She would go away

It was on the 25th of September that the building of the new façade
of The Ladies’ Paradise was commenced. Baron Hartmann, according to his
promise, had had the matter settled at the last general meeting of
the Credit Immobilier. And Mouret was at length going to enjoy the
realisation of his dreams; this façade, about to arise in the Rue du
Dix-Décembre, was like the very blossoming of his fortune. He wished,
therefore, to celebrate the laying of the first stone, to make a
ceremony of the work, and he distributed gratuities amongst his
employees, and gave them game and champagne for dinner in the evening.
Every one noticed his wonderfully good humour during the ceremony, his
victorious gesture as he laid the first stone, with a flourish of the
trowel. For weeks he had been anxious, agitated by a nervous torment
that he did not always succeed in concealing; and his triumph served
as a respite, a distraction in his suffering. During the afternoon he
seemed to have returned to his former healthy gaiety. But, after dinner,
when he went through the refectory to drink a glass of champagne with
his staff, he appeared feverish again, smiling with a painful look, his
features drawn up by the unavowed pain that was devouring him. He was
once more mastered by it.

The next day, in the ready-made department, Clara tried to be
disagreeable with Denise. She had noticed Colomban’s bashful passion,
and took it into her head to joke about the Baudus. As Marguerite was
sharpening her pencil while waiting for customers, she said to her, in a
loud voice:

“You know my lover opposite. It really grieves me to see him in that
dark shop, where no one ever enters.”

“He’s not so badly off,” replied Marguerite, “he’s going to marry the
governor’s daughter.”

“Oh! oh!” replied Clara, “it would be good fun to lead him astray, then!
I’ll try the game on, my word of honour!” And she continued in the
same strain, happy to feel Denise was shocked. The latter forgave her
everything else; but the idea of her dying cousin Geneviève, finished
by this cruelty, threw her into an indignant rage. At that moment a
customer came in, and as Madame Aurélie had just gone downstairs, she
took the direction of the counter, and called Clara.

“Mademoiselle Prunaire, you had better attend to this lady instead of
gossiping there.”

“I wasn’t gossiping.”

“Have the kindness to hold your tongue, and attend to this lady
immediately.”

Clara gave in, conquered. When Denise showed her authority, quietly,
without raising her voice, not one of them resisted. She had acquired
absolute authority by her very moderation and sweetness. For a moment
she walked up and down in silence, amidst the young ladies, who had
become very serious. Marguerite had resumed sharpening her pencil, the
point of which was always breaking. She alone continued to approve of
Denise’s resistance to Mouret, shaking her head, not acknowledging
the baby she had had, but declaring that if they had any idea of the
consequences of such a thing, they would prefer to remain virtuous.

“What! you’re getting angry?” said a voice behind Denise.

It was Pauline, who was crossing the department. She had noticed the
scene, and spoke in a low tone, smiling.

“But I’m obliged to,” replied Denise in the same tone, “I can’t manage
them otherwise.”

Pauline shrugged her shoulders. “Nonsense, you can be queen over all of
us whenever you like.”

She was still unable to understand her friend’s refusal. Since the end
of August, Pauline had been married to Baugé, a most stupid affair,
she would sometimes gaily remark. The terrible Bourdoncle treated her
anyhow, now, considering her as lost for trade. Her only terror was that
they might one fine day send them to love each other elsewhere, for
the managers had decreed love to be execrable and fatal to business.
So great was her fear, that, when she met Baugé in the galleries,
she affected not to know him. She had just had a fright–old Jouve had
nearly caught her talking to her husband behind a pile of dusters.

“See! he’s followed me,” added she, after having hastily related the
adventure to Denise. “Just look at him scenting me out with his big
nose!”

Jouve, in fact, was then coming from the lace department, correctly
arrayed in a white tie, his nose on the scent for some delinquent.
But when he saw Denise he assumed a knowing air, and passed by with an
amiable smile.

“Saved!” murmured Pauline. “My dear, you made him swallow that! I say,
if anything should happen to me, you would speak for me, wouldn’t you!
Yes, yes, don’t put on that astonished air, we know that a word from you
would revolutionise the house.”

And she ran off to her counter. Denise had blushed, troubled by these
amicable allusions. It was true, however. She had a vague sensation of
her power by the flatteries with which she was surrounded. When Madame
Aurélie returned, and found the department quiet and busy under the
surveillance of the second-hand, she smiled at her amicably. She threw
over Mouret himself, her amiability increased daily for this young girl
who might one fine morning desire her situation as first-hand. Denise’s
reign was commencing.

Bourdoncle alone still stood out. In the secret war which he continued
to carry on against the young girl, there was in the first place a
natural antipathy, he detested her for her gentleness and her charm.
Then he fought against her as a fatal influence which would place
the house in peril the day when Mouret should succumb. The governor’s
commercial genius seemed bound to sink amidst this stupid affection:
what they had gained by women would be swallowed up by this woman. None
of them touched his heart, he treated them with the disdain of a man
without passion, whose trade is to live on them, and who had had his
last illusions dispelled by seeing them too closely in the miseries of
his traffic. Instead of intoxicating him, the odour of these seventy
thousand customers gave him frightful headaches: and so soon as he
reached home he beat his mistresses. And what made him especially
anxious in the presence of this little saleswoman, who had gradually
become so redoubtable, was that he did not in the least believe in her
disinterestedness, in the genuineness of her refusals. For him she was
playing a part, the most skilful of parts; for if she had yielded at
once, Mouret would doubtless have forgotten her the next day; whilst by
refusing, she had goaded his desires, rendering him mad, capable of any
folly. An artful jade, a woman learned in vice, would not have acted any
different to this pattern of innocence.

Thus Bourdoncle could never catch sight of her, with her clear eyes,
sweet face, and simple attitude, without being seized with a real fear,
as if he had before him some disguised female flesh-eater, the sombre
enigma of woman, Death in the guise of a virgin. In what way could he
confound the tactics of this false novice? He was now only anxious to
penetrate her artful ways, in the hope of exposing them to the light of
day. She would certainly commit some fault, he would surprise her with
one of her lovers, and she should again be dismissed. The house would
then resume its regular working like a well wound-up machine.

“Keep a good look-out, Monsieur Jouve,” repeated Bourdoncle to the
inspector. “I’ll take care that you shall be rewarded.”

But Jouve was somewhat lukewarm, he knew something about women, and was
asking himself whether he had not better take the part of this young
girl, who might be the future sovereign mistress of the place. Though he
did not now dare to touch her, he still thought her bewitchingly pretty.
His colonel in bygone days had killed himself for a similar little
thing, with an insignificant face, delicate and modest, one look from
whom ravaged all hearts.

“I do,” replied he. “But, on my word, I cannot discover anything.”

And yet stories were circulating, there was quite a stream of abominable
tittle-tattle running beneath the flattery and respect Denise felt
arising around her. The whole house now declared that she had formerly
had Hutin for a lover; no one could swear that the intimacy still
continued, but they were suspected of meeting from time to time. Deloche
also was said to sleep with her, they were continually meeting in dark
corners, talking for hours together. It was quite a scandal!

“So, nothing about the first-hand in the silk department, nor about the
young man in the lace one?” asked Bourdoncle.

“No, sir, nothing yet,” replied the inspector.

It was with Deloche especially that Bourdoncle expected to surprise
Denise. One morning he himself had caught them laughing together
downstairs. In the meantime, he treated her on a footing of perfect
equality, for he no longer disdained her, he felt her to be strong
enough to overthrow even him, notwithstanding his ten years’ service, if
he lost the game.

“Keep your eye on the young man in the lace department,” concluded he
each time. “They are always together. If you catch them, call me, I’ll
manage the rest.”

Mouret, however, was living in anguish. Was it possible that this child
could torture him in this manner? He could always recall her arriving at
The Ladies’ Paradise, with her big shoes, thin black dress, and savage
airs. She stammered, they all used to laugh at her, he himself had
thought her ugly at first. Ugly! and now she could have brought him on
his knees by a look, he thought her nothing less than an angel! Then she
had remained the last in the house, repulsed, joked at, treated by him
as a curious specimen of humanity. For months he had wanted to see how
a girl sprung up, and had amused himself at this experiment, without
understanding that he was risking his heart. She, little by little grew
up, became redoubtable. Perhaps he had loved her from the first moment,
even at the time he thought he felt nothing but pity for her. And yet he
had only really begun to feel this love the evening of their walk under
the chestnut trees of the Tuileries. His life started from there, he
could still hear the laughing of a group of little girls, the distant
fall of a jet of water, whilst in the warm shade she walked on beside
him in silence. After that he knew no more, his fever had increased hour
by hour; all his blood, his whole being, in fact, was sacrificed. And
for such a child–was it possible? When she passed him now, the slight
wind from her dress seemed so powerful that he staggered.

For a long time he had struggled, and even now he frequently became
indignant, endeavouring to extricate himself from this idiotic
possession. What secret had she to be able to bind him in this way? Had
he not seen her without boots? Had she not been received almost out of
charity? He could have understood it had it been a question of one of
those superb creatures who charm the crowd, but this little girl; this
nobody! She had, in short, one of those insignificant faces which excite
no remark. She could not even be very intelligent, for he remembered her
bad beginning as a saleswoman. But, after every explosion of anger, he
had experienced a relapse of passion, like a sacred terror at having
insulted his idol. She possessed everything that renders a woman
good–courage, gaiety, simplicity; and there exhaled from her
gentleness, a charm of a penetrating, perfume-like subtlety. One might
at first ignore her, or elbow her like any other girl; but the charm
soon began to act, with a slow invincible force; one belonged to her for
ever, if she deigned to smile. Everything then smiled in her white face,
her pretty eyes, her cheeks and chin full of dimples; whilst her heavy
blonde hair seemed to light up also, with a royal and conquering beauty.
He acknowledged himself vanquished; she was as intelligent as she was
beautiful, her intelligence came from the best part of her being. Whilst
the other saleswomen had only a superficial education, the varnish which
scales off from girls of that class, she, without any false elegance,
retained her native grace, the savour of her origin. The most complete
commercial ideas sprang up from her experience, under this narrow
forehead, the pure lines of which clearly announced the presence of a
firm will and a love of order. And he could have clasped his hands to
ask her pardon for having blasphemed her during his hours of revolt.

Why did she still refuse with such obstinacy. Twenty times had he
entreated her, increasing his offers, offering money and more money.
Then, thinking she must be ambitious, he had promised to appoint her
first-hand, as soon as there should be a vacant department And she
refused, and still she refused Î For him it was a stupor, a struggle
in which his desire became enraged. Such an adventure appeared to him
impossible, this child would certainly finish by yielding, for he had
always regarded a woman’s virtue as a relative matter. He could see no
other object, everything disappeared before this necessity: to have
her at last in his room, to take her on his knees, and, kiss her on her
lips; and at this vision, the blood of his veins ran quick and strong,
he trembled, distracted by his own powerlessness.

His days now passed in the same grievous obsession, Denise’s image rose
with him; after having dreamed of her all night, it followed him before
the desk in his office, where he signed his bills and orders from nine
to ten o’clock: a work which he accomplished mechanically, never ceasing
to feel her present, still saying no, with her quiet air. Then, at ten
o’clock, came the board-meeting, a meeting of the twelve directors, at
which he had to preside; they discussed matters affecting the in-door
arrangements, examined the purchases, settled the window displays; and
she was still there, he heard her soft voice amidst the figures, he saw
her bright smile in the most complicated financial situations. After
the board-meeting, she still accompanied him, making with him the daily
inspection of the counters, returned with him to his office in the
afternoon, remaining close to his chair from two till four o’clock,
whilst he received a crowd of important business men, the principal
manufacturers of all France, bankers, inventors; a continual come-and-go
of the riches and intelligence of the land, an excited dance of
millions, rapid interviews during which were hatched the biggest affairs
on the Paris market. If he forgot her for a moment whilst deciding
on the ruin or the prosperity of an industry, he found her again at a
twitch of his heart; his voice died away, he asked himself what was the
use of this princely fortune when she still refused. At last, when five
o’clock struck, he had to sign the day’s correspondence, the mechanical
working of his hand again commenced, whilst she rose up before him more
dominating than ever, seizing him entirely, to possess him during the
solitary and ardent hours of the night. And the morrow was the same day
over again, those days so active, so full of a colossal labour, which
the slight shadow of a child sufficed to ravage with anguish.

But it was especially during his daily inspection of the departments
that he felt his misery. To have built up this giant machine, to reign
over such a world of people, and to be dying of grief because a little
girl would not accept him! He scorned himself, dragging the fever and
shame of his pain about with him everywhere. On certain days he became
disgusted with his power, feeling a nausea at the very sight of the long
galleries. At other times he would have wished to extend his empire, and
make it so vast that she would perhaps yield out of sheer admiration and
fear.

He first of all stopped in the basement opposite the shoot. It was still
in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin; but it had been necessary to enlarge
it, and it was now as wide as the bed of a river, down which the
continual flood of goods rolled with the loud noise of rushing water; it
was a constant succession of arrivals from all parts of the world, rows
of waggons from all railways, a ceaseless discharging of merchandise,
a stream of boxes and bales running underground, absorbed by the
insatiable establishment. He gazed at this torrent flowing into his
house, thought of his position as one of the masters of the public
fortune, that he held in his hands the fate of the French manufacturers,
and that he was unable to buy a kiss from one of his saleswomen.

Then he passed on to the receiving department, which now occupied that
part of the basement running along the Rue Monsigny. Twenty tables were
ranged there, in the pale light of the air-holes; dozens of shopmen were
bustling about, emptying the cases, checking the goods, and marking them
in plain figures, amidst the roar of the shoot, which almost drowned
their voices. Various managers of departments stopped him, he had to
resolve difficulties and confirm orders. This cellar was filled with the
tender glimmer of the satin, the whiteness of the linen, a prodigious
unpacking in which the furs were mingled with the lace, the fancy goods
with the Eastern curtains. With a slow step he made his way amongst all
these riches thrown about in disorder, heaped up in their rough state.
Above, they were destined to ornament the window displays, letting loose
the race after money across the counters, no sooner shown than carried
off, in the furious current of business which traversed the place. He
thought of his having offered the young girl silks, velvets, anything
she liked to take in any quantities, from these enormous heaps, and that
she had refused by a shake of her fair head.

After that, he passed on to the other end of the basement, to pay his
usual visit to the delivery department. Interminable corridors ran
along, lighted up with gas; to the right and to the left, the reserves,
closed in with gratings, were like so many subterranean stores, a
complete commercial quarter, with its haberdashery, underclothing,
glove, and other shops, sleeping in the shade. Further on was placed
one of the three stoves; further still, a fireman’s post guarding
the gas-meter, enclosed in its iron cage. He found, in the delivery
department, the sorting tables already blocked with loads of parcels,
bandboxes, and cases, continually arriving in large baskets; and
Campion, the superintendent, gave him some particulars about the current
work, whilst the twenty men placed under his orders distributed the
parcels into large compartments, each bearing the name of a district of
Paris, and from whence the messengers took them up to the vans, ranged
along the pavement. One heard a series of cries, names of streets, and
recommendations shouted out; quite an uproar, an agitation such as
on board a mail boat about to start. And he stood there for a moment,
motionless, looking at this discharge of goods which he had just seen
absorbed by the house, at the opposite extremity of the basement: the
enormous current there discharged itself into the street, after having
filled the tills with gold. His eyes became misty, this colossal
business no longer had any importance; he had but one idea, that of
going away to some distant, land, and abandoning everything, if she
persisted in saying no.

He then went upstairs, continuing his inspection, talking, and agitating
himself more and more, without finding any respite. On the second floor
he entered the correspondence department, picking quarrels, secretly
exasperated against the perfect regularity of this machine that he had
himself built up. This department was the one that was daily assuming
the most considerable importance; it now required two hundred
employees–some opening, reading, and classifying the letters coming
from the provinces and abroad, whilst others gathered into compartments
the goods ordered by the correspondents. And the number of letters was
increasing to such an extent that they no longer counted them; they
weighed them, receiving as much as a hundred pounds per day. He,
feverish, went through the three offices, questioning Levasseur as
to the weight of the correspondence; eighty pounds, ninety pounds,
sometimes, on a Monday, a hundred pounds. The figure increased daily, he
ought to have been delighted. But he stood shuddering, in the noise made
by the neighbouring squad of packers nailing down the cases. Vainly he
roamed about the house; the fixed idea remained fast in his mind, and as
his power unfolded itself before him, as the mechanism of the business
and the army of employees passed before his gaze, he felt more
profoundly than ever the insult of his powerlessness. Orders from all
Europe were flowing in, a special post-office van was required for his
correspondence; and yet she said no, always no.

He went downstairs again, visiting the central cashier’s office, where
four clerks guarded the two giants safes, in which there had passed
the previous year forty-eight million francs. He glanced at the
clearing-house, which now occupied twenty-five clerks, chosen from
amongst the most trustworthy. He went into the next office, where
twenty-five young men, junior clerks, were engaged in checking the
debit-notes, and calculating the salesmen’s commission. He returned
to the chief cashier’s office, exasperated at the sight of the safes,
wandering amidst these millions, the uselessness of which drove him mad.
She said no, always no.

And it was always no, in all the departments, in the galleries, in the
saloons, and in every part of the establishment! He went from the silk
to the drapery department, from the linen to the lace department, he
ascended to the upper floors, stopping on the flying bridges, prolonging
his inspection with a maniacal, grievous minuteness. The house had grown
out of all bounds, he had created this department, then this other; he
governed this fresh domain, he extended his empire into this industry,
the last one conquered; and it was no, always no, in spite of
everything. His staff would now have sufficed to people a small town:
there were fifteen hundred salesmen, and a thousand other employees
of every sort, including forty inspectors and seventy cashiers; the
kitchens alone gave occupation to thirty-two men; ten clerks were set
apart for the advertising; there were three hundred and fifty shop
messengers, all wearing livery, and twenty-four firemen living on the
premises. And, in the stables, royal buildings situated in the Rue
Monsigny, opposite the warehouse, were one hundred and forty-five
horses, a luxurious establishment which was already celebrated in Paris.
The first four conveyances which used formerly to stir up the whole
neighbourhood, when the house occupied only the corner of the Place
Gaillon, had gradually increased to sixty-two trucks, one-horse vans,
and heavy two-horse ones. They were continually scouring Paris, driven
with knowing skill by drivers dressed in black, promenading the gold
and purple sign of The Ladies’ Paradise. They even went beyond the
fortifications, into the suburbs; they were to be met on the dusty roads
of Bicêtre, along the banks of the Marne, even in the shady drives of
the Forest of Saint-Germain. Sometimes one would spring up from the
depths of some sunny avenue, where all was silent and deserted, the
superb animals trotting along, throwing into the mysterious peacefulness
of this grand nature the loud advertisement of its varnished panels. He
was even dreaming of launching them further still, into the neighbouring
departments; he would have liked to hear them rolling along every
road in France, from one frontier to the other. But he no longer even
troubled to visit his horses, though he was passionately fond of them.
Of what good was this conquest of the world, since it was no, always no?

At present, in the evening, when he arrived at Lhomme’s desk, he still
looked through habit at the amount of the takings written on a card,
which the cashier stuck on an iron file at his side; this figure rarely
fell below a hundred thousand francs, sometimes it ran up to eight and
nine hundred thousand, on big sale days; but these figures no longer
sounded in his ears like a trumpet-blast, he regretted having looked at
them, going away full of bitterness and scorn for money.

But Mouret’s sufferings were destined to increase, for he became
jealous. One morning, in the office, before the boardmeeting commenced,
Bourdoncle ventured to hint that the little girl in the ready-made
department was playing with him.

“How?” asked he, very pale.

“Yes! she has lovers in this very building.”

Mouret found strength to smile. “I don’t think any more about her, my
dear fellow. You can speak freely. Who are her lovers?”

“Hutin, they say, and then a salesman in the lace department–Deloche,
that tall awkward fellow. I can’t speak with certainty, never having
seen them together. But it appears that it’s notorious.”

There was a silence. Mouret affected to arrange the papers on his desk,
to conceal the trembling of his hands. At last, he observed, without
raising his head: “We must have proofs, try and bring me some proofs. As
for me, I assure you I don’t, care in the least, for I’m quite sick of
her. But we can’t allow such things to go on here.”

Bourdoncle simply replied: “Never fear, you shall have proofs one of
these days. I’m keeping a good look out.”

This news deprived Mouret of all rest. He no longer had the courage to
return to this conversation, but lived in the continual expectation of
a catastrophe, in which his heart would be crushed. And this torment
rendered him terrible, the whole house trembled before him. He now
disdained to conceal himself behind Bourdoncle, but performed the
executions in person, feeling a nervous desire for revenge, solacing
himself by an abuse of his power, of that power which could do nothing
for the contentment of his sole desire. Each one of his inspections
became a massacre, his appearance caused a panic to run along from
counter to counter. The dead winter season was just then approaching,
and he made a clean sweep in the departments, multiplying the victims
and pushing them into the streets. His first idea had been to dismiss
Hutin and Deloche; then he had reflected that if he did not keep them,
he would never discover anything; and the others suffered for them: the
whole staff trembled. In the evening, when he found himself alone again,
his eyes swelled up, big with tears.

One day especially terror reigned supreme. An inspector had the idea
that Mignot was stealing. There were always a lot of strange-looking
girls prowling around his counter; and one of them had just been
arrested, her thighs and bosom padded with sixty pairs of gloves. From
that moment a watch was kept, and the inspector caught Mignot in the
act, facilitating the sleight of hand of a tall fair girl, formerly a
saleswoman at the Louvre, but since gone wrong: the manouvre was very
simple, he affected to try some gloves on her, waited till she had
padded herself, and then conducted her to the pay-desk, where she
paid for a single pair only. Mouret happened to be there, just at that
moment. As a rule, he preferred not to mix himself up with these sort of
adventures, which were pretty frequent; for notwithstanding the regular
working of the well-arranged machine, great disorder reigned in certain
departments of The Ladies’ Paradise, and scarcely a week passed without
some employee being dismissed for theft. The authorities preferred to
hush up such matters as far as possible, considering it useless to set
the police at work, and thus expose one of the fatal plague-spots of
these great bazaars. But, that day, Mouret felt a real need of getting
angry with some one, and he treated the handsome Mignot with such
violence, and the latter stood there trembling with fear, his face pale
and discomposed.

“I ought to call a policeman,” cried Mouret, before all the other
salesmen. “But why don’t you answer? who is this woman? I swear I’ll
send for the police, if you don’t tell me the truth.”

They had taken the woman away, and two saleswomen were undressing
her. Mignot stammered out: “I don’t know her, sir. She’s the one who
came—-”

“Don’t tell lies!” interrupted Mouret, in a violent rage. “And there’s
nobody here to warn us! You are all in the plot, on my word! We are in
a regular wood, robbed, pillaged, plundered. It’s enough to make us have
the pockets of each one searched before going out!”

Murmurs were heard. The three or four customers buying gloves stood
looking on, frightened.

“Silence!” resumed he, furiously, “or I’ll clear the place!”

But Bourdoncle came running up, anxious at the idea of the scandal.
He whispered a few words in Mouret’s ear, the affair was assuming an
exceptional gravity; and he prevailed on him to take Mignot into the
inspectors’ office, a room on the ground floor near the entrance in the
Rue Gaillon. The woman was there, quietly putting on her stays again.
She had just mentioned Albert Lhomme’s name. Mignot, again questioned,
lost his head, and commenced to sob; he wasn’t in fault, it was Albert
who sent him his mistresses; at first he had merely afforded them
certain advantages, enabling them to profit by the bargains; then, when
they at last took to stealing, he was already too far compromised
to report the matter. The principals now discovered a series of
extraordinary robberies; goods taken away by girls, who went into the
neighbouring W.Cs, built near the refreshment bar and surrounded by
evergreen plants, to hide the goods under their petticoats; purchases
that a salesman neglected to call out at a pay-desk, when he accompanied
a customer there, the price of which he divided with the cashier; even
down to false returns, articles which they announced as brought back to
the house, pocketing the money thus repaid; without even mentioning the
classical robbery, parcels taken out under their coats in the evening,
rolled round their bodies, and sometimes even hung down their leg’s. For
the last fourteen months, thanks to Mignot and other salesmen, no doubt,
whom they refused to name, this pilfering had been going on at Albert’s
desk, quite an impudent trade, for sums of which no one ever knew the
exact total.

Meanwhile the news had spread into the various departments, causing the
guilty consciences to tremble, and the most honest ones to quake at
the general sweep that seemed imminent. Albert had disappeared into the
inspectors’ office. Next his father had passed, choking, his face full
of blood, showing signs of apoplexy. Madame Aurélie herself was then
called; and she, her head high beneath the affront, had the fat,
puffed-up appearance of a wax mask. The explanation lasted some time,
no one knew the exact details; but it was said the firsthand had
slapped her son’s face, and that the worthy old father wept, whilst
the governor, contrary to all his elegant habits, swore like a trooper,
absolutely wanting to deliver the offenders up to justice. However, the
scandal was hushed up. Mignot was the only one dismissed there and then.
Albert did not disappear till two days later; no doubt his mother
had begged that the family should not be dishonoured by an immediate
execution. But the panic lasted several days longer, for after this
scene Mouret had wandered from one end of the establishment to the
other, with a terrible expression, venting his anger on all those who
dared even to raise their eyes.

“What are you doing there, sir, looking at the flies? Go and be paid!”

At last, the storm burst one day on the head of Hutin himself. Favier,
appointed second-hand, was undermining the first-hand, in order to
dislodge him from his position. This was always the way; he addressed
crafty reports to the directors, taking advantage of every occasion to
have the first-hand caught doing something wrong. Thus, one morning, as
Mouret was going through the silk department, he stopped, surprised to
see Favier engaged in altering the price tickets of a stock of black
velvet.

“Why are you lowering the prices?” asked he. “Who gave you the order to
do so?”

The second-hand, who was making a great noise over this work, as if
he wished to attract the governor’s attention, foreseeing the result,
replied with an innocent, surprised air:

“Why, Monsieur Hutin told me, sir.”

“Monsieur Hutin! Where is Monsieur Hutin?”

And when the latter came upstairs, called by a salesman, an animated
explanation ensued. What! he undertook to lower the prices himself now!
But he appeared greatly astonished in his turn, having merely talked
over the matter with Favier, without giving any positive orders. The
latter then assumed the sorrowful air of an employee who finds himself
obliged to contradict his superior. However, he was quite willing to
accept the blame, if it would get the latter out of a scrape. Things
began to look very bad.

“Understand, Monsieur Hutin!” cried Mouret, “I have never tolerated
these attempts at independence. We alone decide about the prices.”

He continued, with a sharp voice, and wounding intentions, which
surprised the salesmen, for as a rule these discussions were carried
on quietly, and the case might really have resulted from a
misunderstanding. One could feel he had some unavowed spite to satisfy.
He had at last caught that Hutin at fault, that Hutin who was said to be
Denise’s lover! He could now solace himself, by making him feel that he
was the master! And he exaggerated matters, even insinuating that this
reduction of price appeared to conceal very questionable intentions.

“Sir,” repeated Hutin, “I meant to consult you about it. It is really
necessary, as you know, for these velvets have not succeeded.”

Mouret cut him short with a final insult. “Very good, sir; we will look
into the matter. But don’t do such a thing again, if you value your
place.”

And he walked off. Hutin, bewildered, furious, finding no one but
Favier to confide in, swore he would go and throw his resignation at the
brute’s head. But he soon left off talking of going away, and began to
stir up all the abominable accusations which were current amongst the
salesmen against their chiefs. And Favier, his eye sparkling, defended
himself with a great show of sympathy. He was obliged to reply, wasn’t
he? Besides, could any one have foreseen such a row for so trifling
a matter? What had come to the governor lately, that he should be so
unbearable?

“We all know what’s the matter with him,” replied Hutin, “Is it my fault
if that little jade in the dress-department is turning his head? My dear
fellow, you can see the blow comes from there. He’s aware I’ve slept
with her, and he doesn’t like it; or perhaps it’s she herself who wants
to get me pitched out, because I’m in her way. But I swear she shall
hear from me, if ever she crosses my path.”

Two days after, as Hutin was going up into the work-room, upstairs,
under the roof, to recommend a person, he started on perceiving at the
end of a passage Denise and Deloche leaning out of a window, and plunged
so deeply in private conversation that they did not even turn round. The
idea of having them caught occurred to him suddenly, when he perceived
with astonishment that Deloche was weeping. He at once went away without
making any noise; and meeting Bourdoncle and Jouve on the stairs, told
them some story about one of the _extincteurs_ the door of which seemed
to be broken; in this way they would go upstairs and drop on to the two
others. Bourdoncle discovered them first. He stopped short, and told
Jouve to go and fetch the governor, whilst he remained there. The
inspector had to obey, greatly annoyed at being forced to compromise
himself in such a matter.

This was a lost corner of the vast world in which the people of The
Ladies’ Paradise worked. One arrived there by a complication of stairs
and passages. The work-rooms occupied the top of the house, a succession
of low sloping rooms, lighted by large windows cut in the zinc roof,
furnished solely with long tables and enormous iron stoves; and right
along were a crowd of work-girls of all sorts, for the under-clothing,
the lace, the dressmaking, and the house furnishing; living winter and
summer in a stifling heat, amidst the odour special to the business;
and one had to go straight through the wing, and turn to the right
on passing the dressmakers, before coming to this solitary end of the
corridor. The rare customers, that a salesman occasionally brought
here for an order, gasped for breath, tired out, frightened, with the
sensation of having been turning round for hours and hours, and of being
a hundred leagues above the street.

Denise had often found Deloche waiting for her. As secondhand she had
charge of the arrangements between her department and the work-room
where only the models and alterations were done, and was always going up
and down to give the necessary orders. He watched for her, inventing any
pretext to run after her; then he affected to be surprised when he met
her at the work-room door. She got to laugh about the matter, it became
quite an understood thing. The corridor ran alongside the cistern, an
enormous iron tank containing twelve thousand gallons of water; and
there was another one of equal size on the roof, reached by an iron
ladder. For an instant, Deloche would stand talking, leaning with one
shoulder against the cistern in the continual abandonment of his long
body, bent with fatigue. The noise of the water was heard, a mysterious
noise of which the iron tank ever retained the musical vibration.
Notwithstanding the deep silence, Denise would turn round anxiously,
thinking she had seen a shadow pass on the bare, yellow-painted walls.
But the window would soon attract them, they would lean out, and forget
themselves in a pleasant gossip, in endless souvenirs of their native
place. Below them, extended the immense glass roof of the central
gallery, a lake of glass bounded by the distant housetops, like a rocky
coast. Beyond, they saw nothing but the sky, a sheet of sky, which
reflected in the sleeping water of the glazed work the flight of its
clouds and the tender blue of its azure.

It so happened that Deloche was speaking of Valognes that day. “I was
six years old; my mother took me to Valognes market in a cart. You know
it’s ten miles away; we had to leave Bricquebec at five o’clock. It’s a
fine country down our way. Do you know it?”

“Yes, yes,” replied Denise, slowly, her looks lost in the distance. “I
was there once, but was very little then. Nice roads with grass on
each side, aren’t there? and now and again sheep browsing in couples,
dragging their clog along by the rope.” She stopped, then resumed with
a vague smile: “Our roads run as straight as an arrow for miles between
rows of trees which afford a lot of shade. We have meadows surrounded
with hedges taller than I am, where there are horses and cows feeding.
We have a little river, and the water is very cold, under the brushwood,
in a spot I know well.”

“It is the same with us, exactly!” cried Deloche, delighted. “There’s
grass everywhere, each one encloses his plot with thorns and elms, and
is at once at home; and it’s quite green, a green far different to what
we see in Paris. Dear me! what fun I’ve had at the bottom of the road,
to the left, coming down from the mill!”

And their voices died away, they stopped with their eyes fixed and lost
on the sunny lake of the glazed work. A mirage rose up before them from
this blinding water, they saw an endless succession of meadows, the
Cotentin bathed in the balmy breath of the ocean, a luminous vapour,
which melted the horizon into a delicate pearly grey. Below, under the
colossal iron framework, in the silk hall, roared the business, the
trepidation of the machine at work; the entire house vibrated with the
trampling of the crowd, the bustle of the shopmen, and the life of the
thirty thousand persons elbowing each other there; and they, carried
away by their dreams, on feeling this profound and dull clamour with
which the roofs were resounding, thought they heard the wind passing
over the grass, shaking the tall trees.

“Ah! Mademoiselle Denise,” stammered Deloche, “why aren’t you kinder to
me? I love you so much!” Tears had come into his eyes, and as she tried
to interrupt him with a gesture, he continued quickly: “No–let me tell
you these things once more. We should get on so well together! People
always find something to talk about when they come from the same place.”

He was choking, and she at last managed to say kindly: “You’re
not reasonable; you promised me never to speak of that again. It’s
impossible. I have a good friendship for you, because you’re a nice
fellow; but I wish to remain free.”

“Yes, yes. I know it,” replied he in a broken voice, “you don’t love me.
Oh! you may say so, I quite understand it. There’s nothing in me to make
you love me. Listen, I’ve only had one sweet moment in my life, and that
was when I met you at Joinville, do you remember? For a moment under the
trees, when it was so dark, I thought your arm trembled, and was stupid
enough to imagine—-”

But she again interrupted him. Her quick ear had just caught
Bourdoncle’s and Jouve’s steps at the end of the corridor.

“Hark, there’s some one coming.”

“No,” said he, preventing her leaving the window, “it’s in the cistern:
all sorts of extraordinary noises come up from it, as if there were some
one inside.”

And he continued his timid, caressing complaints. She was no longer
listening to him, rocked into dreamland by this declaration of love, her
looks wandering over the roofs of The Ladies’ Paradise. To the right
and the left of the glazed gallery, other galleries, other halls, were
glistening in the sun, between the tops of the houses, pierced with
windows and running along symmetrically, like the wings of a barracks.
Immense metallic works rose up, ladders, bridges, describing a lacework
of iron in the air; whilst the kitchen chimneys threw out an immense
volume of smoke like a factory, and the great square cistern, supported
in the air on wrought-iron pillars, assumed a strange, barbarous
profile, hoisted up to this height by the pride of one man. In the
distance, Paris was roaring.

When Denise returned from this dreamy state, from this fanciful
development of The Ladies’ Paradise, in which her thoughts floated as
in a vast solitude, she found that Deloche had seized her hand. And he
appeared so woe-begone, so full of grief, that she had not the heart to
draw it away.

“Forgive me,” he murmured. “It’s all over now; I should be quite too
miserable if you punished me by withdrawing your friendship. I
assure you I intended to say something else. Yes, I had determined to
understand the situation and be very good.” His tears again began to
flow, he tried to steady his voice. “For I know my lot in life. It is
too late for my luck to turn. Beaten at home, beaten in Paris, beaten
everywhere. I’ve now been here four years and am still the last in the
department So I wanted to tell you not to trouble on my account. I won’t
annoy you any longer. Try to be happy, love some one else; yes, that
would really be a pleasure for me. If you are happy, I shall be also.
That will be my happiness.”

He could say no more. As if to seal his promise he raised the young
girl’s hand to his lips–kissing it with the humble kiss of a slave. She
was deeply affected, and said simply, in a tender, sisterly tone, which
attenuated somewhat the pity of the words:




“My poor boy!”

But they started, and turned round; Mouret was standing before them.

For the last ten minutes, Jouve had been searching for the governor all
over the place; but the latter was looking at the works going on for the
new façade in the Rue du Dix-Décembre. He spent long hours there every
day, trying to interest himself in this work, of which he had so long
dreamed. This was his refuge against his torments, amidst the masons
laying the immense corner-stones, and the engineers setting up the
great iron framework. The façade already appeared above the level of the
street, indicating the vast porch, and the windows of the first storey,
a palace-like development in its crude state. He scaled the ladders,
discussing with the architect the ornamentation which was to be
something quite new, scrambled over the heaps of brick and iron, and
even went down into the cellar; and the roar of the steam-engine, the
tic-tac of the trowels, the noise of the hammers, the clamour of this
people of workmen, all over this immense cage surrounded by sonorous
planks, really distracted him for an instant. He came out white with
plaster, black with iron-filings, his feet splashed by the water from
the pumps, his pain so far from being cured that his anguish returned
and his heart beat stronger than ever, as the noise of the works died
away behind him. It so happened, on the day in question, a slight
distraction had restored him his gaiety, and he was deeply interested
in an album of drawings of the mosaics and enamelled terra-cottas which
were to decorate the friezes, when Jouve came up to fetch him, out of
breath, annoyed at being obliged to dirty his coat amongst all this
building material. At first Mouret had cried out that they must
wait; then, at a word spoken in a low tone by the inspector, he had
immediately followed him, shivering, a prey again to his passion.
Nothing else existed, the façade crumbled away before being built; what
was the use of this supreme triumph of his pride, if the simple name of
a woman whispered in his ear tortured him to this extent.

Upstairs, Bourdoncle and Jouve thought it prudent to vanish. Deloche
had already run away, Denise alone remained to face Mouret, paler than
usual, but looking straight into his eyes.

“Have the kindness to follow me, mademoiselle,” said he in a harsh
voice.

She followed him, they descended the two storeys, and crossed the
furniture and carpet departments without saying a word. When he arrived
at his office, he opened the door wide, saying, “Walk in, mademoiselle.”

And, closing the door, he went to his desk. The new director’s office
was fitted up more luxuriously than the old one, the reps hangings had
been replaced by velvet ones, and a book-case, incrusted with ivory,
occupied one whole side; but on the walls there was still no picture but
the portrait of Madame Hédouin, a young woman with a handsome calm face,
smiling in its gold frame.

“Mademoiselle,” said he at last, trying to maintain a cold, severe
air, “there are certain things that we cannot tolerate. Good conduct is
absolutely necessary here.”

He stopped, choosing his words, in order not to yield to the furious
anger which was rising up within him. What! she loved this fellow, this
miserable salesman, the laughingstock of his counter! and it was the
humblest, the most awkward of all that she preferred to him, the master!
for he had seen them, she leaving her hand in his, and he covering that
hand with kisses.

“I’ve been very good to you, mademoiselle,” continued he, making a fresh
effort “I little expected to be rewarded in this way.”

Denise, immediately on entering, had been attracted by Madame Hédouin’s
portrait; and, notwithstanding her great trouble, was still pre-occupied
by it. Every time she came into the director’s office her eyes were sure
to meet those of this lady. She felt almost afraid of her, although
she knew her to have been very good. This time, she felt her to be a
protection.

“You are right, sir,” he said, softly, “I was wrong to stop and talk,
and I beg your pardon for doing so. This young man comes from my part of
the country.”

“I’ll dismiss him!” cried Mouret, putting all his suffering into this
furious cry.

And, completely overcome, entirely forgetting his position as a director
lecturing a saleswoman guilty of an infraction of the rules, he broke
out into a torrent of violent words. Had she no shame in her? a young
girl like her abandoning herself to such a being! and he even made most
atrocious accusations, introducing Hutin’s name into the affair, and
then others, in such a flood of words, that she could not even defend
herself. But he would make a clean sweep, and kick them all out. The
severe explanation he had promised himself, when following Jouve, had
degenerated into the shameful violence of a scene of jealousy.

“Yes, your lovers! They told me about it, and I was stupid enough to
doubt it But I was the only one! I was the only one!”

Denise, suffocating, bewildered, stood listening to these frightful
charges, which she had not at first understood. Did he really suppose
her to be as bad as this? At another remark, harsher than all the rest,
she silently turned towards the door. And, in reply to a movement he
made to stop her, said:

“Let me alone, sir, I’m going away. If you think me what you say, I will
not remain in the house another second.”

But he rushed in front of the door, exclaiming: “Why don’t you defend
yourself? Say something!”

She stood there very stiff, maintaining an icy silence. For a long time
he pressed her with questions, with a growing anxiety; and the mute
dignity of this innocent girl once more appeared to be the artful
calculation of a woman learned in all the tactics of passion. She could
not have played a game better calculated to bring him to her feet,
tortured by doubt, desirous of being convinced.

“Come, you say he is from your part of the country? Perhaps you’ve met
there formerly. Swear that there has been nothing between you and this
fellow.”

And as she obstinately remained silent, as if still wishing to open
the door and go away, he completely lost his head, and broke out into a
supreme explosion of grief.

“Good heavens! I love you! I love you! Why do you delight in tormenting
me like this? You can see that nothing else exists, that the people
of whom I speak only touch me through you, and you alone can occupy my
thoughts. Thinking you were jealous, I gave up all my pleasures. You
were told I had mistresses; well! I have them no longer; I hardly set
foot outside. Did I not prefer you at that lady’s house? have I not
broken with her to belong solely to you? And I am still waiting for a
word of thanks, a little gratitude. And if you fear that I should return
to her, you may feel quite easy: she is avenging herself by helping one
of our former salesmen to found a rival establishment. Tell me, must I
go on my knees to touch your heart?”

He had come to this. He, who did not tolerate the slightest peccadillo
with the shopwomen, who turned them out for the least caprice, found
himself reduced to imploring one of them not to go away, not to abandon
him in his misery. He held the door against her, ready to forgive her
everything, to shut his eyes, if she merely deigned to lie. And it was
true, he had got thoroughly sick of girls picked up at theatres and
night-houses; he had long since given up Clara and now ceased to visit
at Madame Desforges’s house, where Bouthemont reigned supreme, while
waiting for the opening of the new shop, The Four Seasons, which was
already filling the newspapers with its advertisements.

“Must I go on my knees?” repeated he, almost choked by suppressed tears.

She stopped him, herself quite unable to conceal her emotion, deeply
affected by this suffering passion. “You are wrong, sir, to agitate
yourself in this way,” replied she, at last “I assure you that all these
wicked reports are untrue. This poor fellow you have just seen is no
more guilty than I am.”

She said this with her brave, frank air, looking with her bright eyes
straight into his face.

“Very good, I believe you,” murmured he. “I’ll not dismiss any of your
comrades, since you take all these people under your protection. But
why, then, do you repulse me, if you love no one else?”

A sudden constraint, an anxious bashfulness seized the young girl.

“You love some one, don’t you?” resumed he, in a trembling voice. “Oh!
you may speak out; I have no claim on your affections. Do you love any
one?”

She turned very red, her heart was in her mouth, and she felt all
falsehood impossible before this emotion which was betraying her, this
repugnance for a lie which made the truth appear in her face in spite of
all.

“Yes,” she at last confessed, feebly. “But I beg you to let me go away,
sir, you are torturing me.”

She was now suffering in her turn. Was it not enough to have to defend
herself against him? Was she to be obliged to fight against herself,
against the breath of tenderness which sometimes took away all her
courage? When he spoke to her thus, when she saw him so full of emotion,
so overcome, she hardly knew why she still refused; and it was only
afterwards that she found, in the depths of her healthy, girlish nature,
the pride and the prudence which maintained her intact in her virtuous
resolution. It was by a sort of instinct of happiness that she still
remained so obstinate, to satisfy her need of a quiet life, and not
from any idea of virtue. She would have fallen into this man’s arms, her
heart seduced, her flesh overpowered if she had not experienced a sort
of revolt, almost a feeling of repulsion before the definite bestowal
of her being, ignorant of her future fate. The lover made her afraid,
inspiring her with that fear that all women feel at the approach of the
male.

Mouret gave way to a gesture of gloomy discouragement. He could not
understand her. He turned towards his desk, took up some papers and
then laid them down again, saying: “I will retain you no longer,
mademoiselle; I cannot keep you against your will.”

“But I don’t wish to go away,” replied she, smiling. “If you believe me
to be innocent, I will remain. One ought always to believe a woman to be
virtuous, sir. There are numbers who are so, I assure you.”

Denise’s eyes had involuntarily wandered towards Madame Hédouin’s
portrait: that lady so wise and so beautiful, whose blood, they said,
had brought good fortune to the house. Mouret followed the young girl’s
look with a start, for he thought he heard his dead wife pronounce this
phrase, one of her own sayings which he at once recognised. And it was
like a resurrection, he discovered in Denise the good sense, the just
equilibrium of her he had lost, even down to the gentle voice, sparing
of useless words. He was struck by this resemblance, which rendered him
sadder still.

“You know I am yours,” murmured he in conclusion. “Do what you like with
me.”

Then she resumed gaily: “That is right, sir. The advice of a woman,
however humble she may be, is always worth listening to when she has a
little intelligence. If you put yourself in my hands, be sure I’ll make
nothing but a good man of you!”

She smiled, with that simple unassuming air which had such a charm. He
also smiled in a feeble way, and escorted her as far as the door, as he
would a lady.

The next day Denise was appointed first-hand. The dress and costume
department was divided, the management creating especially for her one
for children’s costumes, which was installed close to the ready-made
one. Since her son’s dismissal, Madame Aurélie had been trembling, for
she found the directors getting cool towards her, and saw the young
girl’s power increasing daily. Would they not shortly sacrifice her in
favour of this latter, by taking advantage of the first pretext? Her
emperor’s mask, puffed up with fat, seemed to have got thinner from the
shame which now stained the whole Lhomme dynasty; and she made a show
of going away every evening on her husband’s arm, for they were brought
nearer together by misfortune, and felt vaguely that the evil came from
the disorder of their home; whilst the poor old man, more affected than
her, in a sickly fear of being himself suspected of robbery, counted
over the receipts, again and again, noisily, performing miracles with
his amputated arm. So that, when she saw Denise appointed first-hand
in the children’s costume department, she experienced such joy that she
paraded the most affectionate feeling towards the young girl, really
grateful to her for not having taken her place away. And she overwhelmed
her with attentions, treating her as an equal, often going to talk
to her in the neighbouring department, with a stately air, like a
queen-mother paying a visit to a young queen.

In fact, Denise was now at the summit. Her appointment as first-hand had
destroyed the last resistance. If some still babbled, from that itching
of the tongue which ravages every assemblage of men and women, they
bowed very low before her face. Marguerite, now second-hand, was full
of praise for her. Clara, herself, inspired with a secret respect before
this good fortune, which she felt herself incapable of achieving, had
bowed her head. But Denise’s victory was more complete still over the
gentlemen; over Jouve, who now bent almost double whenever he addressed
her; over Hutin, seized with anxiety on feeling his position giving way
under him; and over Bourdoncle, reduced at last to powerlessness. When
the latter saw her coming out of the director’s office, smiling, with
her quiet air, and that the next day Mouret had insisted on the board
creating this new department, he had yielded, vanquished by a sacred
terror of woman. He had always given in thus before Mouret, recognising
him to be his master, notwithstanding his escapades and his idiotic
love affairs. This time the woman had proved the stronger, and he was
expecting to be swept away by the disaster.

However, Denise bore her triumph in a peaceable, charming manner,
happy at these marks of consideration, even affecting to see in them
a sympathy for the miseries of her debut and the final success of her
patient courage. Thus she received with a laughing joy the slightest
marks of friendship, and this caused her to be really loved by some,
she was so kind, sympathetic, and full of affection. The only person for
whom she still showed an invincible repugnance was Clara, having learned
that this girl had amused herself by taking Colomban home with her one
night as she had said she would do for a joke; and he, carried away
by his passion, was becoming more dissipated every day, whilst poor
Geneviève was slowly dying. The adventure was talked of at The Ladies’
Paradise, and thought very droll.

But this trouble, the only one she had outside, did not in any way
change Denise’s equable temper. It was especially in her department that
she was seen at her best, in the midst of her little world of babies of
all ages. She was passionately fond of children, and she could not have
been placed in a better position. Sometimes there were fully fifty girls
and as many boys there, quite a turbulent school, let loose in their
growing coquettish desires. The mothers completely lost their heads.
She, conciliating, smiling, had the little ones placed in a line, on
chairs; and when there happened to be amongst the number a rosy-cheeked
little angel, whose pretty face tempted her, she would insist on serving
her herself, bringing the dress and trying it on the child’s dimpled
shoulders, with the tender precaution of an elder sister. There were
fits of laughter, cries of joy, amidst the scolding voices of the
mothers. Sometimes a little girl, already a grand lady, nine or ten
years old, having a cloth jacket to try on, would stand studying it
before a glass, turning round, with an absorbed air, her eyes sparkling
with a desire to please. The counters were encumbered with the things
unpacked, dresses in pink and blue Asian linen for children of from
one to five years, blue sailor costumes, with plaited skirt and blouse,
trimmed with fine cambric muslin, Louis XV. costumes, mantles, jackets,
a pell-mell of narrow garments, stiffened in their infantine grace,
something like the cloak-room of a regiment of big dolls, taken out of
the wardrobes and given up to pillage. Denise had always a few sweets
in her pockets, to appease the tears of some youngster in despair at
not being able to carry off a pair of red trousers; and she lived there
amongst these little ones as in her own family, feeling quite young
again herself from the contact of all this innocence and freshness
incessantly renewed around her skirts.

She now had frequent friendly conversations with Mouret. When she
went to the office to take orders and furnish information, he kept her
talking, enjoying the sound of her voice. It was what she laughingly
called “making a good man of him.” In her prudent, cautious Norman head
there sprang up all sorts of projects, ideas about the new business
which she had already ventured to hint at when at Robineau’s, and some
of which she had expressed on the evening of their walk in the Tuileries
gardens. She could not be occupied in any matter, see any work going on,
without being moved with a desire to introduce some improvement in the
mechanism. Then, since her entry into The Ladies’ Paradise, she was
especially pained by the precarious position of the employees; the
sudden dismissals shocked her, she thought them iniquitous and stupid,
hurtful to all, to the house as much as to the staff. Her former
sufferings were still fresh in her mind, and her heart was seized with
pity every time she saw a new comer, her feet bruised, her eyes dim with
tears, dragging herself along in her misery in her silk dress, amidst
the spiteful persecution of the old hands. This dog’s life made the best
of them bad; and the sad work of destruction commenced: all eaten up by
the trade before the age of forty, disappearing, falling into unknown
places, a great many dying in harness, some of consumption and
exhaustion, others of fatigue and bad air, a few thrown on the street,
the happiest married, buried in some little provincial shop. Was it
humane, was it just, this frightful consumption of human life that
the big shops carried on every year? And she pleaded the cause of the
wheel-work of the colossal machine, not from any sentimental reasons,
but by arguments appealing to the very interests of the employers. To
make a machine solid and strong, it is necessary to use good iron; if
the iron breaks or is broken, there is a stoppage of work, repeated
expenses of starting, quite a loss of power.

Sometimes she would become quite animated, she would picture an immense
ideal bazaar, the phalansterium of modern commerce, in which each one
should have his exact share of the profits, according to his merits,
with the certainty of the future, assured to him by a contract Mouret
would feel amused at this, notwithstanding his fever. He accused her of
socialism, embarrassed her by pointing out the difficulties of carrying
out these schemes; for she spoke in the simplicity of her soul, bravely
trusting in the future, when she perceived a dangerous hole underlying
her tender-hearted plans. He was, however, shaken, captivated by this
young voice, still trembling from the evils endured, so convinced and
earnest in pointing out the reforms which would tend to consolidate the
house; yet he listened while joking with her; the salesmen’s position
gradually improved, the wholesale dismissals were replaced by a system
of holidays granted during the dead seasons, and there was also about
to be created a sort of benefit club which would protect the employees
against bad times and ensure them a pension. It was the embryo of the
vast trades’ unions of the twentieth century.

Denise did not confine her attention solely to healing the wounds from
which she had herself bled; she conceived various delicate feminine
ideas, which, communicated to Mouret, delighted the customers. She also
caused Lhomme’s happiness by supporting a scheme he had long nourished,
that of creating a band of music, in which all the executants should be
chosen from amongst the staff. Three months later Lhomme had a hundred
and twenty musicians under his direction, the dream of his whole life
was realised. And a grand fête was given on the premises, a concert and
a ball, to introduce the band of The Ladies’ Paradise to the customers
and the whole world. The newspapers took the matter up, Bourdoncle
himself, frightened by these innovations, was obliged to bow before this
immense advertisement. Afterwards, a recreation room for the men was
established, with two billiard tables and backgammon and chess boards.
Then classes were held in the house of an evening; there were lessons in
English and German, in grammar, arithmetic, and geography; they even
had lessons in riding and fencing. A library was formed, ten thousand
volumes were placed at the disposal of the employees. And a resident
doctor giving consultations gratis was also added, together with baths,
and hair-dressing and refreshment saloons. Every want in life
was provided for, everything was to be obtained without going
outside–board, lodging, and clothing. The Ladies’ Paradise sufficed
entirely for all its own wants and pleasures, in the very heart of
Paris, taken up by all this clatter, by this working city which was
springing up so vigorously out of the ruins of the old streets, at last
opened to the rays of the sun.

Then a fresh movement of opinion took place in Denise’s favour. As
Bourdoncle, vanquished, repeated with despair to his friends that he
would give a great deal to put Denise into Mouret’s arms himself, it was
concluded that she had not yielded, that her all-powerfulness resulted
from her refusal. From that moment she became immensely popular. They
knew for what indulgences they were indebted to her, and they admired
her for the force of her will. There was one, at least, who could master
the governor, who avenged all the others, and knew how to get something
else besides promises out of him! So she had come at last, she who was
to make him treat the poor devils with a little respect! When she went
through the shop, with her delicate, self-willed head, her tender,
invincible air, the salesmen smiled at her, were proud of her, and would
willingly have exhibited her to the crowd. Denise, in her happiness,
allowed herself to be carried along by this increasing sympathy. Was it
all possible? She saw herself arrive in a poor dress, frightened, lost
amidst the mechanism of the terrible machine; for a long time she had
had the sensation of being nothing, hardly a grain of seed beneath these
millstones which were crushing a whole world; and now to-day she was the
very soul of this world, she alone was of consequence, able at a word to
increase or slacken the pace of the colossus lying at her feet. And yet
she had not wished for these things, she had simply presented herself,
without calculation, with the sole charm of her sweetness. Her
sovereignty sometimes caused her an uneasy surprise; why did they all
obey her? she was not pretty, she did nothing wrong. Then she smiled,
her heart at rest, feeling within herself nothing but goodness and
prudence, a love of truth and logic which constituted all her strength.

One of Denise’s greatest joys was to be able to assist Pauline. The
latter, being about to become a mother, was trembling, aware that
two other saleswomen in the same condition had been sent away. The
principals did not tolerate these accidents, maternity being suppressed
as cumbersome and indecent; they occasionally allowed marriage, but
would admit of no children. Pauline had, it was true, her husband in the
house; but still she felt anxious, it being almost impossible for her
to appear at the counter; and in order to postpone a probable dismissal,
she laced herself very tightly, resolved to conceal her state as long
as she could. One of the two saleswomen who had been dismissed, had just
been delivered of a still-born child, through having laced herself up
in this way; and it was not certain that she herself would recover.
Meanwhile, Bourdoncle had observed that Pauline’s complexion was getting
very livid, and that she had a painfully stiff way of walking. One
morning he was standing near her, in the under-linen department, when a
messenger, taking away a bundle, ran up against her with such force that
she cried out with pain. Bourdoncle immediately took her on one side,
made her confess, and submitted the question of her dismissal to the
board, under the pretext that she stood in need of country air: the
story of this accident would spread, and would have a disastrous effect
on the public if she should have a miscarriage, as had already taken
place in the baby linen department the year before. Mouret, who was not
at the meeting, could only give his opinion in the evening. But Denise
having had time to interfere, he closed Bourdoncle’s mouth, in the
interest of the house itself. Did they wish to frighten the heads of
families and the young mothers amongst their customers? And it was
decided, with great pomp, that every married saleswoman should, when in
the family way, be sent to a special midwife’s as soon as her presence
at the counter became offensive to the customers.

The next day when Denise went up into the infirmary to see Pauline,
who had been obliged to take to her bed on account of the blow she had
received, the latter kissed her violently on both cheeks. “How kind you
are! Had it not been for you I should have been turned away. Pray don’t
be anxious about me, the doctor says it’s nothing.”

Bauge, who had slipped away from his department, was also there, on the
other side of the bed. He likewise stammered his thanks, troubled before
Denise, whom he now treated as an important person, of a superior class.
Ah! if he heard any more nasty remarks about her, he would soon close
the mouths of the jealous ones! But Pauline sent him away with a
good-natured shrug of the shoulders.

“My poor darling, you’re always saying something stupid. Leave us to
talk together.”

The infirmary was a long, light room, containing twelve beds, with their
white curtains. Those who did not wish to go home to their families were
nursed here. But on the day in question, Pauline was the only occupant,
in a bed near one of the large windows which looked on to the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin. And they immediately commenced to exchange
whispered words, tender confidences, in the calm air, perfumed with a
vague odour of lavender.

“So he does just what you wish him to? How cruel you are, to make him
suffer so! Come, just explain it to me, now I’ve ventured to approach
the subject. Do you detest him?” Pauline had retained hold of Denise’s
hand, as the latter sat near the bed, with her elbow on the bolster; and
overcome by a sudden emotion, her cheeks invaded with colour, she had
a moment of weakness at this direct and unexpected question. Her secret
escaped her, she buried her head in the pillow, murmuring:

“I love him!”

Pauline was astonished. “What! you love him? But it’s very simple: say
yes.”

Denise, her face still concealed, replied “No!” by an energetic shake of
the head. And she did so, simply because she loved him, without being
able to explain the matter. No doubt it was ridiculous; but she felt
like that, she could not change her nature. Her friend’s surprise
increased, and she at length asked: “So it’s all to make him marry you?”

At this the young girl sprung up, quite confused: “Marry me! Oh! no!
Oh! I assure you that I have never wished for anything of the kind! No,
never has such an idea entered my head; and you know what a horror I
have of all falsehood!”

“Well, dear,” resumed Pauline, kindly, “you couldn’t have acted
otherwise, if such had been your intention. All this must come to an
end, and it is very certain that it can only finish by a marriage, as
you won’t let it be otherwise. I must tell you that every one has the
same idea; yes, they feel persuaded that you are riding the high horse,
in order to make him take you to church. Dear me! what a funny girl you
are!”

And she had to console Denise, who had again dropped her head on to the
bolster, sobbing, declaring that she would certainly go away, since they
attributed all sorts of things to her that had never crossed her mind.
No doubt, when a man loved a woman he ought to marry her. But she asked
for nothing, she had made no calculations, she simply begged to be
allowed to live quietly, with her joys and her sorrows, like other
people. She would go away.

At the same moment Mouret was going through the premises below. He had
wanted to forget his thoughts by visiting the works once more. Several
months had elapsed, the façade now reared its monumental lines behind
the vast hoardings which concealed it from the public. Quite an army of
decorators were at work: marble-cutters, mosaic-workers, and others. The
central group above the door was being gilded; whilst on the acroteria
were being fixed the pedestals destined to receive the statues of the
manufacturing cities of France. From morning to night, in the Rue du
Dix-Décembre, lately opened to the public, a crowd of idlers stood
gaping about, their noses in the air, seeing nothing, but pre-occupied
by the marvels that were related of this façade, the inauguration of
which was going to revolutionise Paris. And it was on this feverish
working-ground, amidst the artists putting the finishing touches to the
realisation of his dream commenced by the masons, that Mouret felt more
bitterly than ever the vanity of his fortune. The thought of Denise had
suddenly arrested him, this thought which incessantly pierced him with
a flame, like the shooting of an incurable pain. He had run away, unable
to find a word of satisfaction, fearful lest he should show his tears,
leaving behind him the disgust of his triumph. This façade, which was
at last erected, seemed little in his eyes, very much like one of those
walls of sand that children build, and it might have been extended from
one end of the city to the other, elevated to the starry sky, yet it
would not have filled the emptiness of his heart, that the “yes” of a
mere child could alone fill.

When Mouret entered his office he was almost choking with sobs. What did
she want? He dared not offer her money now; and the confused idea of a
marriage presented itself amidst his young widower’s revolts. And, in
the debility of his powerlessness, his tears began to flow. He was very
miserable.