Could she be the woman who was to avenge all the others?

Every Saturday, between four and six, Madame Desforges offered a cup of
tea and a few cakes to those friends who were kind enough to visit her.
She occupied the third floor of a house at the corner of the Rue de
Rivoli and the Rue d’Alger; and the windows of both drawing-rooms
overlooked the Tuileries Gardens. This Saturday, just as a footman was
about to introduce him into the principal drawing-room, Mouret perceived
from the anteroom, through an open door, Madame Desforges, who was
crossing the little drawing-room. She stopped on seeing him, and he went
in that way, bowing to her with a ceremonious air. But when the footman
had closed the door, he quickly seized the young woman’s hand, and
tenderly kissed it.

“Take care, I have company!” she said, in a low voice, glancing towards
the door of the larger room. “I’ve just been to fetch this fan to show
them,” and she playfully tapped him on the face with the tip of the fan.
She was dark, rather stout, with big jealous eyes.

But he still held her hand and asked: “Will he come?”

“Certainly,” replied she. “I have his promise.”

Both of them referred to Baron Hartmann, director of the Credit
Immobilier. Madame Desforges, daughter of a Councillor of State, was
the widow of a stock-broker, who had left her a fortune, denied by some,
exaggerated by others. Even during her husband’s lifetime people said
she had shown herself grateful towards Baron Hartmann, whose financial
tips had proved very useful to them; and later on, after her husband’s
death, the acquaintance had probably continued, but always discreetly,
without imprudence or display; for she never courted notoriety in any
way, and was received everywhere in the upper-middle classes amongst
whom she was born. Even at this time, when the passion of the banker, a
sceptical, crafty man, had subsided into a simple paternal affection, if
she permitted herself certain lovers whom he tolerated, she displayed
in these treasons of the heart such a delicate reserve and tact, a
knowledge of the world so adroitly applied, that appearances were saved,
and no one would have ventured to openly express any doubt as to
her conduct Having met Mouret at a mutual friend’s, she had at first
detested him; but she had yielded to him later on, as if carried away by
the violent love with which he attacked her, and since he had commenced
to approach Baron Hartmann through her, she had gradually got to love
him with a real profound tenderness, adoring him with the violence of a
woman already thirty-five, although only acknowledging twenty-nine,
and in despair at feeling him younger than herself, trembling lest she
should lose him.

“Does he know about it?”

“No, you’ll explain the affair to him yourself,” she replied.

She looked at him, thinking that he couldn’t know anything or he would
not employ her in this way with the baron, affecting to consider him
simply as an old friend of hers. But he still held her hand, he called
her his good Henriette, and she felt her heart melting. Silently she
presented her lips, pressed them to his, then whispered: “Oh, they’re
waiting for me. Come in behind me.”

They could hear voices issuing from the principal drawingroom, deadened
by the heavy curtains. She pushed the door, leaving its two folds open,
and handed the fan to one of the four ladies who were seated in the
middle of the room.

“There it is,” said she; “I didn’t know exactly where it was. My maid
would never have found it.” And she added in her cheerful way: “Come in,
Monsieur Mouret, come through the little drawing-room; it will be less
solemn.”

Mouret bowed to the ladies whom he knew. The drawingroom, with its
flowered brocatel Louis XVI. furniture, gilded bronzes and large green
plants, had a tender feminine air, notwithstanding the height of the
ceiling; and through the two windows could be seen the chestnut trees in
the Tuileries Gardens, their leaves blowing about in the October wind.

“But it isn’t at all bad, this Chantilly!” exclaimed Madame Bourdelais,
who had taken the fan.

She was a short fair woman of thirty, with a delicate nose and sparkling
eyes, an old school-fellow of Henriette’s, and who had married a chief
clerk in the Treasury. Of an old middle-class family, she managed her
household and three children with a rare activity and good grace, and an
exquisite knowledge of practical life.

“And you paid twenty-five francs for it?” resumed she, examining each
mesh of the lace. “At Luc, I think you said, to a country woman? No, it
isn’t dear; but you had to get it mounted, hadn’t you?”

“Of course,” replied Madame Desforges. “The mounting cost me two hundred
francs.”

Madame Bourdelais began to laugh. And that was what Henriette called a
bargain! Two hundred francs for a plain ivory mount, with a monogram!
And that for a simple piece of Chantilly, over which she had saved five
francs, perhaps. Similar fans could be had ready, mounted for a hundred
and twenty francs, and she named a shop in the Rue Poissonnière.

However, the fan was handed round to all the ladies. Madame Guibal
barely glanced at it. She was a tall, thin woman, with red hair, and
a face full of indifference, in which her grey eyes, occasionally
penetrating her unconcerned air, cast the terrible gleams of
selfishness. She was never seen out with her husband, a barrister
well-known at the Palais de Justice, who led, it was said, a pretty free
life, dividing himself between his law business and his pleasures.

“Oh,” murmured she, passing the fan to Madame de Boves, “I’ve scarcely
bought one in my life. One always receives too many of such things.”

The countess replied with delicate malice: “You are fortunate, my dear,
in having a gallant husband.” And bending over to her daughter, a tall
girl of twenty, she added: “Just look at the monogram, Blanche. What
pretty work! It’s the monogram that must have increased the price like
that.”

Madame de Boves had just turned forty. She was a superb woman, with the
neck of a goddess, a large regular face, and big sleepy eyes, whom her
husband, Inspector-General of the Stud, had married for her beauty. She
appeared quite moved by the delicacy of the monogram, as if seized with
a desire the emotion of which made her turn pale, and turning round
suddenly, she continued: “Give us your opinion, Monsieur Mouret. Is it
too dear–two hundred francs for this mount?”

Mouret had remained standing in the midst of the five women, smiling,
taking an interest in what interested them. He picked up the fan,
examined it, and was about to give his opinion, when the footman opened
the door and announced:

“Madame Marty.”

And there entered a thin, ugly woman, ravaged with the small-pox,
dressed with a complicated elegance. She was of uncertain age, her
thirty-five years appearing sometimes equal to thirty, and sometimes to
forty, according to the intensity of the nervous fever which agitated
her. A red leather bag, which she had not let go, hung from her right
hand.

“Dear madame,” said she to Henriette, “excuse me bringing my bag. Just
fancy, as I was coming along I went into The Paradise, and as I have
again been very extravagant, I did not like to leave it in my cab
for fear of being robbed.” But having perceived Mouret, she resumed
laughingly: “Ah! sir, I didn’t mean to give you an advertisement, for I
didn’t know you were here. But you really have some extraordinary fine
lace just now.”

This turned the attention from the fan, which the young man laid on the
table. The ladies were all anxious to see what Madame Marty had
bought. She was known to be very extravagant, totally unable to resist
temptation, strict in her conduct and incapable of yielding to a lover,
but weak and cowardly, easily conquered before the least bit of finery.
Daughter of a city clerk, she was ruining her husband, a master at the
Lycée Bonaparte, who was obliged to double his salary of six thousand
francs a year by giving private lessons, in order to meet the constantly
increasing household expenses. She did not open her bag, but held it
tight on her lap, and commenced to talk about her daughter Valentine,
fourteen years old, one of her dearest coquetries, for she dressed her
like herself, with all the fashionable novelties of which she submitted
to the irresistible seduction.

“You know,” she said, “they are making dresses trimmed with a
narrow lace for young girls this winter. So when I saw%a very pretty
Valenciennes—-”

And she at last decided to open her bag. The ladies were stretching out
their necks, when, in the midst of the silence, the door-bell was heard.

“It’s my husband,” stammered Madame Marty, very confused. “He promised to
fetch me on leaving the Lycée Bonaparte.”

She quickly shut the bag again, and put it under her chair with an
instinctive movement. All the ladies set up a laugh. This made her
blush for her precipitation, and she put the bag on her knees again,
explaining that men never understood, and that they need not know.

“Monsieur de Boves, Monsieur de Vallagnosc,” announced the footman.

It was quite a surprise. Madame de Boves herself did not expect her
husband. The latter, a fine man, wearing a moustache and an imperial
with the military correctness so much liked at the Tuileries, kissed
the hand of Madame Desforges, whom he had known as a young girl at her
father’s. And he made way to allow his companion, a tall, pale fellow,
of an aristocratic poverty of blood, to make his bow to the lady of the
house. But the conversation had hardly recommenced when two exclamations
were heard:

“What! Is that you, Paul?”

“Why, Octave!”

Mouret and Vallagnosc then shook hands, much to Madame Desforges’s
surprise. They knew each other, then? Of course, they had grown up side
by side at the college at Plassans, and it was quite by chance they had
not met at her house before. However, with their hands still united,
they went into the little drawing-room, just as the servant brought in
the tea, a china service on a silver waiter, which he placed near Madame
Desforges, on a small round marble table with a light copper mounting.
The ladies drew up and began talking louder, all speaking at once,
producing a cross-fire of short disjointed sentences; whilst Monsieur
de Boves, standing up behind them, put in an occasional word with the
gallantry of a handsome functionary. The vast room, so prettily and
cheerfully furnished, became merrier still with these gossiping voices,
and the frequent laughter.

“Ah! Paul, old boy,” repeated Mouret.

He was seated near Vallagnosc, on a sofa. And alone in the little
drawing-room, very coquettish with its pretty silk hangings, out of
hearing of the ladies, and not even seeing them, except through the open
door, the two old friends commenced grinning, examining each other’s
looks, exchanging slaps on the knees. Their whole youthful career was
recalled, the old college at Plassans, with its two courtyards, its
damp classrooms, and the dining-room in which they had consumed so much
cod-fish, and the dormitories where the pillows used to fly from bed
to bed as soon as the monitor began to snore. Paul, belonging to an old
parliamentary family, noble, poor, and proud, was a good scholar,
always at the top of his class, continually held up as an example by
the master, who prophesied for him a brilliant future; whilst Octave
remained at the bottom, stuck amongst the dunces, fat and jolly,
indulging in all sorts of pleasures outside. Notwithstanding the
difference in their characters, a fast friendship had rendered them
inseparable, until their final examinations, which they passed, the one
with honours, the other in a passable manner after two vexatious trials.
Then they went out into the world, and had now met again, after ten
years, already changed and looking older.

“Well,” said Mouret, “what’s become of you?”

“Nothing at all,” replied the other.

Vallagnosc, in the joy of their meeting, retained his tired and
disenchanted air; and as his friend, astonished, insisted, saying: “But
you must do something. What do you do?”

“Nothing,” replied he.

Octave commenced to laugh. Nothing! that wasn’t enough. Little by little
he succeeded in drawing Paul out to tell his story. It was the usual
story of penniless younger sons, who think themselves obliged by their
birth to choose a liberal profession, burying themselves in a sort
of vain mediocrity, happy to escape starvation, notwithstanding their
numerous degrees. He had studied law by a sort of family tradition; and
had since remained a burden on his widowed mother, who even then hardly
knew how to dispose of her two daughters. Having at last got quite
ashamed, he left the three women to vegetate on the remnants of their
fortune, and accepted an appointment in the Ministry of the Interior,
where he buried himself like a mole in its hole.

“What do you get there?” resumed Mouret.

“Three thousand francs.”

“But that’s pitiful pay! Ah! old man, I’m really sorry for you. What! a
clever fellow like you, who floored all of us I And they only give you
three thousand francs a year, after having already ground you down for
five years! No, it isn’t right!” He interrupted himself, and returned to
his own doings. “As for me, I made them a humble bow. You know what I’m
doing?”

“Yes,” said Vallagnosc, “I heard you were in business. You’ve got that
big place in the Place Gaillon, haven’t you?”

“That’s it. Counter-jumper, my boy!”

Mouret raised his head, again slapped him on the knee, and repeated,
with the solid gaiety of a fellow who did not blush for the trade by
which he was making his fortune:

“Counter-jumper, and no mistake! You remember, no doubt, I didn’t bite
much at their machines, although at heart I never thought myself duller
than the others. When I took my degree, just to please the family, I
could have become a barrister or a doctor quite as easily as any of my
school-fellows, but those trades frightened me. I saw so many who were
starving at them that I just threw them over without the least regret,
and pitched head-first into business.”

Vallognosc smiled with an awkward air, and ultimately said: “It’s very
certain your degree can’t be much good to you for selling calico.”

“Well!” replied Mouret, joyously, “all I ask is, that it shall not stand
in my way, and you know, when one has been stupid enough to burden one’s
self with it, it is difficult to get rid of it. One goes at a tortoise’s
pace through life, whilst those who are bare-footed run like madmen.”
Then, noticing that his friend seemed troubled, he took his hand in
his, and continued: “Come, come, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but
confess that your degrees have not satisfied any of your wants. Do you
know that my manager in the silk department will draw more than twelve
thousand francs this year. Just so! a fellow of very clear intelligence,
whose knowledge is confined to spelling, and the first four rules. The
ordinary salesmen in my place make from three to four thousand francs
a year, more than you can earn yourself; and their education was not so
expensive as yours, nor were they launched into the world with a written
promise to conquer it. Of course, it is not everything to make money;
but between the poor devils possessed of a smattering of science who
now block up the liberal professions, without earning enough to keep
themselves from starving, and the practical fellows armed for life’s
struggle, knowing every branch of their trade, by Jove! I don’t hesitate
a moment, I’m for the latter against the former, I think they thoroughly
understand the age they live in!”

His voice had become impassioned. Henriette, who was pouring out the
tea, turned her head. When he caught her smile, at the further end of
the large drawing-room, and saw the other ladies were listening, he was
the first to make merry over his own big phrases.

“In short, old man, every counter-jumper who commences, has, at the
present day, a chance of becoming a millionaire.”

Vallagnosc threw himself back on the sofa indolently, half-closing his
eyes in a fatigued and disdainful attitude, in which a suspicion of
affectation was added to his real hereditary exhaustion.

“Bah!” murmured he, “life isn’t worth all that trouble. There is nothing
worth living for.” And as Mouret, shocked, looked at him with an air of
surprise, he added: “Everything happens and nothing happens; one may as
well stay with one’s arms folded.”

He then explained his pessimism–the mediocrities and the abortions of
existence. For a time he had thought of literature, but his intercourse
with certain poets had filled him with universal despair. He always
arrived at the conclusion that all effort was useless, every hour
equally weary and empty, and the world incurably stupid and dull. All
enjoyment was a failure, and there was no pleasure in wrong-doing even.

“Just tell me, do you enjoy life yourself?” asked he at last.

Mouret was now in a state of astonished indignation, and exclaimed:
“What? Do I enjoy myself? What are you talking about? Why, of course
I do, my boy, and even when things give way, for then I am furious at
hearing them cracking. I am a passionate fellow myself, and don’t
take life quietly; that’s what interests me in it perhaps.” He glanced
towards the drawing-room, and lowered his voice. “Oh! there are some
women who’ve bothered me awfully, I must confess. But when I’ve got hold
of one, I keep her. She doesn’t always escape me, and then I take my
share, I assure you. But it is not so much the women, for to speak
truly, I don’t care a hang for them; it’s the wish to act–to create, in
short. You have an idea; you fight for it, you hammer it into people’s
heads, and you see it grow and triumph. Ah! yes, my boy, I enjoy life!”

All the joy of action, all the gaiety of existence, resounded in these
words. He repeated that he went with the times. Really, a man must be
badly constituted, have his brain and limbs out of order, to refuse to
work in an age of such vast undertakings, when the entire century was
pressing forward with giant strides. And he laughed at the despairing
ones, the disgusted ones, the pessimists, all those weak, sickly members
of our budding sciences, who assumed the weeping airs of poets, or the
mincing ways of sceptics, amidst the immense activity of the present
day. A fine part to play, proper and intelligent, that of yawning before
other people’s labour!

“That’s my only pleasure, yawning in other’s faces,” said Vallagnosc,
smiling with his cold look.

At this Mouret’s passion subsided, and he became affectionate again.
“Ah, Paul, you’re not changed. Just as paradoxical as ever! However,
we’ve not met to quarrel. Each one has his own ideas, fortunately. But
you must come and see my machine at work; you’ll see it isn’t a bad
idea. Come, what news? Your mother and sisters are quite well, I hope?
And weren’t you supposed to get married at Plassans, about six months
ago?”

A sudden movement made by Vallagnosc stopped him; and as the former was
looking round the drawing-room with an anxious expression, Mouret
also turned round, and noticed that Mademoiselle de Boves was closely
watching them. Blanche, tall and stout, resembled her mother; but her
face was already puffed out, her large, coarse features swollen with
unhealthy fat. Paul, in reply to a discreet question, intimated that
nothing was yet settled; perhaps nothing would be settled. He had made
the young person’s acquaintance at Madame Desforges’s, where he had
visited a good deal last winter, but where he very rarely came now,
which explained why he had not met Octave there sooner. In their turn,
the De Boves invited him, and he was especially fond of the father, a
very amiable man, formerly well known about town, who had retired into
his present position. On the other hand, no money. Madame de Boves
having brought her husband nothing but her Juno-like beauty as a
marriage portion, the family were living poorly on the last mortgaged
farm, to which modest revenue was added, fortunately, the nine thousand
francs a year drawn by the count as Inspector-General of the Stud.
And the ladies, mother and daughter, kept very short of money by him,
impoverished by tender escapades outside, were sometimes reduced to
turning their dresses themselves.

“In that case, why marry?” was Mouret’s simple question.

“Well! I can’t go on like this for ever,” said Vallagnosc, with a weary
movement of the eyelids. “Besides, there are certain expectations; we
are waiting the death of an aunt.”

However, Mouret still kept his eye on Monsieur de Boves, who, seated
next to Madame Guibal, was most attentive, and laughing tenderly like
a man on an amorous campaign; he turned to his friend with such a
significant twinkle of the eye that the latter added:

“Not that one. At least not yet. The misfortune is, that his duty calls
him to the four corners of France, to the breeding dépôts, so that he
has continual pretexts for absenting himself. Last month, whilst his
wife supposed him to be at Perpignan, he was living at an hotel, in an
out-of-the-way neighbourhood, with a music-mistress.”

There ensued a pause. Then the young man, who was also watching the
count’s gallantries towards Madame Guibal, resumed in a low tone:
“Really, I think you are right. The more so as the dear lady is not
exactly a saint, if all they say is true. There’s a very amusing story
about her and an officer. But just look at him! Isn’t he comical,
magnetising her with his eyes? The old-fashioned gallantry, my dear
fellow! I adore that man, and if I marry his daughter, he can safely say
it’s for his sake!”

Mouret laughed, greatly amused. He questioned Vallagnosc again, and when
he found that the first idea of a marriage between him and Blanche came
from Madame Desforges, he thought the story better still. That good
Henriette took a widow’s delight in marrying people, so much so, that
when she had provided for the girls, she sometimes allowed their fathers
to choose friends from her company; but all so naturally, with such a
good grace, that no one ever found any food for scandal. And Mouret, who
loved her with the love of an active, busy man, accustomed to reducing
his tenderness to figures, forgot all his calculations of captivation,
and felt for her a comrade’s friendship.

At that moment she appeared at the door of the little drawing-room,
followed by a gentleman, about sixty years old, whose entry had not
been observed by the two friends. Occasionally the ladies’ voices became
sharper, accompanied by the tinkling of the small spoons in the china
cups; and there was heard, from time to time, in the interval of a
short silence, the noise of a saucer laid down too roughly on the marble
table. A sudden gleam of the setting sun, which had just emerged from
behind a thick cloud, gilded the top of the chestnut-trees in the
gardens, and streamed through the windows in a red, golden flame, the
fire of which lighted up the brocatel and brass-work of the furniture.

“This way, my dear baron,” said Madame Desforges. “Allow me to introduce
Monsieur Octave Mouret, who is longing to express the admiration he
feels for you.” And turning round towards Octave, she added: “Baron
Hartmann.”

[Illustration: 0077]

A smile played on the old man’s lips. He was a short, vigorous man, with
a large Alsatian head, and a heavy face, which lighted up with a gleam
of intelligence at the slightest curl of his mouth, the slightest
movement of his eyelids. For the last fortnight he had resisted
Henriette’s wish that he should consent to this interview; not that he
felt any immoderate jealousy, accepting, like a man of the world, his
position of father; but because it was the third friend Henriette had
introduced to him, and he was afraid of becoming ridiculous at last.
So that on approaching Octave he put on the discreet smile of a rich
protector, who, if good enough to show himself charming, does not
consent to be a dupe.

“Oh! sir,” said Mouret, with his Southern enthusiasm, “the Credit
Immobiliers last operation was really astonishing! You cannot think how
happy and proud I am to know you.”

“Too kind, sir, too kind,” repeated the baron, still smiling.

Henriette looked at them with her clear eyes without any awkwardness,
standing between the two, lifting her head, going from one to the other;
and, in her lace dress, which revealed her delicate neck and wrists, she
appeared delighted to see them so friendly together.

“Gentlemen,” said she at last, “I leave you to your conversation.” Then,
turning towards Paul, who had got up, she resumed: “Will you accept of a
cup of tea, Monsieur de Vallagnosc?”

“With pleasure, madame,” and they both returned to the drawing-room.

Mouret resumed his place on the sofa, when Baron Hartmann had sat
down; the young man then broke out in praise of the Credit Immobiliers
operations. From that he went on to the subject so near his heart,
speaking of the new thoroughfare, of the lengthening of the Rue Reaumur,
of which they were going to open a section under the name of the Rue du
Dix-Décembre, between the Place de la Bourse and the Place de
l’Opera. It had been declared a work of public utility eighteen months
previously; the expropriation jury had just been appointed. The whole
neighbourhood was excited about this new opening, anxiously awaiting the
commencement of the work, taking an interest in the condemned houses.
Mouret had been waiting three years for this work–first, in the
expectation of an increase of business; secondly, with certain schemes
of enlargement which he dared not openly avow, so extensive were his
ideas. As the Rue du Dix-Décembre was to cut through the Rue de Choiseul
and the Rue de la Michodière, he saw The Ladies’ Paradise invading
the whole block, surrounded by these streets and the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin; he already imagined it with a princely frontage in
the new thoroughfare, lord and master of the conquered city. Hence his
strong desire to make Baron Hartmann’s acquaintance, when he learnt that
the Crédit Immobilier had made a contract with the authorities to open
and build the Rue du Dix-Décembre, on condition that they received the
frontage ground on each side of the street.

“Really,” repeated he, trying to assume a naïve look, “you’ll hand over
the street ready made, with sewers, pavements, and gas lamps. And the
frontage ground will suffice to compensate you. Oh! it’s curious, very
curious!”

At last he came to the delicate point. He was aware that the Crédit
Immobilier was buying up the houses which surrounded The Ladies’
Paradise, not only those which were to fall under the demolisher’s
hands, but the others as well, those which were to remain standing; and
he suspected the projectment of some future establishment He was very
anxious about the enlargements of which he continued to extend the
dream, seized with fear at the idea of one day clashing with a powerful
company, owning property which they certainly would not part with. It
was precisely this fear which had decided him to establish a connection
immediately between himself and the baron–the amiable connection of a
woman, so powerful between men of a gallant nature. No doubt he could
have seen the financier in his office, and talked over the affair in
question at his ease; but he felt himself stronger in Henriette’s house;
he knew how much the mutual possession of a mistress serves to render
men pliable and tender. To be both near her, within the beloved perfume
of her presence, to have her ready to convince them with a smile, seemed
to him a certainty of success.

“Haven’t you bought the old Hôtel Duvillard, that old building next to
mine?” he asked suddenly.

The baron hesitated a moment, and then denied it. But Mouret looked in
his face and smiled, playing, from that moment, the part of a good young
man, open-hearted, simple, and straightforward in business.

“Look here, baron,” said he, “as I have the unexpected honour of meeting
you, I must make a confession. Oh, I don’t ask you any of your secrets,
but I am going to entrust you with mine, certain that I couldn’t place
them in wiser hands. Besides, I want your advice. I have long wished to
call and see you, but dared not do so.”

He did make his confession, he related his start, not even concealing
the financial crisis through which he was passing in the midst of his
triumph. Everything was brought up, the successive enlargements, the
profits continually put back into the business, the sums brought by his
employees, the house risking its existence at every fresh sale, in which
the entire capital was staked, as it were, on a single throw of the
dice. However, it was not money he wanted, for he had a fanatic’s faith
in his customers; his ambition ran higher; he proposed to the baron a
partnership, into which the Credit Immobilier should bring the colossal
palace he saw in his dreams, whilst he, for his part, would give his
genius and the business already created. The estate could be valued,
nothing appeared to him easier to realise.

“What are you going to do with your land and buildings?” asked he,
persistently. “You have a plan, no doubt. But I’m quite certain your
idea is not so good as mine. Think of that. We build a gallery on the
ground, we pull down or re-arrange the houses, and we open the most
extensive establishment in Paris–a bazaar which will bring in
millions.” And he let slip the fervent heartfelt exclamation: “Ah! if I
could only do without you! But you get hold of everything now. Besides,
I shall never have the necessary capital. Come, we must come to an
understanding. It would be a crime not to do so.”

“How you go ahead, my dear sir!” Baron Hartmann contented himself with
replying. “What an imagination!”

He shook his head, and continued to smile, determined not to return
confidence for confidence. The intention of the Crédit Immobilier was
to create in the Rue du Dix-Décembre a rival to the Grand Hôtel, a
luxurious establishment, the central position of which would attract
foreigners. At the same time, as the hôtel was only to occupy a certain,
frontage, the baron could also have entertained Mouret’s idea, and
treated for the rest of the block of houses, occupying a vast surface.
But he had already advanced funds to two of Henriette’s friends, and
he was getting tired of his position as complacent protector. Besides,
notwithstanding his passion for activity, which prompted him to open his
purse to every fellow of intelligence and courage, Mouret’s commercial
genius astonished more than captivated him. Was it not a fanciful,
imprudent operation, this gigantic shop? Would he not risk a certain
failure in thus enlarging out of all bounds the drapery trade? In short,
he didn’t believe in it; he refused.

“No doubt the idea is attractive, but it’s a poet’s idea. Where would
you find the customers to fill such a cathedral?” Mouret looked at
him for a moment silently, as if stupefied at his refusal. Was it
possible?–a man of such foresight, who smelt money at no matter what
depth! And suddenly, with an extremely eloquent gesture, he pointed to
the ladies in the drawing-room and exclaimed: “There are my customers!”
The sun was going down, the golden-red flame was now but a pale light,
dying away in a farewell gleam on the silk of the hangings and the
panels of the furniture. At this approach of twilight, an intimacy
bathed the large room in a sweet softness. While Monsieur de Boves and
Paul de Vallagnosc were talking near one of the windows, their eyes
wandering far away into the gardens, the ladies had closed up, forming
in the middle of the room a narrow circle of petticoats, from which
issued sounds of laughter, whispered words, ardent questions and
replies, all the passion felt by woman for expenditure and finery. They
were talking about dress, and Madame de Boves was describing a costume
she had seen at a ball.




“First of all, a mauve silk skirt, then over that flounces of old
Alençon lace, twelve inches deep.”

“Oh! is it possible!” exclaimed Madame Marty. “Some women are
fortunate!”

Baron Hartmann, who had followed Mouret’s gesture, was looking at the
ladies through the door, which was wide open. He was listening to them
with one ear, whilst the young man, inflamed by the desire to convince
him, went deeper into the question, explaining the mechanism of the new
style of drapery business. This branch of commerce was now based on a
rapid and continual turning over of the capital, which it was necessary
to turn into goods as often as possible in the same year. Thus, that
year his capital, which only amounted to five hundred thousand francs,
had been turned over four times, and had thus produced business to
the amount of two millions. But this was a mere trifle, which could
be increased tenfold, for later on he certainly hoped to turn over the
capital fifteen or twenty times in certain departments.

“You will understand, baron, that the whole system lies in this. It
is very simple, but it had to be found out. We don’t want a very large
working capital; our sole effort is to get rid as quickly as possible of
our stock to replace it by another, which will give our capital as many
times its interest. In this way we can content ourselves with a very
small profit; as our general expenses amount to the enormous figure of
sixteen per cent., and as we seldom make more than twenty per cent, on
our goods, it is only a net profit of four per cent at most; but this
will finish by bringing in millions when we can operate on considerable
quantities of goods incessantly renewed. You follow me, don’t you?
nothing can be clearer.”

The baron shook his head again. He who had entertained the boldest
combinations, of whom people still quoted the daring flights at the time
of the introduction of gas, still remained uneasy and obstinate.

“I quite understand,” said he; “you sell cheap to sell a quantity, and
you sell a quantity to sell cheap. But you must sell, and I repeat my
former question: Whom will you sell to? How do you hope to keep up such
a colossal sale?”

The sudden burst of a voice, coming from the drawing-room, cut short
Mouret’s explanation. It was Madame Guibal, who was saying she would
have preferred the flounces of old Alençon down the front only.

“But, my dear,” said Madame de Boves, “the front was covered with it as
well. I never saw anything richer.”

“Ah, that’s a good idea,” resumed Madame Desforges, “I’ve got several
yards of Alençon somewhere; I must look them up for a trimming.”

And the voices fell again, becoming nothing but a murmur. Prices were
quoted, quite a traffic stirred up their desires, the ladies were buying
lace by the mile.

“Why!” said Mouret, when he could speak, “we can sell what we like when
we know how to sell! There lies our triumph.”

And with his southern spirit, he showed the new business at work in
warm, glowing phrases which evoked whole pictures. First came the
wonderful power of the piling up of the goods, all accumulated at one
point, sustaining and pushing each other, never any stand-still, the
article of the season always on hand; and from counter to counter the
customer found herself seized, buying here the material, further on the
cotton, elsewhere the mantle, everything necessary to complete her dress
in fact, then falling into unforeseen purchases, yielding to her longing
for the useless and the pretty. He then went on to sing the praises of
the plain figure system. The great revolution in the business sprung
from this fortunate inspiration. If the old-fashioned small shops were
dying out it was because they could not struggle against the low prices
guaranteed by the tickets. The competition was now going on under
the very eyes of the public; a look into the windows enabled them to
contrast the prices; every shop was lowering its rates, contenting
itself with the smallest possible profit; no cheating, no stroke of
fortune prepared long beforehand on an article sold at double its value,
but current operations, a regular percentage on all goods, success
depending solely on the orderly working of a sale all the larger from
the fact of its being carried on in broad daylight. Was it not an
astonishing creation? It was causing a revolution in the market,
transforming Paris, for it was made of woman’s flesh and blood.

“I have the women, I don’t care a hang for the rest!” said Mouret, in a
brutal confession which passion snatched from him.

At this cry Baron Hartmann appeared moved. His smile lost its touch of
irony; he looked at the young man, won over gradually by his confidence,
feeling a growing tenderness for him.

“Hush!” murmured he, paternally, “they will hear you.”

But the ladies were now all speaking at once, so excited that they
weren’t even listening to each other. Madame de Boves was finishing the
description of a dinner-dress; a mauve silk tunic, draped and caught up
by bows of lace; the bodice cut very low, with more bows of lace on the
shoulders.

“You’ll see,” said she. “I am having a bodice made like it, with some
satin—-”

“I,” interrupted Madame Bourdelais, “I wanted some velvet. Oh! such a
bargain!”

Madame Marty asked: “How much for the silk?”

And off they started again, all together. Madame Guibal, Henriette, and
Blanche were measuring, cutting out, and making up. It was a pillage of
material, a ransacking of all the shops, an appetite for luxury which
expended itself in toilettes longed for and dreamed of–such a happiness
to find themselves in an atmosphere of finery, that they lived buried in
it, as in the warm air necessary to their existence.

Mouret, however, had glanced towards the other drawingroom, and in a few
phrases whispered into the baron’s ear, as if he were confiding to him
one of those amorous secrets that men sometimes risk among themselves,
he finished explaining the mechanism of modern commerce. And, above the
facts already given, right at the summit, appeared the exploitation of
woman. Everything depended on that, the capital incessantly renewed, the
system of piling up goods, the cheapness which attracts, the marking
in plain figures which tranquilises. It was for woman that all the
establishments were struggling in wild competition; it was woman that
they were continually catching in the snare of their bargains, after
bewildering her with their displays. They had awakened new desires in
her flesh; they were an immense temptation, before which she succumbed
fatally, yielding at first to reasonable purchases of useful articles
for the household, then tempted by their coquetry, then devoured. In
increasing their business tenfold, in popularising luxury, they became
a terrible spending agency, ravaging the households, working up the
fashionable folly of the hour, always dearer. And if woman reigned
in their shops like a queen, cajoled, flattered, overwhelmed with
attentions, she was an amorous one, on whom her subjects traffic, and
who pays with a drop of her blood each fresh caprice. Through the
very gracefulness of his gallantry, Mouret thus allowed to appear the
brutality of a Jew, selling woman by the pound. He raised a temple to
her, had her covered with incense by a legion of shopmen, created the
rite of a new religion, thinking of nothing but her, continually seeking
to imagine more powerful seductions; and, behind her back, when he had
emptied her purse and shattered her nerves, he was full of the secret
scorn of a man to whom a woman had just been stupid enough to yield
herself.

“Once have the women on your side,” whispered he to the baron, and
laughing boldly, “you could sell the very world.” Now the baron
understood. A few sentences had sufficed, he guessed the rest, and such
a gallant exploitation inflamed him, stirring up in him the memory of
his past life of pleasure. His eyes twinkled in a knowing way, and
he ended by looking with an air of admiration at the inventor of this
machine for devouring the women. It was really clever. He made the same
remark as Bourdoncle, suggested to him by his long experience: “You know
they’ll make you suffer for it.”

But Mouret shrugged his shoulders in a movement of overwhelming disdain.
They all belonged to him, were his property, and he belonged to none
of them. After having drawn from them his fortune and his pleasure, he
intended to throw them all over for those who might still find their
account in them. It was the rational, cold disdain of a Southerner and a
speculator.

“Well! my dear baron,” asked he in conclusion, “will you join me? Does
this affair appear possible to you?”

The baron, half conquered, did not wish, however, to engage himself yet
A doubt remained beneath the charm which was gradually operating on him.
He was going to reply in an evasive manner, when a pressing call from
the ladies spared him the trouble. Voices were repeating, amidst silvery
laughter: “Monsieur Mouret! Monsieur Mouret!” And as the latter, annoyed
at being interrupted, pretended not to hear, Madame de Boves, who had
just got up, came as far as the door of the little drawing-room.

“You are wanted, Monsieur Mouret. It isn’t very gallant of you to bury
yourself in a corner to talk over business.”

He then decided to go, with an apparent good grace, an air of rapture
which astonished the baron. Both rose up and passed into the other
drawing-room.

“But I am quite at your service, ladies,” said he on entering, a smile
on his lips.

He was greeted with a burst of triumph. He was obliged to go further
forward; the ladies made room for him in their midst The sun had just
gone down behind the trees in the gardens, the day was departing, a fine
shadow was gradually invading the vast apartment. It was the tender hour
of twilight, that minute of discreet voluptuousness in the Parisian
houses, between the dying brightness of the street and the lighting of
the lamps downstairs. Monsieur de Boves and Vallagnosc, still standing
up before a window, threw a shadow on the carpet: whilst, motionless
in the last gleam of light which came in by the other window, Monsieur
Marty, who had quietly entered, and whom the conversation of these
ladies about dress had completely confused, placed his poor profile, a
frock-coat, scanty but clean, his face pale and wan from teaching.

“Is your sale still fixed for next Monday?” Madame Marty was just
asking.

“Certainly, madame,” replied Mouret, in a soft, sweet voice, an actor’s
voice, which he assumed when speaking to women.

Henriette then intervened. “We are all going, you know. They say you are
preparing wonders.”

“Oh! wonders!” murmured he, with an air of modest fatuity. “I simply try
to deserve your patronage.”

But they pressed him with questions: Madame Bourdelais, Madame Guibal,
Blanche even wanted to know.

“Come, give us some details,” repeated Madame de Boves, persistently.
“You are making us die of curiosity.”

And they were surrounding him, when Henriette observed that he had not
even taken a cup of tea. It was distressing. Four of them set about
serving him, but on condition that he would answer them afterwards.
Henriette poured it out, Madame Marty held the cup, whilst Madame de
Boves and Madame Bourdelais contended for the honour of sweetening it.
Then, when he had declined to sit down, and commenced to drink his
tea slowly, standing up in the midst of them, they all approached,
imprisoning him in the narrow circle of their skirts; and with their
heads raised, their eyes sparkling, they sat there smiling at him.

“Your silk, your Paris Paradise, that all the papers are taking about?”
resumed Madame Marty, impatiently.

“Oh!” replied he, “an extraordinary article, coarse-grained, supple and
strong. You’ll see it, ladies, and you’ll see it nowhere else, for we
have bought the exclusive right of it.”

“Really! a fine silk at five francs twelve sous!” said Madame
Bourdelais, enthusiastic. “One cannot credit it.”

Ever since the advertisement had appeared, this silk had occupied a
considerable place in their daily life. They talked of it, promising
themselves some of it, worked up with desire and doubt. And, beneath
the gossiping curiosity with which they overwhelmed the young man, there
appeared their various temperaments as buyers.

Madame Marty, carried away by her rage for spending, took everything at
The Ladies’ Paradise, without choosing, just as the articles appeared;
Madame Guibal walked about the shop for hours without ever buying
anything, happy and satisfied to simply feast her eyes; Madame de Boves,
short of money, always tortured by some immoderate wish, nourished a
feeling of rancour against the goods she could not carry away; Madame
Bourdelais, with the sharp eye of a careful practical housewife, made
straight for the bargains, using the big establishments with such a
clever housewife’s skill that she saved a heap of money; and lastly,
Henriette, who, very elegant, only procured certain articles there, such
as gloves, hosiery, and her coarser linen.

“We have other stuffs of astonishing cheapness and richness,” continued
Mouret, with his musical voice. “For instance, I recommend you our
Golden Grain, a taffeta of incomparable brilliancy. In the fancy silks
there are some charming lines, designs chosen from among thousands by
our buyer: and in velvets you will find an exceedingly rich collection
of shades. I warn you that cloth will be greatly worn this year; you’ll
see our checks and our cheviots.”

They had ceased to interrupt him, and narrowed the circle, their mouths
half open with a vague smile, their eager faces close to his, as in a
sudden rush of their whole being towards the tempter. Their eyes grew
dim, a slight shudder ran through them. All this time he retained his
calm, conquering air, amidst the intoxicating perfumes which their hair
exhaled; and between each sentence he continued to sip a little of his
tea, the aroma of which cooled those sharper odours, in which there
was a particle of the savage. Before a captivating grace so thoroughly
master of itself, strong enough to play with woman in this way without
being overcome by the intoxication which she exhales, Baron Hartmann,
who had not ceased to look at him, felt his admiration increasing.

“So cloth will be worn?” resumed Madame Marty, whose ravished face
sparkled with coquettish passion.

Madame Bourdelais, who kept a cool look-out, said, in her turn: “Your
sale of remnants takes place on Thursday, doesn’t it? I shall wait. I
have all my little ones to clothe.” And turning her delicate blonde head
towards the mistress of the house: “Sauveur is still your dressmaker, I
suppose?”

“Yes,” replied Henriette, “Sauveur is very dear, but she is the only one
in Paris who knows how to make a bodice. Besides, Monsieur Mouret may
say what he likes, she has the prettiest designs, designs that are not
seen anywhere else. I can’t bear to see my dresses on every woman’s
back.”

Mouret smiled discreetly at first. Then he intimated that Madame Sauveur
bought her material at his shop; no doubt she went to the manufacturers
direct for certain designs of which she acquired the sole right of sale;
but for all black silks, for instance, she watched for The Paradise
bargains, laying in a considerable stock, which she disposed of at
double and treble the price she gave.

“Thus I am quite sure her buyers will snap up all our Paris Paradise.
Why should she go to the manufacturers and pay dearer for this silk
than she would at my place? On my word of honour, we shall sell it at a
loss.”

This was a decisive blow for the ladies. The idea of getting goods below
cost price awoke in them all the greed felt by women, whose enjoyment
as buyers is doubled when they think they are robbing the tradesman. He
knew them to be incapable of resisting anything cheap.

“But we sell everything for nothing!” exclaimed he gaily, taking
up Madame Desforges’s fan, which was behind him on the table. “For
instance, here’s this fan. I don’t know what it cost.”

“The Chantilly lace was twenty-five francs, and the mounting cost two
hundred,” said Henriette.

“Well, the Chantilly isn’t dear. However, we have the same at eighteen
francs; as for the mount, my dear madame, it’s a shameful robbery. I
should not dare to sell one like it for more than ninety francs.”

“Just what I said!” exclaimed Madame Bourdelais.

“Ninety francs!” murmured Madame de Boves; “one must be very poor indeed
to go without one at that price.”

She had taken up the fan, and was again examining it with her daughter
Blanche; and, on her large regular face, in her big sleepy eyes, there
arose an expression of the suppressed and despairing longing of a
caprice in which she could not indulge. The fan once more went the round
of the ladies, amidst various remarks and exclamations. Monsieur de
Boves and Vallagnosc, however, had left the window. Whilst the former
had returned to his place behind Madame Guibal, the charms of whose bust
he was admiring, with his correct and superior air, the young man was
leaning over Blanche, endeavouring to find something agreeable to say.

“Don’t you think it rather gloomy, mademoiselle, this white mount and
black lace?”

“Oh,” replied she, gravely, not a blush colouring her inflated cheeks,
“I once saw one made of mother-of-pearl and white lace. Something truly
virginal!”

Monsieur de Boves, who had doubtless observed the heartbroken, longing
looks with which his wife was following the fan, at last added his word
to the conversation. “These flimsy things don’t last long, they soon
break,” said he.

“Of course they do!” declared Madame Guibal, with an air of
indifference. “I’m tired of having mine mended.”

For several minutes, Madame Marty, excited by the conversation, was
feverishly turning her red leather bag about on her lap, for she had not
yet been able to show her purchases. She was burning to display them,
with a sort of sensual desire; and, suddenly forgetting her husband’s
presence, she took out a few yards of narrow lace wound on a piece of
cardboard.

“It’s the Valenciennes for my daughter,” said she. “It’s an inch and a
half wide. Isn’t it delicious? One franc eighteen sous.”

The lace was passed from hand to hand. The ladies were astonished.
Mouret assured them he sold these little trimmings at cost price.
However, Madame Marty had closed the bag, as if to conceal certain
things she could not show. But after the success obtained by the
Valenciennes she was unable to resist the temptation of taking out a
handkerchief.

“There was this handkerchief as well. Real Brussels, my dear. Oh! a
bargain! Twenty francs!”

And after that the bag became inexhaustible, she blushed with pleasure,
a modesty like that of a woman undressing herself made her appear more
charming and embarrassed at each fresh article she took out. There was
a Spanish blonde-lace cravat, thirty francs: she didn’t want it, but the
shopman had sworn it was the last, and that in future the price would
be raised. Next came a Chantilly veil: rather dear, fifty francs; if she
didn’t wear it she could make it do for her daughter.

“Really, lace is so pretty!” repeated she with her nervous laugh. “Once
I’m inside I could buy everything.”

“And this?” asked Madame de Boves, taking up and examining a remnant of
Maltese lace.

“That,” replied she, “is for an insertion. There are twenty-six yards–a
franc the yard. Just fancy!”

“But,” said Madame Bourdelais, surprised, “what are you going to do with
it?”

“I’m sure I don’t know. But it was such a funny pattern!”

At this moment she raised her eyes and perceived her terrified husband
in front of her. He had turned paler than usual, his whole person
expressed the patient, resigned anguish of a man assisting, powerless,
at the reckless expenditure of his salary, so dearly earned. Every fresh
bit of lace was for him a disaster; bitter days of teaching swallowed
up, long journeys to pupils through the mud devoured, the continued
effort of his life resulting in a secret misery, the hell of a
necessitous household. Before the increasing wildness of his look, she
wanted to catch up the veil, the cravat, and the handkerchief, moving
her feverish hands about, repeating with forced laughter: “You’ll get
me a scolding from my husband. I assure you, my dear, I’ve been very
reasonable; for there was a fine piece of point at five hundred francs,
oh! a marvel!”

“Why didn’t you buy it?” asked Madame Guibal, calmly. “Monsieur Marty is
the most gallant of men.”

The poor professor was obliged to bow and say his wife was perfectly
welcome. But the idea of this point at five hundred francs was like
a lump of ice dripping down his back; and as Mouret was just at that
moment affirming that the new shops increased the comfort of the
middle-class households, he glared at him with a terrible expression,
the flash of hatred of a timid man who would have throttled him had he
dared.

But the ladies had still kept hold of the bits of lace, fascinated,
intoxicated. The pieces were unrolled, passed from one to the other,
drawing the admirers closer still, holding them in the delicate
meshes. On their laps there was a continual caress of this tissue,
so miraculously fine, and amidst which their culpable fingers fondly
lingered. They still kept Mouret a close prisoner, overwhelming him with
fresh questions. As the day continued to decline, he was now and again
obliged to bend his head, grazing their hair with his beard, to examine
a stitch, or indicate a design. But in this soft voluptuousness of
twilight, in the midst of this warm feminine atmosphere, Mouret still
remained their master beneath the rapture he affected. He seemed, to be
a woman himself, they felt themselves penetrated and overcome by this
delicate sense of their secret that he possessed, and they abandoned
themselves, captivated; whilst he, certain from that moment to have
them at his mercy, appeared, brutally triumphing over them, the despotic
monarch of dress.

“Oh, Monsieur Mouret!” stammered they, in low, hysterical voices, in the
gloom of the drawing-room.

The last rays of the setting sun were dying away on the brass-work
of the furniture. The laces alone retained a snowy reflex on the dark
dresses of the ladies, of which the confused group seemed to surround
the young man with a vague appearance of kneeling, worshipping women. A
light still shone on the side of the silver teapot, a short flame like
that of a night-light, burning in an alcove warmed by the perfume of the
tea. But suddenly the servant entered with two lamps, and the charm was
destroyed. The drawing-room became light and cheerful. Madame Marty was
putting her lace in her little bag, Madame de Boves was eating a sponge
cake, whilst Henriette who had got up, was talking in a half-whisper to
the baron, near one of the windows.

“He’s a charming fellow,” said the baron.

“Isn’t he?” exclaimed she, with the involuntary cry of a woman in love.

He smiled, and looked at her with a paternal indulgence. This was the
first time he had seen her so completely conquered; and, too proud to
suffer from it, he experienced nothing but a feeling of compassion on
seeing her in the hands of this handsome fellow, so tender and yet so
cold-hearted. He thought he ought to warn her, and murmured in a joking
tone: “Take care, my dear, or he’ll eat you all up.”

A flash of jealousy lighted up Henriette’s eyes. Perhaps she understood
Mouret had simply made use of her to get at the baron; and she
determined to render him mad with passion, he whose hurried style of
making love had the easy charm of a song thrown to the four winds of
heaven. “Oh,” said she, affecting to joke in her turn, “the lamb always
finishes up by eating the wolf.”

The baron, greatly amused, encouraged, her with a nod. Could she be the
woman who was to avenge all the others?

When Mouret, after having reminded Vallagnosc that he wanted to show him
his machine at work, came up to take his leave, the baron retained him
near the window opposite the gardens, now buried in darkness. He yielded
at last to the seduction; his confidence had come on seeing him in the
midst of these ladies. Both conversed for a moment in a low tone, then
the banker said: “Well, I’ll look into the affair. It’s settled if your
Monday’s sale proves as important as you expect.”

They shook hands, and Mouret, delighted, took his leave, for he did not
enjoy his dinner unless he went and gave a look at the day’s receipts at
The Ladies’ Paradise.