She hesitated

DENISE had walked from the Saint-Lazare railway station, where a
Cherbourg train had landed her and her two brothers, after a night
passed on the hard seat of a third-class carriage. She was leading Pépé
by the hand, and Jean was following her, all three fatigued after the
journey, frightened and lost in this vast Paris, their eyes on every
street name, asking at every corner the way to the Rue de la Michodière,
where their uncle Baudu lived. But on arriving in the Place Gaillon, the
young girl stopped short, astonished.

“Oh! look there, Jean,” said she; and they stood still, nestling close
to one another, all dressed in black, wearing the old mourning bought
at their father’s death. She, rather puny for her twenty years, was
carrying a small parcel; on the other side, her little brother, five
years old, was clinging to her arm; while behind her, the big brother, a
strapping youth of sixteen, was standing empty-handed.

“Well,” said she, after a pause, “that _is_ a shop!”

They were at the corner of the Rue de la Michodière and the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, in front of a draper’s shop, which displayed a
wealth of colour in the soft October light. Eight o’clock was striking
at the church of Saint-Roch; not many people were about, only a few
clerks on their way to business, and housewives doing their morning
shopping. Before the door, two shopmen, mounted on a step-ladder,
were hanging up some woollen goods, whilst in a window in the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin another young man, kneeling with his back to the
pavement, was delicately plaiting a piece of blue silk. In the shop,
where there were as yet no customers, there was a buzz as of a swarm of
bees at work.

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

Denise shook her head. She had spent two years there, at Cornaille’s,
the principal draper’s in the town, and this shop, encountered so
suddenly–this, to her, enormous place, made her heart swell, and kept
her excited, interested, and oblivious of everything else. The high
plate-glass door, facing the Place Gaillon, reached the first storey,
amidst a complication of ornaments covered with gilding. Two allegorical
figures, representing two laughing, bare-breasted women, unrolled the
scroll bearing the sign, “The Ladies’ Paradise.” The establishment
extended along the Rue de la Michodière and the Rue Neuve-Saint
Augustin, and comprised, beside the corner house, four others–two on
the right and two on the left, bought and fitted up recently. It seemed
to her an endless extension, with its display on the ground floor, and
the plate-glass windows, through which could be seen the whole length of
the counters. Upstairs a young lady, dressed all in silk, was sharpening
a pencil, while two others, beside her, were unfolding some velvet
mantles.

“The Ladies’ Paradise,” read Jean, with the tender laugh of a handsome
youth who had already had an adventure with a woman. “That must draw the
customers–eh?”

But Denise was absorbed by the display at the principal entrance. There
she saw, in the open street, on the very pavement, a mountain of cheap
goods–bargains, placed there to tempt the passers-by, and attract
attention. Hanging from above were pieces of woollen and cloth goods,
merinoes, cheviots, and tweeds, floating like flags; the neutral, slate,
navy-blue, and olive-green tints being relieved by the large white
price-tickets. Close by, round the doorway, were hanging strips of fur,
narrow bands for dress trimmings, fine Siberian squirrel-skin, spotless
snowy swansdown, rabbit-skin imitation ermine and imitation sable.
Below, on shelves and on tables, amidst a pile of remnants, appeared an
immense quantity of hosiery almost given away; knitted woollen gloves,
neckerchiefs, women’s hoods, waistcoats, a winter show in all colours,
striped, dyed, and variegated, with here and there a flaming patch of
red. Denise saw some tartan at nine sous, some strips of American vison
at a franc, and some mittens at five sous. There appeared to be an
immense clearance sale going on; the establishment seemed bursting with
goods, blocking up the pavement with the surplus.

Uncle Baudu was forgotten. Pépé himself, clinging tightly to his
sister’s hand, opened his big eyes in wonder. A vehicle coming
up, forced them to quit the road-way, and they turned up the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin mechanically, following the shop windows and
stopping at each fresh display. At first they were captivated by a
complicated arrangement: above, a number of umbrellas, laid obliquely,
seemed to form a rustic roof; beneath these a quantity of silk
stockings, hung on rods, showed the roundness of the calves, some
covered with rosebuds, others of all colours, black open-worked, red
with embroidered corners, and flesh colour, the silky grain of which
made them look as soft as a fair woman’s skin; and at the bottom of
all, a symmetrical array of gloves, with their taper fingers and narrow
palms, and that rigid virgin grace which characterises such feminine
articles before they are worn. But the last window especially attracted
their attention. It was an exhibition of silks, satins, and velvets,
arranged so as to produce, by a skilful artistic arrangement of colours,
the most delicious shades imaginable. At the top were the velvets,
from a deep black to a milky white: lower down, the satins–pink, blue,
fading away into shades of a wondrous delicacy; still lower down were
the silks, of all the colours of the rainbow, pieces set up in the form
of shells, others folded as if round a pretty figure, arranged in a
life-like natural manner by the clever fingers of the window dressers.
Between each motive, between each coloured phrase of the display, ran a
discreet accompaniment, a slight puffy ring of cream-coloured silk. At
each end were piled up enormous bales of the silk of which the house
had made a specialty, the “Paris Paradise” and the “Golden Grain,” two
exceptional articles destined to work a revolution in that branch of
commerce.

“Oh, that silk at five francs twelve sous!” murmured Denise, astonished
at the “Paris Paradise.”

Jean began to get tired. He stopped a passer-by. “Which is the Rue de la
Michodiere, please, sir?”

On hearing that it was the first on the right they all turned back,
making the tour of the establishment. But just as she was entering the
street, Denise was attracted by a window in which ladies’ dresses were
displayed. At Cornaille’s that was her department, but she had
never seen anything like this, and remained rooted to the spot with
admiration. At the back a large sash of Bruges lace, of considerable
value, was spread out like an altar-veil, with its two white wings
extended; there were flounces of Alençon point, grouped in garlands;
then from the top to the bottom fluttered, like a fall of snow, a cloud
of lace of every description–Malines, Honiton, Valenciennes, Brussels,
and Venetian-point. On each side the heavy columns were draped with
cloth, making the background appear still more distant And the dresses
were in this sort of chapel raised to the worship of woman’s beauty and
grace. Occupying the centre was a magnificent article, a velvet mantle,
trimmed with silver fox; on one side a silk cape lined with miniver, on
the other a cloth cloak edged with cocks’ plumes; and last of all,
opera cloaks in white cashmere and white silk trimmed with swansdown or
chenille. There was something for all tastes, from the opera cloaks at
twenty-nine francs to the velvet mantle marked up at eighteen hundred.
The well-rounded neck and graceful figures of the dummies exaggerated
the slimness of the waist, the absent head being replaced by a large
price-ticket pinned on the neck; whilst the mirrors, cleverly arranged
on each side of the window, reflected and multiplied the forms without
end, peopling the street with these beautiful women for sale, each
bearing a price in big figures in the place of a head.

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

This time he himself had become motionless, his mouth open. All this
female luxury turned him rosy with pleasure. He had a girl’s beauty–a
beauty he seemed to have stolen from his sister–a lovely skin, curly
hair, lips and eyes overflowing with tenderness. By his side Denise, in
her astonishment, appeared thinner still, with her rather long face and
large mouth, fading complexion, and light hair. Pépé, also fair, in the
way of most children, clung closer to her, as if wanting to be caressed,
troubled and delighted at the sight of the beautiful ladies in the
window. They looked so strange, so charming, on the pavement, those
three fair ones, poorly dressed in black–the sad-looking young girl
between the pretty child and the handsome youth–that the passers-by
looked back smilingly.

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

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

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

They raised their heads and looked round. Just in front of them, above
the stout man, they perceived a green sign-board bearing in yellow
letters, discoloured by the rain: “The Old Elbeuf. Cloths, Flannels.
Baudu, late Hauchecorne.” The house, coated with an ancient rusty
white-wash, quite flat and unadorned, amidst the mansions in the Louis
XIV. style which surrounded it, had only three front windows, and these
windows, square, without shutters, were simply ornamented by a handrail
and two iron bars in the form of a cross. But amidst all this nudity,
what struck Denise the most, her eyes full of the light airy windows at
The Ladies’ Paradise, was the ground-floor shop, crushed by the ceiling,
surmounted by a very low storey with half-moon windows, of a prison-like
appearance. The wainscoting, of a bottle-green hue, which time had
tinted with ochre and bitumen, encircled, right and left, two deep
windows, black and dusty, in which the heaped-up goods could hardly be
seen. The open door seemed to lead into the darkness and dampness of a
cellar.

[Illustration: 0021]

“That’s the house,” said Jean.

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

They appeared, however, somewhat troubled, as if seized with fear. When
their father died, carried off by the same fever which had, a month
previous, killed their mother, their uncle Baudu, in the emotion which
followed this double mourning, had written to Denise, assuring her there
would always be a place for her in his house whenever she would like to
come to Paris. But this was nearly a year ago, and the young girl was
now sorry to have left Valognes in a moment of temper without informing
her uncle. The latter did not know them, never having set foot in
Valognes since the day he left, as a boy, to enter as junior in the
drapery establishment kept by Hauchecorne, whose daughter he afterwards
married.

“Monsieur Baudu?” asked Denise, deciding at last to speak to the stout
man who was still eyeing them, surprised at their appearance.

“That’s me,” replied he.

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

Baudu seemed amazed. His big eyes rolled in his yellow face; he spoke
slowly and with difficulty. He was evidently far from thinking of this
family which suddenly dropped down on him.

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

With her sweet but rather faltering voice she then explained that since
the death of her father, who had spent everything in his dye-works, she
had acted as a mother to the two children, but the little she earned at
Cornaille’s did not suffice to keep the three of them. Jeàn worked at
a cabinetmaker’s, a repairer of old furniture, but didn’t earn a sou.
However, he had got to like the business, and had learned to carve
in wood very well. One day, having found a piece of ivory, he amused
himself by carving a head, which a gentleman staying in the town had
seen and admired, and it was this gentleman who had persuaded them to
leave Valognes, promising to find a place in Paris for Jean with an
ivory-carver.

“So you see, uncle,” continued Denise, “Jean will commence his
apprenticeship at his new master’s to-morrow. They ask no premium, and
will board and lodge him. I felt sure Pépé and I could manage very well.
We can’t be worse off than we were at Valognes.”

She said nothing about Jean’s love affair, of certain letters written to
the daughter of a nobleman living in the town, of kisses exchanged over
a wall–in fact, quite a scandal which had determined her leaving. And
she was especially anxious to be in Paris, to be able to look after
her brother, feeling quite a mother’s tender anxiety for this gay and
handsome youth, whom all the women adored. Uncle Baudu couldn’t get over
it, and continued his questions. However, when he heard her speaking of
her brothers in this way he became much kinder.

“So your father has left you nothing,” said he. “I certainly thought
there was still something left. Ah! how many times did I write advising
him not to take that dye-work! A good-hearted fellow, but no head for
business! And you’ve been obliged to keep and look after these two
youngsters since?”

His bilious face had become clearer, his eyes were not so bloodshot as
when he was glaring at The Ladies’ Paradise. Suddenly he noticed that he
was blocking up the doorway.

“Well,” said he, “come in, now you’re here. Come in, no use hanging
about gaping at a parcel of rubbish.”

And after having darted a last look of anger at The Ladies’ Paradise, he
made way for the children by entering the shop and calling his wife and
daughter. .

“Elizabeth, Geneviève, come down; here’s company for you!”

But Denise and the two boys hesitated before the darkness of the shop.
Blinded by the clear light of the street, they could hardly see. Feeling
their way with their feet with an instinctive fear of encountering some
treacherous step, and clinging still closer together from this vague
fear, the child continuing to hold the young girl’s skirts, and the big
boy behind, they made their entry with a smiling, anxious grace.
The clear morning light described the dark profile of their mourning
clothes; an oblique ray of sunshine gilded their fair hair.

“Come in, come in,” repeated Baudu.

In a few brief sentences he explained the matter to his wife and
daughter. The first was a little woman, eaten up with anaemia, quite
white–white hair, white eyes, white lips. Geneviève, in whom her
mother’s degenerateness appeared stronger still, had the debilitated,
colourless appearance of a plant reared in the shade. However, her
magnificent black hair, thick and heavy, marvellously vigorous for such
a weak, poor soil, gave her a sad charm.

“Come in,” said both the women in their turn; “you are welcome.”

And they made Denise sit down behind a counter. Pépé immediately jumped
up on his sister’s lap, whilst Jean leant against some wood-work beside
her. Looking round the shop the new-comers began to take courage, their
eyes getting used to the obscurity. Now they could see it, with its low
and smoky ceiling, oaken counters bright with use, and old-fashioned
drawers with strong iron fittings. Bales of goods reached to the
beams above; the smell of linen and dyed stuffs–a sharp chemical
smell–seemed intensified by the humidity of the floor. At the further
end two young men and a young woman were putting away pieces of white
flannel.

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

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

She blushed, feeling that she ought not to have dropped down on her
friends in this way. Even as she was leaving Valognes, she had been full
of regrets and fears; that was why she had left the box, and given the
children their breakfast.

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

He stopped, choked with an emotion he did not wish to show. Madame Baudu
and Geneviève, with a resigned look, had cast their eyes down.

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

Denise listened, and turned very pale. He dwelt upon the subject,
adding: “It would do no good, either to you or to me.

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

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

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

He raised his voice, and that relieved him. His wife and daughter still
kept their eyes on the ground, like submissive persons who would never
think of interfering. However, whilst Jean had turned pale, Denise
had hugged the terrified Pépé to her bosom. She dropped hot tears of
disappointment.

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

At that he stopped, an awkward silence ensued. Then he resumed in a
harsh tone: “I don’t mean to turn you out. As you are here you must stay
the night; to-morrow we will see.”

Then Madame Baudu and Genevieve understood they were free to arrange
matters. There was no need to trouble about Jean, as he was to commence
his apprenticeship the next day. As for Pépé, he would be well looked
after by Madame Gras, an old lady living in the Rue des Orties, who
boarded and lodged young children for forty francs a month. Denise said
she had sufficient to pay for the first month, and as for herself they
could soon find her a situation in the neighbourhood, no doubt.

“Wasn’t Vinçard wanting a saleswoman?” asked Genevieve.

“Of course!” cried Baudu; “we’ll go and see him after lunch. Nothing
like striking the iron while it’s hot.”

Not a customer had been in to interrupt this family discussion; the shop
remained dark and empty. At the other end, the two young men and the
young women were still working, talking in a low hissing tone amongst
themselves. However, three ladies arrived, and Denise was left alone for
a moment. She kissed Pépé with a swelling heart, at the thought of their
approaching separation. The child, affectionate as a kitten, hid his
head without saying a word. When Madame Baudu and Geneviève returned,
they remarked how quiet he was. Denise assured them he never made any
more noise than that, remaining for days together without speaking,
living on kisses and caresses. Until lunch-time the three women sat
and talked about children, housekeeping, life in Paris and life in
the country, in short, vague sentences, like relations feeling rather
awkward through not knowing one another very well. Jean had gone to the
shop-door, and stood there watching the passing crowd and smiling at the
pretty girls. At ten o’clock a servant appeared. As a rule the cloth was
laid for Baudu, Genevieve, and the first-hand. A second lunch was served
at eleven o’clock for Madame Baudu, the other young man, and the young
woman.

“Come to lunch!” called out the draper, turning towards his niece. .

And as all sat ready in the narrow dining-room behind the shop, he
called the first-hand who had not come.

“Colomban!”

The young man apologised, having wished to finish arranging the
flannels. He was a big, stout fellow of twenty-five, heavy and freckled,
with an honest face, large weak mouth, and cunning eyes.

“There’s a time for everything,” said Baudu, solidly seated before
a piece of cold veal, which he was carving with a master’s skill and
prudence, weighing each piece at a glance to within an ounce.

He served everybody, and even cut up the bread. Denise had placed Pépé
near her to see that he ate properly. But the dark close room made
her feel uncomfortable. She thought it so small, after the large
well-lighted rooms she had been accustomed to in the country. A single
window opened on a small back-yard, which communicated with the street
by a dark alley along the side of the house. And this yard, sodden and
filthy, was like the bottom of a well into which a glimmer of light had
fallen. In the winter they were obliged to keep the gas burning all
day long. When the weather enabled them to do without gas it was duller
still. Denise was several seconds before her eyes got sufficiently used
to the light to distinguish the food on her plate.

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

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

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

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

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

Such was the patriarchal custom of the house. The founder, Aristide
Finet, had given his daughter, Désirée to his firsthand, Hauchecorne;
he, Baudu, who had arrived in the Rue de la Michodière with seven francs
in his pocket, had married old Hauchecorne’s daughter, Elizabeth; and
he intended, in his turn, to hand over Geneviève and the business to
Colomban as soon as trade should improve. If he thus delayed a marriage,
decided on for three years past, it was by a scruple, an obstinate
probity. He had received the business in a prosperous state, and did
not wish to pass it on to his son-in-law less patronised or in a worse
position than when he took it. Baudu continued, introducing Colomban,
who came from Rambouillet, the same place as Madame Baudu’s father; in
fact they were distant cousins. A hard-working fellow, who for ten years
had slaved in the shop, fairly earning his promotions! Besides, he was
far from being a nobody; he had for father that noted toper, Colomban,
a veterinary surgeon, known all over the department of Seine-et-Oise, an
artist in his line, but so fond of the flowing bowl that he was ruining
himself.

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

Whilst he was speaking Denise was examining Genevieve and Colomban. They
sat close together at table, but remained very quiet, without a blush
or a smile. From the day of his entry the young man had counted on
this marriage. He had passed through the various stages: junior,
counter-hand, etc., and had at last gained admittance into the
confidence and pleasures of the family circle, all this patiently, and
leading a clock-work style of life, looking upon this marriage with
Geneviève as an excellent, convenient arrangement. The certainty of
having her prevented him feeling any desire for her. And the young girl
had also got to love him, but with the gravity of her reserved nature,
and a real deep passion of which she herself was not aware, in her
regular, monotonous daily life.

“Quite right, if they like each other, and can do it,” said Denise,
smiling, considering it her duty to make herself agreeable.

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

Geneviève, after giving him a long look, said in her turn: “When people
understand each other, the rest comes naturally.”

Their tenderness had sprung up in this gloomy house of old Paris like a
flower in a cellar. For ten years she had known no one but him, living
by his side, behind the same bales of cloth, amidst the darkness of the
shop; morning and evening they found themselves elbow to elbow in the
narrow dining-room, so damp and dull. They could not have been more
concealed, more utterly lost had they been in the country, in the woods.
But a doubt, a jealous fear, began to suggest itself to the young girl,
that she had given her hand, for ever, amidst this abetting solitude
through sheer emptiness of heart and mental weariness.

However, Denise, having remarked a growing anxiety in the look Geneviève
cast at Colomban, good-naturedly replied: “Oh! when people are in love
they always understand each other.”

But Baudu kept a sharp eye on the table. He had distributed slices of
Brie cheese, and, as a treat for the visitors, he called for a second
dessert, a pot of red-currant jam, a liberality which seemed to surprise
Colomban. Pépé, who up to then had been very good, behaved rather
badly at the sight of the jam; whilst Jean, all attention during the
conversation about Genevieve’s marriage, was taking stock of the latter,
whom he thought too weak, too pale, comparing her in his own mind to a
little white rabbit with black ears and pink eyes.

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

Madame Baudu, the other shopman, and the young lady then came and took
their places at the table. Denise, left alone again, sat near the door
waiting for her uncle to take her to Vinçard’s.. Pépé was playing at her
feet, whilst Jean had resumed his post of observation at the door. She
sat there for nearly an hour, taking an interest in what was going on
around her. Now and again a few customers came in; a lady, then two
others appeared, the shop retaining its musty odour, its half light, by
which the old-fashioned business, good-natured and simple, seemed to
be weeping at its desertion. But what most interested Denise was The
Ladies’ Paradise opposite, the windows of which she could see through
the open door. The sky remained clouded, a sort of humid softness warmed
the air, notwithstanding the season; and in this clear light, in which
there was, as it were, a hazy diffusion of sunshine, the great shop
seemed alive and in full activity.

Denise began to feel as if she were watching a machine working at full
pressure, communicating its movement even as far as the windows. They
were no longer the cold windows she had seen in the early morning; they
seemed to be warm and vibrating from the activity within. There was a
crowd before them, groups of women pushing and squeezing, devouring the
finery with longing, covetous eyes. And the stuffs became animated in
this passionate atmosphere: the laces fluttered, drooped, and concealed
the depths of the shop with a troubling air of mystery; even the lengths
of cloth, thick and heavy, exhaled a tempting odour, while the cloaks
threw out their folds over the dummies, which assumed a soul, and the
great velvet mantle particularly, expanded, supple and warm, as if on
real fleshly shoulders, with a heaving of the bosom and a trembling of
the hips. But the furnace-like glow which the house exhaled came above
all from the sale, the crush at the counters, that could be felt behind
the walls. There was the continual roaring of the machine at work, the
marshalling of the customers, bewildered amidst the piles of goods, and
finally pushed along to the pay-desk. And all that went on in an orderly
manner, with mechanical regularity, quite a nation of women passing
through the force and logic of this wonderful commercial machine.

Denise had felt herself being tempted all day. She was bewildered and
attracted by this shop, to her so vast, in which she saw more people in
an hour than she had seen at Cornaille’s in six months; and there
was mingled with her desire to enter it a vague sense of danger which
rendered the seduction complete. At the same time her uncle’s shop made
her feel ill at ease; she felt an unreasonable disdain, an instinctive
repugnance for this cold, icy place, the home of old-fashioned trading.
All her sensations–her anxious entry, her friends’ cold reception, the
dull lunch eaten in a prison-like atmosphere, her waiting amidst the
sleepy solitude of this old house doomed to a speedy decay–all these
sensations reproduced themselves in her mind under the form of a
dumb protestation, a passionate longing for life and light. And
notwithstanding her really tender heart, her eyes turned to The Ladies’
Paradise, as if the saleswoman within her felt the need to go and warm
herself at the glow of this immense business.

“Plenty of customers over there!” was the remark that escaped her.

But she regretted her words on seeing the Baudus near her. Madame Baudu,
who had finished her lunch, was standing up, quite white, with her pale
eyes fixed on the monster; every time she caught sight of this place, a
mute, blank despair swelled her heart, and filled her eyes with scalding
tears. As for Geneviève, she was anxiously watching Colomban, who,
not supposing he was being observed, stood in ecstasy, looking at the
handsome young saleswomen in the dress department opposite, the counter
being visible through the first floor window. Baudu, his anger rising,
merely said:

“All is not gold that glitters. Patience!”

The thought of his family evidently kept back the flood of rancour which
was rising in his throat A feeling of pride prevented him displaying
his temper before these children, only that morning arrived. At last the
draper made an effort, and tore himself away from the spectacle of the
sale opposite.

“Well!” resumed he, “we’ll go and see Vinçard. These situations are soon
snatched up; it might be too late tomorrow.”

But before going out he ordered the junior to go to the station and
fetch Denise’s box. Madame. Baudu, to whom the young girl had confided
Pépé, decided to run over and see Madame Gras, to arrange about the
child. Jean promised his sister not to stir from the shop.

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

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

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

Denise gathered that Vinçard was trying to sell his business to Robineau
of The Paradise. He was giving his word of honour in a frank open way,
with the facility of a man who could take any number of oaths without
the slightest trouble. According to his account, the business was a
golden one; and in the splendour of his rude health he interrupted
himself to whine and complain of those infernal pains which prevented
him stopping and making his fortune. But Robineau, nervous and
tormented, interrupted him impatiently. He knew what a crisis the trade
was passing through, and named a silk warehouse already ruined by The
Paradise. Vinçard, inflamed, raised his voice.

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

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

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

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

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




“As you like,” replied Vinçard, concealing his disappointment under a
smiling countenance. “It’s to my interest not to sell; and were it not
for my rheumatics—-”

And returning to the middle of the shop, he asked: “What can I do for
you, Monsieur Baudu?”

The draper, who had been listening with one ear, introduced Denise, told
him as much as he thought necessary of her story, adding that she had
two years’ country experience.

“And as I have heard you are wanting a good saleswoman—-”

Vinçard affected to be awfully sorry. “What an unfortunate thing!” said
he. “I have, indeed, been looking for a saleswoman all the week; but
I’ve just engaged one–not two hours ago.”

A silence ensued. Denise seemed disheartened. Robineau, who was
looking at her with interest, probably inspired with pity by her poor
appearance, ventured to say:

“I know they’re wanting a young person at our place, in the ready-made
dress department.”

Baudu could not help crying out fervently: “At your place? Never!”

Then he stopped, embarrassed. Denise had turned very red; she would
never dare enter that great place, and yet the idea of being there
filled her with pride.

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

The draper, to conceal his inward revolt, began to talk vaguely. He knew
Madame Aurélie, or, at least, her husband, Lhomme, the cashier, a stout
man, who had had his right arm severed by an omnibus. Then turning
suddenly to Denise, he added: “However, that’s her business. She can do
as she likes.”

And he went out, after having said “good-day” to Gaujean and Robineau.
Vinçard went with him as far as the door, reiterating his regrets. The
young girl had remained in the middle of the shop, intimidated, desirous
of asking Robineau for further particulars. But not daring to, she in
her turn bowed, and simply said: “Thank you, sir.”

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

Denise stopped and waited.

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

Bourras was a tall old man, with a prophet’s head, bearded and hairy,
and piercing eyes under thick and bushy eyebrows. He kept an umbrella
and walking-stick shop, did repairs, and even carved handles, which had
won for him an artistic celebrity in the neighbourhood. Denise glanced
at the shop-window, where the umbrellas and sticks were arranged in
straight lines. But on raising her eyes she was astonished at the
appearance of the house, a hovel squeezed between The Ladies’ Paradise
and a large building of the Louis XIV. style, sprung up one hardly knew
how, in this narrow space, crushed by its two low storeys. Had it not
been for the support on each side it must have fallen; the slates were
old and rotten, and the two-windowed front was cracked and covered
with stains, which ran down in long rusty lines over the worm-eaten
sign-board.

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

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

“Must be prepared for anything now,” murmured Baudu at last.

Bourras then got angry, shaking his hair and flowing board. “Let him buy
the house, he’ll have to pay four times the value for it! But I swear
that as long as I live he shall not touch a stone of it. My lease has
twelve years to run yet. We shall see! we shall see!”

It was a declaration of war. Bourras looked towards The Ladies’
Paradise, which neither had directly named. Baudu shook his head in
silence, and then crossed the street to his shop, his legs almost
failing under him. “Ah! good Lord! ah! good Lord!” he kept repeating.

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

“How did you get on at Vinçard’s?” asked Madame Baudu, suddenly.

The draper related his useless errand, adding that Denise had heard of
a situation; and, pointing to The Ladies’ Paradise with a scornful
gesture, he cried out: “There–in there!”

The whole family felt wounded at the idea. The first dinner was at five
o’clock. Denise and the two children took their places, with Baudu,
Geneviève, and Colomban. A single jet of gas lighted and warmed the
little dining-room, reeking with the smell of hot food. The meal
passed off in silence, but at dessert Madame Baudu, who could not rest
anywhere, left the shop, and came and sat down near Denise. And then the
storm, kept back all day, broke out, every one feeling a certain relief
in abusing the monster.

“It’s your business, you can do as you like,” repeated Baudu. “We
don’t want to influence you. But if you only knew what sort of place it
is—-” And he commenced to relate, in broken sentences, the history of
this Octave Mouret. Wonderful luck! A fellow who had come up from the
South of France with the amiable audacity of an adventurer; no sooner
arrived than he commenced to distinguish himself by all sorts of
disgraceful pranks with the ladies; had figured in an affair, which was
still the talk of the neighbourhood; and to crown all, had suddenly and
mysteriously made the conquest of Madame Hédouin, who brought him The
Ladies’ Paradise as a marriage portion.

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

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

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

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

“A sharp fellow, a dangerous busybody, who will overthrow the whole
neighborhood if allowed to!” continued Baudu. “I fancy that Caroline,
a rather romantic woman, must have been carried away by the gentleman’s
extravagant ideas. In short, he persuaded her to buy the house on the
left, then the one on the right; and he himself, on becoming his own
master, bought two others; so that the establishment has continued to
grow–extending in such a way that it now threatens to swallow us all
up!”

He was addressing Denise, but was really speaking more to himself,
feeling a feverish longing to go over this history which haunted him
continually. At home he was always angry, always violent, clenching
his fists as if longing to go for somebody. Madame Baudu ceased to
interfere, sitting motionless on her chair; Genevieve and Colomban,
their eyes cast down, were picking up and eating the crumbs off the
table, just for the sake of something to do. It was so warm, so stuffy
in the small room, that Pépé was sleeping with his head on the table,
and even Jean’s eyes were closing.

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

And he went on in a revengeful voice; one would have thought that the
fall of The Ladies’ Paradise was to restore the dignity and prestige
of compromised business. Had any one ever seen such a thing? A draper’s
shop selling everything! Why not call it a bazaar at once? And the
employees! a nice set they were too–a lot of puppies, who did their
work like porters at a railway station, treating goods and customers
like so many parcels; leaving the shop or getting the sack at a moment’s
notice. No affection, no manners, no taste! And all at once he quoted
Colomban as an example of a good tradesman, brought up in the old
school, knowing how long it took to learn all the cunning and tricks of
the trade. The art was not to sell a large quantity, but to sell dear.
Colomban could say how he had been treated, carefully looked after, his
washing and mending done, nursed in illness, considered as one of the
family–loved, in fact!

“Of course,” repeated Colomban, after every statement the governor made.

“Ah, you’re the last of the old stock,” Baudu ended by declaring. “After
you’re gone there’ll be none left. You are my sole consolation, for
if they call all this sort of thing business I give up, I would rather
clear out.”

Geneviève, her head on one side, as if her thick hair were too heavy
for her pale forehead, was watching the smiling shopman; and in her look
there was a suspicion, a wish to see whether Colomban, stricken with
remorse, would not blush at all this praise. But, like a fellow up
to every trick of the old trade, he preserved his quiet manner, his
good-natured and cunning look. However, Baudu still went on, louder than
ever, condemning the people opposite, calling them a pack of savages,
murdering each other in their struggle for existence, destroying
all family ties. And he mentioned some country neighbours, the
Lhommes–mother, father, and son–all employed in the infernal shop,
people without any home life, always out, leading a comfortless, savage
existence, never dining at home except on Sunday, feeding all the week
at restaurants, hotels, anywhere. Certainly his dining-room wasn’t
too large nor too well-lighted; but it was part of their home, and the
family had grown up affectionately about the domestic hearth. Whilst
speaking his eyes wandered about the room; and he shuddered at the
unavowed idea that the savages might one day, if they, succeeded
in ruining his trade, turn him out of this house where he was so
comfortable with his wife and child. Notwithstanding the assurance
with which he predicted the utter downfall of his rivals, he was really
terrified, feeling that the neighbourhood was being gradually invaded
and devoured.

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

“I am sure of that, uncle,” murmured Denise, bewildered, all this
excitement rendering her more and more desirous of entering The Ladies’
Paradise.

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

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

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

He spoke of other tradesmen, passing the whole neigbour-hood in review.
Now and again he let slip a confession. If Vinçard wanted to sell it was
time for the rest to pack up, for Vinçard was like the rats who leave
a house when it threatens to fall in. Then, immediately after, he
contradicted himself, alluded to an alliance, an understanding between
the small tradesmen in order to fight the colossus. He hesitated an
instant before speaking of himself, his hands shaking, and his mouth
twitching in a nervous manner. At last he made up his mind.

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

The whole family was affected. Geneviève ventured to make a remark after
a silence:

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

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

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

She shook her head; the drama of her whole life was expressed in these
few words. Born in the old house, she loved every part of it, living
only for it and by it; and, formerly proud of this house, the finest,
the best patronised in the neighbourhood, she had had the daily grief of
seeing the rival establishment gradually growing in importance, at first
disdained, then equal to theirs, and finally towering above it, and
threatening all the rest. This was for her a continual, open sore; she
was slowly dying from sheer grief at seeing The Old Elbeuf humiliated,
though still living, as if by the force of impulse, like a machine wound
up. But she felt that the death of the shop would be hers as well, and
that she would never survive the closing of it.

There was a painful silence. Baudu was softly beating a tattoo with his
fingers on the American cloth on the table. He experienced a sort of
lassitude, almost a regret at having relieved his feelings once more in
this way. In fact, the whole family felt the effects of his despondency,
and could not help ruminating on the bitter story. They never had had
any luck. The children had been educated and started in the world,
fortune was beginning to smile on them, when suddenly this competition
sprang up and ruined their hopes. There was, also, the house at
Rambouillet, that country house to which he had been dreaming of
retiring for the last ten years–a bargain, he thought; but it had
turned out to be an old building always wanting repairs, and which
he had let to people who never paid any rent. His last profits were
swallowed up by the place–the only folly he had committed in his
honest, upright career as a tradesman, obstinately attached to the old
ways.

“Come, come!” said he, suddenly, “we must make room for the others.
Enough of this useless talk!”

It was like an awakening. The gas hissed, in the dead and stifling air
of the small room. They all jumped up, breaking the melancholy silence.
However, Pépé was sleeping so soundly that they laid him on some bales
of cloth. Jean had already returned to the street door yawning.

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

He looked at her sharply, waiting for a decisive answer. Denise, whom
these stories had inspired with a still greater longing to enter The
Ladies’ Paradise, instead of turning her from it, preserved her quiet
gentle demeanour with a Norman obstinacy. She simply replied: “We shall
see, uncle.”

And she spoke of going to bed early with the children, for they were
all three very tired. But it had only just struck six, so she decided to
stay in the shop a little longer. Night had come on, and she found
the street quite dark, enveloped in a fine close rain, which had been
falling since sunset. She was surprised. A few minutes had sufficed to
fill the street with small pools, a stream of dirty water was running
along the gutters, the pavement was thick with a sticky black mud;
and through the beating rain she saw nothing but a confused stream of
umbrellas, pushing, swinging along in the gloom like great black wings.
She started back at first, feeling very cold, oppressed at heart by the
badly-lighted shop, very dismal at this hour of the day. A damp breeze,
the breath of the old quarter, came in from the street; it seemed that
the rain, streaming from the umbrellas, was running right into the shop,
that the pavement with its mud and its puddles extended all over the
place, putting the finishing touches to the mouldiness of the old shop
front, white with saltpetre. It was quite a vision of old Paris, damp
and uncomfortable, which made her shiver, astonished and heart-broken to
find the great city so cold and so ugly.

But opposite, the gas-lamps were being lighted all along the frontage of
The Ladies’ Paradise. She moved nearer, again attracted and, as it were,
warmed by this wealth of illumination. The machine was still roaring,
active as ever, hissing forth its last clouds of steam; whilst the
salesmen were folding up the stuffs, and the cashiers counting up the
receipts. It was, as seen through the hazy windows, a vague swarming of
lights, a confused factory-like interior. Behind the curtain of falling
rain, this apparition, distant and confused, assumed the appearance of
a giant furnace-house, where the black shadows of the firemen could
be seen passing by the red glare of the furnaces. The displays in the
windows became indistinct also; one could only distinguish the snowy
lace, heightened in its whiteness by the ground glass globes of a row of
gas jets, and against this chapel-like background the ready-made goods
stood out vigorously, the velvet mantle trimmed with silver fox threw
into relief the curved profile of a headless woman running through the
rain to some entertainment in the unknown of the shades of the Paris
night.

Denise, yielding to the seduction, had gone to the door, heedless of the
raindrops falling on her. At this hour, The Ladies’ Paradise, with
its furnace-like brilliancy, entirely conquered her. In the great
metropolis, black and silent, beneath the rain–in this Paris, to which
she was a stranger, it shone out like a lighthouse, and seemed to be of
itself the life and light of the city. She dreamed of her future there,
working hard to bring up the children, and of other things besides–she
hardly knew what–far-off things, the desire and the fear of which made
her tremble. The idea of this woman who had met her death amidst the
foundations came back to her; she felt afraid, she thought she saw the
lights bleeding; then, the whiteness of the lace quieting her, a vague
hope sprang up in her heart, quite a certainty of happiness; whilst the
fine rain, blowing on her, cooled her hands, and calmed her after the
excitement of her journey.

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

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

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

Turning round, Denise found the Baudus behind her again. Though they
thought Bourras so stupid, they were obliged, against their will, to
return to this spectacle which was breaking their hearts. Genevieve,
very pale, had noticed that Colomban was watching the shadows of the
saleswomen pass to and fro on the first floor opposite; and, whilst
Baudu was choking with suppressed rancour, Madame Baudu was silently
weeping.

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

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