remnants of their fortune, and had accepted a petty
appointment at the Ministry of the Interior, where he buried himself
like a mole in his hole.
“What do you get there?” resumed Mouret.
“Three thousand francs.”
“But that’s pitiful pay! Ah! old man, I’m really sorry for you. What! a
clever fellow like you, who floored all of us! And they only give you
three thousand francs a year, after having already ground you down for
five years! No, it isn’t right!” He paused and then thinking of his own
good fortune resumed: “As for me, I made them a humble bow long ago.
You know what I’m doing?”
“Yes,” said Vallagnosc, “I heard you were in business. You’ve got that
big place on the Place Gaillon, haven’t you?”
“That’s it. Counter-jumper, my boy!”
Mouret raised his head, again slapped his friend on the knee, and
repeated, with the sterling gaiety of a man who did not blush for the
trade by which he was making his fortune:
“Counter-jumper, and no mistake! You remember, no doubt, I didn’t
nibble much at their baits, although at heart I never thought myself
a bigger fool than the others. When I took my degree, just to please
the family, I could have become a barrister or a doctor quite as
easily as any of my school-fellows, but those trades frightened me,
for one sees so many chaps starving at them. So I just threw the ass’s
skin away–oh! without the least regret and plunged head-first into
Vallagnosc smiled with an awkward air, and ultimately muttered: “It’s
quite certain that your degree can’t be of much use to you in selling
“Well!” replied Mouret, joyously, “all I ask is, that it shan’t
stand in my way; and you know, when one has been stupid enough to
burden one’s self with such a thing, it is difficult to get rid of
it. One goes at a tortoise’s pace through life, whilst those who are
bare-footed run like madmen.” Then, noticing that his friend seemed
troubled, he took his hand in his, and continued: “Come, come, I don’t
want to hurt your feelings, but confess that your degrees have not
satisfied any of your wants. Do you know that my manager in the silk
department will draw more than twelve thousand francs this year. Just
so! a fellow of very clear intelligence, whose knowledge is confined to
spelling, and the first four rules of arithmetic. The ordinary salesmen
in my place make from three to four thousand francs a year, more than
you can earn yourself; and their education did not cost anything like
what yours did, nor were they launched into the world with a written
promise to conquer it. Of course, it is not everything to make money;
only between the poor devils possessed of a smattering of science who
now block up the liberal professions, without earning enough to keep
themselves from starving, and the practical fellows armed for life’s
struggle, knowing every branch of their trade, I don’t hesitate one
moment, I’m for the latter against the former, I think they thoroughly
understand the age they live in!”
His voice had become impassioned and Henriette, who was pouring out the
tea, turned her head. When he caught her smile, at the further end of
the large drawing-room, and saw two other ladies listening, he was the
first to make merry over his own big phrases.
“In short, old man, every counter-jumper who commences, has, at the
present day, a chance of becoming a millionaire.”
Vallagnosc indolently threw himself back on the sofa, half-closing his
eyes and assuming an attitude of mingled fatigue and disdain in which a
dash of affectation was added to his real hereditary exhaustion.
“Bah!” murmured he, “life isn’t worth all that trouble. There is
nothing worth living for.” And as Mouret, quite shocked, looked at him
with an air of surprise, he added: “Everything happens and nothing
happens; a man may as well remain with his arms folded.”
He then explained his pessimism–the mediocrities and the abortions of
existence. For a time he had thought of literature, but his intercourse
with certain poets had filled him with unlimited despair. He always
came to the conclusion that every effort was futile, every hour equally
weary and empty, and the world incurably stupid and dull. All enjoyment
was a failure, there was even no pleasure in wrong-doing.
“Just tell me, do you enjoy life yourself?” asked he at last.
Mouret was now in a state of astonished indignation, and exclaimed:
“What? Do I enjoy myself? What are you talking about? Why, of course
I do, my boy, and even when things give way, for then I am furious
at hearing them cracking. I am a passionate fellow myself, and don’t
take life quietly; that’s what interests me in it perhaps.” He glanced
towards the drawing-room, and lowered his voice. “Oh! there are some
women who’ve bothered me awfully, I must confess. Still I have my
revenge, I assure you. But it is not so much the women, for to speak
truly, I don’t care a hang for them; the great thing in life is to be
able to will and do–to create, in short. You have an idea; you fight
for it, you hammer it into people’s heads, and you see it grow and
triumph. Ah! yes, my boy, I enjoy life!”
All the joy of action, all the gaiety of existence, resounded in
Mouret’s words. He repeated that he went with the times. Really, a man
must be badly constituted, have his brain and limbs out of order, to
refuse to work in an age of such vast undertakings, when the entire
century was pressing forward with giant strides. And he railed at the
despairing ones, the disgusted ones, the pessimists, all those weak,
sickly offsprings of our budding sciences, who assumed the lachrymose
airs of poets, or the affected countenances of sceptics, amidst the
immense activity of the present day. ‘Twas a fine part to play, decent
and intelligent, that of yawning before other people’s labour!
“But yawning in other people’s faces is my only pleasure,” said
Vallagnosc, smiling in his cold way.
At this Mouret’s passion subsided, and he became affectionate again.
“Ah, Paul, you’re not changed. Just as paradoxical as ever! However,
we’ve not met to quarrel. Each man has his own ideas, fortunately. But
you must come and see my machine at work; you’ll see it isn’t a bad
idea. And now, what news? Your mother and sisters are quite well, I
hope? And weren’t you supposed to get married at Plassans, about six
months ago?”
A sudden movement made by Vallagnosc stopped him, and as his friend had
glanced into the larger drawing-room with an anxious expression, he
also turned round, and noticed that Mademoiselle de Boves was closely
watching them. Blanche, tall and sturdy, resembled her mother; but her
face was already puffed out and her features seemed large–swollen,
as it were, by unhealthy fat. Then, in reply to a discreet question,
Paul intimated that nothing was yet settled; perhaps nothing would
be settled. He had made the young person’s acquaintance at Madame
Desforges’s, where he had visited a good deal the previous winter, but
whither he now very rarely came, which explained why he had not met
Octave there before. In their turn, the Boves invited him, and he was
especially fond of the father, an ex-man about town who had retired
into an official position. On the other hand there was no money,
Madame de Boves having brought her husband nothing but her Juno-like
beauty as a marriage portion. So the family were living poorly on
their last mortgaged farm, to the little money derived from which were
fortunately added the nine thousand francs a year drawn by the count
as Inspector-General of the State Studs. Certain escapades, however,
continued to empty his purse; and the ladies, mother and daughter,
were kept very short of money, being at times reduced to turning their
dresses themselves.
“In that case, why marry?” was Mouret’s simple question.
“Well! I can’t go on like this for ever,” said Vallagnosc, with a weary
movement of the eyelids. “Besides, there are certain expectations, we
are waiting for the death of an aunt.”
However, Mouret still kept his eye on Monsieur de Boves, who, seated
next to Madame Guibal, proved most attentive to her, laughing softly
the while, with an amorous air. Thereupon Octave turned to his friend
with such a significant twinkle of the eye that the latter added:
“Not that one–at least not yet. The misfortune is, that his duties
call him to the four corners of France, to the breeding dépôts, so that
he has frequent pretexts for absenting himself. Last month, whilst his
wife supposed him to be at Perpignan, he was simply carrying on in
Paris, in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood.”
There ensued a pause. Then the young man, who was also watching the
count’s gallantry towards Madame Guibal, resumed in a low tone:
“Really, I think you are right. The more so as the dear lady is not
exactly a saint, if all people say be true. But just look at him! Isn’t
he comical, trying to magnetize her with his eyes? The old-fashioned
gallantry, my dear fellow! I adore that man, and if I marry his
daughter, he may safely say it’s for his sake!”
Mouret laughed, greatly amused. He questioned Vallagnosc again, and
when he found that the first idea of a marriage between him and Blanche
had come from Madame Desforges, he thought the story better still. That
dear Henriette took a widow’s delight in marrying people, so much so,
that when she had provided for the girls, she sometimes allowed their
fathers to choose friends from her company.
At that moment she appeared at the door of the little drawing-room,
followed by a gentleman apparently about sixty years old, whose arrival
had not been observed by the two friends, absorbed as they were in
the conversation they were carrying on, to the accompaniment of the
ladies’ voices. These voices at times rang out in a shriller key above
the tinkling of the small spoons in the china cups; and from time to
time, during a brief silence you heard a saucer being harshly laid
down on the marble table. A sudden gleam of the setting sun, which
had just emerged from behind a thick cloud, gilded the crests of the
chestnut-trees in the gardens, and streamed through the windows in a
red, golden flame, whose glow lighted up the brocatel and brass-work of
the furniture.
“This way, my dear baron,” said Madame Desforges. “Allow me to
introduce to you Monsieur Octave Mouret, who is longing to express the
admiration he feels for you.” And turning round towards Octave, she
added: “Baron Hartmann.”
A smile played on the old man’s lips. He was short, and vigorous, with
a large Alsatian head, and a heavy face, which lighted up with a gleam
of intelligence at the slightest curl of his mouth, the slightest
movement of his eyelids. For the last fortnight he had resisted
Henriette’s wish that he should consent to this interview; not that he
felt any immoderate jealousy of Mouret, but because this was the third
friend Henriette had introduced to him, and he was afraid of becoming
ridiculous at last. And so on approaching Octave he put on the discreet
smile of one who, albeit willing to behave amiably, is not disposed to
be a dupe.
“Oh! sir,” said Mouret, with his Provençal enthusiasm, “the Crédit
Immobilier’s last operation was really astonishing! You cannot think
how happy and proud I am to know you.”
“Too kind, sir, too kind,” repeated the baron, still smiling.
Henriette, robed in a lace dress, which revealed her delicate neck
and wrists, looked at them with her clear eyes without any sign of
embarrassment; standing between the two, raising her head, and going
from one to the other she indeed appeared delighted to see them so
friendly together.
“Gentlemen,” said she at last, “I leave you to your conversation.” And,
turning towards Paul, who had risen from the sofa, she resumed: “Will
you accept a cup of tea, Monsieur de Vallagnosc?”
“With pleasure, madame,” he replied, and they both returned to the
larger drawing-room.
Mouret resumed his seat on the sofa, when Baron Hartmann likewise
had sat down on it; and forthwith the young man broke into renewed
praise of the Crédit Immobilier’s operations. From that he went on to
the subject so near his heart, speaking of the new thoroughfare, a
lengthening of the Rue Réaumur, a section of which running from the
Place de la Bourse to the Place de l’Opéra was about to be opened under
the name of the Rue du Dix-Décembre. It had been declared a work of
public utility eighteen months previously; the expropriation jury had
just been appointed; and the whole neighbourhood was excited about
this new street, anxiously awaiting the commencement of the works,
and taking a keen interest in the houses condemned to disappear. For
three years Mouret had been waiting for this work–first, in the
expectation of an increase of his own business; secondly, for the
furtherance of certain schemes of enlargement which he dared not openly
avow, so extensive were his ideas. As the Rue du Dix-Décembre was
to cut through the Rue de Choiseul and the Rue de la Michodière, he
pictured The Ladies’ Paradise occupying the whole block of building
which these streets and the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin surrounded; and he
already imagined it with a princely frontage in the new thoroughfare,
dominating everything around like some lord and master of the conquered
city. Hence his strong desire to make Baron Hartmann’s acquaintance,
as soon as he had learnt that the Crédit Immobilier had contracted
with the authorities to open and build this Rue du Dix-Décembre, on
condition that it should receive the frontage ground on each side of
the street.
“Really,” he repeated, trying to assume a naive look, “you’ll hand over
the street ready made, with sewers, pavements, and gas lamps. And the
frontage ground will suffice to compensate you. Oh! it’s curious, very
At last he came to the delicate point. He was aware that the Crédit
Immobilier was secretly buying up the houses forming part of the same
block as The Ladies’ Paradise, not only those which were to fall under
the demolishers’ pickaxes, but the others as well, those which were
to remain standing; and he suspected the existence of a project for
founding some great establishment, which made him anxious about those
enlargements of his own premises of which he was ever dreaming, seized
with fear at the idea that he might one day come into collision with a
powerful company owning property which they certainly would not sell.
It was precisely this fear which had prompted him to seek an alliance
between himself and the Baron under Henriette’s auspices. No doubt he
could have seen the financier at his office, and have there talked
the affair over at his ease; but he felt that he would be stronger in
Henriette’s house. To be near her, within the beloved perfume of her
presence, to have her ready to convince them both with a smile, seemed
to him a certain guarantee of success.
“Haven’t you bought the former Hôtel Duvillard, that old building next
to my place?” he suddenly inquired.
The baron hesitated for a moment, and then denied it. But Mouret looked
him straight in the face and smiled, from that moment beginning to play
the part of an open-hearted young man who was always straightforward in
“Look here, Monsieur le Baron,” said he, “as I have the unexpected
honour of meeting you, I must make a confession. Oh, I don’t ask you
for any of your secrets, but I am going to entrust you with mine, for
I’m certain that I couldn’t place them in better hands. Besides, I want
your advice. I have long wished to call and see you, but dared not do
He did make his confession, and related his debut in life, not even
concealing the financial crisis through which he was passing in the
midst of his triumph. Everything was brought up, the successive
enlargements of his premises, the continual reinvestments of all
profits in the business, the sums contributed by his employees, the
existence of the establishment risked at every fresh sale, in which the
entire capital was staked, as it were, on a single throw of the dice.
However, it was not money he wanted, for he had a fanatic’s faith in
his customers; his ambition ran higher; and he proposed to the baron
a partnership, in which the Crédit Immobilier should contribute the
colossal palace which he pictured in his dreams, whilst for his part
he would give his genius and the business he had already created.
Everything would be properly valued, nothing appeared to him easier to
“What are you going to do with your land and buildings?” he asked
persistently. “You have a plan, no doubt. But I’m quite certain
that your idea is not so good as mine. Think of it. We build fresh
galleries on the vacant ground, we pull the houses down or re-arrange
them and open the most extensive establishment in Paris–a bazaar
which will bring in millions.” And then he let this fervent, heartfelt
exclamation escape him: “Ah! if I could only do without you! But you
hold everything now. Besides, I shall never have the necessary capital.
Come, we must come to an understanding. It would be a crime not to do
“How you go ahead, my dear sir!” Baron Hartmann contented himself with
replying. “What an imagination you have!”
He shook his head, and continued to smile, resolved not to return
confidence for confidence. In point of fact the idea of the Crédit
Immobilier was to found in the Rue du Dix-Décembre a huge rival to the
Grand Hôtel, a luxurious hostelry whose central position would attract
foreigners. At the same time, however, as the hotel was only to occupy
a certain frontage, the baron might also have entertained Mouret’s
idea, and have treated for the rest of the block of houses, which still
represented a vast surface. However, he had already advanced funds to
two of Henriette’s friends, and he was getting tired of his lavishness.
Besides, despite his passion for activity, which prompted him to
open his purse to every fellow of intelligence and courage, Mouret’s
commercial genius astonished rather than captivated him. Was not the
founding of such a gigantic shop a fanciful, imprudent scheme? Would he
not court certain failure by thus enlarging the drapery trade beyond
all reasonable bounds? In short, he didn’t believe in the idea and
refused his support.
“No doubt the idea is attractive,” said he, “but it’s a poet’s idea.
Where would you find the customers to fill such a cathedral?”
Mouret looked at him for a moment in silence, as if stupefied by the
refusal which these words implied. Was it possible?–a man of such
foresight, who divined the presence of money at no matter what depth!
And suddenly, with an extremely eloquent gesture, he pointed to the
ladies in the drawing-room and exclaimed: “Customers?–why look there!”
The sun was paling and the golden-red flame was now but a yellowish
gleam, dying away on the silk of the hangings and the panels of the
furniture. At this approach of twilight, the large room was steeped in
warm cosy pleasantness. While Monsieur de Boves and Paul de Vallagnosc
stood chatting near one of the windows, their eyes wandering far away
into the gardens, the ladies had closed up, forming in the middle of
the room a small circle of skirts whence arose bursts of laughter,
whispered words, ardent questions and replies, all woman’s passion for
expenditure and finery. They were talking about dress, and Madame de
Boves was describing a gown she had seen at a ball.
“First of all, a mauve silk skirt, covered with flounces of old Alençon
lace, twelve inches deep.”
“Oh! is it possible!” exclaimed Madame Marty. “Some women are very
Baron Hartmann, who had followed Mouret’s gesture, was looking at
the ladies through the doorway which was wide open. And he continued
listening to them with one ear, whilst the young man, inflamed by
his desire to convince him, went yet deeper into the question,
explaining the mechanism of the new style of drapery business. This
branch of commerce was now based on a rapid and continual turning over
of capital, which it was necessary to convert into goods as often
as possible in the same year. For instance, that year his capital,
which only amounted to five hundred thousand francs, had been turned
over four times, and had thus produced business to the amount of two
millions. But this was a mere trifle, which could be increased tenfold,
for later on, in certain departments, he certainly hoped to turn the
capital over fifteen or twenty times in the course of the twelvemonth.
“You understand, baron, the whole system lies in that. It is very
simple, but it had to be found out. We don’t need an enormous working
capital; the sole effort we have to make is to get rid of the stock we
buy as quickly as possible so as to replace it by other stock which
each time will make our capital return interest. In this way we can
content ourselves with a very small profit; as our general expenses
amount to as much as sixteen per cent., and as we seldom make more than
twenty per cent. on our goods, there is only a net profit of four per
cent. at the utmost; only this will finish by representing millions
when we can operate on large quantities of goods incessantly renewed.
You follow me, don’t you? nothing can be clearer.”
The baron again shook his head doubtfully. He who had entertained the
boldest schemes and whose daring at the time of the introduction of
gas-lighting was still spoken of, remained in the present instance
uneasy and obstinate.
“I quite understand,” said he; “you sell cheap in order to sell a
quantity, and you sell a quantity in order to sell cheap. But you must
sell, and I repeat my former question: Whom will you sell to? How do
you hope to keep up such a colossal sale?”
A loud exclamation, coming from the drawing-room, interrupted Mouret
just as he began to reply. It was Madame Guibal declaring that she
would have preferred the flounces of old Alençon simply round the upper
skirt of the dress.
“But, my dear,” said Madame de Boves, “the upper skirt was covered with
it as well. I never saw anything richer.”
“Ah, that’s a good idea,” resumed Madame Desforges, “I’ve got several
yards of Alençon somewhere; I must look them up for a trimming.”
Then the voices fell again, sinking into a murmur. Prices were quoted,
a feverish desire to buy and bargain stirred all the ladies; they were
purchasing lace by the mile.
“Why?” declared Mouret, when he could at last speak, “one can sell what
one likes when one knows how to sell! Therein lies our triumph.”
And then with his southern enthusiasm, he pictured the new business
at work in warm, glowing phrases which brought everything vividly
before the eyes. First came the wonderful power resulting from the
assemblage of goods, all accumulated on one point and sustaining and
facilitating the sale of one another. There was never any stand-still,
the article of the season was always on hand; and from counter to
counter the customer found herself caught and subjugated, at one buying
the material for a gown; at another cotton and trimming, elsewhere a
mantle, in fact everything necessary to complete her costume; while in
addition there were all the unforeseen purchases, chases, a surrender
to a longing for the useless and the pretty. Next he began to sing
the praises of the plain figure system. The great revolution in the
business sprang from this fortunate inspiration. If the old-fashioned
small shops were dying out it was because they could not struggle
against the low prices which the tickets guaranteed. Competition now
went on under the very eyes of the public; a look in the windows
enabled people to contrast the prices of different establishments; and
each shop in turn was lowering its rates, contenting itself with the
smallest possible profit. There could be no deceit, no long prepared
stroke of fortune by selling an article at double its value; there were
simply current operations, a regular percentage levied on all goods,
and success depended solely on the skilful working of the sales which
became the larger from the very circumstance that they were carried on
openly and honestly. Was it not altogether an astonishing development?
And it was already revolutionizing the markets and transforming Paris,
for it was made of woman’s flesh and blood.

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“I have the women, I don’t care a hang for the rest!” exclaimed Mouret,
with a brutal frankness born of his passion.
At this cry Baron Hartmann appeared somewhat moved. His smile lost its
touch of irony and he glanced at the young man, gradually won over by
the confidence he displayed and feeling a growing friendship for him.
“Hush!” he murmured, paternally, “they will hear you.”
But the ladies were now all speaking at once, so excited that they
did not even listen to each other. Madame de Boves was finishing the
description of an evening-dress; a mauve silk tunic, draped and caught
up by bows of lace; the bodice cut very low, with similar bows of lace
on the shoulders.
“You’ll see,” said she. “I am having a bodice made like it, with some
“For my part,” interrupted Madame Bourdelais, “I was bent on buying
some velvet. Oh! such a bargain!”
Then suddenly Madame Marty asked: “How much did the silk cost?”
And off they started again, all together. Madame Guibal, Henriette, and
Blanche were measuring, cutting out, and making up. It was a pillage of
material, a ransacking of all the shops, an appetite for luxury seeking
satisfaction in toilettes envied and dreamed of–with such happiness
at finding themselves in an atmosphere of finery, that they buried
themselves in it, as in warm air necessary to their existence.
Mouret had glanced towards the larger drawing-room, and in a few
phrases, whispered in the baron’s ear, as if he were confiding to him
one of those amorous secrets which men sometimes venture to reveal
among themselves, he finished explaining the mechanism of modern
commerce. And, above all that he had already spoken of, dominating
everything else, appeared the exploitation of woman to which everything
conduced, the capital incessantly renewed, the system of assembling
goods together, the attraction of cheapness and the tranquillizing
effect of the marking in plain figures. It was for woman that all the
establishments were struggling in wild competition; it was woman whom
they were continually catching in the snares of their bargains, after
bewildering her with their displays. They had awakened new desires
in her flesh; they constituted an immense temptation, before which
she fatally succumbed, yielding at first to reasonable purchases
of articles needed in the household, then tempted by her coquetry,
and finally subjugated and devoured. By increasing their business
tenfold and popularizing luxury, they–the drapers–became a terrible
instrument of prodigality, ravaging households, and preparing mad
freaks of fashion which proved ever more and more costly. And if woman
reigned in their shops like a queen, cajoled, flattered and overwhelmed
with attentions, she was one on whom her subjects traffic, and who pays
for each fresh caprice, with a drop of her blood. From beneath the
very gracefulness of his gallantry, Mouret thus allowed the baron to
divine the brutality of a Jew who sells woman by the pound weight. He
raised a temple to her, caused her to be steeped in incense by a legion
of shopmen, prepared the ritual of a new cultus, thinking of nothing
but woman and ever seeking to imagine more powerful fascinations.
But, behind her back, when he had emptied her purse and shattered her
nerves, he remained full of the secret scorn of a man to whom a woman
has been foolish enough to yield.
“Once have the women on your side,” he whispered to the baron, laughing
boldly, “and you could sell the very world.”
Now the baron understood. A few sentences had sufficed, he guessed the
rest, and such a gallant exploitation inflamed him, stirring up the
memories of his past life of pleasure. His eyes twinkled in a knowing
way, and he ended by looking with an air of admiration at the inventor
of this machine for devouring the female sex. It was really clever.
And then he made precisely the same remark as Bourdoncle, a remark
suggested to him by his long experience: “They’ll make you suffer for
it, by and by, you know,” said he.
But Mouret shrugged his shoulders with an air of overwhelming disdain.
They all belonged to him, they were his property, and he belonged to
none of them. After deriving his fortune and his pleasures from them he
intended to throw them all over for those who might still find their
account in them. It was the rational, cold disdain of a Southerner and
a speculator.
“Well! my dear baron,” he asked in conclusion, “will you join me? Does
this affair appear possible to you?”
Albeit half conquered, the baron did not wish to enter into any
engagement yet. A doubt remained beneath the charm which was gradually
operating on him; and he was going to reply in an evasive manner, when
a pressing call from the ladies spared him the trouble. Amidst light
bursts of laughter voices were repeating “Monsieur Mouret! Monsieur
And as the latter, annoyed at being interrupted, pretended not to hear,
Madame de Boves, who had risen a moment previously, came as far as the
door of the little drawing-room.
“You are wanted, Monsieur Mouret. It isn’t very gallant of you to bury
yourself in a corner to talk over business.”
Thereupon he decided to join the ladies, with an apparent good grace, a
well-feigned air of rapture which quite astonished the baron. Both of
them rose and passed into the other room.
“But I am quite at your service, ladies,” said Mouret on entering, a
smile on his lips.
He was greeted with an acclamation of triumph and was obliged to step
forward; the ladies making room for him in their midst. The sun had
just set behind the trees in the gardens, the daylight was departing,
delicate shadows were gradually invading the spacious apartment. It
was the emotional hour of twilight, that quiet voluptuous moment which
reigns in Parisian flats between the dying brightness of the street
and the lighting of the lamps in the kitchen. Monsieur de Boves and
Vallagnosc, still standing before a window, cast shadows upon the
carpet: whilst, motionless in the last gleam of light which came in by
the other window, Monsieur Marty, who had quietly entered, shewed his
poverty-stricken silhouette, his worn-out, well-brushed frock coat, and
his pale face wan from constant teaching and the more haggard as what
he had heard of the ladies’ conversation had quite upset him.
“Is your sale still fixed for next Monday?” Madame Marty was just
“Certainly, madame,” replied Mouret, in a flute-like voice, an actor’s
voice, which he assumed when speaking to women.
Henriette thereupon intervened. “We are all going, you know. They say
you are preparing wonders.”
“Oh! wonders!” he murmured, with an air of modest fatuity. “I simply
try to deserve your patronage.”
But they pressed him with questions: Madame Bourdelais, Madame Guibal,
even Blanche wanted to know something.
“Come, give us some particulars,” repeated Madame de Boves,
persistently. “You are making us die of curiosity.”
And they were surrounding him, when Henriette observed that he had not
even taken a cup of tea. At this they were plunged into desolation and
four of them set about serving him, stipulating however that he must
answer them afterwards. Henriette poured the tea out, Madame Marty held
the cup, whilst Madame de Boves and Madame Bourdelais contended for the
honour of sweetening it. Then, when he had declined to sit down, and
began to drink his tea slowly, standing up in the midst of them, they
all drew nearer, imprisoning him in the circle of their skirts; and
with their heads raised and their eyes sparkling, they smiled upon him.
“And what about silk, your Paris Delight which all the papers are
talking of?” resumed Madame Marty, impatiently.
“Oh!” he replied, “it’s an extraordinary article, large-grained faille,
supple and strong. You’ll see it, ladies, and you’ll see it nowhere
else, for we have bought the exclusive right to it.”
“Really! a fine silk at five francs sixty centimes!” said Madame
Bourdelais, enthusiastic. “One can hardly believe it.”
Ever since the advertisements and puffs had appeared, this silk had
occupied a considerable place in their daily life. They talked of it,
promising themselves some of it, all agog with desire and doubt. And,
beneath the inquisitive chatter with which they overwhelmed the young
man, one could divine their different temperaments as purchasers.
Madame Marty, carried away by her rage for spending money, bought
everything at The Ladies’ Paradise without selecting, just as things
chanced to be placed in the windows or on the counters. Madame Guibal
on the other hand walked about the shop for hours without ever buying
anything, happy and satisfied in simply feasting her eyes; Madame de
Boves, short of money and always tortured by some immoderate desire,
nourished a feeling of rancour against the goods she could not carry
away with her; Madame Bourdelais, with the sharp eyes of a careful
and practical housewife, made straight for the bargains, availing
herself of the big establishments with such skill that she saved a
lot of money; and lastly, Henriette, having very elegant tastes, only
purchased certain articles there, such as gloves, hosiery, and her
coarser linen.
“We have other stuffs of astonishing cheapness and richness,” continued
Mouret, in his musical voice. “For instance, I recommend you our Golden
Grain, a taffeta of incomparable brilliancy. In the fancy silks there
are some charming lines, designs specially chosen from among thousands
by our buyer; and in velvets you will find an exceedingly rich
collection of shades. I warn you, however, that cloth will be greatly
worn this year; you’ll see our _matelassés_ and our cheviots.”
They had ceased to interrupt him, and drew yet closer, their lips
parted by vague smiles, their faces eagerly out-stretched as if their
whole beings were springing towards the tempter. Their eyes grew dim,
and slight quivers ran through them but he meantime retained his calm,
conquering air, amidst the intoxicating perfumes which their hair
exhaled; and between each sentence he continued to sip a little of
his tea, the aroma of which softened those sharper odours. At sight
of such a power of fascination, so well controlled, strong enough to
play with woman without being overcome by the intoxication which she
diffuses, Baron Hartmann, who had not ceased to look at Mouret, felt
his admiration increasing.
“So cloth will be worn?” resumed Madame Marty, whose rugged face
sparkled with coquettish passion. “I must have a look at it.”
Madame Bourdelais, who kept a cool look-out, in her turn remarked:
“Your remnant sales take place on Thursdays, don’t they? I shall wait.
I have all my little ones to clothe.” And turning her delicate blonde
head towards the mistress of the house, she asked: “Sauveur is still
your dressmaker, I suppose?”
“Yes,” replied Henriette, “Sauveur is very dear, but she is the only
person in Paris who knows how to make a dress-body. Besides, Monsieur
Mouret may say what he likes but she has the prettiest designs, designs
that are not seen anywhere else. I can’t bear to see the same dresses
as mine on every woman’s back.”
At first Mouret slightly smiled. Then he intimated that Madame Sauveur
bought her material at his shop; no doubt she went to the manufacturers
direct for certain designs of which she acquired the sole right of
sale: but for black silks, for instance, she watched for The Paradise
bargains, laying in a considerable stock, which she disposed of at
double and treble the price she gave. “Thus I am quite sure that
her buyers will snap up our Paris Delight. Why should she go to the
manufacturers and pay dearer for this silk than she would at my place?
On my word of honour, we shall sell it at a loss.”
This was a decisive blow for the ladies. The idea of getting goods
below cost price awoke in them all the natural greed of woman, whose
enjoyment in purchasing is doubled when she thinks that she is robbing
the tradesman. He knew the sex to be incapable of resisting anything
“But we sell everything for nothing!” he exclaimed gaily, taking
up Madame Desforges’s fan, which lay behind him on the table. “For
instance, here’s this fan. How much do you say it cost.”
“The Chantilly cost twenty-five francs, and the mounting two hundred,”
said Henriette.
“Well, the Chantilly isn’t dear. However, we have the same at eighteen
francs; as for the mount, my dear madame, it’s a shameful robbery. I
should not dare to sell one like it for more than ninety francs.”
“Just what I said!” exclaimed Madame Bourdelais.
“Ninety francs!” murmured Madame de Boves, “one must be very poor
indeed to go without one at that price.”
She had taken up the fan, and was again examining it with her daughter
Blanche; and, over her large regular face and in her big, sleepy
eyes, spread an expression of suppressed and despairing longing
which she could not satisfy. The fan once more went the round of the
ladies, amidst various remarks and exclamations. Monsieur de Boves
and Vallagnosc, meantime, had left the window, and whilst the former
returned to his place behind Madame Guibal, whose charms he again began
to admire, with his correct and superior air, the young man leant over
Blanche, endeavouring to think of some agreeable remark.
“Don’t you think it rather gloomy, mademoiselle, that white mount and
the black lace?”
“Oh,” she replied, gravely, not a blush colouring her inflated cheeks,
“I saw one made of mother-of-pearl and white feathers. Something truly
Then Monsieur de Boves, who had doubtless observed the distressful
glances with which his wife was following the fan, at last added his
word to the conversation. “Those flimsy things soon break,” said he.
“Of course they do!” declared Madame Guibal, with a pout, affecting an
air of indifference. “I’m tired of having mine mended.”
For several minutes, Madame Marty, very much excited by the
conversation, had been feverishly turning her red leather bag about on
her lap, for she had not yet been able to show her purchases. She was
burning with a sort of sensual desire to display them; and, suddenly
forgetting her husband’s presence, she opened the bag and took out of
it a few yards of narrow lace wound on a piece of cardboard.
“This is the Valenciennes for my daughter,” said she. “It’s an inch and
a half wide. Isn’t it delicious? One franc ninety centimes the metre.”
The lace passed from hand to hand. The ladies were astonished. Mouret
assured them that he sold these little trimmings at cost price.
However, Madame Marty had closed the bag, as if to conceal certain
things she must not show. But after the success obtained by the
Valenciennes she was unable to resist the temptation of taking out a
“There was this handkerchief as well. Real Brussels, my dear. Oh! a
bargain! Twenty francs!”
And after that the bag became inexhaustible. She blushed with pleasure,
at each fresh article she took out. There was a Spanish blonde-lace
cravat, thirty francs: she hadn’t wanted it, but the shopman had sworn
it was the last one in stock, and that in future the price would be
raised. Next came a Chantilly veil: rather dear, fifty francs; if she
didn’t wear it she could make it do for her daughter.
“Really, lace is so pretty!” she repeated with her nervous laugh. “Once
I’m inside I could buy everything.”
“And this?” asked Madame de Boves, taking up and examining some guipure.
“That,” replied she, “is for an insertion. There are twenty-six
yards–a franc the yard. Just fancy!”
“But,” asked Madame Bourdelais, in surprise, “What are you going to do
with it?”
“I’m sure I don’t know. But it was such a funny pattern!”
At that moment however, she chanced to raise her eyes and perceived her
terrified husband in front of her. He had turned paler than ever, his
whole person expressive of the patient, resigned anguish of a powerless
man, witnessing the reckless expenditure of his dearly earned salary.
Every fresh bit of lace to him meant disaster; bitter days of teaching,
long journeys to pupils through the mud, the whole constant effort
of his life resulting in secret misery, the hell of a necessitous
household. And she, perceiving the increasing wildness of his look,
wanted to catch up the veil, cravat and handkerchief and put them out
of sight, moving her feverish hands about and repeating with forced
laughter: “You’ll get me a scolding from my husband. I assure you, my
dear, I’ve been very reasonable; for there was a large lace flounce at
five hundred francs, oh! a marvel!”
“Why didn’t you buy it?” asked Madame Guibal, calmly. “Monsieur Marty
is the most gallant of men.”
The poor professor was obliged to bow and say that his wife was quite
free to buy what she liked. But at thought of the danger to which that
large flounce had exposed him, an icy shiver sped down his back; and as
Mouret was just at that moment affirming that the new shops increased
the comfort of middle-class households, he glared at him with a
terrible expression, the flash of hatred of a timid man who would like
to throttle the destroyer but dares not.
But the ladies had still retained possession of the lace. They were
intoxicating themselves with their prolonged contemplation of it. The
several pieces were unrolled and then passed from one to the other,
drawing them all still closer together, linking them, as it were, with
delicate meshes. On their laps there was a continual caress of this
wondrously delicate tissue amidst which their guilty fingers fondly
lingered. They still kept Mouret a close prisoner and overwhelmed him
with fresh questions. As the daylight continued to decline, he was now
and again obliged to bend his head, grazing their hair with his beard,
as he examined a mesh, or indicated a design. Nevertheless in this soft
voluptuousness of twilight, in this warm feminine atmosphere, Mouret
still remained the master whatever the rapture he affected. He seemed
to be a woman himself, they felt penetrated, overcome by the delicate
sense of their secret passions which he possessed, and surrendered
themselves to him quite captivated; whilst he, certain that he had them
at his mercy, appeared like the despotic monarch of finery, enthroned
above them all.
“Oh, Monsieur Mouret! Monsieur Mouret!” they stammered in low,
rapturous voices, amidst the increasing gloom of the drawing-room.
The last pale gleams of the heavens were dying away on the brass-work
of the furniture. The laces alone retained a snowy reflection against
the dark dresses of the ladies, who in a confused group around the
young man had a vague appearance of kneeling, worshipping women. A
final glow still shone on one side of the silver teapot, a gleam like
that of a night-light, burning in an alcove balmy with the perfume of
tea. But suddenly the servant entered with two lamps, and the charm was
destroyed. The drawing-room awoke, light and cheerful once more. Madame
Marty replaced her lace in her little bag and Madame de Boves ate
another sponge cake, whilst Henriette who had risen began talking in a
low tone to the baron, near one of the windows.
“He’s a charming fellow,” said the baron.
“Isn’t he?” she exclaimed, with the involuntary impulse of a woman in
He smiled, and looked at her with paternal indulgence. This was
the first time he had seen her so completely conquered; and, too
high-minded to suffer from it, he experienced nothing but compassion at
seeing her in the hands of this handsome fellow, seemingly so tender
and yet so cold-hearted. He thought he ought to warn her, and so in a
joking way he muttered: “Take care, my dear, or he’ll eat you all up.”
A flash of jealousy darted from Henriette’s fine eyes. Doubtless she
understood that Mouret had simply made use of her to get at the baron;
but she vowed that she would render him mad with passion, he whose
hurried style of love-making was instinct with the facile charm of a
song thrown to the four winds of heaven. “Oh,” said she, affecting to
joke in her turn, “the lamb always finishes by eating up the wolf.”
Thereupon the baron, greatly amused, encouraged her with a nod. Could
she be the woman who was to avenge all the others?
When Mouret, after reminding Vallagnosc that he wanted to show him his
machine at work, came up to take his leave, the baron retained him near
the window opposite the gardens, now steeped in darkness. He was at
last yielding to the young man’s power of fascination; confidence had
come to him on seeing him amidst those ladies. Both conversed for a
moment in a low tone, and then the banker exclaimed: “Well, I’ll look
into the affair. It’s settled if your Monday’s sale proves as important
as you expect.”
They shook hands, and Mouret, delighted, took his leave, for he never
enjoyed his dinner unless before sitting down at table he had been to
glance at the day’s receipts at The Ladies’ Paradise.