He himself relapsed into a pale consternation

At this time the whole neighbourhood was talking of the great
thoroughfare to be opened from the Bourse to the new Opera House, under
the name of the Rue du Dix-Décembre. The expropriation judgments had
just been delivered, two gangs of demolishers were already attacking the
opening at the two ends, the first pulling down the old mansions in
the Rue Louis-le-Grand, the other destroying the thin walls of the old
Vaudeville; and one could hear the picks getting closer. The Rue de
Choiseul and the Rue de la Michodière got quite excited over their
condemned houses. Before a fortnight passed, the opening would make a
great hole in these streets, letting in the sun and air.

But what stirred up the district still more, was the work going on at
The Ladies’ Paradise. Considerable enlargements were talked of,
gigantic shops having frontages in the Rue de la Michodière, the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, and the Rue Monsigny. Mouret, it was said,
had made arrangements with Baron Hartmann, chairman of the Credit
Immobilier, and he would occupy the whole block, except the future
frontage in the Rue du Dix-Décembre, on which the baron wished to
construct a rival to the Grand Hôtel. The Paradise people were buying up
leases on all sides, the shops were closing, the tenants moving; and
in the empty buildings an army of workmen were commencing the various
alterations under a cloud of plaster. In the midst of this disorder,
old Bourras’s narrow hovel was the only one that remained standing and
intact, obstinately sticking between the high walls covered with masons.

When, the next day, Denise went with Pépé to her uncle Baudu’s,
the street was just at that moment blocked up by a line of tumbrels
discharging bricks before the Hôtel Duvillard. Baudu was standing at his
shop door looking on with a gloomy air. As The Ladies’ Paradise became
larger, The Old Elbeuf seemed to get smaller. The young girl thought the
windows looked blacker than ever, and more and more crushed beneath the
low first storey, with its prison-like bars; the damp had still further
discoloured the old green sign-board, a sort of distress oozed from the
whole frontage, livid in hue, and, as it were, grown thinner.

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

Inside the shop, Denise experienced the same heart-broken sensation; she
found it darker, invaded more than ever by the somnolence of approaching
ruin; empty corners formed dark and gloomy holes, the dust was invading
the counters and drawers, whilst an odour of saltpetre rose from the
bales of cloth that were no longer moved about. At the desk Madame Baudu
and Geneviève were standing 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 spread 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 up with a sort of start, and returned her kisses,
without finding a word to say. The two women then 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?”

“But he was to come,” murmured Denise, embarrassed. “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.” She suspected some extraordinary
adventure, and wished to apologise for him in advance.

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

“Come on, Colomban, you can dine with us. No one will come.”

Denise had not noticed the shopman. 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 off to sleep with his eyes open. The
gas was burning in the dining-room, although they were enjoying long
summer days. Denise slightly shivered on entering, seized by the
dampness falling from the walls. She once more beheld the round table,
the places laid on the American cloth, the window drawing its air and
light from the dark and fetid back yard. And 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 smelt nothing, and seemed surprised. “Shut the window if you like,”
replied he at last. “But we sha’n’t get any air then.”

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

“Dear me! you are quite free to support these great hairbrained houses.
Each one 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.

Denise quietly gave her reasons, as she had at Robineau’s: 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 opened, and his mouth clamming, listened with a visible
tension of intelligence. Then, when she had finished, he shook his head.

“That’s all phantasmagoria, you know. Business is business, there’s no
getting over that. 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 now-a-days 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!” 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, you’re going over to the
cheapjacks; your paint and your varnish are a disgrace.’”

“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 his
trembling hands; but he no longer had his correct glance, his skill in
weighing the portions. The consciousness of his defeat deprived him of
the confidence he used to have as a respected employer. Pépé thought 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 cutting
of which would certainly improve the business of the neighbourhood. But
then again he returned to The Ladies’ Paradise; everything brought him
back to it, it was a kind of complaint. They were covered with plaster,
and business was stopped since the builders’ carts had commenced
to block up the street. It would soon be really ridiculous, in its
immensity; the customers would lose themselves. 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 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 increasing, they had now
a thousand employees and twenty-eight departments. These 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 these people were not at all proud, they would end by selling
fish. Baudu, though affecting to respect Denise’s opinions, attempted to
convert her.

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

And as the young girl simply smiled, feeling uncomfortable,
understanding the uselessness of good reasons, he resumed:

“In short, you are on their side. We won’t talk about it any more, for
ifs useless to let that part us again. It would be too much 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 former violence was reduced 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 stewed
potatoes appeared, and they helped themselves slowly, without a word.

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

Side by side in the usual place where they had found themselves twice
a-day for the last twelve years, the engaged couple were eating in
moderation, and without uttering a word. He, exaggerating the coarse
good-nature of his face, seemed to be concealing, behind his drooping
eyelashes, the inner flame which was devouring him; whilst she, her
head bowed lower beneath her too heavy hair, seemed to be giving way
entirely, as if ravaged by a secret grief.

“Last year was very disastrous,” explained Baudu, “and we have been
obliged to postpone the marriage, not for our own pleasure; ask them
what they think of your friends.” Denise, in order to pacify him,
interrogated the young people.

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

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

“You hear him!’ You hear him!” exclaimed Baudu, delighted. “There’s one
they’ll never get hold of! Ah! my boy, you’re the last of the old stock,
we sha’n’t see any more!” But Geneviève, with her severe and suffering
look, still kept her eyes on Colomban, diving into the depths of his
heart. And he felt troubled, he redoubled his invectives. Madame
Baudu was watching them with an anxious air, as if she foresaw another
misfortune in this direction. For some time her daughter’s sadness had
frightened her, she felt her to be dying. “The shop is left to take
care of itself,” said she at last, quitting the table, desirous of
putting 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 lounging by the window, looking into the little back yard,
when turning round she saw Geneviève still in her place, her eyes fixed
on the American cloth, which was still damp from the sponge having been
passed over it.

“Are you suffering, cousin?” she asked.

The young girl did not reply, obstinately studying a rent in the cloth,
too preoccupied by the reflections passing through her mind. Then she
raised her head with pain, and looked at the sympathising face bent over
hers. The others had gone, then? What was she doing on this chair? And
suddenly a flood of 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?”

Geneviève nervously seized her by the arm, and held her back,
stammering: “No, no, stay. 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, and Pm not
crying now.”

But sudden attacks kept seizing her, causing her frail body to tremble.
It seemed as though the weight of her hair was weighing down her head.
As she was rolling her poor head on her folded arms, a hair-pin came
out, and her hair fell over her neck, burying it in its folds. Denise,
quietly, for fear of attracting attention, tried to console her. She
undid her dress, and was heart-broken on seeing how fearfully thin she
was. The poor girl’s bosom was as hollow as that of a child. Denise
took the hair by handfuls, that superb head of hair which seemed to be
absorbing all her life, and twisted it up, to clear it away, and give
her a little air.

“Thanks, you are very kind,” said Geneviève. “Ah! I’m not very 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 worn out,
looking fixedly at her cousin. After a pause she abruptly asked: “Tell
me the truth: does he love her?”

Denise felt a blush rising to her cheek. 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 have been this girl’s comrade, and
I’ve seen Colomban run after you, and talk to her 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 had Denise been in such an awkward position. She lowered her eyes
before this almost dumb girl, who yet guessed all. However, she had the
strength to deceive her still. “But it’s you he loves!”

Geneviève turned away in 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,
carried away by the desire to give her, at least, that consolation.

The young girl drew a long breath, and smiled feebly. Then with the weak
voice of a convalescent: “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 latter being afraid Geneviève
might do herself harm.

“No, no, let me be; I’m always thirsty. In the night I get up to drink.”
There was a fresh silence. Then she went on again quietly: “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 was courting me.
I hardly remember how things have come about By always living together,
being 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, and that’s 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’ve never felt before. It hurts
me in the bosom, and in the head; then it spreads every where, and is
killing me.”

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

“Yes, mamma has her suspicions, I think. As to papa, he is too worried,
and does not know the pain he is causing me by postponing this 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: ‘My
poor child, I’ve not made you very 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?”

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

“No, I’m so thirsty, let me drink.”

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

“Jean is here. Come along.”

It was indeed Jean, looking rather scared, who had come to dinner. When
they told him it was striking eight, he looked 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 a little laundry-girl who was taking
back some linen. I’ve got a cab outside by the hour. Give me five
francs.”

He went out 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. Genevieve had reappeared in her usual silent and retiring manner.
Colomban was half asleep behind the counter. The evening passed away,
slow and melancholy, only animated by Baudu’s step, as he walked
from one end of the empty shop to the other. A single gas-burner was
alight–the shadow 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 house became more melancholy than ever. The
works opposite were a continual torment, which intensified their bad
luck. Even when they had an hour of hope–some unexpected joy–the
falling of a tumbrel-load of bricks, the sound of the saw of a
stonecutter, or the simple call of a mason, sufficed at once to mar
their pleasure. In fact, the whole neighbourhood felt the shock. From
the boarded enclosure, running along and blocking up the three streets,
there issued a movement of feverish activity. Although the architect
used the existing buildings, he altered them in various ways to adapt
them to their new uses; and right in the centre at the opening caused by
the court-yards, he was building a central gallery as big as a
church, which was to terminate with a grand entrance in the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin right in the middle of the frontage. They had, at
first, experienced great difficulty in laying the foundations, for they
had come on to some sewer deposits and loose earth, full of human
bones. Besides that, the boring of the well had made the neighbours very
anxious–a well three hundred feet deep, destined to give two hundred
gallons a minute. They had now got the walls up to the first storey;
the entire block was surrounded by scaffolding, regular towers of timber
work. There was an incessant noise from the grinding of the windlasses
hoisting up the stone, the abrupt discharge of iron bars, the clamour of
this army of workmen, accompanied by the noise of picks and hammers.
But above all, what deafened the people was the sound of the machinery.
Everything went by steam, screeching whistles rent the air; whilst, at
the slightest gust of wind, clouds of plaster flew about and covered the
neighbouring roofs like a fall of snow. The Baudus in despair looked
on at this implacable dust penetrating everywhere–getting 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 finish 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, decided to carry
on the work at night also. Powerful electric lamps were established,
and the uproar became continuous. Gangs of men relieved each other;
the hammers never stopped, the engines whistled night and day; the
everlasting clamour seemed to raise and scatter the white dust The
Baudus now had to give up the idea of sleeping even; they were shaken in
their beds; the noises changed into nightmare as soon as they fell off
to sleep. Then, if they got up to calm their fever, and went, with bare
feet, to 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, dotted
with open bays, the electric lamps threw a large blue flood of light,
of a blinding intensity. Two o’clock struck–then three, then four; and
during the painful sleep of the neighbourhood, the works, increased
by this lunar brightness, became colossal and fantastic, swarming with
black shadows, noisy workmen, whose profiles gesticulated on the crude
whiteness of the new plastering.

Baudu was quite right. The small traders in the neighbouring 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 cracking of
the oldest houses. Mademoiselle Tatin, at 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, the hosiers, still kept on in the Rue Gaillon, they were
evidently living on money saved formerly. And now more smashes were
going to be added to those long since foreseen; the department for fancy
goods threatened a toy-shopkeeper in the Rue Saint-Roch, Deslignières, a
big, full-blooded man; whilst the furniture department attacked Messrs.
Piot and Rivoire, whose shops were sleeping in the shadow of the Passage
Sainte-Anne. It was even feared that an attack of apoplexy would carry
off the toyman, who had gone into a terrible rage on seeing The Ladies’
Paradise mark 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, the success of the department had
every appearance of being a formidable one. It was all over, they were
obliged to bow their heads. After these others would be swept off, and
there was no reason why every business should not be driven away. One
day The Ladies’ Paradise alone would cover the neighbourhood with its
roof.

At present, morning and evening, when the thousand employees went in and
came out, they formed such a long procession in the Place Gaillon that
people stopped to look at them as they would at a passing regiment.
For ten minutes they blocked up all the streets; and the shopkeepers at
their doors thought bitterly of their single assistant, whom they hardly
knew how to find food for. The last balance-sheet of the big shop,
the forty millions turned over, had also caused a revolution in 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., with their heavy general
expenses, and system of low prices; but sixteen hundred thousand francs
was a jolly sum, one could 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, augmented each year by the
total profits, a capital which must at that moment have amounted to four
millions, had thus passed ten times over the counters in the form of
goods. Robineau, when he made this calculation before Denise, after
dinner, was overcome for a moment, his eyes fixed on his empty plate.
She was right, it was this incessant renewal of the capital that
constituted the invincible force of the new system of business. Bourras
alone denied the facts, refusing to understand, superb and stupid as a
mile-stone. A pack of thieves and nothing more! A lying set! Cheap-jacks
who would be picked up out of the gutter one fine morning!

The Baudus, however, notwithstanding their wish not to change anything
in the way of The Old Elbeuf, tried to sustain the competition. The
customers no longer coming to them, they forced themselves to go to the
customers, through the agency of travellers. There was at that time, in
the Paris market, a traveller connected with all the great 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 assumed
the importance of a personage; and Baudu, having haggled with him, had
the misfortune of seeing him come to terms with the Matignons, in the
Rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs. One after the other, two other travellers
robbed him; a third, an honest man, did no business. It was a slow
death, without any shock, a continual decrease of business, customers
lost one by one. A day came when the bills fell very heavily. Up to
that time they had lived on their former savings; but now they began to
contract debts. In December, Baudu, terrified by the amount of the bills
he had accepted, 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 for which the tenants had not even paid the rent
when he decided to get rid of it. This sale killed the only dream of
his life, his heart bled as for the loss of some dear one. And he had to
sell for seventy thousand francs that which had cost him more than two
hundred thousand, considering himself fortunate to have met the Lhommes,
his neighbours, who were desirous of adding to their property. The
seventy thousand francs would keep the business going a little longer;
for notwithstanding the repulses already encountered, the idea of
struggling sprang up again; perhaps with great care they might conquer
even now.

The Sunday on which the Lhommes paid the money, they were good enough 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 somewhat painful evening. The
Baudus, living without air in their narrow dining-room, suffered from
the gust of wind brought in by the Lhommes, with their scattered family
and taste for a free existence. Geneviève, wounded by Madame Aurélie’s
imperial airs, did not open her mouth; whilst Colomban was admiring
her with a shiver, on reflecting that she reigned over Clara. Before
retiring to rest, in the evening, Madame Baudu being already in bed,
Baudu walked about the room for a long time. It was a mild night,
thawing and damp. Outside, notwithstanding the closed windows, and drawn
curtains, one could hear the machinery roaring on the opposite side of
the way.




“Do you know what I’m thinking of, Elisabeth?” said he at last “Well!
these 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
has enabled her to take my poor house. Never mind! I’ve no longer 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 labouring under the grief of his sacrifice, nourishing
a certain rancour against those people who had bought up his darling
dream. When he came near the bed, he gesticulated, leaning over his
wife; then, returning to the window, he stood silent for a minute,
listening to the noise of the works. And he resumed his old accusations,
his despairing complaints about the new times; nobody had ever seen such
things, a shop-assistant earning more than a tradesman, cashiers buying
up the employers’ property. Everything was going to the dogs; family
ties no longer existed, people lived at hôtels instead of eating their
meals at home in a respectable manner. He ended by prophesying that
young Albert would later on swallow up the Rambouillet property with a
lot of actresses.

Madame Baudu listened to him, her head flat on the pillow, so pale that
her face was the colour of the sheets. “They’ve paid you,” at length
said she, 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
his wife spoke again, her eyes fixed on the ceiling, without moving her
head: “Have you noticed your daughter lately?”

“No,” replied he.

“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. After a short time, she declared
with her meditative air: “This marriage with Colomban, I think it would
be better to get it over.”

He looked at her, 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 fact 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
saying another word he continued his walk. Soon afterwards his wife
fell off to sleep, quite white, as if dead; but he still kept on walking
about. Before getting into bed he drew aside the curtains and glanced
outside; on the other side of the street, the gaping windows of the old
Hôtel Duvillard showed the workmen moving about in the dazzling glare of
the electric light.

The next morning Baudu took Colomban to the further end of the store,
on the upper floor, having made up his mind over night what he should
say to him. “My boy,” said he “you know I’ve sold my property at
Rambouillet. That will enable us to show good fight. But I should like
beforehand 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 large face, and he stood there with
his mouth open–a sign with him 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 to my children in a
diminished state; and that’s why I’ve always postponed your marriage
with Genevieve. 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 had made to myself, the very natural
desire I had to prove that the house had not lost anything in my hands.
Otherwise it would seem to me I was robbing you.” His voice was stifled
with emotion. He blew his nose to recover a bit, and asked, “You don’t
say anything?”

But Colomban had nothing to say. He shook his head, and waited, more and
more troubled, thinking 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. And the other girl, of whom he dreamed at
night, devoured by such a flame that he frequently threw himself quite
naked on the floor, in the fear of dying of it.

“Now,” continued Baudu, “there’s a sum of money that may save us. The
situation becomes worse every day, and 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! But, my poor boy, your marriage must be again 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 swan-skin
flannel. His legs were still trembling. He was afraid of showing his
joy, he held down his head, rolling his fingers on his knees.

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

No, he said nothing, he could find nothing to say. The draper then
slowly continued: “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 on
your neck? Instead of leaving you a good business, I should leave you
a bankruptcy perhaps. No, it’s only a scoundrel who would play such a
trick! No doubt, I desire nothing but your happiness, but no one shall
ever make me, go against my conscience.”

And he went on for a long time in this way, swaying about in a maze of
contradictions, like a man who would have liked to be understood at
half a word and 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 tired, the
burden seemed to be too much for him, his stammering voice was one of
supplication. He got more entangled than ever in his words, he was still
expecting a sudden rally from Colomban, some heartfelt cry, which came
not.

“I know,” murmured he, “that old men are wanting in ardour. With young
ones, things light up. They are full of fire, it’s 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?” At last, but without looking 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 he looked at him, and was seized with shame, accusing himself
of having wished to dupe his children. The deep-rooted maniacal honesty
of the shopkeeper was awakened in him; it was this prudent fellow who
was right, for in business there is no such thing as sentiment, it is
only a question of figures.

“Give me your hand, my boy,” said he 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
result of the conversation, the latter had resumed his obstinate wish to
fight in person to the bitter end. He gave Colomban high praise,
calling him a solid fellow, firm in his ideas, brought up with 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,” replied he, “when I am able to keep to my promises.”

She made no gestures, she simply observed: “It will be our daughter’s
death.”

Baudu restrained himself, stirred up 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-sheet The deuce! Colomban was there, no one would run
away with him!

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

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

Denise had decided to return to The Ladies’ Paradise, having understood
that the Robineaus, though forced to cut down their staff, did not like
to dismiss her. To maintain their position, now, they were obliged to do
everything themselves. Gaujean, obstinate in his rancour, renewed their
bills, even promised to find them funds; but they were frightened, they
wanted to go in for economy and order. During a whole fortnight Denise
had felt uneasy with them, and she had to speak first, saying she had
found a situation elsewhere. This was a great relief. Madame Robineau
embraced her, deeply affected, saying she should always miss her. Then
when, in reply to a question, the young girl said 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, Denise
had to give him notice, and she trembled, for she was full of gratitude
towards him. Bourras just at this time was in a continual fever of
rage–full of invectives against the works going on next door. The
builder’s carts blocked up his doorway; the picks tapped on his walls;
everything in his place, the umbrellas and the sticks, danced about
to the noise of the hammers. It seemed that the hovel, obstinately
remaining amid all these demolitions, was going to give way. But the
worst of all 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 boring a passage under the little house that
separated them. This house belonged to the firm of Mouret & Co., and
the lease stipulating that the tenant should submit to all necessary
repairs, the workmen appeared on the scene one morning. At this Bourras
nearly went into a fit. Wasn’t it enough to strangle him on all sides,
on the right, the left, and behind, without attacking him underfoot as
well, taking the ground from under him! And he drove the masons
away, and went to law. Repairs, yes! but this was rather a work of
embellishment. The neighbourhood thought he would carry the day,
without, however, being sure of anything The case, however, threatened
to be a long one, and people became very excited over this interminable
duel. The day Denise resolved to give him notice, Bourras had just
returned from his lawyer.

“Would you believe it!” exclaimed he, “they now say the house is not
solid; they pretend that the foundations must be strengthened. Confound
it! they have shaken it up so with their infernal machines, that it
isn’t astonishing if it gives way!”

Then, when the young girl announced she was going away, and that she was
going back to The Ladies’ Paradise at a salary of a thousand francs, he
was so amazed that he simply raised his trembling hands in the air. The
emotion made him drop into a chair.

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

“He’ll go back to Madame Gras’s,” replied Denise.

“She was very fond of him! that can’t be refused. You’ll all go. Go,
then, leave me here alone. Yes, alone–you understand! There shall be
one who 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; everything was 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, he said. And he told her the gossip of the
counters.

“You know, the young ladies in the dress department are pulling long
faces!” Then, interrupting himself, he added: “By the way, you remember
Clara Primaire? Well, it appears the governor has—— You understand?”

He had turned quite red. She, very pale, exclaimed: “Monsieur Mouret!”

“Funny taste–eh?” he resumed. “A woman who looks like a horse. The
little girl from the under-linen department, whom he had twice last
year, was, at least, good-looking. However, that’s his business.”

Denise, once upstairs, almost fainted away. It was surely through coming
up too quick. Leaning out of the window she had a sudden vision of
Valognes, the deserted street and grassy pavement, which she used to
see from her room as a child; and she was seized with a desire to go
and live there–to seek refuge in the peace and forgetfulness of the
country. Paris irritated her, she hated The Ladies’ Paradise, she hardly
knew why she had consented to go back. She would certainly suffer as
much as ever there; she was already suffering from an unknown uneasiness
since Deloche’s stories. Suddenly, without any notice, a flood of tears
forced her to leave the window. She wept on for some time, and found
a little courage to live on still. The next day at breakfast-time, as
Robineau had sent her on an errand, and she was passing The Old Elbeuf,
she pushed open the door on seeing Colomban alone in the shop. The
Baudus were breakfasting; she could hear the clatter of the knives and
forks in the little room.

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

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? Don’t you see that Geneviève loves you, and that it’s killing
her.”

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

“Do you hear?” she continued. “Genevieve 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 that the least
persistence on the part of the young man would decide her uncle. As to
Colomban’s surprise, it was not feigned; he had really never noticed
Genevieve’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?” resumed Denise. “For a worthless girl! You can’t know
who you are loving! Up to the present I have not wanted to hurt your
feelings, I have often avoided answering your continual questions. Well!
she goes with everybody, she laughs at you, you will never have her, or
you may have her, like others, just once in a way.”

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

Her voice was stifled, she turned 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 way to this
young fellow? Why was she getting so excited? She stood there mute, the
simple reply he had just given resounded in her heart like the clang of
a bell, which deafened her. “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 Genevieve on the threshold of the
dining-room.

“Be quiet!” she said rapidly.

But it was too late, Genevieve must have heard, for her face was white
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 solid 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 herself no longer came, entirely captivated by the
seductions of the display opposite. And Genevieve was forced to go
forward, and say in her weak voice:

“What do you desire, madame?”

Madame Bourdelais wished to sec some flannel. Colomban took down a roll
from a shelf. Genevieve showed the article; and both of them, their
hands cold, found themselves brought together behind the counter.
Meanwhile Baudu came out of the dining-room last, behind his wife, who
had gone and seated herself at the pay-desk. At first he did not meddle
with the sale, but stood up, looking at Madame Bourdelais.

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

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

“How much?”

“Six francs, madame,” replied Genevieve. The lady made an abrupt
movement. “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, the stuff ought to
have been sold at six francs and a half; it was impossible to give it at
five francs. It must be another quality she was referring to.

“No, no,” she repeated, with the obstinacy of a lady who could not be
deceived. “The quality is the same. It may even be a little thicker.”

And the discussion got very warm. Baudu, his face getting bilious,
made an effort to continue smiling. His bitterness against The Ladies’
Paradise was bursting in his throat.

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

He then lost his head, and cried out, shaking with a passion he could
not repress: “Well! go opposite!”

At this she got up, greatly annoyed, and went away without turning
round, saying: “That’s 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 against his will in the explosion of a long pent-up
rancour. And the Baudus now stood there motionless, following Madame
Bourdelais with their looks, watching her cross the street. She seemed
to be carrying off their fortune. When she slowly passed under the high
door of The Ladies’ Paradise, when 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. Then
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 have 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 the young girl replied to her in a very low and heartbroken voice:
“Why do you tell me a falsehood? Look! he can’t help it, he’s always
glancing up there. I know very well they’ve stolen him from me, as
they’ve robbed us of everything else.”

Geneviève went and sat down on the seat at the desk near her mother. The
latter had doubtless guessed the fresh blow received by her daughter,
for her anxious eyes wandered from her to Colomban, and then to The
Ladies’ Paradise. It was true, they had stolen everything from them:
from the father, a fortune; from the mother, her dying child; from the
daughter, a husband, waited for for ten years. Before this condemned
family, Denise, whose heart was overflowing with pity, felt for an
instant afraid of being wicked. Was she not going to assist this machine
which was crushing the poor people? But she felt herself carried away as
it were by an invisible force, and knew that she was doing no wrong.

“Bah!” resumed Baudu, to give himself courage; “we sha’n’t die over 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 trouble your Mouret’s rest. 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 stood with their eyes on the monster,
attracted, possessed, full of their misfortune. The work was nearly
finished, the scaffolding had been removed from the front, a whole
side of the colossal edifice appeared, with its walls and large light
windows.

Along the pavement at last open to circulation, stood eight vans that
the messengers were loading one after the other.

In the sunshine, a ray of which ran along the street, the green panels,
picked out with red and yellow, sparkled like so many mirrors, sending
blinding reflections right into The Old Elbeuf. The drivers, dressed in
black, of a correct appearance, were holding the horses well in, superb
pairs, shaking their silvered bits. And each time a van was loaded,
there was a sonorous, rolling noise, which made the neighbouring small
shops tremble. And before this triumphal procession, which they were
destined to submit to twice a day, the Baudus’ hearts broke. The father
half fainted away, asking himself where this continual flood of goods
could go to; whilst the mother, tormented to death about her daughter,
continued to gaze into the street, her eyes drowned in a flood of tears.