He himself relapsed into a pale consternation

At this time the whole neighbourhood was talking of the great
thoroughfare which was to be opened between the Bourse and the
new Opera House, under the name of the Rue du Dix-Décembre.[1]
The expropriation judgments had been delivered, and two gangs of
demolishers were already beginning operations at either end, the first
pulling down the old mansions in the Rue Louis-le-Grand, and the
other destroying the thin walls of the old Vaudeville. You could hear
the picks getting closer, and the Rue de Choiseul and the Rue de la
Michodière waxing quite excited over their condemned houses. Before a
fortnight passed, the opening would leave in both these streets a great
gap full of sunlight and uproar.

[1] This is at the present day the Rue du Quatre Septembre. Napoleon
III. gave as the name of the new thoroughfare the date of his
coronation (Dec. 10); and after Sedan the Republican government
ironically retorted by altering the name to the date of his downfall
(Sept. 4).

But what stirred up the district still more, was the work undertaken
at The Ladies’ Paradise. People talked of considerable enlargements,
of gigantic shops with frontages on the Rue de la Michodière, the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, and the Rue Monsigny. Mouret, it was said, had
made arrangements with Baron Hartmann, the chairman of the Crédit
Immobilier, and would occupy the whole block, excepting the future
frontage in the Rue du Dix-Décembre, where the baron wished to erect a
rival establishment to the Grand Hôtel. The Paradise people were buying
up leases on all sides, shops were closing, and tenants moving; and
in the empty buildings an army of workmen was commencing the various
alterations amidst a cloud of plaster. And alone in all this disorder,
old Bourras’s narrow hovel remained intact, still obstinately clinging
between the high walls covered with masons.

When on the following day, Denise went with Pépé to her uncle Baudu’s,
the street was blocked up by a line of carts discharging bricks outside
the Hôtel Duvillard. Baudu was standing at his shop door looking on
with a gloomy air. In proportion as The Ladies’ Paradise became larger,
The Old Elbeuf seemed to grow smaller. The young girl thought that the
windows looked blacker than ever, lower and lower still beneath the
first storey, with its rounded prison-like windows. The damp, moreover,
had still further discoloured the old green sign-board; woefulness
appeared on the whole frontage, livid in hue, and, as it were, shrunken.

“Here you are, then!” said Baudu. “Take care! they would run right over
you.”

Inside the shop, Denise experienced the same heart pang; she found it
darker, steeped more deeply than ever in the somnolence of approaching
ruin. Empty corners formed dark cavities, dust was covering the
counters and filling the drawers, whilst a cellar-like odour of
saltpetre rose from the bales of cloth that were no longer moved about.
At the desk Madame Baudu and Geneviève stood mute and motionless, as in
some solitary spot, where no one would come to disturb them. The mother
was hemming some dusters. The daughter, her hands resting on her knees,
was gazing at the emptiness before her.

“Good evening, aunt,” said Denise; “I’m delighted to see you again, and
if I have hurt your feelings, I hope you will forgive me.”

Madame Baudu kissed her, greatly affected. “My poor child,” said she,
“if I had no other troubles, you would see me gayer than this.”

“Good evening, cousin,” resumed Denise, kissing Geneviève on the cheeks.

The latter woke with a sort of start, and returned her kisses but
without finding a word to say. Then the two women took up Pépé, who was
holding out his little arms, and the reconciliation was complete.

“Well! it’s six o’clock, let’s go to dinner,” said Baudu. “Why haven’t
you brought Jean?”

“Well, he was to have come,” murmured Denise, in embarrassment. “I saw
him this morning, and he faithfully promised me. Oh! we must not wait
for him; his master has kept him, I dare say.” In reality she suspected
some extraordinary adventure, and wished to apologize for him in
advance.

“In that case, we will commence,” said her uncle and turning towards
the dim depths of the shop, he added:

“You may as well dine with us, Colomban. No one will come.”

Denise had not noticed the assistant. Her aunt explained to her that
they had been obliged to get rid of the other salesman and the young
lady. Business was getting so bad that Colomban sufficed; and even he
spent many idle hours, drowsy, falling asleep with his eyes open.

The gas was burning in the dining-room, although they were now in the
long days of summer. Denise shivered slightly as she went in, chilled
by the dampness oozing from the walls. She once more beheld the round
table, the places laid on the American cloth, the window deriving its
air and light from the dark and fetid back-yard. And all these things
appeared to her to be gloomier than ever, and tearful like the shop.

“Father,” said Geneviève, uncomfortable for Denise’s sake, “shall I
close the window? there’s rather a bad smell.”

He himself smelt nothing, and seemed surprised. “Shut the window if you
like,” he replied at last. “But we shan’t get any air then.”

And indeed they were almost stifled. It was a very simple family
dinner. After the soup, as soon as the servant had served the boiled
beef, the old man as usual began talking about the people opposite. At
first he showed himself very tolerant, allowing his niece to have a
different opinion.

“Dear me!” said he, “you are quite free to support those big tricky
shows. Each person has his ideas, my girl. If you were not disgusted
at being so disgracefully chucked out you must have strong reasons for
liking them; and even if you went back again, I should think none the
worse of you. No one here would be offended, would they?”

“Oh, no!” murmured Madame Baudu.

Thereupon Denise quietly gave her reasons for her preference, just as
she had at Robineau’s: explaining the logical evolution in business,
the necessities of modern times, the greatness of these new creations,
in short, the growing well-being of the public. Baudu, his eyes
dilated, and his mouth clammy, listened with a visible mental strain.
Then, when she had finished, he shook his head.

“That’s all phantasmagoria, you know. Business is business, there’s no
getting over that. Oh! I own that they succeed, but that’s all. For a
long time I thought they would smash up; yes, I expected that, waiting
patiently–you remember? Well, no, it appears that nowadays thieves
make fortunes, whilst honest people die of hunger. That’s what we’ve
come to. I’m obliged to bow to facts. And I do bow, on my word, I do
bow to them!” A deep anger was gradually rising within him. All at once
he flourished his fork. “But The Old Elbeuf will never give way! I said
as much to Bourras, you know, ‘Neighbour,’ said I ‘you’re going over to
the cheapjacks; your paint and your varnish are a disgrace to you.'”

“Eat your dinner!” interrupted Madame Baudu, feeling anxious, on seeing
him so excited.

“Wait a bit, I want my niece thoroughly to understand my motto. Just
listen, my girl: I’m like this decanter, I don’t budge. They succeed,
so much the worse for them! As for me, I protest–that’s all!”

The servant brought in a piece of roast veal. He cut it up with
trembling hands; and no longer showed his accurate glance, his deft
skill in weighing the portions. The consciousness of his defeat
deprived him of the confidence he had formerly possessed as a respected
employer. Pépé had thought that his uncle was getting angry, and they
had to pacify him, by giving him some dessert, some biscuits which
were near his plate. Then Baudu, lowering his voice, tried to talk of
something else. For a moment he spoke of the demolitions going on,
approving of the Rue du Dix-Décembre, the piercing of which would
certainly increase the business of the neighbourhood. But then he
again returned to The Ladies’ Paradise; everything brought him back to
it, as to a chronic complaint. They were being covered with plaster,
and business had quite ceased since the builders’ carts had commenced
to block up the street. Moreover the place would soon be really
ridiculous, in its immensity; the customers would lose themselves in
it. Why not have the Central Markets at once? And, in spite of his
wife’s supplicating looks, notwithstanding his own effort, he went on
from the works to the amount of business done in the big shop. Was it
not inconceivable? In less than four years they had increased their
figures five-fold: the annual receipts, formerly some eight million
francs, now attained the sum of forty millions, according to the last
balance-sheet. In fact it was a piece of folly, a thing that had
never been seen before, and against which it was perfectly useless
to struggle. They were always swelling and growing; they now had a
thousand employees and twenty-eight departments. Those twenty-eight
departments enraged him more than anything else. No doubt they had
duplicated a few, but others were quite new; for instance a furniture
department, and a department for fancy goods. The idea! Fancy goods!
Really those people had no pride whatever, they would even end by
selling fish. Then Baudu, though still affecting to respect Denise’s
opinions, attempted to convert her.

“Frankly, you can’t defend them. What would you say if I were to add an
ironmongery department to my cloth business? You would say I was mad,
eh? Confess, at least, that you don’t esteem them.”

And as the young girl simply smiled, feeling uncomfortable and
realizing how futile the best of reasons would be, he resumed: “In
short, you are on their side. We won’t talk about it any more, for it’s
useless to let that part us again. That would be the climax–to see
them come between me and my family! Go back with them, if you like; but
pray don’t worry me with any more of their stories!”

A silence ensued. His previous violence fell to this feverish
resignation. As they were suffocating in the narrow room, heated by
the gas-burner, the servant had to open the window again; and the
damp, pestilential air from the yard blew into the apartment. A dish
of _sauté_ potatoes had appeared, and they helped themselves slowly,
without a word.

“Look at those two,” began Baudu again, pointing with his knife to
Geneviève and Colomban. “Ask them if they like your Ladies’ Paradise.”

Side by side in the places where they had found themselves twice a-day
for the last twelve years, Colomban and Geneviève were eating slowly,
without uttering a word. He, exaggerating the coarse good-nature of
his face, seemed to be concealing, behind his drooping eyelashes, the
inward flame which was consuming him; whilst she, her head bowed lower
beneath her heavy hair, appeared to be giving way entirely, as if a
prey to some secret grief.

“Last year was very disastrous,” explained Baudu, “and we have been
obliged to postpone the marriage. Just to please them, ask them what
they think of your friends.”

In order to pacify him, Denise interrogated the young people.

“Naturally I can’t be very fond of them, cousin,” replied Geneviève.
“But never fear, every one doesn’t detest them.”

And so speaking she looked at Colomban, who was rolling up some
bread-crumbs with an absorbed air. But when he felt that the young
girl’s gaze was turned upon him, he broke out into a series of violent
exclamations: “A rotten shop! A lot of rogues, every man-jack of them!
In fact a regular pest in the neighbourhood!”

“You hear him! You hear him!” exclaimed Baudu, delighted. “There’s one
whom they’ll never get hold of! Ah! my boy, you’re the last of the old
stock, we shan’t see any more!”

But Geneviève, with her severe and suffering look, did not take her
eyes off Colomban, but dived into the depths of his heart. And he felt
troubled, and again launched out into invective. Madame Baudu was
watching them in silence with an anxious air, as if she foresaw another
misfortune in this direction. For some time past her daughter’s sadness
had frightened her, she felt her to be dying.

“The shop is left to take care of itself,” she said at last, rising
from table, in order to put an end to the scene. “Go and see, Colomban;
I fancy I heard some one.”

They had finished, and got up. Baudu and Colomban went to speak to a
traveller, who had come for orders. Madame Baudu carried Pépé off to
show him some pictures. The servant had quickly cleared the table, and
Denise was lingering by the window, looking curiously into the little
back-yard, when on turning round she saw Geneviève still in her place,
her eyes fixed on the American cloth, which was still damp from the
sponge that had been passed over it.

“Are you suffering, cousin?” she asked.

The young girl did not reply but seemed to be obstinately studying
a rent in the cloth, though really absorbed in the reflections
passing through her mind. But after a while she raised her head with
difficulty, and looked at the sympathizing face bent over hers. The
others had gone, then? What was she doing on that chair? And suddenly
sobs stifled her, her head fell forward on the edge of the table. She
wept on, wetting her sleeve with her tears.

“Good heavens! what’s the matter with you?” cried Denise in dismay.
“Shall I call some one?”

But Geneviève nervously caught her by the arm, and held her back,
stammering: “No, no, stay here. Don’t let mamma know! With you I don’t
mind; but not the others–not the others! It’s not my fault, I assure
you. It was on finding myself all alone. Wait a bit; I’m better, I’m
not crying now.”

Nevertheless sudden attacks kept on seizing her, sending shudders
through her frail body. It seemed as though her pile of hair was
weighing down her neck. While she was rolling her head on her folded
arms, a hair-pin slipped out, and then her hair fell over her neck,
burying it beneath gloomy tresses. Denise, as quietly as possible for
fear of attracting attention, sought to console her. She undid her
dress, and was heart-rent on seeing how fearfully thin she had become.
The poor girl’s bosom was as hollow as a child’s. Then Denise took
hold of her hair by the handful, that superb hair, which seemed to be
absorbing all her life, and twisted it up tightly to clear her neck,
and make her cooler.

“Thanks, you are very kind,” said Geneviève. “Ah! I’m not stout, am I?
I used to be stouter, but it’s all gone away. Do up my dress or mamma
might see my shoulders. I hide them as much as I can. Good heavens! I’m
not at all well, I’m not at all well.”

However, the attack passed away, and she sat there completely exhausted
and looking fixedly at her cousin. After a pause she abruptly inquired:
“Tell me the truth: does he love her?”

Denise felt a blush rising to her cheeks. She was perfectly well aware
that Geneviève referred to Colomban and Clara; but she pretended to be
surprised. “Who, dear?”

Geneviève shook her head with an incredulous air. “Don’t tell
falsehoods, I beg of you. Do me the favour of setting my doubts at
rest. You must know, I feel it. Yes, you were that girl’s comrade, and
I’ve seen Colomban run after you, and talk to you in a low voice. He
was giving you messages for her, wasn’t he? Oh! for pity’s sake, tell
me the truth; I assure you it will do me good.”

Never before had Denise been in such an awkward position. She lowered
her eyes before this girl, who was ever silent and yet guessed all.
However, she had the strength to deceive her still. “But it’s you he
loves!” she said.

Geneviève made a gesture of despair. “Very well, you won’t tell me
anything. However, I don’t care, I’ve seen them. He’s continually going
outside to look at her. She, upstairs, laughs like a bad woman. Of
course they meet out of doors.”

“As for that, no, I assure you!” exclaimed Denise, forgetting herself
and carried away by the desire to give her cousin at least that
consolation.

Geneviève drew a long breath, and smiled feebly. Then in the weak voice
of a convalescent she said, “I should like a glass of water. Excuse me
if I trouble you. Look, over there in the sideboard.”

When she got hold of the bottle, she drank a large glassful right off,
keeping Denise away with one hand. The young saleswoman was afraid that
she might do herself harm.

“No, no,” said she, “let me be; I’m always thirsty. In the night I get
up to drink.”

Silence again fell. Then Geneviève once more began in a gentle voice.
“If you only knew, I’ve been accustomed to the idea of this marriage
for the last ten years. I was still wearing short dresses, when
Colomban began courting me. I can hardly remember how things came
about. By always living together, shut up here together, without any
other distractions between us, I must have ended by believing him to
be my husband before he really was. I didn’t know whether I loved him,
I was his wife, that was all. And now he wants to go off with another
girl! Oh, heavens! my heart is breaking! You see, it’s a grief that I
never felt before. It hurts me in the bosom, and in the head; then it
spreads everywhere, it’s killing me.”

Her eyes filled with tears. Denise, whose eyelids were also moistening
with pity, asked her: “Does my aunt suspect anything?”

“Yes, mamma has her suspicions, I think. As for papa, he is too much
worried, and does not know the pain he is causing me by postponing the
marriage. Mamma has questioned me several times, greatly alarmed to see
me pining away. She has never been very strong herself, and has often
said to me: ‘My poor child, you’re like myself, by no means strong.
Besides, one doesn’t grow much in these shops. But she must find me
getting really too thin now. Look at my arms; would you believe it?”

Then with a trembling hand she again took up the water bottle. Her
cousin tried to prevent her from drinking.

“But I’m so thirsty,” said she, “let me drink.”

They could hear Baudu talking in a loud voice. Then suddenly yielding
to an inspiration of her heart, Denise knelt down before Geneviève and
throwing her sisterly arms round her neck, kissed her, and assured her
that everything would yet turn out all right, that she would marry
Colomban, would get well, and live happily. And then she got up quickly
for her uncle was calling her.

“Jean is here. Come along.”

It was indeed Jean, who, looking rather scared, had just arrived for
dinner. When they told him it was striking eight, he seemed amazed.
Impossible! He had only just left his master’s. They chaffed him. No
doubt he had come by way of the Bois de Vincennes. But as soon as he
could get near his sister, he whispered to her: “It’s all the fault of
a little laundry-girl. I’ve got a cab outside by the hour. Give me five
francs.”

He went out for a minute, and then returned to dinner, for Madame Baudu
would not hear of his going away without taking, at least, a plate
of soup. Geneviève had returned to the shop in her usual silent and
retiring manner. Colomban was now half asleep behind the counter; and
the evening passed away, slow and melancholy, only animated by Baudu’s
tramp, as he walked from one end of the empty shop to the other. A
single gas-burner was alight–the shadows of the low ceiling fell in
large masses, like black earth from a ditch.

Several months passed away. Denise came in nearly every evening to
cheer up Geneviève a bit, but the Baudus’ home became more melancholy
than ever. The works opposite were a continual torment, which made them
feel their bad luck more and more keenly. Even when they had an hour
of hope–some unexpected joy–the uproar of a tumbrel-load of bricks,
the sound of a stone-cutter’s saw or the simple call of a mason would
at once suffice to mar their pleasure. In fact, the whole neighbourhood
was stirred by it all. From behind the hoarding edging and obstructing
the three streets, there issued a movement of feverish activity.
Although the architect was utilizing the existing buildings, he was
opening them in various ways to adapt them to their new uses; and right
in the centre of the vacant space supplied by the court-yards, he was
building a central gallery as vast as a church, which would be reached
by a grand entrance in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin in the very middle
of the frontage. They had, at first, experienced great difficulty in
laying the foundations, for they had come upon sewer deposits and loose
earth, full of human bones; besides which the boring of the well–a
well three hundred feet deep–destined to yield two hundred gallons
a minute had made the neighbours very anxious. They had now got the
walls up to the first storey; and the entire block was surrounded by
scaffoldings, regular towers of timber. There was an incessant noise
from the grinding of the windlasses hoisting up the free-stone, the
abrupt unloading of iron bars, the clamour of the army of workmen,
accompanied by the noise of picks and hammers. But above all else, what
most deafened you was the sound of the machinery. Everything went by
steam, screeching whistles rent the air; and then too, at the slightest
gust of wind, clouds of plaster flew about and covered the neighbouring
roofs like a fall of snow. The despairing Baudus looked on at this
implacable dust penetrating everywhere–filtering through the closest
woodwork, soiling the goods in their shop, even gliding into their
beds; and the idea that they must continue to breathe it–that it would
end by killing them–empoisoned their existence.

The situation, however, was destined to become worse still, for in
September, the architect, afraid of not being ready in time, decided
to carry on the work at night also. Powerful electric lamps were
established, and then the uproar became continuous. Gangs of men
relieved each other; the hammers never stopped, the engines whistled
night and day; and again the everlasting clamour seemed to raise and
scatter the white dust. The exasperated Baudus now had to give up the
idea of sleeping even; they were shaken in their alcove; the noises
changed into nightmare whenever they managed to doze off. Then, if they
got up to calm their fever, and went, with bare feet, to pull back
the curtains and look out of the window, they were frightened by the
vision of The Ladies’ Paradise flaring in the darkness like a colossal
forge, where their ruin was being forged. Along the half-built walls,
pierced with empty bays, the electric lamps threw broad bluey rays,
of blinding intensity. Two o’clock struck–then three, then four; and
during the painful sleep of the neighbourhood, the works, expanding in
the lunar-like brightness, became colossal and fantastic, swarming with
black shadows, noisy workmen, whose silhouettes gesticulated against
the crude whiteness of the new walls.

Baudu had spoken correctly. The small traders of the adjacent streets
were receiving another mortal blow. Every time The Ladies’ Paradise
created new departments there were fresh failures among the shopkeepers
of the district. The disaster spread, one could hear the oldest houses
cracking. Mademoiselle Tatin, of the under-linen shop in the Passage
Choiseul, had just been declared bankrupt; Quinette, the glover,
could hardly hold out another six months; the furriers, Vanpouille,
were obliged to sub-let a part of their premises; and if the Bédorés,
brother and sister, still kept on as hosiers, in the Rue Gaillon,
they were evidently living on the money they had formerly saved. And
now more smashes were on the point of being added to those long since
foreseen; the fancy goods department threatened a dealer in the Rue
Saint-Roch, Deslignières, a big, full-blooded man; whilst the furniture
department was injuring Messrs. Piot and Rivoire, whose shops slumbered
in the gloom of the Passage Sainte-Anne. It was even feared that an
attack of apoplexy would carry off Deslignières, who had been in a
terrible rage ever since The Ladies’ Paradise had marked up purses
at thirty per cent. reduction. The furniture dealers, who were much
calmer, affected to joke at these counter-jumpers who wanted to meddle
with such articles as chairs and tables; but customers were already
leaving them, and the success of Mouret’s department threatened to be
a formidable one. It was all over, they must bow their heads. After
these, others would be swept off in their turn and there was no reason
why every business should not be driven away. Some day The Ladies’
Paradise alone would cover the neighbourhood with its roof.

At present, when the thousand employees went in and came out morning
and evening, they formed such a long procession on the Place Gaillon
that people stopped to look at them as they might at a passing
regiment. For ten minutes they blocked up all the streets; and the
shopkeepers standing at their doors thought bitterly of their one
assistant, whom they hardly knew how to find food for. The last
balance-sheet of the big bazaar, the turn-over of forty millions, had
also revolutionized the neighbourhood. The figure passed from house
to house amid cries of surprise and anger. Forty millions! Think of
that! No doubt the net profit did not exceed more than four per cent.,
given the heavy general expenses, and the system of low prices; but
sixteen hundred thousand francs was still a handsome sum; one could
well be satisfied with four per cent., when one operated on such a
scale as that. It was said that Mouret’s starting capital of five
hundred thousand francs, each year increased by the total profits of
the house–a capital which must at that moment have amounted to four
millions–had in one twelvemonth passed ten times over the counters
in the form of goods. Robineau, when he made this calculation in
Denise’s presence one evening, after dinner, was quite overcome for
a moment, and remained staring at his empty plate. She was right, it
was this incessant renewal of capital that constituted the invincible
power of the new system of business. Bourras alone denied the facts,
refusing to understand, superb and stupid as a milestone. To him the
Paradise people were a pack of thieves and nothing more! A lying set!
Cheap-jacks who would be picked out of the gutter some fine morning!

The Baudus, however, despite their determination not to change anything
in the system of The Old Elbeuf, tried to sustain the competition.
Customers no longer coming to them, they sought to reach the customers
through the agency of travellers. There was at that time, in the
Paris market, a traveller connected with all the leading tailors,
who saved the little cloth and flannel houses when he condescended
to represent them. Naturally they all tried to get hold of him; he
was quite a personage; and Baudu, having haggled with him, had the
misfortune to see him come to terms with the Matignons, of the Rue
Croix-des-Petits-Champs. Then one after the other, two other travellers
robbed him; a third, an honest man, did no business. It was a slow
death, exempt from shocks, a continual decrease of business, customers
falling away one by one. A day came when the bills to be met fell
on the Baudus very heavily. Until that time they had lived on their
former savings; but now they began to contract debts. In December,
Baudu, terrified by the amount of his acceptances, resigned himself
to a most cruel sacrifice: he sold his country-house at Rambouillet,
a house which cost him a lot of money in continual repairs, and whose
tenants had not even paid the rent when he decided to get rid of it.
This sale killed the sole dream of his life, his heart bled as for the
loss of some dear one. And for seventy thousand francs he had to part
with what had cost him more than two hundred thousand, considering
himself fortunate even in meeting the Lhommes, his neighbours, who were
desirous of adding to their property. Those seventy thousand francs
would keep the business going a little longer; for in spite of all the
repulses the idea of struggling on ever sprang up again; perhaps with
great care they might conquer even now.

On the Sunday on which the Lhommes paid the money, they condescended
to dine at The Old Elbeuf. Madame Aurélie was the first to arrive;
they had to wait for the cashier, who came late, scared by a whole
afternoon’s music: as for young Albert, he had accepted the invitation,
but did not put in an appearance. It was, moreover, a painful evening.
The Baudus, living without air in their tiny dining-room, suffered
from the breeze which the Lhommes, with their lack of family ties and
their taste for a free life, brought in with them. Geneviève, wounded
by Madame Aurélie’s imperial airs, did not open her mouth; but Colomban
admired her with a shiver, on reflecting that she reigned over Clara.
Later on, when Madame Baudu was already in bed, her husband remained
for a long time walking about the room. It was a mild night–damp,
thawing weather–and in spite of the closed windows, and drawn
curtains, one could hear the engines snorting on the opposite side of
the way.

“Do you know what I’m thinking of, Elisabeth?” said Baudu at last.
“Well! those Lhommes may earn as much money as they like, I’d rather be
in my shoes than theirs. They get on well, it’s true. The wife said,
didn’t she? that she had made nearly twenty thousand francs this year,
and that had enabled her to take my poor house. Never mind! I’ve no
longer got the house, but I don’t go playing music in one direction,
whilst you are gadding about in the other. No, look you, they can’t be
happy.”

He was still keenly fretting over the sacrifice he had been compelled
to make, full of rancour against those people who had bought up his
darling dream. When ever he came near the bed, he leant over his wife
and gesticulated, then, returning to the window, he stood silent for
a minute, listening to the noise of the works. And again he vented
his old accusations, his despairing complaints about the new times;
nobody had ever seen such things, shop-assistants now earned more than
tradesmen, cashiers bought up employers’ property. So no wonder that
everything was going to the dogs; family ties no longer existed, people
lived at hotels instead of eating their meals at home in a respectable
manner. At last he ended by prophesying that young Albert would swallow
up the Rambouillet property later on with a lot of actresses.

Madame Baudu listened to him, her head flat on the pillow, and so pale
that her face seemed the colour of the sheets. “They’ve paid you,” she
at length said softly.

At this Baudu became dumb. He walked about for an instant with his
eyes on the ground. Then he resumed: “They’ve paid me, ’tis true; and,
after all, their money is as good as another’s. It would be funny if we
revived the business with this money. Ah! if I were not so old and worn
out!”

A long silence ensued. The draper was full of vague projects. Suddenly,
without moving her head, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, his wife spoke
again: “Have you noticed your daughter lately?”

“No,” he replied.

“Well! she makes me rather anxious. She’s getting pale, she seems to be
pining away.”

He stood before the bed, full of surprise. “Really! whatever for? If
she’s ill she should say so. To-morrow we must send for the doctor.”

Madame Baudu still remained motionless; but after a time, she declared,
with her meditative air: “I think it would be better to get this
marriage with Colomban over.”

He looked at her and then began walking about again. Certain things
came back to his mind. Was it possible that his daughter was falling
ill over the shopman? Did she love him so much that she could not wait?
Here was another misfortune! It worried him all the more from the
circumstance that he himself had fixed ideas about this marriage. He
could never consent to it in the present state of affairs. However, his
anxiety softened him.

“Very good,” said he at last, “I’ll speak to Colomban.”

And without adding another word he continued his walk. Soon afterwards
his wife fell asleep still looking quite white, as if dead; while he
still kept on tramping about. Before getting into bed he drew aside
the curtains and glanced outside; across the street through the gaping
windows of the old Hôtel Duvillard the workmen could be seen stirring
in the dazzling glare of the electric light.

On the following morning Baudu took Colomban to the further end of the
store-room on the upper floor, having made up his mind over night as to
what he would say to him. “My boy,” he began, “you know I’ve sold my
property at Rambouillet. That will enable us to show some fight. But I
should first of all like to have a talk with you.”

The young man, who seemed to dread the interview, waited with an
awkward air. His small eyes twinkled in his broad face, and he stood
there with his mouth open–with him a sign of profound agitation.




“Just listen to me,” resumed the draper. “When old Hauchecorne left me
The Old Elbeuf, the house was prosperous; he himself had received it
from old Finet in a satisfactory state. You know my ideas; I should
consider it wrong if I passed this family trust over to my children in
a diminished state; and that’s why I’ve always postponed your marriage
with Geneviève. Yes, I was obstinate; I hoped to bring back our former
prosperity; I wanted to hand you the books, saying: ‘Look here! the
year I commenced we sold so much cloth, and this year, the year I
retire, we have sold ten thousand or twenty thousand francs’ worth
more.’ In short, you understand, it was a vow I made to myself, the
very natural desire I had to prove that the house had not declined in
my hands. Otherwise it would seem to me that I was robbing you.” His
voice became husky with emotion. He blew his nose to recover himself a
bit, and then asked, “You don’t say anything?”

But Colomban had nothing to say. He shook his head, and waited, feeling
more and more perturbed, and fancying that he could guess what the
governor was aiming at. It was the marriage without further delay. How
could he refuse? He would never have the strength to do so. And yet
there was that other girl, of whom he dreamed at night, devoured by
insensate passion.

“Now,” continued Baudu, “a sum of money has come in that may save us.
The situation becomes worse every day, but perhaps by making a supreme
effort.–In short, I thought it right to warn you. We are going to
venture our last stake. If we are beaten, why that will entirely ruin
us! Only, my poor boy, your marriage must again be postponed, for I
don’t wish to throw you two all alone into the struggle. That would be
too cowardly, wouldn’t it?”

Colomban, greatly relieved, had seated himself on a pile of molleton.
His legs were still trembling. He was afraid of showing his delight, so
he held down his head whilst rolling his fingers on his knees.

“You don’t say anything?” repeated Baudu.

No, he said nothing, he could find nothing to say. Thereupon the draper
slowly resumed: “I was sure this would grieve you. You must muster up
courage. Pull yourself together a bit, don’t let yourself be crushed in
this way. Above all, understand my position. Can I hang such a weight
about your neck? Instead of leaving you a good business, I should leave
you a bankruptcy perhaps. No, only scoundrels play such tricks as that!
No doubt, I desire nothing but your happiness, but nobody shall ever
make me go against my conscience.”

And he went on for a long time in this way, meandering through a
maze of contradictory sentences, like a man who would have liked to
be understood at the first word but finds himself obliged to explain
everything. As he had promised his daughter and the shop, strict
probity forced him to deliver both in good condition, without defects
or debts. But he was weary, the burden seemed to be too much for him,
and entreaty almost pierced though his stammering accents. At last
he got more entangled than ever, awaiting some sudden impulse from
Colomban, some heartfelt cry, which did not come.

“I know,” he murmured, “that old men are wanting in ardour. With young
ones, things light up. They are full of fire, it’s only natural. But,
no, no, I can’t, my word of honour! If I gave it up to you, you would
blame me later on.”

He stopped, trembling, and as the young man still kept his head down,
he asked him for the third time, after a painful silence: “You don’t
say anything?” Then, at last, without venturing to look at him,
Colomban replied: “There’s nothing to say. You are the master, you know
better than all of us. As you wish it we’ll wait, we’ll try and be
reasonable.”

It was all over. Baudu still hoped he was going to throw himself into
his arms, exclaiming: “Father, do you take a rest, we’ll fight in
our turn; give us the shop as it is, so that we may work a miracle
and save it!” Then, however, he looked at him, and felt full of
shame, reproaching himself for having wished to dupe his children.
His deep-rooted maniacal commercial honesty was awakened in him; it
was this prudent fellow who was right, for there is no such thing as
sentiment in business, which is only a question of figures.

“Embrace me, my boy,” he said in conclusion. “It’s settled; we won’t
speak about the marriage for another year. One must think of the
business before everything.”

That evening, in their room, when Madame Baudu questioned her husband
as to the result of the conversation, the draper had regained his
obstinate resolve to fight on in person to the bitter end. He gave
Colomban high praise, calling him a solid fellow, firm in his ideas,
brought up in the best principles, incapable, for instance, of joking
with the customers like those puppies at The Paradise. No, he was
honest, he belonged to the family, he didn’t speculate on the business
as though he were a stock-jobber.

“Well, then, when’s the marriage to take place?” asked Madame Baudu.

“Later on,” he replied, “when I am able to keep my promises.”

She made no gestures but simply remarked: “It will be our daughter’s
death.”

Baudu restrained himself though hot with anger. He was the one whom it
would kill, if they continually upset him like this! Was it his fault?
He loved his daughter–would lay down his life for her; but he could
not make the business prosper when it obstinately refused to do so.
Geneviève ought to have a little more sense, and wait patiently for a
better balance. The deuce! Colomban would always be there, no one would
run away with him!

“It’s incredible!” he repeated; “such a well-trained girl!”

Madame Baudu said no more. She had doubtless guessed Geneviève’s
jealous agony; but she did not dare to inform her husband of it. A
singular womanly modesty always prevented her from approaching certain
tender, delicate subjects with him. When he saw her so silent, he
turned his anger against the people opposite, stretching out his fists
towards the works, where they were that night setting up some large
iron girders, with a great noise of hammers.

Denise had now decided to return to The Ladies’ Paradise, having
understood that the Robineaus, obliged to cut down their staff, were
at a loss how to dismiss her. To maintain their position they were now
obliged to do everything themselves. Gaujean, still obstinate in his
rancour, renewed their bills and even promised to find them funds;
but they were frightened, they wanted to try the effect of economy
and order. During a whole fortnight Denise had felt that they were
embarrassed about her, and it was she who spoke the first, saying that
she had found a situation elsewhere. This came as a great relief.
Madame Robineau embraced her, deeply affected, and declaring that she
should always miss her. Then when, in answer to a question, the young
girl acknowledged that she was going back to Mouret’s, Robineau turned
pale.

“You are right!” he exclaimed violently.

It was not so easy to tell the news to old Bourras however. Still,
Denise had to give him notice, and she trembled at the thought, for
she felt full of gratitude towards him. Bourras was at this time in
a rage from morn till night, for he more than any other suffered
from the uproar of the adjacent works. The builder’s carts blocked
up his doorway; the picks tapped on his walls; umbrellas and sticks,
everything in his place, danced about to the noise of the hammers. It
seemed as if the hovel, obstinately remaining in the midst of these
demolitions, would suddenly split to pieces. But the worst was that the
architect, in order to connect the existing shops with those about to
be opened in the Hôtel Duvillard, had conceived the idea of tunnelling
a passage under the little house that separated them. This house now
belonged to the firm of Mouret & Co., and as the lease stipulated
that the tenant should submit to all necessary repairs, the workmen
one morning appeared on the scene. At this Bourras nearly went into a
fit. Wasn’t it enough that they should grip him on all sides, on the
right, the left, and behind, without attacking him underfoot as well,
taking the very ground from under him! And he drove the masons away,
and went to law. Repairs, yes! but this was a work of embellishment.
The neighbourhood thought he would win the day, without, however, being
sure of anything. The case, at any rate, threatened to be a long one,
and people became quite impassioned over this interminable duel.

On the day when Denise at last resolved to give him notice, Bourras had
just returned from his lawyer’s. “Would you believe it!” he exclaimed,
“they now say that the house is not solid; they pretend that the
foundations must be strengthened. Confound it! they have shaken it up
so much with their infernal machines, that it isn’t astonishing if it
gives way!”

Then, when the girl announced she was going to leave, and was returning
to The Ladies’ Paradise at a salary of a thousand francs, he became so
amazed that he could only raise his trembling hands in the air. Emotion
made him drop upon a chair.

“You! you!” he stammered. “Ah, I’m the only one–I’m the only one
left!” And after a pause, he asked: “And the youngster?”

“He’ll go back to Madame Gras’s,” replied Denise. “She was very fond of
him.”

They again became silent. She would have rather seen him furious,
swearing and banging the counter with his fist; the sight of this old
man, suffocating and crushed, made her heart bleed. But he gradually
recovered, and began shouting out once more. “A thousand francs! that
isn’t to be refused. You’ll all go. Go, then, leave me here alone. Yes,
alone–you understand! One at all events will never bow his head. And
tell them I’ll win my lawsuit, if I have to sell my last shirt for it!”

Denise was not to leave Robineau’s till the end of the month. She had
seen Mouret again and everything had been settled. One evening as
she was going up to her room, Deloche, who was watching for her in a
doorway, stopped her. He was delighted, having just heard the good
news; they were all talking about it in the shop, said he. And he gaily
told her of all the gossip at the counters.

“The young ladies in the mantle department are pulling fearfully long
faces, you know.” And then breaking off, he added: “By the way, you
remember Clara Prunaire? Well, it appears the governor has taken a
fancy to her.”

He had turned quite red. She, very pale, exclaimed:

“What! Monsieur Mouret!”

“Funny taste–eh?” he resumed. “A woman who looks like a horse.
However, that’s his business.”

Once upstairs, Denise almost fainted away. It was surely through coming
up too quickly. Leaning out of the window she had a sudden vision of
Valognes, the deserted street and grassy pavement, which she had seen
from her room as a child; and she was seized with a desire to go and
live there once more–to seek refuge in the peace and forgetfulness of
the country. Paris irritated her, she hated The Ladies’ Paradise, she
no longer knew why she had consented to go back. She would certainly
suffer there as much as formerly; she was already suffering from an
unknown uneasiness since Deloche’s stories. And then all at once a
flood of tears forced her to leave the window. She continued weeping on
for some time, but at last found a little courage to live on still.

The next day at lunch time, as Robineau had sent her on an errand, and
she was passing The Old Elbeuf, she opened the door on seeing Colomban
alone in the shop. The Baudus were having their meal; she could hear
the clatter of the knives and forks in the little dining-room.

“You can come in,” said the shopman. “They are at table.”

But she motioned him to be silent, and drew him into a corner. Then,
lowering her voice, she said: “It’s you I want to speak to. Have you no
heart? Can’t you see that Geneviève loves you, and that it’s killing
her.”

She was trembling, her fever of the previous night had taken possession
of her again. He, frightened and surprised by this sudden attack, stood
looking at her, without a word.

“Do you hear?” she continued. “Geneviève knows you love another. She
told me so. She wept like a child. Ah, poor girl! she isn’t very
strong now, I can tell you! If you had seen her thin arms! It’s
heart-breaking. You can’t leave her to die like this!”

At last he spoke, quite overcome. “But she isn’t ill–you exaggerate! I
don’t see anything myself. Besides, it’s her father who is postponing
the marriage.”

Denise sharply corrected this falsehood, certain as she was that
the least insistence on the young man’s part would have decided her
uncle. As for Colomban’s surprise, however, it was not feigned; he had
really never noticed Geneviève’s slow agony. For him it was a very
disagreeable revelation; for while he remained ignorant of it, he had
no great blame to tax himself with.

“And who for indeed?” resumed Denise. “For an utterly worthless girl!
You can’t know whom you are loving! So far I have not wished to hurt
your feelings, I have often avoided answering your continual questions.
Well! she goes about with everybody, she laughs at you, and will never
marry you.”

He listened to her, turning very pale; and at each of the sentences she
threw in his face, his lips quivered. She, in a cruel fit, yielded to a
transport of anger of which she had no consciousness. “In short,” she
said, in a final cry, “she’s Monsieur Mouret’s mistress if you want to
know!”

As she spoke her voice died away in her throat and she turned even
paler than Colomban himself. Both stood looking at each other. Then he
stammered out: “I love her!”

Denise felt ashamed of herself. Why was she talking in this fashion
to this young fellow? Why was she getting so excited? She stood there
mute, the simple reply which he had just given her resounded in her
heart like the distant but deafening clang of a bell. “I love her, I
love her!” and it seemed to spread. He was right, he could not marry
another woman.

And as she turned round, she observed Geneviève on the threshold of the
dining-room. “Be quiet!” she said rapidly.

But it was too late, Geneviève must have heard, for her face was white
and bloodless. Just at that moment a customer opened the door–Madame
Bourdelais, one of the last faithful customers of The Old Elbeuf,
where she found substantial goods for her money. For a long time past
Madame de Boves had followed the fashion, and gone over to The Ladies’
Paradise; Madame Marty also no longer came, being entirely subjugated
by the fascinations of the display opposite. And Geneviève was forced
to come forward, and inquire in her weak voice:

“What do you desire, madame?”

Madame Bourdelais wished to see some flannel. Colomban took down a roll
from a shelf. Geneviève showed the stuff; and once again the young
people found themselves close together behind the counter. Meanwhile
Baudu came out of the dining-room, behind his wife, who went to seat
herself at the pay-desk. At first he did not meddle with the sale, but
after smiling at Denise stood there, looking at Madame Bourdelais.

“It is not good enough,” said the latter. “Show me the thickest you
have.”

Colomban took down another bundle. There was a silence. Madame
Bourdelais examined the stuff.

“How much?” she asked.

“Six francs, madame,” replied Geneviève.

The lady made an abrupt gesture. “Six francs!” said she. “But they have
the same opposite at five francs.”

A slight contraction passed over Baudu’s face. He could not help
interfering politely. No doubt madame made a mistake, indeed the stuff
ought to have been sold at six francs and a half; it was impossible
to sell it at five francs. It must be another quality that she was
referring to.

“No, no,” she repeated, with the obstinacy of a house-wife who prided
herself on her knowledge of such matters. “The quality is the same. The
other may even be a little thicker.”

And the discussion ended by becoming quite bitter. Baudu with his bile
rising to his face had to make an effort to continue smiling. His
rancour against The Ladies’ Paradise was bursting in his throat.

“Really,” said Madame Bourdelais at last, “you must treat me better for
otherwise I shall go opposite, like the others.”

Thereupon he lost his head, and, shaking with all the passion he had
restrained, cried out: “Well! go opposite then!”

At this she got up, greatly wounded, and went off without turning
round, but saying: “That’s just what I am going to do, sir.”

A general stupor ensued. The governor’s violence had frightened all of
them. He was himself scared, and trembled at what he had just said. The
phrase had escaped him against his will in an explosion of long pent-up
rancour. And the Baudus now stood there motionless, their arms hanging
by their sides as they watched Madame Bourdelais cross the street. She
seemed to be carrying off their fortune. When with a tranquil step she
passed through the lofty portal of The Ladies’ Paradise and they saw
her disappear in the crowd, they felt a sort of sudden wrench.

“There’s another they’ve taken from us!” murmured the draper. And
turning towards Denise, of whose re-engagement he was aware, he said:
“You as well, they’ve taken you back. Oh, I don’t blame you for it. As
they’ve got the money, they are naturally the strongest.”

Just then, Denise, still hoping that Geneviève had not overheard
Colomban, was saying to her: “He loves you. Try and cheer up.”

But in a very low and heart-broken voice the girl replied: “Why do
you tell me a falsehood? Look! he can’t help it, he’s glancing up
there again. I know very well that they’ve stolen him from me, just as
they’ve robbed us of everything else.”

Then she went to sit down at the desk beside her mother. The latter
had doubtless guessed the fresh blow which her daughter had received,
for her anxious eyes wandered from her to Colomban, and then to The
Paradise. It was true, they had stolen everything from them: from
the father, his fortune; from the mother, her dying child; from the
daughter, the husband, for whom she had waited ten long years. In
presence of this condemned family, Denise, whose heart was overflowing
with pity, felt for an instant afraid that she might be wicked. For
was she not going to assist that machine which was crushing the poor?
However, she was carried away, as it were, by an invisible force, and
felt that she could be doing no wrong.

“Bah!” resumed Baudu, to give himself courage; “we shan’t die of
it, after all. For one customer lost we shall find two others. You
hear, Denise, I’ve got over seventy thousand francs there, which will
certainly make your Mouret spend some sleepless nights. Come, come, you
others, don’t look so glum!”

But he could not enliven them. He himself relapsed into a pale
consternation; and they all remained with their eyes fixed on the
monster, attracted, possessed, glutting themselves with thoughts of
their misfortune. The work was now nearly finished, the scaffoldings
had been removed from the front, a whole side of the colossal edifice
appeared, with its white walls and large light windows. Beside the
footway, where traffic had at last been resumed, stood eight delivery
vans which the messengers were loading one after the other outside the
parcels-office. In the sunshine, a ray of which enfiladed the street,
the vehicles’ green panels, picked out with red and yellow, sparkled
like so many mirrors, and cast blinding reflections even into the
depths of The Old Elbeuf. The drivers, clad in black and dignified in
manner, held the horses well in–superb horses they were, champing
silvered bits. And each time a van was loaded, there came a sonorous
roll over the paving stones which made all the little neighbouring
shops tremble. And then in presence of this triumphal procession,
the sight of which they must needs endure twice a day, the Baudus’
hearts broke. The father half fainted away, asking himself where this
continual stream of goods could go to; whilst the mother, sickening at
thought of her daughter’s torture, continued gazing blankly into the
street, her eyes blurred by big tears.