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Old Mother Mehudin, as she was now
generally called, had for a long time been the banner-bearer of the
Sisterhood of the Virgin at St. Leu. She would relate that in the
processions in the church there she had worn a dress and cap of tulle
trimmed with satin ribbons, whilst holding aloft in her puffy fingers
the gilded staff of the richly-fringed silk standard on which the figure
of the Holy Mother was embroidered.

According to the gossip of the neighbourhood, the old woman had made a
fairly substantial fortune, though the only signs of it were the massive
gold ornaments with which she loaded her neck and arms and bosom on
important occasions. Her two daughters got on badly together as they
grew up. The younger one, Claire, an idle, fair-complexioned girl,
complained of the ill-treatment which she received from her sister
Louise, protesting, in her languid voice, that she could never submit to
be the other's servant. As they would certainly have ended by coming
to blows, their mother separated them. She gave her stall in the fish
market to Louise, while Claire, whom the smell of the skate and the
herrings affected in the lungs, installed herself among the fresh water
fish. And from that time the old mother, although she pretended to
have retired from business altogether, would flit from one stall to the
other, still interfering in the selling of the fish, and causing her
daughters continual annoyance by the foul insolence with which she would
at times speak to customers.

Claire was a fantastical creature, very gentle in her manner, and yet
continually at loggerheads with others. People said that she invariably
followed her own whimsical inclinations. In spite of her dreamy, girlish
face she was imbued with a nature of silent firmness, a spirit of
independence which prompted her to live apart; she never took things
as other people did, but would one day evince perfect fairness, and the
next day arrant injustice. She would sometimes throw the market into
confusion by suddenly increasing or lowering the prices at her stall,
without anyone being able to guess her reason for doing so. She
herself would refuse to explain her motive. By the time she reached her
thirtieth year, her delicate physique and fine skin, which the water
of the tanks seemed to keep continually fresh and soft, her small,
faintly-marked face and lissome limbs would probably become heavy,
coarse, and flabby, till she would look like some faded saint that had
stepped from a stained-glass window into the degrading sphere of the
markets. At twenty-two, however, Claire, in the midst of her carp and
eels, was, to use Claude Lantier's expression, a Murillo. A Murillo,
that is, whose hair was often in disorder, who wore heavy shoes and
clumsily cut dresses, which left her without any figure. But she was
free from all coquetry, and she assumed an air of scornful contempt when
Louise, displaying her bows and ribbons, chaffed her about her clumsily
knotted neckerchiefs. Moreover, she was virtuous; it was said that the
son of a rich shopkeeper in the neighbourhood had gone abroad in despair
at having failed to induce her to listen to his suit.

Louise, the beautiful Norman, was of a different nature. She had been
engaged to be married to a clerk in the corn market; but a sack of flour
falling upon the young man had broken his back and killed him. Not very
long afterwards Louise had given birth to a boy. In the Mehudins' circle
of acquaintance she was looked upon as a widow; and the old fish-wife
in conversation would occasionally refer to the time when her son-in-law
was alive.

The Mehudins were a power in the markets. When Monsieur Verlaque had
finished instructing Florent in his new duties, he advised him to
conciliate certain of the stall-holders, if he wished his life to be
endurable; and he even carried his sympathy so far as to put him in
possession of the little secrets of the office, such as the various
little breaches of rule that it was necessary to wink at, and those
at which he would have to feign stern displeasure; and also the
circumstances under which he might accept a small present. A market
inspector is at once a constable and a magistrate; he has to maintain
proper order and cleanliness, and settle in a conciliatory spirit
all disputes between buyers and sellers. Florent, who was of a weak
disposition put on an artificial sternness when he was obliged to
exercise his authority, and generally over-acted his part. Moreover, his
gloomy, pariah-like face and bitterness of spirit, the result of long
suffering, were against him.

The beautiful Norman's idea was to involve him in some quarrel or other.
She had sworn that he would not keep his berth a fortnight. "That fat
Lisa's much mistaken," said she one morning on meeting Madame Lecoeur,
"if she thinks that she's going to put people over us. We don't want
such ugly wretches here. That sweetheart of hers is a perfect fright!"

After the auctions, when Florent commenced his round of inspection,
strolling slowly through the dripping alleys, he could plainly see the
beautiful Norman watching him with an impudent smile on her face. Her
stall, which was in the second row on the left, near the fresh water
fish department faced the Rue Rambuteau. She would turn round, however,
and never take her eyes off her victim whilst making fun of him with
her neighbours. And when he passed in front of her, slowly examining the
slabs, she feigned hilarious merriment, slapped her fish with her hand,
and turned her jets of water on at full stream, flooding the pathway.
Nevertheless Florent remained perfectly calm.

At last, one morning as was bound to happen, war broke out. As Florent
reached La Normande's stall that day an unbearable stench assailed
his nostrils. On the marble slab, in addition to part of a magnificent
salmon, showing its soft roseate flesh, there lay some turbots of creamy
whiteness, a few conger-eels pierced with black pins to mark their
divisions, several pairs of soles, and some bass and red mullet--in
fact, quite a display of fresh fish. But in the midst of it, amongst
all these fish whose eyes still gleamed and whose gills were of a bright
crimson, there lay a huge skate of a ruddy tinge, splotched with dark
stains--superb, indeed, with all its strange colourings. Unfortunately,
it was rotten; its tail was falling off and the ribs of its fins were
breaking through the skin.

"You must throw that skate away," said Florent as he came up.

The beautiful Norman broke into a slight laugh. Florent raised his eyes
and saw her standing before him, with her back against the bronze lamp
post which lighted the stalls in her division. She had mounted upon
a box to keep her feet out of the damp, and appeared very tall as he
glanced at her. She looked also handsomer than usual, with her
hair arranged in little curls, her sly face slightly bent, her lips
compressed, and her hands showing somewhat too rosily against her big
white apron. Florent had never before seen her decked with so much
jewellery. She had long pendants in her ears, a chain round her neck, a
brooch in her dress body, and quite a collection of rings on two fingers
of her left hand and one of her right.

As she still continued to look slyly at Florent, without making any
reply, the latter continued: "Do you hear? You must remove that skate."

He had not yet noticed the presence of old Madame Mehudin, who sat all
of a heap on a chair in a corner. She now got up, however, and, with her
fists resting on the marble slap, insolently exclaimed: "Dear me! And
why is she to throw her skate away? You won't pay her for it, I'll bet!"

Florent immediately understood the position. The women at the other
stalls began to titter, and he felt that he was surrounded by covert
rebellion, which a word might cause to blaze forth. He therefore
restrained himself, and in person drew the refuse-pail from under the
stall and dropped the skate into it. Old Madame Mehudin had already
stuck her hands on her hips, while the beautiful Norman, who had not
spoken a word, burst into another malicious laugh as Florent strode
sternly away amidst a chorus of jeers, which he pretended not to hear.

Each day now some new trick was played upon him, and he was obliged to
walk through the market alleys as warily as though he were in a hostile
country. He was splashed with water from the sponges employed to
cleanse the slabs; he stumbled and almost fell over slippery refuse
intentionally spread in his way; and even the porters contrived to run
their baskets against the nape of his neck. One day, moreover, when two
of the fish-wives were quarrelling, and he hastened up to prevent them
coming to blows, he was obliged to duck in order to escape being slapped
on either cheek by a shower of little dabs which passed over his head.
There was a general outburst of laughter on this occasion, and Florent
always believed that the two fish-wives were in league with the
Mehudins. However, his old-time experiences as a teacher had endowed
him with angelic patience, and he was able to maintain a magisterial
coolness of manner even when anger was hotly rising within him, and
his whole being quivered with a sense of humiliation. Still, the young
scamps of the Rue de l'Estrapade had never manifested the savagery
of these fish-wives, the cruel tenacity of these huge females, whose
massive figures heaved and shook with a giant-like joy whenever he fell
into any trap. They stared him out of countenance with their red faces;
and in the coarse tones of their voices and the impudent gesture of
their hands he could read volumes of filthy abuse levelled at himself.
Gavard would have been quite in his element amidst all these petticoats,
and would have freely cuffed them all round; but Florent, who had
always been afraid of women, gradually felt overwhelmed as by a sort
of nightmare in which giant women, buxom beyond all imagination,
danced threateningly around him, shouting at him in hoarse voices and
brandishing bare arms, as massive as any prize-fighter's.

Amongst this hoard of females, however, Florent had one friend.



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