Was he no longer master in the place

When the dead summer season arrived, quite a hurricane of panic
swept through The Ladies’ Paradise. The reign of terror–terror of
dismissal–commenced; many employees were sent away on leave, and
others were dismissed in dozens by the principals, bent on clearing the
shop, as no customers appeared there during the July and August heat.
Mouret, on making his daily round with Bourdoncle, would call aside
the managers, whom he had prompted during the winter to engage more
men than were really necessary, in order that the business might not
suffer; but it was now a question of reducing expenses and this was
effected by casting quite a third of the shop people–the weak ones who
allowed themselves to be swallowed up by the strong ones–on to the
pavements again.
“Come,” he would say, “you must have some who don’t suit you. We can’t
keep them all this time doing nothing.”
And if the manager hesitated, hardly knowing whom to sacrifice, he
would continue: “Make your own arrangements, six salesmen must suffice;
you can take on others in October, there are always plenty to be had!”
Moreover Bourdoncle undertook the executions. He had a terrible way of
saying: “Go and be paid!” which fell on the poor devil he had singled
out like a blow from an axe. Anything served him as a pretext for
clearing off the superfluous staff. He invented misdeeds, speculating
on the slightest negligence. “You were sitting down, sir; go and get
paid!” “You dare to answer me; go and get paid!” “Your shoes have not
been blackened; go and get paid!” And even the bravest trembled in
presence of the massacre which he left behind him. Then, this system
not working quickly enough, he invented a trap by which in a few days
and without fatigue, he got rid of the number of salesmen condemned
beforehand. At eight o’clock, he took his stand at the door, watch in
hand; and at three minutes past the hour, the breathless young people
who arrived were greeted with his implacable “Go and get paid!” This
was a quick and cleanly manner of doing the work.
“You’ve an ugly mug,” he ended by saying one day to a poor devil whose
nose, all on one side, annoyed him, “go and get paid!”
The favoured ones obtained a fortnight’s holiday without pay, which
was a more humane way of lessening the expenses. Moreover the salesmen
quietly accepted their precarious situation, obliged to do so by
necessity and habit. Since their arrival in Paris, they had roamed
about, commencing their apprenticeship here, finishing it there,
getting dismissed or they themselves resigning all at once, just as
interest dictated. When business slackened the workmen lost their daily
bread; and this went on amidst the subdued working of the machine, the
useless gear was quietly thrown aside, like so much old plant. There
was no gratitude shown for services rendered. So much the worse for
those who did not know how to look after themselves!
Nothing else was now talked of in the various departments. Fresh
stories circulated every day. The dismissed salesmen were named, in the
same way as one counts the dead in time of cholera. The shawl and the
woollen departments suffered especially; seven employees disappeared
from them in one week. Then quite a drama threw the under-linen
department into confusion: a customer, nearly fainting away, accused
the young person who had served her of eating garlic; and the latter
was dismissed at once, although, badly fed and dying of hunger, she
had simply been finishing a collection of bread-crusts at the counter.
However, the authorities showed themselves pitiless at the least
complaint from customers; no excuse was admitted, the employee was
always wrong, and had to disappear like a defective instrument, which
interfered with the proper working of the business; and the others
bowed their heads, not even attempting any defence. In the panic which
was raging, each trembled for himself. Mignot, going out one day with
a parcel under his coat, notwithstanding the regulations, was nearly
caught, and really thought himself lost. Liénard, celebrated for his
idleness, was simply indebted to his father’s position in the drapery
trade for not being turned away one afternoon when Bourdoncle found
him dozing between two piles of English velvets. But the Lhommes were
especially anxious, each day expecting to see their son Albert sent
away, as the principals were very dissatisfied with his conduct at his
pay-desk. He frequently had women there who diverted his attention from
his work; and twice already Madame Aurélie had been obliged to plead
for him.
Denise was so menaced amid this general clearance, that she lived in
constant expectation of a catastrophe. It was in vain that she summoned
up her courage, struggling with all her gaiety and all her reason in
the endeavour not to yield to the misgivings of her tender nature;
she burst into blinding tears as soon as she had closed the door of
her bedroom, in desolation at the thought of finding herself in the
street, on bad terms with her uncle, not knowing where to go, without a
copper saved, and with the two children to look after. The sensations
she had experienced during the first few weeks again returned, she
fancied herself a grain of seed under a powerful millstone; and utter
discouragement came over her at the thought of what a small atom she
was in this great machine, which would certainly crush her with its
quiet indifference. There was no illusion possible; if they dismissed
any one from her department it would certainly be herself. During the
Rambouillet excursion no doubt the other young ladies had incensed
Madame Aurélie against her, for since then that lady had treated her
with an air of severity into which entered a certain rancour. Besides,
they could not forgive her for going to Joinville, regarding it as a
sign of revolt, a means of setting the whole department at defiance, by
exhibiting herself out of doors with a young lady from a rival counter.
Never had Denise suffered so much in the department, and she now gave
up all hope of conquering it.
“Let them alone!” repeated Pauline, “a lot of stuck-up things, as
stupid as geese!”
But it was just these fine-lady airs which intimidated Denise. Nearly
all the saleswomen, by their daily contact with rich customers,
acquired certain graces, and finished by forming a vague nameless
class–something between a work-girl and a middle-class lady. But
beneath their art in dress, and the manners and phrases they had learnt
by rote, there was often only a false, superficial education, the fruit
of reading worthless papers, attending cheap theatres and music-halls,
and picking up all the current stupidities of Paris.
“You know the ‘unkempt one’ has got a child?” said Clara one morning,
on arriving in the department. And, as the others seemed astonished,
she continued: “Yes, I saw her yesterday myself taking the child out
for a walk! She’s got it stowed away in the neighbourhood, somewhere.”
Two days later, Marguerite came up after dinner with another piece of
news. “A nice thing, I’ve just seen the unkempt one’s sweetheart–a
workman, just fancy! Yes, a dirty little workman, with yellow hair, who
was watching her through the windows.”
From that moment it became an accepted fact: Denise had a workman for
a lover, and an infant concealed somewhere in the neighbourhood. They
overwhelmed her with spiteful allusions. The first time she understood
them she turned quite pale at the monstrosity of their suppositions. It
was abominable; she tried to explain, and stammered out: “But they are
my brothers!”
“Oh! oh! her brothers!” said Clara in a bantering tone.
Madame Aurélie was obliged to interfere. “Be quiet! young ladies. You
had better go on changing those tickets. Mademoiselle Baudu is quite
free to misbehave herself out of doors, if only she worked a bit when
she is here.”
This curt defence was a condemnation. The poor girl, suffocating as
if they had accused her of a crime, vainly endeavoured to explain the
facts. They laughed and shrugged their shoulders, and she felt wounded
to the heart. On hearing the rumours Deloche was so indignant that he
wanted to slap the faces of the young ladies in Denise’s department;
and was only restrained from doing so by the fear of compromising her.
Since the evening at Joinville, he had harboured a submissive love, an
almost religious friendship for her, which he proved by his faithful
doglike looks. He was careful not to show his affection before the
others, for they would have laughed at him, still that did not prevent
him dreaming of the avenging blow he would deal if ever any one should
attack her in his presence.
Denise finished by not answering the insults. It was all too odious,
nobody would believe it. When any of her companions ventured a fresh
allusion, she contented herself with looking at her with a sad, calm
air. Besides, she had other troubles, material anxieties which took
up her attention. Jean went on as badly as ever, always worrying her
for money. Hardly a week passed that she did not receive some fresh
story from him, four pages long; and when the house postman brought
her these letters, in a big, passionate handwriting, she hastened to
hide them in her pocket, for the saleswomen affected to laugh, and
hummed snatches of some doubtful ditties. Then, after inventing some
pretext to enable her to go to the other end of the establishment
and read these letters, she became full of fear; poor Jean seemed to
be lost. All his fibs succeeded with her, she believed in all his
extraordinary love adventures, her complete ignorance of such things
making her exaggerate his dangers. Sometimes it was a two-franc piece
he wanted to enable him to escape some woman’s jealousy, at other times
five francs, six francs, to get some poor girl out of a scrape as her
father would otherwise kill her. And so, as her salary and commission
did not suffice, Denise conceived the idea of looking for a little work
after business hours. She spoke about it to Robineau, who had shown a
certain sympathy for her since their first meeting at Vinçard’s, and
he procured her the making of some neckties at five sous a dozen. At
night, between nine and one o’clock, she could sew six dozen of these
which represented thirty sous, out of which she had to deduct four sous
for a candle. And as this sum kept Jean going she did not complain of
the want of sleep, and would have thought herself very happy had not
another catastrophe once more upset her budgetary calculations. At the
end of the second fortnight, when she went to the necktie-dealer’s,
she found the door closed; the woman had failed, become bankrupt,
thus carrying off her eighteen francs six sous, a considerable sum on
which she had been relying for the last week. All the annoyances she
experienced in the department disappeared before this disaster.
“You seem worried,” said Pauline, meeting her one day in the furniture
gallery, looking very pale. “Are you in want of anything?”
But as Denise already owed her friend twelve francs, she tried to smile
and replied: “No, thanks. I’ve not slept well, that’s all.”
It was the twentieth of July, and the panic caused by the dismissals
was at its height. Out of the four hundred employees, Bourdoncle had
already sacked fifty, and there were rumours of fresh executions. She,
however, thought but little of the menaces which were flying about,
entirely absorbed as she was by the anguish caused her by one of Jean’s
adventures, an adventure yet more terrifying than any previous one.
That very day he wanted fifteen francs, which sum alone could save him
from somebody’s vengeance. On the previous evening she had received
the first letter opening the drama; then, one after the other had come
two more; and in the last, the perusal of which she was finishing when
Pauline met her, Jean had announced his death for that evening, if she
did not send the money. She was in agony. She couldn’t take the sum
out of Pépé’s board money as this she had paid away two days before.
Every sort of bad luck was pursuing her, for she had hoped to get her
eighteen francs six sous through Robineau, who might perhaps be able
to find the necktie-dealer; but Robineau, having got a fortnight’s
holiday, had not returned on the previous night though expected to do
However, Pauline still questioned her in a friendly way. Whenever they
met, in an out-of-the-way department, they would thus converse for a
few minutes, keeping a sharp look-out the while. And suddenly, Pauline
made a move as if to run off, having observed the white tie of an
inspector coming out of the shawl department.
“Ah! it’s only old Jouve!” she murmured in a relieved tone. “I can’t
think what makes the old man grin as he does when he sees us together.
In your place I should beware, for he’s too kind to you. He’s an old
humbug, as spiteful as a cat, and thinks he’s still got his troopers to
talk to.”
This was quite true; Jouve was detested by all the salespeople for his
severity. More than half the dismissals were the result of his reports;
and, rakish ex-captain that he was, with a big red nose, he only shewed
himself lenient in the departments served by women. Thus though he must
have perceived Denise and Pauline he went away, pretending not to see
them; and they heard him dropping on a salesman of the lace department,
guilty of watching a fallen horse in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin.
“By the way,” resumed Pauline, “weren’t you looking for Monsieur
Robineau yesterday? He’s come back.”
At this Denise thought herself saved. “Thanks,” said she, “I’ll go
round the other way then, and pass through the silk department. So much
the worse! They sent me upstairs to the work-room to fetch a bodkin.”
And thereupon they separated. The young girl, with a busy look, as if
she were running from pay-desk to pay-desk in search of something,
reached the stairs and went down into the hall. It was a quarter to
ten, the first lunch-bell had rung. A warm sun was playing on the
windows, and in spite of the grey linen blinds, the heat penetrated the
stagnant air. Now and then a refreshing breath arose from the floor,
which some assistants were gently watering. A somnolence, a summer
siesta reigned in all the vacant spaces around the counters, you might
have thought yourself in a church wrapt in sleeping shadow after the
last mass. Some salesmen were standing about listlessly, and a few rare
customers crossed the galleries and the hall, with the indolent step of
women annoyed by the sun.
Just as Denise went down, Favier was measuring a dress length of light
silk, with pink spots, for Madame Boutarel, who had arrived in Paris
from the South on the previous day. Since the commencement of the
month, the provinces had been sending up their detachments; you saw
nothing but queerly-dressed dames in yellow shawls, green skirts, and
flaring bonnets. But the shopmen were even too indolent to laugh at
them. Favier accompanied Madame Boutarel to the mercery department, and
on returning, remarked to Hutin:
“Yesterday they were all Auvergnat women, to-day they’re all
Provençales. I’m sick of them.”
But just then Hutin rushed forward, for it was his turn, and he had
recognised “the pretty lady,” the lovely blonde thus nicknamed by the
department which knew nothing about her, not even her name. They all
smiled at her, not a week passed without her coming to The Ladies’
Paradise, hitherto always alone. This time, however, she had a little
boy of four or five with her, and this gave rise to various comments.
“She’s married, then?” asked Favier, when Hutin returned from the
pay-desk, where he had debited her with thirty yards of Duchess satin.
“Possibly,” replied he, “although the youngster proves nothing. Perhaps
he belongs to a lady friend. What’s certain is, that she must have been
weeping. She was awfully melancholy, and her eyes were so red!”
A silence ensued. The two salesmen gazed vaguely into the depths of the
shop. Then Favier resumed in a low voice: “If she’s married, perhaps
her husband’s smacked her face.”
“Possibly,” repeated Hutin, “unless a lover has played her false.” And
after a fresh silence, he added: “Any way, I don’t care a hang!”
At this moment Denise crossed the silk department, slackening her steps
and looking around her, in search of Robineau. She could not see him,
so she went into the linen department, then passed through again. The
two salesmen had noticed her movements.
“There’s that bag of bones again,” murmured Hutin.
“She’s looking for Robineau,” said Favier. “I can’t think what they get
up to together. Oh! nothing wrong. But they say Robineau has procured
her a little work, some neckties. What a spec, eh?”
Hutin was meditating something spiteful; and when Denise passed near
him, he stopped her, saying: “Is it me you’re looking for?”
She turned very red. Since the Joinville excursion, she had not dared
to read her heart, full of confused sensations. She was constantly
recalling his appearance with that red-haired girl, and if she still
trembled before him, it was doubtless from uneasiness. Had she ever
loved him? Did she love him still? She hardly liked to stir up these
things, which were painful to her.
“No, sir,” she replied, embarrassed.
Hutin thereupon began to laugh at her uneasy manner. “Would you like us
to serve him to you? Favier, just serve Robineau to this young lady.”
She looked at him fixedly, with the sad calm look with which she had
met the wounding remarks made by the girls, her companions. Ah! so he
was spiteful, he attacked her as well as the others! And she felt a
sort of supreme anguish, the breaking of a last tie. Her face expressed
such real suffering, that Favier, although not of a very tender nature,
came to her assistance.
“Monsieur Robineau has gone out to match some goods,” said he. “No
doubt he will be back for lunch. You’ll find him here this afternoon,
if you want to speak to him.”
Denise thanked him, and went up to her department, where Madame Aurélie
was waiting for her in a terrible rage. What! she had been gone half an
hour! Where had she just sprung from? Not from the work-room, that was
quite certain! The poor girl hung her head, thinking of this avalanche
of misfortunes. All would be over if Robineau should not come in.
However, she resolved to go down again, later on.
In the silk department, Robineau’s return had provoked quite a
revolution. The salesmen had hoped that, disgusted with the annoyances
they were incessantly causing him, he would not return to the
establishment; and, in fact, there was a moment, when pressed by
Vinçard to take over his business, he had almost decided to do so.
Hutin’s secret labour, the mine which he had been laying under the
second-hand’s feet for months past, was about to explode. During
Robineau’s holidays, he had temporarily taken his place and had done
his best to injure him in the minds of the principals, and secure
possession of his situation by excess of zeal; he discovered and
reported all sorts of trifling irregularities, suggested improvements,
and invented new designs. There was, however, nothing exceptional in
all this. Everybody in the department–from the unpaid probationer,
longing to become a salesman, to the first salesman who coveted the
situation of manager–had but one fixed idea, and that was to dislodge
the comrade above them, to ascend another rung of the ladder, by
knocking him over if necessary; and this battle of appetites, this
constant hurtling, even contributed to the better working of the
machine, inspiriting the sales and fanning the flame of success which
was astonishing Paris. Behind Hutin, there was Favier; and behind
Favier came the others, in a long line. You heard a loud noise as
of jaws working. Robineau was condemned, and each was grabbing for
one of his bones. So when the second-hand returned from his holiday
there was a general grumbling. The matter had to be settled at once,
the salesmen’s attitude appearing so menacing that the head of the
department had sent Robineau out to match some goods at the dépôts of
manufacturers in order to give the authorities an opportunity to come
to a decision.
“We would sooner all leave, if he is to be kept,” declared Hutin.
The affair greatly bothered Bouthemont, whose gaiety ill-accorded with
such worries. He was pained to see nothing but scowling faces around
him. Nevertheless he desired to be just.
“Come, leave him alone, he doesn’t hurt you,” he said.
But they protested energetically. “What! doesn’t hurt us! An
insupportable being who is always irritable and so proud that he would
walk over one rather than not pass.”
This was the great grievance of the department. Robineau, nervous as
a woman, was intolerably stiff and susceptible. They related scores
of stories about him; one poor little fellow had fallen ill through
his treatment, and even lady customers had been humiliated by his curt
“Well, gentlemen, I won’t take anything on myself,” said Bouthemont.
“I’ve notified the position to the directors, and am going to speak
about it shortly.”
The second lunch was being rung; the clang of a bell came up from the
basement with a distant muffled sound in the close air of the shop.
Hutin and Favier went down. From all the counters, came salesmen one
by one, hastening, helter-skelter, through the narrow entrance to the
kitchen passage down below, a damp passage always lighted by gas. The
flock pushed forward, without a laugh or a word, amidst an increasing
clatter of crockery and a strong odour of food. Then at the far end
of the passage there was a sudden halt, before a wicket. Flanked by
piles of plates, and armed with forks and spoons, which he plunged into
copper-pans, a cook was distributing the portions. And when he stood
aside, the flaring kitchen could be seen beyond his white-covered belly.
“Of course!” muttered Hutin, consulting the bill of fare, written on a
black-board above the wicket. “Boiled beef and pungent sauce, or skate.
Never any roast meat in this rotten shop! Their boiled beef and fish
don’t do a fellow a bit of good!”
Moreover, the fish was universally neglected, for the pan was quite
full. Favier, however, took some skate. Behind him, Hutin stooped down,
saying: “Beef and sauce.”
With a mechanical movement of his fork, the cook picked up a piece of
meat; then poured a spoonful of sauce over it, and Hutin, suffocated by
the hot air from the kitchen, had hardly secured his portion, before
the words, “Beef, pungent sauce; beef, pungent sauce,” followed each
other like a litany; whilst the cook continued to pick up the meat
and pour the sauce over it with the rapid rhythmical movement of a
well-regulated clock.
“But the skate’s cold,” declared Favier, whose hand felt no warmth from
the plate.
They were now all hurrying along, with arms extended and plates held
straight, for fear of running against one another. Ten steps further
was the bar, another wicket with a shiny zinc counter, on which were
ranged the shares of wine, small bottles, without corks and still damp
from rinsing. And each took one of these bottles in his empty hand
as he passed, and then, completely laden, made for his table with a
serious air, careful not to spill anything.
Hutin, however, grumbled between his teeth. “This is a fine dance, with
all this crockery!”
The table at which he and Favier sat, was at the end of the corridor,
in the last dining-room. The rooms were all alike, old cellars twelve
feet by fifteen, which had been cemented over and fitted up as
refectories; but the damp came through the paint-work, the yellow walls
were covered with greenish spots; and, from the narrow windows, opening
on the street, on a level with the pavement, there fell a livid light,
incessantly traversed by the vague shadows of passers-by. In July as
in December, you stifled in the warm air, laden with nauseous smells,
which came from the kitchen near by.
Hutin went in first. On the table, which was fixed at one end to the
wall, and covered with American cloth, there were only the glasses,
knives, and forks, marking the places. A pile of clean plates stood at
each end; whilst in the middle was a big loaf, a knife sticking in it,
with the handle in the air. Hutin rid himself of his bottle and laid
down his plate; then, after taking his napkin from the bottom of a set
of pigeon-holes, the sole ornament on the walls, he heaved a sigh and
sat down.
“And I’m fearfully hungry, too!” he murmured.
“It’s always like that,” replied Favier, seating himself on the left.
“Nothing to eat when one is starving.”
The table was rapidly filling. It contained twenty-two places. At
first nothing was heard but a loud clattering of knives and forks, the
gormandizing of big fellows whom thirteen hours’ daily work incessantly
rendered hungry. Formerly the employees had been allowed an hour for
meals, which had enabled them to go to a café and take their coffee;
and they would then despatch their dinner in twenty minutes, anxious
to get into the street. But this excited them too much, they came back
careless, their minds bent on other things than business; and so the
managers had decided that they should not go out, but pay an extra
three halfpence for a cup of coffee, if they wanted one. So now they
were in no hurry, but prolonged the meal, being in no wise anxious to
go back to work before time. Between their big mouthfuls a great many
read newspapers which they had folded and placed against their bottles.
Others, their first hunger satisfied, talked noisily, always returning
to the eternal grievance of the bad food, to the money they had earned,
to what they had done on the previous Sunday, and what they were going
to do on the next one.
“I say, what about your Robineau?” a salesman suddenly asked Hutin.
The struggle between the men of the silk department and their
second-hand occupied all the counters. The question was discussed every
evening at the Café Saint-Roch until midnight. Hutin, who was busy with
his piece of beef, contented himself with replying:
“Well! he’s come back.” Then, suddenly getting angry, he resumed: “But
confound it! I really believe they’ve given me a slice of donkey! It’s
become disgusting, my word of honour!”
“You needn’t grumble!” said Favier. “I was flat enough to ask for
skate. It’s putrid.”
They were all speaking at once, some complaining and some joking. At a
corner of the table, against the wall, sat Deloche silently eating. He
was afflicted with a ravenous appetite, which he had never been able to
satisfy, and not earning enough to afford any extras, he cut himself
huge chunks of bread, and bolted even the least savoury platefuls, with
a gormandizing air. They all laughed at him, crying: “Favier, pass your
skate to Deloche. He likes it like that. And your meat, Hutin; Deloche
wants it for his dessert.”
The poor fellow shrugged his shoulders, and did not even reply. It
wasn’t his fault if he was dying of hunger. Besides, the others might
abuse the food as much as they liked, they swallowed it all the same.
But a low whistle stopped their talk; Mouret and Bourdoncle were in
the corridor. For some time the complaints had become so frequent that
the principals pretended to come and judge the quality of the food
themselves. They gave thirty sous a head per day to the chief cook,
who had to pay for everything, provisions, coal, gas, and staff, and
they displayed a naive astonishment when the food was not good. That
very morning even, each department had deputed a spokesman. Mignot
and Liénard had undertaken to speak for their comrades. And so, in
the sudden silence which fell, all ears were cocked to catch the
conversation going on in the next room, which Mouret and Bourdoncle
had just entered. The latter declared the beef excellent; and Mignot,
astounded by this quiet assertion, was repeating, “But chew it, and
see;” whilst Liénard, attacking the skate, gently remarked, “But it
stinks, sir!” Mouret thereupon launched into a cordial speech; he would
do everything for his employees’ welfare, he was their father, and
would rather eat dry bread himself than see them badly fed.
“I promise you to look into the matter,” he said in conclusion, raising
his voice so that they might all hear it from one end of the passage to
the other.
The inquiry being finished, the noise of the knives and forks commenced
once more. “Yes, reckon on that, and drink water!” Hutin muttered. “Ah,
they’re not stingy of fine words. You want some promises, there you
are! But all the while they continue feeding you on old boot-leather,
and chuck you out like dogs!”
The salesman who had already questioned him thereupon repeated: “You
say that Robineau—-”
But a clatter of heavy crockery-ware drowned his voice. The men changed
their plates themselves, and the piles at both ends were diminishing.
When a kitchen-help brought in some large tin dishes, Hutin cried out:
“Baked rice! this is a finisher!”
“Good for a penn’orth of gum!” said Favier, serving himself.
Some liked it but others thought it too sticky. Those who were plunged
in the fiction of their newspaper, not even knowing what they were
eating, remained silent. All, however, mopped their foreheads, and the
narrow cellar-like apartment filled with a ruddy vapour whilst the
shadows of the passers-by continually passed like black bars over the
littered tables.
“Pass Deloche the bread,” cried one of the wags.
Each one cut a piece, and then again dug the knife into the loaf up to
the handle; and the bread still went round.
“Who’ll take my rice for a dessert?” all at once asked Hutin; and
when he had concluded his bargain with a short, thin young fellow, he
attempted to sell his wine also; but no one would take it as it was
known to be detestable.
“As I was telling you, Robineau is back,” he continued, amid the
cross-fire of laughter and conversation that went on. “Oh! his affair
is serious. Just fancy, he has been leading the saleswomen astray! Yes,
and he gets them cravats to make!”
“Silence!” muttered Favier. “They’re just judging him.”
And with a wink he called attention to Bouthemont, who was walking up
and down the passage between Mouret and Bourdoncle, all three absorbed
in an animated conversation, carried on in a low tone. The dining-room
of the managers and second-hands happened to be just opposite. And
so on seeing Mouret pass, Bouthemont, having finished his meal, had
got up to relate the affair and explain the awkward position he was
in. The other two listened, still refusing to sacrifice Robineau, a
first-class salesman, who dated from Madame Hédouin’s time. But when
Bouthemont came to the story of the neckties, Bourdoncle got angry. Was
this fellow mad to interfere with the saleswomen and procure them extra
work? The house paid dearly enough for the women’s time; if they worked
on their own account at night they must work less during the daytime
in the shop, that was certain; therefore it was a robbery, they were
risking their health which did not belong to them. No, the night was
intended for sleep; they must all sleep, or they would be sent to the
“Things are getting rather warm!” remarked Hutin.
Each time the three principals passed the dining-room, the shopmen
watched them, commenting on their slightest gestures. The baked rice,
in which a cashier had just found a brace-button, was momentarily
“I just heard the word ‘cravat,'” said Favier. “And you saw how
Bourdoncle’s face turned pale all at once.”
Mouret shared his partner’s indignation. That a saleswoman should
be reduced to work at night, seemed to him an attack on the very
organization of The Ladies’ Paradise. Who was the stupid that couldn’t
earn enough in the business? But when Bouthemont named Denise he
softened down, and invented excuses. Ah! yes, that poor little girl;
she wasn’t very sharp, and had others dependent on her, it was said.
Bourdoncle interrupted him to declare they ought to send her packing
immediately. They would never do anything with such an ugly creature,
he had always said so; and he seemed to be indulging a spiteful
feeling. Thereupon Mouret, in embarrassment, affected to laugh. Dear
me! what a severe man! couldn’t they forgive her for once? They could
call in the culprit and give her a scolding. In short, Robineau was
the one to blame, for he ought to have dissuaded her, he, an old hand,
knowing the ways of the house.
“Well! there’s the governor laughing now!” resumed Favier, in
astonishment, as the group again passed the door.
“Ah, by Jove!” exclaimed Hutin, “if they persist in shoving Robineau on
our shoulders, we’ll make it lively for them!”
Bourdoncle looked straight at Mouret and then simply made a gesture of
disdain, to intimate that he saw how it was, and thought it idiotic.
Bouthemont meantime resumed his complaints; the salesmen threatened to
leave, and there were some very good men amongst them. However, what
appeared to have most effect on these gentlemen, was the rumour of
Robineau’s friendly relations with Gaujean; the latter, it was said,
was urging the former to set up for himself in the neighbourhood,
offering him any amount of credit, to run in opposition to The Ladies’
Paradise. There was a pause. Ah! Robineau thought of showing fight, did
he! Mouret had become serious, though he affected a certain scorn, and
avoided coming to a decision, as if it were matter of no importance.
They would see, they would speak to him. And he immediately began to
joke with Bouthemont, whose father, arriving from his little shop at
Montpellier two days previously, had almost choked with stupefaction
and rage on seeing the immense hall in which his son reigned. Everyone
was still laughing about the old man, who, recovering his Southern
assurance, had immediately begun to run everything down, pretending
that the drapery business would soon go to the dogs.
“Ah! precisely, here’s Robineau,” said Bouthemont. “I sent him to
attend to some matching so as to avoid any unpleasant occurrence.
Excuse me if I insist, but things have come to such a pass that
something must really be done.”
Robineau, who had just come in, passed by the group with a bow, on his
way to the table. Mouret simply repeated: “All right, we’ll see about
Then all three went off. Hutin and Favier were still watching for
them, but on seeing that they did not return began to relieve their
feelings. Did the governor mean to come down like that at every meal,
to count their mouthfuls? A nice thing it would be if they could not
even eat in peace! The truth was, they had just seen Robineau come in,
and the governor’s good-humour made them anxious about the result of
the struggle they were engaged in. They lowered their voices, trying to
find fresh subjects for grumbling.
“But I’m dying of hunger!” continued Hutin, aloud. “One is hungrier
than ever on rising from table!” And yet he had eaten two portions of
jam, his own and the one which he had secured in exchange for his plate
of rice. All at once he cried out: “Hang it, I’m going in for an extra!
Victor, give me another jam!”

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The waiter was finishing the serving of the desserts. He then brought
in the coffee, and those who took it gave him their three sous there
and then. A few had gone away, dawdling along the corridor and
looking for a dark corner where they might smoke a cigarette. The
others remained at table before the greasy plates, rolling pellets of
bread-crumbs and recounting the same old stories, amidst the sickly
odour of victuals, which they could no longer smell, and the sweltering
heat which was reddening their ears. The walls reeked with moisture,
a slow asphyxia fell from the mouldy vaulted ceiling. Leaning against
the wall was Deloche, stuffed with bread and digesting in silence, his
eyes on the window. His daily recreation, after luncheon was to watch
the feet of the passers-by spinning along the street, a continual
procession of living feet in big shoes, elegant boots, and ladies’ tiny
boots, without either head or body. On rainy days all were very dirty.
“What! Already?” suddenly exclaimed Hutin.
A bell had begun to ring at the end of the passage and they had to
make way for the third lunch. The waiters came in with pails of warm
water and big sponges to clean the American cloth. Gradually the rooms
emptied and the salesmen returned to their departments, loitering as
they went up the stairs. In the kitchen, the head cook had resumed his
place at the wicket, between the pans of skate, beef, and sauce, again
armed with his forks and spoons and ready to fill the plates anew with
the rhythmical movement of a well-regulated clock. As Hutin and Favier
slowly withdrew, they saw Denise coming down.
“Monsieur Robineau is back, mademoiselle,” said the former with
sneering politeness.
“He is still at table,” added the other. “But if you are in a very
great hurry you can go in.”
Denise continued on her way without replying or turning round; but
when she passed the dining-room of the managers and second-hands, she
could not help just looking in, and saw that Robineau was really there.
She resolved that she would try to speak to him in the afternoon, and
continued her journey along the corridor to her own dining-room, which
was at the other end.
The women took their meals apart, in two special rooms. Denise
entered the first one. This also was an old cellar, transformed into
a refectory; but it had been fitted up with more comfort. On the oval
table, in the middle of the apartment, the fifteen places were set
further apart and the wine was in decanters, a dish of skate and a dish
of beef with pungent sauce occupying the two ends of the table. Waiters
in white aprons moreover attended to the young ladies, and spared them
the trouble of fetching their portions from the wicket. The manager had
thought this arrangement more seemly.
“You went round, then?” asked Pauline, already seated and cutting
herself some bread.
“Yes,” replied Denise, blushing, “I was accompanying a customer.”
But this was a fib. Clara nudged her neighbour. What was the matter
with the unkempt girl? She was quite strange in her ways that day. One
after the other she had received two letters from her lover and then
went running all over the shop like a madwoman, pretending she was
going to the work-room, where she did not even put in an appearance.
There was something up, that was certain. Then Clara, eating her skate
without any show of disgust, with the indifference of a girl who had
been used to nothing better than rancid bacon, began speaking of a
frightful drama, accounts of which filled the newspapers.
“You’ve read about that man cutting his mistress’s throat with a razor,
haven’t you?”
“Well!” said a little, quiet, delicate-looking girl belonging to the
under-linen department, “she was unfaithful to him. Serve her right!”
But Pauline protested. What! just because you had ceased to love a man,
he was to be allowed to cut your throat? Ah! no, never! And stopping
all at once, she turned round to the waiter, saying: “Pierre, I can’t
get through this beef. Just tell them to do me an extra, an omelet,
nice and soft, if possible.”
Then to while away the time, she took out some chocolate which she
began eating with her bread, for she always had her pockets full of
“It certainly isn’t very amusing,” resumed Clara. “And some people are
fearfully jealous, you know! Only the other day there was a workman who
pitched his wife into a well.”
She kept her eyes on Denise, thinking she had guessed her trouble on
seeing her turn pale. Evidently that little prude was afraid of being
beaten by her lover, whom she no doubt deceived. It would be a lark if
he should come into the shop after her, as she seemed to fear he would.
But the conversation took another turn, for one of the girls was giving
a recipe for cleaning velvet. Then they went on to speak of a piece at
the Gaiety, in which some lovely little children danced better than any
grown-up persons. Pauline, saddened for a moment at the sight of her
omelet, which was overdone, recovered her spirits on finding that it
tasted fairly well.
“Pass the wine,” said she to Denise. “You should take an omelet.”
“Oh! the beef is enough for me,” replied the young girl, who, in order
to avoid expense, contented herself with the food provided by the
house, no matter how repugnant it might be.
When the waiter brought in the baked rice, the other young ladies
protested. They had refused it the previous week, and had hoped it
would not appear again. Denise, inattentive, worrying the more about
Jean after Clara’s stories, was the only one to eat it; and all the
others looked at her with disgust. There was a great demand for extras,
they gorged themselves with jam. Moreover this was a sort of elegance,
they considered it aristocratic to feed themselves at their own expense.
“You know that the gentlemen have complained,” said the delicate
little girl from the under-linen department, “and the management has
But the others interrupted her with a burst of laughter, and began
to rail at the management. Coffee was taken by all excepting Denise,
who couldn’t bear it, she said. And they lingered there before their
cups, the young ladies from the under-linen department all middle-class
simplicity in their woollen dresses, and the young ladies from the
mantle department arrayed in silk, their napkins tucked under their
chins, in order not to stain their gowns, like ladies who might have
come down to the servants’ hall to dine with their chamber-maids.
Having opened the glazed sash of the air-hole to change the stifling
poisoned air, they were speedily obliged to close it for the cab-wheels
seemed to be passing over the table.
“Hush!” whispered Pauline; “here’s that old beast!”
It was inspector Jouve, who was rather fond of prowling about at meal
times, when the young ladies were there. He was supposed, in fact, to
look after their dining-rooms. With a smiling face he would come in
and walk round the tables; sometimes he would even indulge in a little
gossip, and inquire if they had made a good lunch. But as he annoyed
them and made them feel uncomfortable, they all hastened to get away.
Although the bell had not rung, Clara was the first to disappear; the
others followed her, and soon only Denise and Pauline remained. The
latter, after drinking her coffee, was finishing her chocolate drops.
But all at once she got up, saying: “I’m going to send a messenger for
some oranges. Are you coming?”
“Presently,” replied Denise, who was nibbling at a crust, determined to
wait till the last, so that she might be able to see Robineau on her
way upstairs.
However, when she found herself alone with Jouve she felt uneasy and
annoyed, and quitted the table; but as she was going towards the door
he stopped her saying: “Mademoiselle Baudu—-”
Erect before her, he was smiling with a paternal air. His thick grey
moustache and short cropped hair gave him a respectable military
appearance; and he threw out his chest, on which was displayed the red
ribbon of his decoration.
“What is it, Monsieur Jouve?” asked she, feeling reassured.
“I caught you again this morning talking upstairs behind the carpet
department. You know it is not allowed, and if I reported you–She must
be very fond of you, your friend Pauline.” His moustache quivered, and
his huge nose seemed all aflame. “What makes you so fond of each other,
Denise had again been seized with an uneasy feeling. He was getting too
close, and was speaking in her face.
“It’s true we were talking, Monsieur Jouve,” she stammered, “but
there’s no harm in talking a bit. You are very kind to me, and I’m very
much obliged to you.”
“I ought not to be kind,” said he. “Justice, and nothing more, is my
motto. But when it’s a pretty girl—-”
And thereupon he came closer still, and she felt really afraid.
Pauline’s words returned to her memory and she recalled the stories
which were told of old Jouve’s goings-on.
“Leave me alone,” she murmured drawing back.
“Come,” said he, “you are not going to play the savage with me, who
always treat you so well. Be amiable, come and take a cup of tea and a
slice of bread-and-butter with me this evening. You are very welcome.”
She was struggling now. “No! no!” she exclaimed.
The dining-room remained empty, the waiter had not come back. Jouve,
listening for the sound of any footsteps, cast a rapid glance around
him; and then, very excited, losing all control over himself, he
attempted to kiss her on the neck.
“What a spiteful, stupid little girl you are!” he said.
But she was quite shocked and terrified by the approach of his burning
face, and all at once she gave him so rough a push that he staggered
and nearly fell upon the table. Fortunately, a chair saved him; but in
the shock, some wine left in a glass spurted on to his white necktie,
and soaked his decoration. And he remained there, without wiping
himself, choked with anger at such brutality.
“Ah, you will be sorry for this, on my word of honour!” he growled
between his teeth.
Denise ran away. Just at that moment the bell rang; but sorely
perturbed, still shuddering, she forgot Robineau, and went straight up
to her counter. And she did not dare to go down again. As the sun fell
on the frontage of the Place Gaillon of an afternoon, they were soon
all stifling in the first-floor rooms, notwithstanding the grey linen
blinds. A few customers came, put the young ladies into perspiration,
and went away without buying anything. Every one was yawning even
under Madame Aurélie’s big sleepy eyes. At last towards three o’clock,
Denise, seeing the first-hand falling asleep, quietly slipped off,
and resumed her journey across the shop, with a busy air. To put the
curious ones, who might be watching her, off the scent, she did not go
straight to the silk department; pretending that she wanted something
among the laces, she went up to Deloche, and asked him a question; and
then, on reaching the ground-floor, she passed through the printed
cottons department, and was just going into the cravat gallery, when
she stopped short, startled and surprised. Jean was before her.
“What! it’s you?” she murmured, quite pale.
He was wearing his working blouse, and was bare-headed, with his hair
in disorder, its curls falling over his girlish face. Standing before a
show-case of narrow black neckties, he appeared to be thinking deeply.
“What are you doing here?” resumed Denise.
“What do you think?” replied he. “I was waiting for you. You won’t
let me come. So I came in all the same but haven’t said anything to
anybody. You may be quite easy. Pretend not to know me, if you like.”
Some salesmen were already looking at them in astonishment. Jean
lowered his voice. “She wanted to come with me, you know. Yes, she is
close by, opposite the fountain. Give me the fifteen francs quick, or
we are done for as sure as the sun is shining on us!”
Denise then lost her head. The lookers-on were grinning, listening
to this adventure. And as behind the cravat department there was a
staircase leading to the basement, she hastily pushed her brother,
and made him go down. Once below he resumed his story, embarrassed,
inventing his facts as he went on, and fearing that he might not be
“The money is not for her. She is too respectable for that. And as for
her husband, he does not care a straw for fifteen francs. No, it’s for
a low fellow, one of her friends, who saw me kissing her, and if I
don’t give him this money this evening—-”
“Be quiet,” murmured Denise. “Presently, do get along.”
They were now in the parcels office. The dead season had steeped the
vast basement in a sort of torpor, in the pale light falling from the
air-holes. It was cool as well, and a silence fell from the ceiling.
However, there was a porter collecting from one of the compartments a
few parcels for the neighbourhood of the Madeleine; and, on the large
sorting-table, sat Campion, the chief clerk, his legs dangling, and his
eyes wandering.
Jean began again: “The husband, who has a big knife—-”
“Get along!” repeated Denise, still pushing him forward.
They followed one of the narrow passages, where the gas was always kept
burning. In the dark vaults to the right and the left were the reserve
goods, shadowy behind the gratings. At last she stopped opposite one of
these. Nobody was likely to pass that way; but the assistants were not
allowed there, and she shuddered.
“If this rascal says anything,” resumed Jean, “the husband, who has a
big knife—-”
“But where do you expect me to find fifteen francs?” exclaimed Denise
in despair. “Can’t you be more careful? You’re always getting into some
stupid scrape!”
He struck his chest. Amidst all his romantic inventions he had almost
forgotten the exact truth. He dramatized his pecuniary wants, but there
was always some immediate necessity behind his display. “By all that’s
sacred, it’s really true this time,” said he.
She stopped him again, and lost her temper, tortured and completely at
a loss. “I don’t want to know,” she replied. “Keep your wicked conduct
to yourself. It’s too bad, you ought to know better! You’re always
tormenting me. I’m killing myself to keep you in money. Yes, I have to
stay up all night at work. Not only that, but you are taking the bread
out of your little brother’s mouth.”
Jean stood there with his mouth agape, and his face paling. What! it
was wicked? And he could not understand; from infancy he had always
treated his sister like a comrade, and thought it quite a natural thing
to open his heart to her. But what upset him above all else was to
learn that she stopped up all night. The idea that he was killing her,
and taking Pépé’s share as well, affected him so much that he began to
“You’re right; I’m a scamp,” he exclaimed. “Really now, I am quite
furious with myself! I could slap my face!” He had taken her hands,
and was kissing them and inundating them with tears. “Give me the
fifteen francs, and this shall be the last time, I swear it to you. Or
rather–no!–don’t give me anything. I prefer to die. If the husband
murders me it will be a good riddance for you.” And as she was now
crying as well, he became stricken with remorse. “I say that, but of
course I’m not sure. Perhaps he doesn’t want to kill any one. We’ll
manage. I promise you that, little sister. Good-bye, I’m off.”
However, a sound of footsteps at the end of the passage suddenly
frightened them. She quickly drew him close to the grating, in a
dark corner. For an instant they heard nothing but the hissing of
a gas-burner near them. Then the footsteps drew nearer; and, on
stretching out her neck, she recognised inspector Jouve, who had just
entered the corridor, with his stiff military walk. Was he there by
chance, or had some one at the door warned him of Jean’s presence? She
was seized with such fright that she quite lost her head; and, pushing
Jean out of the dark spot where they were concealed, drove him before
her, stammering out: “Be off! Be off!”
Both galloped along, hearing Jouve behind them, for he also had began
to run. And again they crossed the parcels office, and reached the foot
of the stairs leading out into the Rue de la Michodière.
“Be off!” repeated Denise, “be off! If I can, I’ll send you the fifteen
francs all the same.”
Jean, bewildered, scampered away. The inspector, who came up panting,
out of breath, could only distinguish a corner of his white blouse, and
his locks of fair hair flying in the wind. For a moment Jouve remained
trying to get his breath back and resume his dignified demeanour. He
now wore a brand-new white necktie which he had purchased in the linen
department and the large bow of which glistened like snow.
“Well! this is nice behaviour, mademoiselle!” said he, his lips
trembling. “Yes, it’s nice, very nice! If you think I’m going to stand
this sort of thing you’re mistaken.”
And with this remark he pursued her whilst she was returning to the
shop, overcome with emotion and unable to find a word of defence. She
was sorry now that she had run away. Why hadn’t she explained the
matter, and brought her brother forward? They would now imagine all
sorts of villanies, and, say what she might, they would never believe
her. Once more she forgot Robineau, and went back to her counter,
while Jouve repaired to the manager’s office to report the matter. But
the messenger on duty told him that Monsieur Mouret was with Monsieur
Bourdoncle and Monsieur Robineau; they had been talking together for
the last quarter of an hour. In fact, the door was half-open, and he
could hear Mouret gaily asking Robineau if he had spent a pleasant
holiday; there was not the least question of a dismissal–on the
contrary, the conversation fell on certain things to be done in the
silk department.
“Do you want anything, Monsieur Jouve?” exclaimed Mouret. “Come in.”
But a sudden instinct warned the inspector. As Bourdoncle had come
out, he preferred to relate everything to him; and they slowly passed
through the shawl department, walking side by side, the one leaning
over and talking in a low tone, the other listening without a muscle of
his severe face betraying his impressions.
“All right,” he said at last.
And as they had arrived at the mantle department, he went in. Just at
that moment Madame Aurélie was scolding Denise. Where had she come from
again? This time she couldn’t say that she had been to the work-room.
Really, these continual absences could not be tolerated any longer.
“Madame Aurélie!” cried Bourdoncle.
He had decided on a bold stroke, not wishing to consult Mouret, for
fear of some weakness. The first-hand came up, and the story was
once more related in a low voice. All the girls were waiting in the
expectation of some catastrophe. At last, Madame Aurélie turned round
with a solemn air.
“Mademoiselle Baudu!” she called, and her puffy Cæsarian countenance
assumed the inexorable sternness of sovereign power: “Go and get paid!”
The terrible phrase rang out loudly in the empty department. Denise
stood there pale as a ghost, without saying a word. At last she was
able to ask in broken sentences:
“Me! me! What for? What have I done?”
Bourdoncle harshly replied that she knew very well, that she had better
not provoke any explanation; and he spoke of the cravats, and added
that it would be a fine thing if all the young ladies were to receive
men down in the basement.
“But it was my brother!” she cried with the grievous anger of an
outraged virgin.
Marguerite and Clara began to laugh. Madame Frédéric, usually so
discreet, shook her head with an incredulous air. Always her brother!
Really it was very stupid! Denise looked round at all of them: at
Bourdoncle, who had taken a dislike to her from the first; Jouve,
who had stopped to serve as a witness, and from whom she expected no
justice; and then at those girls whom she had not been able to soften
by nine months of smiling courage, who were happy, in fact, to help
in turning her out of doors. What was the use of struggling? what was
the use of trying to impose herself on them when none of them liked
her? And she went away without a word, not even casting another look
at the room where she had so long battled. But as soon as she was
alone, before the hall staircase, a deeper sense of suffering filled
her heart. No one cared for her, and the sudden thought of Mouret had
just deprived her of all resignation. No! no! she could not accept
such a dismissal. Perhaps he would believe that villanous story of a
rendezvous with a man down in the cellars. At this thought, a feeling
of shame tortured her, an anguish with which she had never before been
afflicted. She wished to go and see him to explain the matter to him,
simply in order to let him know the truth; for she was quite ready to
go away as soon as he should know it. And her old fear, the shiver
which chilled her whenever she was in his presence, suddenly developed
into an ardent desire to see him, not to leave the house in fact
without telling him that she had never belonged to another.
It was nearly five o’clock, and the shop was waking into life again
in the cool evening air. She quickly started off for Mouret’s office.
But when she reached the door, a hopeless, melancholy feeling again
took possession of her. Her tongue refused its office, the intolerable
burden of existence again fell on her shoulders. He would not believe
her, he would laugh like the others, she thought; and this idea made
her almost faint away. All was over, she would be better alone, out
of the way, dead! And thereupon, without informing either Pauline or
Deloche, she at once went for her money.
“You have twenty-two days, mademoiselle,” said the clerk, “that makes
eighteen francs and fourteen sous; to which must be added seven francs
for commission. That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Thanks.”
And Denise was about to go off with her money, when she at last met
Robineau. He had already heard of her dismissal, and promised to find
the necktie-dealer. Then in a lower tone he tried to console her, but
lost his temper: what an existence, to be at the continual mercy of
a whim! to be thrown on to the pavement at an hour’s notice, without
even being able to claim a full month’s salary. Denise went up to
inform Madame Cabin that she would endeavour to send for her box during
the evening. It was just striking five when she found herself on the
pavement of the Place Gaillon, bewildered, in the midst of the crowd of
people and vehicles.
That same evening when Robineau got home he received a letter from the
management informing him, in a few lines, that for certain reasons
relating to internal arrangements they were obliged to deprive
themselves of his services. He had been at The Paradise for seven
years, and only that afternoon had been talking to the principals. Thus
it was a heavy blow for him. Hutin and Favier, however, were crowing
in the silk department, as loudly as Clara and Marguerite in the other
one. A jolly good riddance! Such clean sweeps made room for others!
Deloche and Pauline were the only ones who when they met amidst the
crush of the galleries exchanged distressful words, in their regret at
the departure of Denise, so virtuous and gentle.
“Ah,” said the young man, “if ever she succeeds anywhere else, I
should like to see her come back here, and trample on all those
good-for-nothing creatures!”
It was Bourdoncle who in this affair had to bear the brunt of Mouret’s
anger. When the latter heard of Denise’s dismissal, he was exceedingly
annoyed. As a rule he never interfered with the staff; but this time
he affected to see an encroachment on his attributions, an attempt to
over-ride his authority. Was he no longer master in the place, that
they dared to give orders? Everything must pass through his hands,
absolutely everything; and he would immediately crush any one who
should resist. Then, after making personal inquiries, all the while in
a nervous torment which he could not conceal, he again lost his temper.
The poor girl had not lied; it was really her brother. Campion had
fully recognised him. Why had she been sent away, then? He even spoke
of taking her back.
However, Bourdoncle, strong is his passive resistance, bent before the
storm. He studied Mouret, and one day when he saw him a little calmer
he ventured to say in a meaning voice: “It’s better for everybody that
she’s gone.”
Mouret stood there looking very awkward, the blood rushing to his face.
“Well!” he replied laughing, “perhaps you’re right. Let’s go and take a
turn downstairs. Things are looking better, the receipts rose to nearly
a hundred thousand francs yesterday.”