She no longer struggled

One morning in November, Denise was giving her first orders in the
department when the Baudus’ servant came to tell her that Mademoiselle
Geneviève had passed a very bad night, and wished to see her
immediately. For some time the poor girl had been getting weaker and
weaker, and had been obliged to take to her bed two days before.

“Say I am coming at once,” replied Denise, feeling very anxious.

The blow which was finishing Geneviève was Colomban’s sudden
disappearance. At first, chaffed by Clara, he had grown very
dissipated; then, yielding to the wild desires which at times master
sly, chaste men, he had become her obedient slave; and one Monday
instead of returning to the shop had sent a farewell letter to Baudu,
written in the studied terms of one who is about to commit suicide.
Perhaps, at the bottom of this freak, there was also the calculating
craft of a man delighted at escaping from a disastrous marriage. The
business was in as bad a way as his betrothed, so the moment was
a propitious one for breaking with them both. And every one cited
Colomban as an unfortunate victim of love.

When Denise reached The Old Elbeuf, Madame Baudu, with her small white
face consumed by anæmia, was there alone, sitting motionless behind
the pay-desk, and watching over the silence and emptiness of the shop.
There was no assistant now. The servant dusted the shelves; and it was
even a question of replacing her by a charwoman. A dreary cold hung
about the ceiling; hours passed by without a customer coming to disturb
the gloom, and the goods, no longer handled, became more and more musty
every day.

“What’s the matter?” asked Denise, anxiously. “Is Geneviève in danger?”

Madame Baudu did not at first reply. Her eyes filled with tears. Then
suddenly she stammered: “I don’t know; they don’t tell me anything. Ah,
it’s all over, it’s all over.”

And she cast a dim glance round the dark shop, as if she felt that her
daughter and The Old Elbeuf were disappearing together. The seventy
thousand francs, produced by the sale of their Rambouillet property,
had in less than two years melted away in the abyss of competition.
In order to struggle against The Ladies’ Paradise, which now kept
men’s cloths, even materials for hunting, shooting, and livery suits,
the draper had made considerable sacrifices. But at last he had been
altogether crushed by the swan-skin cloths and the flannels sold by
his rival, an assortment that had not its equal in the market. Little
by little his debts had increased, and, as a last resource, he had
resolved to mortgage the old building in the Rue de la Michodière,
where Finet, their ancestor, had founded the business. And it was now
only a question of days, the crumbling away had nearly finished, the
very ceilings seemed to be falling and turning into dust, even an old
worm-eaten structure is carried away by the wind.

“Your uncle is upstairs,” resumed Madame Baudu in her broken voice. “We
each stay with her in turn for a couple of hours. Some one must stay
here; oh! but only as a precaution, for to tell the truth—-”

Her gesture finished the phrase. They would have put the shutters up
had it not been for their old commercial pride, which still kept them
erect in the presence of the neighbours.

“Well, I’ll go up, aunt,” said Denise, whose heart ached amidst the
resigned despair that even the pieces of cloth themselves exhaled.

“Yes, go upstairs quick, my girl. She’s expecting you, she’s been
asking for you all night. She had something to tell you.”

But just at that moment Baudu came down. Bile had now given his yellow
face a greenish hue, and his eyes were bloodshot. He was still walking
with the muffled tread with which he had quitted the sick room, and
murmured, as though he might be overheard upstairs, “She’s asleep.”

Then, thoroughly worn out, he sat down on a chair, mopping his forehead
with a mechanical gesture and puffing like a man who has just finished
some hard work. A pause ensued, but at last he said to Denise: “You’ll
see her presently. When she is sleeping, she seems to us to be all
right again.”

Again did silence fall. Face to face, the father and mother stood
looking at one another. Then, in a low voice he went over his grief
again, though without naming any one or addressing any one directly:
“With my head on the block, I wouldn’t have believed it! He was the
last one, I had brought him up as a son. If any one had come and said
to me, ‘They’ll take him away from you as well; you’ll see him fall,’
I should have replied, ‘It’s impossible, that can’t happen as long as
there’s a God on high.’ But he has fallen all the same! Ah! the poor
fellow, he who was so well up in the business, who had all my ideas!
And all through a young she-ape, a mere dummy fit for a window! No!
really, it’s enough to drive one mad!”

He shook his head, with his half-closed eyes cast upon the damp floor
which the tread of generations of customers had worn. Then he continued
in a lower voice, “Shall I tell you? Well, there are moments when I
feel myself the most culpable of all in our misfortune. Yes, it’s my
fault if our poor girl is lying upstairs devoured by fever. Ought I not
to have married them at once, without yielding to my stupid pride, my
obstinacy in refusing to leave them the business in a less prosperous
state than it had been before? Had I done that she would now have the
man she loved, and perhaps their youthful strength united would have
accomplished the miracle that I have failed to work. But I am an old
fool, and saw through nothing; I didn’t know that people fell ill over
such things. Really, he was an extraordinary fellow: he had such a gift
for business, and such probity, such simplicity of conduct, he was so
orderly in every way–in short, my pupil.”

He raised his head, still defending his ideas, in the person of the
shopman who had betrayed him. Denise, however, could not bear to hear
him accuse himself, and carried away by her emotion, on seeing him so
humble, with his eyes full of tears, he who used formerly to reign
there as an absolute and scolding master, she told him everything.

“Uncle, pray don’t excuse him,” said she. “He never loved Geneviève, he
would have run away sooner if you had tried to hasten the marriage. I
have spoken to him myself about it; he was perfectly well aware that my
poor cousin was suffering on his account, and yet you see that did not
prevent him from leaving. Ask aunt.”

Without opening her lips, Madame Baudu confirmed these words by a
nod. The draper turned paler still, blinded by his tears. And then he
stammered out: “It must have been in the blood, his father died last
year through having led a dissolute life.”

And once more he looked round the dim shop, his eyes wandering from the
empty counters to the full shelves and then resting on Madame Baudu,
who was still sitting erect at the pay-desk, waiting in vain for the
customers who did not come.

“Well,” said he, “it’s all over. They’ve ruined our business, and now
one of their hussies is killing our daughter.”

No one spoke. The rolling of passing vehicles, which occasionally
shook the floor, seemed like a funereal beating of drums in the still
air, so stuffy under the low ceiling. But suddenly, amidst this gloomy
sadness peculiar to old expiring shops, several dull knocks were heard
proceeding from somewhere in the house. It was Geneviève, who had just
awoke, and was knocking with a stick they had left beside her.

“Let’s go up at once,” said Baudu, rising with a start. “And try to be
cheerful, she mustn’t know.”

He himself as he went upstairs rubbed his eyes, in order to remove the
traces of his tears. As soon as he opened the door, on the first floor,
they heard a frightened, feeble voice crying: “Oh, I don’t like to be
left alone. Don’t leave me; I’m afraid to be left alone.” However, when
she perceived Denise, Geneviève became calmer, and smiled joyfully.
“You’ve come, then! How I’ve been longing to see you since yesterday! I
thought you also had abandoned me!”

It was a piteous spectacle. The young woman’s room, a little room into
which came a livid light, looked out on to the yard. At first her
parents had put her in their room, in the front part of the house; but
the sight of The Ladies’ Paradise opposite affected her so deeply, that
they had been obliged to bring her back to her own again. And there she
lay, so very thin under the bed-clothes, that you could hardly divine
the form and existence of a human body. Her skinny arms, consumed by
the burning fever of consumption, were in a perpetual movement of
anxious, unconscious searching; whilst her black hair, heavy with
passion, seemed thicker still, and to be preying with its voracious
vitality upon her poor face, that face in which was fading the final
degenerateness of a long lineage, a family that had grown and lived in
the gloom of that cellar of old commercial Paris. Denise, her heart
bursting with pity, stood looking at her. She did not at first speak,
for fear of giving way to tears. However, she at last murmured: “I came
at once. Can I be of any use to you? You asked for me. Would you like
me to stay?”

“No, thanks. I don’t need anything. I only wanted to embrace you.”

Tears filled her eyes. Denise quickly leant over and kissed her,
trembling at the flame which came from those hollow cheeks to her own
lips. But Geneviève, stretching out her arms caught hold of her and
kept her in a desperate embrace. Then she looked towards her father.

“Would you like me to stay?” repeated Denise. “Perhaps there is
something I can do for you.”

“No, no.” Geneviève’s glance was still obstinately fixed on her father,
who remained standing there with a bewildered air, almost choking.
However, he at last understood her and went away, without saying a
word. They heard his heavy footsteps descending the stairs.

“Tell me, is he with that woman?” the sick girl then eagerly inquired
while catching hold of her cousin’s hand, and making her sit down on
the edge of the bed. “Yes, I wanted to see you as you are the only one
who can tell me. They’re together, aren’t they?”

In the surprise which these questions gave her Denise began to stammer,
and was obliged to confess the truth, the rumours that were current at
the Paradise. Clara, it was said, had already grown tired of Colomban,
who was pursuing her everywhere, striving to obtain an occasional
appointment by a sort of canine humility. It was also said that he was
about to take a situation at the Grands Magasins du Louvre.

“If you love him so much, he may yet come back,” added Denise seeking
to cheer the dying girl with this last hope. “Make haste and get well,
he will acknowledge his errors, and marry you.”

But Geneviève interrupted her. She had listened with all her soul, with
an intense passion which had raised her in the bed. Now, however, she
fell back. “No, I know it’s all over! I don’t say anything, because I
see papa crying, and I don’t wish to make mamma worse than she is. But
I am going, Denise, and if I called for you last night it was for fear
of going off before the morning. And to think that he is not even happy
after all!”

Then as Denise remonstrated with her, assuring her that she was not
so bad as all that, she again cut her short by suddenly throwing back
the bed-clothes with the chaste gesture of a virgin who has nothing to
conceal in death. Her bosom bare, she murmured: “Look at me! Is it not
the end?”

Trembling with mingled horror and pity, Denise hastily rose from the
bed, as if she feared that her very breath might suffice to destroy
that puny emaciated form. Geneviève slowly covered her bosom again,
saying: “You see I am no longer a woman. It would be wrong to wish for
him still!”

Silence fell between them. They continued gazing at each other, unable
to find a word to say. At last it was Geneviève who resumed: “Come,
don’t stay any longer, you have your own affairs to look after. And
thanks, I was tormented by the wish to know, and now am satisfied. If
you ever see him again, tell him I forgive him. Farewell, dear Denise.
Kiss me once more, for it’s the last time.”

The young woman kissed her, still protesting: “No, no, don’t despair,
all you want is careful nursing, nothing more.”

But the sick girl smiled, shaking her head in an obstinate way, like
one who will not be deceived. And as her cousin at last walked towards
the door, she exclaimed: “Wait a minute, knock on the floor with this
stick, so that papa may come up. I’m afraid to stay alone.”

Then, when Baudu reached the little dismal room, where he spent long
hours seated on a chair, she assumed an air of gaiety, saying to
Denise–“Don’t come to-morrow, I would rather not. But on Sunday I
shall expect you; you can spend the afternoon with me.”

The next morning, at six o’clock, Geneviève expired after four hours’
fearful agony. The funeral took place on a Saturday, a dark cloudy day,
with a sooty sky hanging low above the shivering city. The Old Elbeuf,
hung with white drapery, lighted up the street with a bright speck, and
the candles burning in the gloom seemed like so many stars enveloped in
twilight. Bead-work wreaths and a great bouquet of white roses covered
the coffin–a narrow child’s coffin,–placed in the dark passage of the
house close to the pavement, so near indeed to the gutter that passing
vehicles had already splashed the drapery. With its continual rush of
pedestrians on the muddy footways the whole neighbourhood reeked of
dampness, exhaled a cellar-like mouldy odour.

At nine o’clock Denise came over to stay with her aunt. But when the
funeral was about to start, the latter–who had ceased weeping, her
eyes scorched by her hot tears–begged her to follow the body and look
after her uncle, whose mute affliction and almost idiotic grief filled
the family with anxiety. Downstairs, the young woman found the street
full of people, for the small traders of the neighbourhood were anxious
to give the Baudus a mark of sympathy, and in their eagerness there
was a desire for a demonstration against that Ladies’ Paradise, which
they accused of having caused Geneviève’s slow agony. All the victims
of the monster were there–Bédoré and Sister, the hosiers of the Rue
Gaillon, Vanpouille Brothers, the furriers, Deslignières the toyman,
and Piot and Rivoire the furniture dealers; even Mademoiselle Tatin,
the dealer in under-linen, and Quinette the glover, though long since
cleared off by bankruptcy, had made it a duty to come, the one from
Batignolles, the other from the Bastille, where they had been obliged
to take situations. And whilst waiting for the hearse, which was late,
all these people, clad in black and tramping in the mud, cast glances
of hatred towards The Ladies’ Paradise, whose bright windows and gay
displays seemed an insult in face of The Old Elbeuf, which, with its
funeral trappings and glimmering candles, lent an air of mourning to
the other side of the street. The faces of a few inquisitive salesmen
appeared at the plate-glass windows of the Paradise; but the colossus
itself preserved the indifference of a machine going at full speed,
unconscious of the deaths it may cause on the road.

Denise looked round for her brother Jean, and at last perceived him
standing before Bourras’s shop; whereupon she crossed over and asked
him to walk with his uncle, and assist him should he be unable to get
along. For the last few weeks Jean had been very grave, as if tormented
by some worry. That morning, buttoned up in his black frock-coat, for
he was now a full-grown man, earning his twenty francs a day, he seemed
so dignified and sad that his sister was surprised, having had no idea
that he loved their cousin so much. Desirous of sparing Pépé a needless
grief, she had left him with Madame Gras, intending to fetch him in the
afternoon to see his uncle and aunt.

However, the hearse had still not arrived, and Denise, greatly
affected, stood watching the candles burn, when she was startled by a
well-known voice behind her. It was that of Bourras who had called a
chestnut-seller occupying a little box, against a wine shop opposite,
in order to say to him: “Here! Vigouroux, just keep a look-out on my
place, will you? You see I’ve taken the door handle away. If any one
comes, tell them to call again. But don’t let that disturb you, no one
will come.”

Then he also took his stand at the edge of the pavement, waiting like
the others. Denise, feeling rather awkward, glanced at his shop. He
now altogether neglected it; only a disorderly collection of umbrellas
eaten up by damp and canes blackened by gas-light now remained in the
window. The embellishments that he had made, the light green paint
work, the mirrors, the gilded sign, were all cracking, already getting
dirty, exhibiting the rapid lamentable decrepitude of false luxury
laid over ruins. But although the old crevices were re-appearing,
although the damp spots had sprung up through the gilding, the house
still obstinately held its ground, hanging to the flanks of The Ladies’
Paradise like some shameful wart, which, although cracked and rotten,
yet refused to fall.

“Ah! the scoundrels,” growled Bourras, “they won’t even let her be
carried away!”

The hearse, which was at last approaching, had just come into collision
with one of The Paradise vans, which at the rapid trot of two superb
horses went spinning along shedding in the mist the starry radiance of
its shining panels. And from under his bushy eyebrows the old man cast
a side glance at Denise.

The funeral procession started at a slow pace, splashing through
muddy puddles, amid the silence of the omnibuses and cabs which were
suddenly pulled up. When the coffin, draped with white, crossed the
Place Gaillon, the sombre looks of the followers once more plunged
into the windows of the big establishment where only two saleswomen
stood looking on, pleased with the diversion. Baudu followed the
hearse with a heavy mechanical step, refusing by a sign the arm
offered him by Jean, who walked alongside. Then, after a long string
of people, came three mourning coaches. As they crossed the Rue
Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, Robineau, looking very pale and much older,
ran up to join the procession.

At Saint-Roch, a great many women were waiting, small traders of the
neighbourhood, who had wished to escape the crowd at the house of
mourning. The demonstration was developing into quite a riot; and
when, after the funeral service, the procession started off again,
all continued to follow, although it was a long walk from the Rue
Saint-Honoré to the Montmartre Cemetery. They had to turn up the Rue
Saint-Roch again, and once more pass The Ladies’ Paradise. It was a
sort of defiance; the poor girl’s body was paraded round the big shop
like that of a first victim fallen in time of revolution. At the door
some red flannels were flapping like so many flags, and a display
of carpets blazed forth in a gory efflorescence of huge roses and
full-blown peonies. Denise had now got into one of the coaches, being
agitated by such poignant doubts, her heart oppressed by such cruel
grief, that she had not the strength to walk further. In the Rue du
Dix-Décembre just before the scaffolding of the new façade which still
obstructed the thoroughfare there was a stoppage, and on looking out
the girl observed old Bourras behind all the others, dragging himself
along with difficulty close to the wheels of the coach in which she was
riding alone. He would never get as far as the cemetery, she thought.
However, he raised his head, looked at her, and all at once got into
the coach.

“It’s my confounded knees,” he exclaimed. “Don’t draw back! It isn’t
you we hate.”

She felt him to be friendly and furious, as in former days. He
grumbled, declared that Baudu must be fearfully strong to be able to
keep up after such hard blows as he had received. The procession had
again started off at the same slow pace; and, on leaning out once
more, Denise saw her uncle walking behind the hearse with his heavy
step, which seemed to regulate the rumbling, painful march of the
cortège. Then she threw herself back into her corner and rocked by
the melancholy movement of the coach began listening to the endless
complaints of the old umbrella maker.

“The police ought to clear the public thoroughfares, my word!” said he,
“They’ve been blocking up our street for the last eighteen months with
the scaffolding of their façade–another man was killed on it the other
day. Never mind! When they want to enlarge any further they’ll have to
throw bridges over the streets. People say there are now two thousand
seven hundred employees, and that the turnover will amount to a hundred
millions this year. A hundred millions! just fancy! a hundred millions!”

Denise had nothing to say in reply. The procession had just turned
into the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, where it was stopped by a block
of vehicles. And Bourras went on, with a vague expression in his eyes,
as if he were now dreaming aloud. He still failed to understand the
triumph achieved by The Ladies’ Paradise, but he acknowledged the
defeat of the old-fashioned traders.

“Poor Robineau’s done for, he looks like a drowning man,” he resumed.
“And the Bédorés and the Vanpouilles, they can’t keep going; they’re
like me, played out. Deslignières will die of apoplexy, Piot and
Rivoire have had the jaundice. Ah! poor child! It must be comical for
those looking on to see such a string of bankrupts pass. Besides, it
appears that the clean sweep is to continue. Those scoundrels are
creating departments for flowers, bonnets, perfumery, boots and shoes,
all sorts of things. Grognet, the perfumer in the Rue de Grammont can
clear out, and I wouldn’t give ten francs for Naud’s boot-shop in the
Rue d’Antin. The cholera’s even spread as far as the Rue Sainte-Anne.
Lacassagne, at the feather and flower shop, and Madame Chadeuil, whose
bonnets are so well-known, will be swept away in less than a couple
of years. And after those will come others and still others! All the
businesses in the neighbourhood will collapse. When counter-jumpers
start selling soap and goloshes, they are quite capable of dealing in
fried potatoes. ‘Pon my word, the world is turning upside down!”

The hearse had just then crossed the Place de la Trinité, and from the
corner of the gloomy coach Denise, who lulled by the funereal march
of the procession still listened to the old man’s endless complaints,
could see the coffin ascending the steep Rue Blanche as they emerged
from the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. Behind her uncle, who was plodding
along with the blind, mute face of an ox about to be poleaxed, she
seemed to hear the tramping of a flock of sheep likewise being led to
the slaughter-house. It was the downfall of the shops of an entire
district, all the small traders dragging their ruin, amidst the thud
of damp shoes, through the black mud of Paris. Bourras, however, still
continued, in a fainter voice, as if fatigued by the difficult ascent
of the Rue Blanche:

“As for me, I’m settled. But I still hold on all the same, and won’t
let him go. He’s just lost his appeal case. Ah! that’s cost me
something: nearly two years’ pleading, and the solicitors and the
barristers! Never mind, he won’t pass under my shop, the judges have
decided that such work as that could not be considered legitimate
repairing. Just fancy, he talked of creating underneath my place a
saloon where his people might judge the colours of the stuffs by
gas-light, a subterranean room which would have joined the hosiery to
the drapery departments! And he can’t get over it; he can’t swallow the
fact that an old wreck like me should stop his progress, when all the
others are on their knees before his money. But never! I won’t have
it! that’s understood. Very likely I may be worsted. Since I have had
to fight against the process-servers, I know that the villain has been
buying up my bills in the hope of playing me some villainous trick. But
that doesn’t matter; he says ‘yes,’ and I say ‘no,’ and I shall still
say ‘no’ even when I get between two boards like that poor child we are
following.”

When they reached the Boulevard de Clichy, the coach rolled on at a
quicker pace and one could hear the heavy breathing, the unconscious
haste of the followers, anxious to get the sad ceremony over. What
Bourras did not openly mention, was the frightful misery into which he
himself had fallen, bewildered by the worries which besiege the small
trader who is on the road to ruin and yet remains obstinate even under
a shower of protested bills. Denise, well acquainted with his position,
at last broke the silence by saying, in a voice of entreaty:

“Pray don’t stand out any longer, Monsieur Bourras. Let me arrange
matters for you.”

But he interrupted her with a violent gesture. “You be quiet. That’s
nobody’s business. You’re a good little girl, and I know you lead him a
hard life, that man who thought you were for sale just like my house.
But what would you answer if I advised you to say ‘yes?’ You’d send me
about my business, eh? And so, when I say ‘no,’ don’t you interfere in
the matter.”

Then, the coach having stopped at the cemetery gate, he alighted from
it with the young girl. The Baudus’ vault was reached by the first
path on the left. In a few minutes the ceremony was over. Jean drew
away his uncle, who was looking into the grave all agape. The mourners
spread about amongst the neighbouring tombs, and the faces of all these
shopkeepers, their blood impoverished by living in damp, unhealthy
shops, assumed an ugly, suffering look under the leaden sky. When the
coffin gently slipped down, their blotched and pimpled cheeks paled,
and their bleared eyes, blinded by the constant contemplation of
figures, turned away.

“We ought all to jump into that hole,” said Bourras to Denise, who had
kept close to him. “In burying that poor girl they’re burying the whole
district. Oh! I know what I say, the old style of business may go and
join the white roses they’re throwing on her coffin.”

Denise brought her uncle and brother back in a mourning coach. The day
was for her dark and melancholy. In the first place, she began to get
anxious at seeing Jean so pale; and when she understood that it was
on account of another sweetheart she tried to quiet him by opening
her purse; but he shook his head and refused, saying it was a serious
matter this time, the niece of a very rich pastry-cook, who would not
accept even a bunch of violets. Afterwards, in the afternoon, when
Denise went to fetch Pépé from Madame Gras’, the latter declared that
he was getting too big for her to keep any longer; and this was another
annoyance, for it would be necessary to find him a school, perhaps
send him away. And to crown all, on bringing Pépé to kiss his aunt and
uncle, Denise’s heart was rent by the gloomy sadness of The Old Elbeuf.
The shop was closed, and the old couple were sitting in the little
dining-room, where they had forgotten to light the gas, notwithstanding
the complete obscurity in which it was plunged that winter’s day. They
were now quite alone, face to face, in the house which ruin had slowly
emptied, and their daughter’s death filled the dark corners with a
deeper gloom, and seemed like the beginning of that final dismemberment
which would break up the old rafters, preyed upon by damp. Beneath the
crushing blow, her uncle, unable to stop himself, still kept walking
round and round the table, with his funeral-like step, seeing nothing
and silent; whilst her aunt who said nothing either, remained huddled
together on a chair, with the white face of one who is wounded and
whose blood is running away drop by drop. They did not even weep when
Pépé covered their cold cheeks with kisses. For her part Denise was
choking with tears.

That same evening Mouret sent for the young woman to speak to her about
a child’s garment which he wished to launch, a mixture of the Scotch
and Zouave costumes. And, still trembling with pity, shocked by so much
suffering, she could not contain herself; and, to begin with, ventured
to speak of Bourras, that poor old man who was down and whom they were
about to ruin. But, on hearing the umbrella maker’s name, Mouret flew
into a rage. The old madman, as he called him, was the plague of his
life, and spoilt his triumph by his idiotic obstinacy in not giving
up his house, that ignoble hovel which was a disgrace to The Ladies’
Paradise, the only little corner of the vast block that had escaped
conquest. The matter was becoming a perfect nightmare; any one else
but Denise speaking in favour of Bourras would have run the risk of
immediate dismissal, so violently was Mouret tortured by the sickly
desire to kick the old hovel down. In short, what did they wish him to
do? Could he leave that heap of ruins sticking to The Ladies’ Paradise?
It would have to go, the shop must pass along. So much the worse for
the old fool! And he spoke of his repeated proposals; he had offered
him as much as a hundred thousand francs. Wasn’t that fair? He never
higgled, he gave whatever money was required; but in return he expected
people to be reasonable, and allow him to finish his work! Did any one
ever try to stop engines on a railway? To all this Denise listened with
drooping eyes, unable on her side to find any but purely sentimental
reasons. The poor fellow was so old, they might have waited till his
death; a bankruptcy would kill him. Then Mouret added that he was no
longer able to prevent things following their course. Bourdoncle had
taken the matter up, for the board had resolved to put an end to it. So
she could say nothing more, notwithstanding the grievous pity which she
felt for her old friend.

After a painful silence, Mouret himself began to speak of the Baudus,
by expressing his sorrow at the death of their daughter. They were very
worthy and very honest people but had been pursued by the worst of
luck. Then he resumed his arguments: at bottom, they had really brought
about their own misfortunes by obstinately clinging to the old customs
in their worm-eaten place. It was not astonishing that their house
should be falling about their heads. He had predicted it scores of
times; she must even remember that he had told her to warn her uncle of
a fatal disaster, if he should still cling to his stupid old-fashioned
ways. And the catastrophe had arrived; no one in the world could now
prevent it. People could not reasonably expect him to ruin himself to
save the neighbourhood. Besides, if he had been foolish enough to close
The Ladies’ Paradise, another great establishment would have sprung
up of itself next door, for the idea was now starting from the four
corners of the globe; the triumph of these manufacturing and trading
centres was sown by the spirit of the age, which was sweeping away
the falling edifices of ancient times. Little by little as he went on
speaking, Mouret warmed up, and with eloquent emotion defended himself
against the hatred of his involuntary victims, against the clamour
of the small moribund businesses that he could hear around him. They
could not keep their dead above ground, he continued, they must bury
them; and, with a gesture, he consigned the corpse of old-fashioned
trading to the grave, swept into the common hole all those putrifying
pestilential remains which were becoming a disgrace to the bright,
sun-lit streets of new Paris. No, no, he felt no remorse, he was simply
doing the work of his age, and she knew it, she who loved life, who had
a passion for vast transactions settled in the full glare of publicity.
Reduced to silence, she listened to him for some time longer and then
went away, her soul full of trouble.

That night Denise slept but little. Insomnia, interspersed with
nightmare, kept her turning over and over in her bed. It seemed to
her that she was again quite a little girl and burst into tears, in
their garden at Valognes, on seeing the blackcaps eat up the spiders,
which themselves devoured the flies. Was it then really true that it
was necessary for the world to fatten on death, that it was necessary
there should be this struggle for existence whereby humanity drew
even increase of life from the ossuaries of eternal destruction? And
afterwards she again found herself before the grave into which they had
lowered Geneviève, and then she perceived her uncle and aunt alone in
their gloomy dining-room. A dull sound as of something toppling sped
through the still atmosphere; it was Bourras’s house giving way, as
if undermined by a high tide. Then silence fell again, more sinister
than ever, and a fresh crash was heard, then another, and another; the
Robineaus, the Bédorés, the Vanpouilles, were cracking and falling
in their turn; all the small shops of the Saint-Roch quarter were
disappearing beneath an invisible pick, with the sudden, thundering
noise of bricks falling from a cart. Then intense grief awoke her with
a start. Heavens! what tortures! There were families weeping, old men
thrown into the street, all the poignant dramas of ruin! And she could
save nobody; and even felt that it was right, that all this compost of
misery was necessary for the health of the Paris of the future. When
day broke, she became calmer, but a feeling of resigned sadness still
kept her awake, turned towards the window whose panes were brightening.
Yes, it was the needful meed of blood, every revolution required
martyrs, each step forward is taken over the bodies of the dead. Her
fear of being a wicked girl, of having helped to effect the ruin of her
kindred, now melted into heartfelt pity, in face of these evils beyond
remedy, which are like the labour pangs of each generation’s birth. She
finished by trying to devise some possible comfort, her kindly heart
dreaming of the means to be employed in order to save her relations at
least from the final crash.

And now Mouret appeared before her with his impassioned face and
caressing eyes. He would certainly refuse her nothing; she felt sure
that he would accord all reasonable compensations. And her thoughts
strayed, seeking to judge him. She knew his life and was aware of
the calculating nature of his former affections, his continual
“exploitation” of woman, his intimacy with Madame Desforges–the sole
object of which had been to get hold of Baron Hartmann–and with
all the others, such as Clara and the rest. But these Lothario-like
beginnings, which were the talk of the shop, gradually disappeared in
presence of the man’s genius and victorious grace. He was seduction
itself. What she could never have forgiven was his former deception:
real coldness hidden beneath a gallant affectation of affection.
But she felt herself to be entirely without rancour now that he was
suffering through her. This suffering had elevated him. When she saw
him tortured by her refusal, atoning so fully for his former disdain
for woman, he seemed to her to make amends for many of his faults.

That very morning Denise obtained from Mouret a promise of whatever
compensation she might consider reasonable on the day when the Baudus
and old Bourras should succumb. Weeks passed away, during which she
went to see her uncle nearly every afternoon, escaping from her
department for a few minutes and bringing her smiling face and girlish
courage to enliven the dark shop. She was especially anxious about her
aunt, who had fallen into a dull stupor ever since Geneviève’s death;
it seemed as if her life was quitting her hourly; though, when people
questioned her, she would reply with an astonished air that she was not
suffering, but simply felt as if overcome by sleep. The neighbours,
however, shook their heads, saying she would not live long to regret
her daughter.

One day Denise was coming from the Baudus, when, on turning the corner
of the Place Gaillon, she heard a loud cry. A crowd rushed forward, a
panic arose: that breath of fear and pity which suddenly brings all the
people in a street together. It was a brown omnibus, belonging to the
Bastille-Batignolles line, which had run over a man, at the entrance
of the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, just opposite the fountain. Standing
up in his seat, the driver whilst furiously holding in his two black
horses which were rearing cried out, in a great passion:

“Confound it! Confound it! Why don’t you look out, you idiot!”

The omnibus had now been brought to a standstill. The crowd had
surrounded the injured man, and a policeman happened to be on the
spot. Still standing up and invoking the testimony of the outside
passengers who had also risen, to look over and see the blood-stains,
the coachman, with exasperated gestures and choked by increasing anger,
was explaining the matter.

“It’s something fearful,” said he. “Who could have expected such a
thing? That fellow was walking along quite at home and when I called
out to him he at once threw himself under the wheels!”

Then a house-painter, who had run up, brush in hand, from a
neighbouring shop-front, exclaimed in a sharp voice, amidst the
clamour: “Don’t excite yourself! I saw him, he threw himself under! He
jumped in, head first, like that. Another one tired of life, no doubt!”

Others spoke up, and all agreed that it was a case of suicide, whilst
the policeman pulled out his note-book and made an entry. Several
ladies, all very pale, quickly alighted and ran away without looking
back, filled with horror by the sudden shaking which had stirred them
when the omnibus passed over the body. Denise, however, drew nearer,
attracted by a practical pity, which prompted her to interest herself
in the victims of all sorts of street accidents, such as wounded
dogs, horses down, and tilers falling off roofs. And she immediately
recognised the unfortunate fellow who had fainted away there in the
road, his clothes covered with mud.

“It’s Monsieur Robineau!” she exclaimed, in her grievous astonishment.

The policeman at once questioned the young woman, and she gave the
victim’s name, profession, and address. Thanks to the driver’s energy,
the omnibus had swerved, and thus only Robineau’s legs had gone under
the wheels; however, it was to be feared that they were both broken.
Four men carried him to a chemist’s shop in the Rue Gaillon, whilst the
omnibus slowly resumed its journey.

“My stars!” said the driver, whipping up his horses, “I’ve done a
famous day’s work.”

Denise followed Robineau into the chemist’s. The latter, pending the
arrival of a doctor who was not to be found, declared that there was
no immediate danger, and that the injured man had better be taken
home, as he lived in the neighbourhood. A man then started off to the
police-station for a stretcher, and Denise had the happy thought of
going on in front so as to prepare Madame Robineau for this frightful
blow. But she had the greatest trouble in the world to get into the
street again through the crowd, which was struggling before the door of
the chemist’s shop. This crowd, attracted by death, was every minute
increasing; men, women, and children stood on tip-toe, and held their
own amidst brutal pushing; and each new-comer had his version to give
of the accident, so that at last the victim was said to be a husband
who had been pitched out of window by his wife’s lover.

In the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, Denise perceived, from a distance,
Madame Robineau on the threshold of the silk warehouse. This gave her
a pretext for stopping, and she talked on for a moment, trying to find
a means of breaking the terrible news. The place wore the disorderly,
neglectful aspect of a shop in the last agony, one whose business is
fast dying. It was the inevitable end of the great battle of the rival
silks; the Paris Delight had destroyed competition by a fresh reduction
of a sou; it was now sold at four francs nineteen sous the mêtre,
and Gaujean’s silk had found its Waterloo. For the last two months
Robineau, reduced to all sorts of shifts, had been leading a fearful
life, trying to avert a declaration of bankruptcy.

“I saw your husband crossing the Place Gaillon,” murmured Denise, who
had ended by entering the shop.

Thereupon Madame Robineau, whom a secret anxiety seemed to be
continually attracting towards the street, said quickly: “Ah, a little
while ago, wasn’t it? I’m waiting for him, he ought to be back by now.
Monsieur Gaujean came this morning, and they went out together.”

She was still charming, delicate, and gay; but was in a delicate state
of health and seemed more frightened, more bewildered than ever by
those dreadful business matters, which she did not understand, and
which were all going wrong. As she often said, what was the use of it
all? Would it not be better to live quietly in some small lodging, and
be contented with modest fare?
One morning in November, Denise was giving her first orders in the
department when the Baudus’ servant came to tell her that Mademoiselle
Geneviève had passed a very bad night, and wished to see her
immediately. For some time the poor girl had been getting weaker and
weaker, and had been obliged to take to her bed two days before.

“Say I am coming at once,” replied Denise, feeling very anxious.

The blow which was finishing Geneviève was Colomban’s sudden
disappearance. At first, chaffed by Clara, he had grown very
dissipated; then, yielding to the wild desires which at times master
sly, chaste men, he had become her obedient slave; and one Monday
instead of returning to the shop had sent a farewell letter to Baudu,
written in the studied terms of one who is about to commit suicide.
Perhaps, at the bottom of this freak, there was also the calculating
craft of a man delighted at escaping from a disastrous marriage. The
business was in as bad a way as his betrothed, so the moment was
a propitious one for breaking with them both. And every one cited
Colomban as an unfortunate victim of love.

When Denise reached The Old Elbeuf, Madame Baudu, with her small white
face consumed by anæmia, was there alone, sitting motionless behind
the pay-desk, and watching over the silence and emptiness of the shop.
There was no assistant now. The servant dusted the shelves; and it was
even a question of replacing her by a charwoman. A dreary cold hung
about the ceiling; hours passed by without a customer coming to disturb
the gloom, and the goods, no longer handled, became more and more musty
every day.

“What’s the matter?” asked Denise, anxiously. “Is Geneviève in danger?”

Madame Baudu did not at first reply. Her eyes filled with tears. Then
suddenly she stammered: “I don’t know; they don’t tell me anything. Ah,
it’s all over, it’s all over.”

And she cast a dim glance round the dark shop, as if she felt that her
daughter and The Old Elbeuf were disappearing together. The seventy
thousand francs, produced by the sale of their Rambouillet property,
had in less than two years melted away in the abyss of competition.
In order to struggle against The Ladies’ Paradise, which now kept
men’s cloths, even materials for hunting, shooting, and livery suits,
the draper had made considerable sacrifices. But at last he had been
altogether crushed by the swan-skin cloths and the flannels sold by
his rival, an assortment that had not its equal in the market. Little
by little his debts had increased, and, as a last resource, he had
resolved to mortgage the old building in the Rue de la Michodière,
where Finet, their ancestor, had founded the business. And it was now
only a question of days, the crumbling away had nearly finished, the
very ceilings seemed to be falling and turning into dust, even an old
worm-eaten structure is carried away by the wind.

“Your uncle is upstairs,” resumed Madame Baudu in her broken voice. “We
each stay with her in turn for a couple of hours. Some one must stay
here; oh! but only as a precaution, for to tell the truth—-”

Her gesture finished the phrase. They would have put the shutters up
had it not been for their old commercial pride, which still kept them
erect in the presence of the neighbours.

“Well, I’ll go up, aunt,” said Denise, whose heart ached amidst the
resigned despair that even the pieces of cloth themselves exhaled.

“Yes, go upstairs quick, my girl. She’s expecting you, she’s been
asking for you all night. She had something to tell you.”

But just at that moment Baudu came down. Bile had now given his yellow
face a greenish hue, and his eyes were bloodshot. He was still walking
with the muffled tread with which he had quitted the sick room, and
murmured, as though he might be overheard upstairs, “She’s asleep.”

Then, thoroughly worn out, he sat down on a chair, mopping his forehead
with a mechanical gesture and puffing like a man who has just finished
some hard work. A pause ensued, but at last he said to Denise: “You’ll
see her presently. When she is sleeping, she seems to us to be all
right again.”

Again did silence fall. Face to face, the father and mother stood
looking at one another. Then, in a low voice he went over his grief
again, though without naming any one or addressing any one directly:
“With my head on the block, I wouldn’t have believed it! He was the
last one, I had brought him up as a son. If any one had come and said
to me, ‘They’ll take him away from you as well; you’ll see him fall,’
I should have replied, ‘It’s impossible, that can’t happen as long as
there’s a God on high.’ But he has fallen all the same! Ah! the poor
fellow, he who was so well up in the business, who had all my ideas!
And all through a young she-ape, a mere dummy fit for a window! No!
really, it’s enough to drive one mad!”

He shook his head, with his half-closed eyes cast upon the damp floor
which the tread of generations of customers had worn. Then he continued
in a lower voice, “Shall I tell you? Well, there are moments when I
feel myself the most culpable of all in our misfortune. Yes, it’s my
fault if our poor girl is lying upstairs devoured by fever. Ought I not
to have married them at once, without yielding to my stupid pride, my
obstinacy in refusing to leave them the business in a less prosperous
state than it had been before? Had I done that she would now have the
man she loved, and perhaps their youthful strength united would have
accomplished the miracle that I have failed to work. But I am an old
fool, and saw through nothing; I didn’t know that people fell ill over
such things. Really, he was an extraordinary fellow: he had such a gift
for business, and such probity, such simplicity of conduct, he was so
orderly in every way–in short, my pupil.”

He raised his head, still defending his ideas, in the person of the
shopman who had betrayed him. Denise, however, could not bear to hear
him accuse himself, and carried away by her emotion, on seeing him so
humble, with his eyes full of tears, he who used formerly to reign
there as an absolute and scolding master, she told him everything.

“Uncle, pray don’t excuse him,” said she. “He never loved Geneviève, he
would have run away sooner if you had tried to hasten the marriage. I
have spoken to him myself about it; he was perfectly well aware that my
poor cousin was suffering on his account, and yet you see that did not
prevent him from leaving. Ask aunt.”

Without opening her lips, Madame Baudu confirmed these words by a
nod. The draper turned paler still, blinded by his tears. And then he
stammered out: “It must have been in the blood, his father died last
year through having led a dissolute life.”

And once more he looked round the dim shop, his eyes wandering from the
empty counters to the full shelves and then resting on Madame Baudu,
who was still sitting erect at the pay-desk, waiting in vain for the
customers who did not come.

“Well,” said he, “it’s all over. They’ve ruined our business, and now
one of their hussies is killing our daughter.”

No one spoke. The rolling of passing vehicles, which occasionally
shook the floor, seemed like a funereal beating of drums in the still
air, so stuffy under the low ceiling. But suddenly, amidst this gloomy
sadness peculiar to old expiring shops, several dull knocks were heard
proceeding from somewhere in the house. It was Geneviève, who had just
awoke, and was knocking with a stick they had left beside her.

“Let’s go up at once,” said Baudu, rising with a start. “And try to be
cheerful, she mustn’t know.”

He himself as he went upstairs rubbed his eyes, in order to remove the
traces of his tears. As soon as he opened the door, on the first floor,
they heard a frightened, feeble voice crying: “Oh, I don’t like to be
left alone. Don’t leave me; I’m afraid to be left alone.” However, when
she perceived Denise, Geneviève became calmer, and smiled joyfully.
“You’ve come, then! How I’ve been longing to see you since yesterday! I
thought you also had abandoned me!”

It was a piteous spectacle. The young woman’s room, a little room into
which came a livid light, looked out on to the yard. At first her
parents had put her in their room, in the front part of the house; but
the sight of The Ladies’ Paradise opposite affected her so deeply, that
they had been obliged to bring her back to her own again. And there she
lay, so very thin under the bed-clothes, that you could hardly divine
the form and existence of a human body. Her skinny arms, consumed by
the burning fever of consumption, were in a perpetual movement of
anxious, unconscious searching; whilst her black hair, heavy with
passion, seemed thicker still, and to be preying with its voracious
vitality upon her poor face, that face in which was fading the final
degenerateness of a long lineage, a family that had grown and lived in
the gloom of that cellar of old commercial Paris. Denise, her heart
bursting with pity, stood looking at her. She did not at first speak,
for fear of giving way to tears. However, she at last murmured: “I came
at once. Can I be of any use to you? You asked for me. Would you like
me to stay?”

“No, thanks. I don’t need anything. I only wanted to embrace you.”

Tears filled her eyes. Denise quickly leant over and kissed her,
trembling at the flame which came from those hollow cheeks to her own
lips. But Geneviève, stretching out her arms caught hold of her and
kept her in a desperate embrace. Then she looked towards her father.

“Would you like me to stay?” repeated Denise. “Perhaps there is
something I can do for you.”

“No, no.” Geneviève’s glance was still obstinately fixed on her father,
who remained standing there with a bewildered air, almost choking.
However, he at last understood her and went away, without saying a
word. They heard his heavy footsteps descending the stairs.

“Tell me, is he with that woman?” the sick girl then eagerly inquired
while catching hold of her cousin’s hand, and making her sit down on
the edge of the bed. “Yes, I wanted to see you as you are the only one
who can tell me. They’re together, aren’t they?”

In the surprise which these questions gave her Denise began to stammer,
and was obliged to confess the truth, the rumours that were current at
the Paradise. Clara, it was said, had already grown tired of Colomban,
who was pursuing her everywhere, striving to obtain an occasional
appointment by a sort of canine humility. It was also said that he was
about to take a situation at the Grands Magasins du Louvre.

“If you love him so much, he may yet come back,” added Denise seeking
to cheer the dying girl with this last hope. “Make haste and get well,
he will acknowledge his errors, and marry you.”

But Geneviève interrupted her. She had listened with all her soul, with
an intense passion which had raised her in the bed. Now, however, she
fell back. “No, I know it’s all over! I don’t say anything, because I
see papa crying, and I don’t wish to make mamma worse than she is. But
I am going, Denise, and if I called for you last night it was for fear
of going off before the morning. And to think that he is not even happy
after all!”

Then as Denise remonstrated with her, assuring her that she was not
so bad as all that, she again cut her short by suddenly throwing back
the bed-clothes with the chaste gesture of a virgin who has nothing to
conceal in death. Her bosom bare, she murmured: “Look at me! Is it not
the end?”

Trembling with mingled horror and pity, Denise hastily rose from the
bed, as if she feared that her very breath might suffice to destroy
that puny emaciated form. Geneviève slowly covered her bosom again,
saying: “You see I am no longer a woman. It would be wrong to wish for
him still!”

Silence fell between them. They continued gazing at each other, unable
to find a word to say. At last it was Geneviève who resumed: “Come,
don’t stay any longer, you have your own affairs to look after. And
thanks, I was tormented by the wish to know, and now am satisfied. If
you ever see him again, tell him I forgive him. Farewell, dear Denise.
Kiss me once more, for it’s the last time.”

The young woman kissed her, still protesting: “No, no, don’t despair,
all you want is careful nursing, nothing more.”

But the sick girl smiled, shaking her head in an obstinate way, like
one who will not be deceived. And as her cousin at last walked towards
the door, she exclaimed: “Wait a minute, knock on the floor with this
stick, so that papa may come up. I’m afraid to stay alone.”

Then, when Baudu reached the little dismal room, where he spent long
hours seated on a chair, she assumed an air of gaiety, saying to
Denise–“Don’t come to-morrow, I would rather not. But on Sunday I
shall expect you; you can spend the afternoon with me.”

The next morning, at six o’clock, Geneviève expired after four hours’
fearful agony. The funeral took place on a Saturday, a dark cloudy day,
with a sooty sky hanging low above the shivering city. The Old Elbeuf,
hung with white drapery, lighted up the street with a bright speck, and
the candles burning in the gloom seemed like so many stars enveloped in
twilight. Bead-work wreaths and a great bouquet of white roses covered
the coffin–a narrow child’s coffin,–placed in the dark passage of the
house close to the pavement, so near indeed to the gutter that passing
vehicles had already splashed the drapery. With its continual rush of
pedestrians on the muddy footways the whole neighbourhood reeked of
dampness, exhaled a cellar-like mouldy odour.

At nine o’clock Denise came over to stay with her aunt. But when the
funeral was about to start, the latter–who had ceased weeping, her
eyes scorched by her hot tears–begged her to follow the body and look
after her uncle, whose mute affliction and almost idiotic grief filled
the family with anxiety. Downstairs, the young woman found the street
full of people, for the small traders of the neighbourhood were anxious
to give the Baudus a mark of sympathy, and in their eagerness there
was a desire for a demonstration against that Ladies’ Paradise, which
they accused of having caused Geneviève’s slow agony. All the victims
of the monster were there–Bédoré and Sister, the hosiers of the Rue
Gaillon, Vanpouille Brothers, the furriers, Deslignières the toyman,
and Piot and Rivoire the furniture dealers; even Mademoiselle Tatin,
the dealer in under-linen, and Quinette the glover, though long since
cleared off by bankruptcy, had made it a duty to come, the one from
Batignolles, the other from the Bastille, where they had been obliged
to take situations. And whilst waiting for the hearse, which was late,
all these people, clad in black and tramping in the mud, cast glances
of hatred towards The Ladies’ Paradise, whose bright windows and gay
displays seemed an insult in face of The Old Elbeuf, which, with its
funeral trappings and glimmering candles, lent an air of mourning to
the other side of the street. The faces of a few inquisitive salesmen
appeared at the plate-glass windows of the Paradise; but the colossus
itself preserved the indifference of a machine going at full speed,
unconscious of the deaths it may cause on the road.

Denise looked round for her brother Jean, and at last perceived him
standing before Bourras’s shop; whereupon she crossed over and asked
him to walk with his uncle, and assist him should he be unable to get
along. For the last few weeks Jean had been very grave, as if tormented
by some worry. That morning, buttoned up in his black frock-coat, for
he was now a full-grown man, earning his twenty francs a day, he seemed
so dignified and sad that his sister was surprised, having had no idea
that he loved their cousin so much. Desirous of sparing Pépé a needless
grief, she had left him with Madame Gras, intending to fetch him in the
afternoon to see his uncle and aunt.

However, the hearse had still not arrived, and Denise, greatly
affected, stood watching the candles burn, when she was startled by a
well-known voice behind her. It was that of Bourras who had called a
chestnut-seller occupying a little box, against a wine shop opposite,
in order to say to him: “Here! Vigouroux, just keep a look-out on my
place, will you? You see I’ve taken the door handle away. If any one
comes, tell them to call again. But don’t let that disturb you, no one
will come.”

Then he also took his stand at the edge of the pavement, waiting like
the others. Denise, feeling rather awkward, glanced at his shop. He
now altogether neglected it; only a disorderly collection of umbrellas
eaten up by damp and canes blackened by gas-light now remained in the
window. The embellishments that he had made, the light green paint
work, the mirrors, the gilded sign, were all cracking, already getting
dirty, exhibiting the rapid lamentable decrepitude of false luxury
laid over ruins. But although the old crevices were re-appearing,
although the damp spots had sprung up through the gilding, the house
still obstinately held its ground, hanging to the flanks of The Ladies’
Paradise like some shameful wart, which, although cracked and rotten,
yet refused to fall.

“Ah! the scoundrels,” growled Bourras, “they won’t even let her be
carried away!”

The hearse, which was at last approaching, had just come into collision
with one of The Paradise vans, which at the rapid trot of two superb
horses went spinning along shedding in the mist the starry radiance of
its shining panels. And from under his bushy eyebrows the old man cast
a side glance at Denise.

The funeral procession started at a slow pace, splashing through
muddy puddles, amid the silence of the omnibuses and cabs which were
suddenly pulled up. When the coffin, draped with white, crossed the
Place Gaillon, the sombre looks of the followers once more plunged
into the windows of the big establishment where only two saleswomen
stood looking on, pleased with the diversion. Baudu followed the
hearse with a heavy mechanical step, refusing by a sign the arm
offered him by Jean, who walked alongside. Then, after a long string
of people, came three mourning coaches. As they crossed the Rue
Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, Robineau, looking very pale and much older,
ran up to join the procession.

At Saint-Roch, a great many women were waiting, small traders of the
neighbourhood, who had wished to escape the crowd at the house of
mourning. The demonstration was developing into quite a riot; and
when, after the funeral service, the procession started off again,
all continued to follow, although it was a long walk from the Rue
Saint-Honoré to the Montmartre Cemetery. They had to turn up the Rue
Saint-Roch again, and once more pass The Ladies’ Paradise. It was a
sort of defiance; the poor girl’s body was paraded round the big shop
like that of a first victim fallen in time of revolution. At the door
some red flannels were flapping like so many flags, and a display
of carpets blazed forth in a gory efflorescence of huge roses and
full-blown peonies. Denise had now got into one of the coaches, being
agitated by such poignant doubts, her heart oppressed by such cruel
grief, that she had not the strength to walk further. In the Rue du
Dix-Décembre just before the scaffolding of the new façade which still
obstructed the thoroughfare there was a stoppage, and on looking out
the girl observed old Bourras behind all the others, dragging himself
along with difficulty close to the wheels of the coach in which she was
riding alone. He would never get as far as the cemetery, she thought.
However, he raised his head, looked at her, and all at once got into
the coach.

“It’s my confounded knees,” he exclaimed. “Don’t draw back! It isn’t
you we hate.”

She felt him to be friendly and furious, as in former days. He
grumbled, declared that Baudu must be fearfully strong to be able to
keep up after such hard blows as he had received. The procession had
again started off at the same slow pace; and, on leaning out once
more, Denise saw her uncle walking behind the hearse with his heavy
step, which seemed to regulate the rumbling, painful march of the
cortège. Then she threw herself back into her corner and rocked by
the melancholy movement of the coach began listening to the endless
complaints of the old umbrella maker.

“The police ought to clear the public thoroughfares, my word!” said he,
“They’ve been blocking up our street for the last eighteen months with
the scaffolding of their façade–another man was killed on it the other
day. Never mind! When they want to enlarge any further they’ll have to
throw bridges over the streets. People say there are now two thousand
seven hundred employees, and that the turnover will amount to a hundred
millions this year. A hundred millions! just fancy! a hundred millions!”

Denise had nothing to say in reply. The procession had just turned
into the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, where it was stopped by a block
of vehicles. And Bourras went on, with a vague expression in his eyes,
as if he were now dreaming aloud. He still failed to understand the
triumph achieved by The Ladies’ Paradise, but he acknowledged the
defeat of the old-fashioned traders.

“Poor Robineau’s done for, he looks like a drowning man,” he resumed.
“And the Bédorés and the Vanpouilles, they can’t keep going; they’re
like me, played out. Deslignières will die of apoplexy, Piot and
Rivoire have had the jaundice. Ah! poor child! It must be comical for
those looking on to see such a string of bankrupts pass. Besides, it
appears that the clean sweep is to continue. Those scoundrels are
creating departments for flowers, bonnets, perfumery, boots and shoes,
all sorts of things. Grognet, the perfumer in the Rue de Grammont can
clear out, and I wouldn’t give ten francs for Naud’s boot-shop in the
Rue d’Antin. The cholera’s even spread as far as the Rue Sainte-Anne.
Lacassagne, at the feather and flower shop, and Madame Chadeuil, whose
bonnets are so well-known, will be swept away in less than a couple
of years. And after those will come others and still others! All the
businesses in the neighbourhood will collapse. When counter-jumpers
start selling soap and goloshes, they are quite capable of dealing in
fried potatoes. ‘Pon my word, the world is turning upside down!”

The hearse had just then crossed the Place de la Trinité, and from the
corner of the gloomy coach Denise, who lulled by the funereal march
of the procession still listened to the old man’s endless complaints,
could see the coffin ascending the steep Rue Blanche as they emerged
from the Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. Behind her uncle, who was plodding
along with the blind, mute face of an ox about to be poleaxed, she
seemed to hear the tramping of a flock of sheep likewise being led to
the slaughter-house. It was the downfall of the shops of an entire
district, all the small traders dragging their ruin, amidst the thud
of damp shoes, through the black mud of Paris. Bourras, however, still
continued, in a fainter voice, as if fatigued by the difficult ascent
of the Rue Blanche:

“As for me, I’m settled. But I still hold on all the same, and won’t
let him go. He’s just lost his appeal case. Ah! that’s cost me
something: nearly two years’ pleading, and the solicitors and the
barristers! Never mind, he won’t pass under my shop, the judges have
decided that such work as that could not be considered legitimate
repairing. Just fancy, he talked of creating underneath my place a
saloon where his people might judge the colours of the stuffs by
gas-light, a subterranean room which would have joined the hosiery to
the drapery departments! And he can’t get over it; he can’t swallow the
fact that an old wreck like me should stop his progress, when all the
others are on their knees before his money. But never! I won’t have
it! that’s understood. Very likely I may be worsted. Since I have had
to fight against the process-servers, I know that the villain has been
buying up my bills in the hope of playing me some villainous trick. But
that doesn’t matter; he says ‘yes,’ and I say ‘no,’ and I shall still
say ‘no’ even when I get between two boards like that poor child we are
following.”

When they reached the Boulevard de Clichy, the coach rolled on at a
quicker pace and one could hear the heavy breathing, the unconscious
haste of the followers, anxious to get the sad ceremony over. What
Bourras did not openly mention, was the frightful misery into which he
himself had fallen, bewildered by the worries which besiege the small
trader who is on the road to ruin and yet remains obstinate even under
a shower of protested bills. Denise, well acquainted with his position,
at last broke the silence by saying, in a voice of entreaty:

“Pray don’t stand out any longer, Monsieur Bourras. Let me arrange
matters for you.”

But he interrupted her with a violent gesture. “You be quiet. That’s
nobody’s business. You’re a good little girl, and I know you lead him a
hard life, that man who thought you were for sale just like my house.
But what would you answer if I advised you to say ‘yes?’ You’d send me
about my business, eh? And so, when I say ‘no,’ don’t you interfere in
the matter.”

Then, the coach having stopped at the cemetery gate, he alighted from
it with the young girl. The Baudus’ vault was reached by the first
path on the left. In a few minutes the ceremony was over. Jean drew
away his uncle, who was looking into the grave all agape. The mourners
spread about amongst the neighbouring tombs, and the faces of all these
shopkeepers, their blood impoverished by living in damp, unhealthy
shops, assumed an ugly, suffering look under the leaden sky. When the
coffin gently slipped down, their blotched and pimpled cheeks paled,
and their bleared eyes, blinded by the constant contemplation of
figures, turned away.

“We ought all to jump into that hole,” said Bourras to Denise, who had
kept close to him. “In burying that poor girl they’re burying the whole
district. Oh! I know what I say, the old style of business may go and
join the white roses they’re throwing on her coffin.”

Denise brought her uncle and brother back in a mourning coach. The day
was for her dark and melancholy. In the first place, she began to get
anxious at seeing Jean so pale; and when she understood that it was
on account of another sweetheart she tried to quiet him by opening
her purse; but he shook his head and refused, saying it was a serious
matter this time, the niece of a very rich pastry-cook, who would not
accept even a bunch of violets. Afterwards, in the afternoon, when
Denise went to fetch Pépé from Madame Gras’, the latter declared that
he was getting too big for her to keep any longer; and this was another
annoyance, for it would be necessary to find him a school, perhaps
send him away. And to crown all, on bringing Pépé to kiss his aunt and
uncle, Denise’s heart was rent by the gloomy sadness of The Old Elbeuf.
The shop was closed, and the old couple were sitting in the little
dining-room, where they had forgotten to light the gas, notwithstanding
the complete obscurity in which it was plunged that winter’s day. They
were now quite alone, face to face, in the house which ruin had slowly
emptied, and their daughter’s death filled the dark corners with a
deeper gloom, and seemed like the beginning of that final dismemberment
which would break up the old rafters, preyed upon by damp. Beneath the
crushing blow, her uncle, unable to stop himself, still kept walking
round and round the table, with his funeral-like step, seeing nothing
and silent; whilst her aunt who said nothing either, remained huddled
together on a chair, with the white face of one who is wounded and
whose blood is running away drop by drop. They did not even weep when
Pépé covered their cold cheeks with kisses. For her part Denise was
choking with tears.

That same evening Mouret sent for the young woman to speak to her about
a child’s garment which he wished to launch, a mixture of the Scotch
and Zouave costumes. And, still trembling with pity, shocked by so much
suffering, she could not contain herself; and, to begin with, ventured
to speak of Bourras, that poor old man who was down and whom they were
about to ruin. But, on hearing the umbrella maker’s name, Mouret flew
into a rage. The old madman, as he called him, was the plague of his
life, and spoilt his triumph by his idiotic obstinacy in not giving
up his house, that ignoble hovel which was a disgrace to The Ladies’
Paradise, the only little corner of the vast block that had escaped
conquest. The matter was becoming a perfect nightmare; any one else
but Denise speaking in favour of Bourras would have run the risk of
immediate dismissal, so violently was Mouret tortured by the sickly
desire to kick the old hovel down. In short, what did they wish him to
do? Could he leave that heap of ruins sticking to The Ladies’ Paradise?
It would have to go, the shop must pass along. So much the worse for
the old fool! And he spoke of his repeated proposals; he had offered
him as much as a hundred thousand francs. Wasn’t that fair? He never
higgled, he gave whatever money was required; but in return he expected
people to be reasonable, and allow him to finish his work! Did any one
ever try to stop engines on a railway? To all this Denise listened with
drooping eyes, unable on her side to find any but purely sentimental
reasons. The poor fellow was so old, they might have waited till his
death; a bankruptcy would kill him. Then Mouret added that he was no
longer able to prevent things following their course. Bourdoncle had
taken the matter up, for the board had resolved to put an end to it. So
she could say nothing more, notwithstanding the grievous pity which she
felt for her old friend.

After a painful silence, Mouret himself began to speak of the Baudus,
by expressing his sorrow at the death of their daughter. They were very
worthy and very honest people but had been pursued by the worst of
luck. Then he resumed his arguments: at bottom, they had really brought
about their own misfortunes by obstinately clinging to the old customs
in their worm-eaten place. It was not astonishing that their house
should be falling about their heads. He had predicted it scores of
times; she must even remember that he had told her to warn her uncle of
a fatal disaster, if he should still cling to his stupid old-fashioned
ways. And the catastrophe had arrived; no one in the world could now
prevent it. People could not reasonably expect him to ruin himself to
save the neighbourhood. Besides, if he had been foolish enough to close
The Ladies’ Paradise, another great establishment would have sprung
up of itself next door, for the idea was now starting from the four
corners of the globe; the triumph of these manufacturing and trading
centres was sown by the spirit of the age, which was sweeping away
the falling edifices of ancient times. Little by little as he went on
speaking, Mouret warmed up, and with eloquent emotion defended himself
against the hatred of his involuntary victims, against the clamour
of the small moribund businesses that he could hear around him. They
could not keep their dead above ground, he continued, they must bury
them; and, with a gesture, he consigned the corpse of old-fashioned
trading to the grave, swept into the common hole all those putrifying
pestilential remains which were becoming a disgrace to the bright,
sun-lit streets of new Paris. No, no, he felt no remorse, he was simply
doing the work of his age, and she knew it, she who loved life, who had
a passion for vast transactions settled in the full glare of publicity.
Reduced to silence, she listened to him for some time longer and then
went away, her soul full of trouble.

That night Denise slept but little. Insomnia, interspersed with
nightmare, kept her turning over and over in her bed. It seemed to
her that she was again quite a little girl and burst into tears, in
their garden at Valognes, on seeing the blackcaps eat up the spiders,
which themselves devoured the flies. Was it then really true that it
was necessary for the world to fatten on death, that it was necessary
there should be this struggle for existence whereby humanity drew
even increase of life from the ossuaries of eternal destruction? And
afterwards she again found herself before the grave into which they had
lowered Geneviève, and then she perceived her uncle and aunt alone in
their gloomy dining-room. A dull sound as of something toppling sped
through the still atmosphere; it was Bourras’s house giving way, as
if undermined by a high tide. Then silence fell again, more sinister
than ever, and a fresh crash was heard, then another, and another; the
Robineaus, the Bédorés, the Vanpouilles, were cracking and falling
in their turn; all the small shops of the Saint-Roch quarter were
disappearing beneath an invisible pick, with the sudden, thundering
noise of bricks falling from a cart. Then intense grief awoke her with
a start. Heavens! what tortures! There were families weeping, old men
thrown into the street, all the poignant dramas of ruin! And she could
save nobody; and even felt that it was right, that all this compost of
misery was necessary for the health of the Paris of the future. When
day broke, she became calmer, but a feeling of resigned sadness still
kept her awake, turned towards the window whose panes were brightening.
Yes, it was the needful meed of blood, every revolution required
martyrs, each step forward is taken over the bodies of the dead. Her
fear of being a wicked girl, of having helped to effect the ruin of her
kindred, now melted into heartfelt pity, in face of these evils beyond
remedy, which are like the labour pangs of each generation’s birth. She
finished by trying to devise some possible comfort, her kindly heart
dreaming of the means to be employed in order to save her relations at
least from the final crash.

And now Mouret appeared before her with his impassioned face and
caressing eyes. He would certainly refuse her nothing; she felt sure
that he would accord all reasonable compensations. And her thoughts
strayed, seeking to judge him. She knew his life and was aware of
the calculating nature of his former affections, his continual
“exploitation” of woman, his intimacy with Madame Desforges–the sole
object of which had been to get hold of Baron Hartmann–and with
all the others, such as Clara and the rest. But these Lothario-like
beginnings, which were the talk of the shop, gradually disappeared in
presence of the man’s genius and victorious grace. He was seduction
itself. What she could never have forgiven was his former deception:
real coldness hidden beneath a gallant affectation of affection.
But she felt herself to be entirely without rancour now that he was
suffering through her. This suffering had elevated him. When she saw
him tortured by her refusal, atoning so fully for his former disdain
for woman, he seemed to her to make amends for many of his faults.

That very morning Denise obtained from Mouret a promise of whatever
compensation she might consider reasonable on the day when the Baudus
and old Bourras should succumb. Weeks passed away, during which she
went to see her uncle nearly every afternoon, escaping from her
department for a few minutes and bringing her smiling face and girlish
courage to enliven the dark shop. She was especially anxious about her
aunt, who had fallen into a dull stupor ever since Geneviève’s death;
it seemed as if her life was quitting her hourly; though, when people
questioned her, she would reply with an astonished air that she was not
suffering, but simply felt as if overcome by sleep. The neighbours,
however, shook their heads, saying she would not live long to regret
her daughter.

One day Denise was coming from the Baudus, when, on turning the corner
of the Place Gaillon, she heard a loud cry. A crowd rushed forward, a
panic arose: that breath of fear and pity which suddenly brings all the
people in a street together. It was a brown omnibus, belonging to the
Bastille-Batignolles line, which had run over a man, at the entrance
of the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, just opposite the fountain. Standing
up in his seat, the driver whilst furiously holding in his two black
horses which were rearing cried out, in a great passion:

“Confound it! Confound it! Why don’t you look out, you idiot!”

The omnibus had now been brought to a standstill. The crowd had
surrounded the injured man, and a policeman happened to be on the
spot. Still standing up and invoking the testimony of the outside
passengers who had also risen, to look over and see the blood-stains,
the coachman, with exasperated gestures and choked by increasing anger,
was explaining the matter.

“It’s something fearful,” said he. “Who could have expected such a
thing? That fellow was walking along quite at home and when I called
out to him he at once threw himself under the wheels!”

Then a house-painter, who had run up, brush in hand, from a
neighbouring shop-front, exclaimed in a sharp voice, amidst the
clamour: “Don’t excite yourself! I saw him, he threw himself under! He
jumped in, head first, like that. Another one tired of life, no doubt!”

Others spoke up, and all agreed that it was a case of suicide, whilst
the policeman pulled out his note-book and made an entry. Several
ladies, all very pale, quickly alighted and ran away without looking
back, filled with horror by the sudden shaking which had stirred them
when the omnibus passed over the body. Denise, however, drew nearer,
attracted by a practical pity, which prompted her to interest herself
in the victims of all sorts of street accidents, such as wounded
dogs, horses down, and tilers falling off roofs. And she immediately
recognised the unfortunate fellow who had fainted away there in the
road, his clothes covered with mud.

“It’s Monsieur Robineau!” she exclaimed, in her grievous astonishment.

The policeman at once questioned the young woman, and she gave the
victim’s name, profession, and address. Thanks to the driver’s energy,
the omnibus had swerved, and thus only Robineau’s legs had gone under
the wheels; however, it was to be feared that they were both broken.
Four men carried him to a chemist’s shop in the Rue Gaillon, whilst the
omnibus slowly resumed its journey.

“My stars!” said the driver, whipping up his horses, “I’ve done a
famous day’s work.”

Denise followed Robineau into the chemist’s. The latter, pending the
arrival of a doctor who was not to be found, declared that there was
no immediate danger, and that the injured man had better be taken
home, as he lived in the neighbourhood. A man then started off to the
police-station for a stretcher, and Denise had the happy thought of
going on in front so as to prepare Madame Robineau for this frightful
blow. But she had the greatest trouble in the world to get into the
street again through the crowd, which was struggling before the door of
the chemist’s shop. This crowd, attracted by death, was every minute
increasing; men, women, and children stood on tip-toe, and held their
own amidst brutal pushing; and each new-comer had his version to give
of the accident, so that at last the victim was said to be a husband
who had been pitched out of window by his wife’s lover.

In the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, Denise perceived, from a distance,
Madame Robineau on the threshold of the silk warehouse. This gave her
a pretext for stopping, and she talked on for a moment, trying to find
a means of breaking the terrible news. The place wore the disorderly,
neglectful aspect of a shop in the last agony, one whose business is
fast dying. It was the inevitable end of the great battle of the rival
silks; the Paris Delight had destroyed competition by a fresh reduction
of a sou; it was now sold at four francs nineteen sous the mêtre,
and Gaujean’s silk had found its Waterloo. For the last two months
Robineau, reduced to all sorts of shifts, had been leading a fearful
life, trying to avert a declaration of bankruptcy.

“I saw your husband crossing the Place Gaillon,” murmured Denise, who
had ended by entering the shop.

Thereupon Madame Robineau, whom a secret anxiety seemed to be
continually attracting towards the street, said quickly: “Ah, a little
while ago, wasn’t it? I’m waiting for him, he ought to be back by now.
Monsieur Gaujean came this morning, and they went out together.”

She was still charming, delicate, and gay; but was in a delicate state
of health and seemed more frightened, more bewildered than ever by
those dreadful business matters, which she did not understand, and
which were all going wrong. As she often said, what was the use of it
all? Would it not be better to live quietly in some small lodging, and
be contented with modest fare?

“My dear child,” she resumed with her pretty smile, which was becoming
sadder, “we have nothing to conceal from you. Things are not going
well, and my poor darling is worried to death. Again to-day this man
Gaujean has been tormenting him about some overdue bills. I was dying
with anxiety at being left here all alone.”

And she was once more returning to the door when Denise stopped her,
having heard the noise of a crowd and guessing that it was the injured
man being brought along, surrounded by a mob of idlers anxious to see
the end of the affair. And thereupon with her throat parched, unable
to find the consoling words she would have liked to say, she had to
explain the matter.

“Don’t be anxious, there’s no immediate danger. I’ve seen Monsieur
Robineau, he has met with an accident. They are just bringing him home,
pray don’t be frightened.”

The young woman listened to her, white as a sheet, and as yet not
clearly understanding her. The street was full of people, and
cab-drivers, unable to get along, were swearing, while the bearers set
the stretcher before the shop in order to open both glass doors.

“It was an accident,” continued Denise, determined to conceal the
attempt at suicide. “He was on the pavement and slipped under the
wheels of an omnibus. Only his feet are hurt. They’ve sent for a
doctor. Don’t be frightened.”

A great shudder shook Madame Robineau. She gave vent to a few
inarticulate cries; then said no more but sank down beside the
stretcher, drawing its covering aside with her trembling hands. The men
who had brought it were waiting to take it away as soon as the doctor
should arrive. They dared not touch Robineau, who had now regained
consciousness, and whose sufferings became frightful at the slightest
movement. When he saw his wife big tears ran down his cheeks. She
embraced him, and stood looking at him fixedly, and weeping. Out in
the street the tumult was increasing; the people pressed forward as
with glistening eyes at a theatre; some girls, fresh from a workshop,
were almost pushing through the windows in their eagerness to see what
was going on. Then Denise in order to avoid this feverish curiosity,
and thinking, moreover, that it was not right to leave the shop open,
decided to let the metal shutters down. She went and turned the winch,
whose wheels gave out a plaintive cry whilst the sheets of iron slowly
descended, like the heavy draperies of a curtain falling on the
catastrophe of a fifth act. And when she went in again, after closing
the little round door in the shutters, she found Madame Robineau still
clasping her husband in her arms, in the vague half-light which came
from the two stars cut in the sheet-iron. The ruined shop seemed to
be gliding into nothingness, those two stars alone glittered on this
sudden and brutal catastrophe of the streets of Paris.

At last Madame Robineau recovered her speech. “Oh, my darling!–oh, my
darling! my darling!”

This was all she could say, and he, half choking, confessed himself, a
prey to keen remorse now that he saw her kneeling thus before him. When
he did not move he only felt the burning weight of his legs.

“Forgive me, I must have been mad. But when the lawyer told me before
Gaujean that the posters would be put up to-morrow, I saw flames
dancing before my eyes as if the walls were on fire. After that I
remember nothing. I was coming down the Rue de la Michodière–and I
fancied that The Paradise people were laughing at me–that big rascally
house seemed to crush me–so, when the omnibus came up, I thought of
Lhomme and his arm, and threw myself under the wheels.”

Madame Robineau had slowly fallen on to the floor, horrified by this
confession. Heavens! he had tried to kill himself. She caught hold of
the hand of Denise who was leaning towards her, also quite overcome.
The injured man, exhausted by emotion, had just fainted away again.
The doctor had still not arrived. Two men had been scouring the
neighbourhood for him; and the doorkeeper belonging to the house had
now gone to seek him in his turn.

“Pray, don’t be anxious,” Denise kept on repeating mechanically,
herself also sobbing.

Then Madame Robineau, seated on the floor, with her head on a level
with the stretcher, her cheek resting against the sacking on which
her husband was lying, relieved her heart. “Oh! I must tell you.
It’s all for me that he wanted to die. He’s always saying, ‘I’ve
robbed you; it was your money.’ And at night he dreamed of those
sixty thousand francs, waking up covered with perspiration, calling
himself an incompetent fellow and saying that those who have no head
for business ought not to risk other people’s money. You know that
he has always been nervous, and apt to worry himself. He finished by
conjuring up things that frightened me. He pictured me in the street
in tatters, begging–me whom he loved so dearly, whom he longed to see
rich and happy.” The poor woman paused; on turning her head she saw
that her husband had opened his eyes; then she continued stammering:
“My darling, why have you done this? You must think me very wicked! I
assure you, I don’t care if we are ruined. So long as we are together,
we shall never be unhappy. Let them take everything, and we will go
away somewhere, where you won’t hear any more about them. You can still
work; you’ll see how happy we shall be!”

She let her forehead fall near her husband’s pale face, and both
remained speechless, in the emotion of their anguish. Silence fell.
The shop seemed to be sleeping, benumbed by the pale twilight which
enveloped it; whilst from behind the thin metal shutters came the
uproar of the street, the life of broad daylight passing along with
the rumbling of vehicles, and the hustling and pushing of the crowd.
At last Denise, who went every other minute to glance through the door
leading to the hall of the house came back: “Here’s the doctor!”

It was a young fellow with bright eyes, whom the doorkeeper had found
and brought in. He preferred to examine the injured man before they
put him to bed. Only one of his legs, the left one, was broken above
the ankle; it was a simple fracture, no serious complication appeared
likely to result from it. And they were about to carry the stretcher
into the back-room when Gaujean arrived. He came to give them an
account of a last attempt to settle matters, an attempt moreover which
had failed; the declaration of bankruptcy was unavoidable.

“Dear me,” murmured he, “what’s the matter?”

In a few words, Denise informed him. Then he stopped, feeling awkward,
while Robineau said, in a feeble voice: “I don’t bear you any ill-will,
but all this is partly your fault.”

“Well, my dear fellow,” replied Gaujean, “it wanted stronger men than
ourselves. You know I’m not in a much better position than you are.”

They raised the stretcher; Robineau still found strength to say: “No,
no, stronger fellows than us would have given way as we have. I can
understand such obstinate old men as Bourras and Baudu standing out;
but for you and I, who are young, who had accepted the new style of
things, it was wrong! No, Gaujean, it’s the last of a world.”

They carried him off. Madame Robineau embraced Denise with an eagerness
in which there was almost a feeling of joy at having at last got rid
of all those worrying business matters. And, as Gaujean went away with
the young girl, he confessed to her that Robineau, poor devil, was
right. It was idiotic to try to struggle against The Ladies’ Paradise.
Personally he felt he would be lost, if he did not get back into its
good graces. The night before, in fact, he had secretly made a proposal
to Hutin, who was just leaving for Lyons. But he felt very doubtful,
and tried to interest Denise in the matter, aware, no doubt, of her
powerful influence.

“Upon my word,” said he, “so much the worse for the manufacturers!
Every one would laugh at me if I ruined myself in fighting for
other people’s benefit, when those fellows are struggling as to who
shall make at the cheapest price! As you said some time ago, the
manufacturers have only to follow the march of progress by a better
organization and new methods. Everything will come all right; it is
sufficient that the public are satisfied.”

Denise smiled and replied: “Go and tell that to Monsieur Mouret
himself. Your visit will please him, and he’s not the man to display
any rancour, if you offer him even a centime profit per yard.”

Madame Baudu died one bright sunny afternoon in January. For a
fortnight she had been unable to go down into the shop which a
charwoman now looked after. She sat in the centre of her bed, propped
up by some pillows. Nothing but her eyes seemed to be alive in her
white face; and with head erect, she obstinately gazed upon The Ladies’
Paradise opposite, through the small curtains of the windows. Baudu,
himself suffering from the same obsession, from the despairing fixity
of her gaze, sometimes wanted to draw the larger curtains. But she
stopped him with an imploring gesture, obstinately desirous of looking
and looking till the last moment should come. The monster had now
robbed her of everything, her business, her daughter; she herself had
gradually died away with The Old Elbeuf, losing some part of her life
as the shop lost its customers; the day it succumbed, she had no more
breath left. When she felt she was dying, she still found strength to
insist on her husband opening both windows. It was very mild, a bright
ray of sunshine gilded The Ladies’ Paradise, whilst the bed-room of
the old house shivered in the shade. Madame Baudu lay there with eyes
fixed, full of that vision of the triumphal monument, those clear,
limpid windows, behind which a gallop of millions was passing. But
slowly her eyes grew dim, invaded by darkness; and when their last
gleam had expired in death, they remained wide open, still gazing, and
wet with tears.

Once more all the ruined traders of the district followed the funeral
procession. There were the brothers Vanpouille, pale at the thought of
their December bills, met by a supreme effort which they would never
be able to repeat. Bédoré, accompanying his sister, leant on his cane,
so full of worry and anxiety that his liver complaint was getting
worse every day. Deslignières had had a fit, Piot and Rivoire walked
on in silence, with downcast looks, like men entirely played out. And
they dared not question each other about those who had disappeared,
Quinette, Mademoiselle Tatin, and others, who, in the space of a day,
sank, ruined, swept away by the flood of disasters: without counting
Robineau, still in bed, with his broken leg. But they pointed with an
especial air of interest to the new tradesmen attacked by the plague:
Grognet the perfumer, Madame Chadeuil the milliner, Lacassagne the
flower-maker, and Naud the boot-maker who were still on their legs, but
full of anxiety at thought of the evil which would doubtless sweep them
away in their turn. Baudu walked behind the hearse with the same heavy,
stolid step as when he had followed his daughter; whilst in the first
mourning coach could be seen Bourras’s eyes sparkling under his bushy
eyebrows and hair of a snowy whiteness.

Denise was in great trouble. For the last fortnight she had been
worn out with fatigue and anxiety; she had been obliged to put Pépé
to school, and had been running about on account of Jean, who was so
stricken with the pastrycook’s niece, that he had implored his sister
to go and ask her hand in marriage. Then her aunt’s death, this fresh
catastrophe, had quite overwhelmed the young girl, though Mouret had
again offered his services, giving her leave to do what she liked for
her uncle and the others. One morning she had yet another interview
with him, at the news that Bourras had been turned into the street, and
that Baudu was going to shut up shop. Then, she went out after lunch in
the hope of at least comforting these two.

In the Rue de la Michodière, Bourras was standing on the foot pavement
opposite his house, whence he had been evicted on the previous day
by a fine trick, a discovery of the lawyers. As Mouret held several
bills, he had easily obtained an order in bankruptcy against the
umbrella-maker and then had given five hundred francs for the expiring
lease at the sale ordered by the court; so that the obstinate old man
had for five hundred francs allowed himself to be deprived of what he
had refused to surrender for a hundred thousand. The architect, who
came with his gang of workmen, had been obliged to employ the police
to get him out. The goods had been taken and sold, the rooms cleared;
however, he still obstinately remained in the corner where he slept,
and from which out of pity they did not like to drive him. The workmen
even attacked the roofing over his head. They took off the rotten
slates, the ceilings fell in and the walls cracked, and yet he remained
there, under the bare old beams, amidst the ruins. At last when the
police came, he went away. But on the following morning he again
appeared on the opposite side of the street, after passing the night in
a lodging-house of the neighbourhood.

“Monsieur Bourras!” said Denise, kindly.

He did not hear her for his flaming eyes were devouring the workmen who
were attacking the front of the hovel with their picks. Through the
glassless windows you could see the inside of the house, the wretched
rooms, and the black staircase, to which the sun had not penetrated for
the last two hundred years.

“Ah! it’s you,” he replied at last, when he recognised her. “A nice bit
of work they’re doing, eh? the robbers!”

She no longer dared to speak; her heart was stirred by the lamentable
wretchedness of the old place; she was unable to take her eyes off the
mouldy stones that were falling. Up above on a corner of the ceiling of
her old room, she once more perceived that name–Ernestine–written in
black and shaky letters with the flame of a candle; and the remembrance
of her days of misery came back to her, inspiring her with a tender
sympathy for all suffering. However, the workmen, in order to knock
one of the walls down at a blow, had attacked it at its base. It was
already tottering.

“If only it could crush them all,” growled Bourras, in a savage voice.

There was a terrible cracking noise. The frightened workmen ran out
into the street. In falling, the wall shook and carried all the rest
with it. No doubt the hovel, with its flaws and cracks was ripe for
this downfall; a push had sufficed to cleave it from top to bottom. It
was a pitiful crumbling, the razing of a mud-house soddened by rain.
Not a partition remained standing; on the ground there was nothing but
a heap of rubbish, the dung of the past cast, as it were, at the street
corner.

“My God!” the old man had exclaimed as if the blow had resounded in his
very entrails.

He stood there gaping; he would never have imagined that it would have
been so quickly over. And he looked at the gap, the hollow at last
yawning beside The Ladies’ Paradise, now freed of the wart which had
so long disgraced it. The gnat was crushed; this was the final triumph
over the galling obstinacy of the infinitely little; the whole block
was now invaded and conquered. Passers-by lingered to talk to the
workmen, who began crying out against those old buildings which were
only good for killing people.

“Monsieur Bourras,” repeated Denise, trying to draw him on one side,
“you know that you will not be abandoned. All your wants will be
provided for.”

He raised his head. “I have no wants. You’ve been sent by them, haven’t
you? Well, tell them that old Bourras still knows how to use his hands
and that he can find work wherever he likes. Really, it would be a fine
thing to offer charity to those whom they assassinate!”

Then she implored him: “Pray accept, Monsieur Bourras; don’t cause me
this grief.”

But he shook his bushy head. “No, no, it’s all over. Good-bye. Go and
live happily, you who are young, and don’t prevent old people from
sticking to their ideas.”

He cast a last glance at the heap of rubbish, and then went painfully
away. She watched him disappear, elbowed by the crowd on the pavement.
He turned the corner of the Place Gaillon, and all was over.

For a moment, Denise remained motionless, lost in thought. Then she
went over to her uncle’s. The draper was alone in the dark shop of
The Old Elbeuf. The charwoman only came in the morning and evening to
do a little cooking, and help him take down and put up the shutters.
He spent hours in this solitude, often without being disturbed during
the whole day, and bewildered and unable to find the goods when a
stray customer chanced to venture in. And there in the silence and the
half-light he walked about unceasingly, with the same heavy step as
at the two funerals; yielding to a sickly desire, to regular fits of
forced marching, as if he were trying to rock his grief to sleep.

“Are you feeling better, uncle?” asked Denise.

He only stopped for a second and then started off again, going from the
pay-desk to an obscure corner.

“Yes, yes. Very well, thanks.”

She tried to find some consoling subject, some cheerful remark, but
could think of nothing. “Did you hear the noise? The house is down.”

“Ah! it’s true,” he murmured, with an astonished look, “that must have
been the house. I felt the ground shake. Seeing them on the roof this
morning, I closed my door.”

Then he made a vague gesture, to intimate that such things no longer
interested him. Each time he arrived in front of the pay-desk, he
looked at the empty seat, that well-known velvet-covered seat, where
his wife and daughter had grown up. Then, when his perpetual walking
brought him to the other end, he gazed at the gloom-enveloped shelves,
on which a few pieces of cloth were growing more and more mouldy. It
was a widowed house; those he loved had disappeared; his business had
come to a shameful end; and he was left alone to commune with his
dead heart and fallen pride, amidst all these catastrophes. He raised
his eyes to the black ceiling, he listened to the sepulchral silence
which reigned in the little dining-room, that family nook which he had
formerly loved so well, even to its stuffy odour. Not a breath was now
heard in the old house, his regular heavy tread made the ancient walls
resound, as if he were walking in the tomb of his affections.

At last Denise approached the subject which had brought her. “Uncle,”
said she, “you can’t stay like this. You must come to a decision.”

Without stopping he replied: “No doubt; but what would you have me do?
I’ve tried to sell, but no one has come. One of these mornings, I shall
shut up shop and go off.”

She was aware that a failure was no longer to be feared. The creditors
had preferred to come to an understanding in presence of such a long
series of misfortunes. Everything paid, the old man would simply find
himself in the street, penniless.

“But what will you do, then?” she murmured, seeking some transition in
order to arrive at the offer which she dared not make.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “They’ll pick me up all right.” He had
now changed his route, going from the dining-room to the windows; and
every time he came to these windows he cast a mournful glance on the
wretchedness of the old show-goods forgotten there. His eyes did not
even turn towards the triumphal façade of The Ladies’ Paradise, whose
architectural lines ran right and left, to both ends of the street. He
was thoroughly annihilated, and had not even the strength left him to
get angry.

“Listen, uncle,” said Denise at last, greatly embarrassed; “perhaps
there might be a situation for you.” And after a pause she stammered,
“Yes, I am charged to offer you a situation as inspector.”

“Where?” asked Baudu.

“Why, over the road,” she replied; “at our place. Six thousand francs a
year; a very easy berth.”

He stopped suddenly in front of her. But instead of getting angry as
she feared he would, he turned very pale, succumbing to a grievous
emotion, a feeling of bitter resignation.

“Over the road, over the road,” he stammered several times. “You want
me to go there?”

Denise herself was affected by his emotion. She recalled the long
struggle of the two shops, again saw herself at the funerals of
Geneviève and Madame Baudu, and beheld The Old Elbeuf overthrown,
utterly ruined by The Ladies’ Paradise. And the idea of her uncle
taking a situation over the road, and walking about there in a white
neck-tie, made her heart leap with pity and revolt.

“Come, Denise, my girl, is it possible?” he asked simply, crossing his
poor trembling hands.

“No, no, uncle!” she exclaimed, in a sudden outburst of her just and
excellent nature. “It would be wrong. Forgive me, I beg of you.”

He resumed his walk and again his step resounded amidst the funereal
emptiness of the house. And, when she left him, he was still and ever
marching up and down, with the obstinate locomotion peculiar to great
despairs which turn and turn, unable to find an outlet.

That night also proved a sleepless one for Denise. She had discovered
she really was powerless. Even in favour of her own people she was
unable to find any consolation or relief. She must to the bitter end
remain a witness of the invincible work of life which requires death
as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this
law of combat; still her womanly soul filled with tearful pity, with
fraternal tenderness at the idea of humanity’s sufferings. For years
past she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine. Had
she not bled in it? Had she not been bruised, dismissed, overwhelmed
with insults? Even now she was frightened, when she felt herself chosen
by the logic of facts. Why should it be she, who was so puny? Why
should her small hand suddenly become so powerful amidst the monster’s
work? And the force which swept everything away, carried her along in
her turn, she, whose coming was to be revenge. It was Mouret who had
invented this world-crushing mechanism whose brutal working shocked
her; he had strewn the neighbourhood with ruins, despoiled some, killed
others; and yet despite everything she loved him for the grandeur
of his work, loved him still more at each fresh excess of power,
notwithstanding the flood of tears which overcame her in presence of
the hallowed wretchedness of the vanquished.
“My dear child,” she resumed with her pretty smile, which was becoming
sadder, “we have nothing to conceal from you. Things are not going
well, and my poor darling is worried to death. Again to-day this man
Gaujean has been tormenting him about some overdue bills. I was dying
with anxiety at being left here all alone.”

And she was once more returning to the door when Denise stopped her,
having heard the noise of a crowd and guessing that it was the injured
man being brought along, surrounded by a mob of idlers anxious to see
the end of the affair. And thereupon with her throat parched, unable
to find the consoling words she would have liked to say, she had to
explain the matter.

“Don’t be anxious, there’s no immediate danger. I’ve seen Monsieur
Robineau, he has met with an accident. They are just bringing him home,
pray don’t be frightened.”

The young woman listened to her, white as a sheet, and as yet not
clearly understanding her. The street was full of people, and
cab-drivers, unable to get along, were swearing, while the bearers set
the stretcher before the shop in order to open both glass doors.

“It was an accident,” continued Denise, determined to conceal the
attempt at suicide. “He was on the pavement and slipped under the
wheels of an omnibus. Only his feet are hurt. They’ve sent for a
doctor. Don’t be frightened.”

A great shudder shook Madame Robineau. She gave vent to a few
inarticulate cries; then said no more but sank down beside the
stretcher, drawing its covering aside with her trembling hands. The men
who had brought it were waiting to take it away as soon as the doctor
should arrive. They dared not touch Robineau, who had now regained
consciousness, and whose sufferings became frightful at the slightest
movement. When he saw his wife big tears ran down his cheeks. She
embraced him, and stood looking at him fixedly, and weeping. Out in
the street the tumult was increasing; the people pressed forward as
with glistening eyes at a theatre; some girls, fresh from a workshop,
were almost pushing through the windows in their eagerness to see what
was going on. Then Denise in order to avoid this feverish curiosity,
and thinking, moreover, that it was not right to leave the shop open,
decided to let the metal shutters down. She went and turned the winch,
whose wheels gave out a plaintive cry whilst the sheets of iron slowly
descended, like the heavy draperies of a curtain falling on the
catastrophe of a fifth act. And when she went in again, after closing
the little round door in the shutters, she found Madame Robineau still
clasping her husband in her arms, in the vague half-light which came
from the two stars cut in the sheet-iron. The ruined shop seemed to
be gliding into nothingness, those two stars alone glittered on this
sudden and brutal catastrophe of the streets of Paris.

At last Madame Robineau recovered her speech. “Oh, my darling!–oh, my
darling! my darling!”

This was all she could say, and he, half choking, confessed himself, a
prey to keen remorse now that he saw her kneeling thus before him. When
he did not move he only felt the burning weight of his legs.

“Forgive me, I must have been mad. But when the lawyer told me before
Gaujean that the posters would be put up to-morrow, I saw flames
dancing before my eyes as if the walls were on fire. After that I
remember nothing. I was coming down the Rue de la Michodière–and I
fancied that The Paradise people were laughing at me–that big rascally
house seemed to crush me–so, when the omnibus came up, I thought of
Lhomme and his arm, and threw myself under the wheels.”

Madame Robineau had slowly fallen on to the floor, horrified by this
confession. Heavens! he had tried to kill himself. She caught hold of
the hand of Denise who was leaning towards her, also quite overcome.
The injured man, exhausted by emotion, had just fainted away again.
The doctor had still not arrived. Two men had been scouring the
neighbourhood for him; and the doorkeeper belonging to the house had
now gone to seek him in his turn.

“Pray, don’t be anxious,” Denise kept on repeating mechanically,
herself also sobbing.

Then Madame Robineau, seated on the floor, with her head on a level
with the stretcher, her cheek resting against the sacking on which
her husband was lying, relieved her heart. “Oh! I must tell you.
It’s all for me that he wanted to die. He’s always saying, ‘I’ve
robbed you; it was your money.’ And at night he dreamed of those
sixty thousand francs, waking up covered with perspiration, calling
himself an incompetent fellow and saying that those who have no head
for business ought not to risk other people’s money. You know that
he has always been nervous, and apt to worry himself. He finished by
conjuring up things that frightened me. He pictured me in the street
in tatters, begging–me whom he loved so dearly, whom he longed to see
rich and happy.” The poor woman paused; on turning her head she saw
that her husband had opened his eyes; then she continued stammering:
“My darling, why have you done this? You must think me very wicked! I
assure you, I don’t care if we are ruined. So long as we are together,
we shall never be unhappy. Let them take everything, and we will go
away somewhere, where you won’t hear any more about them. You can still
work; you’ll see how happy we shall be!”

She let her forehead fall near her husband’s pale face, and both
remained speechless, in the emotion of their anguish. Silence fell.
The shop seemed to be sleeping, benumbed by the pale twilight which
enveloped it; whilst from behind the thin metal shutters came the
uproar of the street, the life of broad daylight passing along with
the rumbling of vehicles, and the hustling and pushing of the crowd.
At last Denise, who went every other minute to glance through the door
leading to the hall of the house came back: “Here’s the doctor!”

It was a young fellow with bright eyes, whom the doorkeeper had found
and brought in. He preferred to examine the injured man before they
put him to bed. Only one of his legs, the left one, was broken above
the ankle; it was a simple fracture, no serious complication appeared
likely to result from it. And they were about to carry the stretcher
into the back-room when Gaujean arrived. He came to give them an
account of a last attempt to settle matters, an attempt moreover which
had failed; the declaration of bankruptcy was unavoidable.

“Dear me,” murmured he, “what’s the matter?”

In a few words, Denise informed him. Then he stopped, feeling awkward,
while Robineau said, in a feeble voice: “I don’t bear you any ill-will,
but all this is partly your fault.”

“Well, my dear fellow,” replied Gaujean, “it wanted stronger men than
ourselves. You know I’m not in a much better position than you are.”

They raised the stretcher; Robineau still found strength to say: “No,
no, stronger fellows than us would have given way as we have. I can
understand such obstinate old men as Bourras and Baudu standing out;
but for you and I, who are young, who had accepted the new style of
things, it was wrong! No, Gaujean, it’s the last of a world.”

They carried him off. Madame Robineau embraced Denise with an eagerness
in which there was almost a feeling of joy at having at last got rid
of all those worrying business matters. And, as Gaujean went away with
the young girl, he confessed to her that Robineau, poor devil, was
right. It was idiotic to try to struggle against The Ladies’ Paradise.
Personally he felt he would be lost, if he did not get back into its
good graces. The night before, in fact, he had secretly made a proposal
to Hutin, who was just leaving for Lyons. But he felt very doubtful,
and tried to interest Denise in the matter, aware, no doubt, of her
powerful influence.

“Upon my word,” said he, “so much the worse for the manufacturers!
Every one would laugh at me if I ruined myself in fighting for
other people’s benefit, when those fellows are struggling as to who
shall make at the cheapest price! As you said some time ago, the
manufacturers have only to follow the march of progress by a better
organization and new methods. Everything will come all right; it is
sufficient that the public are satisfied.”

Denise smiled and replied: “Go and tell that to Monsieur Mouret
himself. Your visit will please him, and he’s not the man to display
any rancour, if you offer him even a centime profit per yard.”

Madame Baudu died one bright sunny afternoon in January. For a
fortnight she had been unable to go down into the shop which a
charwoman now looked after. She sat in the centre of her bed, propped
up by some pillows. Nothing but her eyes seemed to be alive in her
white face; and with head erect, she obstinately gazed upon The Ladies’
Paradise opposite, through the small curtains of the windows. Baudu,
himself suffering from the same obsession, from the despairing fixity
of her gaze, sometimes wanted to draw the larger curtains. But she
stopped him with an imploring gesture, obstinately desirous of looking
and looking till the last moment should come. The monster had now
robbed her of everything, her business, her daughter; she herself had
gradually died away with The Old Elbeuf, losing some part of her life
as the shop lost its customers; the day it succumbed, she had no more
breath left. When she felt she was dying, she still found strength to
insist on her husband opening both windows. It was very mild, a bright
ray of sunshine gilded The Ladies’ Paradise, whilst the bed-room of
the old house shivered in the shade. Madame Baudu lay there with eyes
fixed, full of that vision of the triumphal monument, those clear,
limpid windows, behind which a gallop of millions was passing. But
slowly her eyes grew dim, invaded by darkness; and when their last
gleam had expired in death, they remained wide open, still gazing, and
wet with tears.

Once more all the ruined traders of the district followed the funeral
procession. There were the brothers Vanpouille, pale at the thought of
their December bills, met by a supreme effort which they would never
be able to repeat. Bédoré, accompanying his sister, leant on his cane,
so full of worry and anxiety that his liver complaint was getting
worse every day. Deslignières had had a fit, Piot and Rivoire walked
on in silence, with downcast looks, like men entirely played out. And
they dared not question each other about those who had disappeared,
Quinette, Mademoiselle Tatin, and others, who, in the space of a day,
sank, ruined, swept away by the flood of disasters: without counting
Robineau, still in bed, with his broken leg. But they pointed with an
especial air of interest to the new tradesmen attacked by the plague:
Grognet the perfumer, Madame Chadeuil the milliner, Lacassagne the
flower-maker, and Naud the boot-maker who were still on their legs, but
full of anxiety at thought of the evil which would doubtless sweep them
away in their turn. Baudu walked behind the hearse with the same heavy,
stolid step as when he had followed his daughter; whilst in the first
mourning coach could be seen Bourras’s eyes sparkling under his bushy
eyebrows and hair of a snowy whiteness.

Denise was in great trouble. For the last fortnight she had been
worn out with fatigue and anxiety; she had been obliged to put Pépé
to school, and had been running about on account of Jean, who was so
stricken with the pastrycook’s niece, that he had implored his sister
to go and ask her hand in marriage. Then her aunt’s death, this fresh
catastrophe, had quite overwhelmed the young girl, though Mouret had
again offered his services, giving her leave to do what she liked for
her uncle and the others. One morning she had yet another interview
with him, at the news that Bourras had been turned into the street, and
that Baudu was going to shut up shop. Then, she went out after lunch in
the hope of at least comforting these two.

In the Rue de la Michodière, Bourras was standing on the foot pavement
opposite his house, whence he had been evicted on the previous day
by a fine trick, a discovery of the lawyers. As Mouret held several
bills, he had easily obtained an order in bankruptcy against the
umbrella-maker and then had given five hundred francs for the expiring
lease at the sale ordered by the court; so that the obstinate old man
had for five hundred francs allowed himself to be deprived of what he
had refused to surrender for a hundred thousand. The architect, who
came with his gang of workmen, had been obliged to employ the police
to get him out. The goods had been taken and sold, the rooms cleared;
however, he still obstinately remained in the corner where he slept,
and from which out of pity they did not like to drive him. The workmen
even attacked the roofing over his head. They took off the rotten
slates, the ceilings fell in and the walls cracked, and yet he remained
there, under the bare old beams, amidst the ruins. At last when the
police came, he went away. But on the following morning he again
appeared on the opposite side of the street, after passing the night in
a lodging-house of the neighbourhood.

“Monsieur Bourras!” said Denise, kindly.

He did not hear her for his flaming eyes were devouring the workmen who
were attacking the front of the hovel with their picks. Through the
glassless windows you could see the inside of the house, the wretched
rooms, and the black staircase, to which the sun had not penetrated for
the last two hundred years.

“Ah! it’s you,” he replied at last, when he recognised her. “A nice bit
of work they’re doing, eh? the robbers!”

She no longer dared to speak; her heart was stirred by the lamentable
wretchedness of the old place; she was unable to take her eyes off the
mouldy stones that were falling. Up above on a corner of the ceiling of
her old room, she once more perceived that name–Ernestine–written in
black and shaky letters with the flame of a candle; and the remembrance
of her days of misery came back to her, inspiring her with a tender
sympathy for all suffering. However, the workmen, in order to knock
one of the walls down at a blow, had attacked it at its base. It was
already tottering.

“If only it could crush them all,” growled Bourras, in a savage voice.

There was a terrible cracking noise. The frightened workmen ran out
into the street. In falling, the wall shook and carried all the rest
with it. No doubt the hovel, with its flaws and cracks was ripe for
this downfall; a push had sufficed to cleave it from top to bottom. It
was a pitiful crumbling, the razing of a mud-house soddened by rain.
Not a partition remained standing; on the ground there was nothing but
a heap of rubbish, the dung of the past cast, as it were, at the street
corner.

“My God!” the old man had exclaimed as if the blow had resounded in his
very entrails.

He stood there gaping; he would never have imagined that it would have
been so quickly over. And he looked at the gap, the hollow at last
yawning beside The Ladies’ Paradise, now freed of the wart which had
so long disgraced it. The gnat was crushed; this was the final triumph
over the galling obstinacy of the infinitely little; the whole block
was now invaded and conquered. Passers-by lingered to talk to the
workmen, who began crying out against those old buildings which were
only good for killing people.

“Monsieur Bourras,” repeated Denise, trying to draw him on one side,
“you know that you will not be abandoned. All your wants will be
provided for.”

He raised his head. “I have no wants. You’ve been sent by them, haven’t
you? Well, tell them that old Bourras still knows how to use his hands
and that he can find work wherever he likes. Really, it would be a fine
thing to offer charity to those whom they assassinate!”

Then she implored him: “Pray accept, Monsieur Bourras; don’t cause me
this grief.”

But he shook his bushy head. “No, no, it’s all over. Good-bye. Go and
live happily, you who are young, and don’t prevent old people from
sticking to their ideas.”

He cast a last glance at the heap of rubbish, and then went painfully
away. She watched him disappear, elbowed by the crowd on the pavement.
He turned the corner of the Place Gaillon, and all was over.

For a moment, Denise remained motionless, lost in thought. Then she
went over to her uncle’s. The draper was alone in the dark shop of
The Old Elbeuf. The charwoman only came in the morning and evening to
do a little cooking, and help him take down and put up the shutters.
He spent hours in this solitude, often without being disturbed during
the whole day, and bewildered and unable to find the goods when a
stray customer chanced to venture in. And there in the silence and the
half-light he walked about unceasingly, with the same heavy step as
at the two funerals; yielding to a sickly desire, to regular fits of
forced marching, as if he were trying to rock his grief to sleep.

“Are you feeling better, uncle?” asked Denise.

He only stopped for a second and then started off again, going from the
pay-desk to an obscure corner.

“Yes, yes. Very well, thanks.”

She tried to find some consoling subject, some cheerful remark, but
could think of nothing. “Did you hear the noise? The house is down.”

“Ah! it’s true,” he murmured, with an astonished look, “that must have
been the house. I felt the ground shake. Seeing them on the roof this
morning, I closed my door.”

Then he made a vague gesture, to intimate that such things no longer
interested him. Each time he arrived in front of the pay-desk, he
looked at the empty seat, that well-known velvet-covered seat, where
his wife and daughter had grown up. Then, when his perpetual walking
brought him to the other end, he gazed at the gloom-enveloped shelves,
on which a few pieces of cloth were growing more and more mouldy. It
was a widowed house; those he loved had disappeared; his business had
come to a shameful end; and he was left alone to commune with his
dead heart and fallen pride, amidst all these catastrophes. He raised
his eyes to the black ceiling, he listened to the sepulchral silence
which reigned in the little dining-room, that family nook which he had
formerly loved so well, even to its stuffy odour. Not a breath was now
heard in the old house, his regular heavy tread made the ancient walls
resound, as if he were walking in the tomb of his affections.

At last Denise approached the subject which had brought her. “Uncle,”
said she, “you can’t stay like this. You must come to a decision.”

Without stopping he replied: “No doubt; but what would you have me do?
I’ve tried to sell, but no one has come. One of these mornings, I shall
shut up shop and go off.”

She was aware that a failure was no longer to be feared. The creditors
had preferred to come to an understanding in presence of such a long
series of misfortunes. Everything paid, the old man would simply find
himself in the street, penniless.

“But what will you do, then?” she murmured, seeking some transition in
order to arrive at the offer which she dared not make.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “They’ll pick me up all right.” He had
now changed his route, going from the dining-room to the windows; and
every time he came to these windows he cast a mournful glance on the
wretchedness of the old show-goods forgotten there. His eyes did not
even turn towards the triumphal façade of The Ladies’ Paradise, whose
architectural lines ran right and left, to both ends of the street. He
was thoroughly annihilated, and had not even the strength left him to
get angry.

“Listen, uncle,” said Denise at last, greatly embarrassed; “perhaps
there might be a situation for you.” And after a pause she stammered,
“Yes, I am charged to offer you a situation as inspector.”

“Where?” asked Baudu.

“Why, over the road,” she replied; “at our place. Six thousand francs a
year; a very easy berth.”

He stopped suddenly in front of her. But instead of getting angry as
she feared he would, he turned very pale, succumbing to a grievous
emotion, a feeling of bitter resignation.

“Over the road, over the road,” he stammered several times. “You want
me to go there?”

Denise herself was affected by his emotion. She recalled the long
struggle of the two shops, again saw herself at the funerals of
Geneviève and Madame Baudu, and beheld The Old Elbeuf overthrown,
utterly ruined by The Ladies’ Paradise. And the idea of her uncle
taking a situation over the road, and walking about there in a white
neck-tie, made her heart leap with pity and revolt.

“Come, Denise, my girl, is it possible?” he asked simply, crossing his
poor trembling hands.

“No, no, uncle!” she exclaimed, in a sudden outburst of her just and
excellent nature. “It would be wrong. Forgive me, I beg of you.”

He resumed his walk and again his step resounded amidst the funereal
emptiness of the house. And, when she left him, he was still and ever
marching up and down, with the obstinate locomotion peculiar to great
despairs which turn and turn, unable to find an outlet.

That night also proved a sleepless one for Denise. She had discovered
she really was powerless. Even in favour of her own people she was
unable to find any consolation or relief. She must to the bitter end
remain a witness of the invincible work of life which requires death
as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this
law of combat; still her womanly soul filled with tearful pity, with
fraternal tenderness at the idea of humanity’s sufferings. For years
past she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine. Had
she not bled in it? Had she not been bruised, dismissed, overwhelmed
with insults? Even now she was frightened, when she felt herself chosen
by the logic of facts. Why should it be she, who was so puny? Why
should her small hand suddenly become so powerful amidst the monster’s
work? And the force which swept everything away, carried her along in
her turn, she, whose coming was to be revenge. It was Mouret who had
invented this world-crushing mechanism whose brutal working shocked
her; he had strewn the neighbourhood with ruins, despoiled some, killed
others; and yet despite everything she loved him for the grandeur
of his work, loved him still more at each fresh excess of power,
notwithstanding the flood of tears which overcame her in presence of
the hallowed wretchedness of the vanquished.