She turned very red, and went up and kissed him.

For a moment Denise stood bewildered on the pavement, in the sun which
still shone fiercely at five o’clock. The July heat warmed the
gutters, Paris was blazing with the chalky whiteness peculiar to it in
summer-time, and which produced quite a blinding glare. The catastrophe
had happened so suddenly, they had turned her out so roughly, that she
stood there, turning her money over in her pocket in a mechanical way,
asking herself where she was to go, and what she was to do.

A long line of cabs prevented her quitting the pavement near The Ladies’
Paradise. When she at last risked herself amongst the wheels she
crossed over the Place Gaillon, as if she intended to go into the Rue
Louis-le-Grand; then she altered her mind, and walked towards the Rue
Saint-Roch. But still she had no plan, for she stopped at the corner of
the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, and finally followed it, after looking
around her with an undecided air. Arrived at the Passage Choiseul, she
passed through, and found herself in the Rue Monsigny, without knowing
how, and ultimately came into the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin again. Her
head was filled with a fearful buzzing sensation, she thought of her box
on seeing a commissionaire; but where was she to have it taken to, and
why all this trouble, when an hour ago she had a bed to go to?

Then her eyes fixed on the houses, she began to examine the windows.
There were any number of bills, “Apartments to Let.” She saw them
confusedly, repeatedly seized by the inward emotion which was agitating
her whole being. Was it possible? Left alone so suddenly, lost in this
immense city in which she was a stranger, without support, without
resources. She must eat and sleep, however. The streets succeeded one
another, the Rue des Moulins, the Rue Sainte-Anne. She wandered about
the neighbourhood, frequently retracing her steps, always brought back
to the only spot she knew really well. Suddenly she was astonished,
she was again standing before The Ladies’ Paradise; and to escape this
obsession she plunged into the Rue de la Michodière. Fortunately Baudu
was not at his door. The Old Elbeuf appeared to be dead, behind its
murky windows. She would never have dared to show herself at her
uncle’s, for he affected not to recognise her any more, and she did not
wish to become a burden to him, in the misfortune he had predicted for
her. But, on the other side of the street, a yellow bill attracted
her attention. “Furnished room to let.” It was the first that did not
frighten her, so poor did the house appear. She soon recognised it,
with its two low storeys, and rusty-coloured front, crushed between The
Ladies’ Paradise and the old Hôtel Duvillard. On the threshold of the
umbrella shop, old Bourras, hairy and bearded like a prophet, and
with his glasses on his nose, stood studying the ivory handle of a
walking-stick. Hiring the whole house, he under-let the two upper floors
furnished, to lighten the rent.

“You have a room, sir?” asked Denise, obeying an instinctive impulse.

He raised his great bushy eyes, surprised to see her, for he knew all
the young persons at The Ladies’ Paradise. And, after observing her
clean dress and respectable appearance, he replied: “It won’t suit you.”

“How much is it, then?” replied Denise.

“Fifteen francs a month.”

She asked to see it. On arriving in the narrow shop, and seeing that
he was still eyeing her with an astonished air, she told him of her
departure from the shop and of her wish not to trouble her uncle. The
old man then went and fetched a key hanging on a board in the back-shop,
a small dark room, where he did his cooking and had his bed; beyond
that, behind a dirty window, could be seen a back-yard about six feet
square.

“I’ll walk in front to prevent you falling,” said Bourras, entering the
damp corridor which ran along the shop.

He stumbled against the lower stair, and commenced the ascent,
reiterating his warnings to be careful. Look out! the rail was close
against the wall, there was a hole at the corner, sometimes the lodgers
left their dust-boxes there. Denise, in complete obscurity, could
distinguish nothing, only feeling the chilliness of the old damp
plaster. On the first floor, however, a small window looking into the
yard enabled her to see vaguely, as at the bottom of a piece of sleeping
water, the rotten staircase, the walls black with dirt, the cracked and
discoloured doors.

“If only only these rooms were vacant,” resumed

Bourras. “You would be very comfortable there. But they are always
occupied by ladies.”

On the second floor the light increased, showing up with a raw paleness
the distress of the house. A journeyman-baker occupied the first room,
and it was the other, the further one, that was vacant. When Bourras
had opened the door he was obliged to stay on the landing in order that
Denise might enter with ease. The bed placed in the corner nearest the
door, left just room enough for one person to pass. At the other end
there was a small walnut-wood chest of drawers, a deal table stained
black, and two chairs. The lodgers who did any cooking were obliged to
kneel before the fire-place, where there was an earthenware stove.

“You know,” said the old man, “it is not luxurious, but the view from
the window is gay. You can see the people passing in the street.” And,
as Denise was looking with surprise at the ceiling just above the bed,
where a chance lady-lodger had written her name–Ernestine–by drawing
the flame of the candle over it, he added with a good-natured smile; “If
I did a lot of repairs, I should never make both ends meet. There you
are; it’s all I have to offer.”

“I shall be very well here,” declared the young girl.

She paid a month in advance, asked for the linen–a pair of sheets and
two towels, and made her bed without delay, happy, relieved to know
where she was going to sleep that night. An hour after she had sent a
commissionaire to fetch her box, and was quite at home.

During the first two months she had a terribly hard time of it. Being
unable to pay for Pépé’s board, she had taken him away, and slept him on
an old sofa lent by Bourras. She could not do with less than thirty
sous a day, including the rent, even by consenting to live on dry bread
herself, in order to procure a bit of meat for the little one.
During the first fortnight she got on pretty well, having begun her
housekeeping with about ten francs; besides she had been fortunate
enough to find the cravat-dealer, who paid her her eighteen francs six
sous. But after that she became completely destitute. It was in vain she
applied to the various shops, at La Place Clichy, the Bon Marché, the
Louvre: the dead season had stopped business everywhere, they told
her to apply again in the autumn, more than five thousand employees,
dismissed like her, were wandering about Paris in want of places. She
then tried to obtain a little work elsewhere; but in her ignorance of
Paris she did not know where to apply, often accepting most ungrateful
tasks, and sometimes even not getting her money. Certain evenings she
gave Pépé his dinner alone, a plate of soup, telling him she had dined
out; and she would go to bed, her head in a whirl, nourished by the
fever which was burning her hands. When Jean dropped suddenly into
the midst of this poverty, he called himself a scoundrel with such
a despairing violence that she was obliged to tell some falsehood to
reassure him; and often found means of slipping a two-franc piece into
his hand, to prove that she still had money. She never wept before the
children. On Sundays, when she would cook a piece of veal in the stove,
on her knees before the fire, the narrow room re-echoed with the gaiety
of children, careless about existence. Then, when Jean had returned
to his master’s and Pépé was sleeping, she spent a frightful night, in
anguish about the coming day.

Other fears kept her awake. The two ladies on the first floor received
visitors up to a late hour; and sometimes a visitor mistook the floor
and came banging at Denise’s door. Bourras having quietly told her not
to answer, she buried her face under her pillow to escape hearing their
oaths. Then, her neighbour, the baker, had shown a disposition to annoy
her: he never came home till the morning, and would lay in wait for her,
as she went to fetch her water; he even made holes in the wall, to watch
her washing herself, so that she was obliged to hang her clothes against
the wall. But she suffered still more from the annoyances of the street,
the continual persecution of the passers-by. She could not go downstairs
to buy a candle, in these streets swarming with the debauchees of the
old quarters, without feeling a warm breath behind her, and hearing
crude, insulting remarks; and the men pursued her to the very end of the
dark passage, encouraged by the sordid appearance of the house. Why had
she no lover? It astonished people, and seemed ridiculous. She would
certainly have to yield one day. She herself could not have explained
why she resisted, menaced as she was by hunger, and perturbed by the
desires with which the air around her was warm.

One evening Denise had not even any bread for Pépé’s soup, when a
gentleman, wearing a decoration, commenced to follow her. On arriving
opposite the passage he became brutal, and it was with a disgusted,
shocked feeling that she banged the door in his face. Then, upstairs,
she sat down, her hands trembling. The little one was sleeping. What
should she say if he woke up and asked for bread? And yet she had only
to consent and her misery would be over, she could have money, dresses,
and a fine room. It was very simple, every one came to that, it was
said; for a woman alone in Paris could not live by her labour. But her
whole being rose up in protestation, without indignation against the
others, simply averse to the disgrace of the thing. She considered life
a matter of logic, good conduct, and courage.

Denise frequently questioned herself in this way. An old love story
floated in her memory, the sailor’s betrothed whom her love guarded
from all perils. At Valognes she had often hummed over this sentimental
ballad, gazing on the deserted street. Had she also a tender affection
in her heart that she was so brave? She still thought of Hutin, full of
uneasiness. Morning and evening she saw him pass under her window. Now
that he was second-hand he walked by himself, amid the respect of the
simple salesmen. He never raised his head, she thought she suffered from
his vanity, and watched him pass without any fear of being discovered.
And as soon as she saw Mouret, who also passed every day, she began to
tremble, and, quickly concealed herself, her bosom heaving. He had no
need to know where she was lodging. Then she felt ashamed of the house,
and suffered at the idea of what he thought of her, although perhaps
they would never meet again.

Denise still lived amidst the agitation caused by The Ladies’ Paradise.
A simple wall separated her room from her old department; and, from
early morning, she went over her day’s work, feeling the arrival of the
crowd, the increased bustle of business. The slightest noise shook the
old house hanging on the flank of the colossus; she felt the gigantic
pulse beating. Besides, she could not avoid certain meetings. Twice
she had found herself face to face with Pauline, who had offered her
services, grieved to see her so unfortunate; and she had even been
obliged to tell a falsehood to avoid receiving her friend or paying
her a visit, one Sunday, at Baugé’s. But it was more difficult still to
defend herself against Deloche’s desperate affection; he watched her,
aware of all her troubles, waited for her in the doorways. One day he
wanted to lend her thirty francs, a brother’s savings, he said, with
a blush. And these meetings made her regret the shop, continually
occupying her with the life they led inside, as if she had not quitted
it.

No one ever called upon Denise. One afternoon she was surprised by a
knock. It was Colomban. She received him standing. He, looking very
awkward, stammered at first, asked how she was getting on, and spoke of
The Old Elbeuf.

Perhaps it was Uncle Baudu who had sent him, regretting his rigour;
for he continued to pass his niece without taking any notice of her,
although quite aware of her miserable position. But when she plainly
questioned her visitor, he appeared more embarrassed than ever. No,
no, it was not the governor who had sent him; and he finished by naming
Clara–he simply wanted to talk about Clara. Little by little he became
bolder, and asked Denise’s advice, supposing that she could be useful
to him with her old friend. It was in vain that she tried to dishearten
him, by reproaching him with the pain he was causing Geneviève, all for
this heartless girl. He came up another day, and got into the habit of
coming to see her. This sufficed for his timid passion; he continually
commenced the same conversation, unable to resist, trembling with joy to
be with a girl who had approached Clara. And this caused Denise to live
more than ever at The Ladies’ Paradise.

It was towards the end of September that the young girl experienced the
blackest misery. Pépé had fallen ill, having caught a severe cold. He
ought to have been nourished with good broth, and she had not even a
piece of bread. One evening, completely conquered, she was sobbing, in
one of those sombre straits which drive women on to the streets, or into
the Seine, when old Bourras gently knocked at the door. He brought a
loaf, and a milk-can full of broth.

“There! there’s something for the youngster,” said he in his abrupt way.
“Don’t cry like that; it annoys my lodgers.” And as she thanked him in a
fresh outburst of tears, he resumed: “Do keep quiet! To-morrow come and
see me. I’ve some work for you.”

Bourras, since the terrible blow dealt him by The Ladies’ Paradise
by their opening an umbrella department, had ceased to employ any
workwomen. He did everything himself to save expenses–the cleaning,
mending, and sewing. His trade was also diminishing, so that he was
sometimes without work. And he was obliged to invent something to do the
next day, when he installed Denise in a corner of his shop. He felt that
he could not let any one die of hunger in his house.

“You’ll have two francs a day,” said he. “When you find something
better, you can leave me.”

She was afraid of him, and did the work so quickly that he hardly knew
what else to give her to do. He had given her some silk to stitch, some
lace to repair. During the first few days she did not dare raise her
head, uncomfortable to know he was close to her, with his lion-like
mane, hooked nose, and piercing eyes, under his thick bushy eyebrows.
His voice was harsh, his gestures extravagant, and the mothers of the
neighbourhood often frightened their youngsters by threatening to send
for him, as they would for a policeman. However, the boys never passed
his door without calling out some insulting words, which he did not even
seem to hear. All his maniacal anger was directed against the scoundrels
who dishonoured his trade by selling cheap trashy articles, which dogs
would not consent to use.

Denise trembled whenever he burst out thus: “Art is done for, I tell
you! There’s not a single respectable handle made now. They make sticks,
but as for handles, it’s all up! Bring me a proper handle, and I’ll give
you twenty francs!”

He had a real artist’s pride; not a workman in Paris was capable of
turning out a handle like his, light and strong. He carved the knobs
especially with charming ingenuity, continually inventing fresh designs,
flowers, fruit, animals, and heads, subjects conceived and executed in
a free and life-like style. A little pocket-knife sufficed, and he spent
whole days, spectacles on nose, chipping bits of boxwood and ebony.

“A pack of ignorant beggars,” said he, “who are satisfied with sticking a
certain quantity of silk on so much whalebone! They buy their handles by
the gross, handles readymade. And they sell just what they like! I tell
you, art is done for!”

Denise began to take courage. He had insisted on having Pépé down in the
shop to play, for he was wonderfully fond of children. When the little
one was crawling about on all-fours, neither of them had room to move,
she in her corner doing the mending, he near the window, carving with
his little pocket-knife. Every day now brought on the same work and
the same conversation. Whilst working, he continually pitched into The
Ladies’ Paradise; never tired of explaining how affairs stood. He had
occupied his house since 1845, and had a thirty years’ lease, at a rent
of eighteen hundred francs a year; and, as he made a thousand francs out
of his four furnished rooms, he only paid eight hundred for the shop.
It was a mere trifle, he had no expenses, and could thus hold out for a
long time still. To hear him, there was no doubt about his triumph;
he would certainly swallow up the monster. Suddenly he would interrupt
himself.

“Have they got any dog’s heads like that?”

And he would blink his eyes behind his glasses, to judge the dog’s head
he was carving, with its lip turned up and fangs out, in a life-like
growl. Pépé, delighted with the dog, would get up, placing his two
little arms on the old man’s knee.

“As long as I make both ends meet I don’t care a hang about the rest,”
the latter would resume, delicately shaping the dog’s tongue with the
point of his knife. “The scoundrels have taken away my profits; but if
I’m making nothing I’m not losing anything yet, or at least but very
little. And, you see, I’m ready to sacrifice everything rather than
yield.”

He would brandish his knife, and his white hair would blow about in a
storm of anger.

“But,” Denise would mildly observe, without raising her eyes from her
needle, “if they made you a reasonable offer, it would be wiser to
accept.”

Then his ferocious obstinacy would burst forth. “Never! If my head were
under the knife I would say no, by heavens! I’ve another ten years’
lease, and they shall not have the house before then, even if I should
have to die of hunger within the four bare walls. Twice already have
they tried to get over me. They offered me twelve thousand francs for
my good-will, and eighteen thousand francs for the last ten years of my
lease; in all thirty thousand. Not for fifty thousand even! I have them
in my power, and intend to see them licking the dust before me!”

“Thirty thousand francs! it’s a good sum,” Denise would resume. “You
could go and establish yourself elsewhere. And suppose they were to buy
the house?”

Bourras, putting the finishing touches to his dog’s tongue, would
appear absorbed for a moment, an infantine laugh pervading his venerable
prophet’s face. Then he would, continue: “The house, no fear! They spoke
of buying it last year, and offered eighty thousand francs, twice as
much as it’s worth. But the landlord, a retired fruiterer, as big a
scoundrel as they, wanted to make them shell out more. But not only
that, they are suspicious about me; they know I’m not so likely to give
way. No! no! here I am, and here I intend to stay. The emperor with all
his cannon could not turn me out.” Denise never dared say any more, she
would go on with her work, whilst the old man continued to break out in
short sentences, between two cuts with his knife, muttering something to
the effect that the game had hardly commenced, later on they would see
wonderful things, he had certain plans which would sweep away their
umbrella counter; and, in his obstinacy, there appeared a personal
revolt of the small manufacturer against the threatening invasion of
the great shops. Pépé, however, would at last climb on his knees, and
impatiently stretch out his hand towards the dog’s head.

“Give it me, sir.”

“Presently, my child,” the old man would reply in a voice that suddenly
became tender. “He hasn’t any eyes; we must make his eyes now.” And
whilst carving the eye he would continue talking to Denise. “Do you hear
them? Isn’t there a roar next door? That’s what exasperates me more than
anything, my word of honour! to have them always on my back with their
infernal locomotive-like noise.”

It made his little table tremble, he asserted. The whole shop was
shaken, and he would spend the entire afternoon without a customer, in
the trepidation of the crowd which overflowed The Ladies’ Paradise. It
was from morning to night a subject for eternal grumbling. Another good
day’s work, they were knocking against the wall, the silk department
must have cleared ten thousand francs; or else he made merry over a
showery day which had killed the receipts. And the slightest rumours,
the most unimportant noises, furnished him with subjects of endless
comment.

“Ah! some one has slipped down! Ah, if they could only all fall and
break their backs! That, my dear, is a dispute between some ladies. So
much the better! So much the better! Do you hear the parcels falling on
to the lower floor? It’s disgusting!”

It did not do for Denise to discuss his explanations, for he retorted
bitterly by reminding her of the shameful way they had dismissed her.
She was obliged to relate for the hundredth time her life in the dress
department, the hardships she had endured at first, the small unhealthy
bedrooms, the bad food, and the continual struggle between the salesmen;
and they were thus talking about the shop from morning to night,
absorbing it hourly in the very air they breathed.

“Give it me, sir,” Pépé would repeat, with eager outstretched hands.

The dog’s head finished, Bourras would hold it at a distance, then
examine it closely with childish glee. “Take care, it will bite you!
There, go and play, and don’t break it, if you can help it.” Then
resuming his fixed idea, he would shake his fist at the wall. “You may
do all you can to knock the house down. You sha’n’t have it, even if you
invade the whole neighbourhood.”

Denise had now her daily bread assured her, and she was extremely
grateful to the old umbrella-dealer, whose good heart she felt beneath
his strange violent ways. She had a strong desire, however, to find some
work elsewhere, for she often saw him inventing some trifle for her
to do; she fully understood that he did not require a workwoman in the
present slack state of his business, and that he was employing her out
of pure charity. Six months had passed thus, and the dull winter season
had again returned. She was despairing of finding a situation before
March, when, one evening in January, Deloche, who was watching for
her in a doorway, gave her a bit of advice. Why did she not go and see
Robineau; perhaps he might want some one?

In September, Robineau had decided to buy Vinçard’s silk business,
trembling all the time lest he should compromise his wife’s sixty
thousand francs. He had paid forty thousand for the good-will and stock,
and was starting with the remaining twenty thousand. It was not much,
but he had Gaujean behind him to back him up with any amount of credit.
Since his disagreement with The Ladies’ Paradise, the latter had been
longing to stir up a system of competition against the colossus; and he
thought victory certain, by creating special shops in the neighbourhood,
where the public could find a large and varied choice of articles. The
rich Lyons manufacturers, such as Dumonteil, were the only ones who
could accept the big shops’ terms, satisfied to keep their looms going
with them, looking for their profits by selling to less important
houses. But Gaujean was far from having the solidity and staying power
possessed by Dumonteil. For a long time a simple commission agent, it
was only during the last five or six years that he had had looms of his
own, and he still had a lot of work done by other makers, furnishing
them with the raw material and paying them by the yard. It was precisely
this system which, increasing his manufacturing expenses, had prevented
him competing with Dumonteil for the supply of the Paris Paradise. This
had filled him with rancour; he saw in Robineau the instrument of a
decisive battle to be declared against these drapery bazaars which he
accused of ruining the French manufacturers.

When Denise called she found Madame Robineau alone. Daughter of an
overseer in the Department of Highways, entirely ignorant of business
matters, she still retained the charming awkwardness of a girl educated
in a Blois convent She was dark, very pretty, with a gentle, cheerful
manner, which gave her a great charm. She adored her husband, living
solely by his love. As Denise was about to leave her name Robineau came
in, and engaged her at once, one of his two saleswomen having left the
previous day to go to The Ladies’ Paradise.

“They don’t leave us a single good hand,” said he. “However, with you
I shall feel quite easy, for you are like me, you can’t be very fond of
them. Come to-morrow.”

In the evening Denise hardly knew how to announce her departure to
Bourras. In fact, he called her an ungrateful girl, and lost his temper.
Then when, with tears in her eyes, she tried to defend herself by
intimating that she could see through his charitable conduct, he
softened down, said that he had plenty of work, that she was leaving him
just as he was about to bring out an umbrella of his invention.

“And Pépé?” asked he.

This was Denise’s great trouble; she dared not take him back to Madame
Gras, and could not leave him alone in the bedroom, shut up from morning
to night.

“Very good, Til keep him,” said the old man; “he’ll be all right in my
shop. We’ll do the cooking together.” Then, as she refused, fearing it
might inconvenience him, he thundered out: “Great heavens! have you no
confidence in me? I sha’n’t eat your child!”

Denise was much happier at Robineau’s. He only paid her sixty francs a
month, with her food, without giving her any commission on the sales,
just the same as in the old-fashioned houses. But she was treated with
great kindness, especially by Madame Robineau, always smiling at her
counter. He, nervous, worried, was sometimes rather abrupt. At the
expiration of the first month, Denise was quite one of the family, like
the other saleswoman, a silent, consumptive, little body. The Robineaus
were not at all particular before them, talking of the business at table
in the back shop, which looked on to a large yard. And it was there
they decided one evening on starting the campaign against The Ladies’
Paradise. Gaujean had come to dinner. After the usual roast leg of
mutton, he had broached the subject in his Lyons voice, thickened by the
Rhône fogs.

“It’s getting unbearable,” said he. “They go to Dumonteil, purchase
the sole right in a design, and take three hundred pieces straight off,
insisting on a reduction of ten sous a yard; and, as they pay ready
money, they enjoy moreover the profit of eighteen per cent discount.
Very often Dumonteil barely makes four sous a yard out of it He works to
keep his looms going, for a loom that stands still is a dead loss. Under
these circumstances how can you expect that we, with our limited plant,
and especially with our makers, can keep up the struggle?”

Robineau, pensive, forgot his dinner. “Three hundred pieces!” he
murmured. “I tremble when I take a dozen, and at ninety days. They can
mark up a franc or two francs cheaper than us. I have calculated
there is a reduction of at least fifteen per cent, on their catalogued
articles, when compared with our prices. That’s what kills the small
houses.”

He was in a period of discouragement. His wife, full of anxiety, was
looking at him with a tender air. She understood very little about the
business, all these figures confused her; she could not understand why
people took such trouble, when it was so easy to be gay and love one
another. However, it sufficed that her husband wished to conquer, and
she became as impassioned as he himself, and would have stood to her
counter till death.

“But why don’t all the manufacturers come to an understanding together?”
resumed Robineau, violently. “They could then lay down the law, instead
of submitting to it.”

Gaujean, who had asked for another slice of mutton, was slowly
masticating. “Ah! why, why? The looms must be kept going, I tell you.
When one has weavers everywhere, in the neighbourhood of Lyons, in the
Gard, in the Isère, they can’t stand still a day without an enormous
loss. Then we who sometimes employ makers having ten or fifteen looms
are better able to control the output, as far as regards the stock,
whilst the big manufacturers are obliged to have continual outlets, the
quickest and largest possible, so that they are on their knees before
the big shops. I know three or four who out-bid each other, and who
would sooner work at a loss than not obtain the orders. But they make
up for it with the small houses like yours. Yes, if they exist through
them, they make their profit out of you. Heaven knows how the crisis
will end!”

“It’s odious!” exclaimed Robineau, relieved by this cry of anger.

Denise was quietly listening. She was secretly for the big shops, with
her instinctive love of logic and life.

They had relapsed into silence, and were eating some potted French
beans; at last she ventured to say in a cheerful tone, “The public does
not complain.”

Madame Robineau could not suppress a little laugh, which annoyed her
husband and Gaujean. No doubt the customer was satisfied, for, in
the end, it was the customer who profited by the fall in prices. But
everybody must live; where would they be if, under the pretext of
the general welfare, the consumer was fattened at the expense of the
producer? And then commenced a long discussion. Denise affected to be
joking, all the while producing solid arguments. All the middle-men
disappeared, the manufacturing agents, representatives, commission
agents, and this greatly contributed to cheapen the articles; besides,
the manufacturers could no longer live without the big shops, for as
soon as one of them lost their custom, failure became a certainty; in
short, it was a natural commercial evolution. It would be impossible to
prevent things going on as they ought to, when everybody was working for
that, whether they liked it or not.

“So you are for those who turned you out into the street?” asked
Gaujean.

Denise became very red. She herself was surprised at the vivacity of her
defence. What had she at heart, that such a flame should have invaded
her bosom?

“Dear me, no!” replied she. “Perhaps I’m wrong, for you are more
competent to judge than I. I simply express my opinion. The prices,
instead of being settled as formerly by fifty houses, are now fixed
by four or five, which have lowered them, thanks to the power of their
capital, and the strength of their immense business. So much the better
for the public, that’s all!”

Robineau was not angry, but had become grave, keeping his eyes fixed
on the table-cloth. He had often felt this breath of the new style of
business, this evolution of which the young girl spoke; and he would ask
himself in his clear, quiet moments, why he should wish to resist such a
powerful current, which must carry everything before it Madame Robineau
herself, on seeing her husband deep in thought, glanced with approval at
Denise, who had modestly resumed her silent attitude.

“Come,” resumed Gaujean, to cut short the argument, “all that is simply
theory. Let’s talk of our matter.”

After the cheese, the servant brought in some jam and some pears. He
took some jam, eating it with a spoon, with the unconscious greediness
of a big man very fond of sugar.

“To begin with, you must attack their Paris Paradise, which has been
their success of the year. I have come to an understanding with
several of my brother manufacturers at Lyons, and have brought you an
exceptional offer–a black silk, that you can sell at five and a half.
They sell theirs at five francs twelve sous, don’t they? Well! this will
be two sous less, and that will suffice to upset them.”

At this Robineau’s eyes lighted up again. In his continual nervous
torment, he often skipped like this from despair to hope. “Have you got
a sample?” asked he. And when Gaujean drew from his pocket-book a little
square of silk, he went into raptures, exclaiming: “Why, this is a
handsomer silk than the Paris Paradise! In any case it produces a better
effect, the grain is coarser. You are right, we must make the attempt If
I don’t bring them to my feet, I’ll give up this time!”

Madame Robineau, sharing this enthusiasm, declared the silk superb, and
Denise herself thought they would succeed. The latter part of the dinner
was thus very gay. They talk in a loud tone; it seemed that The Ladies’
Paradise was at its last gasp. Gaujean, who was finishing the pot of
jam, explained what enormous sacrifices he and his colleagues would be
obliged to make to deliver such an article at this low price; but they
would ruin themselves rather than yield; they had sworn to kill the big
shops. As the coffee came in the gaiety was greatly increased by the
arrival of Vinçard, who had just called, in passing, to see how his
successor was getting on.

“Famous!” cried he, feeling the silk. “You’ll floor them, I stake my
life! Ah! you owe me a rare good thing; I told you this was a golden
affair!”

He had just taken a restaurant at Vincennes. It was an old, cherished
idea, slyly nourished while he was struggling in the silk business,
trembling for fear he should not sell it before the crash came, and
swearing to himself that he would put his money into an undertaking
where he could rob at his ease. The idea of a restaurant had struck him
at the wedding of a cousin, who had been made to pay ten francs for
a bowl of dish water, in which floated some Italian paste. And, in
presence of the Robineaus, the joy he felt in having saddled them with
a badly-paying business of which he despaired of ever getting
rid, enlarged still further his face with its round eyes and large
loyal-looking mouth, a face beaming with health.




“And your pains?” asked Madame Robineau, good-naturedly.

“My pains?” murmured he, astonished.

“Yes, those rheumatic pains which tormented you so much when you were
here.”

He then recollected, and blushed slightly. “Oh, I suffered,” and
blushed slightly. “Oh I suffer from them still! However, the country
air, you know, has done wonders for me. Never mind, you’ve done a good
stroke of business. Had it not been for my rheumatics, I could soon have
retired with ten thousand francs a year. My word of honour!”

A fortnight later, the struggle commenced between Robineau and The
Ladies’ Paradise. It became celebrated, and occupied for a time the
whole Parisian market. Robineau, using his adversary’s weapons, had
advertised extensively in the newspapers. Besides that, he made a fine
display, piling up enormous bales of the famous silk in his windows,
with immense white tickets, displaying in giant figures the price, five
francs and a half. It was this figure that caused a revolution among
the women; two sous cheaper than at The Ladies’ Paradise, and the silk
appeared stronger. From the first day a crowd of customers flocked in.
Madame Marty bought a dress she did not want, pretending it to be a
bargain; Madame Bourdelais thought the silk very fine, but preferred
waiting, guessing no doubt what would happen. And, indeed the following
week, Mouret boldly reduced The Paris Paradise by four sous, after a
lively discussion with Bourdoncle and the other managers, in which
he had succeeded in inducing them to accept the challenge, even at a
sacrifice; for these four sous represented a dead loss, the silk being
sold already at strict cost price. It was a heavy blow to Robineau, who
did not think his rival would reduce; for this suicidal competition,
these losing sales, were then unknown; and the tide of customers,
attracted by the cheapness, had immediately flown back towards the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, whilst the shop in the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs
gradually emptied.

which no one could go, without folly. The next day Mouret marked his at
five francs four sous. After that it became a mania: Robineau replied by
five francs three sous, when Mouret at once ticketed his at five francs
and two sous. Neither lowered more than a sou at a time now, losing
considerable sums as often as they made this present to the public. The
customers laughed, delighted with this duel, moved by the terrible
blows dealt each other by the two houses to please them. At last Mouret
ventured as low as five francs; his staff paled before such a challenge
thrown down to fortune. Robineau, utterly beaten, out of breath, stopped
also at five francs, not having the courage to go any lower. And they
rested at their positions, face to face, with the massacre of their
goods around them.

But if honour was saved on both sides, the situation was becoming fatal
for Robineau. The Ladies’ Paradise had money at its disposal and a
patronage which enabled it to balance its profits; whilst he, sustained
by Gaujean alone, unable to recoup his losses on other articles,
was exhausted, and slipped daily a little further on the verge of
bankruptcy. He was dying from his hardihood, notwithstanding the
numerous customers that the hazards of the struggle had brought him. One
of his secret torments was to see these customers slowly quitting him,
returning to The Ladies’ Paradise, after the money he had lost and the
efforts he had made to conquer them.

One day he quite lost patience. A customer, Madame de Boves, had come to
his shop for some mantles, for he had added a ready-made department to
his business. She could not make up her mind, complaining of the quality
of the goods. At last she said: “Their Paris Paradise is a great deal
stronger.”

Robineau restrained himself, assuring her that she was mistaken, with a
tradesman’s politeness, all the more respectful, because he was afraid
to allow his anger to burst forth.

“But just look at the silk of this mantle!” resumed she, “one would
really take it for so much cobweb. You may say what you like, sir, their
silk at five francs is like leather compared with this.”

He did not reply, the blood rushing to his face, and his lips tightly
closed. In point of fact he had ingeniously thought of buying some of
his rival’s silk for these mantles. So that it was Mouret, not he, who
lost on the material. He simply cut off the selvage.

“Really you think the Paris Paradise thicker?” murmured he.

“Oh! a hundred times!” said Madame de Boves. “There’s no comparison.”

This injustice on her part, her running down the goods in this way,
filled him with indignation. And, as she was still turning the mantle
over with a disgusted air, a little piece of the blue and silver
selvage, not cut off, appeared under the lining. He could not contain
himself any longer; he confessed he would even have given his head.

“Well, madame, this _is_ Paris Paradise. I bought it myself! Look at the
border.”

Madame de Boves went away greatly annoyed, and a number of ladies
quitted him when the affair became known. And he, amid this ruin, when
the fear for the future seized him, only trembled for his wife, who had
been brought up in a happy, peaceful home, and would never be able to
endure a life of poverty. What would become of her if a catastrophe
threw them into the street, with a load of debts? It was his fault, he
ought never to have touched her money. She was obliged to comfort him.
Wasn’t the money as much his as hers? He loved her dearly, and she
wanted nothing more; she gave him everything, her heart and her life.
They could be heard in the back shop embracing one another. Little by
little, the affairs and ways of the house became more regular; every
month their losses increased, in a slow proportion which postponed the
fatal issue. A tenacious hope sustained them, they still announced the
near discomfiture of The Ladies’ Paradise.

“Pooh!” he would say, “we are young yet The future is ours.”

“And besides, what matters, if you have done what you wanted to do?”
resumed she. “As long as you are satisfied, I am as well, darling.”

Denise’s affection increased for them on seeing their tenderness. She
trembled, feeling their inevitable fall; but she dared not interfere. It
was then she fully understood the power of the new system of business,
and became impassioned for this force which was transforming Paris. Her
ideas were ripening, a woman’s grace was developing out of the savage
child newly arrived from Valognes. In fact, her life was a pretty
pleasant one, notwithstanding the fatigue and the little money she
earned. When she had spent all the day on her feet, she had to go
straight home, and look after Pépé, whom old Bourras insisted on
feeding, fortunately; but there was still a lot to do: a shirt to wash,
stockings to mend; without mentioning the noise made by the youngster,
which made her head ache fit to split. She never went to bed before
midnight. Sunday was her hardest day: she cleaned her room, and mended
her own things, so busy that it was often five o’clock before she could
dress. However, she sometimes went out for health’s sake, taking the
little one for a long walk, out towards Neuilly; and their treat was to
drink a cup of milk there at a dairyman’s, who allowed them to sit down
in his yard. Jean disdained these excursions; he put in an appearance
now and again on week-day evenings, then disappeared, pretending to have
other visits to pay; he asked for no more money, but he arrived with
such a melancholy face, that his sister, anxious, always managed to keep
a five-franc piece for him. That was her sole luxury.

“Five francs!” he would exclaim each time. “My stars! you’re too good!
It just happens, there’s the stationer’s wife—-”

“Not another word,” Denise would say; “I don’t want to know.”

But he thought she was accusing him of boasting. “I tell you she’s the
wife of a stationer! Oh! something magnificent!”

Three months passed away, spring was returning. Denise refused to return
to Joinville with Pauline and Bauge. She sometimes met them in the Rue
Saint-Roch, when she left the shop in the evening. Pauline, one evening
when she was alone, confided to her that she was very likely going to
marry her lover; it was she who was hesitating, for they did not care
for married saleswomen at The Ladies’ Paradise. This idea of marriage
surprised Denise, she did not dare to advise her friend. One day, just
as Colomban had stopped her near the fountain to talk about Clara, the
latter was crossing the road; and Denise was obliged to run away, for he
implored her to ask her old comrade if she would marry him. What was the
matter with them all? why were they tormenting themselves like this? She
thought herself very fortunate not to be in love with any one.

“You’ve heard the news?” cried out the umbrella dealer to her one
evening on her return home from business.

“No, Monsieur Bourras.”

“Well! the scoundrels have bought the Hôtel Duvillard. I’m hemmed in on
all sides!” He was waving his long arms about, in a burst of fury
which made his white mane stand up on end. “A regular mixed-up affair,”
resumed the old man. “It appears that the hôtel belonged to the Credit
Immobilier, the president of which, Baron Hartmann, has just sold it to
our famous Mouret. Now they’ve got me on the right, on the left, and
at the back, just in the way I’m holding the knob of this stick in my
hand!”

It was true, the sale was to have been concluded the previous day.
Bourras’s small house, hemmed in between The Ladies’ Paradise and the
Hôtel Duvillard, hanging on like a swallow’s nest in a crack of a wall,
seemed sure to be crushed, as soon as the shop invaded the hôtel, and
the time had now arrived. The colossus had turned the feeble obstacle,
and was surrounding it with a pile of goods, threatening to swallow it
up, to absorb it by the sole force of its giant aspiration.

Bourras could feel the embrace which was making his shop creak. He
thought he could see the place getting smaller; he was afraid of being
absorbed himself, of being carried to the other side with his umbrellas
and sticks, so loudly was the terrible machine roaring just then.

“Do you hear them?” asked he. “One would think they were eating up the
walls even! And in my cellar, in the attic, everywhere, there’s the same
noise as of a saw going through the plaster. Never mind! I don’t fancy
they’ll flatten me out like a sheet of paper. I’ll stick here, even if
they blow up my roof, and the rain should fall in bucketfuls on my bed!”

It was just at this moment that Mouret caused fresh proposals to be made
to Bourras; they would increase the figure, they would give him fifty
thousand francs for his good-will and the remainder of the lease. This
offer redoubled the old man’s anger; he refused in an insulting manner.
How these scoundrels must rob people to be able to pay fifty thousand
francs for a thing not worth ten thousand. And he defended his shop as a
young girl defends her virtue, for honour’s sake.

Denise noticed Bourras was pre-occupied during the next fortnight. He
wandered about in a feverish manner, measuring the walls of his house,
surveying it from the middle of the street with the air of an architect.
Then one morning some workmen arrived. This was the decisive blow. He
had conceived the bold idea of beating The Ladies’ Paradise on its own
ground by making certain concessions to modern luxury. The customers,
who often reproached him about his dark shop, would certainly come back
again, when they saw it bright and new. In the first place, the workmen
stopped up the crevices and whitewashed the frontage, then they painted
the woodwork a light green, and even carried the splendour so far as to
gild the sign-board. A sum of three thousand francs, held in reserve
by Bourras as a last resource, was swallowed up in this way. The whole
neighbourhood was in a state of revolution; people came to look at
him amid all these riches, losing his head, no longer able to find
the things he was accustomed to. He did not seem to be at home in this
shining frame, in this tender setting; he seemed frightened, with his
long beard and white hair. The people passing on the opposite side
of the street were astonished on seeing him waving his arms about and
carving his handles. And he was in a state of fever, afraid of dirtying
his shop, plunging further into this luxurious business, which he did
not at all understand.

The same as with Robineau, the campaign against The Ladies’ Paradise was
opened by Bourras. The latter had just brought out his invention,
the automatic umbrella, which later on was to become popular. But The
Paradise people immediately improved on the invention, and a struggle of
prices commenced. Bourras had an article at one franc and nineteen sous,
in zanella, with steel mounting, everlasting, said the ticket, But
he was especially anxious to vanquish his competitors with his
handles–bamboo, dogwood, olive, myrtle, rattan, every imaginable sort
of handle. The Paradise people, less artistic, paid more attention to
the material, extolling their alpacas and mohairs, their twills and
sarcenets.. And they came out victorious. Bourras, in despair, repeated
that art was done for, that he was reduced to carving his handles for
pleasure, without any hope of selling them.

“It’s my fault!” cried he to Denise. “I never ought to have kept a lot
of rotten articles, at one franc nineteen sous! That’s where these new
notions lead one to. I wanted to follow the example of these brigands;
so much the better if I’m ruined by it!”

The month of July was very warm, and Denise suffered greatly in her
narrow room, under the roof. So after leaving the shop, she sometimes
went and fetched Pépé, and instead of going up-stairs at once, went
for a stroll in the Tuileries Gardens until the gates were closed. One
evening as she was walking under the chestnut-trees she suddenly stopped
with surprise; a few yards off, walking straight towards her, she
thought she recognised Hutin. But her heart commenced to beat violently.
It was Mouret, who had dined over the water, and was hurrying along on
foot to call on Madame Desforges. At the abrupt movement she made to
escape him, he caught sight of her. The night was coming on, but still
he recognised her.

“Ah, it’s you, mademoiselle!”

She did not reply, astonished that he should deign to stop. He, smiling,
concealed his constraint beneath an air of amiable protection.

“You are still in Paris?”

“Yes, sir,” said she at last.

She was slowly drawing back, desirous of making a bow and continuing
her walk. But he turned and followed her under the black shadows of the
chestnut-trees. The air was getting cooler, some children were laughing
in the distance, trundling their hoops.

“This is your brother, is it not?” resumed he, looking at Pépé.

The little boy, frightened by the unusual presence of a gentleman, was
gravely walking by his sister’s side, holding her tightly by the hand.

“Yes, sir,” replied she once more.

She blushed, thinking of the abominable inventions circulated by
Marguerite and Clara. No doubt Mouret understood why she was blushing,
for he quickly added: “Listen, mademoiselle, I have to apologise to you.
Yes, I should have been happy to have told you sooner how much I regret
the error that has been made. You were accused too lightly of a fault.
But the evil is done. I simply wanted to assure you that every one in
our establishment now knows of your affection for your brothers,” he
continued, with a respectful politeness to which the saleswomen in
The Ladies’ Paradise were little accustomed. Denise’s confusion had
increased; but her heart was filled with joy. He knew, then, that she
had given herself to no one! Both remained silent; he continued beside
her, regulating his walk to the child’s short steps; and the distant
murmurs of the city were dying away under the black shadows of the
spreading chestnut-trees. “I have only one reparation to offer you,”
resumed he. “Naturally, if you would like to come back to us—-”

She interrupted him, and refused with a feverish haste. “No, sir, I
cannot. Thank you all the same, but I have found another situation.”

He knew it, they had informed him she was with Robineau; and leisurely,
on a footing of amiable equality, he spoke of the latter, rendering
him full justice. A very intelligent fellow, but too nervous. He would
certainly come to grief: Gaujean had burdened him with a very heavy
business, in which they would both suffer. Denise, conquered by this
familiarity, opened her mind further, and allowed it to be seen that she
was for the big shops in the war between them and the small traders:
she became animated, citing examples, showing herself well up in the
question, even expressing new and enlightened ideas. He, charmed,
listened to her in surprise; and turned round, trying to distinguish
her features in the growing darkness. She seemed still the same with
her simple dress and sweet face; but from this modest bashfulness, there
seemed to exhale a penetrating perfume, of which he felt the powerful’
influence. Decidedly this little girl had got used to the air of Paris,
she was becoming quite a woman, and was really perturbing, so sensible,
with her beautiful hair, overflowing with tenderness.

“As you are on our side,” said he, laughing, “why do you stay with our
adversaries? I fancy, too, they told me you lodged with Bourras.”

“A very worthy man,” murmured she.

“No, not a bit of it! he’s an old idiot, a madman who will force me
to ruin him, though I should be glad to get rid of him with a fortune!
Besides, your place is not in his house, which has a bad reputation. He
lets to certain women—-”

But feeling that the young girl was confused, he hastened to add: “One
can be respectable anywhere, and there’s even more merit in remaining so
when one is so poor.”

They went on a few steps in silence. Pépé seemed to be listening with
the attentive air of a sharp child. Now and again he raised his eyes to
his sister, whose burning hand, quivering with sudden starts, astonished
him.

“Look here!” resumed Mouret, gaily, “will you be my ambassador? I
intended increasing my offer to-morrow–of proposing eighty thousand
francs to Bourras. Do you speak to him first about it. Tell him he’s
cutting his own throat. Perhaps he’ll listen to you, as he has a liking
for you, and you’ll be doing him a real service.”

“Very well!” said Denise, smiling also, “I will deliver your message,
but I am afraid I shall not succeed.”

And a fresh silence ensued, neither of them having anything more to say.
He attempted to talk of her uncle Baudu; but had to give it up on seeing
the young girl’s uneasiness. However, they continued to walk side by
side, and at last found themselves near the Rue de Rivoli, in a path
where it was still light. On coming out of the darkness of the trees it
was like a sudden awakening. He understood that he could not detain her
any longer.

“Good night, mademoiselle.”

“Good night, sir.”

But he did not go away. On raising his eyes he perceived in front of
him, at the corner of the Rue d’Alger, the lighted windows at Madame
Desforges’s, whither he was bound. And looking at Denise, whom he could
now see, in the pale twilight, she appeared to him very puny beside
Henriette. Why was it she touched his heart in this way? It was a stupid
caprice.

“This little man is getting tired,” resumed he, just for something to
say. “Remember, mind, that our house is always open to you; you’ve only
to knock, and I’ll give you every compensation possible. Good night,
mademoiselle.”

“Good night, sir,”

When Mouret quitted her, Denise went back under the chestnut-trees,
in the black shadow. For a long time she walked on without any object,
between the enormous trunks, her face burning, her head in a whirl of
confused ideas. Pépé still had hold of her hand, stretching out his
short legs to keep pace with her. She had forgotten him. At last he
said:

“You go too quick, little mother.”

At this she sat down on a bench; and as he was tired, the child went to
sleep on her lap. She held him there, nestling to her virgin bosom,
her eyes lost far away in the darkness. When, an hour later on, they
returned slowly to the Rue de la Michodière, she had regained her usual
quiet, sensible expression.

“Hell and thunder!” shouted Bourras, when he saw her coming, “the blow
is struck. That rascal of a Mouret has just bought my house.” He was
half mad, and was striking himself in the middle of the shop with such
outrageous gestures that he almost threatened to break the windows. “Ah!
the scoundrel! It’s the fruiterer who’s written to tell me this. And
how much do you think he has got for the house? One hundred and fifty
thousand francs, four times its value! There’s another thief, if you
like! Just fancy, he has taken advantage of my embellishments, making
capital out of the fact that the house has been done up. How much longer
are they going to make a fool of me?”

The thought that his money spent on paint and white-wash had brought
the fruiterer a profit exasperated him. And now Mouret would be his
landlord; he would have to pay him! It was beneath this detested
competitor’s roof, that he must live in future! Such a thought raised
his fury to the highest possible pitch.

“Ah! I could hear them digging a hole through the wall. At this moment,
they are here eating out of my very plate, so to say!”

And the shop shook under his heavy fist which he banged on the counter;
he made the umbrellas and the parasols dance again. Denise, bewildered,
could not get in a word. She stood there, motionless, waiting for the
end of his tirade; whilst Pépé, very tired, had fallen asleep on a
chair. At last, when Bourras became a little calmer, she resolved to
deliver Mouret’s message. No doubt the old man was irritated, but the
excess even of his anger, the blind alley in which he found himself,
might determine an abrupt acceptance.

“I’ve just met some one,” she commenced. “Yes, a person from The
Paradise, very well informed. It appears that they are going to offer
you eighty thousand francs to-morrow.”

“Eighty thousand francs!” interrupted he, in a terrible voice; “eighty
thousand francs! Not for a million now!” She tried to reason with him.
But at that moment the shop door opened, and she suddenly drew back,
pale and silent. It was her uncle Baudu, with his yellow face and aged
look. Bourras seized his neighbour by the button-hole, and roared out
in his face without allowing him to say a word, as if goaded on by his
presence:

“What do you think they have the cheek to offer me? Eighty thousand
francs! They’ve got so far, the brigands! they think I’m going to
sell myself like a prostitute. Ah! they’ve bought the house, and think
they’ve now got me. Well! it’s all over, they sha’n’t have it! I might
have given way, perhaps; but now it belongs to them, let them try and
take it!”

“So the news is true?” said Baudu in his slow voice. “I had heard of it,
and came over to know if it was so.”

“Eighty thousand francs!” repeated Bourras. “Why not a hundred thousand
at once? It’s this immense sum of money that makes me indignant Do they
think they can make me commit a knavish trick with their money! They
sha’n’t have it, by heavens! Never, never, you hear me?”

Denise gently observed, in her calm, quiet way: “They’ll have it in nine
years’ time, when your lease expires.”

And, notwithstanding her uncle’s presence, she begged of the old man to
accept. The struggle was becoming impossible, he was fighting against a
superior force; he would be mad to refuse the fortune offered him. But
he still replied no. In nine years’ time he hoped to be dead, so as
not to see it “You hear, Monsieur Baudu,” resumed he, “your niece is on
their side, it’s her they have employed to corrupt me. She’s with the
brigands, my word of honour!”

Baudu, who up to then had appeared not to notice Denise, now raised his
head, with the morose movement that he affected when standing at his
shop door, every time she passed. But, slowly, he turned round and
looked at her, and his thick lips trembled.

“I know it,” replied he in a half-whisper, and he continued to look at
her.

Denise, affected almost to tears, thought him greatly changed by
trouble. Perhaps he was stricken with remorse for not having assisted
her during the time of misery she had just passed through. Then the
sight of Pépé sleeping on the chair, amidst the noise of the discussion,
seemed to suddenly inspire him with compassion.

“Denise,” said he simply, “come to-morrow and have dinner with us and
bring the little one. My wife and Geneviève asked me to invite you if I
met you.”

She turned very red, and went up and kissed him. And as he was going
away, Bourras, delighted at this reconciliation, cried out to him again:
“Just talk to her, she isn’t a bad sort. As for me, the house may fall,
I shall be found in the ruins.”

“Our houses are already falling, neighbour,” said Baudu with a sombre
air. “We shall all be crushed under them.”

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