Behind the curtain of falling rain

Denise had come on foot from the Saint-Lazare railway station, where
a Cherbourg train had landed her and her two brothers, after a night
spent on the hard seat of a third-class carriage. She was leading Pépé
by the hand, while Jean followed her; all three of them exhausted by
their journey, frightened and lost in that vast city of Paris, their
eyes raised to the house fronts and their tongues for ever inquiring
the way to the Rue de la Michodière, where their uncle Baudu lived.
However, as she at last emerged into the Place Gaillon, the girl
stopped short in astonishment.

“Oh! just look there, Jean,” said she; and they remained stock still,
nestling close to one another, dressed from head to foot in black, the
old mourning bought at their father’s death. Denise, rather puny for
her twenty years, was carrying a small parcel in one hand, while on the
other side, her little brother, five years old, clung to her arm, and
in the rear her big brother in the flower of his sixteen summers stood
erect with dangling arms.

“Well I never,” said she, after a pause, “that _is_ a shop!”

They were at the corner of the Rue de la Michodière and the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, in front of a draper’s shop, whose windows
displayed a wealth of bright colour in the soft, pale October light.
Eight o’clock was striking at the church of Saint-Roch; and only
the early birds of Paris were abroad, a few clerks on their way to
business, and housewives flitting about on their morning shopping.
Before the door of the drapery establishment, two shopmen, mounted on
a step-ladder, were hanging up some woollen goods, whilst in a window
facing the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin another young man, kneeling with
his back to the pavement, was delicately plaiting a piece of blue silk.
In the shop, which was as yet void of customers, and whose employees
were only just beginning to arrive, there was a low buzz as in a bee
hive just awakening.

“By Jove!” said Jean, “this beats Valognes. Yours wasn’t such a fine
shop.”

Denise shook her head. She had spent two years at Valognes, with
Cornaille, the principal draper in the town; and this Parisian shop
so suddenly encountered and to her so vast made her heart swell and
detained her there, interested, impressed, forgetful of everything
else. The lofty plate-glass door in a corner facing the Place Gaillon
reached the first storey amidst a medley of ornaments covered with
gilding. Two allegorical female figures, with laughing faces and
bare bosoms unrolled a scroll bearing the inscription “The Ladies’
Paradise”; then, on either side, along the Rue de la Michodière and the
Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, stretched the windows of the establishment,
not limited merely to the corner house but comprising four others–two
on the right and two on the left which had been recently purchased and
fitted up. It all appeared endless to Denise, thus seen in perspective,
with the display down below and the plate glass windows above, through
which a long line of counters was to be perceived. Upstairs a young
lady, dressed in silk, could be espied sharpening a pencil, while two
others, beside her, were unfolding some velvet mantles.

“The Ladies’ Paradise,” read Jean, with a soft laugh, like a handsome
youth who already has thoughts of women. “That’s a pretty name–that
must draw customers–eh?”

But Denise was absorbed by the display at the principal entrance.
There, in the open street, on the very pavement, she beheld a mass of
cheap goods–doorway temptations, bargains to attract the passer-by.
Pieces of woollen and cloth goods, merinoes, cheviots, and tweeds,
hung from above like bunting, with their neutral, slate, navy-blue,
and olive-green tints relieved by large white price-tickets. Close by,
on either side of the doorway, dangled strips of fur, narrow bands
for dress trimmings, ashen-hued Siberian squirrel-skin, swansdown of
spotless snowiness, and rabbit-skin transformed into imitation ermine
and imitation sable. Below, in boxes and on tables, amidst piles of
remnants, appeared a quantity of hosiery which was virtually given
away; knitted woollen gloves, neckerchiefs, women’s hoods, cardigan
waistcoats, a complete winter show with colours in mixtures, patterns
and stripes and here and there a flaming patch of red. Denise saw some
tartan at nine sous, some strips of American bison at a franc the
mètre, and some mittens at five sous a pair. An immense clearance sale
was apparently going on; the establishment seemed to be bursting with
goods, blocking up the pavement with the surplus of its contents. Uncle
Baudu was forgotten. Even Pépé, clinging tightly to his sister’s hand,
opened his big eyes in wonder. However a vehicle in coming up forced
them to quit the roadway, and they mechanically turned into the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, following the windows and stopping at each fresh
display. At first they were captivated by an intricate arrangement:
up above a number of umbrellas, placed obliquely, seemed to form a
rustic roof; upon rods beneath them hung a quantity of silk stockings
displaying neat ankles and well rounded calves, some of them dotted
with rosebuds, others of divers hues, the black ones open-worked and
the red ones elegantly clocked; whilst those which were of a flesh
tint, looked, with their satiny texture, as soft as skin itself. Then,
on the baize covering of the show-stage, came a symmetrical array of
gloves with extended fingers and narrow palms recalling the hands of
Byzantine Virgins, all the rigid and, as it were, adolescent grace
which characterises feminine frippery before it is worn. However, it
was especially the last window which detained their eyes. An exhibition
of silks, satins and velvets, in a supple, vibrating scale of colour,
here set, as in full bloom, the most delicate hues of the floral
world. At the top were the velvets, deeply black, or white as curds;
lower down came the satins, pinks and blues, bright at their folds,
then fading into paler and paler tints of infinite delicacy; and lower
still were silks, the rainbow’s variegated scarf, the several pieces
cocked shell-wise, plaited as though round some female waist, endowed,
as it were, with life by the skilful manipulation of the employees;
and between each _motif_, each glowing phrase of the display ran a
discreet accompaniment, a light, puffy roll of creamy _foulard_. Here
too at either end of the window, were huge piles of the two silks which
were the exclusive property of the establishment, the “Paris Delight”
and the “Golden Grain”–articles of exceptional quality destined to
revolutionize the silk trade.

“Oh! look at that _faille_ at five francs sixty!” murmured Denise,
transported with astonishment at sight of the “Paris Delight”.

Jean, however, was getting bored and stopped a passer-by. “Which is the
Rue de la Michodière, please, sir?”

On hearing that it was the first on the right they all turned back,
making the tour of the establishment. But just as she was entering the
street, Denise was again attracted by a window in which ladies’ mantles
were displayed. At Cornaille’s the mantles had been her department,
but she had never seen anything like this, and remained rooted to the
spot with admiration. At the rear a large scarf of Bruges lace, of
considerable value, was spread out like an altar-veil, with its two
creamy wings extended; then there were flounces of Alençon, grouped in
garlands; and from the top to the bottom, like falling snow, fluttered
lace of every description–Malines, Valenciennes, Brussels, and
Venetian-point. On each side pieces of cloth rose up in dark columns
imparting distance to the background. And the mantles were here, in
this sort of chapel raised to the worship of woman’s beauty and grace.
In the centre was a magnificent article, a velvet mantle trimmed
with silver fox; on one side of it appeared a silk cloak lined with
miniver, on the other a cloth cloak edged with cocks’ plumes; and, last
of all, some opera cloaks in white cashmere and quilted silk trimmed
with swansdown or chenille. There was something for every taste, from
the opera cloaks at twenty-nine francs to the velvet mantle which was
marked eighteen hundred. The round busts of the dummies filled out
the stuff, the prominent hips exaggerating the slimness of the waists
and the absent heads being replaced by large price-tickets pinned on
the necks, whilst the mirrors, on each side of the window, reflected
and multiplied all these forms, peopling the street, as it were, with
beautiful women for sale, each bearing a price in big figures in lieu
of a head.

“How stunning they are!” murmured Jean, finding no other words to
express his emotion.

This time he himself had become motionless, and stood there gaping.
All this female luxury turned him rosy with pleasure. He had a girl’s
beauty–a beauty which he seemed to have stolen from his sister–a
fair white skin, ruddy curly hair, lips and eyes overflowing with
tenderness. By his side Denise, with her rather long face, large mouth,
fading complexion and light hair, appeared thinner still. Pépé, who
was also fair, with the fairness of infancy, now clung closer to her,
as if anxious to be caressed, perturbed and delighted as he was by the
sight of the beautiful ladies in the window. And those three fair ones,
poorly clad in black, that sad-looking girl between the pretty child
and the handsome youth, looked so strange yet so charming standing
there on the pavement, that the passers-by glanced back smilingly.

For some minutes a stout man with grey hair and a large yellow face
had been looking at them from a shop-door on the other side of the
street. He had been standing there with bloodshot eyes and contracted
mouth, beside himself with rage at the display made by The Ladies’
Paradise, when the sight of the girl and her brothers had completed his
exasperation. What were those three simpletons doing there, gaping in
front of the cheap-jack’s show booth?

“What about uncle?” asked Denise, suddenly, as if just waking up.

“We are in the Rue de la Michodière,” replied Jean. “He must live
somewhere about here.”

They raised their heads and looked round; and just in front of them,
above the stout man, they perceived a green sign-board on which in
yellow letters, discoloured by the rain was the following inscription:
“THE OLD ELBEUF. Cloths and Flannels. BAUDU, late HAUCHECORNE.” The
house, coated with ancient rusty paint, and quite flat and unadorned
amidst the surrounding mansions of the Louis XIV. period, had only
three front windows up above, square and shutterless windows simply
provided with handrails supported by two iron bars placed crosswise.
But what most struck Denise, whose eyes were full of the bright display
of The Ladies’ Paradise, was the low ground-floor shop, surmounted
by an equally low storey with half-moon windows, of prison-like
appearance. Right and left, framed round by wood work of a bottle-green
hue, which time had tinted with ochre and bitumen, were two deep
windows, black and dusty, in which pieces of cloth heaped one on
another could vaguely be seen. The open doorway seemed to conduct into
the darkness and dampness of a cellar.

“That’s the house,” said Jean.

“Well, we must go in,” declared Denise. “Come on, Pépé.”

All three, however, grew somewhat troubled, as if seized with fear.
When their father had died, carried off by the same fever which a month
previously had killed their mother, their uncle Baudu, in the emotion
born of this double bereavement, had certainly written to Denise,
assuring her that there would always be a place for her in his house
whenever she might like to try fortune in Paris. But this had taken
place nearly a year ago, and the young girl was now sorry that she
should have so impulsively left Valognes without informing her uncle.
The latter did not know them, never having set foot in the little town
since the day when he had left it as a boy, to enter the service of the
draper Hauchecorne, whose daughter he had subsequently married.

“Monsieur Baudu?” asked Denise, at last making up her mind to speak to
the stout man who was still eyeing them, surprised by their appearance
and manners.

“That’s me,” he replied.

Then Denise blushed deeply and stammered: “Oh, I’m so pleased! I am
Denise. This is Jean, and this is Pépé. You see, we have come, uncle.”

Baudu seemed lost in amazement. His big eyes rolled in his yellow face;
he spoke slowly and with difficulty. He had evidently been far from
thinking of this family which now suddenly dropped down upon him.

“What–what, you here?” he several times repeated. “But you were at
Valognes. Why aren’t you at Valognes?”

In her sweet but rather faltering voice she then explained that since
the death of her father, who had spent every penny he possessed in
his dye-works, she had acted as a mother to the two children; but the
little she had earned at Cornaille’s did not suffice to keep the three
of them. Jean certainly worked at a cabinet-maker’s, a repairer of
old furniture, but didn’t earn a sou. Still, he had got to like the
business, and had even learned to carve. One day, having found a piece
of ivory, he had amused himself by carving it into a head, which a
gentleman staying in the town had seen and praised; and this gentleman
it was who had been the cause of their leaving Valognes, as he had
found Jean a place with an ivory-carver in Paris.

“So you see, uncle,” continued Denise, “Jean will commence his
apprenticeship at his new master’s to-morrow. They ask no premium, and
will board and lodge him. And so I felt sure that Pépé and I would be
able to jog along. At all events we can’t be worse off than we were at
Valognes.”

She said nothing about a certain love affair of Jean’s, of certain
letters which he had written to the daughter of a nobleman of the town,
of the kisses which the pair had exchanged over a wall–in fact, quite
a scandal which had strengthened her in her determination to leave. And
if she was so anxious to be in Paris herself it was that she might be
able to look after her brother, feeling, as she did, quite a mother’s
tender anxiety for this gay and handsome youth, whom all the women
adored. Uncle Baudu, however, couldn’t get over it, but continued his
questions.

“So your father left you nothing,” said he. “I certainly thought there
was still something left. Ah! how many times did I write advising him
not to take those dye-works! He was a good-hearted fellow certainly,
but he had no head for business And you were left with those two
youngsters to look after–you’ve had to keep them, eh?”

His bilious face had now become clearer, his eyes were not so bloodshot
as when he had stood glaring at The Ladies’ Paradise. All at once he
noticed that he was blocking up the doorway. “Well,” said he, “come in,
now you’re here. Come in, that’ll be better than gaping at a parcel of
rubbish.”

And after addressing a last pout of anger to The Ladies’ Paradise, he
made way for the children by entering the shop and calling his wife and
daughter: “Elizabeth, Geneviève, come down; here’s company for you!”

Denise and the two boys, however, hesitated at sight of the darkness
of the shop. Blinded by the clear outdoor light, they blinked as on
the threshold of some unknown pit, and felt their way with their feet
with an instinctive fear of encountering some treacherous step. And
drawn yet closer together by this vague fear, the child still holding
the girl’s skirts, and the big boy behind, they made their entry with
a smiling, anxious grace. The clear morning light outlined the dark
silhouettes of their mourning clothes; and an oblique ray of sunshine
gilded their fair hair.

“Come in, come in,” repeated Baudu.

Then, in a few sentences he explained matters to his wife and
daughter. The former was a little woman, consumed by anæmia and quite
white–white hair, white eyes and white lips. Geneviève, the daughter,
in whom the maternal degeneracy appeared yet more marked, had the
sickly, colourless appearance of a plant reared in the shade. However,
a thick, heavy crop of magnificent black hair, marvellously vigorous
for such poor soil, gave her, as it were, a mournful charm.

“Come in,” said both the women in their turn; “you are welcome.” And
they at once made Denise sit down behind a counter.

Pépé then jumped upon his sister’s lap, whilst Jean leant against the
panelling beside her. They were regaining their assurance and looking
round the shop where their eyes had grown used to the obscurity. They
could now distinctly see it all, with its low and smoky ceiling, its
oaken counters polished by use, and its old-fashioned nests of drawers
with strong iron fittings. Bales of dark goods reached to the beams
above; a smell of wool and dye–a sharp chemical smell–prevailed,
intensified it seemed by the humidity of the floor. At the further end
two young men and a young woman were putting away some pieces of white
flannel.

“Perhaps this young gentleman would like to take something?” said
Madame Baudu, smiling at Pépé.

“No, thanks,” replied Denise, “we each had a cup of milk at a café
opposite the station.” And as Geneviève looked at the small parcel she
had laid on the floor near her, she added: “I left our box there too.”

She blushed as she spoke feeling that she ought not to have dropped
down on her friends in this way. Even in the train, just as she was
leaving Valognes, she had been assailed by regrets and fears; and this
was why she had left the box at the station and given the children
their breakfast immediately on arriving in Paris.

“Well, well,” suddenly said Baudu, “let’s come to an understanding.
‘Tis true that I wrote to you, but that was a year ago, and since then
business hasn’t been flourishing, I can assure you, my girl.”

He stopped short, choked by an emotion he did not wish to show.
Madame Baudu and Geneviève, had cast down their eyes with an air of
resignation.

“Oh,” continued he, “it’s a crisis which will pass, no doubt, I’m not
uneasy; but I have reduced my staff; there are only three here now, and
this is not the moment to engage a fourth. In short, my poor girl, I
cannot take you as I promised.”

Denise listened, aghast and very pale. He repeated his words, adding:
“It would do no good to either of us.”

“All right, uncle,” at last she replied, with a painful effort, “I’ll
try to manage all the same.”

The Baudus were not bad sort of people. But they complained of never
having had any luck. In the flourishing days of their business, they
had had to bring up five sons, of whom three had died before attaining
the age of twenty; the fourth had gone wrong, and the fifth had just
started for Mexico, as a captain. Geneviève was the only one now left
at home. From first to last, however, this large family had cost a deal
of money, and Baudu had made things worse by buying a great lumbering
country house, at Rambouillet, near his wife’s father’s place. Thus,
a sharp, sour feeling was springing up in the honest old tradesman’s
breast.

“You might have warned us,” he resumed, gradually getting angry at
his own harshness. “You might have written and I should have told you
to stay at Valognes. When I heard of your father’s death I said what
is right on such occasions, but you drop down on us without a word of
warning. It’s very awkward.”

He raised his voice, as he thus relieved himself. His wife and
daughter still kept their eyes on the floor, like submissive persons
who would never think of interfering. Jean, however, had turned pale,
whilst Denise hugged the terrified Pépé to her bosom. Hot tears of
disappointment fell from her eyes.

“All right, uncle,” she said, “we’ll go away.”

At that he ceased speaking, and an awkward silence ensued. Then he
resumed in a surly tone: “I don’t mean to turn you out. As you are here
you can sleep upstairs to-night; after that, we’ll see.”

Then, as he glanced at them, Madame Baudu and Geneviève understood that
they were free to arrange matters. And all was soon settled. There was
no need to trouble about Jean, as he was to enter on his apprenticeship
the next day. As for Pépé, he would be well looked after by Madame
Gras, an old lady who rented a large ground floor in the Rue des
Orties, where she boarded and lodged young children for forty francs a
month. Denise said that she had sufficient to pay for the first month,
and, so the only remaining question was to find a place for herself.
Surely they would be able to discover some situation for her in the
neighbourhood.

“Wasn’t Vinçard in want of a saleswoman?” asked Geneviève.

“Of course, so he was!” cried Baudu; “we’ll go and see him after lunch.
There’s nothing like striking the iron while it’s hot.”

Not a customer had come in to interrupt this family discussion; the
shop remained dark and empty as before. At the far end, the two young
men and the young woman were still working, talking in low sibilant
whispers amongst themselves. At last, however, three ladies arrived,
and Denise was then left alone for a moment. She kissed Pépé with a
swelling heart, at the thought of their approaching separation. The
child, affectionate as a kitten, hid his little head without saying a
word. When Madame Baudu and Geneviève returned, they remarked how quiet
he was, and Denise assured them that he never made any more noise than
that, but remained for days together without speaking, living solely
on kisses and caresses. Then until lunch-time the three women sat and
talked together about children, housekeeping, life in Paris and life in
the country, in curt, cautious sentences, like relations whom ignorance
of one another renders somewhat awkward. Jean meantime had gone to the
shop-door, and stood there watching all the outdoor life and smiling
at the pretty girls. At ten o’clock a servant appeared. As a rule the
cloth was then laid for Baudu, Geneviève, and the first-hand; a second
lunch being served at eleven o’clock for Madame Baudu, the other young
man, and the young woman.

“Come to lunch!” exclaimed the draper, turning towards his niece; and
when they sat ready in the narrow dining-room behind the shop, he
called the first-hand who had lingered behind: “Colomban lunch!”

The young man entered apologising; he had wished to finish arranging
the flannels, he said. He was a big fellow of twenty-five, heavy but
crafty, for although his face, with its large weak mouth, seemed at
first sight typical of honesty there was a veiled cunning in his eyes.

“There’s a time for everything,” rejoined Baudu, who sat before a
piece of cold veal, carving it with a master’s skill and prudence,
calculating the weight of each thin slice to within a quarter of an
ounce.

He served everybody, and even cut up the bread. Denise had placed Pépé
near her to see that he ate properly; but the dark close room made
her feel uncomfortable. She thought it so small, after the large,
well-lighted rooms to which she had been accustomed in the country. A
single window overlooked a small back-yard, which communicated with the
street by a dark passage running along the side of the house. And this
yard, dripping wet and evil-smelling, was like the bottom of some well
into which fell a circular glimmer of light. In the winter they were
obliged to keep the gas burning all day, and when the weather enabled
them to do without it the room seemed more melancholy still. Several
seconds elapsed before Denise’s eyes got sufficiently used to the light
to distinguish the food on her plate.

“That young chap has a good appetite,” remarked Baudu, observing that
Jean had finished his veal. “If he works as well as he eats, he’ll make
a fine fellow. But you, my girl, you are not eating. And, I say, now
that we can talk a bit, tell us why you didn’t get married at Valognes?”

At this Denise almost dropped the glass she held in her hand. “Oh!
uncle–get married! How can you think of it? And the little ones!”

She ended by laughing, it seemed to her such a strange idea. Besides,
what man would have cared to take her–a girl without a sou, no fatter
than a lath, and not at all pretty? No, no, she would never marry, she
had quite enough children with her two brothers.

“You are wrong,” said her uncle; “a woman always needs a man. If you
had found an honest young fellow over there you wouldn’t have dropped
on to the Paris pavement, you and your brothers, like a party of
gipsies.”

He paused in order to apportion with a parsimony full of justice, a
dish of bacon and potatoes which the servant had just brought in. Then,
pointing to Geneviève and Colomban with his spoon, he added: “Those two
will get married next spring, if we have a good winter season.”

Such was the patriarchal custom of the house. The founder, Aristide
Finet, had given his daughter, Désirée, to his first-hand, Hauchecorne;
he, Baudu, who had arrived in the Rue de la Michodière with seven
francs in his pocket, had married old Hauchecorne’s daughter,
Elizabeth; and in his turn he intended to hand over Geneviève and the
business to Colomban as soon as trade should improve. If he still
delayed the marriage which had been decided on three years previously,
it was because a scruple had come to him, a fixed resolve to act in all
honesty. He himself had received the business in a prosperous state,
and did not wish to pass it on to his son-in-law with fewer customers
or doubtful sales. And, continuing his talk, he formally introduced
Colomban, who came from Rambouillet, like Madame Baudu’s father; in
fact they were distant cousins. A hard-working fellow was Colomban,
said he; for ten years he had slaved in the shop, fairly earning all
his promotions! Besides, he was far from being a nobody; his father was
that noted toper, Colomban, the veterinary surgeon so well known all
over the department of Seine-et-Oise, an artist in his line, but so
addicted to the flowing bowl that his money fast slipped through his
fingers.

“Thank heaven!” said the draper in conclusion, “if the father drinks
and runs after women, the son at all events has learnt the value of
money here.”

Whilst he was thus speaking Denise began to examine Geneviève and
Colomban. Though they sat close together at table, they remained
very quiet, without a blush or a smile. From the day of entering the
establishment the young man had counted on this marriage. He had passed
through the various stages of junior hand, salesman, etc., at last
gaining admittance into the confidence and pleasures of the family
circle, and all this patiently, whilst leading a clock-work style of
life and looking upon his marriage with Geneviève as a legitimate
stroke of business. The certainty of having her as his wife prevented
him from feeling any desire for her. On her side the girl had got to
love him with the gravity of her reserved nature, full of a real deep
passion of which she was not aware, in the regulated monotony of her
daily life.

“Oh! it’s quite right, when folks like each other, and can do it,” at
last said Denise, smiling, with a view to making herself agreeable.

“Yes, it always finishes like that,” declared Colomban, who, slowly
masticating, had not yet spoken a word.

Geneviève gave him a long look, and then in her turn remarked: “When
people understand each other, the rest comes naturally.”

Their affection had sprung up in this gloomy nook of old Paris like a
flower in a cellar. For ten years past she had known no one but him,
living by his side, behind the same bales of cloth, amidst the darkness
of the shop; and morning and evening they had found themselves elbow to
elbow in the tiny dining-room, so damp and vault-like. They could not
have been more concealed, more utterly lost had they been far away in
the country, under the screening foliage of the trees. Only the advent
of doubt, of jealous fear, could make it plain to the girl, that she
had given herself, for ever, amidst this abetting solitude, through
sheer emptiness of heart and mental weariness.

As it was, Denise, fancied she could detect a growing anxiety in the
look Geneviève had cast at Colomban, so she good-naturedly replied:
“Oh! when people are in love they always understand each other.”

Meantime Baudu kept a sharp eye on the table. He had distributed some
“fingers” of Brie cheese, and, as a treat for the visitors, called for
a second dessert, a pot of red-currant jam, a liberality which seemed
to surprise Colomban. Pépé, who so far had been very good, behaved
rather badly at the sight of the jam; whilst Jean, his attention
attracted by the conversation about his cousin Geneviève’s marriage,
began to take stock of the girl, whom he thought too puny and too pale,
comparing her in his own mind to a little white rabbit with black ears
and pink eyes.

“Well, we’ve chatted enough, and must make room for the others,” said
the draper, giving the signal to rise from table. “Just because we’ve
had a treat there is no reason why we should want too much of it.”

Madame Baudu, the other shopman, and the young lady then came and
took their places at table. Denise, again left to herself, sat down
near the door waiting until her uncle should be able to take her to
Vinçard’s. Pépé was playing at her feet, whilst Jean had resumed his
post of observation on the threshold. And Denise sat there for nearly
an hour, taking interest in what went on around her. Now and again
a few customers came in; a lady, then two others appeared, the shop
meanwhile retaining its musty odour and its half light, in which
old-fashioned commerce, simple and good natured, seemed to weep at
finding itself so deserted. What most interested Denise, however, was
The Ladies’ Paradise opposite, whose windows she could see through the
open doorway. The sky remained cloudy, a sort of humid mildness warmed
the air, notwithstanding the season; and in the clear light, permeated,
as it were, by a hazy diffusion of sunshine, the great shop acquired
abundant life and activity.

To Denise it seemed as if she were watching a machine working at full
pressure, setting even the window-shows in motion. They were no longer
the cold windows she had seen in the early morning; they seemed to
have been warmed and to vibrate with all the activity within. There
were folks before them, groups of women pushing and squeezing against
the sheets of glass, a perfect crowd excited with covetousness. And in
this passionate atmosphere the stuffs themselves seemed endowed with
life; the laces quivered, drooped, and concealed the depths of the shop
with a disturbing air of mystery; even the thick square-cut lengths
of cloth breathed, exhaling a tempting odour, while the tailor-made
coats seemed to draw themselves up more erectly on the dummies, which
acquired souls, and the velvet mantle expanded, supple and warm, as if
falling from real shoulders, over a heaving bosom and quivering hips.
But the factory-like glow which pervaded the house came above all from
the sales, the crush at the counters, which could be divined behind
the walls. There was the continual roaring of a machine at work, an
engulfing of customers close-pressed against the counters, bewildered
amidst the piles of goods, and finally hurled towards the pay-desks.
And all went on in an orderly manner, with mechanical regularity, force
and logic carrying quite a nation of women through the gearing of this
commercial machine.

Denise had felt tempted ever since early morning. She was bewildered
and attracted by this shop, to her so vast, which she saw more people
enter in an hour than she had seen enter Cornaille’s in six months; and
with her desire to enter it was mingled a vague sense of danger which
rendered her seduction complete. At the same time her uncle’s shop
made her feel ill at ease; she felt unreasonable disdain, instinctive
repugnance for this cold, icy place, the home of old-fashioned trading.
All her sensations–her anxious entry, her relatives’ cold reception,
the dull lunch partaken of in a prison-like atmosphere, her spell of
waiting amidst the sleepy solitude of this old establishment doomed
to speedy decay–all these became concentrated in mute protest, in a
passionate longing for life and light. And despite her good heart, her
eyes ceaselessly turned to The Ladies’ Paradise, as if, saleswoman
as she was, she felt the need of warming herself in the glow of that
immense business.

“Plenty of customers over there at all events!” was the remark which at
last escaped her.

But she promptly regretted these words on seeing the Baudus near her.
Madame Baudu, who had finished her lunch, was standing there, quite
white, with her pale eyes fixed on the monster; and resigned though she
tried to be, she could never catch sight of that place across the road,
without mute despair filling her eyes with tears. As for Geneviève,
she was anxiously watching Colomban, who, unaware that he was being
observed, remained in ecstasy, looking at the young saleswomen in the
mantle department of the Paradise, whose counter was visible through
the first floor window. Baudu, for his part, though his anger was
written on his face, merely remarked: “All is not gold that glitters.
Patience!”

The members of the family evidently kept back the flood of rancour
rising in their throats. A feeling of self-esteem prevented them from
displaying their temper before these children, who had only that
morning arrived. At last the draper made an effort, and tore himself
away from the spectacle of The Paradise and its sales.

“Well!” he resumed, “we’ll go and see Vinçard. Situations are soon
snatched up and it might be too late to-morrow.”

However, before starting, he ordered his junior salesman to go to the
railway station to fetch Denise’s box. On her side Madame Baudu, to
whom the girl had confided Pépé, decided to run over to see Madame Gras
in order to arrange about the child. Jean on the other hand promised
his sister not to stir from the shop.

“It’s two minutes’ walk,” explained Baudu as he went down the Rue
Gaillon with his niece: “Vinçard has a silk business, and still does a
fair trade. Oh, of course he has his worries, like every one else, but
he’s an artful fellow, who makes both ends meet by his miserly ways. I
fancy, though, he wants to retire, on account of his rheumatics.”

Vinçard’s shop was in the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, near the Passage
Choiseul. It was clean and light, well fitted up in the modern style,
but rather small, and contained but a poor stock. Baudu and Denise
found Vinçard in consultation with two gentlemen.

“Never mind us,” called out the draper; “we are in no hurry; we can
wait.” And discreetly returning to the door he whispered to Denise:
“That thin fellow is second in the silk department at The Paradise, and
the stout man is a silk manufacturer from Lyons.”

Denise gathered that Vinçard was trying to sell his business to
Robineau of The Paradise. With a frank air, and open face, he was
giving his word of honour, with the facility of a man whom assurances
never troubled. According to him, his business was a golden one; and
albeit in the splendour of robust health he broke off to whine and
complain of those infernal pains of his which prevented him from
remaining in business and making his fortune. Robineau who seemed
nervous and uneasy interrupted him impatiently. He knew what a crisis
the trade was passing through, and named a silk warehouse which had
already been ruined by the vicinity of The Paradise. Then Vinçard,
inflamed, raised his voice.




“No wonder! The downfall of that big booby Vabre was a foregone
conclusion. His wife spent everything he earned. Besides, we are more
than five hundred yards away, whilst Vabre was almost next door to The
Paradise.”

Gaujean, the silk manufacturer, then chimed in, and their voices
fell again. He accused the big establishments of ruining French
manufactures; three or four laid down the law, reigning like masters
over the market; and he gave it as his opinion that the only way to
fight them was to favour the small traders; above all, those who dealt
in specialties, for to them the future belonged. For that reason he
offered Robineau plenty of credit.

“See how you have been treated at The Paradise,” said he. “No notice
has been taken of your long service. You had the promise of the
first-hand’s place long ago, when Bouthemont, an outsider without any
claim at all, came in and got it at once.”

Robineau was still smarting under this act of injustice. However, he
hesitated to start business on his own account, explaining that the
money came from his wife, who had inherited sixty thousand francs, and
he was full of scruples regarding this money, saying that he would
rather cut off his right hand than compromise it in a doubtful affair.

“No,” said he, “I haven’t yet made up my mind; give me time to think
over it. We’ll have another talk about it.”

“As you like,” replied Vinçard, concealing his disappointment under
a smiling countenance. “My interest, you know, is not to sell; and I
certainly shouldn’t were it not for my rheumatics—-”

Then stepping to the middle of the shop, he inquired: “What can I do
for you, Monsieur Baudu?”

The draper, who had been slily listening, thereupon introduced Denise,
telling Vinçard as much as he thought necessary of her story and adding
that she had two years’ country experience. “And as I heard you are
wanting a good saleswoman—-” he added.

But Vinçard, affecting extreme sorrow, cut him short: “How
unfortunate!” said he. “I had, indeed, been looking for a saleswoman
all this week; but I’ve just engaged one–not two hours ago.”

A silence ensued. Denise seemed to be in consternation. Robineau,
who was looking at her with interest, probably inspired with pity by
her poverty-stricken appearance, ventured to remark: “I know they’re
wanting a young person at our place, in the mantle department.”

At this Baudu could not restrain a fervent outburst: “At your place
indeed! Never!”

Then he stopped short in embarrassment. Denise had turned very red;
she would never dare to enter that great shop, and yet the idea of
belonging to it filled her with pride.

“Why not?” asked Robineau, surprised. “It would be a good opening
for the young lady. I advise her to go and see Madame Aurélie, the
first-hand, to-morrow. The worst that can happen to her is to be
refused.”

The draper, to conceal his inward revolt, then began talking vaguely.
He knew Madame Aurélie, or, at least, her husband, Lhomme, the cashier,
a stout man, who had had his right arm crushed by an omnibus. Then
suddenly turning to Denise, he added: “However, it’s her business, it
isn’t mine. She can do as she likes.”

And thereupon he went off, after wishing Gaujean and Robineau
“good-day”. Vinçard accompanied him as far as the door, reiterating
his regrets. The girl meantime had remained in the middle of the shop,
intimidated yet desirous of asking Robineau for further particulars.
However she could not muster the courage to do so, but in her turn
bowed, and simply said: “Thank you, sir.”

On the way back, Baudu said nothing to his niece, but as if carried
away by his reflections walked on very fast, forcing her to run in
order to keep up with him. On reaching the Rue de la Michodière, he
was about to enter his establishment when a neighbouring shopkeeper,
standing at his door, called to him.

Denise stopped and waited.

“What is it, Père Bourras?” asked the draper.

Bourras was a tall old man, with a prophet’s head, bearded and hairy,
with piercing eyes shining from under bushy brows. He kept an umbrella
and walking-stick shop, did repairs, and even carved handles, which
had won for him an artistic celebrity in the neighbourhood. Denise
glanced at the windows of his shop where the sticks and umbrellas were
arranged in straight lines. But on raising her eyes she was astonished
by the appearance of the house–it was an old hovel squeezed in between
The Ladies’ Paradise and a large Louis XIV. mansion; you could hardly
conceive how it had sprung up in the narrow slit where its two low
dumpy storeys displayed themselves. Had it not been for the support of
the buildings on either side it must have fallen; the slates of its
roof were old and rotten, and its two-windowed front was cracked and
covered with stains, running down in long rusty lines to the worm-eaten
sign-board over the shop.

“You know he’s written to my landlord, offering to buy the house?” said
Bourras, looking steadily at the draper with his fiery eyes.

Baudu became paler still, and bent his shoulders. There was a silence,
during which the two men remained face to face, looking very serious.

“We must be prepared for anything,” murmured Baudu at last.

Thereupon Bourras flew into a passion, shaking his hair and flowing
beard while he shouted: “Let him buy the house, he’ll have to pay four
times the value for it! But I swear that as long as I live he shan’t
touch a stone of it. My lease has twelve years to run yet. We shall
see! we shall see!”

It was a declaration of war. Bourras was looking towards The Ladies’
Paradise, which neither of them had named. For a moment Baudu remained
shaking his head in silence, and then crossed the street to his shop,
his legs almost failing him as he repeated: “Ah! good Lord! ah! good
Lord!”

Denise, who had listened, followed her uncle. Madame Baudu had just
come back with Pépé, whom Madame Gras had agreed to receive at any
time. Jean, however, had disappeared, and this made his sister anxious.
When he returned with a flushed face, talking in an animated way of
the boulevards, she looked at him with such a sad expression that he
blushed with shame. Meantime their box had arrived, and it was arranged
that they should sleep in the attic.

“Ah! By the way, how did you get on at Vinçard’s?” inquired Madame
Baudu.

The draper thereupon gave an account of his fruitless errand, adding
that Denise had heard of a situation; and, pointing to The Ladies’
Paradise with a scornful gesture, he exclaimed: “There–in there!”

The whole family felt hurt at the idea. The first dinner was at five
o’clock. Denise and the two children sat down to it with Baudu,
Geneviève, and Colomban. A single gas jet lighted and warmed the little
dining-room which reeked with the smell of food. The meal passed off in
silence, but at dessert Madame Baudu, who was restless, left the shop,
and came and sat down behind Denise. And then the storm, kept back
all day, broke out, one and all seeking to relieve their feelings by
abusing the “monster”.

“It’s your business, you can do as you like,” repeated Baudu. “We
don’t want to influence you. But if you only knew what sort of place
it is—-” And in broken sentences he commenced to relate the story
of that Octave Mouret to whom The Paradise belonged. He had been
wonderfully lucky! A fellow who had come up from the South of France
with the smiling audacity of an adventurer, who had no sooner arrived
in Paris than he had begun to distinguish himself by all sorts of
disgraceful pranks, figuring most prominently in a matrimonial scandal,
which was still the talk of the neighbourhood; and who, to crown all,
had suddenly and mysteriously made the conquest of Madame Hédouin, who
had brought him The Ladies’ Paradise as a marriage portion.

“That poor Caroline!” interrupted Madame Baudu. “We were distantly
related. If she had lived things would be different. She wouldn’t have
let them ruin us like this. And he’s the man who killed her. Yes, with
that very building! One morning, when she was visiting the works,
she fell into a hole, and three days after she died. A fine, strong,
healthy woman, who had never known what illness was! There’s some of
her blood in the foundations of that house.”

So speaking she pointed to the establishment opposite with her pale
and trembling hand. Denise, listening as to a fairy tale, slightly
shuddered; the sense of fear which had mingled with the temptation
she had felt since morning, was due, perhaps, to the presence of that
woman’s blood, which she fancied she could now detect in the red mortar
of the basement.

“It seems as if it brought him good luck,” added Madame Baudu, without
mentioning Mouret by name.

But the draper, full of disdain for these old women’s tales, shrugged
his shoulders and resumed his story, explaining the situation
commercially. The Ladies’ Paradise had been founded in 1822 by two
brothers, named Deleuze. On the death of the elder, his daughter,
Caroline, had married the son of a linen manufacturer, Charles Hédouin;
and, later on, becoming a widow, she had married Mouret. She thus
brought him a half share in the business. Three months after the
marriage, however, the second brother Deleuze died childless; so that
when Caroline met her death, Mouret became sole heir, sole proprietor
of The Ladies’ Paradise. Yes, he had been wonderfully lucky!

“He’s what they call a man of ideas, a dangerous busybody, who will
overturn the whole neighbourhood if he’s left to himself!” continued
Baudu. “I fancy that Caroline, who was rather romantic also, must have
been carried away by the gentleman’s extravagant plans. In short, he
persuaded her to buy the house on the left, then the one on the right;
and he himself, on becoming his own master, bought two others; so that
the establishment has kept on growing and growing to such a point that
it now threatens to swallow us all up!”

He was addressing Denise, but was in reality speaking for himself,
feeling a feverish longing to recapitulate this story which continually
haunted him. At home he was always angry and full of bile, always
violent, with fists ever clenched. Madame Baudu, ceasing to interfere,
sat motionless on her chair; Geneviève and Colomban, with eyes cast
down, were picking up and eating the crumbs off the table, just for the
sake of something to do. It was so warm, so stuffy in that tiny room
that Pépé had fallen asleep with his head on the table, and even Jean’s
eyes were closing.

“But wait a bit!” resumed Baudu, seized with a sudden fit of anger,
“such jokers always go to smash! Mouret is hard-pushed just now; I
know that for a fact. He’s been forced to spend all his savings on his
mania for extensions and advertisements. Moreover, in order to raise
additional capital, he has induced most of his shop-people to invest
all they possess with him. And so he hasn’t a sou to help himself with
now; and, unless a miracle be worked, and he manages to treble his
sales, as he hopes to do, you’ll see what a crash there’ll be! Ah! I’m
not ill-natured, but that day I’ll illuminate my shop-front, I will, on
my word of honour!”

And he went on in a revengeful voice; to hear him you would have
thought that the fall of The Ladies’ Paradise would restore the
dignity and prestige of commerce. Had any one ever seen such doings?
A draper’s shop selling everything! Why not call it a bazaar at once?
And the employees! a nice set they were too–a lot of puppies, who
did their work like porters at a railway station, treating both goods
and customers as if they were so many parcels; taking themselves off
or getting the sack at a moment’s notice. No affection, no morals,
no taste! And all at once he appealed to Colomban as a witness; he,
Colomban, brought up in the good old school, knew how long it took to
learn all the cunning and trickery of the trade. The art was not to
sell much, but to sell dear. And then too, Colomban could tell them how
he had been treated, carefully looked after, his washing and mending
done, nursed in illness, considered as one of the family–loved, in
fact!

“Of course, of course,” repeated Colomban, after each statement made by
his governor.

“Ah, you’re the last of the old stock, my dear fellow,” Baudu ended by
declaring. “After you’re gone there’ll be none left. You are my sole
consolation, for if all that hurry and scurry is what they now call
business I understand nothing of it and would rather clear out.”

Geneviève, with her head on one side as if her thick hair were weighing
down her pale brow, sat watching the smiling shopman; and in her
glance there was a gleam of suspicion, a wish to see whether Colomban,
stricken with remorse, would not blush at all this praise. But, like
a fellow well acquainted with every trick of the old style of trade,
he retained his sedateness, his good-natured air, with just a touch of
cunning about his lips. However, Baudu still went on, louder than ever,
accusing the people opposite–that pack of savages who murdered each
other in their struggle for existence–of even destroying all family
ties. And he mentioned his country neighbours, the Lhommes–mother,
father, and son–all employed in the infernal shop, people who
virtually had no home but were always out and about, leading a hotel,
_table d’hôte_ kind of existence, and never taking a meal at their
own place excepting on Sundays. Certainly his dining-room wasn’t over
large or too well aired or lighted; but at least it spoke to him of his
life, for he had lived there amidst the affection of his kith and kin.
Whilst speaking, his eyes wandered about the room; and he shuddered
at the unavowed idea that if those savages should succeed in ruining
his trade they might some day turn him out of this hole where he was
so comfortable with his wife and child. Notwithstanding the seeming
assurance with which he predicted the utter downfall of his rivals, he
was in reality terrified, feeling at heart that the neighbourhood was
being gradually invaded and devoured.

“Well, I don’t want to disgust you,” he resumed, trying to calm
himself; “if you think it to your interest to go there, I shall be the
first to say, ‘go.'”

“I am sure of that, uncle,” murmured Denise in bewilderment, her desire
to enter The Ladies’ Paradise, growing keener and keener amidst all
this display of passion.

Baudu had put his elbows on the table, and was wearying her with
his fixed stare. “But look here,” he resumed; “you who know the
business, do you think it right that a simple draper’s shop should
sell everything? Formerly, when trade was trade, drapers sold nothing
but drapery. But now they are doing their best to snap up every branch
of trade and ruin their neighbours. The whole neighbourhood complains
of it, every small tradesman is beginning to suffer terribly. This
man Mouret is ruining them. For instance, Bédoré and his sister, who
keep the hosiery shop in the Rue Gaillon, have already lost half their
customers; Mademoiselle Tatin, who sells under-linen in the Passage
Choiseul, has been obliged to lower her prices, to be able to sell at
all. And the effects of this scourge, this pest, are felt as far as
the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, where I hear that Messrs. Vanpouille
Brothers, the furriers, cannot hold out much longer. Ah! Drapers
selling fur goods–what a farce! another of Mouret’s ideas!”

“And gloves,” added Madame Baudu; “isn’t it monstrous? He has even
dared to add a glove department! Yesterday, when I passed down the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, I saw Quinette, the glover, at his door, looking
so downcast that I hadn’t the heart to ask him how business was going.”

“And umbrellas,” resumed Baudu; “that’s the climax! Bourras is
convinced that Mouret simply wants to ruin him; for, in short, where’s
the rhyme between umbrellas and drapery? But Bourras is firm on his
legs, and won’t let himself be butchered! We shall see some fun one of
these days.”

Then Baudu went on to speak of other tradesmen, passing the whole
neighbourhood in review. Now and again he let slip a confession. If
Vinçard wanted to sell it was time for the rest to pack up, for Vinçard
was like the rats who make haste to leave a house when it threatens
ruin. Then, however, immediately afterwards, he contradicted himself,
and talked of an alliance, an understanding between the small tradesmen
to enable them to fight the colossus. For a moment, his hands shaking,
and his mouth twitching nervously, he hesitated as to whether he should
speak of himself. At last he made up his mind to do so.

“As for me,” he said, “I can’t complain as yet. Of course he has
done me harm, the scoundrel! But up to the present he has only kept
ladies’ cloths, light stuffs for dresses and heavier goods for mantles.
People still come to me for men’s goods, velvets and velveteens for
shooting suits, cloths for liveries, without speaking of flannels and
_molletons_, of which I defy him to show so complete an assortment as
my own. But he thinks he will annoy me by placing his cloth department
right in front of my door. You’ve seen his display, haven’t you? He
always places his finest mantles there, surrounded by a framework of
cloth in pieces–a cheapjack parade to tempt the hussies. Upon my word,
I should be ashamed to use such means! The Old Elbeuf has been known
for nearly a hundred years, and has no need of any such catchpenny
devices at its door. As long as I live, it shall remain as I took it,
with its four samples on each side, and nothing more!”

The whole family was becoming affected; and after a spell of silence
Geneviève ventured to make a remark:

“Our customers know and like us, papa,” said she. “We mustn’t lose
heart. Madame Desforges and Madame de Boves have been to-day, and I am
expecting Madame Marty for some flannel.”

“For my part,” declared Colomban, “I took an order from Madame
Bourdelais yesterday. ‘Tis true she spoke of an English cheviot marked
up opposite ten sous cheaper than ours, and the same stuff, it appears.”

“Fancy,” murmured Madame Baudu in her weak voice, “we knew that house
when it was scarcely larger than a handkerchief! Yes, my dear Denise,
when the Deleuzes started it, it had only one window in the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin; and such a tiny one, there was barely room for a
couple of pieces of print and two or three pieces of calico. There was
no room to turn round in the shop, it was so small. At that time The
Old Elbeuf, after sixty years’ trading, was already such as you see it
now. Ah! all has greatly changed, greatly changed!”

She shook her head; the drama of her whole life was expressed in those
few words. Born in the old house, she loved each of its damp stones,
living only for it and by it; and, formerly so proud of that house,
the finest, the best patronised in the neighbourhood, she had had
the daily grief of seeing the rival establishment gradually growing
in importance, at first disdained, then equal to her own and finally
towering above it, and threatening all. This was to her an ever-open
sore; she was slowly dying from sheer grief at seeing The Old Elbeuf
humiliated; if she still lived it was, as in the case of the shop
itself, solely by the effect of impulsion; but she well realised that
the death of the shop would be hers as well, and that she would pass
away on the day when it should close.

Silence fell. Baudu began softly beating a tattoo with his fingers on
the American cloth on the table. He experienced a sort of lassitude,
almost a regret at having once more relieved his feelings in this way.
The whole family shared his despondency, and with dreamy eyes chewed
the cud of his bitter story. They never had had any luck. The children
had been brought up and fortune had seemed at hand, when suddenly this
competition had arisen and ruined all their hopes. And there was, also,
that house at Rambouillet, that country house to which the draper had
been dreaming of retiring for the last ten years–a bargain, he had
thought when he acquired it, but it had proved a sorry old building,
always in want of repairs, and he had let it to people who never
paid any rent. His last profits were swallowed up by this place–the
only folly he had been guilty of in his honest, upright career as a
tradesman stubbornly attached to the old ways.

“Come, come!” he suddenly exclaimed, “we must make room for the others.
That’s enough of this useless talk!”

It was like an awakening. The gas was hissing in the lifeless, stifling
air of the tiny room. They all jumped up, breaking the melancholy
silence. Pépé, however, was sleeping so soundly that they decided to
lay him on some bales of cloth. Jean had already returned to the street
door yawning.

“In short,” repeated Baudu to his niece, “you can do as you like.
We have explained the matter to you, that’s all. You know your own
business best.”

He gave her an urgent glance, waiting for a decisive answer. But
Denise, whom these stories had inspired with a still greater longing to
enter The Ladies’ Paradise, instead of turning her from it, retained
her quiet gentle demeanour beneath which lurked a genuine Norman
obstinacy. And she simply replied: “We’ll see, uncle.”

Then she spoke of going to bed early with the children, for they were
all three very tired. But it had only just struck six, so she decided
to stay in the shop a little longer. Night had now come on, and she
found the street quite dark, drenched by a fine close rain, which had
been falling since sunset. It came on her as a surprise. A few minutes
had sufficed to fill the roadway with puddles, a stream of dirty
water was running along the gutters, the pavement was sticky with a
thick black mud; and through the beating rain she saw nothing but a
confused stream of umbrellas, pushing along and swelling in the gloom
like great black wings. She started back at first, feeling very cold,
oppressed at heart by the badly-lighted shop, now so extremely dismal.
A moist breeze, the breath of that old quarter of Paris, came in from
the street; it seemed as if the rain, streaming from the umbrellas,
was running right up to the counters, as if the pavement with its mud
and its puddles was coming into the shop, putting the finishing touch
to the mouldiness of that ancient, cavernous ground-floor, white with
saltpetre. It was quite a vision of old Paris in the wet, and it made
her shiver with distressful astonishment at finding the great city so
cold and so ugly.

But across the road The Ladies’ Paradise glowed with its deep, serried
lines of gas jets. She moved nearer, again attracted and, as it were,
warmed by that ardent blaze. The machine was still roaring, active as
ever, letting its steam escape with a last roar, whilst the salesmen
folded up the stuffs, and the cashiers counted the receipts. Seen
through the hazy windows, the lights swarmed vaguely, revealing a
confused factory-like interior. Behind the curtain of falling rain,
the vision, blurred and distant, assumed the appearance of a giant
furnace-house, where the shadows of firemen passed black against the
red glare of the furnaces. The displays in the windows likewise became
indistinct: you could only distinguish the snowy lace, its whiteness
heightened by the ground glass globes of a row of gas jets, and against
this chapel-like background the ready-made goods stood out vigorously,
the velvet mantle trimmed with silver fox setting amidst them all the
curved silhouette of a headless woman who seemed to be running through
the rain to some entertainment in the unknown shades of nocturnal Paris.

Denise, yielding to the fascination, had gone to the door, heedless of
the raindrops dripping upon her. At this hour, The Ladies’ Paradise,
with its furnace-like brilliancy, completed its conquest of her. In the
great metropolis, black and silent beneath the rain–in this Paris, to
which she was a stranger, it shone out like a lighthouse, and seemed
to be of itself the life and light of the city. She dreamed of her
future there, working hard to bring up the children, with other things
besides–she hardly knew what–far-off things however, the desire and
fear of which made her tremble. The idea of that woman who had met her
death amidst the foundations came back to her; and she felt afraid,
fancying that the lights were tinged with blood; but the whiteness of
the lace quieted her, a hope, quite a certainty of happiness, sprang up
in her heart, whilst the fine rain, blowing on her, cooled her hands,
and calmed the feverishness within her, born of her journey.

“It’s Bourras,” all at once said a voice behind her.

She leant forward, and perceived the umbrella-maker, motionless before
the window containing the ingenious roof-like construction of umbrellas
and walking-sticks which she had noticed in the morning. The old man
had slipped up there in the dark, to feast his eyes on that triumphant
show; and so great was his grief that he was unconscious of the rain
beating down on his bare head, and streaming off his long white hair.

“How stupid he is, he’ll make himself ill,” resumed the voice.

Then, turning round, Denise again found the Baudus behind her. Though
they thought Bourras so stupid, they also, despite themselves, ever
and ever returned to the contemplation of that spectacle which rent
their hearts. It was, so to say, a rageful desire to suffer. Geneviève,
very pale, had noticed that Colomban was watching the shadows of the
saleswomen pass to and fro on the first floor opposite; and, whilst
Baudu almost choked with suppressed rancour, Madame Baudu began
silently weeping.

“You’ll go and see, to-morrow, won’t you, Denise?” asked the draper,
tormented with uncertainty, but feeling that his niece was conquered
like the rest.

She hesitated, then gently replied: “Yes, uncle, unless it pains you
too much.”