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Let me have men about me that are fat:
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond’ Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, act i, sc. 2.
Amidst the deep silence and solitude prevailing in the avenue several market gardeners’ carts were climbing the slope which led towards Paris, and the fronts of the houses, asleep behind the dim lines of elms on either side of the road, echoed back the rhythmical jolting of the wheels. At the Neuilly bridge a cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined the eight waggons of carrots and turnips coming down from Nanterre; and the horses, left to themselves, had continued plodding along with lowered heads, at a regular though lazy pace, which the ascent of the slope now slackened. The sleeping waggoners, wrapped in woollen cloaks, striped black and grey, and grasping the reins slackly in their closed hands, were stretched at full length on their stomachs atop of the piles of vegetables. Every now and then, a gas lamp, following some patch of gloom, would light up the hobnails of a boot, the blue sleeve of a blouse, or the peak of a cap peering out of the huge florescence of vegetables — red bouquets of carrots, white bouquets of turnips, and the overflowing greenery of peas and cabbages.
And all along the road, and along the neighbouring roads, in front and behind, the distant rumbling of vehicles told of the presence of similar contingents of the great caravan which was travelling onward through the gloom and deep slumber of that matutinal hour, lulling the dark city to continued repose with its echoes of passing food.
Madame Francois’s horse, Balthazar, an animal that was far too fat, led the van. He was plodding on, half asleep and wagging his ears, when suddenly, on reaching the Rue de Longchamp, he quivered with fear and came to a dead stop. The horses behind, thus unexpectedly checked, ran their heads against the backs of the carts in front of them, and the procession halted amidst a clattering of bolts and chains and the oaths of the awakened waggoners. Madame Francois, who sat in front of her vehicle, with her back to a board which kept her vegetables in position, looked down; but, in the dim light thrown to the left by a small square lantern, which illuminated little beyond one of Balthazar’s sheeny flanks, she could distinguish nothing.
“Come, old woman, let’s get on!” cried one of the men, who had raised himself to a kneeling position amongst his turnips; “it’s only some drunken sot.”
Madame Francois, however, had bent forward and on her right hand had caught sight of a black mass, lying almost under the horse’s hoofs, and blocking the road.
“You wouldn’t have us drive over a man, would you?” said she, jumping to the ground.
It was indeed a man lying at full length upon the road, with his arms stretched out and his face in the dust. He seemed to be remarkably tall, but as withered as a dry branch, and the wonder was that Balthazar had not broken him in half with a blow from his hoof. Madame Francois thought that he was dead; but on stooping and taking hold of one of his hands, she found that it was quite warm.
“Poor fellow!” she murmured softly.
The waggoners, however, were getting impatient.
“Hurry up, there!” said the man kneeling amongst the turnips, in a hoarse voice. “He’s drunk till he can hold no more, the hog! Shove him into the gutter.”
Meantime, the man on the road had opened his eyes. He looked at Madame Francois with a startled air, but did not move. She herself now thought that he must indeed be drunk.
“You mustn’t stop here,” she said to him, “or you’ll get run over and killed. Where were you going?”
“I don’t know,” replied the man in a faint voice.
Then, with an effort and an anxious expression, he added: “I was going to Paris; I fell down, and don’t remember any more.”
Madame Francois could now see him more distinctly, and he was truly a pitiable object, with his ragged black coat and trousers, through the rents in which you could espy his scraggy limbs. Underneath a black cloth cap, which was drawn low over his brows, as though he were afraid of being recognised, could be seen two large brown eyes, gleaming with peculiar softness in his otherwise stern and harassed countenance. It seemed to Madame Francois that he was in far too famished a condition to have got drunk.
“And what part of Paris were you going to?” she continued.
The man did not reply immediately. This questioning seemed to distress him. He appeared to be thinking the matter over, but at last said hesitatingly, “Over yonder, towards the markets.”
He had now, with great difficulty, got to his feet again, and seemed anxious to resume his journey. But Madame Francois noticed that he tottered, and clung for support to one of the shafts of her waggon.
“Are you tired?” she asked him.
“Yes, very tired,” he replied.
Then she suddenly assumed a grumpy tone, as though displeased, and, giving him a push, exclaimed: “Look sharp, then, and climb into my cart. You’ve made us lose a lot of time. I’m going to the markets, and I’ll turn you out there with my vegetables.”
Then, as the man seemed inclined to refuse her offer, she pushed him up with her stout arms, and bundled him down upon the turnips and carrots.
“Come, now, don’t give us any more trouble,” she cried angrily. “You are quite enough to provoke one, my good fellow. Don’t I tell you that I’m going to the markets? Sleep away up there. I’ll wake you when we arrive.”
She herself then clambered into the cart again, and settled herself with her back against the board, grasping the reins of Balthazar, who started off drowsily, swaying his ears once more. The other waggons followed, and the procession resumed its lazy march through the darkness, whilst the rhythmical jolting of the wheels again awoke the echoes of the sleepy house fronts, and the waggoners, wrapped in their cloaks, dozed off afresh. The one who had called to Madame Francois growled out as he lay down: “As if we’d nothing better to do than pick up every drunken sot we come across! You’re a scorcher, old woman!”
The waggons rumbled on, and the horses picked their own way, with drooping heads. The stranger whom Madame Francois had befriended was lying on his stomach, with his long legs lost amongst the turnips which filled the back part of the cart, whilst his face was buried amidst the spreading piles of carrot bunches. With weary, extended arms he clutched hold of his vegetable couch in fear of being thrown to the ground by one of the waggon’s jolts, and his eyes were fixed on the two long lines of gas lamps which stretched away in front of him till they mingled with a swarm of other lights in the distance atop of the slope. Far away on the horizon floated a spreading, whitish vapour, showing where Paris slept amidst the luminous haze of all those flamelets.
“I come from Nanterre, and my name’s Madame Francois,” said the market gardener presently. “Since my poor man died I go to the markets every morning myself. It’s a hard life, as you may guess. And who are you?”
“My name’s Florent, I come from a distance,” replied the stranger, with embarrassment. “Please excuse me, but I’m really so tired that it is painful to me to talk.”
He was evidently unwilling to say anything more, and so Madame Francois relapsed into silence, and allowed the reins to fall loosely on the back of Balthazar, who went his way like an animal acquainted with every stone of the road.
Meantime, with his eyes still fixed upon the far-spreading glare of Paris, Florent was pondering over the story which he had refused to communicate to Madame Francois. After making his escape from Cayenne, whither he had been transported for his participation in the resistance to Louis Napoleon’s Coup d’Etat, he had wandered about Dutch Guiana for a couple of years, burning to return to France, yet dreading the Imperial police. At last, however, he once more saw before him the beloved and mighty city which he had so keenly regretted and so ardently longed for. He would hide himself there, he told himself, and again lead the quiet, peaceable life that he had lived years ago. The police would never be any the wiser; and everyone would imagine, indeed, that he had died over yonder, across the sea. Then he thought of his arrival at Havre, where he had landed with only some fifteen francs tied up in a corner of his handkerchief. He had been able to pay for a seat in the coach as far as Rouen, but from that point he had been forced to continue his journey on foot, as he had scarcely thirty sous left of his little store. At Vernon his last copper had gone in bread. After that he had no clear recollection of anything. He fancied that he could remember having slept for several hours in a ditch, and having shown the papers with which he had provided himself to a gendarme; however, he had only a very confused idea of what had happened. He had left Vernon without any breakfast, seized every now and then with hopeless despair and raging pangs which had driven him to munch the leaves of the hedges as he tramped along. A prey to cramp and fright, his body bent, his sight dimmed, and his feet sore, he had continued his weary march, ever drawn onwards in a semi-unconscious state by a vision of Paris, which, far, far away, beyond the horizon, seemed to be summoning him and waiting for him.
When he at length reached Courbevoie, the night was very dark. Paris, looking like a patch of star-sprent sky that had fallen upon the black earth, seemed to him to wear a forbidding aspect, as though angry at his return. Then he felt very faint, and his legs almost gave way beneath him as he descended the hill. As he crossed the Neuilly bridge he sustained himself by clinging to the parapet, and bent over and looked at the Seine rolling inky waves between its dense, massy banks. A red lamp on the water seemed to be watching him with a sanguineous eye. And then he had to climb the hill if he would reach Paris on its summit yonder. The hundreds of leagues which he had already travelled were as nothing to it. That bit of a road filled him with despair. He would never be able, he thought, to reach yonder light crowned summit. The spacious avenue lay before him with its silence and its darkness, its lines of tall trees and low houses, its broad grey footwalks, speckled with the shadows of overhanging branches, and parted occasionally by the gloomy gaps of side streets. The squat yellow flames of the gas lamps, standing erect at regular intervals, alone imparted a little life to the lonely wilderness. And Florent seemed to make no progress; the avenue appeared to grow ever longer and longer, to be carrying Paris away into the far depths of the night. At last he fancied that the gas lamps, with their single eyes, were running off on either hand, whisking the road away with them; and then, overcome by vertigo, he stumbled and fell on the roadway like a log.
Now he was lying at ease on his couch of greenery, which seemed to him soft as a feather bed. He had slightly raised his head so as to keep his eyes on the luminous haze which was spreading above the dark roofs which he could divine on the horizon. He was nearing his goal, carried along towards it, with nothing to do but to yield to the leisurely jolts of the waggon; and, free from all further fatigue, he now only suffered from hunger. Hunger, indeed, had once more awoke within him with frightful and wellnigh intolerable pangs. His limbs seemed to have fallen asleep; he was only conscious of the existence of his stomach, horribly cramped and twisted as by a red-hot iron. The fresh odour of the vegetables, amongst which he was lying, affected him so keenly that he almost fainted away. He strained himself against that piled-up mass of food with all his remaining strength, in order to compress his stomach and silence its groans. And the nine other waggons behind him, with their mountains of cabbages and peas, their piles of artichokes, lettuces, celery, and leeks, seemed to him to be slowly overtaking him, as though to bury him whilst he was thus tortured by hunger beneath an avalanche of food. Presently the procession halted, and there was a sound of deep voices. They had reached the barriers, and the municipal customs officers were examining the waggons. A moment later Florent entered Paris, in a swoon, lying atop of the carrots, with clenched teeth.
“Hallow! You up there!” Madame Francois called out sharply.
And as the stranger made no attempt to move, she clambered up and shook him. Florent rose to a sitting posture. He had slept and no longer felt the pangs of hunger, but was dizzy and confused.
“You’ll help me to unload, won’t you?” Madame Francois said to him, as she made him get down.
He helped her. A stout man with a felt hat on his head and a badge in the top buttonhole of his coat was striking the ground with a stick and grumbling loudly:
“Come, come, now, make haste! You must get on faster than that! Bring the waggon a little more forward. How many yards’ standing have you? Four, isn’t it?”
Then he gave a ticket to Madame Francois, who took some coppers out of a little canvas bag and handed them to him; whereupon he went off to vent his impatience and tap the ground with his stick a little further away. Madame Francois took hold of Balthazar’s bridle and backed him so as to bring the wheels of the waggon close to the footway. Then, having marked out her four yards with some wisps of straw, after removing the back of the cart, she asked Florent to hand her the vegetables bunch by bunch. She arranged them sort by sort on her standing, setting them out artistically, the “tops” forming a band of greenery around each pile; and it was with remarkable rapidity that she completed her show, which, in the gloom of early morning, looked like some piece of symmetrically coloured tapestry. When Florent had handed her a huge bunch of parsley, which he had found at the bottom of the cart, she asked him for still another service.
“It would be very kind of you,” said she, “if you would look after my goods while I put the horse and cart up. I’m only going a couple of yards, to the Golden Compasses, in the Rue Montorgueil.”
Florent told her that she might make herself easy. He preferred to remain still, for his hunger had revived since he had begun to move about. He sat down and leaned against a heap of cabbages beside Madame Francois’s stock. He was all right there, he told himself, and would not go further afield, but wait. His head felt empty, and he had no very clear notion as to where he was. At the beginning of September it is quite dark in the early morning. Around him lighted lanterns were flitting or standing stationary in the depths of the gloom. He was sitting on one side of a broad street which he did not recognise; it stretched far away into the blackness of the night. He could make out nothing plainly, excepting the stock of which he had been left in charge. All around him along the market footways rose similar piles of goods. The middle of the roadway was blocked by huge grey tumbrels, and from one end of the street to the other a sound of heavy breathing passed, betokening the presence of horses which the eye could not distinguish.
Shouts and calls, the noise of falling wood, or of iron chains slipping to the ground, the heavy thud of loads of vegetables discharged from the waggons, and the grating of wheels as the carts were backed against the footways, filled the yet sonorous awakening, whose near approach could be felt and heard in the throbbing gloom. Glancing over the pile of cabbages behind him. Florent caught sight of a man wrapped like a parcel in his cloak, and snoring away with his head upon some baskets of plums. Nearer to him, on his left, he could distinguish a lad, some ten years old, slumbering between two heaps of endive, with an angelic smile on his face. And as yet there seemed to be nothing on that pavement that was really awake except the lanterns waving from invisible arms, and flitting and skipping over the sleep of the vegetables and human beings spread out there in heaps pending the dawn. However, what surprised Florent was the sight of some huge pavilions on either side of the street, pavilions with lofty roofs that seemed to expand and soar out of sight amidst a swarm of gleams. In his weakened state of mind he fancied he beheld a series of enormous, symmetrically built palaces, light and airy as crystal, whose fronts sparkled with countless streaks of light filtering through endless Venetian shutters. Gleaming between the slender pillar shafts these narrow golden bars seemed like ladders of light mounting to the gloomy line of the lower roofs, and then soaring aloft till they reached the jumble of higher ones, thus describing the open framework of immense square halls, where in the yellow flare of the gas lights a multitude of vague, grey, slumbering things was gathered together.
At last Florent turned his head to look about him, distressed at not knowing where he was, and filled with vague uneasiness by the sight of that huge and seemingly fragile vision. And now, as he raised his eyes, he caught sight of the luminous dial and the grey massive pile of Saint Eustache’s Church. At this he was much astonished. He was close to Saint Eustache, yet all was novel to him.
However, Madame Francois had come back again, and was engaged in a heated discussion with a man who carried a sack over his shoulder and offered to buy her carrots for a sou a bunch.
“Really, now, you are unreasonable, Lacaille!” said she. “You know quite well that you will sell them again to the Parisians at four and five sous the bunch. Don’t tell me that you won’t! You may have them for two sous the bunch, if you like.”
Then, as the man went off, she continued: “Upon my word, I believe some people think that things grow of their own accord! Let him go and find carrots at a sou the bunch elsewhere, tipsy scoundrel that he is! He’ll come back again presently, you’ll see.”
These last remarks were addressed to Florent. And, seating herself by his side, Madame Francois resumed: “If you’ve been a long time away from Paris, you perhaps don’t know the new markets. They haven’t been built for more than five years at the most. That pavilion you see there beside us is the flower and fruit market. The fish and poultry markets are farther away, and over there behind us come the vegetables and the butter and cheese. There are six pavilions on this side, and on the other side, across the road, there are four more, with the meat and the tripe stalls. It’s an enormous place, but it’s horribly cold in the winter. They talk about pulling down the houses near the corn market to make room for two more pavilions. But perhaps you know all this?”
“No, indeed,” replied Florent; “I’ve been abroad. And what’s the name of that big street in front of us?”
“Oh, that’s a new street. It’s called the Rue du Pont Neuf. It leads from the Seine through here to the Rue Montmartre and the Rue Montorgueil. You would soon have recognized where you were if it had been daylight.”
Madame Francois paused and rose, for she saw a woman heading down to examine her turnips. “Ah, is that you, Mother Chantemesse?” she said in a friendly way.
Florent meanwhile glanced towards the Rue Montorgueil. It was there that a body of police officers had arrested him on the night of December 4.* He had been walking along the Boulevard Montmartre at about two o’clock, quietly making his way through the crowd, and smiling at the number of soldiers that the Elysee had sent into the streets to awe the people, when the military suddenly began making a clean sweep of the thoroughfare, shooting folks down at close range during a quarter of an hour. Jostled and knocked to the ground, Florent fell at the corner of the Rue Vivienne and knew nothing further of what happened, for the panic-stricken crowd, in their wild terror of being shot, trampled over his body. Presently, hearing everything quiet, he made an attempt to rise; but across him there lay a young woman in a pink bonnet, whose shawl had slipped aside, allowing her chemisette, pleated in little tucks, to be seen. Two bullets had pierced the upper part of her bosom; and when Florent gently removed the poor creature to free his legs, two streamlets of blood oozed from her wounds on to his hands. Then he sprang up with a sudden bound, and rushed madly away, hatless and with his hands still wet with blood. Until evening he wandered about the streets, with his head swimming, ever seeing the young woman lying across his legs with her pale face, her blue staring eyes, her distorted lips, and her expression of astonishment at thus meeting death so suddenly. He was a shy, timid fellow. Albeit thirty years old he had never dared to stare women in the face; and now, for the rest of his life, he was to have that one fixed in his heart and memory. He felt as though he had lost some loved one of his own.
* 1851. Two days after the Coup d’Etat. — Translator.
In the evening, without knowing how he had got there, still dazed and horrified as he was by the terrible scenes of the afternoon, he had found himself at a wine shop in the Rue Montorgueil, where several men were drinking and talking of throwing up barricades. He went away with them, helped them to tear up a few paving-stones, and seated himself on the barricade, weary with his long wandering through the streets, and reflecting that he would fight when the soldiers came up. However, he had not even a knife with him, and was still bareheaded. Towards eleven o’clock he dozed off, and in his sleep could see the two holes in the dead woman’s white chemisette glaring at him like eyes reddened by tears and blood. When he awoke he found himself in the grasp of four police officers, who were pummelling him with their fists. The men who had built the barricade had fled. The police officers treated him with still greater violence, and indeed almost strangled him when they noticed that his hands were stained with blood. It was the blood of the young woman.
Florent raised his eyes to the luminous dial of Saint Eustache with his mind so full of these recollections that he did not notice the position of the pointers. It was, however, nearly four o’clock. The markets were as yet wrapped in sleep. Madame Francois was still talking to old Madame Chantemesse, both standing and arguing about the price of turnips, and Florent now called to mind how narrowly he had escaped being shot over yonder by the wall of Saint Eustache. A detachment of gendarmes had just blown out the brains of five unhappy fellows caught at a barricade in the Rue Greneta. The five corpses were lying on the footway, at a spot where he thought he could now distinguish a heap of rosy radishes. He himself had escaped being shot merely because the policemen only carried swords. They took him to a neighbouring police station and gave the officer in charge a scrap of paper, on which were these words written in pencil: “Taken with blood-stained hands. Very dangerous.” Then he had been dragged from station to station till the morning came. The scrap of paper accompanied him wherever he went. He was manacled and guarded as though he were a raving madman. At the station in the Rue de la Lingerie some tipsy soldiers wanted to shoot him; and they had already lighted a lantern with that object when the order arrived for the prisoners to be taken to the depot of the Prefecture of Police. Two days afterwards he found himself in a casemate of the fort of Bicetre. Ever since then he had been suffering from hunger. He had felt hungry in the casemate, and the pangs of hunger had never since left him. A hundred men were pent in the depths of that cellar-like dungeon, where, scarce able to breathe, they devoured the few mouthfuls of bread that were thrown to them, like so many captive wild beasts.
When Florent was brought before an investigating magistrate, without anyone to defend him, and without any evidence being adduced, he was accused of belonging to a secret society; and when he swore that this was untrue, the magistrate produced the scrap of paper from amongst the documents before him: “Taken with blood-stained hands. Very dangerous.” That was quite sufficient. He was condemned to transportation. Six weeks afterwards, one January night, a gaoler awoke him and locked him up in a courtyard with more than four hundred other prisoners. An hour later this first detachment started for the pontoons and exile, handcuffed and guarded by a double file of gendarmes with loaded muskets. They crossed the Austerlitz bridge, followed the line of the boulevards, and so reached the terminus of the Western Railway line. It was a joyous carnival night. The windows of the restaurants on the boulevards glittered with lights. At the top of the Rue Vivienne, just at the spot where he ever saw the young woman lying dead — that unknown young woman whose image he always bore with him — he now beheld a large carriage in which a party of masked women, with bare shoulders and laughing voices, were venting their impatience at being detained, and expressing their horror of that endless procession of convicts. The whole of the way from Paris to Havre the prisoners never received a mouthful of bread or a drink of water. The officials had forgotten to give them their rations before starting, and it was not till thirty-six hours afterwards, when they had been stowed away in the hold of the frigate Canada, that they at last broke their fast.
No, Florent had never again been free from hunger. He recalled all the past to mind, but could not recollect a single hour of satiety. He had become dry and withered; his stomach seemed to have shrunk; his skin clung to his bones. And now that he was back in Paris once more, he found it fat and sleek and flourishing, teeming with food in the midst of the darkness. He had returned to it on a couch of vegetables; he lingered in its midst encompassed by unknown masses of food which still and ever increased and disquieted him. Had that happy carnival night continued throughout those seven years, then? Once again he saw the glittering windows on the boulevards, the laughing women, the luxurious, greedy city which he had quitted on that far-away January night; and it seemed to him that everything had expanded and increased in harmony with those huge markets, whose gigantic breathing, still heavy from the indigestion of the previous day, he now began to hear.
Old Mother Chantemesse had by this time made up her mind to buy a dozen bunches of turnips. She put them in her apron, which she held closely pressed to her person, thus making herself look yet more corpulent than she was; and for some time longer she lingered there, still gossiping in a drawling voice. When at last she went away, Madame Francois again sat down by the side of Florent.
“Poor old Mother Chantemesse!” she said; “she must be at least seventy-two. I can remember her buying turnips of my father when I was a mere chit. And she hasn’t a relation in the world; no one but a young hussy whom she picked up I don’t know where and who does nothing but bring her trouble. Still, she manages to live, selling things by the ha’p’orth and clearing her couple of francs profit a day. For my own part, I’m sure that I could never spend my days on the foot-pavement in this horrid Paris! And she hasn’t even any relations here!”
“You have some relations in Paris, I suppose?” she asked presently, seeing that Florent seemed disinclined to talk.
Florent did not appear to hear her. A feeling of distrust came back to him. His head was teeming with old stories of the police, stories of spies prowling about at every street corner, and of women selling the secrets which they managed to worm out of the unhappy fellows they deluded. Madame Francois was sitting close beside him and certainly looked perfectly straightforward and honest, with her big calm face, above which was bound a black and yellow handkerchief. She seemed about five and thirty years of age, and was somewhat stoutly built, with a certain hardy beauty due to her life in the fresh air. A pair of black eyes, which beamed with kindly tenderness, softened the more masculine characteristics of her person. She certainly was inquisitive, but her curiosity was probably well meant.
“I’ve a nephew in Paris,” she continued, without seeming at all offended by Florent’s silence. “He’s turned out badly though, and has enlisted. It’s a pleasant thing to have somewhere to go to and stay at, isn’t it? I dare say there’s a big surprise in store for your relations when they see you. But it’s always a pleasure to welcome one of one’s own people back again, isn’t it?”
She kept her eyes fixed upon him while she spoke, doubtless compassionating his extreme scragginess; fancying, too, that there was a “gentleman” inside those old black rags, and so not daring to slip a piece of silver into his hand. At last, however, she timidly murmured: “All the same, if you should happen just at present to be in want of anything ——”
But Florent checked her with uneasy pride. He told her that he had everything he required, and had a place to go to. She seemed quite pleased to hear this, and, as though to tranquillise herself concerning him, repeated several times: “Well, well, in that case you’ve only got to wait till daylight.”
A large bell at the corner of the fruit market, just over Florent’s head, now began to ring. The slow regular peals seemed to gradually dissipate the slumber that yet lingered all around. Carts were still arriving, and the shouts of the waggoners, the cracking of their whips, and the grinding of the paving-stones beneath the iron-bound wheels and the horses’ shoes sounded with an increasing din. The carts could now only advance by a series of spasmodic jolts, and stretched in a long line, one behind the other, till they were lost to sight in the distant darkness, whence a confused roar ascended.
Unloading was in progress all along the Rue du Pont Neuf, the vehicles being drawn up close to the edge of the footways, while their teams stood motionless in close order as at a horse fair. Florent felt interested in one enormous tumbrel which was piled up with magnificent cabbages, and had only been backed to the kerb with the greatest difficulty. Its load towered above the lofty gas lamp whose bright light fell full upon the broad leaves which looked like pieces of dark green velvet, scalloped and goffered. A young peasant girl, some sixteen years old, in a blue linen jacket and cap, had climbed on to the tumbrel, where, buried in the cabbages to her shoulders, she took them one by one and threw them to somebody concealed in the shade below. Every now and then the girl would slip and vanish, overwhelmed by an avalanche of the vegetables, but her rosy nose soon reappeared amidst the teeming greenery, and she broke into a laugh while the cabbages again flew down between Florent and the gas lamp. He counted them mechanically as they fell. When the cart was emptied he felt worried.
The piles of vegetables on the pavement now extended to the verge of the roadway. Between the heaps, the market gardeners left narrow paths to enable people to pass along. The whole of the wide footway was covered from end to end with dark mounds. As yet, in the sudden dancing gleams of light from the lanterns, you only just espied the luxuriant fulness of the bundles of artichokes, the delicate green of the lettuces, the rosy coral of the carrots, and dull ivory of the turnips. And these gleams of rich colour flitted along the heaps, according as the lanterns came and went. The footway was now becoming populated: a crowd of people had awakened, and was moving hither and thither amidst the vegetables, stopping at times, and chattering and shouting. In the distance a loud voice could be heard crying, “Endive! who’s got endive?” The gates of the pavilion devoted to the sale of ordinary vegetables had just been opened; and the retail dealers who had stalls there, with white caps on their heads, fichus knotted over their black jackets, and skirts pinned up to keep them from getting soiled, now began to secure their stock for the day, depositing their purchases in some huge porters’ baskets placed upon the ground. Between the roadway and the pavilion these baskets were to be seen coming and going on all sides, knocking against the crowded heads of the bystanders, who resented the pushing with coarse expressions, whilst all around was a clamour of voices growing hoarse by prolonged wrangling over a sou or two. Florent was astonished by the calmness of the female market gardeners, with bandanas and bronzed faces, displayed amidst all this garrulous bargaining of the markets.
Behind him, on the footway of the Rue Rambuteau, fruit was being sold. Hampers and low baskets covered with canvas or straw stood there in long lines, a strong odour of over-ripe mirabelle plums was wafted hither and thither. At last a subdued and gentle voice, which he had heard for some time past, induced him to turn his head, and he saw a charming darksome little woman sitting on the ground and bargaining.
“Come now, Marcel,” said she, “you’ll take a hundred sous, won’t you?”
The man to whom she was speaking was closely wrapped in his cloak and made no reply; however, after a silence of five minutes or more, the young woman returned to the charge.
“Come now, Marcel; a hundred sous for that basket there, and four francs for the other one; that’ll make nine francs altogether.”
Then came another interval.
“Well, tell me what you will take.”
“Ten francs. You know that well enough already; I told you so before. But what have you done with your Jules this morning, La Sarriette?”
The young woman began to laugh as she took a handful of small change out of her pocket.
“Oh,” she replied, “Jules is still in bed. He says that men were not intended to work.”
She paid for the two baskets, and carried them into the fruit pavilion, which had just been opened. The market buildings still retained their gloom-wrapped aspect of airy fragility, streaked with the thousand lines of light that gleamed from the venetian shutters. People were beginning to pass along the broad covered streets intersecting the pavilions, but the more distant buildings still remained deserted amidst the increasing buzz of life on the footways. By Saint Eustache the bakers and wine sellers were taking down their shutters, and the ruddy shops, with their gas lights flaring, showed like gaps of fire in the gloom in which the grey house-fronts were yet steeped. Florent noticed a baker’s shop on the left-hand side of the Rue Montorgueil, replete and golden with its last baking, and fancied he could scent the pleasant smell of the hot bread. It was now half past four.
Madame Francois by this time had disposed of nearly all her stock. She had only a few bunches of carrots left when Lacaille once more made his appearance with his sack.
“Well,” said he, “will you take a sou now?”
“I knew I should see you again,” the good woman quietly answered. “You’d better take all I have left. There are seventeen bunches.”
“That makes seventeen sous.”
At last they agreed to fix the price at twenty-five sous. Madame Francois was anxious to be off.
“He’d been keeping his eye upon me all the time,” she said to Florent, when Lacaille had gone off with the carrots in his sack. “That old rogue runs things down all over the markets, and he often waits till the last peal of the bell before spending four sous in purchase. Oh, these Paris folk! They’ll wrangle and argue for an hour to save half a sou, and then go off and empty their purses at the wine shop.”
Whenever Madame Francois talked of Paris she always spoke in a tone of disdain, and referred to the city as though it were some ridiculous, contemptible, far-away place, in which she only condescended to set foot at nighttime.
“There!” she continued, sitting down again, beside Florent, on some vegetables belonging to a neighbour, “I can get away now.”
Florent bent his head. He had just committed a theft. When Lacaille went off he had caught sight of a carrot lying on the ground, and having picked it up he was holding it tightly in his right hand. Behind him were some bundles of celery and bunches of parsley were diffusing pungent odours which painfully affected him.
“Well, I’m off now!” said Madame Francois.
However, she felt interested in this stranger, and could divine that he was suffering there on that foot-pavement, from which he had never stirred. She made him fresh offers of assistance, but he again refused them, with a still more bitter show of pride. He even got up and remained standing to prove that he was quite strong again. Then, as Madame Francois turned her head away, he put the carrot to his mouth. But he had to remove it for a moment, in spite of the terrible longing which he felt to dig his teeth into it; for Madame Francois turned round again and looking him full in the face, began to question him with her good-natured womanly curiosity. Florent, to avoid speaking, merely answered by nods and shakes of the head. Then, slowly and gently, he began to eat the carrot.
The worthy woman was at last on the point of going off, when a powerful voice exclaimed close beside her, “Good morning, Madame Francois.”
The speaker was a slim young man, with big bones and a big head. His face was bearded, and he had a very delicate nose and narrow sparkling eyes. He wore on his head a rusty, battered, black felt hat, and was buttoned up in an immense overcoat, which had once been of a soft chestnut hue, but which rain had discoloured and streaked with long greenish stains. Somewhat bent, and quivering with a nervous restlessness which was doubtless habitual with him, he stood there in a pair of heavy laced shoes, and the shortness of his trousers allowed a glimpse of his coarse blue hose.
“Good morning, Monsieur Claude,” the market gardener replied cheerfully. “I expected you, you know, last Monday, and, as you didn’t come, I’ve taken care of your canvas for you. I’ve hung it up on a nail in my room.”
“You are really very kind, Madame Francois. I’ll go to finish that study of mine one of these days. I wasn’t able to go on Monday. Has your big plum tree still got all its leaves?”
“I wanted to know, because I mean to put it in a corner of the picture. It will come in nicely by the side of the fowl house. I have been thinking about it all the week. What lovely vegetables are in the market this morning! I came down very early, expecting a fine sunrise effect upon all these heaps of cabbages.”
With a wave of the arm he indicated the footway.
“Well, well, I must be off now,” said Madame Francois. “Good-bye for the present. We shall meet again soon, I hope, Monsieur Claude.”
However, as she turned to go, she introduced Florent to the young artist.
“This gentleman, it seems, has just come from a distance,” said she. “He feels quite lost in your scampish Paris. I dare say you might be of service to him.”
Then she at last took her departure, feeling pleased at having left the two men together. Claude looked at Florent with a feeling of interest. That tall, slight, wavy figure seemed to him original. Madame Francois’s hasty presentation was in his eyes quite sufficient, and he addressed Florent with the easy familiarity of a lounger accustomed to all sorts of chance encounters.
“I’ll accompany you,” he said; “which way are you going?”
Florent felt ill at ease; he was not wont to unbosom himself so readily. However, ever since his arrival in Paris, a question had been trembling on his lips, and now he ventured to ask it, with the evident fear of receiving an unfavourable reply.
“Is the Rue Pirouette still in existence?”
“Oh, yes,” answered the artist. “A very curious corner of old Paris is the Rue Pirouette. It twists and turns like a dancing girl, and the houses bulge out like pot-bellied gluttons. I’ve made an etching of it that isn’t half bad. I’ll show it to you when you come to see me. Is it to the Rue Pirouette that you want to go?”
Florent, who felt easier and more cheerful now that he knew the street still existed, declared that he did not want to go there; in fact, he did not want to go anywhere in particular. All his distrust awoke into fresh life at Claude’s insistence.
“Oh! never mind,” said the artist, “let’s go to the Rue Pirouette all the same. It has such a fine colour at night time. Come along; it’s only a couple of yards away.”
Florent felt constrained to follow him, and the two men walked off, side by side, stepping over the hampers and vegetables like a couple of old friends. On the footway of the Rue Rambuteau there were some immense heaps of cauliflowers, symmetrically piled up like so many cannonballs. The soft-white flowers spread out like huge roses in the midst of their thick green leaves, and the piles had something of the appearance of bridal bouquets ranged in a row in colossal flower stands. Claude stopped in front of them, venting cries of admiration.
Then, on turning into the Rue Pirouette, which was just opposite, he pointed out each house to his companion, and explained his views concerning it. There was only a single gas lamp, burning in a corner. The buildings, which had settled down and swollen, threw their pent-houses forward in such wise as to justify Claude’s allusion to pot-bellied gluttons, whilst their gables receded, and on either side they clung to their neighbours for support. Three or four, however, standing in gloomy recesses, appeared to be on the point of toppling forward. The solitary gas lamp illumined one which was snowy with a fresh coat of whitewash, suggesting some flabby broken-down old dowager, powdered and bedaubed in the hope of appearing young. Then the others stretched away into the darkness, bruised, dented, and cracked, greeny with the fall of water from their roofs, and displaying such an extraordinary variety of attitudes and tints that Claude could not refrain from laughing as he contemplated them.
Florent, however, came to stand at the corner of the rue de Mondetour, in front of the last house but one on the left. Here the three floors, each with two shutterless windows, having little white curtains closely drawn, seemed wrapped in sleep; but, up above, a light could be seen flitting behind the curtains of a tiny gable casement. However, the sight of the shop beneath the pent-house seemed to fill Florent with the deepest emotion. It was kept by a dealer in cooked vegetables, and was just being opened. At its far end some metal pans were glittering, while on several earthen ones in the window there was a display of cooked spinach and endive, reduced to a paste and arranged in conical mounds from which customers were served with shovel-like carvers of white metal, only the handles of which were visible. This sight seemed to rivet Florent to the ground with surprise. He evidently could not recognize the place. He read the name of the shopkeeper, Godeboeuf, which was painted on a red sign board up above, and remained quite overcome by consternation. His arms dangling beside him, he began to examine the cooked spinach, with the despairing air of one on whom some supreme misfortune falls.
However, the gable casement was now opened, and a little old woman leaned out of it, and looked first at the sky and then at the markets in the distance.
“Ah, Mademoiselle Saget is an early riser,” exclaimed Claude, who had just raised his head. And, turning to his companion, he added: “I once had an aunt living in that house. It’s a regular hive of tittle-tattle! Ah, the Mehudins are stirring now, I see. There’s a light on the second floor.”
Florent would have liked to question his companion, but the latter’s long discoloured overcoat give him a disquieting appearance. So without a word Florent followed him, whilst he went on talking about the Mehudins. These Mehudins were fish-girls, it seemed; the older one was a magnificent creature, while the younger one, who sold fresh-water fish, reminded Claude of one of Murillo’s virgins, whenever he saw her standing with her fair face amidst her carps and eels.
From this Claude went on to remark with asperity that Murillo painted like an ignoramus. But all at once he stopped short in the middle of the street.
“Come!” he exclaimed, “tell me where it is that you want to go.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere just at present,” replied Florent in confusion. “Let’s go wherever you like.”
Just as they were leaving the Rue Pirouette, someone called to Claude from a wine shop at the corner of the street. The young man went in, dragging Florent with him. The shutters had been taken down on one side only, and the gas was still burning in the sleepy atmosphere of the shop. A forgotten napkin and some cards that had been used in the previous evening’s play were still lying on the tables; and the fresh breeze that streamed in through the open doorway freshened the close, warm vinous air. The landlord, Monsieur Lebigre, was serving his customers. He wore a sleeved waistcoat, and his fat regular features, fringed by an untidy beard, were still pale with sleep. Standing in front of the counter, groups of men, with heavy, tired eyes, were drinking, coughing, and spitting, whilst trying to rouse themselves by the aid of white wine and brandy. Amongst them Florent recognised Lacaille, whose sack now overflowed with various sorts of vegetables. He was taking his third dram with a friend, who was telling him a long story about the purchase of a hamper of potatoes.* When he had emptied his glass, he went to chat with Monsieur Lebigre in a little glazed compartment at the end of the room, where the gas had not yet been lighted.
* At the Paris central markets potatoes are sold by the hamper, not by the sack as in England. — Translator.
“What will you take?” Claude asked of Florent.
He had on entering grasped the hand of the person who had called out to him. This was a market porter,* a well-built young man of two and twenty at the most. His cheeks and chin were clean-shaven, but he wore a small moustache, and looked a sprightly, strapping fellow with his broad-brimmed hat covered with chalk, and his wool-worked neck-piece, the straps falling from which tightened his short blue blouse. Claude, who called him Alexandre, patted his arms, and asked him when they were going to Charentonneau again. Then they talked about a grand excursion they had made together in a boat on the Marne, when they had eaten a rabbit for supper in the evening.
* Fort is the French term, literally “a strong man,” as every market porter needs to be. — Translator.
“Well, what will you take?” Claude again asked Florent.
The latter looked at the counter in great embarrassment. At one end of it some stoneware pots, encircled with brass bands and containing punch and hot wine, were standing over the short blue flames of a gas stove. Florent at last confessed that a glass of something warm would be welcome. Monsieur Lebigre thereupon served them with three glasses of punch. In a basket near the pots were some smoking hot rolls which had only just arrived. However, as neither of the others took one, Florent likewise refrained, and drank his punch. He felt it slipping down into his empty stomach, like a steam of molten lead. It was Alexandre who paid for the “shout.”
“He’s a fine fellow, that Alexandre!” said Claude, when he and Florent found themselves alone again on the footway of the Rue Rambuteau. “He’s a very amusing companion to take into the country. He’s fond of showing his strength. And then he’s so magnificently built! I have seen him stripped. Ah, if I could only get him to pose for me in the nude out in the open air! Well, we’ll go and take a turn through the markets now, if you like.”
Florent followed, yielding entirely to his new friend’s guidance. A bright glow at the far end of the Rue Rambuteau announced the break of day. The far-spreading voice of the markets was become more sonorous, and every now and then the peals of a bell ringing in some distant pavilion mingled with the swelling, rising clamour. Claude and Florent entered one of the covered streets between the fish and poultry pavilions. Florent raised his eyes and looked at the lofty vault overhead, the inner timbers of which glistened amidst a black lacework of iron supports. As he turned into the great central thoroughfare he pictured himself in some strange town, with its various districts and suburbs, promenades and streets, squares and cross-roads, all suddenly placed under shelter on a rainy day by the whim of some gigantic power. The deep gloom brooding in the hollows of the roofs multiplied, as it were, the forest of pillars, and infinitely increased the number of the delicate ribs, railed galleries, and transparent shutters. And over the phantom city and far away into the depths of the shade, a teeming, flowering vegetation of luxuriant metal-work, with spindle-shaped stems and twining knotted branches, covered the vast expanse as with the foliage of some ancient forest. Several departments of the markets still slumbered behind their closed iron gates. The butter and poultry pavilions displayed rows of little trellised stalls and long alleys, which lines of gas lights showed to be deserted. The fish market, however, had just been opened, and women were flitting to and fro amongst the white slabs littered with shadowy hampers and cloths. Among the vegetables and fruit and flowers the noise and bustle were gradually increasing. The whole place was by degree waking up, from the popular quarter where the cabbages are piled at four o’clock in the morning, to the lazy and wealthy district which only hangs up its pullets and pheasants when the hands of the clock point to eight.
The great covered alleys were now teeming with life. All along the footways on both sides of the road there were still many market gardeners, with other small growers from the environs of Paris, who displayed baskets containing their “gatherings” of the previous evening — bundles of vegetables and clusters of fruit. Whilst the crowd incessantly paced hither and thither, vehicles barred the road; and Florent, in order to pass them, had to press against some dingy sacks, like coal-sacks in appearance, and so numerous and heavy that the axle-trees of the vans bent beneath them. They were quite damp, and exhaled a fresh odour of seaweed. From a rent low down in the side of one of them a black stream of big mussels was trickling.
Florent and Claude had now to pause at every step. The fish was arriving and one after another the drays of the railway companies drove up laden with wooden cages full of the hampers and baskets that had come by train from the sea coast. And to get out of the way of the fish drays, which became more and more numerous and disquieting, the artist and Florent rushed amongst the wheels of the drays laden with butter and eggs and cheese, huge yellow vehicles bearing coloured lanterns, and drawn by four horses. The market porters carried the cases of eggs, and baskets of cheese and butter, into the auction pavilion, where clerks were making entries in note books by the light of the gas.
Claude was quite charmed with all this uproar, and forgot everything to gaze at some effect of light, some group of blouses, or the picturesque unloading of a cart. At last they extricated themselves from the crowd, and as they continued on their way along the main artery they presently found themselves amidst an exquisite perfume which seemed to be following them. They were in the cut-flower market. All over the footways, to the right and left, women were seated in front of large rectangular baskets full of bunches of roses, violets, dahlias, and marguerites. At times the clumps darkened and looked like splotches of blood, at others they brightened into silvery greys of the softest tones. A lighted candle, standing near one basket, set amidst the general blackness quite a melody of colour — the bright variegations of marguerites, the blood-red crimson of dahlias, the bluey purple of violets, and the warm flesh tints of roses. And nothing could have been sweeter or more suggestive of springtide than this soft breath of perfume encountered on the footway, on emerging from the sharp odours of the fish market and the pestilential smell of the butter and the cheese.
Claude and Florent turned round and strolled about, loitering among the flowers. They halted with some curiosity before several women who were selling bunches of fern and bundles of vine-leaves, neatly tied up in packets of five and twenty. Then they turned down another covered alley, which was almost deserted, and where their footsteps echoed as though they had been walking through a church. Here they found a little cart, scarcely larger than a wheelbarrow, to which was harnessed a diminutive donkey, who, no doubt, felt bored, for at sight of them he began braying with such prolonged and sonorous force that the vast roofing of the markets fairly trembled. Then the horses began to neigh in reply, there was a sound of pawing and tramping, a distant uproar, which swelled, rolled along, then died away.
Meantime, in the Rue Berger in front of them, Claude and Florent perceived a number of bare, frontless, salesmen’s shops, where, by the light of flaring gas jets, they could distinguish piles of hampers and fruit, enclosed by three dirty walls which were covered with addition sums in pencil. And the two wanderers were still standing there, contemplating this scene, when they noticed a well-dressed woman huddled up in a cab which looked quite lost and forlorn in the block of carts as it stealthily made its way onwards.
“There’s Cinderella coming back without her slippers,” remarked Claude with a smile.
They began chatting together as they went back towards the markets. Claude whistled as he strolled along with his hands in his pockets, and expatiated on his love for this mountain of food which rises every morning in the very centre of Paris. He prowled about the footways night after night, dreaming of colossal still-life subjects, paintings of an extraordinary character. He had even started on one, having his friend Marjolin and that jade Cadine to pose for him; but it was hard work to paint those confounded vegetables and fruit and fish and meat — they were all so beautiful! Florent listened to the artist’s enthusiastic talk with a void and hunger-aching stomach. It did not seem to occur to Claude that all those things were intended to be eaten. Their charm for him lay in their colour. Suddenly, however, he ceased speaking and, with a gesture that was habitual to him, tightened the long red sash which he wore under his green-stained coat.
And then with a sly expression he resumed:
“Besides, I breakfast here, through my eyes, at any rate, and that’s better than getting nothing at all. Sometimes, when I’ve forgotten to dine on the previous day, I treat myself to a perfect fit of indigestion in the morning by watching the carts arrive here laden with all sorts of good things. On such mornings as those I love my vegetables more than ever. Ah! the exasperating part, the rank injustice of it all, is that those rascally Philistines really eat these things!”
Then he went on to tell Florent of a supper to which a friend had treated him at Baratte’s on a day of affluence. They had partaken of oysters, fish, and game. But Baratte’s had sadly fallen, and all the carnival life of the old Marche des Innocents was now buried. In place thereof they had those huge central markets, that colossus of ironwork, that new and wonderful town. Fools might say what they liked; it was the embodiment of the spirit of the times. Florent, however, could not at first make out whether he was condemning the picturesqueness of Baratte’s or its good cheer.
But Claude next began to inveigh against romanticism. He preferred his piles of vegetables, he said, to the rags of the middle ages; and he ended by reproaching himself with guilty weakness in making an etching of the Rue Pirouette. All those grimy old places ought to be levelled to the ground, he declared, and modern houses ought to be built in their stead.
“There!” he exclaimed, coming to a halt, “look at the corner of the footway yonder! Isn’t that a picture readymade, ever so much more human and natural than all their confounded consumptive daubs?”