With a mechanical step

The Rue du Dix-Décembre, quite new with its chalk-white houses and the
last remaining scaffoldings of a few unfinished buildings, stretched
out beneath a clear February sun; a stream of vehicles was passing at a
conquering pace through this gap of light, intersecting the damp gloom
of the old Saint-Roch quarter; and, between the Rue de la Michodière
and the Rue de Choiseul, there was quite a tumult, the crush of a crowd
of people who had been excited by a month’s advertising, and with their
eyes in the air, were gaping at the monumental façade of The Ladies’
Paradise, inaugurated that Monday, on the occasion of a grand display
of white goods.

There was a vast development of bright, fresh polychromatic
architecture enriched with gilding, symbolical of the tumult and
sparkle of the business inside, and attracting attention like a
gigantic window-display flaming with the liveliest colours. In order
not to bedim the show of goods, the ground-floor decoration was of a
sober description; the base of sea-green marble; the corner piers and
bearing pillars covered with black marble, the severity of which was
brightened by gilded modillions; and all the rest was plate-glass,
in iron sashes, nothing but glass, which seemed to throw the depths
of the halls and galleries open to the full light of day. However,
as the floors ascended, the hues became brighter. The frieze above
the ground-floor was formed of a series of mosaics, a garland of red
and blue flowers, alternating with marble slabs on which was cut an
infinity of names of goods, encircling the colossus. Then the base of
the first floor, of enamelled brickwork, supported large windows, above
which came another frieze formed of gilded escutcheons emblazoned with
the arms of the chief towns of France, and designs in terra-cotta, in
whose enamel one again found the light coloured tints of the base.
Then, right at the top, the entablature blossomed forth like an ardent
florescence of the entire façade, mosaics and faience reappeared with
yet warmer colourings, the zinc of the eaves was cut and gilded, while
along the acroteria ran a nation of statues, emblematical of the
great industrial and manufacturing cities, their delicate silhouettes
profiled against the sky. The spectators were especially astonished
by the central entrance which was also decorated with a profusion of
mosaics, faience, and terra-cotta, and surmounted by a freshly gilt
allegorical group, which glittered in the sun: Woman garmented and
kissed by a flight of laughing cupids.

About two o’clock a special squad of police was obliged to make the
crowd move on, and to regulate the waiting carriages. The palace was
built, the temple raised to the extravagant folly of fashion. It
dominated everything, covering a whole district with its shadows. The
scar left on its flank by the demolition of Bourras’s hovel had already
been so skilfully cicatrized that it would now have been impossible to
find the former place of that old wart.

In their superb isolation the four frontages now ran along the four
streets, without a break. Since Baudu’s retirement into a home, The Old
Elbeuf, on the other side of the way, had been closed, walled up like
a tomb, behind the shutters that were never now taken down; little by
little cab-wheels had splashed them, while posters–a rising tide of
advertisements, which seemed like the last shovelful of earth thrown
over old-fashioned commerce–covered them up and pasted them together;
and, in the middle of this dead frontage, dirtied by the mud from the
street, and streaked with tatters of Parisian puffery, a huge clean
yellow poster, announcing in letters two feet high the great sale at
The Ladies’ Paradise, was displayed like a flag planted on a conquered
empire.

It was as if the colossus, after each enlargement, full of shame and
repugnance for the dingy district in which it had modestly sprung
up, and which it had subsequently slaughtered, had just turned
its back to it, leaving the mud of the narrow streets behind, and
presenting its upstart face to the noisy, sunny thoroughfares of new
Paris. As now represented in the engravings of its advertisements,
it had grown bigger and bigger, like the ogre of the legend, whose
shoulders threatened to pierce the clouds. In the first place, in
the foreground of one engraving, were the Rue du Dix-Décembre, the
Rue de la Michodière, and the Rue Monsigny, filled with little black
figures, and endowed with wondrous breadth, as if to make room for
the customers of the whole world. Then came a bird’s eye view of the
buildings themselves, of exaggerated immensity, with the roofs of the
covered galleries, the glazed courtyards in which the halls could be
divined, all the infinitude of that lake of glass and zinc shining in
the sun. Beyond, stretched Paris, but a Paris dwarfed, eaten away by
the monster: the houses, of cottage-like humbleness in the immediate
neighbourhood, faded into a cloud of indistinct chimneys; the public
buildings seemed to melt into nothingness, on the left two dashes
sufficed for Notre-Dame, to the right a circumflex accent represented
the Invalides, in the background the Panthéon looked no larger than
a lentil. The horizon crumbled into powder, became no more than a
contemptible frame-work extending past the heights of Châtillon,
out into the open country, whose blurred expanses indicated how far
extended the state of slavery.

Ever since the morning the crowd had been increasing. No establishment
had ever yet stirred up the city with such an uproarious profusion
of advertisements. The Ladies’ Paradise now spent nearly six hundred
thousand francs a year in posters, advertisements, and appeals of all
sorts; four hundred thousand catalogues were sent away, more than a
hundred thousand francs’ worth of material was cut up for patterns.
It was a complete invasion of the newspapers, the walls, and the ears
of the public, as if some monstrous brass trumpet were being blown
incessantly, carrying the tumult of the great sales to the four corners
of the earth. And, for the future, this façade, before which people
were now crowding, became a living advertisement with its motley,
gilded magnificence, its windows large enough for the display of the
entire poem of woman’s dress and its profusion of inscriptions painted,
engraved and cut in stone, from the marble slabs of the ground-floor
to the sheets of iron rounded off in semicircles above the roofs and
unfolding gilded streamers on which the name of the house could be read
in letters bright as the sun, against the azure blue of the sky.

Trophies and flags had been added in honour of the inauguration; each
storey was gay with banners and standards bearing the arms of the
principal towns of France; and right at the top, the flags of foreign
nations, run up on masts, fluttered in the breeze. Down below the show
of white goods in the windows flashed with blinding intensity. There
was nothing but white; on the left a complete trousseau and a mountain
of sheets, on the right some curtains draped to imitate a chapel, and
numerous pyramids of handkerchiefs fatigued the eyes; while between the
hung goods at the door–pieces of cotton, calico, and muslin, falling
and spreading out like snow from a mountain summit–were placed some
dressed prints, sheets of bluish cardboard, on which a young bride
and a lady in ball costume, both life-size and attired in real lace
and silk, smiled with their coloured faces. A group of idlers was
constantly forming there, and desire arose from the admiration of the
throng.

Moreover the curiosity around The Ladies’ Paradise was increased by a
catastrophe of which all Paris was talking, the burning down of The
Four Seasons, the big establishment which Bouthemont had opened near
the Opera-house, hardly three weeks before. The newspapers were full
of details–the fire breaking out through an explosion of gas during
the night, the hurried flight of the frightened saleswomen in their
night-dresses, and the heroic conduct of Bouthemont, who had carried
five of them out on his shoulders. The enormous losses were covered
by insurances and people had already begun to shrug their shoulders,
saying what a splendid advertisement it was. But for the time being
attention again flowed back to The Ladies’ Paradise, excited by all
the stories which were flying about, occupied to a wonderful extent by
these colossal establishments which by their importance were taking up
such a large place in public life. How wonderfully lucky that Mouret
was! Paris saluted her star, and crowded to see him still standing
erect since the very flames now undertook to sweep all competition
from before him; and the profits of his season were already being
calculated, people had begun to estimate the increase of custom which
would be brought to his doors by the forced closing of the rival house.
For a moment he had been anxious, troubled at feeling a jealous woman
against him, that Madame Desforges to whom he owed some part of his
fortune. Baron Hartmann’s financial dilettantism in putting money into
both concerns, annoyed him also. Then he was above all exasperated at
having missed a genial idea which had occurred to Bouthemont, who had
prevailed on the vicar of the Madeleine to bless his establishment,
followed by all his clergy; an astonishing ceremony, a religious
pomp paraded from the silk department to the glove department, and
so on throughout the building. True, this ceremony had not prevented
everything from being destroyed, but it had done as much good as a
million francs worth of advertisements, so great an impression had it
produced on the fashionable world. From that day, Mouret dreamed of
securing the services of the archbishop.

The clock over the door was striking three, and the afternoon crush
had commenced, nearly a hundred thousand customers struggling in the
various galleries and halls. Outside, the vehicles were stationed from
one to the other end of the Rue du Dix-Décembre, and over against
the Opera-house another compact mass of conveyances occupied the
_cul-de-sac_ where the future Avenue de l’Opéra was to commence. Public
cabs mixed with private broughams, the drivers waiting about the wheels
and the horses neighing and shaking their curb-chains which sparkled in
the sun. The lines were incessantly reforming amidst the calls of the
messengers and the pushing of the animals, which closed in of their own
accord, whilst fresh vehicles kept on arriving and taking their places
with the rest. The pedestrians flew on to the refuges in frightened
bands, the foot pavements appeared black with people in the receding
perspective of the broad straight thoroughfare. And a clamour rose up
between the white houses, a mighty caressing breath swept along, as
though Paris were opening her soul.

Madame de Boves, accompanied by her daughter Blanche and Madame Guibal,
was standing at a window, looking at a display of costumes composed of
made-up skirts with the necessary material for bodices.

“Oh! do look,” said she, “at those print costumes at nineteen francs
fifteen sous!”

In their square pasteboard boxes lay the costumes, each tied round
with a favour, and folded so as to show the blue and red embroidered
trimmings; and, in a corner of each box, was an engraving depicting the
garment completed, as worn by a young person resembling some princess.

“But they are not worth more,” murmured Madame Guibal. “They fall to
pieces as soon as you handle them.”

The two women had become quite intimate since Monsieur de Boves had
been confined to his arm-chair by an attack of gout. His wife put up
with the acquaintance, since in this way she picked up a little pocket
money, sums that the husband allowed himself to be robbed of, being
also in need of forbearance.

“Well! let’s go in,” resumed Madame Guibal. “We must see their show.
Hasn’t your son-in-law made an appointment with you inside?”

Madame de Boves did not reply, being absorbed in contemplation of the
string of carriages, whose doors one by one opened and gave egress to
more customers.

“Yes,” said Blanche, at last, in her indolent voice. “Paul is to join
us at about four o’clock in the reading-room, on leaving the ministry.”

They had been married about a month, and Vallagnosc, after a three
weeks’ leave of absence spent in the South of France, had just
returned to his post. The young woman already had her mother’s portly
appearance; her flesh seemed to be more puffy and coarse since her
marriage.

“But there’s Madame Desforges over there!” exclaimed the countess,
looking at a brougham that had just pulled up.

“Do you think so?” murmured Madame Guibal. “After all those stories!
She must still be weeping over the fire at The Four Seasons.”

However, it was indeed Henriette. On perceiving her friends, she
came up with a gay, smiling air, concealing her defeat beneath the
fashionable ease of her manner.

“Dear me! yes, I wanted to have a look round. It’s better to see for
one’s self, isn’t it? Oh! we are still good friends with Monsieur
Mouret, though he is said to be furious since I interested myself in
that rival establishment. Personally, there is only one thing I cannot
forgive him, and that is, to have urged on the marriage of my protégée,
Mademoiselle de Fontenailles, with that Joseph—-”

“What! it’s done?” interrupted Madame de Boves. “What a horror!”

“Yes, my dear, and solely to annoy us. I know him; he wished to
intimate that the daughters of our great families are only fit to marry
his shop messengers.”

She was getting quite animated. They had all four remained on the
pavement, amidst the crush at the entrance. Little by little, however,
they were caught by the stream and only had to yield to the current to
pass the door without being conscious of it, talking louder the while
in order to make themselves heard. They were now asking each other
about Madame Marty; it was said that poor Monsieur Marty, after some
violent scenes at home, had gone quite mad, believing himself endowed
with unexhaustible wealth. He was ever diving into the treasures of the
earth, exhausting mines of gold and loading tumbrils with diamonds and
precious stones.

“Poor old fellow!” said Madame Guibal, “he who was always so shabby,
with his teacher’s humility! And the wife?”

“She’s ruining an uncle, now,” replied Henriette, “a worthy old man who
has gone to live with her, since losing his wife. But she must be here,
we shall see her.”

Surprise, however, made the ladies stop short. Before them extended
“the largest shops in the world,” as the advertisements said. The grand
central gallery now ran from end to end, opening on to both the Rue du
Dix-Décembre and the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin; whilst to the right and
the left, similar to the aisles of a church, the narrower Monsigny and
Michodière Galleries, extended along the two side streets without a
break. Here and there the halls formed open spaces amidst the metallic
framework of the spiral staircases and hanging bridges. The inside
arrangements had been all changed: the bargains were now placed on the
Rue du Dix-Décembre side, the silk department was in the centre, the
glove department occupied the Saint-Augustin Hall at the far end; and,
from the new grand vestibule, you beheld, on looking up, the bedding
department which had been moved from one to the other end of the second
floor. The number of departments now amounted to the enormous total
of fifty; several, quite fresh, were being inaugurated that very day;
others, which had become too important, had simply been divided, in
order to facilitate the sales; and, owing to the continual increase of
business, the staff had been increased to three thousand and forty-five
employees for the new season.

What caused the ladies to stop was the prodigious spectacle presented
by the grand exhibition of white goods. In the first place, there was
the vestibule, a hall with bright mirrors, and paved with mosaics,
where the low-priced goods detained the voracious crowd. Then the
galleries opened displaying a glittering blaze of white, a borealistic
vista, a country of snow, with endless steppes hung with ermine, and an
accumulation of glaciers shimmering in the sun. You here again found
the whiteness of the show windows, but vivified, and burning from one
end of the enormous building to the other with the white flame of a
fire in full swing. There was nothing but white goods, all the white
articles from each department, a riot of white, a white constellation
whose fixed radiance was at first blinding, so that details could
not be distinguished. However, the eye soon became accustomed to
this unique whiteness; to the left, in the Monsigny Gallery, white
promontories of cotton and calico jutted out, with white rocks formed
of sheets, napkins, and handkerchiefs; whilst to the right, in the
Michodière Gallery, occupied by the mercery, the hosiery, and the
woollen goods, were erections of mother of pearl buttons, a grand
decoration composed of white socks and one whole room covered with
white swanskin illumined by a stream of light from the distance. But
the greatest radiance of this nucleus of light came from the central
gallery, from amidst the ribbons and the neckerchiefs, the gloves and
the silks. The counters disappeared beneath the whiteness of the silks,
the ribbons, the gloves and the neckerchiefs.

Round the iron columns climbed “puffings” of white muslin, secured now
and again with white silk handkerchiefs. The staircases were decorated
with white draperies, quiltings and dimities alternating along the
balustrades and encircling the halls as high as the second storey; and
all this ascending whiteness assumed wings, hurried off and wandered
away, like a flight of swans. And more white hung from the arches, a
fall of down, a sheet of large snowy flakes; white counterpanes, white
coverlets hovered in the air, like banners in a church; long jets of
guipure lace hung across, suggestive of swarms of white motionless
butterflies; other laces fluttered on all sides, floating like gossamer
in a summer sky, filling the air with their white breath. And the
marvel, the altar of this religion of white was a tent formed of white
curtains, which hung from the glazed roof above the silk counter, in
the great hall. The muslin, the gauze, the art-guipures flowed in light
ripples, whilst very richly embroidered tulles, and pieces of oriental
silver-worked silk served as a background to this giant decoration,
which partook both of the tabernacle and the alcove. It was like a
broad white bed, awaiting with its virginal immensity, as in the
legend, the coming of the white princess, she who was to appear some
day, all powerful in her white bridal veil.

“Oh! extraordinary!” repeated the ladies. “Wonderful!”

They did not weary of this song in praise of whiteness which the goods
of the entire establishment were singing. Mouret had never conceived
anything more vast; it was the master stroke of his genius for display.
Beneath the flow of all this whiteness, amidst the seeming disorder
of the tissues, fallen as if by chance from the open drawers, there
was so to say a harmonious phrase,–white followed and developed in
all its tones: springing into existence, growing, and blossoming with
the complicated orchestration of some master’s fugue, the continuous
development of which carries the mind away in an ever-soaring flight.
Nothing but white, and yet never the same white, each different
tinge showing against the other, contrasting with that next to it,
or perfecting it, and attaining to the very brilliancy of light
itself. It all began with the dead white of calico and linen, and the
dull white of flannel and cloth; then came the velvets, silks, and
satins–quite an ascending gamut, the white gradually lighting up and
finally emitting little flashes at its folds; and then it flew away in
the transparencies of the curtains, became diffuse brightness with the
muslins, the guipures, the laces and especially the tulles, so light
and airy that they formed the extreme final note; whilst the silver of
the oriental silk sounded higher than all else in the depths of the
giant alcove.

Meanwhile the place was full of life. The lifts were besieged
by people; there was a crush at the refreshment-bar and in the
reading-room; quite a nation was moving about in these snowy regions.
And the crowd seemed to be black, like skaters on a Polish lake in
December. On the ground-floor there was a heavy swell, ruffled by a
reflux, in which nothing but the delicate enraptured faces of women
could be distinguished. In the gaps of the iron framework, up the
staircases, on the hanging bridges, there was an endless ascent of
small figures which looked as if lost amidst the snowy peaks of
mountains. A suffocating, hot-house heat surprised one at sight of
these frozen heights. The buzz of all the voices made a great noise
like that of a river carrying ice along. Up above, the profusion of
gilding, the glass work and the golden roses seemed like a burst of
sunshine, glittering over the Alps of this grand exhibition of white
goods.

“Come,” said Madame de Boves, “we must go forward. It’s impossible to
stay here.”

Since she had entered, inspector Jouve, standing near the door, had
not taken his eyes off her; and when she turned round she encountered
his gaze. Then, as she resumed her walk, he let her gain ground, but
followed her at a distance, without, however, appearing to take any
further notice of her.

“Ah!” said Madame Guibal again stopping amidst all the jostling as she
came to the first pay-desk, “that’s a pretty idea, those violets!”

She referred to the new present made by The Ladies’ Paradise, one of
Mouret’s ideas, which was making a great noise in the newspapers:
small bouquets of white violets, bought by the thousand at Nice were
distributed to every lady customer who made the smallest purchase. Near
each pay-desk messengers in uniform stood delivering the bouquets under
the supervision of an inspector. And gradually all the customers were
decorated in this way, the building was filling with these white bridal
flowers, every woman diffusing as she passed a penetrating perfume of
violets.

“Yes,” murmured Madame Desforges, in a jealous voice, “it’s a good
idea.”

But, just as they were moving away, they heard two salesmen joking
about these violets. A tall, thin fellow was expressing his
astonishment: was the marriage between the governor and the first-hand
in the costume department coming off, then? whilst a short, fat fellow
replied that he didn’t know, but that the flowers were bought at any
rate.

“What!” exclaimed Madame de Boves, “is Monsieur Mouret going to marry?”

“That’s the latest news,” replied Madame Desforges, affecting the
greatest indifference. “However, one’s bound to come to that.”

The countess darted a quick glance at her new friend. They both now
understood why Madame Desforges had come to The Ladies’ Paradise
notwithstanding the hostilities attending her rupture with Mouret. No
doubt she was yielding to an invincible desire to see and suffer.

“I shall stay with you,” said Madame Guibal, whose curiosity was
awakened. “We can meet Madame de Boves again in the reading-room.”

“Very good,” replied the latter. “I want to go up to the first floor.
Come along, Blanche.” And she went up followed by her daughter, whilst
inspector Jouve still on her track, ascended by another staircase,
in order not to attract her attention. The two other ladies soon
disappeared in the compact crowd on the ground-floor.

Amidst the press of business all the counters were again talking of
nothing but the governor’s love matters. The affair which had for
months been occupying the employees, who were delighted at Denise’s
long resistance, had all at once come to a crisis: since the previous
day it had been known that the girl intended to leave The Ladies’
Paradise, under the pretext of requiring rest, and this despite all
Mouret’s entreaties. And opinions were divided. Would she leave? Would
she stay? Bets of five francs that she would leave on the following
Sunday circulated from department to department. The knowing ones
staked a lunch on it all ending in a marriage; yet, the others, those
who believed in her departure, did not risk their money without good
reasons. Certainly the girl had all the power of an adored woman who
refuses to yield; but the governor, on his side, was strong in his
wealth, his happy widowerhood, and his pride, which a last exaction
might exasperate. At all events they were all of opinion that this
little saleswoman had played her game with the science of a expert
woman of the world and was now venturing on the supreme stroke by
offering him this bargain: Marry me, or I go.

Denise, however, thought but little of these things. She had never
imposed any conditions or made any calculation. And the reason of her
departure was the very judgment which, to her continual surprise, was
passed upon her conduct. Had she wished for all this? Had she shown
herself artful, coquettish, ambitious? No, she had simply presented
herself and had been the first to feel astonished at such a passion.
And again, at the present time, why did they ascribe her resolution to
quit The Ladies’ Paradise to craftiness? It was after all so natural!
She had begun to experience a nervous uneasiness, an intolerable
anguish, amidst the continual gossip which went on in the house, and
Mouret’s feverish pursuit of her, and the combats she was obliged to
wage against herself; and she preferred to go away, seized with fear
lest she might some day yield and regret it for ever afterwards. If in
all this there were any learned tactics, she was totally unaware of it,
and she asked herself in despair what she might do to avoid appearing
like one who is running after a husband. The idea of a marriage now
irritated her, and she resolved to say no, and still no should he push
his folly to that extent. She alone ought to suffer. The necessity for
the separation caused her tears to flow; but, with her great courage,
she repeated that it was necessary, that she would have no rest or
happiness if she acted in any other way.

When Mouret received her resignation, he remained mute and cold, in the
effort which he made to contain himself. Then he curtly replied that he
granted her a week’s reflection, before allowing her to commit such a
stupid action. At the expiration of the week, when she returned to the
subject, and expressed a determination to go away after the great sale,
he did not lose his temper, but affected to talk the language of reason
to her: she was playing with fortune, she would never find another
position equal to that she was leaving. Had she another situation in
view? If so, he was quite prepared to offer her the advantages she
expected to obtain elsewhere. And when the young woman replied that she
had not looked for any other situation, but intended first of all to
take a rest at Valognes, thanks to the money she had already saved, he
asked her what would prevent her from returning to The Ladies’ Paradise
if her health alone were the reason of her departure. She remained
silent, tortured by this cross-examination. And thereupon he imagined
that she was about to join a sweetheart, a future husband perhaps. Had
she not confessed to him one evening that she loved somebody? From
that moment he had been carrying deep in his heart, like the stab of
a knife, the confession wrung from her. And, if this man was to marry
her, she must be giving up all to follow him: that explained her
obstinacy. It was all over; and so he simply added in an icy tone that
he would detain her no longer, since she could not tell him the real
cause of her departure. These harsh words, free from anger, upset her
far more than a violent scene such as she had feared.

Throughout the remaining week which Denise was obliged to spend in
the house, Mouret preserved his rigid pallor. When he crossed the
departments, he affected not to see her; never had he seemed more
indifferent, more absorbed in his work; and the bets began again, only
the brave ones dared to risk a luncheon on the wedding. Yet, beneath
this coldness, so unusual with him, Mouret hid a frightful attack of
indecision and suffering. Fits of anger brought the blood seething to
his head: he saw red, he dreamed of taking Denise in a close embrace,
keeping her, and stifling her cries. Then he tried to reflect, to
find some practical means of preventing her from going away; but
he constantly ran up against his powerlessness, the uselessness of
his power and money. An idea, however, was growing amidst his wild
projects, and gradually imposing itself on him notwithstanding his
revolt. After Madame Hédouin’s death he had sworn never to marry
again; having derived from a woman his first good fortune, he resolved
in future to draw his fortune from all women. It was with him, as
with Bourdoncle, a superstition that the head of a great drapery
establishment ought to remain single, if he wished to retain his
masculine sovereignty over the growing desires of his world of female
customers; for the introduction of a woman to the throne would change
the atmosphere, drive away all the others. Thus, he still resisted the
invincible logic of facts, preferring to die rather than yield, and
inflamed by sudden bursts of fury against Denise, feeling that she
was Revenge and fearing he should fall vanquished upon his millions,
broken like a mere straw by the Eternal Feminine on the day he should
marry her. Then, however, he would become cowardly again, and discuss
his repugnance: why should he tremble? she was so sweet-tempered, so
prudent, that he could abandon himself to her without fear. Twenty
times an hour the battle began afresh in his distracted mind. His pride
tended to irritate the wound, and he completely lost his reason when he
thought that, even after this last submission, she might yet say no,
ever no if she loved another. On the morning of the great sale, he had
still not decided on anything, and Denise was to leave on the morrow.

When Bourdoncle, on the day in question, entered Mouret’s private room
at about three o’clock, according to custom, he found him sitting with
his elbows on his desk, his hands over his eyes, so greatly absorbed
that he had to touch him on the shoulder. Then Mouret glanced up,
his face bathed in tears. They looked at each other, held out their
hands, and a hearty grip was exchanged by these two men who had fought
so many commercial battles side by side. For the past month moreover
Bourdoncle’s manner had completely changed; he now bent before Denise,
and even secretly urged the governor on to a marriage with her. No
doubt he was thus manœuvring to save himself from being swept away by
a power which he now recognised as superior. But beneath this change
there could also have been found the awakening of an old ambition,
a timid, gradually growing hope of in his turn swallowing up that
Mouret before whom he had so long bowed. This was in the atmosphere
of the house, in the struggle for existence whose continued massacres
helped on the sales around him. He was carried away by the working of
the machine, seized by the same appetite as the others, that voracity
which, from top to bottom, urged the lean ones to the extermination of
the fat ones. Only a sort of religious fear, the religion of chance,
had so far prevented him from showing his own teeth. But now the
governor was becoming childish, drifting into a ridiculous marriage,
ruining his luck, destroying his charm over the customers. Why should
he dissuade him from it, when he might afterwards so easily pick up the
business of this weakling who fell at the feet of a woman? Thus it was
with the emotion of a farewell, the pity of an old friendship, that he
shook his chief’s hand, saying:

“Come, come, courage! Marry her, and finish the matter.”

But Mouret already felt ashamed of his momentary weakness, and got up,
protesting: “No, no, it’s too stupid. Come, let’s take a turn round the
place. Things are looking well, aren’t they? I fancy we shall have a
magnificent day.”

They went out and began their afternoon inspection of the crowded
departments. Bourdoncle meanwhile cast side glances at his companion,
feeling anxious at this last display of energy and watching his lips
to catch the least sign of suffering. The business was now throwing
forth its fire, with an infernal roar, which made the building tremble
like a big steamer going at full speed. At Denise’s counter was a crowd
of mothers with bands of little girls and boys, swamped beneath the
garments they were trying on. The department had brought out all its
white articles, and there, as everywhere else, was a riot of white fit
for the garmenting of a troop of shivering cupids: white cloth cloaks,
white piqué, nainsook and cashmere dresses, white sailor costumes, and
even white Zouave ones. In the centre, for the sake of effect, for the
proper season had not yet arrived, there was a display of confirmation
costumes, white muslin dresses and veils and white satin shoes, a light
gushing florescence like an enormous bouquet of innocence and candid
delight. Madame Bourdelais, with her three children, Madeleine, Edmond
and Lucien, seated according to their size, was getting angry with the
smallest because he continued struggling whilst Denise tried to put a
muslin-de-laine jacket on him.

“Do keep still! Don’t you think it’s rather tight, mademoiselle?” she
said; and with the sharp look of a woman difficult to deceive, she
examined the stuff, studied the cut, and scrutinized the seams. “No,
it fits well,” she resumed. “It’s no trifle to dress all these little
ones. Now I want a mantle for this young lady.”

Denise had been obliged to assist in serving as the customers had
besieged her department in great force. She was looking for the mantle
required, when she set up a cry of surprise.

“What! It’s you! what’s the matter?”

Her brother Jean was standing before her, a parcel in his hand. He
had been married a week before, and on the Saturday his wife, a dark
little woman, with a provoking, charming face, had paid a long visit to
The Ladies’ Paradise to make some purchases. The young people were to
accompany Denise to Valognes: it was to be a regular honeymoon trip, a
month’s holiday which would remind them of old times.

“Just fancy,” he said, “Thérèse has forgotten a number of things. There
are some articles to be changed, and others to be bought. So, as she
was in a hurry, she sent me with this parcel. I’ll explain—-”

But she interrupted him on perceiving Pépé, “What! Pépé too! and his
school?”

“Well,” said Jean, “after dinner on Sunday I had not the heart to
take him back. He will return this evening. The poor child is very
downhearted at the thought of being shut up in Paris whilst we shall be
enjoying ourselves.”

Denise smiled at them, in spite of her suffering. She handed Madame
Bourdelais over to one of her saleswomen and came back to her brothers
in a corner of the department, which was, fortunately, getting clearer.
The youngsters, as she still called them, had now grown to be big
fellows. Pépé at twelve years old, was already taller and stouter than
herself but still taciturn and living on caresses, looking, too, very
gentle in his school-uniform; whilst broad-shouldered Jean, quite a
head taller than his sister, with blonde hair blowing about in the
wind, still retained his feminine good looks. And she, always slim, no
fatter than a skylark, as she said, still retained her anxious motherly
authority over them, treating them as children in need of all her
attention, buttoning up Jean’s frock coat so that he should not look
like a rake, and seeing that Pépé had got a clean handkerchief. When
she perceived the latter’s swollen eyes, she gently chided him. “You
must be reasonable, my boy. Your studies cannot be interrupted,” said
she. “I’ll take you away at the holidays. Is there anything you want?
But perhaps you prefer to have the money.” Then she turned towards the
other. “And you, youngster, it’s your fault, you get making him believe
that we are going to have wonderful fun! Just try to be a little more
reasonable.”

She had given Jean four thousand francs, half of her savings, to enable
him to set up housekeeping. The younger one cost her a great deal for
schooling, indeed all her money went for them, as in former days. They
alone linked her to life and work, for she had again vowed that she
would never marry.

“Well, here are the things,” resumed Jean. “In the first place, there’s
a light brown cloak in this parcel that Thérèse—-”

But he stopped, and Denise, on turning round to see what had frightened
him, perceived Mouret standing behind them. For a moment he had been
watching her acting the mother towards the two big boys, scolding
and embracing them and turning them round as mothers do babies when
changing their clothes. Bourdoncle had remained on one side, feigning
to be interested in the sales; but he did not lose sight of this little
scene.

“They are your brothers, are they not?” asked Mouret, after a silence.

He had the icy tone and rigid demeanour which he now assumed with her.
Denise herself made an effort to remain cold. Her smile died away, and
she replied: “Yes, sir. I’ve married off the eldest, and his wife has
sent him for some purchases.”

Mouret continued looking at the three of them. At last he said: “The
youngest has grown very much. I recognise him, I remember having seen
him in the Tuileries Gardens one evening with you.”

Then his voice, which was coming more slowly, slightly trembled.
She, much moved, bent down, pretending to arrange Pépé’s belt. Both
brothers, who had turned scarlet, stood smiling at their sister’s
employer.

“They’re very much like you,” said the latter.

“Oh!” she exclaimed, “they’re much handsomer than I am!”

For a moment he seemed to be comparing their faces. But he could endure
it no longer. How she loved them! He walked on a step or two; then
returned and whispered in her ear: “Come to my office after business. I
want to speak to you before you go away.”

This time, Mouret went off and continued his inspection. The battle
was once more raging within him, for the appointment he had just given
caused him a sort of irritation. To what idea had he yielded on seeing
her with her brothers? It was maddening to think that he could no
longer find the strength to assert his will. However, he could settle
it by saying a few words of farewell. Bourdoncle, who had rejoined him,
seemed less anxious, though he was still examining him with stealthy
glances.

Meanwhile, Denise had returned to Madame Bourdelais. “Does the mantle
suit you, madame?” she inquired.

“Oh yes, very well. That’s quite enough for one day. These little ones
are ruining me!”

Denise, now being able to slip off, went to listen to Jean’s
explanations, and then accompanied him to the various counters, where
he would certainly have lost his head without her. First came the brown
jacket, which Thérèse now wished to change for a white cloth one of the
same size and same shape. And the young woman, having taken the parcel,
went to the mantle department, followed by her two brothers.

The department had laid out all its light coloured garments, summer
jackets and capes, of light silk and fancy woollens. But there was
little doing there, the customers were but few and far between. Nearly
all the saleswomen were new-comers. Clara had disappeared a month
before, and some said that she had altogether gone to the bad. As for
Marguerite, she was at last about to assume the management of the
little shop at Grenoble, where her cousin was waiting for her. Madame
Aurélie alone remained there immutable, in the curved cuirass of her
silk dress and with her imperial face retaining the yellowish puffiness
of an antique marble. However, her son Albert’s bad conduct was a
source of great trouble to her, and she would have retired into the
country had it not been for the inroads made on the family savings by
this scapegrace, whose terrible extravagance threatened to swallow up
the Rigolles property piece by piece. It was a sort of punishment on
them, for breaking up their home, for the mother had resumed her little
excursions with her lady friends, and the father on his side continued
his musical performances. Bourdoncle was already looking at Madame
Aurélie with a discontented air, surprised that she lacked the tact to
resign: too old for business, such was his opinion; the knell was about
to sound which would sweep away the Lhomme dynasty.

“Ah! it’s you,” said she to Denise, with exaggerated amiability. “You
want this cloak changed, eh? Certainly, at once. Ah! there are your
brothers; getting quite men, I declare!”

In spite of her pride, she would have gone on her knees to pay her
court to the young woman. In her department, as in the others, nothing
but Denise’s departure was being talked of; and the first-hand was
quite ill over it, for she had been reckoning on the protection of her
former saleswoman. She lowered her voice to say: “It’s reported you’re
going to leave us. Really, it isn’t possible?”

“But it is, though,” replied Denise.

Marguerite was listening. Since her marriage had been decided on,
she had marched about with more disdainful airs than ever on her
putty-looking face. And she came up saying: “You are quite right.
Self-respect above everything, I say. Allow me to bid you adieu, my
dear.”

Some customers arriving at that moment, Madame Aurélie requested her,
in a harsh voice, to attend to business. Then, as Denise was taking
the cloak to effect the “return” herself, she protested, and called an
auxiliary. This, again, was an innovation suggested to Mouret by the
young woman–the engagement of persons to carry the articles about,
thus relieving the saleswomen of much fatigue.

“Go with Mademoiselle,” said the first-hand, giving the auxiliary the
cloak. Then, returning to Denise, she added: “Pray consider the matter
well. We are all heart-broken at your leaving.”

Jean and Pépé, who were waiting, smiling amidst this overflowing
torrent of women, followed their sister. They now had to go to the
under-linen department, to get four chemises like the half-dozen which
Thérèse had bought on the Saturday. But there, where the exhibition
of white goods was snowing down from every shelf, they were almost
stifled, and found it very difficult to get along.

In the first place, at the corset counter a little scene was collecting
quite a crowd. Madame Boutarel, who had arrived in Paris from the
south, this time with her husband and daughter, had been wandering all
over the place since morning, collecting an outfit for the young lady,
who was about to be married. The father was consulted at every turn
so that it seemed they would never finish. At last they had stranded
here; and whilst the young lady was absorbed in a profound study of
some undergarments, the mother had disappeared, having cast her eyes
on some corsets she herself fancied. When Monsieur Boutarel, a big,
full-blooded man, quite bewildered, left his daughter to search for
his wife, he at last found her in a sitting-room, at the door of which
he was politely invited to take a seat. These rooms were like narrow
cells, glazed with ground glass, and not even husbands were allowed to
enter them. Saleswomen came out and went in quickly, closing the doors
behind them, while men waited outside, seated in rows on arm-chairs,
and looking very weary. Monsieur Boutarel, when he understood matters,
got really angry, crying out that he wanted his wife, and insisting on
knowing what they had done with her. It was in vain that they tried to
calm him. Madame Boutarel was obliged to come out, to the delight of
the crowd, which was discussing and laughing over the affair.

Denise and her brothers were at last able to get past. Every article
of ladies’ underwear was here displayed in a suite of rooms classified
into various departments. The corsets and dress-improvers occupied one
counter, there were hand-sown corsets, Duchess, cuirass, and, above
all, white silk corsets, fan-pointed with divers colours, these latter
forming a special display, an army of dummies without heads or legs,
nothing indeed but busts; and close by were horse-hair and other dress
improvers, often of fantastic aspect. But afterwards came articles
of fine linen, white cuffs and cravats, white fichus and collars, an
infinite variety of light trifles, a white foam which escaped from the
boxes and was heaped up like so much snow. There were loose jackets,
little bodices, morning gowns and peignoirs in linen, nainsook, and
lace, long white roomy garments, which spoke of the morning lounge.
Then appeared white petticoats of every length, the petticoat that
clings to the knees, and the long petticoat which sweeps the pavement,
a rising sea of petticoats, in which one lost oneself.

At the trousseau department there was a wonderful display of pleating,
embroidery, valenciennes, percale and Cambric; and then followed
another room devoted to baby-linen, where the voluptuous whiteness of
woman’s clothing developed into the chaste whiteness of infancy–an
innocence, a joy, the young wife become a mother, amidst flannel coifs,
chemises and caps like dolls’ things, christening gowns, cashmere
pelisses, indeed all the white down of birth, like a fine shower of
white feathers.

“They are chemises with running-strings,” said Jean, who was delighted
with the rising tide of feminine attire about him.

However, Pauline ran up as soon as she perceived Denise; and before
even asking what she wanted, began to talk in a low tone, stirred as
she was by the rumours circulating in the building. In her department,
two saleswomen had even got to quarrelling over it, one affirming and
the other denying the favourite’s departure.

“You’ll stay with us, I’ll stake my life. What would become of me?”
said Pauline; and as Denise replied that she intended to leave the
next day: “No, no,” the other added, “you think so, but I know better.
You must appoint me second-hand, now that I’ve got my baby. Baugé is
reckoning on it, my dear.”

Pauline smiled with an air of conviction. Then she gave the six
chemises; and, Jean having said that he must next go to the
handkerchief counter, she called an auxiliary to carry both the
chemises and the jacket left by the auxiliary from the mantle
department. The woman who happened to answer was Mademoiselle de
Fontenailles, recently married to Joseph. She had just obtained this
menial situation as a great favour, and she wore a long black blouse,
marked on the shoulder with a number in yellow wool.

“Follow mademoiselle,” said Pauline, and then returning to Denise and
again lowering her voice, she added: “It’s understood that I am to be
appointed second-hand, eh?”

Denise promised, with a laugh, by way of joking in her turn. And she
went off, going down the stairs with Jean and Pépé, all three followed
by the auxiliary. On the ground-floor, they found themselves in the
woollen department, a gallery entirely hung with white swanskin cloth
and white flannel. Liénard, whom his father had vainly recalled to
Angers, was talking to the handsome Mignot who was now a traveller,
and had boldly reappeared at The Ladies’ Paradise. No doubt they were
speaking of Denise, for they both stopped talking to bow to her with
a ceremonious air. In fact, as she passed through the departments the
salesmen appeared full of emotion and bent their heads before her,
uncertain as they were what she might be the next day. They whispered
and thought she looked triumphant; and the betting was once more
altered; they again risked bottles of Argenteuil wine and fish dinners
over the event. She had entered the linen-gallery in order to get
to the handkerchief counter, which was at the further end. The show
of white goods continued: cottons, madapolams, dimities, quiltings,
calicoes, nainsooks, muslins, tarlatans; then came the linen, in
enormous piles, the pieces ranged alternately like blocks of stone:
stout linen, fine linen, of all widths, white and unbleached, some of
pure flax, whitened in the sun; next the same thing commenced once
more, there were departments for each sort of linen: house linen,
table linen, kitchen linen, a continual crush of white goods, sheets,
pillow-cases, innumerable styles of napkins, table-cloths, aprons, and
dusters. And the bowing continued, all made way for Denise to pass,
while Baugé rushed out to smile on her, as on the good fairy of the
house. At last, after crossing the counterpane department, a room
hung with white banners, she arrived at the handkerchief counter, the
ingenious decoration of which delighted the throng; everything here was
arranged in white columns, white pyramids, white castles, an intricate
architecture, solely composed of handkerchiefs, some of lawn, others
of cambric, Irish linen, or China silk, some marked, some embroidered
by hand, some trimmed with lace, some hemstitched, and some woven
with vignettes; the whole forming a city of white bricks of infinite
variety, standing out mirage-like against an Eastern sky, warmed to a
white heat.

“You say another dozen?” asked Denise of her brother. “Cholet
handkerchiefs, eh?”

“Yes, like this one,” he replied, showing a handkerchief in his parcel.

Jean and Pépé had not quitted her side, but clung to her as they had
done formerly on arriving in Paris, knocked up by their journey. This
vast establishment, in which she was quite at home, ended by troubling
them; and they sheltered themselves in her shadow, placing themselves
again under the protection of this second mother of theirs as in an
instinctive re-awakening of their infancy. The employees watching
them as they passed, smiled at those two big fellows following in the
footsteps of that grave slim girl; Jean frightened in spite of his
beard, Pépé bewildered in his tunic, and all three of the same fair
complexion, a fairness which made a whisper run from one end of the
counters to the other: “They are her brothers! They are her brothers!”

But, whilst Denise was looking for a salesman, there occurred another
meeting. Mouret and Bourdoncle had entered the gallery; and as the
former again stopped in front of the young woman, without, however,
speaking to her, Madame Desforges and Madame Guibal passed by.
Henriette suppressed the quiver which had invaded her whole being;
she looked at Mouret and then at Denise. They also had looked at her,
and it was a sort of mute _dénouement_, the common end of many great
dramas of the heart,–a glance exchanged in the crush of a crowd.
Mouret had already moved off, whilst Denise strayed into the depths
of the department, accompanied by her brothers and still in search
of a disengaged salesman. But in the auxiliary following Denise,
with a yellow number on her shoulder, and a coarse, cadaverous,
servant’s-looking face, Henriette had recognised Mademoiselle de
Fontenailles, and relieved herself by saying to Madame Guibal, in an
angry voice:

“Just see what he’s doing with that unfortunate girl. Isn’t it
shameful? A marchioness! And he makes her follow like a dog the
creatures he has picked up in the street!” Then she tried to calm
herself, adding, with an affected air of indifference: “Let’s go and
see their display of silks.”

The silk department was like a great chamber of love, hung with white
by the caprice of some snowy maiden wishing to show off her own
spotless whiteness. Pieces of velvet hung from the columns, forming
a creamy white background against which silk and satin draperies
showed with a metallic and porcelain-like whiteness; and there were
also festoons of poult and gros grain silks, light foulards and
surahs, which varied from the dull white of a Norwegian blonde to the
transparent white, warmed by the sun, of a fair Italian or Spanish
beauty.

Favier was just then engaged in measuring some white silk for “the
pretty lady,” that elegant blonde who was such a frequent customer
at the counter, and whom the salesmen never referred to except by
that name. She had dealt at the shop for years, and yet they knew
nothing about her–neither her condition of life, her address, nor
even her name. None of them, in fact, tried to find out, although
every time she made her appearance they all indulged in suppositions
just for something to talk about. She was getting thinner, she was
getting stouter, she had slept well, or she must have been out late
the previous evening; indeed every little incident of her unknown
life, outdoor events and domestic dramas alike, found an echo at the
Paradise, and was commented on. That day, she seemed very gay; and so,
on returning from the pay-desk whither he had conducted her, Favier
remarked to Hutin: “Perhaps she’s going to marry again.”

“What! is she a widow?” asked the other.

“I don’t know; but you must remember the time she was in mourning.
Perhaps she’s made some money by speculating on the Bourse.” A silence
ensued. At last he ended by saying: “However, that’s her business. It
wouldn’t do to take notice of all the women we see here.”

But Hutin was looking very thoughtful, for two days before, he had had
a warm discussion with the managers, and felt himself condemned. After
the great sale his dismissal was certain. For a long time he had felt
his position giving way. At the last stock-taking they had complained
that he had not even transacted the amount of business fixed in
advance; and moreover he was threatened by the appetites of the others,
now slowly devouring him in his turn–by all the silent warfare which
was waged in the department, amidst the very motion of the machine.
Favier’s secret undermining could be heard, like a muffled sound of
jaw-bones at work underground. He had already received the promise of
the first-hand’s place, but Hutin, who was aware of it, instead of
attacking his old comrade looked upon him as a clever fellow. To think
of it! A chap who had always appeared so cold, so humble, whom he had
made such use of to turn out both Robineau and Bouthemont! He was full
of mingled surprise and respect.

“By the way,” all at once resumed Favier, “she’s going to stay, you
know. The governor has just been seen casting sheep’s eyes at her. I
shall be let in for a bottle of champagne over it.”

He referred to Denise. The gossip was going on more than ever, passing
from one counter to the other, through the constantly increasing crowd
of customers. The silk salesmen were especially excited, for they had
been indulging in heavy bets on the affair.

“By Jove!” exclaimed Hutin, waking up as if from a dream, “wasn’t I a
flat not to pay court to her! I should be all right now!”

Then on seeing Favier laugh he blushed at this confession, and
pretended to laugh himself, adding, as though to recall his words, that
it was she who had ruined him with the management. Then a desire for
violence seizing hold of him, he finished by getting into a rage with
the salesmen whom the assault of the customers had disbanded. But all
at once he again smiled, having just perceived Madame Desforges and
Madame Guibal slowly crossing the department.

“What can we serve you with to-day, madame?”




“Nothing, thanks,” replied Henriette. “You see I’m merely walking
round; I’ve only come out of curiosity.”

However, he succeeded in stopping her, and lowered his voice. Quite a
plan was springing up in his head. He began to flatter her and run down
the house; he had had enough of it, and preferred to go away rather
than remain a witness of such disorder. She listened, delighted. It
was she herself who, thinking to deprive The Ladies’ Paradise of his
services offered to get him engaged by Bouthemont as first-hand in the
silk department when The Four Seasons should start again. The matter
was settled in whispers, whilst Madame Guibal interested herself in the
displays.

“May I offer you one of these bouquets of violets?” resumed Hutin,
aloud, pointing to a table where there were four or five bunches of the
flowers, which he had procured from a pay-desk for personal presents.

“Ah, no, indeed!” exclaimed Henriette, recoiling. “I don’t wish to take
any part in the wedding.”

They understood each other, and separated with a laugh, exchanging
glances of intelligence. Then as Madame Desforges began looking for
Madame Guibal, she set up an exclamation of surprise on seeing her
with Madame Marty. The latter, followed by her daughter Valentine,
had for the last two hours been carried through the place by one of
those spending fits whence she always emerged weary and bewildered.
She had roamed about the furniture department which a show of white
lacquered good had changed into a vast virginal chamber, the ribbon and
neckerchief departments which formed white colonnades, the mercery and
trimming departments with white fringes surrounding ingenious trophies
patiently built up of cards of buttons and packets of needles, and the
hosiery department in which there was a great crush that year to see
an immense piece of decoration–the resplendent name of “The Ladies’
Paradise” in letters three yards high, formed of white socks on a
groundwork of red ones. But Madame Marty was especially excited by the
new departments; they could indeed never open a new department but she
must inaugurate it, she was bound to plunge in and buy something. And
so at the millinery counter installed in a new room on the first-floor
she had spent an hour in having the cupboards emptied, taking the
bonnets off the stands ranged on a couple of tables, and trying all
of them, white hats, white bonnets and white togues, on herself and
her daughter. Then she had gone down to the boot department, at the
further end of a gallery on the ground-floor, behind the cravats, a
counter which had been opened that day, and which she had turned topsy
turvy, seized with sickly desire in presence of the white silk slippers
trimmed with swansdown and the white satin boots and shoes with high
Louis XV. heels.

“Oh! my dear,” she stammered, “you’ve no idea! They have a wonderful
assortment of bonnets. I’ve chosen one for myself and one for my
daughter. And the boots, eh? Valentine.”

“They’re marvellous!” added the latter, with the boldness of one who is
at last married. “There are some boots at twenty francs and a half the
pair which are delicious!”

A salesman was following them, dragging along the eternal chair, on
which a mountain of articles was already heaped.

“How is Monsieur Marty?” asked Madame Desforges.

“Very well, I believe,” replied Madame Marty, scared by this abrupt
question, which fell ill-naturedly amidst her rage for spending. “He’s
still shut up, you know; my uncle was to go to see him this morning.”

Then she paused and exclaimed: “Oh, look! isn’t it lovely?”

The ladies, who had gone on a few steps, found themselves before the
new flowers and feathers department, installed in the central gallery,
between the silks and the gloves. Under the bright light from the glass
roof there appeared an enormous florescence, a white sheaf, tall and
broad as an oak. The base was formed of single flowers, violets, lilies
of the valley, hyacinths, daisies, all the delicate white blossoms of
the garden. Then came bouquets, white roses softened by a fleshy tint,
great white peonies slightly shaded with carmine, white chrysanthemums
with narrow petals and starred with yellow. And the flowers still
ascended, great mystical lilies, branches of apple blossom, bunches of
white lilac, a continual blossoming surmounted at the height of the
first storey by tufts of ostrich feathers, white plumes, which seemed
like the airy breath of this collection of white flowers. One corner
was devoted to the display of trimmings and orange-flower wreaths.
There were also metallic flowers, silver thistles and silver ears of
corn. And amidst the foliage and the petals, amidst all the muslin,
silk, and velvet, in which drops of gum set drops of dew, fluttered
birds of Paradise for the trimming of hats, purple Tanagers with black
tails, and Kingbirds with changing rainbow-like plumage.

“I’m going to buy a branch of apple-blossom,” resumed Madame Marty.
“It’s delicious, isn’t it? And that little bird, do look, Valentine! I
must take it!”

However, Madame Guibal began to feel tired of standing still in the
eddying crowd, and at last exclaimed:

“Well, we’ll leave you to make your purchases. We’re going upstairs.”

“No, no, wait for me!” cried the other, “I’m going up too. There’s the
perfumery department upstairs, I must see that.”

This department, created the day before, was next door to the
reading-room. Madame Desforges, to avoid the crush on the stairs, spoke
of going up in the lift; but they had to abandon the idea, there were
so many people waiting their turn. At last they arrived, passing before
the public refreshment bar, where the crowd was becoming so great
that an inspector had to restrain the outburst of appetite by only
allowing the gluttonous customers to enter in small groups. And from
this point the ladies already began to smell the perfumery department,
for its penetrating odour scented the whole gallery. There was quite a
struggle over one article, The Paradise Soap, a specialty of the house.
In the show cases, and on the crystal tablets of the shelves, were
ranged pots of pomade and paste, boxes of powder and paint, phials of
oil and toilet vinegar; whilst the fine brushes, combs, scissors, and
smelling-bottles occupied a special place. The salesmen had managed to
decorate the shelves exclusively with white porcelain pots and white
glass bottles. But what delighted the customers above all was a silver
fountain in the centre, a shepherdess standing on a harvest of flowers,
whence flowed a continuous stream of violet water, which fell with a
musical plash into the metal basin. An exquisite odour was diffused
around and the ladies dipped their handkerchiefs in the scent as they
passed.

“There!” said Madame Marty, when she had loaded herself with lotions,
dentrifices, and cosmetics. “Now I’ve done, I’m at your service. Let’s
go and rejoin Madame de Boves.”

However, on the landing of the great central staircase they were again
stopped by the Japanese department. This counter had grown wonderfully
since the day when Mouret had amused himself by setting up, in the
same place, a little “proposition” table, covered with a few soiled
articles, without at all foreseeing its future success. Few departments
had had more modest beginnings and yet now it overflowed with old
bronzes, old ivories and old lacquer work; it did fifteen hundred
thousand francs’ worth of business a year, ransacking the Far East,
where travellers pillaged the palaces and the temples for it. Besides,
fresh departments were always springing up, they had tried two new ones
in December, in order to fill up the empty spaces caused by the dead
winter season–a book department and a toy department, which would
certainly expand and sweep away certain shops in the neighbourhood.
Four years had sufficed for the Japanese department to attract the
entire artistic custom of Paris. This time Madame Desforges herself,
notwithstanding the rancour which had made her vow not to buy anything,
succumbed before some finely carved ivory.

“Send it to my house,” said she rapidly, at a neighbouring pay-desk.
“Ninety francs, is it not?” And, seeing Madame Marty and her daughter
busy with a lot of trashy porcelains, she resumed, as she carried off
Madame Guibal, “You will find us in the reading-room, I really must sit
down a little while.”

In the reading-room, however, they were obliged to remain standing. All
the chairs round the large table covered with newspapers were occupied.
Great fat fellows were reading and lolling about without even thinking
of giving up their seats to the ladies. A few women were writing, their
faces almost on the paper, as if to conceal their letters under the
flowers of their hats. Madame de Boves was not there, and Henriette was
getting impatient when she perceived Vallagnosc, who was also looking
for his wife and mother-in-law. He bowed, and said: “They must be in
the lace department–impossible to drag them away. I’ll just see.” And
he was gallant enough to procure the others two chairs before going off.

In the lace department the crush was increasing every minute. The
great show of white was there triumphing in its most delicate and
costly whiteness. Here was the supreme temptation, the goading of a
mad desire, which bewildered all the women. The department had been
turned into a white temple; tulles and guipures, falling from above,
formed a white sky, one of those cloudy veils whose fine network pales
the morning sun. Round the columns descended flounces of Malines and
Valenciennes, white dancers’ skirts, unfolding in a snowy shiver to the
floor. Then on all sides, on every counter there were snowy masses of
white Spanish blonde as light as air, Brussels with large flowers on a
delicate mesh, hand-made point, and Venice point with heavier designs,
Alençon point, and Bruges of royal and almost sacred richness. It
seemed as if the god of finery had here set up his white tabernacle.

Madame de Boves, after wandering about before the counters for a long
time with her daughter, and feeling a sensual longing to plunge her
hands into the goods, had just made up her mind to request Deloche to
show her some Alençon point. At first he brought out some imitation
stuff; but she wished to see real Alençon, and was not satisfied
with narrow pieces at three hundred francs the yard, but insisted on
examining deep flounces at a thousand francs a yard and handkerchiefs
and fans at seven and eight hundred francs. The counter was soon
covered with a fortune. In a corner of the department inspector Jouve
who had not lost sight of Madame de Boves, notwithstanding the latter’s
apparent dawdling, stood amidst the crowd, with an indifferent air, but
still keeping a sharp eye on her.

“Have you any capes in hand-made point?” she at last inquired; “show me
some, please.”

The salesman, whom she had kept there for twenty minutes, dared not
resist, for she appeared so aristocratic, with her imposing air and
princess’s voice. However, he hesitated, for the employees were
cautioned against heaping up these precious fabrics, and he had allowed
himself to be robbed of ten yards of Malines only the week before. But
she perturbed him, so he yielded, and abandoned the Alençon point for a
moment in order to take the lace she had asked for from a drawer.

“Oh! look, mamma,” said Blanche, who was ransacking a box close
by, full of cheap Valenciennes, “we might take some of this for
pillow-cases.”

Madame de Boves did not reply and her daughter on turning her flabby
face saw her, with her hands plunged amidst the lace, slipping some
Alençon flounces up the sleeve of her mantle. Blanche did not appear
surprised, however, but moved forward instinctively to conceal her
mother, when Jouve suddenly stood before them. He leant over, and
politely murmured in the countess’s ear,

“Have the kindness to follow me, madame.”

For a moment she revolted: “But what for, sir?”

“Have the kindness to follow me, madame,” repeated the inspector,
without raising his voice.

With her face full of anguish, she threw a rapid glance around her.
Then all at once she resigned herself, resumed her haughty bearing,
and walked away by his side like a queen who deigns to accept the
services of an aide-de-camp. Not one of the many customers had observed
the scene, and Deloche, on turning to the counter, looked at her as
she was walked off, his mouth wide open with astonishment. What! that
one as well! that noble-looking lady! Really it was time to have them
all searched! And Blanche, who was left free, followed her mother at
a distance, lingering amidst the sea of faces, livid, and hesitating
between the duty of not deserting her mother and the terror of being
detained with her. At last she saw her enter Bourdoncle’s office, and
then contented herself with walking about near the door. Bourdoncle,
whom Mouret had just got rid of, happened to be there. As a rule,
he dealt with robberies of this sort when committed by persons of
distinction. Jouve had long been watching this lady, and had informed
him of it, so that he was not astonished when the inspector briefly
explained the matter to him; in fact, such extraordinary cases passed
through his hands that he declared woman to be capable of anything,
once the passion for finery had seized upon her. As he was aware of
Mouret’s acquaintance with the thief, he treated her with the utmost
politeness.

“We excuse these moments of weakness, madame,” said he. “But pray
consider the consequences of such a thing. Suppose some one else had
seen you slip this lace—-”

But she interrupted him in great indignation. She a thief! What
did he take her for? She was the Countess de Boves, her husband,
Inspector-General of the State Studs, was received at Court.

“I know it, I know it, madame,” repeated Bourdoncle, quietly. “I have
the honour of knowing you. In the first place, will you kindly give up
the lace you have on you?”

But, not allowing him to say another word she again protested, handsome
in her violence, even shedding tears like some great lady vilely and
wrongfully accused. Any one else but he would have been shaken and have
feared some deplorable mistake, for she threatened to go to law to
avenge such an insult.

“Take care, sir, my husband will certainly appeal to the Minister.”

“Come, you are not more reasonable than the others,” declared
Bourdoncle, losing patience. “We must search you.”

Still she did not yield, but with superb assurance, declared: “Very
good, search me. But I warn you, you are risking your house.”

Jouve went to fetch two saleswomen from the corset department. When
he returned, he informed Bourdoncle that the lady’s daughter, left at
liberty, had not quitted the doorway, and asked if she also should be
detained, although he had not seen her take anything. The manager,
however, who always did things in a fitting way, decided that she
should not be brought in, in order not to cause her mother to blush
before her. The two men retired into a neighbouring room, whilst the
saleswomen searched the countess. Besides the twelve yards of Alençon
point at a thousand francs the yard concealed in her sleeve, they found
upon her a handkerchief, a fan, and a cravat, making a total of about
fourteen thousand francs’ worth of lace. She had been stealing like
this for the last year, ravaged by a furious, irresistible passion
for dress. These fits got worse, growing daily, sweeping away all the
reasonings of prudence; and the enjoyment she felt in the indulgence
of them was the more violent from the fact that she was risking before
the eyes of a crowd her name, her pride, and her husband’s high
position. Now that the latter allowed her to empty his drawers, she
stole although she had her pockets full of money, she stole for the
mere pleasure of stealing, goaded on by desire, urged on by the species
of kleptomania which her unsatisfied luxurious tastes had formerly
developed in her at sight of the vast brutal temptations of the big
shops.[1]

[1] The manager of one of the great London drapery houses was telling
me, recently, that the same kind of thing is far less infrequent than
might be imagined among certain English women of fashion. And he added
that these affairs are as a rule hushed up, even as they are hushed up
in Paris. _Trans._

“It’s a trap,” cried she, when Bourdoncle and Jouve came in. “This lace
was placed on me, I swear it before Heaven.”

She was now shedding tears of rage, and fell on a chair, suffocating.
Bourdoncle sent the saleswomen away and resumed, with his quiet air:
“We are quite willing, madame, to hush up this painful affair for the
sake of your family. But you must first sign a paper thus worded:
‘I have stolen some lace from The Ladies’ Paradise,’ followed by
particulars of the lace, and the date. However, I shall be happy to
return you this document whenever you like to bring me a sum of two
thousand francs for the poor.”

She again rose and declared in a fresh outburst: “I’ll never sign that,
I’d rather die.”

“You won’t die, madame; but I warn you that I shall shortly send for
the police.”

Then followed a frightful scene. She insulted him, she stammered that
it was cowardly for a man to torture a woman in that way. Her Juno-like
beauty, her tall majestic person was distorted by vulgar rage. Then she
tried to soften him and Jouve, entreating them in the name of their
mothers, and speaking of dragging herself at their feet. And as they,
however, remained quite unmoved, hardened by custom, she all at once
sat down and began to write with a trembling hand. The pen sputtered;
the words “I have stolen,” madly, wildly written, went almost through
the thin paper, whilst she repeated in a choking voice: “There, sir,
there. I yield to force.”

Bourdoncle took the paper, carefully folded it, and put it in a drawer,
saying: “You see it’s in company; for ladies, after talking of dying
rather than signing, generally forget to come and redeem these _billets
doux_ of theirs. However, I hold it at your disposal. You’ll be able to
judge whether it’s worth two thousand francs.”

But now that she had paid the forfeit she became as arrogant as ever.
“I can go now?” she asked, in a sharp tone.

Bourdoncle was already occupied with other business. On Jouve’s report,
he decided on the dismissal of Deloche, a stupid fellow, who was always
being robbed and who never had any authority over customers. Madame
de Boves repeated her question, and as they dismissed her with an
affirmative nod, she enveloped both of them in a murderous glance. Of
the flood of insulting words that she kept back, one melodramatic cry
escaped her lips. “Wretches!” said she, banging the door after her.

Meanwhile Blanche had not strayed far from the office. Her ignorance
of what was going on inside and the coming and going of Jouve and the
two saleswomen frightened her; she had visions of the police, the
assize court, and the prison. But all at once she stopped short: for
Vallagnosc was before her, that husband whom she had married but a
month previously, and with whom she still felt rather awkward. And he
questioned her, astonished at her bewildered appearance.

“Where’s your mother? Have you lost each other? Come, tell me, you make
me feel anxious.”

Nothing in the way of a colourable fiction presented itself to her
mind, and in great distress she told him everything in a low voice:
“Mamma, mamma–she has been stealing.”

“What! stealing?” At last he understood. His wife’s bloated, livid
countenance, ravaged by fear, terrified him.

“Some lace, like that, up her sleeve,” she continued stammering.

“You saw her, then? You were looking on?” he murmured, chilled to feel
that she had been a sort of accomplice.

They had to stop talking as several persons were already turning round.
Hesitation full of anguish kept Vallagnosc motionless for a moment.
What was to be done? He had made up his mind to go into Bourdoncle’s
office, when he perceived Mouret crossing the gallery. Thereupon,
after telling his wife to wait for him, he caught hold of his old
friend’s arm and informed him of the affair, in broken sentences. The
latter hastily took him into his office, where he soon put him at
rest as to the possible consequences. He assured him that he need not
interfere, and without appearing at all excited about this robbery,
as if he had foreseen it long ago, he explained in what way it would
all be arranged. Vallagnosc, however, even when he no longer feared
an immediate arrest, did not accept the affair with this admirable
coolness. He had thrown himself into an arm-chair, and now that he
could discuss the matter, began to lament his own unfortunate position.
Was it possible that he had married into a family of thieves? A stupid
marriage that he had drifted into, just to please his wife’s father!
Surprised by his childish violence, Mouret watched him weeping,
thinking the while of his former pessimist boasting. Had he not scores
of times proclaimed the nothingness of life, in which wrong-doing alone
had any attraction? And by way of diversion Mouret amused himself for
a minute, by preaching indifference to his friend, in a friendly,
bantering tone. But at this Vallagnosc got angry: he was quite unable
to recover his philosophy, and with his middle-class breeding burst
into virtuously indignant cries against his mother-in-law. As soon
as trouble fell on himself, as soon as he was just touched by human
suffering, at which he had always coldly laughed, the boastful sceptic
collapsed and bled. It was abominable, they were dragging the honour of
his race into the gutter, the world seemed to be coming to an end.

“Come, calm yourself,” concluded Mouret, stricken with pity. “I won’t
tell you that everything happens and nothing happens, because that does
not seem to comfort you just now. But I think that you ought to go and
offer your arm to Madame de Boves–that would be more sensible than
causing a scandal. The deuce! to think of it, you who professed such
scorn for the universal rascality of the present day!”

“Of course,” cried Vallagnosc, innocently, “when it is a question of
other people!”

However, he got up, and followed his old school-fellow’s advice.
Both were returning to the gallery when Madame de Boves came out of
Bourdoncle’s office. She accepted her son-in-law’s arm with a majestic
air, and as Mouret bowed to her with respectful gallantry, he heard
her saying: “They’ve apologized to me. Really, these mistakes are
abominable.”

Blanche joined them, and they soon disappeared in the crowd. Then
Mouret, alone and pensive, crossed the shop once more. This scene,
which had diverted his thoughts from the struggle going on within him,
now increased his fever, and decided him to make a supreme effort. A
vague connection arose in his mind: the robbery perpetrated by that
unfortunate woman, that last folly of the conquered customer laid low
at the feet of the tempter, evoked the proud and avenging image of
Denise, whose victorious heel he could feel upon his throat. He stopped
at the top of the central staircase, and gazed for a long time into the
immense nave, where his nation of women was swarming.

Six o’clock was about to strike, the daylight decreasing out-of-doors
was gradually forsaking the covered galleries, already dim, and even
waning in the halls which gloom was slowly invading. And in this
uncertain glimmer, the electric lamps lighted up one by one, their
globes of an opaque whiteness studding with moons the distant depths
of the departments. It was a white brightness of a blinding fixity,
spreading like the radiance of a discoloured star and killing the
twilight. Then, when all were lighted, there came a delighted murmur
from the crowd, and the great show of white goods assumed a fairy
splendour. It seemed as if this colossal orgie of white was also
burning, itself becoming so much light. The song of the white seemed
to soar upward in the flaming whiteness of an aurora. A white glimmer
darted from the linen and calico department in the Monsigny Gallery,
like the first bright streak which lights up the eastern sky; whilst
along the Michodière Gallery, the mercery and the passementerie,
the fancy-goods and the ribbons threw out reflections of distant
hills–with the white flash of mother-of-pearl buttons, silvered
bronzes and sparkling beads. But the central nave especially was
filled with a blaze of white: the white muslin “puffings” round the
columns, the white dimities and piqués draping the staircases, the
white counterpanes drooping like banners, the white guipures and laces
flying in the air, opened up a firmament of dreamland, a vista of the
dazzling whiteness of some paradise, where the marriage of an unknown
queen was being celebrated. The tent of the silk-hall was this heaven’s
giant alcove, with white curtains, white gauzes and white tulles, whose
shimmer screened the bride in her white nudity from the gaze of the
curious. There was now nothing but this blinding nucleus of white light
in which all other whites were merged, this snowy starry dust twinkling
in the clear radiance.

And Mouret still continued to watch his nation of women, amidst the
shimmering blaze. Their black shadows stood out vigorously against
the pale backgrounds. Long eddies would now and again part the crowd;
the fever of the day’s great sale swept past like a frenzy through
the disorderly, billowy sea of heads. People were beginning to leave;
pillaged stuffs encumbered all the counters, and gold was chinking in
the tills whilst the customers went off, their purses emptied, and
their heads turned by the wealth of luxury amidst which they had been
wandering all day. It was he who possessed them thus, who held them at
his mercy by his continuous displays of novelties, his reductions of
prices, and his “returns,” his gallantry, puffery, and advertisements.
He had conquered even the mothers, he reigned over all with the
brutality of a despot, whose caprices ruined many a household. His
creation was a sort of new religion; the churches, gradually deserted
by wavering faith, were replaced by his bazaar, in the minds of the
idle women of Paris. Woman now came and spent her leisure time in his
establishment, those shivering anxious hours which she had formerly
passed in churches: a necessary consumption of nervous passion, an
ever renewed struggle of the god of dress against the husband, an
ever renewed worship of the body with the promise of future divine
beauty. If he had closed his doors, there would have been a rising
in the street, the despairing cry of worshippers deprived of their
confessional and altar! In their still growing passion for luxury, he
saw them, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour yet obstinately
lingering in the huge iron building, on the suspended staircases and
flying bridges. Madame Marty and her daughter, carried away to the
highest point, were wandering amongst the furniture. Madame Bourdelais,
retained by her young people, could not get away from the fancy goods.
And then came another group, Madame de Boves, still on Vallagnosc’s
arm, and followed by Blanche, stopping in each department and still
daring to examine the goods with her superb air. But amidst the crowded
sea of customers, that sea of bodies inflated with life and beating
with desire, one and all decorated with bunches of violets, as though
for the bridal of some sovereign, Mouret could now only distinguish the
figure of Madame Desforges, who had stopped in the glove department
with Madame Guibal. Despite her jealous rancour, she also was buying,
and he felt himself to be the master once more, having them at his
feet, beneath the dazzle of the electric light, like a drove of cattle
from which he had drawn his fortune.

With a mechanical step, Mouret went along the galleries, so absorbed
that he yielded to the pushing of the crowd. When he raised his head
again he found himself in the new millinery department, the windows
of which overlooked the Rue du Dix-Décembre. And there, his forehead
against the glass, he made another halt and watched the departure
of the throng. The setting sun was tinging the roofs of the white
houses with yellow, the blue sky was growing paler, refreshed by a
pure breeze; whilst in the twilight, which was already enveloping the
side-walks down below, the electric lamps of The Ladies’ Paradise threw
forth the fixed glimmer of stars, lighted on the horizon at the decline
of day. Towards the Opera-house and the Bourse were rows of waiting
vehicles, the harness of the horses still presenting reflections of
bright light, the gleam of a lamp, the glitter of a silver chain. At
each minute the cry of a messenger was heard, and a cab drew near, or
a brougham came forth from the ranks, took up a customer and went off
at a rapid trot. The rows of conveyances were now diminishing, six
went off at a time, occupying the whole street from one side to the
other, amidst the banging of doors, the snapping of whips, and the
hum of the passers-by, who swarmed between the wheels. There was a
sort of continuous enlargement, a spreading of the customers, carried
off to the four corners of the city, as the building emptied with the
roaring clamour of a sluice. And the roof of The Ladies’ Paradise, the
big golden letters of the sky signs, the banners fluttering in the
heavens, still flamed with the reflections of the setting sun, looking
so colossal in the oblique light that they evoked the thought of some
monster of advertising, some phalansterium whose buildings, incessantly
multiplied, in turn covered up every district, as far as the distant
woods of the suburbs. And the spreading soul of Paris, in a huge but
gentle breath, sank asleep in the serenity of the evening, hovering in
prolonged, languid caresses over the last vehicles which were spinning
through the streets, now slowly deserted by the crowd as it disappeared
into the darkness of the night.

Mouret, gazing around, had just felt something grand in himself;
but, amid the quiver of triumph with which his flesh trembled, in
face of Paris devoured and woman conquered, he experienced a sudden
weakness, a defection of his strong will, by which in his turn he was
overthrown beneath a superior force. It was an unreasonable longing to
be vanquished amidst his victory, the nonsense of a warrior bending
beneath the caprice of a child, on the morrow of his conquests. He who
had struggled for months, who even that morning had sworn to stifle his
passion, all at once yielded, seized by the vertigo which overcomes one
on mountain heights, happy to commit what he looked upon as folly. His
decision, so rapidly arrived at, acquired in a minute such energy that
he saw nothing else useful and necessary in the world.

In the evening, after the last dinner, he sat waiting in his office,
trembling like a young man about to stake his life’s happiness, unable
to keep still but incessantly going towards the door to listen to the
hubbub in the shop, where the employees, submerged to the shoulders in
a sea of stuffs, were now doing the folding up. At each footstep his
heart beat. And all at once he experienced violent emotion, and rushed
forward, for he had heard in the distance a deep murmur, which had
gradually increased.

It was Lhomme slowly approaching with the day’s receipts. That day they
were so heavy, there was such a quantity of silver and copper, that
he had been obliged to enlist the services of two messengers. Behind
him came Joseph and one of his colleagues, both bending beneath the
weight of the bags, enormous bags, thrown on their shoulders like sacks
of plaster, whilst he walked on in front with the notes and gold, a
note-book swollen with flimsies, and two bags hung round his neck, the
weight of which made him sway to the right, the same side as his broken
arm. Slowly, perspiring and puffing, he had come from the other end of
the shop amidst the growing emotion of the salesmen. The employees in
the glove and silk departments had laughingly offered to relieve him of
his burden, the men in the drapery and woollen departments had longed
to see him make a false step, which would have scattered the gold all
over the place. Then he had been obliged to mount the stairs, and cross
a bridge and then go higher still, turning about amidst the longing
looks of the employees of the linen, hosiery, and mercery departments,
who gazed in ecstasy at this fortune travelling in the air. On the
first-floor the mantle, perfumery, lace, and shawl employees were
ranged devoutly as for the passage of the Blessed Sacrament. And from
counter to counter a tumult arose, like the clamour of a nation bowing
down before the Golden Calf.

Mouret had opened the door, and Lhomme appeared, followed by the two
messengers, who were staggering; and, out of breath though he was, the
cashier still had strength to cry out: “One million two hundred and
forty-seven francs, nineteen sous!”

At last the million had been attained, that million picked up in
a day, of which Mouret had so long dreamed. But he gave way to an
angry gesture, and with the disappointed air of a man disturbed by
some troublesome visitor, he impatiently exclaimed, “A million! very
good, put it there.” Lhomme knew that he was fond of seeing the heavy
receipts on his table before they were taken to the central cash
office. The million covered the whole table, crushing the papers and
almost overturning the ink; and the gold and the silver and the copper
running out of the sacks and bursting the leather bags, formed a great
heap, the heap of the gross receipts, such as it came still warm and
palpitating from the customers’ hands.

Just as the cashier was going away, heart-broken at the governor’s
indifference, Bourdoncle arrived, gaily exclaiming: “Ah! we’ve got it
this time. We’ve hooked the million, eh?”

But on observing Mouret’s febrile air he understood the situation and
calmed down. His face was beaming with delight; and after a short
silence he resumed: “You’ve made up your mind, haven’t you? Well, I
approve your decision.”

All at once, however, Mouret planted himself before him, and in his
terrible voice thundered: “I say, my man, you’re rather too lively. You
think me played out, don’t you? and you feel hungry. But be careful,
I’m not one to be swallowed up, you know!”

Discountenanced by the sharp attack of this wonderful fellow, who
guessed everything, Bourdoncle stammered: “What now? Are you joking? I
who have always admired you so much!”

“Don’t tell lies!” replied Mouret, more violently than ever. “Just
listen, we were stupid to entertain the superstition that marriage
would ruin us. Why, is it not the necessary health, the very strength
and order of life? Well, my dear fellow, I’m going to marry her, and
I’ll pitch you all out of doors at the slightest movement. Yes, you’ll
go and get paid like the rest, Bourdoncle.”

And with a gesture he dismissed him. Bourdoncle felt himself condemned,
swept away, in this victory gained by woman. He went off. Denise was
just coming in, and he bowed to her with profound respect, his head
swimming.

“Ah! you’ve come at last!” said Mouret gently.

Denise was pale with emotion. She had just experienced another grief,
Deloche had informed her of his dismissal, and when she had tried
to retain him, offering to speak in his favour, he had obstinately
declined to struggle against his bad luck; he wanted to disappear, he
said, what was the use of staying? Why should he interfere with people
who were happy? Then Denise had bade him a sisterly farewell, her
eyes full of tears. Did she not herself long to sink into oblivion?
Everything was now about to finish, and she asked nothing more of her
exhausted strength than the courage to insist on the separation. In a
few minutes, if she could only be valiant enough to crush her heart,
she would be able to go away alone, and weep unseen.

“You wished to see me, sir,” she said in her calm voice. “In fact, I
intended to come and thank you for all your kindness to me.”

On entering, she had perceived the million on the table, and the
display of that money wounded her. Above her, as if watching the scene,
was the portrait of Madame Hédouin, in its gilded frame, and with the
eternal smile of its painted lips.

“You are still resolved to leave us?” asked Mouret, in a trembling
voice.

“Yes, sir. I must.”

Then he took her hands, and, in an outburst of tenderness, after the
long coldness he had imposed on himself exclaimed: “And if I asked you
to marry me, Denise, would you still leave?”

But she rapidly drew her hands away, struggling as if under the
influence of a great grief. “Oh! Monsieur Mouret! Pray say no more.
Oh! don’t cause me even greater pain than before! I cannot! I cannot!
Heaven is my witness that I was going away to avoid such a misfortune!”

She continued to defend herself in broken sentences. Had she not
already suffered too much from the gossip of the house? Did he wish her
to pass in the eyes of others and his own for a worthless woman? No,
no, she would be strong, she would certainly prevent him doing such a
foolish thing. He, tortured, listened to her, repeating in a passionate
tone: “I wish it. I wish it!”

“No, it’s impossible. And my brothers? I have sworn not to marry. I
cannot bring you those children, can I?”

“They shall be my brothers, too. Say yes, Denise.”

“No, no, leave me. You are torturing me!”

Little by little he was losing his strength; this last obstacle drove
him frantic. What! She still refused even at this price! In the
distance he heard the clamour of his three thousand employees building
up his immense fortune. And that idiotic million lying there! He
suffered from it as from a sort of irony, he could have kicked it into
the street.

“Go, then!” he cried at last in a flood of tears. “Go and join the man
you love. That’s the reason, isn’t it? You warned me, I ought to have
known it, and not have tormented you any further.”

She stood there thunderstruck by the violence of this despair. Her own
heart was bursting. And then, with the impetuosity of a child, she
threw herself on his neck, sobbing also, and stammering: “Oh! Monsieur
Mouret, it’s you I love!”

A last murmur was rising from The Ladies’ Paradise, the distant
acclamation of a multitude. Madame Hédouin’s portrait was still
smiling, with its painted lips; Mouret had fallen on his table, on
the million which he could no longer see. He did not quit Denise, but
clasped her to his breast in a desperate embrace, telling her that she
might now go, that she could spend a month at Valognes which would
silence everybody, and that then he would go to fetch her himself, and
bring her back, all-powerful, as his wedded wife.