Her tongue refused its office

When the dead summer season arrived, there was quite a panic at The
Ladies’ Paradise. The reign of terror commenced, a great many employees
were sent away on leave, and others were dismissed in dozens by the
principals, who wished to clear the shop, no customers appearing during
the July and August heat. Mouret, on making his daily inspection with
Burdoncle, called aside the managers, whom he had prompted during the
winter to engage more men than were necessary, so that the business
should not suffer, leaving them to weed out their staff later on. It was
now a question of reducing expenses by getting rid of quite a third of
the shop people, the weak ones who allowed themselves to be swallowed up
by the strong ones.

“Come,” he would say, “you must have some who don’t suit you. We can’t
keep them all this time doing nothing.”

And if the manager hesitated, hardly knowing whom to sacrifice, he would
continue; “Make your arrangements, six salesmen must suffice; you can
take on others in October, there are plenty to be had!”

As a rule Bourdoncle undertook the executions. He had a terrible way of
saying: “Go and be paid!” which fell like a blow from an axe. Anything
served him as a pretext for clearing off the superfluous staff. He
invented misdeeds, speculating on the slightest negligence. “You were
sitting down, sir; go and be paid!”

“You dare to answer me; go and be paid!”

“Your shoes are not clean; go and be paid!” And even the bravest
trembled in presence of the massacre which he left behind him. Then,
this system not working quick enough, he invented a trap by which he got
rid in a few days, without fatigue, of the number of salesmen condemned
beforehand. At eight o’clock, he took his stand at the door, watch in
hand; and at three minutes past the hour, the breathless young people
were greeted with the implacable “Go and be paid!” This was a quick and
cleanly method of doing the work.

“You’ve an ugly mug,” he ended by saying one day to a poor wretch whose
nose, all on one side, annoyed him, “go and be paid!”

The favoured ones obtained a fortnight’s holiday without pay, which was
a more humane way of lessening the expenses. The salesmen accepted their
precarious situation, obliged to do so by necessity and habit. Since
their arrival in Paris, they had roamed about, commencing their
apprenticeship here, finishing it there, getting dismissed or themselves
resigning all at once, as interest dictated. When business stood still,
the workmen were deprived of their daily bread; and this was well
understood in the indifferent march of the machine, the useless
workmen were quietly thrown aside, like so much old plant, there was no
gratitude shown for services rendered. So much the worse for those who
did not know how to look after themselves!

Nothing else was now talked of in the various departments. Fresh stories
circulated every day. The dismissed salesmen were named, as one counts
the dead in time of cholera. The shawl and the woollen departments
suffered especially; seven employees disappeared from them in one week.
Then the underlinen department was thrown into confusion, a customer
had nearly fainted away, accusing the young person who had served her of
eating garlic; and the latter was dismissed at once, although, badly
fed and dying of hunger, she was simply finishing a collection of
bread crusts at the counter. The authorities were pitiless at the least
complaint from the customers; no excuse was admitted, the employee was
always wrong, and had to disappear like a defective instrument, hurtful
to the proper working of the business; and the others bowed their heads,
not even attempting any defence. In the panic which was raging each one
trembled for himself. Mignot, going out one day with a parcel under his
coat, notwithstanding the rules, was nearly caught, and really thought
himself lost. Liénard, who was celebrated for his idleness, owed to his
father’s position in the drapery trade that he was not turned away one
afternoon that Bourdoncle found him dozing between two piles of English
velvets. But the Lhommes were especially anxious, expecting every day
to see their son Albert sent away, the governor being very dissatisfied
with his conduct at the pay-desk. He frequently had women there who
distracted his attention from his work; and twice Madame Aurélie had
been obliged to plead for him with the principals.

Denise was so menaced amid this general clearance, that she lived in the
constant expectation of a catastrophe. It was in vain that she summoned
up her courage, struggling with all her gaiety and all her reason not
to yield to the misgivings of her tender nature; she burst out into
blinding tears as soon as she had closed the door of her bedroom,
desolated at the thought of seeing herself in the street, on bad terms
with her uncle, not knowing where to go, without a sou saved, and having
the two children to look after. The sensations she had felt the first
few weeks sprang up again, she fancied herself a grain of seed under
a powerful millstone; and, utterly discouraged, she abandoned herself
entirely to the thought of what a small atom she was in this great
machine, which would certainly crush her with its quiet indifference.
There was no illusion possible; if they sent away any one from her
department she knew it would be her. No doubt, during the Rambouillet
excursion, the other young ladies had incensed Madame Aurélie against
her, for since then that lady had treated her with an air of severity in
which there was a certain rancour. Besides, they could not forgive her
going to Joinville, regarding it as a sign of revolt, a means of setting
the whole department at defiance, by parading about with a young
lady from a rival counter. Never had Denise suffered so much in the
department, and she now gave up all hope of conquering it.

“Let them alone!” repeated Pauline, “a lot of stuck-up things, as stupid
as donkeys!”

But it was just these fine lady airs which intimidated Denise. Nearly
all the saleswomen, by their daily contact with the rich customers,
assumed certain graces, and finished by forming a vague nameless class,
something between a work-girl and a middle-class lady. But beneath their
art in dress, and the manners and phrases learnt by heart, there was
often only a false superficial education, the fruits of attending cheap
theatres and music-halls, and picking up all the current stupidities of
the Paris pavement.

“You know the ‘unkempt girl’ has got a child?” said Clara one morning,
on arriving in the department. And, as they seemed astonished, she
continued: “I saw her yesterday myself taking the child out for a walk!
She’s got it stowed away in the neighbourhood, somewhere.”

Two days after, Margueritte came up after dinner with another piece
of news. “A nice thing, I’ve just seen the ‘unkempt girl’s’ lover–a
workman, just fancy! Yes, a dirty little workman, with yellow hair, who
was watching her through the windows.”

From that moment it was an accepted truth: Denise had a workman for
a lover, and an infant concealed somewhere in the neighbourhood. They
overwhelmed her with spiteful allusions. The first time she understood
she turned quite pale before the monstrosity of their suppositions. It
was abominable; she tried to explain, and stammered out: “But they are
my brothers!”

“Oh! oh! her brothers!” said Clara in a bantering tone.

Madame Aurélie was obliged to interfere. “Be quiet! young ladies. You
had better go on changing those tickets. Mademoiselle Baudu is quite
free to misbehave herself out of doors, if only she worked a bit when
here.”

This curt defence was a condemnation. The young girl, feeling choked as
if they had accused her of a crime, vainly endeavoured to explain the
facts. They laughed and shrugged their shoulders, and she felt wounded
to the heart On hearing the rumour, Deloche was so indignant that he
wanted to slap the faces of the young ladies in Denise’s department; and
was only restrained by the fear of compromising her. Since the evening
at Joinville, he entertained a submissive love, an almost religious
friendship for her, which he proved by his faithful doglike looks. He
was careful not to show his affection before the others, for they would
have laughed at them; but that did not prevent his dreaming of the
avenging blow, if ever any one should attack her before him.

Denise finished by not answering the insults. It was too odious, nobody
would believe it. When any girl ventured a fresh allusion, she contented
herself with looking at her with a sad, calm air. Besides, she had other
troubles, material anxieties which took up her attention. Jean went on
as bad as ever, always worrying her for money. Hardly a week passed that
she did not receive some fresh story from him, four pages long; and
when the house postman brought her these letters, in a big, passionate
handwriting, she hastened to hide them in her pocket, for the saleswomen
affected to laugh, and sung snatches of some doubtful ditties.
Then after having invented a pretext to go to the other end of the
establishment and read the letters, she was seized with fear; poor Jean
seemed to be lost. All his fibs went down with her, she believed all
his extraordinary love adventures, her complete ignorance of such things
making her exaggerate the danger. Sometimes it was a two-franc piece
to enable him to escape the jealousy of some woman; at other times five
francs, six francs, to get some poor girl out of a scrape, whose father
would otherwise kill her. So that as her salary and commission did not
suffice, she had conceived the idea of looking for a little work after
business hours. She spoke about it to Robineau, who had shown a certain
sympathy for her since their meeting at Vinçard’s, and he had procured
her the making of some neckties at five sous a dozen. At night, between
nine and one o’clock, she could do six dozen, which made thirty sous,
out of which she had to deduct four sous for a candle. But as this sum
kept Jean going she did not complain of the want of sleep, and would
have thought herself very happy had not another catastrophe once more
overthrown her budget calculations. At the end of the second fortnight,
when she went to the necktie-dealer, she found the door closed; the
woman had failed, become bankrupt, thus carrying off her eighteen francs
six sous, a considerable sum on which she had been counting for the
last week. All the annoyances in the department disappeared before this
disaster.

“You look dull,” said Pauline, meeting her in the furniture gallery,
looking very pale. “Are you in want of anything?”

But as Denise already owed her friend twelve francs, she tried to smile
and replied: “No, thanks. I’ve not slept well, that’s all.”

It was the twentieth of July, when the panic caused by the dismissals
was at its worst. Out of the four hundred employees, Bourdoncle had
already sacked fifty, and there were rumours of fresh executions. She
thought but little of the menaces which were flying about, entirely
taken up by the anguish of one of Jean’s adventures, still more
terrifying than the others. This very day he wanted fifteen francs,
which sum alone could save him from the vengeance of an outraged
husband. The previous evening she had received the first letter opening
the drama; then, one after the other, came two more; in the last, which
she was finishing when Pauline met her, Jean announced his death
for that evening, if she did not send the money. She was in agony.
Impossible to take it out of Pépé’s board, paid two days before. Every
sort of bad luck was pursuing her, for she had hoped to get her
eighteen francs six sous through Robineau, who could perhaps find the
necktie-dealer; but Robineau having got a fortnight’s holiday, had not
returned the previous night as he was expected to do.

However, Pauline still questioned her in a friendly way; when they
met, in an out-of-the-way department, they conversed for a few minutes,
keeping a sharp look-out the while. Suddenly, Pauline made a move as if
to run off, having observed the white tie of an inspector who was coming
out of the shawl department.

“Ah! it’s only old Jouve!” murmured she in a relieved tone. “I can’t
think what makes the old man grin as he does when he sees us together.
In your place I should beware, for he’s too kind to you. He’s an old
humbug, as spiteful as a cat, and thinks he’s still got his troopers to
talk to.”

It was quite true; Jouve was detested by all the salespeople for the
severity of his treatment More than half the dismissals were the result
of his reports; and with his big red nose of a rakish ex-captain, he
only exercised his leniency in the departments served by women.

“Why should I be afraid?” asked Denise.

“Well!” replied Pauline, laughing, “perhaps he may exact some return.
Several of the young ladies try to keep well with him.”

Jouve had gone away, pretending not to see them; and they heard him
dropping on to a salesman in the lace department, guilty of watching a
fallen horse in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin.

“By the way,” resumed Pauline, “weren’t you looking for Monsieur
Robineau yesterday? He’s come back.”

Denise thought she was saved. “Thanks, I’ll go round the other way then,
and pass through the silk department. So much the worse! They sent me
upstairs to the work-room to fetch a bodkin.”

And they separated. The young girl, with a busy look, as if she were
running from pay-desk to pay-desk in search of something, arrived on the
stairs and went down into the hall. It was a quarter to ten, the
first lunch-bell had rung. A warm sun was playing on the windows, and
notwithstanding the grey linen blinds, the heat penetrated into the
stagnant air. Now and then a refreshing breath arose from the floor,
which the messengers were gently watering. It was a somnolence, a summer
siesta, in the midst of the empty space around the counters, like the
interior of a church wrapt in sleeping shadow after the last mass.
Some listless salesmen were standing about, a few rare customers were
crossing the galleries and the hall, with the fatigued step of women
annoyed by the sun.

Just as Denise went down, Favier was measuring a dress length of
light silk, with pink spots, for Madame Boutarel, arrived in Paris the
previous day from the South. Since the commencement of the month, the
provinces had been sending up their detachments; one saw nothing but
queerly-dressed ladies with yellow shawls, green skirts, and flaring
bonnets. The shopmen, indifferent, were too indolent to laugh at them
even. Favier accompanied Madame Boutarel to the mercery department, and
on returning, said to Hutin:

“Yesterday they were all Auvergnat women, to-day they’re all
Provençales. I’m sick of them.”

But Hutin rushed forward, it was his turn, and he had recognised “the
pretty lady,” the lovely blonde whom the department thus designated,
knowing nothing about her, not even her name. They all smiled at her,
not a week passed without her coming to The Ladies’ Paradise, always
alone. This time she had a little boy of four or five with her, and this
gave rise to some comment.

“She’s married, then?” asked Favier, when Hutin returned from the
pay-desk, where he had debited her with thirty yards of Duchess satin.

“Possibly,” replied he, “although the youngster proves nothing. Perhaps
he belongs to a lady friend. What’s certain is, that she must have been
weeping. She’s so melancholy, and her eyes are so red!”

À silence ensued. The two salesmen gazed vaguely into the depths of the
shop. Then Favier resumed in a low voice; “If she’s married, perhaps her
husband’s given her a drubbing.”

“Possibly,” repeated Hutin, “unless it be a lover who has left her.” And
after a fresh silence, he added: “Any way, I don’t care a hang!”

At this moment Denise crossed the silk department, slackening her pace
and looking around her, trying to find Robineau. She could not see him,
so she went into the linen department, then passed through again. The
two salesmen had noticed her movements.

“There’s that bag of bones again,” murmured Hutin.

“She’s looking for Robineau,” said Favier. “I can’t think what they’re
up to together. Oh! nothing smutty; Robineau’s too big a fool. They say
he has procured her a little work, some neckties. What a spec, eh?”

Hutin was meditating something spiteful. When Denise passed near he, he
stopped her, saying: “Is it me you’re looking for?”

She turned very red. Since the Joinville excursion, she dared not read
her heart, full of confused sensations. She was constantly recalling his
appearance with that red-haired girl, and if she still trembled before
him, it was doubtless from uneasiness. Had she ever loved him? Did she
love him still? She hardly liked to stir up these things, which were
painful to her.

“No, sir,” she replied, embarrassed.

Hutin then began to laugh at her uneasy manner. “Would you like us to
serve him to you? Favier, just serve this young lady with Robineau.”

She looked at him fixedly, with the sad calm look with which she had
received the wounding remarks the young ladies had made about her. Ah!
he was spiteful, he attacked her as well as the others! And she felt a
sort of supreme anguish, the breaking of a last tie. Her face expressed
such real suffering, that Favier, though not of a very tender nature,
came to her assistance.

“Monsieur Robineau is in the stock-room,” said he. “No doubt he will
be back for lunch. You’ll find him here this afternoon, if you want to
speak to him.”

Denise thanked him, and went up to her department, where Madamé Aurélie
was waiting for her in a terrible rage. What! she had been gone half an
hour! Where had she just sprung from? Not from the work-room, that
was quite certain! The poor girl hung down her head, thinking of this
avalanche of misfortunes. All would be over if Robineau did not come in.
However, she resolved to go down again.

In the silk department, Robineau’s return had provoked quite a
revolution. The salesmen had hoped that, disgusted with the annoyances
they were incessantly causing him, he would not return; and, in fact,
there was a moment, when pressed by Vinçard to take over his business,
he had almost decided to do so. Hutin’s secret working, the mine he had
been laying under the second-hand’s feet for months past, was about to
be sprung. During Robineau’s holidays, Hutin, who had taken his place
as second-hand, had done his best to injure him in the minds of the
principals, and get possession of his situation by an excess of zeal; he
discovered and reported all sorts of trifling irregularities, suggested
improvements, and invented new designs. In fact, every one in the
department, from the unpaid probationer, longing to become a salesman,
up to the first salesman who coveted the situation of manager, they all
had one fixed idea, and that was to dislodge the comrade above them, to
ascend another rung of the ladder, swallowing him up if necessary; and
this struggle of appetites, this pushing the one against the other, even
contributed to the better working of the machine, provoking business
and increasing tenfold the success which was astonishing Paris. Behind
Hutin, there was Favier; then behind Favier came the others, in a long
line. One heard a loud noise as of jaw-bones working. Robineau was
condemned, each one was grabbing after his bone. So that when the
second-hand reappeared there was a general grumbling. The matter had to
be settled, the salesmen’s attitude appeared so menacing, that the head
of the department had sent Robineau to the stock-room, in order to give
the authorities time to come to a decision.

“We would sooner all leave, if they keep him,” declared Hutin.

This affair bothered Bouthemont, whose gaiety ill-accorded with such
an internal vexation. He was pained to see nothing but scowling faces
around him. However, he wished to be just “Come, leave him alone, he
doesn’t hurt you.”

But they protested energetically. “What! doesn’t hurt us! An
insupportable object, always irritable, capable of walking over your
body, he’s so proud!”

This was the great bitterness of the department Robineau, nervous as
a woman, was intolerably stiff and susceptible. They related scores of
stories, a poor little fellow who had fallen ill through it, and lady
customers even who had been humiliated by his nasty remarks.

“Well, gentlemen, I won’t take anything on myself,” said Bouthemont.
“I’ve notified the directors, and am going to speak about it shortly.”

The second lunch-bell rang, the clang of which came up from the
basement, distant and deadened in the close air of the shop. Hutin and
Favier went down. From all the counters, the salesmen were arriving one
by one, helter-skelter, hastening below to the narrow entrance to the
kitchen, a damp passage always lighted with gas. The throng pushed
forward, without a laugh or a word, amidst an increasing noise of
crockery and a strong odour of food. At the extremity of the passage
there was a sudden halt, before a wicket. Flanked with piles of plates,
armed with forks and spoons, which he was plunging in the copper-pans, a
cook was distributing the portions. And when he stood aside, the flaring
kitchen could be seen behind his white-covered belly.

“Of course!” muttered Hutin, consulting the bill of fare, written on a
black-board above the wicket. “Beef and pungent sauce, or skate. Never
any roast meat in this rotten shop! Their boiled beef and fish don’t
do a bit of good to a fellow!” Moreover, the fish was universally
neglected, for the pan was quite full. Favier, however, took some skate.
Behind him, Hutin stooped down, saying: “Beef and pungent sauce.” With
a mechanical movement, the cook picked up a piece of meat, and poured
a spoonful of sauce over it; and Hutin, suffocated by the ardent breath
from the kitchen, had hardly got his portion, before the words, “Beef,
pungent sauce; beef, pungent sauce,” followed each other like a litany;
whilst the cook continued to pick up the meat and pour over the sauce,
with the rapid and rhythmical movement of a well-regulated clock.

“But the skate’s cold,” declared Favier, whose hand felt no warmth from
the plate.

They were all hurrying along now, with their plates held out straight,
for fear of running up against one another. Ten steps further was the
bar, another wicket with a shiny zinc counter, on which were ranged the
shares of wine, small bottles, without corks, still damp from rinsing.
And each took one of these bottles in his empty hand as he passed, and
then, completely laden, made for his table with a serious air, careful
not to spill anything.

Hutin grumbled, “This is a fine dance, with all this crockery!”

Their table, Favier’s and his, was at the end of the corridor in the
last dining-room. The rooms were all alike, old cellars twelve feet by
fifteen, which had been cemented over and fitted up as refectories; but
the damp came through the paint-work, the yellow walls were covered with
greenish spots; and, from the narrow air-holes, opening on the street,
on a level with the pavement, there fell a livid light, incessantly
traversed by the vague shadows of the passers-by. In July as in
December, one was stifled in the warm air, laden with nauseous smells,
coming from the neighbourhood of the kitchen.

Hutin went in first. On the table, which was fixed at one end to the
wall, and covered with American cloth, there were only the glasses,
knives, and forks, marking oft the places. A pile of clean plates stood
at each end; whilst in the middle was a big loaf, a knife sticking in
it, with the handle in the air. Hutin got rid of his bottle and laid
down his plate; then, after having taken his napkin from the bottom of a
set of pigeonholes, the sole ornament on the walls, he heaved a sigh and
sat down.

“And I’m fearfully hungry, too!” he murmured.

“It’s always like that,” replied Favier, who took his place on the left.
“Nothing to eat when one is starving.”

The table was rapidly filling. It contained twenty-two places. At
first nothing was heard but a loud clattering of knives and forks, the
gormandising of big fellows with stomachs emptied by thirteen hours’
daily work. Formerly the employees had an hour for meals, which enabled
them to go outside to a café and take their coffee; and they would
despatch their dinner in twenty minutes, anxious to get into the street
But this stirred them up too much, they came back careless, indisposed
for business; and the managers had decided that they should not go out,
but pay an extra three halfpence for a cup of coffee, if they wanted it.
So that now they were in no hurry, but prolonged the meal, not at
all anxious to go back to work before time. A great many read some
newspaper, between mouthfuls, the journal folded and placed against
their bottle. Others, their first hunger satisfied, talked noisily,
always returning to the eternal grievance of the bad food, the money
they had earned, what they had done the previous Sunday, and what they
were going to do on the next one.

“I say, what about your Robineau?” asked a salesman of Hutin.

The struggle between the salesmen of the silk department and their
second-hand occupied all the counters. The question was discussed every
evening at the Café Saint-Roch until midnight. Hutin, who was busy with
his piece of beef, contented himself with replying:

“Well! he’s come back, Robineau has.” Then, suddenly getting angry,
he resumed: “But confound it! they’ve given me a bit of a donkey, I
believe! It’s becoming disgusting, my word of honour!”

“You needn’t grumble!” said Favier. “I was flat enough to ask for skate.
It’s putrid.”

They were all speaking at once, some complaining, some joking. At a
corner of the table, against the wall, Deloche was silently eating. He
was afflicted with an enormous appetite, which he had never been able
to satisfy, and not earning enough to afford any extras, he cut himself
enormous chunks of bread, and swallowed up the least savoury platefuls,
with an air of greediness. They all laughed at him, crying: “Favier,
pass your skate to Deloche. He likes it like that. And your meat, Hutin;
Deloche wants it for his dessert.”

The poor fellow shrugged his shoulders, and did not even reply. It
wasn’t his fault if he was dying of hunger. Besides, the others might
abuse the food as much as they liked, they swallowed it up all the same.

But a low whistling stopped their talk; Mouret and Bour-doncle were in
the corridor. For some time the complaints had become so frequent that
the principals pretended to come and judge for themselves the quality
of the food. They gave thirty sous a head per day to the chief cook,
who had to pay everything, provisions, coal, gas, and staff, and they
displayed a naïve astonishment when the food was not good. This very
morning even, each department had deputed a spokesman. Mignot and
Liénard had undertaken to speak for their comrades. And in the sudden
silence, all ears were stretched out to catch the conversation going
on in the next room, where Mouret and Bourdoncle had just entered. The
latter declared the beef excellent; and Mignot, astounded by this quiet
affirmation, was repeating, “But chew it, and see;” whilst Liénard,
attacking the skate, was gently saying, “But it stinks, sir!” Mouret
then launched into a cordial speech: he would do everything for his
employees’ welfare, he was their father, and would rather eat dry bread
than see them badly fed.

“I promise you to look into the matter,” said he in conclusion, raising
his voice so that they should hear it from one end of the passage to the
other.

The inquiry being finished, the noise of the knives and forks commenced
once more. Hutin muttered “Yes, reckon on that, and drink water! Ah,
they’re not stingy of soft words. Want some promises, there you are! And
they continue to feed you on old boot-leather, and to chuck you out like
dogs!”

The salesman who had already questioned him repeated: “You say that
Robineau—-”

But a noise of heavy crockery-ware drowned his voice. The men changed
their plates themselves, and the piles at both ends were diminishing.
When a kitchen-help brought in some large tin dishes, Hutin cried out:
“Baked rice! this is a finisher!”

“Good for a penn’orth of gum!” said Favier, serving himself.

Some liked it, others thought it too sticky. There were some who
remained quite silent, plunged in the fiction of their newspaper,
not even knowing what they were eating. They were all mopping their
foreheads, the narrow cellar-like apartment was full of a ruddy steam,
whilst the shadows of the passers-by were continually passing in black
bands over the untidy cloth.

“Pass Deloche the bread,” cried out one of the wags.

Each one cut a piece, and then dug the knife into the loaf up to the
handle; and the bread still went round.

“Who’ll take my rice for a dessert?” asked Hutin.

When he had concluded his bargain with a short, thin young fellow, he
attempted to sell his wine also; but no one would take it, it was known
to be detestable.

“As I was telling you, Robineau is back,” he continued, amid the
cross-fire of laughter and conversation that was going on. “Oh!
his affair is a grave one. Just fancy, he has been debauching the
saleswomen! Yes, and he gets them cravats to make!”

“Silence!” exclaimed Favier. “They’re just judging him.”

And he pointed to Bouthemont, who was walking in the passage between
Mouret and Bourdoncle, all three absorbed in an animated conversation,
carried on in a low tone. The diningroom of the managers and
second-hands happened to be just opposite. Therefore, when Bouthemont
saw Mouret pass he got up, having finished, and related the affair,
explaining the awkward position he was in. The other two listened, still
refusing to sacrifice Robineau, a first-class salesman, who dated from
Madame Hedouin’s time. But when he came to the story of the neckties,
Bourdoncle got angry. Was this fellow mad to interfere with the
saleswomen and procure them extra work? The house paid dear enough for
the women’s time; if they worked on their own account at night they
worked less during the day in the shop, that was certain; therefore it
was a robbery, they were risking their health which did not belong to
them. No, the night was made for sleep; they must all sleep, or they
would be sent to the right-about!

“Getting rather warm!” remarked Hutin.

Every time the three men passed the dining-room, the shopmen watched
them, commenting on the slightest gestures. They had forgotten the baked
rice, in which a cashier had just found a brace-button.

“I heard the word ‘cravat,’” said Favier. “And you saw how Bourdoncle’s
face turned pale at once.”

Mouret shared his partner’s indignation. That a saleswoman should be
reduced to work at night, seemed to him an attack on the organisation
of The Ladies’ Paradise. Who was the stupid that couldn’t earn enough
in the business? But when Bouthemont named Denise he softened down,
and invented excuses. Ah I yes, that poor little girl; she wasn’t very
sharp, and was greatly burdened, it was said. Bourdoncle interrupted him
to declare they ought to send her off immediately. They would never
do anything with such an ugly creature, he had always said so; and he
seemed to be indulging a spiteful feeling. Mouret, perplexed, affected
to laugh. Dear me! what a severe man! couldn’t they forgive her for
once? They could call in the culprit and give her a scolding. In short,
Robineau was the most to blame, for he ought to have dissuaded her, he,
an old hand, knowing the ways of the house.

“Well! there’s the governor laughing now!” resumed Favier, astonished,
as the group again passed the door.

“Ah, by Jove!” exclaimed Hutin, “if they persist in shoving Robineau on
our shoulders, we’ll make it lively for them!”

Bourdoncle looked straight at Mouret. Then he simply assumed a
disdainful expression, to intimate that he saw how it was, and thought
it idiotic. Bouthemont resumed his complaints; the salesmen threatened
to leave, and there were some very good men amongst them. But what
appeared to touch these gentlemen especially, was the rumour of
Robineau’s friendly relations with Gaujean; the latter, it was said, was
urging the former to set up for himself in the neighbourhood, offering
him any amount of credit, to run in opposition to The Ladies’ Paradise.
There was a pause. Ah! Robineau was thinking of showing fight, was he!
Mouret had become serious; he affected a certain scorn, avoided coming
to a decision, treating it as a matter of no importance. They would
see, they would speak to him. And he immediately commenced to joke with
Bouthemont, whose father, arrived two days before from his little shop
at Montpellier, had been nearly choked with rage and indignation on
seeing the immense hall in which his son reigned. They were still
laughing about the old man, who, recovering his Southern assurance,
had immediately commenced to run everything down, pretending that the
drapery business would soon go to the dogs.

“Here’s Robineau,” said Bouthemont. “I sent him to the stock-room to
avoid any unpleasant occurrence. Excuse me if I insist, but things are
in such an unpleasant state that something must be done.”

Robineau, who had just come in, passed by the group with a bow, on his
way to the table. Mouret simply repeated: “All right, we’ll see about
it.”

And they separated. Hutin and Favier were still waiting for them, but
on seeing they did not return, relieved their feelings. Was the governor
coming down like this to every meal, to count the mouthfuls? A nice
thing, if they could not even eat in peace! The truth was, they had just
seen Robineau come in, and the governor’s good-humour made them anxious
for the result of the struggle they were engaged in. They lowered their
voices, trying to find fresh subjects for grumbling.

“But I’m dying of hunger!” continued Hutin, aloud. “One is hungrier than
ever on getting up from table!” And yet he had eaten two portions of
dessert, his own and the one he had exchanged for his plate of rice. All
at once he cried out: “Hang it, I’m going in for an extra! Victor, give
me another dessert!”

The waiter was finishing serving the dessert. He then brought in the
coffee, and those who took it gave him their three sous there and then.
A few fellows had gone away, dawdling along the corridor, looking for a
dark corner in which they could smoke a cigarette. The others remained
at table before the heaps of greasy plates and dishes, rolling up the
bread-crumbs into little bullets, going over the same old stories, in
the odour of broken food, and the sweltering heat that was reddening
their ears. The walls reeked with moisture, a slow asphyxia fell from
the mouldy ceiling. Standing against the wall was Deloche, stuffed
with bread, digesting in silence, his eyes on the air-hole; his daily
recreation, after lunch, was to watch the feet of the passers-by
spinning along the street, a continual procession of living feet, big
boots, elegant boots, and ladies’ tiny boots, without head or body. On
rainy days it was very dirty.

“What! Already?” exclaimed Hutin.

A bell rang at the end of the passage, they had to make way for the
third lunch. The waiters came in with pails of warm water and big
sponges to clean the American cloth. Gradually the rooms became empty,
the salesmen returned to their departments, lingering on the stairs. In
the kitchen, the head cook had resumed his place at the wicket, between
the pans of skate, beef, and sauce, armed with his forks and spoons,
ready to fill the plates anew with the rhythmical movement of a
well-regulated clock. As Hutin and Favier slowly withdrew, they saw
Denise coming down.

“Monsieur Robineau is back, mademoiselle,” said the former with sneering
politeness.




“He is still at table,” added the other. “But if it’s anything important
you can go in.”

Denise continued on her way without replying or turning round; but when
she passed the dining-room of the managers and second-hands, she could
not help just looking in, and saw that Robineau was really there. She
resolved to try and speak to him in the afternoon, and continued her
journey along the corridor to her dining-room, which was at the other
end.

The women took their meals apart, in two special rooms. Denise entered
the first one. It was also an old cellar, transformed into a refectory;
but it had been fitted up with more comfort. On the oval table, in the
middle of the apartment, the fifteen places were further apart and the
wine was in decanters, a dish of skate and a dish of beef with pungent
sauce occupied the two ends of the table. Waiters in white aprons
attended to the young ladies, and spared them the trouble of fetching
their portions from the wicket The management had thought that more
decent.

“You went round, then?” asked Pauline, already seated and cutting
herself some bread.

“Yes,” replied Denise, blushing, “I was accompanying a customer.”

But this was a falsehood. Clara nudged her neighbour. What was the
matter with the “unkempt girl?” She was quite strange in her ways. One
after the other she had received letters from her lover; then, she went
running all over the shop like a madwoman, pretending to be going to the
work-room, where she did not even make an appearance. There was something
up, that was certain. Then Clara, eating her skate without disgust,
with the indifference of a girl who had been used to nothing better than
rancid bacon, spoke of a frightful drama, the account of which filled
the newspapers.

“You’ve heard about that man cutting his mistress’s throat with a razor,
haven’t you?”

“Well!” said a little quiet delicate-looking girl belonging to the
under-linen department, “he found her with another fellow. Serve her
right!”

But Pauline protested. What! just because one had ceased to love a man,
he should be allowed to cut your throat? Ah! no, never! And stopping all
at once, she turned round to the waiter, saying: “Pierre, I can’t get
through this beef. Just tell them to do me an extra, an omelet, nice and
soft, if possible.”

To pass away the time, she took out some chocolate which she began
eating with her bread, for she always had her pockets full of
sweetmeats.

“Certainly it isn’t very amusing with such a fellow,” resumed Clara.
“And some people are fearfully jealous, you know! Only the other day
there was a workman who pitched his wife into a well.”

She kept her eyes on Denise, thinking she had guessed her trouble on
seeing her turn pale. Evidently this little prude was afraid of being
beaten by her lover, whom she no doubt deceived. It would be a lark if
he came right into the shop after her, as she seemed to fear he would.
But the conversation took another turn, one of the girls was giving a
recipe for cleaning velvet. They then went on to speak of a piece at
the Gaiety, in which some darling little children danced better than
any grown-up persons. Pauline, saddened for a moment at the sight of her
omelet, which was overdone, resumed her gaiety on finding it went down
fairly well.

“Pass the wine,” said she to Denise. “You should go in for an omelet.”

“Oh! the beef is enough for me,” replied the young girl, who, to avoid
expense, confined herself to the food provided by the house, no matter
how repugnant it might be.

When the waiter brought in the baked rice, the young ladies protested.
They had refused it the previous week, and hoped it would not appear
again. Denise, inattentive, worrying about Jean after Clara’s stories,
was the only one to eat it; all the others looked at her with an air
of disgust. There was a great demand for extras, they gorged themselves
with jam. This was a sort of elegance, they felt obliged to feed
themselves with their own money.

“You know the gentlemen have complained,” said the little delicate girl
from the under-linen department, “and the management has promised—-”

They interrupted her with a burst of laughter, and commenced to talk
about the management. All the girls took coffee but Denise, who couldn’t
bear it, she said. And they lingered there before their cups, the
young ladies from the under-linen department in woollen dresses, with a
middle-class simplicity, the young ladies from the dress department
in silk, their napkins tucked under their chins, in order not to stain
their dresses, like ladies who might have come down to the servants’
hall to dine with their chamber-maids. They had opened the glazed
sash of the airhole to change the stifling poisoned air; but they were
obliged to close it at once, the cab-wheels seemed to be passing over
the table.

“Hush!” exclaimed Pauline; “here’s that old beast!”

It was Jouve, the inspector, who was rather fond of prowling about at
meal times, when the young ladies were there. He was supposed, in fact,
to look after their dining-rooms. With a smiling face he would come in
and walk round the tables; sometimes he would even indulge in a little
gossip, and inquire if they had made a good lunch. But as he annoyed
them and made them feel uncomfortable, they all hastened to get away.
Although the bell had not rung, Clara was the first to disappear; the
others followed her, so that soon only Denise and Pauline remained.
The latter, after having drunk her coffee, was finishing her chocolate
drops. All at once she got up, saying: “I’m going to send the messenger
for some oranges. Are you coming?”

“Presently,” replied Denise, who was nibbling at a crust, determined to
wait till the last, so as to be able to see Robineau on going upstairs.

However, when she found herself alone with Jouve she felt uneasy, so she
quitted the table; but as she was going towards the door he stopped her
saying: “Mademoiselle Baudu—-”

Standing before her, he smiled with a paternal air. His thick grey
moustache and short cropped hair gave him a respectable military
appearance; and he threw out his chest, on which was displayed the red
ribbon of his decoration.

“What is it, Monsieur Jouve?” asked she, feeling reassured. “I caught
you again this morning talking upstairs behind the carpet department You
know it is not allowed, and if I reported you—- She must be very fond
of you, your friend Pauline.” His moustache quivered, a flame lighted up
his enormous nose. “What makes you so fond of each other, eh?” Denise,
without understanding, was again becoming seized with an uneasy feeling.
He was getting too close, and was speaking right in her face.

“It’s true we were talking, Monsieur Jouve,” she stammered, “but there’s
no harm in talking a bit. You are very good to me, and I’m very much
obliged to you.”

“I ought not to be good,” said he. “Justice, and nothing more, is my
motto. But when it’s a pretty girl—-”

And he came closer still, and she felt really afraid. Pauline’s words
came back to her memory; she now remembered the stories going about,
stories of girls terrified by old Jouve into buying his good-will. In
the shop, as a rule, he confined himself to little familiarities, such
as pinching the cheeks of the complaisant young ladies with his fat
fingers, taking their hands in his and keeping them there as if he had
forgotten them. This was very paternal, and he only gave way to his real
nature outdoors, when they consented to accept a little refreshment at
his place in the Rue des Moineaux.

“Leave me alone,” murmured the young girl, drawing back. “Come,” said
he, “you are not going to play the savage with me, who always treats
you well. Be amiable, come and take a cup of tea and a slice of
bread-and-butter with me this evening. You are very welcome.”

She was struggling now. “No! no!”

The dining room was empty, the waiter had not come back. Jouve,
listening for the sound of any footsteps, cast a rapid glance around
him; and, very excited, losing control over himself, going beyond his
fatherly familiarities, he tried to kiss her on the neck.

“What a spiteful, stupid little girl. When one has a head of hair like
yours one should not be so stupid. Come round this evening, just for
fun.”

But she was very excited, shocked, and terrified at the approach of this
burning face, of which she could feel the breath. Suddenly she pushed
him, so roughly that he staggered and nearly fell on to the table.
Fortunately, a chair saved him; but in the shock, some wine left in a
glass spurted on to his white necktie, and soaked his decoration. And
he stood there, without wiping himself, choked with anger at such
brutality. What! when he was expecting nothing, when he was not exerting
his strength, and was yielding simply to his kindness of heart!

[Illustration: 0297]

“Ah, you will be sorry for this, on my word of honour!” Denise ran away.
Just at that moment the bell rang; but troubled, still shuddering, she
forgot Robineau, and went straight to her counter, not daring to go
down again. As the sun fell on the frontage of the Place Gaillon of
an afternoon, they were all stifling in the first floor rooms,
notwithstanding the grey linen blinds. A few customers came, put the
young ladies into a very uncomfortable, warm state, and went away
without buying anything. Every one was yawning even under Madame
Aurélie’s big sleepy eyes. Towards three o’clock, Denise, seeing the
first-hand falling off to sleep, quietly slipped off, and resumed her
journey across the shop, with a busy air. To put the curious ones, who
might be watching her, off the scent, she did not go straight to the
silk department; pretending to want something in the lace department,
she went up to Deloche, and asked him a question; then, on the
ground-floor, she passed through the printed cottons department, and
was just going into the cravat one, when she stopped short, startled and
surprised. Jean was before her.

“What! it’s you?” she murmured, quite pale.

He had on his working blouse, and was bare-headed, with his hair in
disorder, the curls falling over his girlish face. Standing before a
show-case of narrow black neckties, he appeared to be thinking deeply.

“What are you doing here?” resumed Denise.

“What do you think?” replied he. “I was waiting for you. You won’t let
me come. So I came in, but haven’t said anything to anybody. You may
feel quite safe. Pretend not to know me, if you like.”

Some salesmen were already looking at them with astonishment Jean
lowered his voice. “She wanted to come with me you know. Yes, she is
close by, opposite the fountain. Give me the fifteen francs quick, or we
are done for as sure as the sun is shining on us!”

Denise lost her head. The lookers-on were grinning, listening to this
adventure. And as there was a staircase behind the cravat department
leading to the lower floor, she pushed her brother along, and quickly
led him below. Downstairs he continued his story, embarrassed, inventing
his facts, fearing not to be believed.

“The money is not for her. She is too respectable for that. And as for
her husband, he does not care a straw for fifteen francs. Not for a
million would he allow his wife. A glue manufacturer, I tell you. People
very well off indeed. No, it’s for a low fellow, one of her friends,
who has seen us together; and if I don’t give him this money this
evening—-”

“Be quiet,” murmured Denise. “Presently, do get along.” They were now
in the parcels office. The dead season had thrown the vast floor into
a sort of torpor, in the pale light from the air-holes. It was cold as
well, a silence fell from the ceiling. However, a porter was collecting
from one of the compartments the few packets for the neighbourhood of
the Madeleine; and, on the large sorting-table, was seated Campion, the
chief clerk, his legs dangling, and his eyes wandering about.

Jean began again: “The husband, who has a big knife—-”

“Get along!” repeated Denise, still pushing him forward. They followed
one of the narrow corridors, where the gas was kept continually burning.
To the right and the left in the dark vaults the reserve goods threw out
their shadows behind the gratings. At last she stopped opposite one of
these. Nobody was likely to pass that way; but it was not allowed, and
she shuddered.

“If this rascal says anything,” resumed Jean, “the husband, who has a
big knife—-”

“Where do you expect I can find fifteen francs?” exclaimed Denise in
despair. “Can’t you be more careful? You’re always getting into some
stupid scrape!”

He struck his chest. Amidst all his romantic inventions, he had almost
forgotten the exact truth. He dramatised his money wants, but there
was always some immediate necessity behind this display. “By all that’s
sacred, it’s really true this time. I was holding her like this, and she
was kissing me—-”

She stopped him again, and lost her temper, feeling on thorns,
completely at a loss. “I don’t want to know. Keep your wicked conduct
to yourself. It’s too bad, you ought to know better! You’re always
tormenting me. I’m killing myself to keep you in money. Yes, I have to
stay up all night at work. Not only that, you are taking the bread out
of your little brother’s mouth.”

Jean stood there with his mouth wide open, and all the colour left his
face. What! it was not right? And he could not understand, he had always
treated his sister like a comrade, he thought it quite a natural thing
to open his heart to her. But what choked him above all, was to learn
she stopped up all night. The idea that he was killing her, and taking
Pépé’s share as well, affected him so much that he began to cry.

“You’re right; I’m a scamp,” exclaimed he. “But it isn’t wicked, really,
far from it, and that’s why one always does it! This woman, Denise, is
twenty, and thought it such fun, because I’m only seventeen. Really now!
I am quite furious with myself! I could slap my face!” He had taken her
hands, and was kissing them and inundating them with tears. “Give me
the fifteen francs, and this shall be the last time. I swear to you.
Or rather–no!–don’t give me anything. I prefer to die. If the husband
murders me it will be a good riddance for you.” And as she was crying as
well, he was stricken with remorse. “I say that, but of course I’m not
sure. Perhaps he doesn’t want to kill any one. We’ll manage. I promise
you that, darling. Good-bye, I’m off.”

But a sound of footsteps at the end of the corridor frightened them. She
quickly drew him close to the grating, in a dark corner. For an instant
they heard nothing but the hissing of a gas-burner near them. Then the
footsteps drew nearer; and, on stretching out her neck, she recognised
Jouve, the inspector, who had just entered the corridor, with his stiff
military walk. Was he there by chance, or had some one at the door
warned him of Jean’s presence? She was seized with such a fright that
she knew not what to do; and she pushed Jean out of the dark spot where
they were concealed, and drove him before her, stammering out: “Be off!
Be off!”

Both galloped along, hearing Jouve behind them, for he also had began to
run. They crossed the parcels office again, and arrived at the foot of
the stairs leading out into the Rue de la Michodière.

“Be off!” repeated Denise, “be off! If I can, I’ll send you the fifteen
francs all the same.”

Jean, bewildered, scampered away. The inspector, who came up panting,
out of breath, could only distinguish a corner of his white blouse, and
his locks of fair hair flying in the wind. He stood a moment to get his
breath, and resume his correct appearance. He had on a brand-new white
necktie, the large bow of which shone like a snow-flake.

“Well! this is nice behaviour, mademoiselle!” said he, his lips
trembling. “Yes, it’s nice, very nice! If you think I’m going to stand
this sort of thing in the basement, you’re mistaken.”

And he pursued her with this whilst she was returning to the shop,
overcome with emotion, unable to find a word of defence. She was sorry
now she had run away. Why hadn’t she explained the matter, and brought
her brother forward? They would now go and imagine all sorts of
villanies, and say what she might, they would not believe her. Once more
she forgot Robineau, and went straight to her counter. Jouve immediately
went to the manager’s office to report the matter. But the messenger
told him Monsieur Mouret was with Monsieur Bourdoncle and Monsieur
Robineau; they had been talking together for the last quarter of an
hour. In fact, the door was halfopen, and he could hear Mouret gaily
asking Robineau if he had had a pleasant holiday; there was not the
least question of a dismissal–on the contrary, the conversation fell on
certain things to be done in the department.

“Do you want anything, Monsieur Jouve?” exclaimed Mouret “Come in.”

But a sudden instinct warned the inspector. As Bourdoncle had come out,
he preferred to relate the affair to him. They slowly passed through the
shawl department, walking side by side, the one leaning over and talking
in a low tone, the other listening, not a sign on his severe face
betraying his impressions. “All right,” said the latter at last.

And as they had arrived close to the dress department, he went in. Just
at that moment Madame Aurélie was scolding Denise. Where had she come
from, again? This time she couldn’t say she had been to the work-room.
Really, these continual absences could not be tolerated any longer.

“Madame Aurélie!” cried Bourdoncle.

He had decided on a bold stroke, not wishing to consult Mouret, for fear
of some weakness. The first-hand came up, and the story was once more
related in a low voice. They were all waiting in the expectation of some
catastrophe. At last, Madame Aurélie turned round with a solemn air.

“Mademoiselle Baudu!” And her puffy emperor’s mask assumed the
immobility of the all-powerful: “Go and be paid!” The terrible phrase
sounded very loud in the empty department. Denise stood there pale as
a ghost, without saying a word. At last she was able to ask in broken
sentences:

“Me! me! What for? What have I done?”

Bourdoncle replied, harshly, that she knew very well, that she had
better not provoke any explanation; and he spoke of the cravats, and
said that it would be a fine thing if all the young ladies received men
down in the basement.

“But it was my brother!” cried she with the grievous anger of an
outraged virgin.

Marguerite and Clara commenced to laugh. Madame Frédéric, usually so
discreet, shook her head with an incredulous air. Always her brother!
Really it was very stupid! Denise looked round at all of them:
Bourdoncle, who had taken a dislike to her the first day; Jouve, who had
stopped to serve as a witness, and from whom she expected no justice;
then these girls whom she had not been able to soften by nine months of
smiling courage, who were happy, in fact, to turn her out of doors. What
was the good of struggling? what was the use of trying to impose herself
on them when no one liked her? And she went away without a word,
not even casting a last look towards this room where she had so long
struggled. But as soon as she was alone, before the hall staircase, a
deeper sense of suffering filled her grieved heart. No one liked her,
and the sudden thought of Mouret had just deprived her of all idea of
resignation. No! no! she could not accept such a dismissal. Perhaps he
would believe this villanous story, this rendezvous with a man down in
the cellars. At the thought, a feeling of shame tortured her, an anguish
with which she had never before been afflicted. She wanted to go and see
him, to explain the matter to him, simply to let him know the truth;
for she was quite ready to go away as soon as he knew this. And her
old fear, the shiver which chilled her when in his presence, suddenly
developed into an ardent desire to see him, not to leave the house
without telling him she had never belonged to another.

It was nearly five o’clock, and the shop was waking up into life again
in the cool evening air. She quickly started off for Mouret’s office.
But when she arrived at the door, a hopeless melancholy feeling again
took possession of her. Her tongue refused its office, the intolerable
burden of existence again fell on her shoulders. He would not believe
her, he would laugh like the others, she thought; and this idea made her
almost faint away. All was over, she would be better alone, out of the
way, dead! And, without informing Pauline or Deloche, she went at once
and took her money.

“You have, mademoiselle,” said the clerk, “twenty-two days; that makes
eighteen francs and fourteen sous; to which must be added seven francs
for commission. That’s right, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. Thanks.”

And Denise was going away with her money, when she at last met Robineau.
He had already heard of her dismissal, and promised to find the
necktie-dealer. In a lower tone he tried to console her, but lost his
temper: what an existence, to be at the continual mercy of a whim! to be
thrown out at an hour’s notice, without even being able to claim a full
month’s salary. Denise went up to inform Madame Cabin, saying that she
would try and send for her box during the evening. It was just striking
five when she found herself on the pavement of the Place Gaillon,
bewildered, in the midst of the crowd of people and cabs.

The same evening when Robineau got home he received a letter from the
management informing him, in a few lines, that for certain reasons
relating to the internal arrangements they were obliged to deprive
themselves of his services. He had been in the house seven years, and it
was only that afternoon that he was talking to the principals; this
was a heavy blow for him. Hutin and Favier were crowing in the silk
department, as loudly as Clara and Marguerite in the dress one. A jolly
good riddance! Such clean sweeps make room for the others! Deloche and
Pauline were the only ones to regret Denise’s departure, exchanging, in
the rush of business, bitter words of regret at losing her, so kind, so
well behaved.

“Ah,” said the young man, “if ever she succeeds anywhere else, I should
like to see her come back here, and trample on the others; a lot of
good-for-nothing creatures!”

It was Bourdoncle who in this affair had to bear the brunt of Mouret’s
anger. When the latter heard of Denise’s dismissal, he was exceedingly
annoyed. As a rule he never interfered with the staff; but this time he
affected to see an encroachment on his power, an attempt to over-ride
his authority. Was he no longer master in the place, that they dared
to give orders? Everything must pass through his hands, absolutely
everything; and he would immediately crush any one who should resist
Then, after making personal inquiries, all the while in a nervous
torment which he could not conceal, he lost his temper again. This
poor girl was not lying; it was really her brother. Campion had fully
recognised him. Why was she sent away, then? He even spoke of taking her
back.

However, Bourdoncle, strong in his passive resistance, bent before the
storm. He watched Mouret, and one day when he saw him a little calmer,
ventured to say in a meaning voice: “It’s better for everybody that
she’s gone.”

Mouret stood there looking very awkward, the blood rushing to his face.
“Well!” replied he, laughing, “perhaps you’re right. Let’s go and take
a turn down stairs. Things are looking better, we took nearly a hundred
thousand francs yesterday.”