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Round the nine salesmen's desks ranged along three
sides of the pavilion there was now a dense crowd of surging, swaying
heads, above which appeared the clerks, perched upon high chairs and
making entries in their ledgers.

"Are all these clerks employed by the salesmen?" asked Florent.

By way of reply Monsieur Verlaque made a detour along the outside
footway, led him into the enclosure of one of the auctions, and then
explained the working of the various departments of the big yellow
office, which smelt strongly of fish and was stained all over
by drippings and splashings from the hampers. In a little glazed
compartment up above, the collector of the municipal dues took note of
the prices realised by the different lots of fish. Lower down, seated
upon high chairs and with their wrists resting upon little desks, were
two female clerks, who kept account of the business on behalf of the
salesmen. At each end of the stone table in front of the office was a
crier who brought the basket-trays forward in turn, and in a bawling
voice announced what each lot consisted of; while above him the female
clerk, pen in hand, waited to register the price at which the lots
were knocked down. And outside the enclosure, shut up in another little
office of yellow wood, Monsieur Verlaque showed Florent the cashier, a
fat old woman, who was ranging coppers and five-franc pierces in piles.

"There is a double control, you see," said Monsieur Verlaque; "the
control of the Prefecture of the Seine and that of the Prefecture of
Police. The latter, which licenses the salesmen, claims to have the
right of supervision over them; and the municipality asserts its right
to be represented at the transactions as they are subject to taxation."

He went on expatiating at length in his faint cold voice respecting the
rival claims of the two Prefectures. Florent, however, was paying but
little heed, his attention being concentrated on a female clerk sitting
on one of the high chairs just in front of him. She was a tall, dark
woman of thirty, with big black eyes and an easy calmness of manner, and
she wrote with outstretched fingers like a girl who had been taught the
regulation method of the art.

However, Florent's attention was diverted by the yelping of the crier,
who was just offering a magnificent turbot for sale.

"I've a bid of thirty francs! Thirty francs, now; thirty francs!"

He repeated these words in all sorts of keys, running up and down a
strange scale of notes full of sudden changes. Humpbacked and with his
face twisted askew, and his hair rough and disorderly, he wore a great
blue apron with a bib; and with flaming eyes and outstretched arms he
cried vociferously: "Thirty-one! thirty-two! thirty-three! Thirty-three
francs fifty centimes! thirty-three fifty!"

Then he paused to take breath, turning the basket-tray and pushing it
farther upon the table. The fish-wives bent forward and gently touched
the turbot with their finger-tips. Then the crier began again with
renewed energy, hurling his figures towards the buyers with a wave
of the hand and catching the slightest indication of a fresh bid--the
raising of a finger, a twist of the eyebrows, a pouting of the lips, a
wink, and all with such rapidity and such a ceaseless jumble of words
that Florent, utterly unable to follow him, felt quite disconcerted
when, in a sing-song voice like that of a priest intoning the final
words of a versicle, he chanted: "Forty-two! forty-two! The turbot goes
for forty-two francs."

It was the beautiful Norman who had made the last bid. Florent
recognised her as she stood in the line of fish-wives crowding against
the iron rails which surrounded the enclosure. The morning was fresh
and sharp, and there was a row of tippets above the display of big white
aprons, covering the prominent bosoms and stomachs and sturdy shoulders.
With high-set chignon set off with curls, and white and dainty skin,
the beautiful Norman flaunted her lace bow amidst tangled shocks of
hair covered with dirty kerchiefs, red noses eloquent of drink,
sneering mouths, and battered faces suggestive of old pots. And she also
recognised Madame Quenu's cousin, and was so surprised to see him there
that she began gossiping to her neighbours about him.

The uproar of voices had become so great that Monsieur Verlaque
renounced all further attempt to explain matters to Florent. On the
footway close by, men were calling out the larger fish with
prolonged shouts, which sounded as though they came from gigantic
speaking-trumpets; and there was one individual who roared "Mussels!
Mussels!" in such a hoarse, cracked, clamorous voice that the very roofs
of the market shook. Some sacks of mussels were turned upside down,
and their contents poured into hampers, while others were emptied with
shovels. And there was a ceaseless procession of basket-trays containing
skate, soles, mackerel, conger-eels, and salmon, carried backwards and
forwards amidst the ever-increasing cackle and pushing of the fish-women
as they crowded against the iron rails which creaked with their
pressure. The humpbacked crier, now fairly on the job, waved his skinny
arms in the air and protruded his jaws. Presently, seemingly lashed into
a state of frenzy by the flood of figures that spurted from his lips, he
sprang upon a stool, where, with his mouth twisted spasmodically and
his hair streaming behind him, he could force nothing more than
unintelligible hisses from his parched throat. And in the meantime, up
above, the collector of municipal dues, a little old man, muffled in
a collar of imitation astrachan, remained with nothing but his nose
showing under his black velvet skullcap. And the tall, dark-complexioned
female clerk, with eyes shining calmly in her face, which had been
slightly reddened by the cold, sat on her high wooden chair, quietly
writing, apparently unruffled by the continuous rattle which came from
the hunchback below her.

"That fellow Logre is wonderful," muttered Monsieur Verlaque with a
smile. "He is the best crier in the markets. I believe he could make
people buy boot soles in the belief they were fish!"

Then he and Florent went back into the pavilion. As they again passed
the spot where the fresh water fish was being sold by auction, and where
the bidding seemed much quieter, Monsieur Verlaque explained that French
river fishing was in a bad way.[*] The crier here, a fair, sorry-looking
fellow, who scarcely moved his arms, was disposing of some lots of eels
and crawfish in a monotonous voice, while the assistants fished fresh
supplies out of the stone basins with their short-handled nets.

[*] M. Zola refers, of course, to the earlier years of the
Second Empire. Under the present republican Government,
which has largely fostered fish culture, matters have
considerably improved.--Translator.

However, the crowd round the salesmen's desks was still increasing.
Monsieur Verlaque played his part as Florent's instructor in the most
conscientious manner, clearing the way by means of his elbows, and
guiding his successor through the busiest parts. The upper-class retail
dealers were there, quietly waiting for some of the finer fish, or
loading the porters with their purchases of turbot, tunny, and salmon.
The street-hawkers who had clubbed together to buy lots of herrings and
small flat-fish were dividing them on the pavement. There were also some
people of the smaller middle class, from distant parts of the city, who
had come down at four o'clock in the morning to buy a really fresh fish,
and had ended by allowing some enormous lot, costing from forty to fifty
francs, to be knocked down to them, with the result that they would
be obliged to spend the whole day in getting their friends and
acquaintances to take the surplus off their hands. Every now and then
some violent pushing would force a gap through part of the crowd. A
fish-wife, who had got tightly jammed, freed herself, shaking her fists
and pouring out a torrent of abuse. Then a compact mass of people again
collected, and Florent, almost suffocated, declared that he had seen
quite enough, and understood all that was necessary.

As Monsieur Verlaque was helping him to extricate himself from the
crowd, they found themselves face to face with the handsome Norman.
She remained stock-still in front of them, and with her queenly air
inquired:

"Well, is it quite settled? You are going to desert us, Monsieur
Verlaque?"

"Yes, yes," replied the little man; "I am going to take a rest in the
country, at Clamart. The smell of the fish is bad for me, it seems.
Here, this is the gentleman who is going to take my place."

So speaking he turned round to introduce Florent to her. The handsome
Norman almost choked; however, as Florent went off, he fancied he could
hear her whisper to her neighbours, with a laugh: "Well, we shall have
some fine fun now, see if we don't!"

The fish-wives had begun to set out their stalls. From all the taps at
the corners of the marble slabs water was gushing freely; and there was
a rustling sound all round, like the plashing of rain, a streaming of
stiff jets of water hissing and spurting. And then, from the lower side
of the sloping slabs, great drops fell with a softened murmur, splashing
on the flagstones where a mass of tiny streams flowed along here
and there, turning holes and depressions into miniature lakes, and
afterwards gliding in a thousand rills down the slope towards the Rue
Rambuteau. A moist haze ascended, a sort of rainy dust, bringing fresh
whiffs of air to Florent's face, whiffs of that salt, pungent sea breeze
which he remembered so well; while in such fish as was already laid out
he once more beheld the rosy nacres, gleaming corals, and milky pearls,
all the rippling colour and glaucous pallidity of the ocean world.

That first morning left him much in doubt; indeed, he regretted that he
had yielded to Lisa's insistence. Ever since his escape from the greasy
drowsiness of the kitchen he had been accusing himself of base weakness
with such violence that tears had almost risen in his eyes.



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