She was a regular nuisance to me

On the first Sunday in August, the stock-taking, which had to be
finished by the evening, took place. Early in the morning all the
employees were at their posts, as on a week-day, and the work began
with closed doors, not a customer was admitted.

Denise, however, had not come down with the other young ladies at eight
o’clock. Confined to her room since the previous Thursday through
having sprained her ankle whilst on her way up to the work-rooms, she
was now much better; but, as Madame Aurélie treated her indulgently,
she did not hurry down. Still after a deal of trouble she managed to
put her boots on, having resolved that she would show herself in the
department. The young ladies’ bed-rooms now occupied the entire fifth
storey of the new buildings in the Rue Monsigny; there were sixty of
them, on either side of a corridor, and they were much more comfortable
than formerly, although still furnished simply with an iron bedstead,
large wardrobe, and little mahogany toilet-table. The private life
of the saleswomen was now becoming more refined and elegant; they
displayed a taste for scented soap and fine linen, quite a natural
ascent towards middle-class ways as their positions improved, although
high words and banging doors were still sometimes heard amidst the
hotel-like gust that carried them away, morning and evening. Denise,
being second-hand in her department, had one of the largest rooms with
two attic windows looking into the street. Being now in much better
circumstances she indulged in sundry little luxuries, a red eider-down
bed quilt, covered with guipure, a small carpet in front of her
wardrobe, a couple of blue-glass vases containing a few fading roses on
her toilet table.

When she had succeeded in getting her boots on she tried to walk across
the room; but was obliged to lean against the furniture, being still
rather lame. However that would soon come right again, she thought.
At the same time, she had been quite right in refusing an invitation
to dine at uncle Baudu’s that evening, and in asking her aunt to take
Pépé out for a walk, for she had placed him with Madame Gras again.
Jean, who had been to see her on the previous day, was also to dine at
his uncle’s. She was still slowly trying to walk, resolving, however,
to go to bed early, in order to rest her ankle, when Madame Cabin, the
housekeeper, knocked and gave her a letter, with an air of mystery.

The door closed. Denise, astonished by the woman’s discreet smile,
opened the letter. And at once she dropped on a chair; for it was a
letter from Mouret, in which he expressed himself delighted at her
recovery, and begged her to come down and dine with him that evening,
since she could not go out. The tone of this note, at once familiar and
paternal, was in no way offensive; but it was impossible for her to
mistake its meaning. And thus her white cheeks slowly coloured with a
flush.

With the letter lying on her lap and her heart beating violently she
remained with her eyes fixed on the blinding light which came in by
one of the windows. There was a confession which she had been obliged
to make to herself in this very room, during her sleepless hours: if
she still trembled when he passed, she now knew that it was not from
fear; and her former uneasiness, her old terror, could have been only
the frightened ignorance of love, the perturbation of passion springing
up amidst her youthful wildness. She did not reason, she simply felt
that she had always loved him, from the hour when she had shuddered
and stammered before him. She had loved him when she had feared him
as a pitiless master; she had loved him when her distracted heart was
dreaming of Hutin, unconsciously yielding to a desire for affection.
Yes, she had never loved any but this man, whose mere look terrified
her. And all her past life came back to her, unfolding itself in the
blinding light from the window: the hardships of her start, that sweet
walk under the dark foliage of the Tuileries Gardens, and, lastly, the
desires with which he had enveloped her ever since her return. The
letter dropped on the floor and Denise was still gazing at the window,
dazzled by the glare of the sun.

Suddenly there was a knock and she hastened to pick up the missive and
conceal it in her pocket. It was Pauline, who, having slipped away from
her department under some pretext or other, had come up for a little
chat.

“How are you, my dear? We never meet now—-”

As it was against the rules, however, to go up into the bed-rooms, and,
above all, for two of the saleswomen to be shut in together, Denise
took her friend to the end of the passage, to a saloon which Mouret
had gallantly fitted up for the young ladies, who could spend their
evenings there, chatting or sewing, till eleven o’clock. The apartment,
decorated in white and gold, with the vulgar nudity of an hotel room,
was furnished with a piano, a central table, and some arm-chairs and
sofas protected by white covers. After spending a few evenings together
there in the first novelty of the thing, the saleswomen now never
entered the place without coming to high words at once. They required
educating to it; so far their little circle lacked harmony. Meanwhile,
almost the only girl that went there in the evening was the second-hand
of the corset department, Miss Powell, who strummed away at Chopin on
the piano, and whose envied talents were for much in driving the others
away.

“You see my ankle’s better now,” said Denise, “I was just going down.”

“Well!” exclaimed the other, “how zealous you are! I’d take it easy if
I had the chance!”

They had both sat down on a sofa. Pauline’s manner had changed since
her friend had become second-hand in the mantle department. With her
good-natured cordiality there mingled a touch of respect, a sort of
surprise at realizing that the puny little saleswoman of former days
was on the road to fortune. Denise, however, liked her very much, and
amidst the continual gallop of the two hundred women that the firm now
employed, confided in her alone.

“What’s the matter?” asked Pauline, quickly, when she remarked her
companion’s troubled looks.

“Oh! nothing,” replied Denise, with an awkward smile.

“Yes, yes; there’s something the matter with you. Have you no faith in
me, that you have given up telling me your worries?”

Thereupon Denise, in the emotion that was swelling her bosom–an
emotion she could not control–abandoned herself to her feelings. She
gave her friend the letter, stammering: “Look! he has just written to
me.”

Between themselves, they had never openly spoken of Mouret. But this
very silence was like a confession of their secret thoughts. Pauline
knew everything. After having read the letter, she clasped Denise in
her arms, and softly murmured: “My dear, to speak frankly, I thought
it had all happened long ago. Don’t be shocked; I assure you the whole
shop must think as I do. You see, he appointed you as second-hand so
quickly, and then he’s always looking at you. It’s obvious!” She kissed
her affectionately on the cheek and then asked her: “You will go this
evening, of course?”

Denise looked at her without replying and all at once burst into tears,
letting her head fall on Pauline’s shoulder. The latter was quite
astonished. “Come, try and calm yourself; there’s nothing to upset you
like this,” she said.

“No, no; let me be,” stammered Denise. “If you only knew what trouble I
am in! Since I received that letter, I have felt beside myself. Let me
have a good cry, that will relieve me.”

Full of pity, though not understanding, Pauline endeavoured to console
her, declaring that she must not worry, for it was quite certain that
M. Mouret had ceased to pay any attention to Clara; whilst as for that
other lady friend of his, Madame Desforges, it was probably all but so
much gossip. Denise listened, and had she been ignorant of her love,
she could no longer have doubted it after the suffering she felt at the
allusions to those two women. She could again hear Clara’s disagreeable
voice, and see Madame Desforges dragging her about the different
departments with all the scorn of a rich lady for a poor shop-girl.

Then the two friends went on conversing; and at last Denise in a sudden
impulse exclaimed: “But when a man loves a girl he ought to marry her.
Baugé is going to marry you.”

This was true, Baugé, who had left the Bon Marché for The Ladies’
Paradise, was going to marry her about the middle of the month.
Bourdoncle did not like these married couples; however, they had
managed to get the necessary permission, and even hoped to obtain a
fortnight’s holiday for their honeymoon.

On hearing Denise’s remark Pauline laughed heartily. “But, my dear,”
said she. “Baugé is going to marry me because he is Baugé. He’s my
equal, that’s natural. Whereas Monsieur Mouret! Do you think that
Monsieur Mouret could marry one of his saleswomen?”

“Oh! no, oh! no,” exclaimed Denise, shocked by the absurdity of the
question, “and that’s why he ought never to have written to me.”

This argument seemed to astonish Pauline. Her coarse face, with small
tender eyes, assumed quite an expression of maternal pity. Then she
got up, opened the piano, and with one finger softly played the air of
“King Dagobert,” doubtless to enliven the situation. The noises of the
street, the distant melopœia of a woman crying out green peas, ascended
to the bare saloon, whose emptiness seemed increased by the white
coverings of the furniture. Denise had thrown herself back on the sofa,
her head against the woodwork and shaken by a fresh flood of sobs,
which she stifled in her handkerchief.

“Again!” resumed Pauline, turning round. “Really you are not
reasonable. Why did you bring me here? We ought to have stopped in your
room.”

She knelt down before her, and had begun lecturing her again, when a
sound of footsteps was heard in the passage. And thereupon she ran to
the door and looked out.

“Hush! Madame Aurélie!” she murmured. “I’m off, and just you dry your
eyes. She need not know what’s up.”

When Denise was alone, she rose, and forced back her tears; and, her
hands still trembling, fearful of being caught there weeping, she
closed the piano, which her friend had left open. However, on hearing
Madame Aurélie knocking at her door, she at once left the drawing-room.

“What! you are up!” exclaimed the first-hand. “It’s very thoughtless of
you, my dear child. I just came up to see how you were, and to tell you
that we did not require you downstairs.”

Denise assured her, however, that she felt much better and that it
would do her good to have some occupation.

“I shan’t tire myself, madame. You can put me on a chair, and I’ll do
some writing.”

Both then went downstairs. Madame Aurélie, most attentive, insisted on
Denise leaning on her shoulder. She must have noticed the young girl’s
red eyes, for she was stealthily examining her. No doubt she was aware
of much that was going on.

Denise had gained an unexpected victory: she had at last conquered the
department. Formerly she had struggled on for six months, amidst all
the torments of drudgery, without disarming her comrades’ ill-will, but
now in a few weeks she had overcome them, and saw them submissive and
respectful around her. Madame Aurélie’s sudden affection had greatly
assisted her in this ungrateful task of propitiating her companions.
Indeed the first-hand had taken the young girl under her protection
with such warmth that the latter must have been recommended to her
in a very special manner. However, Denise had also brought her own
charm into play in order to disarm her enemies. The task was all the
more difficult from the fact that she had to obtain their forgiveness
for her appointment to the situation of second-hand. The other young
ladies spoke of this at first as an injustice, and even added a lot
of abominable accusations. But in spite of their revolt, the title of
second-hand influenced them, and Denise with her promotion assumed
a certain air of authority which astonished and overawed even the
most hostile spirits. Soon afterwards she actually found flatterers
amongst the new hands; and her sweetness and modesty completed the
conquest. Marguerite came over to her side; and Clara was the only
one to continue her ill-natured ways, still venturing to allude to
Denise as the “unkempt one,” an insult in which nobody now saw any fun.
During the short time that she had engaged Mouret’s attention Clara had
profited by the caprice to neglect her work, being of a wonderfully
idle, gossiping nature unfitted for any responsible duty. Nevertheless
she considered that Denise had robbed her of Madame Frédéric’s place.
She would never have accepted it, on account of the worry; but she was
vexed that no attention had been paid to her claims.

Nine o’clock struck as Denise came down, leaning on Madame Aurélie’s
arm. Out of doors an ardent blue sky was warming the streets, cabs
were rolling towards the railway stations, the whole population of
Paris rigged out in Sunday attire was streaming towards the suburban
woods. Inside the Paradise, which the large open bays flooded with
sunshine, the imprisoned staff had just commenced stock-taking. They
had closed the doors and people halted on the pavement, looking through
the windows in astonishment that the shop should be shut when such
extraordinary activity prevailed inside. From one end of the galleries
to the other, from the top to the bottom floor, there was a continual
tramping of employees; arms were ever being raised and parcels were
flying about above their heads; and all this amidst a tempest of shouts
and calling out of figures, ascending in confusion and becoming a
deafening roar. Each of the thirty-nine departments did its work apart,
without troubling about its neighbour. At this early hour the shelves
had hardly been touched, there were only a few bales of goods on the
floors. They must get up a good deal more steam if they were to finish
that evening.

“Why have you come down?” asked Marguerite of Denise, good-naturedly.
“You’ll only make yourself worse, and we are quite numerous enough to
do the work.”

“That’s what I told her,” declared Madame Aurélie, “but she insisted on
coming down to help us.”

All the young ladies flocked round Denise. The work was even
interrupted for a time. They complimented her, listening with all sorts
of exclamations to the story of her sprained ankle. At last Madame
Aurélie made her sit down at a table; and it was understood that she
should merely write down the articles as they were called out. On such
a day as this they requisitioned all the employees who were capable
of holding a pen: the inspectors, the cashiers, the clerks, even the
shop messengers; and each department annexed some of these assistants
of a day in order to get the work over more quickly. It was thus that
Denise found herself installed near Lhomme the cashier and Joseph the
messenger, both of whom were bending over large sheets of paper.

“Five mantles, cloth, fur trimming, third size, at two hundred and
forty francs!” called Marguerite. “Four ditto, first size, at two
hundred and twenty!”

The work once more commenced. Behind Marguerite three saleswomen were
emptying the cupboards, classifying the articles, and giving them to
her in bundles; and, when she had called them out, she threw them on
the table, where they were gradually accumulating in huge piles. Lhomme
jotted down the articles whilst Joseph checked him by keeping another
list. Whilst this was going on, Madame Aurélie herself, assisted by
three other saleswomen, was counting out the silk garments, which
Denise entered on the sheets of paper given to her. Clara on her side
was looking after the heaps, arranging them in such a manner that they
should occupy the least possible space on the tables. But she was
not paying much attention to her work, for many things were already
tumbling down.

“I say,” she asked of a little saleswoman who had joined that winter,
“are they going to give you a rise? You know that the second-hand is to
have two thousand francs, which, with her commission, will bring her in
nearly seven thousand.”

The little saleswoman, without ceasing to pass some cloaks down,
replied that if they didn’t give her eight hundred francs she would
take her hook. The rises were always given on the day after the
stock-taking; it was also then, as the amount of business done during
the year became known, that the managers of the departments drew their
commission on the increase of this amount, as compared with that of the
preceding year. Thus, despite the bustle and uproar of the work, the
impassioned gossiping went on everywhere. Between every two articles
that were called out, they talked of nothing but money. The rumour ran
that Madame Aurélie’s gains would exceed twenty-five thousand francs;
and this huge sum greatly excited the young ladies. Marguerite, the
best saleswoman after Denise, had for her part made four thousand five
hundred francs, that is fifteen hundred francs salary and about three
thousand francs commission; whilst Clara had not made two thousand five
hundred altogether.

“I don’t care a button for their rises!” she resumed, still talking to
the little saleswoman. “If papa were dead I would jolly soon clear out
of this! Still it exasperates me to see seven thousand francs given to
that strip of a girl! What do you say?”

Madame Aurélie, turning round with her imperial air, violently
interrupted the conversation. “Be quiet, young ladies! We can’t hear
ourselves speak, my word of honour!”

Then she again went on calling out: “Seven mantles, old style,
Sicilian, first size, at a hundred and thirty! Three pelisses,
surah, second size, at a hundred and fifty! Have you got that down,
Mademoiselle Baudu?”

“Yes, madame.”

Clara then had to look after the armfuls of garments piled upon the
tables. She pushed them about, and made some more room. But she soon
left them again to reply to a salesman, who was looking for her.
It was the glover, Mignot, who had escaped from his department. He
whispered a request for twenty francs; he already owed her thirty,
a loan effected on the day after some races when he had lost his
week’s money on a horse; this time he had squandered his commission,
drawn overnight, and had not ten sous left him for his Sunday. Clara
had only ten francs about her, and she lent them with a fairly good
grace. And they then went on talking of a party of six, which they had
formed part of, at a restaurant at Bougival, where the women had paid
their shares. It was much better to do that, they all felt more at
ease. Next, Mignot, who wanted his twenty francs, went and bent over
Lhomme’s shoulder. The latter, stopped in his writing, appeared greatly
troubled. However, he dared not refuse, and was looking for a ten-franc
piece in his purse, when Madame Aurélie, astonished at not hearing the
voice of Marguerite who had been obliged to pause, perceived Mignot,
and understood everything. She roughly sent him back to his department,
saying that she didn’t want any one to come and distract her young
ladies’ attention from their work. The truth was, she dreaded this
young man, a bosom friend of Albert’s, and his accomplice in all sorts
of questionable pranks which she feared would some day turn out badly.
Accordingly, when Mignot had got his ten francs, and run away, she
could not help saying to her husband: “Is it possible! to let a fellow
like that get over you!”

“But, my dear, I really couldn’t refuse the young man.”

She closed his mouth with a shrug of her substantial shoulders. Then,
as the saleswomen were slyly grinning at this family explanation, she
resumed severely: “Now, Mademoiselle Vadon, don’t let us go to sleep.”

“Twenty cloaks, cashmere extra, fourth size, at eighteen francs and a
half,” resumed Marguerite in her sing-song voice.

Lhomme, with his head bowed down, again began writing. They had
gradually raised his salary to nine thousand francs a year; but he was
very humble before Madame Aurélie, who still brought nearly three times
as much into the family.

For a while the work was pushed forward. Figures were bandied
about, garments rained thick and fast on the tables. But Clara had
invented another amusement: she was teasing the messenger, Joseph,
about a passion which he was said to nourish for a young lady in the
pattern-room. This young lady, already twenty-eight years old, and
thin and pale, was a _protégée_ of Madame Desforges, who had wanted
Mouret to engage her as a saleswoman, backing up her recommendation
with a touching story: An orphan, the last of the Fontenailles, an
old and noble family of Poitou, had been thrown on to the streets
of Paris with a drunken father; still she had remained virtuous
amidst this misfortune which was the greater as her education
was altogether too limited to enable her to secure employment as
governess or music-mistress. Mouret generally got angry when any one
recommended these broken-down gentlewomen to him; there were no more
incapable, more insupportable, more narrow-minded creatures than
these gentlewomen, said he; and, besides, a saleswoman could not be
improvised, she must serve an apprenticeship, it was an intricate and
delicate business. However, he took Madame Desforges’s _protégée_
placing her in the pattern-room, in the same way as (to oblige friends)
he had already found places for two countesses and a baroness in the
advertising department, where they addressed wrappers and envelopes.
Mademoiselle de Fontenailles earned three francs a day, which just
enabled her to live in her modest room, in the Rue d’Argenteuil. It was
on seeing her with her sad look and shabby attire, that Joseph’s heart,
very tender despite his rough soldierly manner, had been touched. He
did not confess, but blushed, when the young ladies of the mantle
department chaffed him; for the pattern-room was not far off, and they
had often observed him prowling about the doorway.

“Joseph is somewhat absent-minded,” murmured Clara. “His nose is always
turning towards the under-linen department.”

They had requisitioned Mademoiselle de Fontenailles there, and she
was assisting at the trousseau counter. As the messenger continually
glanced in that direction, the saleswomen began to laugh; whereupon he
became very confused, and plunged into his accounts, whilst Marguerite,
in order to arrest the burst of gaiety which was tickling her throat,
cried out louder still: “Fourteen jackets, English cloth, second size,
at fifteen francs!”

At this, Madame Aurélie, who was calling out some cloaks, could not
make herself heard. She interfered with a wounded air, and a majestic
slowness of manner. “A little softer, mademoiselle. We are not in
a market. And you are all of you very unreasonable, to be amusing
yourselves with such childish matters, when our time is so precious.”

Just at that moment, as Clara was not paying any attention to the
packages, a catastrophe took place. Several mantles tumbled down, and
all the heaps on the tables, carried with them, toppled over one after
the other, so that the carpet was quite strewn with them.

“There! what did I say!” cried the first-hand, beside herself. “Pray be
more careful, Mademoiselle Prunaire; it’s altogether intolerable.”

But a hum ran along: Mouret and Bourdoncle, making their round of
inspection, had just appeared. The voices began calling again and
the pens sputtered, whilst Clara hastened to pick up the garments.
The governor did not interrupt the work. He stood there for several
minutes, mute and smiling, with the gay victorious face of stock-taking
days; and it was only on his lips that a slight feverish quiver
could be detected. When he perceived Denise, he nearly gave way to a
gesture of astonishment. She had come down, then? His eyes met Madame
Aurélie’s. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he went away into the
under-linen department.

However, Denise, warned by the slight noise, had raised her head.
And, having recognised Mouret, she had immediately bent over her work
again. Since she had been writing in this mechanical way, amidst the
calling-out of the goods, a peaceful feeling had stolen over her. She
had always yielded thus to the first outburst of her sensitiveness:
tears suffocated her, and passion increased her torments: but then
she regained her self-command, a grand, calm courage, a quiet but
inexorable strength of will. And now, with her limpid eyes, and pale
complexion, she was free from all agitation, entirely absorbed in her
work, resolved to silence her heart and to do nothing but her will.

Ten o’clock struck, the uproar of the stock-taking was increasing; and
amidst the incessant shouts which rose and flew about on all sides the
same news circulated with surprising rapidity: every salesman knew
that Mouret had written that morning inviting Denise to dinner. The
indiscretion came from Pauline. On going downstairs, still greatly
excited, she had met Deloche in the lace department, and, without
noticing that Liénard was talking to the young man, had immediately
relieved her mind of the secret. “It’s all over, my dear fellow. She’s
just received a letter. He has invited her to dinner for this evening.”

Deloche turned very pale. He had understood, for he often questioned
Pauline; each day they spoke of their common friend, and Mouret’s
passion for her. Moreover, she frequently scolded him for his secret
love for Denise, with whom he would never succeed, and shrugged her
shoulders when he expressed his approval of the girl’s conduct with
reference to their employer.

“Her foot’s better, she’s coming down,” continued Pauline. “Pray don’t
put on that funeral face. There’s no reason to cry.” And thereupon she
hastened back to her department.

“Ah! good!” murmured Liénard, who had heard everything, “you’re talking
about the young girl with the sprain. You were quite right to make
haste in defending her last night at the café!”

Then he also ran off; but before he had returned to the woollen
department, he had already related the story to four or five fellows.
In less than ten minutes, it had gone the round of the whole shop.

Liénard’s last remark to Deloche referred to a scene which had occurred
on the previous evening, at the Café Saint-Roch. Deloche and he were
now constantly together. The former had taken Hutin’s room at the Hôtel
de Smyrne, when that gentleman, on being appointed second-hand, had
hired a suite of three rooms; and the two salesmen came to The Ladies’
Paradise together in the morning, and waited for each other in the
evening in order to go away together. Their rooms, which adjoined one
another, overlooked a black yard, a narrow well, the stench from which
pervaded the hotel. They got on very well together, notwithstanding
their difference of character, the one carelessly squandering the money
which he drew from his father, and the other penniless, perpetually
tormented by ideas of thrift; both having, however, one point in
common, their unskilfulness as salesmen, which kept them vegetating at
their counters, without any increase of salary. After leaving the shop,
they spent the greater part of their time at the Café Saint-Roch. Void
of customers during the day, this café filled at about half-past eight
with an overflowing crowd of employees, the stream of shopmen which
rolled into the street from the great doorway in the Place Gaillon.
Then a deafening uproar of dominoes, laughter and yelping voices burst
forth amidst dense tobacco smoke. Beer and coffee were in great demand.
Seated in the left-hand corner, Liénard would order the most expensive
beverages, whilst Deloche contented himself with a glass of beer, which
he would take four hours to drink. It was here that the latter had
heard Favier relating, at a neighbouring table, some abominable things
about the way in which Denise had “hooked” the governor. He had with
difficulty restrained himself from striking him. However, as the other
went on adding still viler and viler stories of the girl, he had at
last called him a liar, feeling mad with rage.

“What a blackguard!” he had shouted. “It’s a lie, it’s a lie, I tell
you!” And in the emotion agitating him, he had added a confession,
entirely opening his heart in a stammering voice. “I know her, and it
isn’t true. She has never had any affection except for one man; yes,
for Monsieur Hutin, and even he has never noticed it!”

The report of this quarrel, exaggerated and distorted, was already
affording amusement to the whole shop when the story of Mouret’s letter
ran round. In fact, it was to a salesman in the silk department that
Liénard first confided the news. With the silk-vendors the stock-taking
was going on rapidly. Favier and two shopmen, mounted on stools, were
emptying the shelves and passing the pieces of stuff to Hutin who,
standing on a table, called out the figures, after consulting the
tickets; and he then dropped the pieces on to the floor over which
they spread, rising slowly like an autumn tide. Other employees were
writing, Albert Lhomme being among the helpers, his face pale and heavy
after a night spent in a low show at La Chapelle. A sheet of light
fell from the glazed roof of the hall, through which could be seen the
intense blue of the sky.

“Draw those blinds!” cried out Bouthemont who was very busy
superintending the work. “That sun is unbearable!”

Favier, on tiptoe, trying to reach a piece of silk, then grumbled under
his breath: “A nice thing to shut people up on a lovely day like this!
No fear of it raining on stock-taking day! And they keep us under lock
and key, like convicts, when all Paris is out of doors!”

He passed the silk to Hutin. On the ticket was the measurement,
diminished at each sale by the quantity sold; which greatly simplified
the work. The second-hand cried out: “Fancy silk, small check,
twenty-one yards, at six francs and a half.”

And then the piece went to increase the heap already on the floor.
Whilst waiting for another he resumed a conversation previously begun,
by saying to Favier: “So he wanted to fight you?”

“Yes, I was quietly drinking my glass of beer. It was hardly worth his
while to contradict me, for she has just received a letter from the
governor inviting her to dinner. The whole shop is talking about it.”

“What! hadn’t she dined with him before!”

Favier handed him another piece of silk.

“No, it seems not; though my opinion was all the other way.”

The whole department was now joking about the affair, without, however,
allowing the work to suffer. The young girl’s name passed from mouth
to mouth and the salesmen arched their backs and winked. Bouthemont
himself, who took a rare delight in all such stories, could not help
adding his joke. Just then, however, Mignot came down, with the twenty
francs which he had just borrowed, and he stopped to slip ten francs
into Albert’s hand, making an appointment with him for the evening:
a projected spree, hampered by lack of money, but still possible,
notwithstanding the smallness of the sum secured. However, when Mignot
heard about the famous letter, he made such an abominable remark, that
Bouthemont was obliged to interfere. “That’s enough, gentlemen. It
isn’t any of our business. Go on, Monsieur Hutin.”

“Fancy silk, small check, thirty-two yards, at six francs and a half,”
cried out the latter.

The pens started off again, the pieces fell; the flood of material
still increased, as if the water of a river had emptied itself there.
And there was no end to the calling out of the fancy silks. Favier,
in an undertone thereupon remarked that the stock in hand would form
a nice total; the governors would be enchanted; that big fool of a
Bouthemont might be the best buyer in Paris, but as a salesman he was
not worth his salt. Hutin smiled, delighted, and giving the other
a friendly look of approval; for after having himself introduced
Bouthemont to The Ladies’ Paradise, in order to get rid of Robineau, he
was now undermining him also, with the firm intention of depriving him
of his berth. It was the same war as formerly–treacherous insinuations
whispered in the partners’ ears, excessive zeal to push one’s self
forward, a regular campaign carried on with affable cunning. Hutin was
again displaying some condescension towards Favier, but the latter,
thin and frigid with a bilious look, gave him a sly glance as if to
count how many mouthfuls this short, little fellow would make, and
to imply that he was waiting till he had swallowed up Bouthemont, in
order to eat him afterwards. He, Favier, hoped to get the second-hand’s
place, should his friend be appointed manager. And after that they
would see. Consumed by the fever which was raging from one to the other
end of the shop, both of them began talking of the probable increases
of salary, without however ceasing to call out the stock of fancy
silks; they felt sure that Bouthemont would secure thirty thousand
francs that year; Hutin for his part would exceed ten thousand whilst
Favier estimated his pay and commission at five thousand five hundred.
The amount of business in the department was increasing yearly, the
salesmen secured promotion and increase of pay, like officers in time
of war.

“Won’t those fancy silks soon be finished?” asked Bouthemont suddenly,
with an expression of annoyance. “But it was a miserable spring, always
raining! People bought nothing but black silks.”

His fat, jovial face became cloudy as he gazed at the growing heap
on the floor, whilst Hutin called out louder still, in a sonorous
voice tinged with an accent of triumph–“Fancy silks, small check,
twenty-eight yards, at six francs and a half.”

There was still another shelf-full. Favier whose arms were getting
tired, was now progressing but slowly. As he handed Hutin the last
pieces he resumed in a low tone–“Oh! I say, I forgot. Have you heard
that the second-hand in the mantle department once had a regular fancy
for you?”

Hutin seemed greatly surprised. “What! How do you mean?”

“Yes, that great booby Deloche let it out to us. But I remember her
casting sheep’s eyes at you some time back.”

Since his appointment as second-hand Hutin had thrown up his music-hall
singers. Flattered at heart by Favier’s words he nevertheless replied
with a scornful air, “I don’t care for such scraggy creatures.” And
then he called out:

“White Poult, thirty-five yards, at eight francs seventy-five.”

“Oh! at last!” murmured Bouthemont, greatly relieved.

But a bell rang, that for the second table, to which Favier belonged.
He jumped off the stool where another salesman took his place, and
he was obliged to climb over the mountain of materials with which
the floor was littered. Similar heaps were scattered about in every
department; the shelves, the boxes, the cupboards were being gradually
emptied, whilst the goods overflowed on all sides, under-foot, between
the counters and the tables, in ever rising piles. In the linen
department you heard heavy bales of calico falling; in the mercery
department there was a clicking of boxes; whilst distant rumbling
sounds came from amongst the furniture. Every sort of voice was heard
too, shrill, full, deep, and husky, figures whizzed through the air and
a rustling clamour reigned in the immense nave–the clamour of forests
in January when the wind whistles through the branches.

Favier at last got clear and went up the dining-room staircase. Since
the enlargement of The Ladies’ Paradise the refectories had been
shifted to the fourth storey of the new buildings. As he hurried up he
overtook Deloche and Liénard who had gone on before him, so he fell
back on Mignot who was following at his heels.

“The deuce!” said he, in the corridor leading to the kitchen, on
reaching the black-board on which the bill of fare was inscribed, “you
can see it’s stock-taking day. A regular feast! Chicken, or leg of
mutton, and artichokes! Their mutton won’t be much of a success!”

Mignot sniggered, murmuring, “Is there a poultry epidemic on, then?”

However, Deloche and Liénard had taken their portions and gone away.
Favier thereupon leant over the wicket and called out–“Chicken!”

But he had to wait; one of the kitchen helps had cut his finger in
carving, and this caused some confusion. Favier stood there with
his face to the opening, gazing into the kitchen with its giant
appliances. There was a central range, over which, by a system of
chains and pullies, a couple of rails fixed to the ceiling brought
colossal cauldrons which four men could not have lifted. Several
cooks, quite white in the ruddy glow of the cast-iron, were attending
to the evening soup mounted on metal ladders and armed with skimmers
fixed to long handles. Then against the wall were grills large enough
for the roasting of martyrs, saucepans big enough for the stewing of
entire sheep, a monumental plate-warmer, and a marble basin filled by
a continual stream of water. To the left could be seen a scullery with
stone sinks as large as ponds; whilst on the other side, to the right,
was a huge meat-safe, where a glimpse was caught of numerous joints of
red meat hanging from steel hooks. A machine for peeling potatoes was
working with the tic-tac of a mill; and two small trucks laden with
freshly-picked salad were being wheeled by some kitchen helps into a
cool spot under a gigantic filter.

“Chicken,” repeated Favier, getting impatient. Then, turning round, he
added in a lower tone, “One fellow has cut himself. It’s disgusting,
his blood’s running over the food.”

Mignot wanted to see. Quite a string of shopmen had now arrived; there
was a deal of laughing and pushing. The two young men, their heads at
the wicket, exchanged remarks about this phalansterian kitchen, in
which the least important utensils, even the spits and larding pins,
assumed gigantic proportions. Two thousand luncheons and two thousand
dinners had to be served, and the number of employees was increasing
every week. It was quite an abyss, into which something like forty-five
bushels of potatoes, one hundred and twenty pounds of butter, and
sixteen hundred pounds of meat were cast every day; and at each meal
they had to broach three casks of wine, over a hundred and fifty
gallons being served out at the wine counter.

“Ah! at last!” murmured Favier when the cook reappeared with a large
pan, out of which he handed him the leg of a fowl.

“Chicken,” said Mignot behind him.

And with their plates in their hands they both entered the refectory,
after taking their wine at the “bar;” whilst behind them the word
“Chicken” was repeated without cessation, and one could hear the cook
picking up the portions with his fork with a rapid rhythmical sound.

The men’s dining-room was now an immense apartment, supplying ample
room for five hundred people at each repast. The places were laid at
long mahogany tables, placed parallel across the room, and at either
end were similar tables reserved for the managers of departments and
the inspectors; whilst in the centre was a counter for the “extras.”
Right and left large windows admitted a white light to the gallery,
whose ceiling, although over twelve feet from the floor, seemed very
low, owing to the development of the other proportions. The sole
ornaments on the walls, painted a light yellow, were the napkin
cupboards. Beyond this first refectory came that of the messengers and
carmen, where the meals were served irregularly, according to the needs
of the moment.

“What! you’ve got a leg as well, Mignot?” said Favier, as he took his
place at one of the tables opposite his companion.

Other young men now sat down around them. There was no tablecloth, the
plates clattered on the bare mahogany, and in this particular corner
everybody was raising exclamations, for the number of legs distributed
was really prodigious.

“These chickens are all legs!” remarked Mignot.

“Yes, they’re real centipedes,” retorted another salesman.

Those who had merely secured pieces of carcase were greatly
discontented. However, the food had been of much better quality since
the late improvements. Mouret no longer treated with a contractor at
a fixed rate; he had taken the kitchen into his own hands, organizing
it like one of the departments, with a head-cook, under-cooks and an
inspector; and if he spent more money he got on the other hand more
work out of the staff–a practical humanitarian calculation which had
long terrified Bourdoncle.

“Mine is pretty tender, all the same,” said Mignot. “Pass the bread!”

The big loaf was sent round, and after cutting a slice for himself
he dug the knife into the crust. A few dilatory ones now hurried in,
taking their places; a ferocious appetite, increased by the morning’s
work, burst forth from one to the other end of the immense tables.
There was an increasing clatter of forks, a gurgling sound of bottles
being emptied, a noise of glasses laid down too violently amidst the
grinding rumble of five hundred pairs of powerful jaws chewing with
wondrous energy. And the talk, still infrequent, seemed to be hampered
by the fullness of the mouths.

Deloche, however, seated between Baugé and Liénard, found himself
nearly opposite Favier. They had glanced at each other with a rancorous
look. Some neighbours, aware of their quarrel on the previous day,
began whispering together. Then there was a laugh at poor Deloche’s
ill-luck. Although always famished he invariably fell on the worst
piece at table, by a sort of cruel fatality. This time he had come in
for the neck of a chicken and some bits of carcase. Without saying
a word, however, he let them joke away, swallowing large mouthfuls
of bread, and picking the neck with the infinite art of a fellow who
entertains great respect for meat.

“Why don’t you complain?” asked Baugé.

But he shrugged his shoulders. What would be the use of that? It was
always the same. When he did venture to complain things went worse than
ever.




“You know the Bobbinards have got their club now?” said Mignot, all at
once. “Yes, my boy, the ‘Bobbin Club.’ It’s held at a wine shop in the
Rue Saint-Honoré, where they hire a room on Saturdays.”

He was speaking of the mercery salesmen. The whole table began to joke.
Between two mouthfuls, with his voice still thick, each made some
remark, adding a detail; and only the obstinate readers remained mute,
with their noses buried in their newspapers. It could not be denied
that shopmen were gradually assuming a better style; nearly half of
them now spoke English or German. It was no longer considered good form
to go and kick up a row at Bullier or prowl about the music-halls for
the pleasure of hissing ugly singers. No; a score of them got together
and formed a club.

“Have they a piano like the linen-men?” asked Liénard.

“I should rather think they had!” exclaimed Mignot. “And they play, my
boy, and sing! There’s even one of them, little Bavoux, who recites
verses.”

The gaiety redoubled and they chaffed little Bavoux; nevertheless
beneath their laughter lay a great respect. Then they spoke of a piece
at the Vaudeville, in which a counter-jumper played a nasty part,
which annoyed several of them, whilst others began anxiously wondering
at what time they would get away that evening, having invitations to
pass the evening at friends’ houses. And from all points came similar
conversations amidst an increasing rattle of crockery. To drive
away the odour of the food–the warm steam which rose from the five
hundred plates–they had opened the windows, whose lowered blinds
were scorching in the heavy August sun. Burning gusts came in from
the street, golden reflections yellowed the ceiling, steeping the
perspiring eaters in a reddish light.

“A nice thing to shut people up on such a fine Sunday as this!”
repeated Favier.

This remark brought them back to the stock-taking. It had been
a splendid year. And they went on to speak of the salaries–the
rises–the eternal subject, the stirring question which occupied
them all. It was always thus on chicken days; a wonderful excitement
declared itself, the noise at last became unbearable. When the waiters
brought the artichokes you could not hear yourself speak. However, the
inspector on duty had orders to be indulgent.

“By the way,” cried Favier, “you’ve heard the news?”

But his voice was drowned by Mignot asking: “Who doesn’t like
artichoke; I’ll sell my dessert for an artichoke.”

No one replied. Everybody liked artichoke. That lunch would be counted
amongst the good ones, for peaches were to be given for dessert.

“He has invited her to dinner, my dear fellow,” said Favier to his
right-hand neighbour, finishing his story. “What! you didn’t know it?”

The whole table knew it, they were tired of talking about it since
early morning. And the same poor jokes passed from mouth to mouth.
Deloche was quivering again, and his eyes at last rested on Favier,
who was persisting in his shameful remarks. But all at once the silk
salesman ducked his head, for Deloche, yielding to an irresistible
impulse, had thrown his last glass of wine into his face, stammering:
“Take that, you infernal liar! I ought to have drenched you yesterday!”

This caused quite a scandal. A few drops had spurted on Favier’s
neighbours, whilst he himself only had his hair slightly wetted: the
wine, thrown by an awkward hand, had fallen on the other side of the
table. However, the others got angry, asking Deloche if the girl was
his property that he defended her in this way? What a brute he was!
he deserved a good drubbing to teach him better manners. However,
their voices fell, for an inspector was observed coming along, and it
was useless to let the management interfere in the quarrel. Favier
contented himself with saying: “If it had caught me, you would have
seen some sport!”

Then the affair wound up in jeers. When Deloche, still trembling,
wished to drink by way of hiding his confusion, and mechanically caught
hold of his empty glass, they all burst out laughing. He laid his glass
down again awkwardly enough and commenced sucking the leaves of the
artichoke which he had already eaten.

“Pass Deloche the water bottle,” said Mignot, quietly; “he’s thirsty.”

The laughter increased. The young men took clean plates from the piles
standing at equal distances on the table whilst the waiters handed
round the dessert, which consisted of peaches, in baskets. And they
all held their sides when Mignot added, with a grin: “Each man to his
taste. Deloche takes wine with his peaches.”

Deloche, however, sat motionless, with his head hanging down, as if
deaf to the joking going on around him: he was full of despairing
regret at thought of what he had just done. Those fellows were
right–what right had he to defend her? They would now think all sorts
of villainous things: he could have killed himself for having thus
compromised her, in attempting to prove her innocence. Such was always
his luck, he might just as well kill himself at once, for he could not
even yield to the promptings of his heart without doing some stupid
thing. And then tears came into his eyes. Was it not also his fault
if the whole shop was talking of the letter written by the governor?
He heard them grinning and making abominable remarks about this
invitation, which Liénard alone had been informed of, and he reproached
himself, he ought never to have let Pauline speak before that fellow;
he was really responsible for the annoying indiscretion which had been
committed.

“Why did you go and relate that?” he murmured at last in a sorrowful
voice. “It’s very wrong.”

“I?” replied Liénard; “but I only told it to one or two persons,
enjoining secrecy. One never knows how these things get about!”

When Deloche made up his mind to drink a glass of water everybody burst
out laughing again. They had finished their meal and were lolling back
on their chairs waiting for the bell to recall them to work. They had
not asked for many extras at the great central counter, especially as
on stock-taking day the firm treated them to coffee. The cups were
steaming, perspiring faces shone under the light vapour, floating
like bluey clouds from cigarettes. At the windows the blinds hung
motionless, without the slightest flapping. One of them, on being drawn
up, admitted a ray of sunshine which sped across the room and gilded
the ceiling. The uproar of the voices beat upon the walls with such
force that the bell was at first only heard by those at the tables
near the door. Then they got up and for some time the corridors were
full of the confusion of the departure. Deloche, however, remained
behind to escape the malicious remarks that were still being made.
Baugé even went out before him, and Baugé was, as a rule, the last to
leave, taking a circuitous route so as to meet Pauline on he way to the
ladies’ dining-room; a manœuvre they had arranged between them–the
only chance they had of seeing one another for a minute during business
hours. That day, however, just as they were indulging in a loving kiss
in a corner of the passage they were surprised by Denise, who was also
going up to lunch. She was walking slowly on account of her foot.

“Oh! my dear,” stammered Pauline, very red, “don’t say anything, will
you?”

Baugé, with his big limbs and giant stature, was trembling like a
little boy. He muttered, “They’d precious soon pitch us out. Although
our marriage may be announced, they don’t allow any kissing, the
brutes!”

Denise, greatly agitated, affected not to have seen them: and Baugé
disappeared just as Deloche, also going the longest way round, in his
turn appeared. He wished to apologize, stammering out phrases that
Denise did not at first catch. Then, as he blamed Pauline for having
spoken before Liénard, and she stood there looking very embarrassed,
Denise at last understood the meaning of the whispers she had heard
around her all the morning. It was the story of the letter circulating.
And again was she shaken by the shiver with which this letter had
agitated her.

“But I didn’t know,” repeated Pauline. “Besides, there’s nothing bad in
the letter. Let them gossip; they’re jealous, of course!”

“My dear,” said Denise at last, with her sensible air, “I don’t blame
you in any way! You’ve spoken nothing but the truth. I _have_ received
a letter, and it is my duty to answer it.”

Deloche went off heart-broken, in the belief that the girl accepted the
situation and would keep the appointment that evening. When the two
saleswomen had lunched in a small room, adjoining the larger one where
the women were served much more comfortably, Pauline had to assist
Denise downstairs again as her sprain was getting more painful.

In the afternoon warmth below, the stock-taking was roaring more loudly
than ever. The moment for the supreme effort had arrived, when, as the
work had not made much progress during the morning, everybody put forth
their strength in order that all might be finished that night. The
voices grew louder still, you saw nothing but waving arms continually
emptying the shelves and throwing the goods down; and it was impossible
to get along for the tide of the bales and packages on the floor rose
as high as the counters. A sea of heads, brandished fists, and flying
limbs seemed to extend to the very depths of the departments, with
the confused aspect of a distant riot. It was the last fever of the
clearing, the machine seemed ready to burst; and past the plate-glass
windows all round the closed shop there still went a few pedestrians,
pale with the stifling boredom of a summer Sunday. On the pavement
in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin three tall girls, bareheaded and
sluttish-looking, were impudently pressing their faces against the
windows, trying to see the curious work going on inside.

When Denise returned to the mantle department Madame Aurélie told
Marguerite to finish calling out the garments. There was still the
checking to be done, and for this, being desirous of silence, she
retired into the pattern-room, taking Denise with her.

“Come with me, we’ll do the checking;” she said, “and then you can add
up the figures.”

However, as she wished to leave the door open, in order to keep an
eye on her young ladies, the noise came in, and they could not hear
themselves much better even in this pattern-room–a large, square
apartment furnished merely with some chairs and three long tables. In
one corner were the great machine knives, for cutting up the patterns.
Entire pieces of stuff were consumed; every year they sent away more
than sixty thousand francs’ worth of material, cut up in strips. From
morning to night, the knives were cutting silk, wool, and linen, with
a scythe-like noise. Then, too, the books had to be got together,
gummed or sewn. And between the two windows, there was also a little
printing-press for the tickets.

“Not so loud, please!” cried Madame Aurélie every now and again, quite
unable as she was to hear Denise reading out the articles.

Then, the checking of the first lists being completed, she left the
young girl at one of the tables, absorbed in the adding-up; but came
back almost immediately, and placed Mademoiselle de Fontenailles
near her. The under-linen department not requiring Madame Desforges’
_protégée_ any longer, had placed her at her disposal. She could also
do some adding-up, it would save time. But the appearance of the
marchioness, as Clara ill-naturedly called the poor creature, had
disturbed the department. They laughed and joked at poor Joseph, and
their ferocious sallies were wafted into the pattern-room.

“Don’t draw back, you are not at all in my way,” said Denise, seized
with pity. “My inkstand will suffice, we’ll dip together.”

Mademoiselle de Fontenailles, brutified by her unfortunate position,
could not even find a word of gratitude. She looked like a woman who
drank, her meagre face had a livid hue, and her hands alone, white and
delicate, attested the distinction of her birth.

However, the laughter all at once ceased, and the work resumed its
regular roar. Mouret was once more going through the departments. But
he stopped and looked round for Denise, surprised at not seeing her
there. Then he made a sign to Madame Aurélie; and both drew aside, and
for a moment talked in a low tone. He must have been questioning her.
She nodded towards the pattern-room and then seemed to be making a
report. No doubt she was relating that the young girl had been weeping
that morning.

“Very good!” said Mouret, aloud, coming nearer. “Show me the lists.”

“This way, sir,” said the first-hand. “We have run away from the noise.”

He followed her into the next room. Clara was not duped by this
manœuvre, but Marguerite threw her the garments at a quicker rate,
in order to take up her attention and close her mouth. Wasn’t the
second-hand a good comrade? Her affairs did not concern them. The
whole department was now aiding and abetting the intrigue, the young
ladies grew more agitated than ever, Lhomme and Joseph affected not
to see or hear anything. And inspector Jouve, who, in passing by, had
remarked Madame Aurélie’s tactics, began walking up and down before the
pattern-room door, with the regular step of a sentry guarding the will
and pleasure of a superior.

“Give Monsieur Mouret the lists,” said the first-hand.

Denise handed them over, and sat there with her eyes raised. She had
started slightly, but had promptly conquered herself, and retained a
fine calm look, although her cheeks were pale. For a moment, Mouret
appeared to be absorbed in the lists of articles, never giving the girl
a glance. A silence reigned, then Madame Aurélie all at once stepped up
to Mademoiselle de Fontenailles, who had not even turned her head, and,
apparently dissatisfied with her counting, said to her in an undertone:

“Go and help with the parcels. You are not used to figures.”

Mademoiselle de Fontenailles got up, and returned to the department,
where she was greeted with whispering. Joseph, under the laughing eyes
of these young minxes, was writing anyhow. Clara though delighted to
have an assistant nevertheless treated her very roughly, hating her as
she hated all the women in the shop. What an idiotic thing to yield to
the love of a workman, when you were a marchioness! And yet she envied
the poor creature this love.

“Very good!” repeated Mouret, still pretending to read.

However, Madame Aurélie hardly knew how to get away in her turn in a
decent fashion. She turned about, went to look at the machine knives,
furious with her husband for not inventing a pretext for calling her.
But then he was never of any use in serious matters, he would have died
of thirst close to a pond. It was Marguerite who proved intelligent
enough to go and ask the first-hand a question.

“I’m coming,” replied the latter.

And her dignity now being saved, having a pretext to join the young
ladies who were watching her, she at last left Denise and Mouret alone
together, coming out of the pattern-room with a majestic step and so
noble an air, that the saleswomen did not even dare to smile.

Mouret had slowly laid the lists on the table, and stood looking at
Denise, who had remained seated, pen in hand. She did not avert her
gaze, but she had merely turned paler.

“You will come this evening?” asked he.

“No, sir, I cannot. My brothers are to be at my uncle’s to-night, and I
have promised to dine with them.”

“But your foot! You walk with such difficulty.”

“Oh, I can get so far very well. I feel much better since the morning.”

In his turn he had turned pale on hearing this quiet refusal. A nervous
revolt made his lips quiver. However, he restrained himself, and with
the air of a good-natured master simply interesting himself in one of
his young ladies resumed: “Come now, if I begged of you–You know what
great esteem I have for you.”

Denise retained her respectful attitude. “I am deeply touched, sir, by
your kindness to me, and thank you for this invitation. But I repeat, I
cannot; my brothers expect me this evening.”

She persisted in not understanding. The door remained open, and she
felt that the whole shop was urging her on to ruin. Pauline had
amicably called her a great simpleton; the others would laugh at her
if she refused the invitation; Madame Aurélie, who had gone away,
Marguerite, whose rising voice she could hear, Lhomme, whom she could
espy, sitting motionless and discreet, all these people were wishing
for her fall. And the distant roar of the stock-taking, the millions of
goods enumerated on all sides and thrown about in every direction, were
like a warm breeze wafting the breath of passion towards her. There
was a silence. Now and again, Mouret’s voice was drowned by the noisy
accompaniment, the formidable uproar of a kingly fortune gained in
battle.

“When will you come, then?” he asked again. “To-morrow?”

This simple question troubled Denise. She lost her calmness for a
moment, and stammered: “I don’t know–I can’t—-”

He smiled, and tried to take her hand, which she withheld. “What are
you afraid of?” he asked.

But she quickly raised her head, looked him straight in the face, and
smiling, with her sweet, brave look replied: “I am afraid of nothing,
sir. I can do as I like, can I not? I don’t wish to, that’s all!”

As she finished speaking, she was surprised to hear a creaking noise,
and on turning round saw the door slowly closing. It was inspector
Jouve, who had taken upon himself to pull it to. The doors were a part
of his duty, none ought ever to remain open. And he gravely resumed his
position as sentinel. No one appeared to have noticed that this door
was being closed in such a simple manner. Clara alone risked a strong
remark in the ear of Mademoiselle de Fontenailles, but the latter’s
face remained expressionless.

Denise, however, had risen. Mouret was saying to her in a low and
trembling voice: “Listen, Denise, I love you. You have long known it,
pray don’t be so cruel as to play the ignorant. I love you, Denise!”
She was standing there very pale, listening to him and still looking
straight into his face. “Tell me,” he went on. “Why do you refuse? Have
you no wants? Your brothers are a heavy burden. Anything you might ask
of me, anything you might require of me—-”

But with a word, she stopped him: “Thanks, I now earn more than I need.”

“But it’s perfect liberty that I am offering you, an existence of
pleasure and luxury. I will set you up in a home of your own. I will
assure you a little fortune.”

“No, thanks; I should soon get tired of doing nothing. I earned my own
living before I was ten years old.”

He made a wild gesture. This was the first one who did not yield. With
the others he had merely had to stoop. His passion, long restrained,
goaded on by resistance, became stronger than ever, and he pressed her
more and more urgently.

But without faltering she each time replied “No–no.”

Then at last he let this heart-cry escape him: “But don’t you see that
I am suffering! Yes, it’s stupid, but I am suffering like a child!”

Tears came into his eyes. A fresh silence reigned. They could still
hear the softened roar of the stock-taking behind the closed door. It
was like a dying note of triumph, the accompaniment subsided into a
lower key in presence of this defeat of the master.

“And yet if I liked—-” he said in an ardent voice, seizing her hands.

She left them in his, her eyes turned pale, her whole strength was
deserting her. A warmth came from this man’s burning grasp, filling her
with a delicious cowardice. Good heavens! how she loved him, and with
what delight she could have hung on his neck and remained there!

But in his passionate excitement he grew brutal. She set up a low
cry; the pain she felt at her wrists restored her courage. With an
angry shake she freed herself. Then, very stiff, looking taller in her
weakness: “No, leave me alone! I am not a Clara, to be thrown over in a
day. Besides, you love another; yes, that lady who comes here. I do not
accept half an affection!”

He remained motionless with surprise. What was she saying, and what did
she want? The other girls had never asked to be loved. He ought to have
laughed at such an idea; yet this attitude of tender pride completely
conquered his heart.

“Now, sir, please open the door,” she resumed. “It is not proper that
we should be shut up together in this way.”

He obeyed; and with his temples throbbing, hardly knowing how to
conceal his anguish, he recalled Madame Aurélie, and broke out
angrily about the stock of cloaks, saying that the prices must be
lowered, until every one had been got rid of. Such was the rule of
the house–a clean sweep was made every year, they sold at sixty per
cent. loss rather than keep an old pattern or any stale material.
At that moment, Bourdoncle, seeking Mouret, was waiting for him
outside, having been stopped before the closed door by Jouve, who had
whispered a word in his ear with a grave air. He got very impatient,
without however, summoning up sufficient courage to interrupt the
governor’s _tête-à-tête_. Was it possible? on such a day too, and with
that creature! And when Mouret at last came out Bourdoncle spoke to
him about the fancy silks, of which the stock left on hand would be
something enormous This was a relief for Mouret, as it gave him an
opportunity for shouting. What the devil was Bouthemont thinking about?
He went off declaring that he could not allow a buyer to display such
lack of sense as to buy beyond the requirements of the business.

“What is the matter with him?” murmured Madame Aurélie, quite overcome
by his reproaches; while the young ladies looked at each other in
surprise.

At six o’clock the stock-taking was finished. The sun was still
shining–a fair summer sun, whose golden reflections streamed through
the glazed roofs of the halls. In the heavy air of the streets, tired
families were already returning from the suburbs laden with bouquets
and dragging their children along. One by one, the departments had
become silent. In the depths of the galleries you now only heard the
lingering calls of a few men clearing a last shelf. Then even these
voices ceased, and of all the bustle of the day there only remained a
quivering vibration, above the formidable piles of goods. The shelves,
cupboards, boxes, and band-boxes, were now empty: not a yard of
stuff, not an object of any sort had remained in its place. The vast
establishment displayed but the carcase of its usual appearance, the
woodwork was absolutely bare, as on the day of taking possession. This
bareness was the visible proof of the complete, exact taking of the
stock. And on the floor was sixteen million francs’ worth of goods, a
rising sea, which had finished by submerging the tables and counters.
However, the shopmen, surrounded to the shoulders, began to put each
article back into its place. They expected to finish by about ten
o’clock.

When Madame Aurélie, who went to the first dinner, came back from the
dining-room, she announced the amount of business done during the year,
which the totals of the various departments had just enabled one to
arrive at. The figure was eighty million francs, ten millions more than
the previous year. The only real decrease had been on the fancy silks.

“If Monsieur Mouret is not satisfied, I should like to know what more
he wants,” added the first-hand. “See! he’s fuming over there, at the
top of the grand staircase.”

The young ladies went to look at him. He was standing alone, with a
sombre countenance, above the millions scattered at his feet.

“Madame,” said Denise, at this moment, “would you kindly let me go away
now? I can’t do anything more on account of my foot, and as I am to
dine at my uncle’s with my brothers—-”

They were all astonished. She had not yielded, then! Madame Aurélie
hesitated, and speaking in a sharp and disagreeable voice, seemed
inclined to forbid her going out; whilst Clara shrugged her shoulders,
full of incredulity. When Pauline learnt the news, she was in the
baby-linen department with Deloche, and the sudden joy exhibited by the
young man made her very angry. As for Bourdoncle, who did not dare to
approach Mouret in his savage isolation, he marched up and down amidst
these rumours, in despair also, and full of anxiety. However, Denise
went down. As she slowly reached the bottom of the left-hand staircase,
leaning on the banister, she came upon a group of grinning salesmen.
Her name was pronounced, and she realized that they were talking about
her adventure. They had not noticed her descent.

“Oh! all that’s put on, you know,” Favier was saying. “She’s full of
vice! Yes, I know some one whom she set her eyes on.”

And thereupon he glanced at Hutin, who, in order to preserve his
dignity as second-hand, was standing a short distance away without
joining in their conversation. However, he was so flattered by the
envious air with which the others contemplated him, that he deigned to
murmur: “She was a regular nuisance to me, was that girl!”

Denise, wounded to the heart, clung to the banister. They must have
seen her, for they all disappeared, laughing. He was right, she
thought, and she reproached herself for her former ignorance, when
she had been wont to think of him. But what a coward he was, and how
she scorned him now! A great trouble had come upon her; was it not
strange that she should have found the strength just now to repulse
a man whom she adored, when she had felt herself so feeble in bygone
days before that worthless fellow, whom she had only dreamed of? Her
sense of reason and her bravery foundered in these contradictions of
her being, which she could not clearly read. Then she hastened to cross
the hall but a sort of instinct prompted her to raise her head, whilst
an inspector was opening the door, closed since the morning. And still
at the top of the stairs, on the great central landing dominating the
gallery, she perceived Mouret. He had quite forgotten the stock-taking,
he no longer beheld his empire, that building bursting with riches.
Everything had disappeared, his former uproarious victories, his future
colossal fortune. With a desponding look he was watching Denise and
when she had crossed the threshold everything disappeared, a darkness
came over the house.