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Logre did not
cease ranting, and Florent found him the same as when he cried the fish
at the auctions--protruding his jaws and hurling his words forward with
a wave of the arm, whilst retaining the crouching attitude of a snarling
dog. Indeed, he talked politics in just the same furious manner as he
offered a tray full of soles for sale.

Charvet, on the other hand, became quieter and colder amidst the smoke
of the pipes and the fumes of the gas which were now filling the little
den; and his voice assumed a dry incisive tone, sharp like a guillotine
blade, while Robine gently wagged his head without once removing his
chin from the ivory knob of his cane. However, some remark of Gavard's
led the conversation to the subject of women.

"Woman," declared Charvet drily, "is the equal of man; and, that being
so, she ought not to inconvenience him in the management of his life.
Marriage is a partnership, in which everything should be halved. Isn't
that so, Clemence?"

"Clearly so," replied the young woman, leaning back with her head
against the wall and gazing into the air.

However, Florent now saw Lacaille, the costermonger, and Alexandre, the
porter, Claude Lantier's friend, come into the little room. In the past
these two had long remained at the other table in the sanctum; they did
not belong to the same class as the others. By the help of politics,
however, their chairs had drawn nearer, and they had ended by forming
part of the circle. Charvet, in whose eyes they represented "the
people," did his best to indoctrinate them with his advanced political
theories, while Gavard played the part of the shopkeeper free from
all social prejudices by clinking glasses with them. Alexandre was
a cheerful, good-humoured giant, with the manner of a big merry lad.
Lacaille, on the other hand, was embittered; his hair was already
grizzling; and, bent and wearied by his ceaseless perambulations through
the streets of Paris, he would at times glance loweringly at the placid
figure of Robine, and his sound boots and heavy coat.

That evening both Lacaille and Alexandre called for a liqueur glass of
brandy, and then the conversation was renewed with increased warmth and
excitement, the party being now quite complete. A little later,
while the door of the cabinet was left ajar, Florent caught sight of
Mademoiselle Saget standing in front of the counter. She had taken a
bottle from under her apron, and was watching Rose as the latter poured
into it a large measureful of black-currant syrup and a smaller one
of brandy. Then the bottle disappeared under the apron again, and
Mademoiselle Saget, with her hands out of sight, remained talking in the
bright glow of the counter, face to face with the big mirror, in which
the flasks and bottles of liqueurs were reflected like rows of Venetian
lanterns. In the evening all the metal and glass of the establishment
helped to illuminate it with wonderful brilliancy. The old maid,
standing there in her black skirts, looked almost like some big strange
insect amidst all the crude brightness. Florent noticed that she was
trying to inveigle Rose into a conversation, and shrewdly suspected that
she had caught sight of him through the half open doorway. Since he
had been on duty at the markets he had met her at almost every step,
loitering in one or another of the covered ways, and generally in the
company of Madame Lecoeur and La Sarriette. He had noticed also that
the three women stealthily examined him, and seemed lost in amazement
at seeing him installed in the position of inspector. That evening,
however, Rose was no doubt loath to enter into conversation with the old
maid, for the latter at last turned round, apparently with the intention
of approaching Monsieur Lebigre, who was playing piquet with a customer
at one of the bronzed tables. Creeping quietly along, Mademoiselle
Saget had at last managed to install herself beside the partition of the
cabinet, when she was observed by Gavard, who detested her.

"Shut the door, Florent!" he cried unceremoniously. "We can't even be by
ourselves, it seems!"

When midnight came and Lacaille went away he exchanged a few whispered
words with Monsieur Lebigre, and as the latter shook hands with him he
slipped four five-franc pieces into his palm, without anyone noticing
it. "That'll make twenty-two francs that you'll have to pay to-morrow,
remember," he whispered in his ear. "The person who lends the money
won't do it for less in future. Don't forget, too, that you owe three
days' truck hire. You must pay everything off."

Then Monsieur Lebigre wished the friends good night. He was very sleepy
and should sleep well, he said, with a yawn which revealed his big
teeth, while Rose gazed at him with an air of submissive humility.
However, he gave her a push, and told her to go and turn out the gas in
the little room.

On reaching the pavement, Gavard stumbled and nearly fell. And being in
a humorous vein, he thereupon exclaimed: "Confound it all! At any rate,
I don't seem to be leaning on anybody's lights."

This remark seemed to amuse the others, and the party broke up. A little
later Florent returned to Lebigre's, and indeed he became quite attached
to the "cabinet," finding a seductive charm in Robine's contemplative
silence, Logre's fiery outbursts, and Charvet's cool venom. When he went
home, he did not at once retire to bed. He had grown very fond of his
attic, that girlish bedroom, where Augustine had left scraps of ribbons,
souvenirs, and other feminine trifles lying about. There still remained
some hair-pins on the mantelpiece, with gilt cardboard boxes of buttons
and lozenges, cutout pictures, and empty pomade pots that retained an
odour of jasmine. Then there were some reels of thread, needles, and
a missal lying by the side of a soiled Dream-book in the drawer of
the rickety deal table. A white summer dress with yellow spots
hung forgotten from a nail; while upon the board which served as a
toilet-table a big stain behind the water-jug showed where a bottle of
bandoline had been overturned. The little chamber, with its narrow iron
bed, its two rush-bottomed chairs, and its faded grey wallpaper,
was instinct with innocent simplicity. The plain white curtains, the
childishness suggested by the cardboard boxes and the Dream-book, and
the clumsy coquetry which had stained the walls, all charmed Florent and
brought him back to dreams of youth. He would have preferred not to
have known that plain, wiry-haired Augustine, but to have been able to
imagine that he was occupying the room of a sister, some bright sweet
girl of whose budding womanhood every trifle around him spoke.

Yet another pleasure which he took was to lean out of the garret window
at nighttime. In front of it was a narrow ledge of roof, enclosed by
an iron railing, and forming a sort of balcony, on which Augustine had
grown a pomegranate in a box. Since the nights had turned cold, Florent
had brought the pomegranate indoors and kept it by the foot of his bed
till morning. He would linger for a few minutes by the open window,
inhaling deep draughts of the sharp fresh air which was wafted up from
the Seine, over the housetops of the Rue de Rivoli. Below him the roofs
of the markets spread confusedly in a grey expanse, like slumbering
lakes on whose surface the furtive reflection of a pane of glass gleamed
every now and then like a silvery ripple. Farther away the roofs of the
meat and poultry pavilions lay in deeper gloom, and became mere masses
of shadow barring the horizon. Florent delighted in the great stretch of
open sky in front of him, in that spreading expanse of the markets which
amidst all the narrow city streets brought him a dim vision of some
strip of sea coast, of the still grey waters of a bay scarce quivering
from the roll of the distant billows. He used to lose himself in dreams
as he stood there; each night he conjured up the vision of some fresh
coast line. To return in mind to the eight years of despair which he had
spent away from France rendered him both very sad and very happy. Then
at last, shivering all over, he would close the window. Often, as he
stood in front of the fireplace taking off his collar, the photograph of
Auguste and Augustine would fill him with disquietude. They seemed to be
watching him as they stood there, hand in hand, smiling faintly.

Florent's first few weeks at the fish market were very painful to him.
The Mehudins treated him with open hostility, which infected the whole
market with a spirit of opposition. The beautiful Norman intended to
revenge herself on the handsome Lisa, and the latter's cousin seemed a
victim ready to hand.

The Mehudins came from Rouen. Louise's mother still related how she had
first arrived in Paris with a basket of eels. She had ever afterwards
remained in the fish trade. She had married a man employed in the Octroi
service, who had died leaving her with two little girls. It was she who
by her full figure and glowing freshness had won for herself in earlier
days the nickname of "the beautiful Norman," which her eldest daughter
had inherited. Now five and sixty years of age, Madame Mehudin had
become flabby and shapeless, and the damp air of the fish market had
rendered her voice rough and hoarse, and given a bluish tinge to her
skin. Sedentary life had made her extremely bulky, and her head was
thrown backwards by the exuberance of her bosom. She had never been
willing to renounce the fashions of her younger days, but still wore
the flowered gown, the yellow kerchief, and turban-like head-gear of
the classic fish-wife, besides retaining the latter's loud voice and
rapidity of gesture as she stood with her hands on her hips, shouting
out the whole abusive vocabulary of her calling.

She looked back regretfully to the old Marche des Innocents, which the
new central markets had supplanted. She would talk of the ancient rights
of the market "ladies," and mingle stories of fisticuffs exchanged with
the police with reminiscences of the visits she had paid the Court in
the time of Charles X and Louis Philippe, dressed in silk, and carrying
a bouquet of flowers in her hand.



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