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Lisa was the first to speak. "It
was wrong of you to refuse the post, Florent," she said in the most
friendly tones. "You know how difficult it is to find any employment,
and you are not in a position to be over-exacting."

"I have my reasons," Florent replied.

Lisa shrugged her shoulders. "Come now," said she, "you really can't be
serious, I'm sure. I can understand that you are not in love with the
Government, but it would be too absurd to let your opinions prevent
you from earning your living. And, besides, my dear fellow, the Emperor
isn't at all a bad sort of man. You don't suppose, do you, that he knew
you were eating mouldy bread and tainted meat? He can't be everywhere,
you know, and you can see for yourself that he hasn't prevented us here
from doing pretty well. You are not at all just; indeed you are not."

Gavard, however, was getting very fidgety. He could not bear to hear
people speak well of the Emperor.

"No, no, Madame Quenu," he interrupted; "you are going too far. It is a
scoundrelly system altogether."

"Oh, as for you," exclaimed Lisa vivaciously, "you'll never rest until
you've got yourself plundered and knocked on the head as the result of
all your wild talk. Don't let us discuss politics; you would only make
me angry. The question is Florent, isn't it? Well, for my part, I say
that he ought to accept this inspectorship. Don't you think so too,
Quenu?"

Quenu, who had not yet said a word, was very much put out by his wife's
sudden appeal.

"It's a good berth," he replied, without compromising himself.

Then, amidst another interval of awkward silence, Florent resumed: "I
beg you, let us drop the subject. My mind is quite made up. I shall
wait."

"You will wait!" cried Lisa, losing patience.

Two rosy fires had risen to her cheeks. As she stood there, erect, in
her white apron, with rounded, swelling hips, it was with difficulty
that she restrained herself from breaking out into bitter words.
However, the entrance of another person into the shop arrested her
anger. The new arrival was Madame Lecoeur.

"Can you let me have half a pound of mixed meats at fifty sous the
pound?" she asked.

She at first pretended not to notice her brother-in-law; but presently
she just nodded her head to him, without speaking. Then she scrutinised
the three men from head to foot, doubtless hoping to divine their secret
by the manner in which they waited for her to go. She could see that she
was putting them out, and the knowledge of this rendered her yet more
sour and angular, as she stood there in her limp skirts, with her long,
spider-like arms bent and her knotted fingers clasped beneath her apron.
Then, as she coughed slightly, Gavard, whom the silence embarrassed,
inquired if she had a cold.

She curtly answered in the negative. Her tightly stretched skin was of
a red-brick colour on those parts of her face where her bones protruded,
and the dull fire burning in her eyes and scorching their lids testified
to some liver complaint nurtured by the querulous jealousy of her
disposition. She turned round again towards the counter, and watched
each movement made by Lisa as she served her with the distrustful glance
of one who is convinced that an attempt will be made to defraud her.

"Don't give me any saveloy," she exclaimed; "I don't like it."

Lisa had taken up a slender knife, and was cutting some thin slices
of sausage. She next passed on to the smoked ham and the common ham,
cutting delicate slices from each, and bending forward slightly as she
did so, with her eyes ever fixed on the knife. Her plump rosy hands,
flitting about the viands with light and gentle touches, seemed to have
derived suppleness from contact with all the fat.

"You would like some larded veal, wouldn't you?" she asked, bringing a
yellow pan towards her.

Madame Lecoeur seemed to be thinking the matter over at considerable
length; however, she at last said that she would have some. Lisa had
now begun to cut into the contents of the pans, from which she removed
slices of larded veal and hare _pate_ on the tip of a broad-bladed
knife. And she deposited each successive slice on the middle of a sheet
of paper placed on the scales.

"Aren't you going to give me some of the boar's head with pistachio
nuts?" asked Madame Lecoeur in her querulous voice.

Lisa was obliged to add some of the boar's head. But the butter dealer
was getting exacting, and asked for two slices of galantine. She was
very fond of it. Lisa, who was already irritated, played impatiently
with the handles of the knives, and told her that the galantine was
truffled, and that she could only include it in an "assortment" at three
francs the pound. Madame Lecoeur, however, continued to pry into the
dishes, trying to find something else to ask for. When the "assortment"
was weighed she made Lisa add some jelly and gherkins to it. The block
of jelly, shaped like a Savoy cake, shook on its white china dish
beneath the angry violence of Lisa's hand; and as with her finger-tips
she took a couple of gherkins from a jar behind the heater, she made the
vinegar spurt over the sides.

"Twenty-five sous, isn't it?" Madame Lecoeur leisurely inquired.

She fully perceived Lisa's covert irritation, and greatly enjoyed the
sight of it, producing her money as slowly as possible, as though,
indeed, her silver had got lost amongst the coppers in her pocket. And
she glanced askance at Gavard, relishing the embarrassed silence which
her presence was prolonging, and vowing that she would not go off, since
they were hiding some trickery or other from her. However, Lisa at
last put the parcel in her hands, and she was then obliged to make her
departure. She went away without saying a word, but darting a searching
glance all round the shop.

"It was that Saget who sent her too!" burst out Lisa, as soon as the old
woman was gone. "Is the old wretch going to send the whole market here
to try to find out what we talk about? What a prying, malicious set they
are! Did anyone ever hear before of crumbed cutlets and 'assortments'
being bought at five o'clock in the afternoon? But then they'd rack
themselves with indigestion rather than not find out! Upon my word,
though, if La Saget sends anyone else here, you'll see the reception
she'll get. I would bundle her out of the shop, even if she were my own
sister!"

The three men remained silent in presence of this explosion of anger.
Gavard had gone to lean over the brass rail of the window-front, where,
seemingly lost in thought, he began playing with one of the cut-glass
balusters detached from its wire fastening. Presently, however, he
raised his head. "Well, for my part," he said, "I looked upon it all as
an excellent joke."

"Looked upon what as a joke?" asked Lisa, still quivering with
indignation.

"The inspectorship."

She raised her hands, gave a last glance at Florent, and then sat down
upon the cushioned bench behind the counter and said nothing further.
Gavard, however, began to explain his views at length; the drift of his
argument being that it was the Government which would look foolish in
the matter, since Florent would be taking its money.

"My dear fellow," he said complacently, "those scoundrels all but
starved you to death, didn't they? Well, you must make them feed you
now. It's a splendid idea; it caught my fancy at once!"

Florent smiled, but still persisted in his refusal. Quenu, in the hope
of pleasing his wife, did his best to find some good arguments. Lisa,
however, appeared to pay no further attention to them. For the last
moment or two she had been looking attentively in the direction of the
markets. And all at once she sprang to her feet again, exclaiming, "Ah!
it is La Normande that they are sending to play the spy on us now! Well,
so much the worse for La Normande; she shall pay for the others!"

A tall female pushed the shop door open. It was the handsome fish-girl,
Louise Mehudin, generally known as La Normande. She was a bold-looking
beauty, with a delicate white skin, and was almost as plump as Lisa,
but there was more effrontery in her glance, and her bosom heaved with
warmer life. She came into the shop with a light swinging step, her gold
chain jingling on her apron, her bare hair arranged in the latest style,
and a bow at her throat, a lace bow, which made her one of the most
coquettish-looking queens of the markets. She brought a vague odour
of fish with her, and a herring-scale showed like a tiny patch of
mother-of-pearl near the little finger of one of her hands. She and
Lisa having lived in the same house in the Rue Pirouette, were intimate
friends, linked by a touch of rivalry which kept each of them busy
with thoughts of the other. In the neighbourhood people spoke of "the
beautiful Norman," just as they spoke of "beautiful Lisa." This brought
them into opposition and comparison, and compelled each of them to do
her utmost to sustain her reputation for beauty. Lisa from her counter
could, by stooping a little, perceive the fish-girl amidst her salmon
and turbot in the pavilion opposite; and each kept a watch on the
other. Beautiful Lisa laced herself more tightly in her stays; and the
beautiful Norman replied by placing additional rings on her fingers and
additional bows on her shoulders. When they met they were very bland and
unctuous and profuse in compliments; but all the while their eyes
were furtively glancing from under their lowered lids, in the hope of
discovering some flaw. They made a point of always dealing with each
other, and professed great mutual affection.

"I say," said La Normande, with her smiling air, "it's to-morrow evening
that you make your black-puddings, isn't it?"

Lisa maintained a cold demeanour. She seldom showed any anger; but when
she did it was tenacious, and slow to be appeased. "Yes," she replied
drily, with the tips of her lips.

"I'm so fond of black-puddings, you know, when they come straight out
of the pot," resumed La Normande. "I'll come and get some of you
to-morrow."

She was conscious of her rival's unfriendly greeting.



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