Denise had walked from the
Saint-Lazare railway station, where a Cherbourg train had landed her
and her two brothers, after a night passed on the hard seat of a
third-class carriage. She was leading Pépé by the hand, and Jean
was following her, all three fatigued after the journey, frightened
and lost in this vast Paris, their eyes on every street name, asking
at every corner the way to the Rue de la Michodière, where their
uncle Baudu lived. But on arriving in the Place Gaillon, the young
girl stopped short, astonished.
"Oh! look there,
Jean," said she; and they stood still, nestling close to one
another, all dressed in black, wearing the old mourning bought at
their father's death. She, rather puny for her twenty years, was
carrying a small parcel; on the other side, her little brother, five
years old, was clinging to her arm; while behind her, the big
brother, a strapping youth of sixteen, was standing empty-handed.
she, after a pause, "that is a shop!"
They were at the corner of
the Rue de la Michodière and the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin, in front
of a draper's shop, which displayed a wealth of colour in the soft
October light. Eight o'clock was striking at the church of
Saint-Roch; not many people were about, only a few clerks on their
way to business, and housewives doing their morning shopping. Before
the door, two shopmen, mounted on a step-ladder, were hanging up some
woollen goods, whilst in a window in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin
another young man, kneeling with his back to the pavement, was
delicately plaiting a piece of blue silk. In the shop, where there
were as yet no customers, there was a buzz as of a swarm of bees at
"By Jove!" said
Jean, "this beats Valognes. Yours wasn't such a fine shop."
Denise shook her head. She
had spent two years there, at Cornaille's, the principal draper's in
the town, and this shop, encountered so suddenly—this, to her,
enormous place, made her heart swell, and kept her excited,
interested, and oblivious of everything else. The high plate-glass
door, facing the Place Gaillon, reached the first storey, amidst a
complication of ornaments covered with gilding. Two allegorical
figures, representing two laughing, bare-breasted women, unrolled the
scroll bearing the sign, "The Ladies' Paradise." The
establishment extended along the Rue de la Michodière and the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, and comprised, beside the corner house, four
others—two on the right and two on the left, bought and fitted up
recently. It seemed to her an endless extension, with its display on
the ground floor, and the plate-glass windows, through which could be
seen the whole length of the counters. Upstairs a young lady, dressed
all in silk, was sharpening a pencil, while two others, beside her,
were unfolding some velvet mantles.
Paradise," read Jean, with the tender laugh of a handsome youth
who had already had an adventure with a woman. "That must draw
But Denise was absorbed by
the display at the principal entrance. There she saw, in the open
street, on the very pavement, a mountain of cheap goods—bargains,
placed there to tempt the passers-by, and attract attention. Hanging
from above were pieces of woollen and cloth goods, merinoes,
cheviots, and tweeds, floating like flags; the neutral, slate,
navy-blue, and olive-green tints being relieved by the large white
price-tickets. Close by, round the doorway, were hanging strips of
fur, narrow bands for dress trimmings, fine Siberian squirrel-skin,
spotless snowy swansdown, rabbit-skin imitation ermine and imitation
sable. Below, on shelves and on tables, amidst a pile of remnants,
appeared an immense quantity of hosiery almost given away; knitted
woollen gloves, neckerchiefs, women's hoods, waistcoats, a winter
show in all colours, striped, dyed, and variegated, with here and
there a flaming patch of red. Denise saw some tartan at nine sous,
some strips of American vison at a franc, and some mittens at five
sous. There appeared to be an immense clearance sale going on; the
establishment seemed bursting with goods, blocking up the pavement
with the surplus.
Uncle Baudu was forgotten.
Pépé himself, clinging tightly to his sister's hand, opened his big
eyes in wonder. A vehicle coming up, forced them to quit the
road-way, and they turned up the Rue Neuve-Saint-Augustin
mechanically, following the shop windows and stopping at each fresh
display. At first they were captivated by a complicated arrangement:
above, a number of umbrellas, laid obliquely, seemed to form a rustic
roof; beneath these a quantity of silk stockings, hung on rods,
showed the roundness of the calves, some covered with rosebuds,
others of all colours, black open-worked, red with embroidered
corners, and flesh colour, the silky grain of which made them look as
soft as a fair woman's skin; and at the bottom of all, a symmetrical
array of gloves, with their taper fingers and narrow palms, and that
rigid virgin grace which characterises such feminine articles before
they are worn. But the last window especially attracted their
attention. It was an exhibition of silks, satins, and velvets,
arranged so as to produce, by a skilful artistic arrangement of
colours, the most delicious shades imaginable. At the top were the
velvets, from a deep black to a milky white: lower down, the
satins—pink, blue, fading away into shades of a wondrous delicacy;
still lower down were the silks, of all the colours of the rainbow,
pieces set up in the form of shells, others folded as if round a
pretty figure, arranged in a life-like natural manner by the clever
fingers of the window dressers. Between each motive, between each
coloured phrase of the display, ran a discreet accompaniment, a
slight puffy ring of cream-coloured silk. At each end were piled up
enormous bales of the silk of which the house had made a specialty,
the "Paris Paradise" and the "Golden Grain," two
exceptional articles destined to work a revolution in that branch of
"Oh, that silk at
five francs twelve sous!" murmured Denise, astonished at the
Jean began to get tired.
He stopped a passer-by. "Which is the Rue de la Michodière,
On hearing that it was the
first on the right they all turned back, making the tour of the
establishment. But just as she was entering the street, Denise was
attracted by a window in which ladies' dresses were displayed. At
Cornaille's that was her department, but she had never seen anything
like this, and remained rooted to the spot with admiration. At the
back a large sash of Bruges lace, of considerable value, was spread
out like an altar-veil, with its two white wings extended; there were
flounces of Alençon point, grouped in garlands; then from the top to
the bottom fluttered, like a fall of snow, a cloud of lace of every
description—Malines, Honiton, Valenciennes, Brussels, and
Venetian-point. On each side the heavy columns were draped with
cloth, making their background appear still more distant. And the
dresses were in this sort of chapel raised to the worship of woman's
beauty and grace. Occupying the centre was a magnificent article, a
velvet mantle, trimmed with silver fox; on one side a silk cape lined
with miniver, on the other a cloth cloak edged with cocks' plumes;
and last of all, opera cloaks in white cashmere and white silk
trimmed with swansdown or chenille. There was something for all
tastes, from the opera cloaks at twenty-nine francs to the velvet
mantle marked up at eighteen hundred. The well-rounded neck and
graceful figures of the dummies exaggerated the slimness of the
waist, the absent head being replaced by a large price-ticket pinned
on the neck; whilst the mirrors, cleverly arranged on each side of
the window, reflected and multiplied the forms without end, peopling
the street with these beautiful women for sale, each bearing a price
in big figures in the place of a head.
"How stunning they
are!" murmured Jean, finding no other words to express his
This time he himself had
become motionless, his mouth open. All this female luxury turned him
rosy with pleasure. He had a girl's beauty—a beauty he seemed to
have stolen from his sister—a lovely skin, curly hair, lips and
eyes overflowing with tenderness. By his side Denise, in her
astonishment, appeared thinner still, with her rather long face and
large mouth, fading complexion, and light hair. Pépé, also fair, in
the way of most children, clung closer to her, as if wanting to be
caressed, troubled and delighted at the sight of the beautiful ladies
in the window. They looked so strange, so charming, on the pavement,
those three fair ones, poorly dressed in black—the sad-looking
young girl between the pretty child and the handsome youth—that the
passers-by looked back smilingly.
For several minutes a
stout man with grey hair and a large yellow face, standing at a
shop-door on the other side of the street, had been looking at them.
He was standing there with bloodshot eyes and contracted mouth,
beside himself with rage at the display made by The Ladies' Paradise,
when the sight of the young girl and her brothers completed his
exasperation. What were those three simpletons doing there, gaping in
front of the cheap-jack's parade?
"What about uncle?"
asked Denise, suddenly, as if just waking up.
"We are in the Rue de
la Michodière," said Jean. "He must live somewhere about
They raised their heads
and looked round. Just in front of them, above the stout man, they
perceived a green sign-board bearing in yellow letters, discoloured
by the rain: "The Old Elbeuf. Cloths, Flannels. Baudu, late
Hauchecorne." The house, coated with an ancient rusty
white-wash, quite flat and unadorned, amidst the mansions in the
Louis XIV. style which surrounded it, had only three front windows,
and these windows, square, without shutters, were simply ornamented
by a handrail and two iron bars in the form of a cross. But amidst
all this nudity, what struck Denise the most, her eyes full of the
light airy windows at The Ladies' Paradise, was the ground-floor
shop, crushed by the ceiling, surmounted by a very low storey with
half-moon windows, of a prison-like appearance. The wainscoting, of a
bottle-green hue, which time had tinted with ochre and bitumen,
encircled, right and left, two deep windows, black and dusty, in
which the heaped up goods could hardly be seen. The open door seemed
to lead into the darkness and dampness of a cellar.
"That's the house,"
"Well, we must go
in," declared Denise. "Come on, Pépé."Denise
and her Brothers Arriving at their Uncle Baudu's
They appeared, however,
somewhat troubled, as if seized with fear. When their father died,
carried off by the same fever which had, a month previous, killed
their mother, their uncle Baudu, in the emotion which followed this
double mourning, had written to Denise, assuring her there would
always be a place for her in his house whenever she would like to
come to Paris. But this was nearly a year ago, and the young girl was
now sorry to have left Valognes in a moment of temper without
informing her uncle. The latter did not know them, never having set
foot in Valognes since the day he left, as a boy, to enter as junior
in the drapery establishment kept by Hauchecorne, whose daughter he
asked Denise, deciding at last to speak to the stout man who was
still eyeing them, surprised at their appearance.
Denise blushed and
stammered out: "Oh, I'm so pleased! I am Denise. This is Jean,
and this is Pépé. You see we have come, uncle."
Baudu seemed amazed. His
big eyes rolled in his yellow face; he spoke slowly and with
difficulty. He was evidently far from thinking of this family which
suddenly dropped down on him.
here?" repeated he several times. "But you were at
Valognes. Why aren't you at Valognes?"
With her sweet but rather
faltering voice she then explained that since the death of her
father, who had spent everything in his dye-works, she had acted as a
mother to the two children, but the little she earned at Cornaille's
did not suffice to keep the three of them. Jean worked at a
cabinetmaker's, a repairer of old furniture, but didn't earn a sou.
However, he had got to like the business, and had learned to carve in
wood very well. One day, having found a piece of ivory, he amused
himself by carving a head, which a gentleman staying in the town had
seen and admired, and it was this gentleman who had persuaded them to
leave Valognes, promising to find a place in Paris for Jean with an
"So you see, uncle,"
continued Denise, "Jean will commence his apprenticeship at his
new master's to-morrow. They ask no premium, and will board and lodge
him. I felt sure Pépé and I could manage very well. We can't be
worse off than we were at Valognes."
She said nothing about
Jean's love affair, of certain letters written to the daughter of a
nobleman living in the town, of kisses exchanged over a wall—in
fact, quite a scandal which had determined her leaving. And she was
especially anxious to be in Paris, to be able to look after her
brother, feeling quite a mother's tender anxiety for this gay and
handsome youth, whom all the women adored. Uncle Baudu couldn't get
over it, and continued his questions. However, when he heard her
speaking of her brothers in this way he became much kinder.
"So your father has
left you nothing," said he. "I certainly thought there was
still something left. Ah! how many times did I write advising him not
to take that dye-work! A good-hearted fellow, but no head for
business! And you've been obliged to keep and look after these two
His bilious face had
become clearer, his eyes were not so bloodshot as when he was glaring
at The Ladies' Paradise. Suddenly he noticed that he was blocking up
"Well," said he,
"come in, now you're here. Come in, no use hanging about gaping
at a parcel of rubbish."
And after having darted a
last look of anger at The Ladies' Paradise, he made way for the
children by entering the shop and calling his wife and daughter.
Geneviève, come down; here's company for you!"
But Denise and the two
boys hesitated before the darkness of the shop. Blinded by the clear
light of the street, they could hardly see. Feeling their way with
their feet with an instinctive fear of encountering some treacherous
step, and clinging still closer together from this vague fear, the
child continuing to hold the young girl's skirts, and the big boy
behind, they made their entry with a smiling, anxious grace. The
clear morning light described the dark profile of their mourning
clothes; an oblique ray of sunshine gilded their fair hair.
"Come in, come in,"
In a few brief sentences
he explained the matter to his wife and daughter. The first was a
little woman, eaten up with anaemia, quite white—white hair, white
eyes, white lips. Geneviève, in whom her mother's degenerateness
appeared stronger still, had the debilitated, colourless appearance
of a plant reared in the shade. However, her magnificent black hair,
thick and heavy, marvellously vigorous for such a weak, poor soil,
gave her a sad charm.
"Come in," said
both the women in their turn; "you are welcome."
And they made Denise sit
down behind a counter. Pépé immediately jumped up on his sister's
lap, whilst Jean leant against some woodwork beside her. Looking
round the shop the new-comers began to take courage, their eyes
getting used to the obscurity. Now they could see it, with its low
and smoky ceiling, oaken counters bright with use, and old-fashioned
drawers with strong iron fittings. Bales of goods reached to the
beams above; the smell of linen and dyed stuffs—a sharp chemical
smell—seemed intensified by the humidity of the floor. At the
further end two young men and a young woman were putting away pieces
of white flannel.
"Perhaps this young
gentleman would like to take something?" said Madame Baudu,
smiling at Pépé.
replied Denise, "we had a cup of milk in a café opposite the
station." And as Geneviève looked at the small parcel she had
laid down, she added: "I left our box there too."
She blushed, feeling that
she ought not to have dropped down on her friends in this way. Even
as she was leaving Valognes, she had been full of regrets and fears;
that was why she had left the box, and given the children their
said Baudu suddenly, "let's come to an understanding. 'Tis true
I wrote to you, but that's a year ago, and since then business hasn't
been flourishing, I can assure you, my girl."
He stopped, choked with an
emotion he did not wish to show. Madame Baudu and Geneviève, with a
resigned look, had cast their eyes down.
he, "it's a crisis which will pass, no doubt, but I have reduced
my staff; there are only three here now, and this is not the moment
to engage a fourth. In short, my dear girl, I cannot take you as I
Denise listened, and
turned very pale. He dwelt upon the subject, adding: "It would
do no good, either to you or to me.
"All right, uncle,"
replied she with a painful effort, "I'll try and manage all the
The Baudus were not bad
sort of people. But they complained of never having had any luck.
When their business was flourishing, they had had to bring up five
sons, of whom three had died before attaining the age of twenty; the
fourth had gone wrong, and the fifth had just left for Mexico, as a
captain. Geneviève was the only one left at home. But this large
family had cost a great deal of money, and Baudu had made things
worse by buying a great lumbering country house, at Rambouillet, near
his wife's father's place. Thus, a sharp, sour feeling was springing
up in the honest old tradesman's breast.
"You might have
warned us," resumed he, gradually getting angry at his own
harshness. "You could have written; I should have told you to
stay at Valognes. When I heard of your father's death I said what is
right on such occasions, but you drop down on us without a word of
warning. It's very awkward."
He raised his voice, and
that relieved him. His wife and daughter still kept their eyes on the
ground, like submissive persons who would never think of interfering.
However, whilst Jean had turned pale, Denise had hugged the terrified
Pépé to her bosom. She dropped hot tears of disappointment.
"All right, uncle,"
she said, "we'll go away."
At that he stopped, an
awkward silence ensued. Then he resumed in a harsh tone: "I
don't mean to turn you out. As you are here you must stay the night;
to-morrow we will see."
Then Madame Baudu and
Geneviève understood they were free to arrange matters. There was no
need to trouble about Jean, as he was to commence his apprenticeship
the next day. As for Pépé, he would be well looked after by Madame
Gras, an old lady living in the Rue des Orties, who boarded and
lodged young children for forty francs a month. Denise said she had
sufficient to pay for the first month, and as for herself they could
soon find her a situation in the neighbourhood, no doubt.
wanting a saleswoman?" asked Geneviève.
cried Baudu; "we'll go and see him after lunch. Nothing like
striking the iron while it's hot."
Not a customer had been in
to interrupt this family discussion; the shop remained dark and
empty. At the other end, the two young men and the young women were
still working, talking in a low hissing tone amongst themselves.
However, three ladies arrived, and Denise was left alone for a
moment. She kissed Pépé with a swelling heart, at the thought of
their approaching separation. The child, affectionate as a kitten,
hid his head without saying a word. When Madame Baudu and Geneviève
returned, they remarked how quiet he was. Denise assured them he
never made any more noise than that, remaining for days together
without speaking, living on kisses and caresses. Until lunch-time the
three women sat and talked about children, housekeeping, life in
Paris and life in the country, in short, vague sentences, like
relations feeling rather awkward through not knowing one another very
well. Jean had gone to the shop-door, and stood there watching the
passing crowd and smiling at the pretty girls. At ten o'clock a
servant appeared. As a rule the cloth was laid for Baudu, Geneviève,
and the first-hand. A second lunch was served at eleven o'clock for
Madame Baudu, the other young man, and the young woman.
"Come to lunch!"
called out the draper, turning towards his niece.
And as all sat ready in
the narrow dining-room behind the shop, he called the first-hand who
had not come.
The young man apologised,
having wished to finish arranging the flannels. He was a big, stout
fellow of twenty-five, heavy and freckled, with an honest face, large
weak mouth, and cunning eyes.
"There's a time for
everything," said Baudu, solidly seated before a piece of cold
veal, which he was carving with a master's skill and prudence,
weighing each piece at a glance to within an ounce.
He served everybody, and
even cut up the bread. Denise had placed Pépé near her to see that
he ate properly. But the dark close room made her feel uncomfortable.
She thought it so small, after the large well-lighted rooms she had
been accustomed to in the country. A single window opened on a small
back-yard, which communicated with the street by a dark alley along
the side of the house. And this yard, sodden and filthy, was like the
bottom of a well into which a glimmer of light had fallen. In the
winter they were obliged to keep the gas burning all day long. When
the weather enabled them to do without gas it was duller still.
Denise was several seconds before her eyes got sufficiently used to
the light to distinguish the food on her plate.
"That young chap has
a good appetite," remarked Baudu, observing that Jean had
finished his veal. "If he works as well as he eats, he'll make a
fine fellow. But you, my girl, you don't eat. And, I say, now we can
talk a bit, tell us why you didn't get married at Valognes?"
Denise almost dropped the
glass she had in her hand. "Oh! uncle—get married! How can you
think of it? And the little ones!"
She was forced to laugh,
it seemed to her such a strange idea. Besides, what man would care to
have her—a girl without a sou, no fatter than a lath, and not at
all pretty? No, no, she would never marry, she had quite enough
children with her two brothers.
"You are wrong,"
said her uncle; "a woman always needs a man. If you had found an
honest young fellow, you wouldn't have dropped on to the Paris
pavement, you and your brothers, like a family of gipsies."
He stopped, to divide with
a parsimony full of justice, a dish of bacon and potatoes which the
servant brought in. Then, pointing to Geneviève and Colomban with
his spoon, he added: "Those two will be married next spring, if
we have a good winter season."
Such was the patriarchal
custom of the house. The founder, Aristide Finet, had given his
daughter, Désirée to his firsthand, Hauchecorne; he, Baudu, who had
arrived in the Rue de la Michodière with seven francs in his pocket,
had married old Hauchecorne's daughter, Elizabeth; and he intended,
in his turn, to hand over Geneviève and the business to Colomban as
soon as trade should improve. If he thus delayed a marriage, decided
on for three years past, it was by scruple, an obstinate probity. He
had received the business in a prosperous state, and did not wish to
pass it on to his son-in-law less patronised or in a worse position
than when he took it. Baudu continued, introducing Colomban, who came
from Rambouillet, the same place as Madame Baudu's father; in fact
they were distant cousins. A hard-working fellow, who for ten years
had slaved in the shop, fairly earning his promotions! Besides, he
was far from being a nobody; he had for father that noted toper,
Colomban, a veterinary surgeon, known all over the department of
Seine-et-Oise, an artist in his line, but so fond of the flowing bowl
that he was ruining himself.
said the draper in conclusion, "if the father drinks and runs
after the women, the son has learnt the value of money here."
Whilst he was speaking
Denise was examining Geneviève and Colomban. They sat close together
at table, but remained very quiet, without a blush or a smile. From
the day of his entry the young man had counted on this marriage. He
had passed through the various stages: junior, counter-hand, etc.,
and had at last gained admittance into the confidence and pleasures
of the family circle, all this patiently, and leading a clock-work
style of life, looking upon this marriage with Geneviève as an
excellent, convenient arrangement. The certainty of having her
prevented him feeling any desire for her. And the young girl had also
got to love him, but with the gravity of her reserved nature, and a
real deep passion of which she herself was not aware, in her regular,
monotonous daily life.
"Quite right, if they
like each other, and can do it," said Denise, smiling,
considering it her duty to make herself agreeable.
"Yes, it always
finishes like that," declared Colomban, who had not spoken a
word before, masticating slowly.
Geneviève, after giving
him a long look, said in her turn: "When people understand each
other, the rest comes naturally."
Their tenderness had
sprung up in this gloomy house of old Paris like a flower in a
cellar. For ten years she had known no one but him, living by his
side, behind the same bales of cloth, amidst the darkness of the
shop; morning and evening they found themselves elbow to elbow in the
narrow dining-room, so damp and dull. They could not have been more
concealed, more utterly lost had they been in the country, in the
woods. But a doubt, a jealous fear, began to suggest itself to the
young girl, that she had given her hand, for ever, amidst this
abetting solitude through sheer emptiness of heart and mental
However, Denise, having
remarked a growing anxiety in the look Geneviève cast at Colomban,
good-naturedly replied: "Oh! when people are in love they always
understand each other."
But Baudu kept a sharp eye
on the table. He had distributed slices of Brie cheese, and, as a
treat for the visitors, he called for a second dessert, a pot of
red-currant jam, a liberality which seemed to surprise Colomban.
Pépé, who up to then had been very good, behaved rather badly at
the sight of the jam; whilst Jean, all attention during the
conversation about Geneviève's marriage, was taking stock of the
latter, whom he thought too weak, too pale, comparing her in his own
mind to a little white rabbit with black ears and pink eyes.
enough, and must now make room for the others," said the draper,
giving the signal to rise from table. "Just because we've had a
treat is no reason why we should want too much of it."
Madame Baudu, the other
shopman, and the young lady then came and took their places at the
table. Denise, left alone again, sat near the door waiting for her
uncle to take her to Vinçard's. Pépé was playing at her feet,
whilst Jean had resumed his post of observation at the door. She sat
there for nearly an hour, taking an interest in what was going on
around her. Now and again a few customers came in; a lady, then two
others appeared, the shop retaining its musty odour, its half light,
by which the old-fashioned business, good-natured and simple, seemed
to be weeping at its desertion. But what most interested Denise was
The Ladies' Paradise opposite, the windows of which she could see
through the open door. The sky remained clouded, a sort of humid
softness warmed the air, notwithstanding the season; and in this
clear light, in which there was, as it were, a hazy diffusion of
sunshine, the great shop seemed alive and in full activity.
Denise began to feel as if
she were watching a machine working at full pressure, communicating
its movement even as far as the windows. They were no longer the cold
windows she had seen in the early morning; they seemed to be warm and
vibrating from the activity within. There was a crowd before them,
groups of women pushing and squeezing, devouring the finery with
longing, covetous eyes. And the stuffs became animated in this
passionate atmosphere: the laces fluttered, drooped, and concealed
the depths of the shop with a troubling air of mystery; even the
lengths of cloth, thick and heavy, exhaled a tempting odour, while
the cloaks threw out their folds over the dummies, which assumed a
soul, and the great velvet mantle particularly, expanded, supple and
warm, as if on real fleshly shoulders, with a heaving of the bosom
and a trembling of the hips. But the furnace-like glow which the
house exhaled came above all from the sale, the crush at the
counters, that could be felt behind the walls. There was the
continual roaring of the machine at work, the marshalling of the
customers, bewildered amidst the piles of goods, and finally pushed
along to the pay-desk. And all that went on in an orderly manner,
with mechanical regularity, quite a nation of women passing through
the force and logic of this wonderful commercial machine.
Denise had felt herself
being tempted all day. She was bewildered and attracted by this shop,
to her so vast, in which she saw more people in an hour than she had
seen at Gornaille's in six months; and there was mingled with her
desire to enter it a vague sense of danger which rendered the
seduction complete. At the same time her uncle's shop made her feel
ill at ease; she felt an unreasonable disdain, an instinctive
repugnance for this cold, icy place, the home of old-fashioned
trading. All her sensations—her anxious entry, her friends' cold
reception, the dull lunch eaten in a prison-like atmosphere, her
waiting amidst the sleepy solitude of this old house doomed to a
speedy decay—all these sensations reproduced themselves in her mind
under the form of a dumb protestation, a passionate longing for life
and light. And notwithstanding her really tender heart, her eyes
turned to The Ladies' Paradise, as if the saleswoman within her felt
the need to go and warm herself at the glow of this immense business.
"Plenty of customers
over there!" was the remark that escaped her.
But she regretted her
words on seeing the Baudus near her. Madame Baudu, who had finished
her lunch, was standing up, quite white, with her pale eyes fixed on
the monster; every time she caught sight of this place, a mute, blank
despair swelled her heart, and filled her eyes with scalding tears.
As for Geneviève, she was anxiously watching Colomban, who, not
supposing he was being observed, stood in ecstasy, looking at the
handsome young saleswomen in the dress department opposite, the
counter being visible through the first floor window. Baudu, his
anger rising, merely said:
"All is not gold that
The thought of his family
evidently kept back the flood of rancour which was rising in his
throat A feeling of pride prevented him displaying his temper before
these children, only that morning arrived. At last the draper made an
effort, and tore himself away from the spectacle of the sale
he, "we'll go and see Vinçard. These situations are soon
snatched up; it might be too late tomorrow."
But before going out he
ordered the junior to go to the station and fetch Denise's box.
Madame Baudu, to whom the young girl had confided Pépé, decided to
run over and see Madame Gras, to arrange about the child. Jean
promised his sister not to stir from the shop.
"It's two minutes'
walk," explained Baudu as they went down the Rue Gaillon;
"Vinçard has a silk business, and still does a fair trade. Of
course he suffers, like every one else, but he's an artful fellow,
who makes both ends meet by his miserly ways. I fancy, though, he
wants to retire, on account of his rheumatics."
The shop was in the Rue
Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, near the Passage Choiseul. It was clean and
light, well fitted up in the modern style, but rather small, and
contained but a poor stock. They found Vinçard in consultation with
"Never mind us,"
called out the draper; "we are in no hurry; we can wait."
And returning to the door he whispered to Denise: "The thin
fellow is at The Paradise, second in the silk department, and the
stout man is a silk manufacturer from Lyons."
Denise gathered that
Vinçard was trying to sell his business to Robineau of The Paradise.
He was giving his word of honour in a frank open way, with the
facility of a man who could take any number of oaths without the
slightest trouble. According to his account, the business was a
golden one; and in the splendour of his rude health he interrupted
himself to whine and complain of those infernal pains which prevented
him stopping and making his fortune. But Robineau, nervous and
tormented, interrupted him impatiently. He knew what a crisis the
trade was passing through, and named a silk warehouse already ruined
by The Paradise. Vinçard, inflamed, raised his voice.
"No wonder! The fall
of that great booby of a Vabre was certain. His wife spent everything
he earned. Besides, we are more than five hundred yards away, whilst
Vabre was almost next door to The Paradise."
Gaujean, the silk
manufacturer, then chimed in, and their voices fell again. He accused
the big establishments of ruining French manufacture; three or four
laid down the law, reigning like masters over the market; and he gave
it as his opinion that the only way of fighting them was to favour
the small traders; above all, those who dealt in special classes of
goods, to whom the future belonged. Therefore he offered Robineau
plenty of credit.
"See how you have
been treated at The Paradise," said he. "No notice taken of
your long service. You had the promise of the first-hand's place long
ago, when Bouthemont, an outsider without any claim, came in and got
it at once."
Robineau was still
smarting under this injustice. However, he hesitated to start on his
own account, explaining that the money came from his wife, a legacy
of sixty thousand francs she had just inherited, and he was full of
scruples regarding this sum, saying that he would rather cut off his
right hand than compromise her money in a doubtful affair.
"No," said he,
"I haven't made up my mind; give me time to think over it. We'll
have another talk about it."
"As you like,"
replied Vinçard, concealing his disappointment under a smiling
countenance. "It's to my interest not to sell; and were it not
for my rheumatics—"
And returning to the
middle of the shop, he asked: "What can I do for you, Monsieur
The draper, who had been
listening with one ear, introduced Denise, told him as much as he
thought necessary of her story, adding that she had two years'
"And as I have heard
you are wanting a good saleswoman—"
Vinçard affected to be
awfully sorry. "What an unfortunate thing!" said he. "I
have, indeed, been looking for a saleswoman all the week; but I've
just engaged one—not two hours ago."
A silence ensued. Denise
seemed disheartened. Robineau, who was looking at her with interest,
probably inspired with pity by her poor appearance, ventured to say:
"I know they're
wanting a young person at our place, in the ready-made dress
Baudu could not help
crying out fervently: "At your place? Never!"
Then he stopped,
embarrassed, Denise had turned very red; she would never dare enter
that great place, and yet the idea of being there filled her with
"Why not?" asked
Robineau, surprised. "It would be a good opening for the young
lady. I advise her to go and see Madame. Aurélie, the first-hand,
to-morrow. The worst that can happen to her is not to be accepted."
The draper, to conceal his
inward revolt, began to talk vaguely. He knew Madame Aurélie, or, at
least, her husband, Lhomme, the cashier, a stout man, who had had his
right arm severed by an omnibus. Then turning suddenly to Denise, he
added: "However, that's her business. She can do as she likes."
And he went out, after
having said "good-day" to Gaujean and Robineau. Vinçard
went with him as far as the door, reiterating his regrets. The young
girl had remained in the middle of the shop, intimidated, desirous of
asking Robineau for further particulars. But not daring to, she in
her turn bowed, and simply said: "Thank you, sir."
On the way back Baudu said
nothing to his niece, but walked very fast, forcing her to run to
keep up with him, as if carried away by his reflections. Arrived in
the Rue de la Michodière, he was going into his shop, when a
neighbouring shopkeeper, standing at his door, called him.
Denise stopped and waited.
"What is it, old
Bourras?" asked the draper.
Bourras was a tall old
man, with a prophet's head, bearded and hairy, and piercing eyes
under thick and bushy eyebrows. He kept an umbrella and walking-stick
shop, did repairs, and even carved handles, which had won for him an
artistic celebrity in the neighbourhood. Denise glanced at the shop
window, where the umbrellas and sticks were arranged in straight
lines. But on raising her eyes she was astonished at the appearance
of the house, a hovel squeezed between The Ladies' Paradise and a
large building of the Louis XIV. style, sprung up one hardly knew
how, in this narrow space, crushed by its two low storeys. Had it not
been for the support on each side it must have fallen; the slates
were old and rotten, and the two-windowed front was cracked and
covered with stains, which ran down in long rusty lines over the
"You know he's
written to my landlord, offering to buy the house?" said
Bourras, looking steadily at the draper with his fiery eyes.
Baudu became paler still,
and bent his shoulders. There was a silence, during which the two men
remained face to face, looking very serious.
"Must be prepared for
anything now," murmured Baudu at last.
Bourras then got angry,
shaking his hair and flowing beard. "Let him buy the house,
he'll have to pay four times the value for it! But I swear that as
long as I live he shall not touch a stone of it. My lease has twelve
years to run yet. We shall see! we shall see!"
It was a declaration of
war. Bourras looked towards The Ladies' Paradise, which neither had
directly named. Baudu shook his head in silence, and then crossed the
street to his shop, his legs almost failing under him. "Ah! good
Lord! ah! good Lord!" he kept repeating.
Denise, who had heard all,
followed her uncle. Madame Baudu had just come back with Pépé, whom
Madame Gras had agreed to receive at any time. But Jean had
disappeared, and this made his sister anxious. When he returned with
a flushed face, talking in an animated way of the boulevards, she
looked at him with such a sad expression that he blushed with shame.
The box had arrived, and it was arranged that they should sleep in
"How did you get on
at Vinçard's?" asked Madame Baudu, suddenly.
The draper related his
useless errand, adding that Denise had heard of a situation; and,
pointing to The Ladies' Paradise with a scornful gesture, he cried
out: "There—in there!"
The whole family felt
wounded at the idea. The first dinner was at five o'clock. Denise and
the two children took their places, with Baudu, Geneviève, and
Colomban. A single jet of gas lighted and warmed the little
dining-room, reeking with the smell of hot food. The meal passed off
in silence, but at dessert Madame Baudu, who could not rest anywhere,
left the shop, and came and sat down near Denise. And then the storm,
kept back all day, broke out, every one feeling a certain relief in
abusing the monster.
"It's your business,
you can do as you like," repeated Baudu. "We don't want to
influence you. But if you only knew what sort of place it is—"
And he commenced to relate, in broken sentences, the history of this
Octave Mouret. Wonderful luck! A fellow who had come up from the
South of France with the amiable audacity of an adventurer; no sooner
arrived than he commenced to distinguish himself by all sorts of
disgraceful pranks with the ladies; had figured in an affair, which
was still the talk of the neighbourhood; and to crown all, had
suddenly and mysteriously made the conquest of Madame Hédouin, who
brought him The Ladies' Paradise as a marriage portion.
interrupted Madame Baudu. "We were distantly related. If she had
lived things would be different. She wouldn't have let them ruin us
like this. And he's the man who killed her. Yes, that very building!
One morning, when visiting the works she fell down a hole, and three
days after she died. A fine, strong, healthy woman, who had never
known what illness was! There's some of her blood in the foundation
of that house."
She pointed to the
establishment opposite with her pale and trembling hand. Denise,
listening as to a fairy tale, slightly shuddered; the sense of fear
which had mingled with the temptation she had felt since the morning,
was caused perhaps by the presence of this woman's blood, which she
fancied she could see in the red mortar of the basement.
"It seems as if it
brought him good luck," added Madame Baudu, without mentioning
Mouret by name.
But the draper shrugged
his shoulders, disdaining these old women's tales, and resumed his
story, explaining the situation commercially. The Ladies' Paradise
was founded in 1822 by two brothers, named Deleuze. On the death of
the elder, his daughter, Caroline, married the son of a linen
manufacturer, Charles Hédouin; and, later on, becoming a widow, she
married Mouret. She thus brought him a half share of the business.
Three months after the marriage, the second brother Deleuze died
childless; so that when Caroline met her death, Mouret became sole
heir, sole proprietor of The Ladies' Paradise. Wonderful luck!
"A sharp fellow, a
dangerous busybody, who will overthrow the whole neighbourhood if
allowed to!" continued Baudu. "I fancy that Caroline, a
rather romantic woman, must have been carried away by the gentleman's
extravagant ideas. In short, he persuaded her to buy the house on the
left, then the one on the right; and he himself, on becoming his own
master, bought two others; so that the establishment has continued to
grow—extending in such a way that it now threatens to swallow us
He was addressing Denise,
but was really speaking more to himself, feeling a feverish longing
to go over this history which haunted him continually. At home he was
always angry, always violent, clenching his fists as if longing to go
for somebody. Madame Baudu ceased to interfere, sitting motionless on
her chair; Geneviève and Colomban, their eyes cast down, were
picking up and eating the crumbs off the table, just for the sake of
something to do. It was so warm, so stuffy in the small room, that
Pépé was sleeping with his head on the table, and even Jean's eyes
"Wait a bit!"
resumed Baudu, seized with a sudden fit of anger, "such jokers
always go to smash! Mouret is hard-pushed just now; I know that for a
fact. He's been forced to spend all his savings on his mania for
extensions and advertisements. Moreover, in order to raise money, he
has induced most of his shop-people to invest all they possess with
him. So that he hasn't a sou to help himself with now; and, unless a
miracle be worked, and he treble his sales, as he hopes to do, you'll
see what a crash there'll be! Ah! I'm not ill-natured, but that day
I'll illuminate my shop-front, on my word of honour!"
And he went on in a
revengeful voice; one would have thought that the fall of The Ladies'
Paradise was to restore the dignity and prestige of compromised
business. Had any one ever seen such a thing? A draper's shop selling
everything! Why not call it a bazaar at once? And the employees! a
nice set they were too—a lot of puppies, who did their work like
porters at a railway station, treating goods and customers like so
many parcels; leaving the shop or getting the sack at a moment's
notice. No affection, no manners, no taste! And all at once he quoted
Colomban as an example of a good tradesman, brought up in the old
school, knowing how long it took to learn all the cunning and tricks
of the trade. The art was not to sell a large quantity, but to sell
dear. Colomban could say how he had been treated, carefully looked
after, his washing and mending done, nursed in illness, considered as
one of the family—loved, in fact!
repeated Colomban, after every statement the governor made.
"Ah, you're the last
of the old stock," Baudu ended by declaring. "After you're
gone there'll be none left. You are my sole consolation, for if they
call all this sort of thing business I give up, I would rather clear
Geneviève, her head on
one side, as if her thick hair were too heavy for her pale forehead,
was watching the smiling shopman; and in her look there was a
suspicion, a wish to see whether Colomban, stricken with remorse,
would not blush at all this praise. But, like a fellow up to every
trick of the old trade, he preserved his quiet manner, his
good-natured and cunning look. However, Baudu still went on, louder
than ever, condemning the people opposite, calling them a pack of
savages, murdering each other in their struggle for existence,
destroying all family ties. And he mentioned some country neighbours,
the Lhommes—mother, father, and son—all employed in the infernal
shop, people without any home life, always out, leading a
comfortless, savage existence, never dining at home except on Sunday,
feeding all the week at restaurants, hôtels, anywhere. Certainly his
dining-room wasn't too large nor too well-lighted; but it was part of
their home, and the family had grown up affectionately about the
domestic hearth. Whilst speaking his eyes wandered about the room;
and he shuddered at the unavowed idea that the savages might one day,
if they succeeded in ruining his trade, turn him out of this house
where he was so comfortable with his wife and child. Notwithstanding
the assurance with which he predicted the utter downfall of his
rivals, he was really terrified, feeling that the neighbourhood was
being gradually invaded and devoured.
"I don't want to
disgust you," resumed he, trying to calm himself; "if you
think it to your interest to go there, I shall be the first to say,
"I am sure of that,
uncle," murmured Denise, bewildered, all this excitement
rendering her more and more desirous of entering The Ladies'
He had put his elbows on
the table, and was staring at her so hard that she felt uneasy. "But
look here," resumed he; "you who know the business, do you
think it right that a simple draper's shop should sell everything?
Formerly, when trade was trade, drapers sold nothing but drapery. Now
they are doing their best to snap up every branch and ruin their
neighbours. The whole neighbourhood complains of it, for every small
tradesman is beginning to suffer terribly. This Mouret is ruining
them. Bédoré and his sister, who keep the hosiery shop in the Rue
Gaillon, have already lost half their customers; Mademoiselle Tatin,
at the under-linen warehouse in the Passage Choiseul, has been
obliged to lower her prices, to be able to sell at all. And the
effects of this scourge, this pest, are felt as far as the Rue
Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, where I hear that Vanpouille Brothers, the
furriers, cannot hold out much longer. Drapers selling fur goods—what
a farce! another of Mouret's ideas!"
added Madame Baudu; "isn't it monstrous? He has even dared to
add a glove department! Yesterday, as I was going along the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin, I saw Quinette, the glover, at his door,
looking so downcast that I hadn't the heart to ask him how business
resumed Baudu; "that's the climax! Bourras feels sure that
Mouret simply wants to ruin him; for, in short, where's the rhyme
between umbrellas and drapery? But Bourras is firm on his legs, and
won't allow himself to be beggared. We shall see some fun one of
He spoke of other
tradesmen, passing the whole neighbourhood in review. Now and again
he let slip a confession. If Vinçard wanted to sell it was time for
the rest to pack up, for Vinçard was like the rats who leave a house
when it threatens to fall in. Then, immediately after, he
contradicted himself, alluded to an alliance, an understanding
between the small tradesmen in order to fight the colossus. He
hesitated an instant before speaking of himself, his hands shaking,
and his mouth twitching in a nervous manner. At last he made up his
"As for myself, I
can't complain as yet. Of course he has done me harm, the scoundrel!
But up to the present he only keeps ladies' cloths, light stuffs for
dresses and heavier goods for mantles. People still come to me for
men's goods, velvets for shooting suits, cloths for liveries, without
speaking of flannels and serges, of which I defy him to show as good
an assortment. But he thinks to annoy me by planting his cloth
department right in front of my door. You've seen his display,
haven't you? He always places his finest made-up goods there,
surrounded by a framework of various cloths—a cheapjack parade to
tempt the women. Upon my word, I should be ashamed to use such means!
The Old Elbeuf has been known for nearly a hundred years, and has no
need for such at its door. As long as I live, it shall remain as I
took it, with a few samples on each side, and nothing more!"
The whole family was
affected. Geneviève ventured to make a remark after a silence:
"You know, papa, our
customers know and like us. We mustn't lose heart. Madame Desforges
and Madame de Boves have been to-day, and I am expecting Madame Marty
for some flannel."
Colomban, "I took an order from Madame Bourdelais yesterday.
'Tis true she spoke of an English cheviot marked up opposite ten sous
cheaper than ours, and the same stuff, it appears."
murmured Madame Baudu in her weak voice, "we knew that house
when it was scarcely larger than a handkerchief! Yes, my dear Denise,
when the Deleuzes started it, it had only one window in the Rue
Neuve-Saint-Augustin; and such a tiny one, in which there was barely
room for a couple of pieces of print and two or three pieces of
calico. There was no room to turn round in the shop, it was so small.
At that time The Old Elbeuf, after sixty years' trading, was as you
see it now. Ah! all that has greatly changed!"
She shook her head; the
drama of her whole life was expressed in these few words. Born in the
old house, she loved every part of it, living only for it and by it;
and, formerly proud of this house, the finest, the best patronised in
the neighbourhood, she had had the daily grief of seeing the rival
establishment gradually growing in importance, at first disdained,
then equal to theirs, and finally towering above it, and threatening
all the rest. This was for her a continual, open sore; she was slowly
dying from sheer grief at seeing The Old Elbeuf humiliated, though
still living, as if by the force of impulse, like a machine wound up.
But she felt that the death of the shop would be hers as well, and
that she would never survive the closing of it.
There was a painful
silence. Baudu was softly beating a tattoo with his fingers on the
American cloth on the table. He experienced a sort of lassitude,
almost a regret at having relieved his feelings once more in this
way. In fact, the whole family felt the effects of his despondency,
and could not help ruminating on the bitter story. They never had had
any luck. The children had been educated and started in the world,
fortune was beginning to smile on them, when suddenly this
competition sprang up and ruined their hopes. There was, also, the
house at Rambouillet, that country house to which he had been
dreaming of retiring for the last ten years—a bargain, he thought;
but it had turned out to be an old building always wanting repairs,
and which he had let to people who never paid any rent. His last
profits were swallowed up by the place—the only folly he had
committed in his honest, upright career as a tradesman, obstinately
attached to the old ways.
said he, suddenly, "we must make room for the others. Enough of
this useless talk!"
It was like an awakening.
The gas hissed, in the dead and stifling air of the small room. They
all jumped up, breaking the melancholy silence. However, Pépé was
sleeping so soundly that they laid him on some bales of cloth. Jean
had already returned to the street door yawning.
repeated Baudu to his niece, "you can do as you like. We have
explained the matter to you, that's all. You know your own business
He looked at her sharply,
waiting for a decisive answer. Denise, whom these stories had
inspired with a still greater longing to enter The Ladies' Paradise,
instead of turning her from it, preserved her quiet gentle demeanour
with a Norman obstinacy. She simply replied: "We shall see,
And she spoke of going to
bed early with the children, for they were all three very tired. But
it had only just struck six, so she decided to stay in the shop a
little longer. Night had come on, and she found the street quite
dark, enveloped in a fine close rain, which had been falling since
sunset. She was surprised. A few minutes had sufficed to fill the
street with small pools, a stream of dirty water was running along
the gutters, the pavement was thick with a sticky black mud; and
through the beating rain she saw nothing but a confused stream of
umbrellas, pushing, swinging along in the gloom like great black
wings. She started back at first, feeling very cold, oppressed at
heart by the badly-lighted shop, very dismal at this hour of the day.
A damp breeze, the breath of the old quarter, came in from the
street; it seemed that the rain, streaming from the umbrellas, was
running right into the shop, that the pavement with its mud and its
puddles extended all over the place, putting the finishing touches to
the mouldiness of the old shop front, white with saltpetre. It was
quite a vision of old Paris, damp and uncomfortable, which made her
shiver, astonished and heart-broken to find the great city so cold
and so ugly.
But opposite, the
gas-lamps were being lighted all along the frontage of The Ladies'
Paradise. She moved nearer, again attracted and, as it were, warmed
by this wealth of illumination. The machine was still roaring, active
as ever, hissing forth its last clouds of steam; whilst the salesmen
were folding up the stuffs, and the cashiers counting up the
receipts. It was, as seen through the hazy windows, a vague swarming
of lights, a confused factory-like interior. Behind the curtain of
falling rain, this apparition, distant and confused, assumed the
appearance of a giant furnace-house, where the black shadows of the
firemen could be seen passing by the red glare of the furnaces. The
displays in the windows became indistinct also; one could only
distinguish the snowy lace, heightened in its whiteness by the ground
glass globes of a row of gas jets, and against this chapel-like
background the ready-made goods stood out vigorously, the velvet
mantle trimmed with silver fox threw into relief the curved profile
of a headless woman running through the rain to some entertainment in
the unknown of the shades of the Paris night.
Denise, yielding to the
seduction, had gone to the door, heedless of the raindrops falling on
her. At this hour, The Ladies' Paradise, with its furnace-like
brilliancy, entirely conquered her. In the great metropolis, black
and silent, beneath the rain—in this Paris, to which she was a
stranger, it shone out like a lighthouse, and seemed to be of itself
the life and light of the city. She dreamed of her future there,
working hard to bring up the children, and of other things
besides—she hardly knew what—far-off things, the desire and the
fear of which made her tremble. The idea of this woman who had met
her death amidst the foundations came back to her; she felt afraid,
she thought she saw the lights bleeding; then, the whiteness of the
lace quieting her, a vague hope sprang up in her heart, quite a
certainty of happiness; whilst the fine rain, blowing on her, cooled
her hands, and calmed her after the excitement of her journey.
said a voice behind her.
She leant forward, and
perceived the umbrella-maker, motionless before the window containing
the ingenious display of umbrellas and walking-sticks. The old man
had slipped up there in the dark, to feast his eyes on the triumphant
show; and so great was his grief that he was unconscious of the rain
which was beating on his bare head, and trickling off his white hair.
"How stupid he is,
he'll make himself ill," resumed the voice.
Turning round, Denise
found the Baudus behind her again. Though they thought Bourras so
stupid, they were obliged, against their will, to return to this
spectacle which was breaking their hearts. Geneviève, very pale, had
noticed that Colomban was watching the shadows of the saleswomen pass
to and fro on the first floor opposite; and, whilst Baudu was choking
with suppressed rancour, Madame Baudu was silently weeping.
"You'll go and see
to-morrow, won't you, Denise?" asked the draper, tormented with
uncertainty, but feeling that his niece was conquered like the rest.
She hesitated, then gently
replied: "Yes, uncle, unless it pains you too much."