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Claire
unhesitatingly declared that the new inspector was a very good fellow.
When he passed in front of her, pursued by the coarse abuse of the
others, she gave him a pleasant smile, sitting nonchalantly behind her
stall, with unruly errant locks of pale hair straying over her neck and
her brow, and the bodice of her dress pinned all askew. He also often
saw her dipping her hands into her tanks, transferring the fish from
one compartment to another, and amusing herself by turning on the brass
taps, shaped like little dolphins with open mouths, from which the water
poured in streamlets. Amidst the rustling sound of the water she had
some of the quivering grace of a girl who has just been bathing and has
hurriedly slipped on her clothes.

One morning she was particularly amiable. She called the inspector to
her to show him a huge eel which had been the wonder of the market
when exhibited at the auction. She opened the grating, which she had
previously closed over the basin in whose depths the eel seemed to be
lying sound asleep.

"Wait a moment," she said, "and I'll show it to you."

Then she gently slipped her bare arm into the water; it was not a very
plump arm, and its veins showed softly blue beneath its satiny skin. As
soon as the eel felt her touch, it rapidly twisted round, and seemed to
fill the narrow trough with its glistening greenish coils. And directly
it had settled down to rest again Claire once more stirred it with her
fingertips.

"It is an enormous creature," Florent felt bound to say. "I have rarely
seen such a fine one."

Claire thereupon confessed to him that she had at first been frightened
of eels; but now she had learned how to tighten her grip so that they
could not slip away. From another compartment she took a smaller one,
which began to wriggle both with head and tail, as she held it about
the middle in her closed fist. This made her laugh. She let it go, then
seized another and another, scouring the basin and stirring up the whole
heap of snaky-looking creatures with her slim fingers.

Afterwards she began to speak of the slackness of trade. The hawkers on
the foot-pavement of the covered way did the regular saleswomen a great
deal of injury, she said. Meantime her bare arm, which she had not
wiped, was glistening and dripping with water. Big drops trickled from
each finger.

"Oh," she exclaimed suddenly, "I must show you my carp, too!"

She now removed another grating, and, using both hands, lifted out a
large carp, which began to flap its tail and gasp. It was too big to be
held conveniently, so she sought another one. This was smaller, and she
could hold it with one hand, but the latter was forced slightly open
by the panting of the sides each time that the fish gasped. To amuse
herself it occurred to Claire to pop the tip of her thumb into the
carp's mouth whilst it was dilated. "It won't bite," said she with her
gentle laugh; "it's not spiteful. No more are the crawfishes; I'm not
the least afraid of them."

She plunged her arm into the water again, and from a compartment full
of a confused crawling mass brought up a crawfish that had caught her
little finger in its claws. She gave the creature a shake, but it no
doubt gripped her too tightly, for she turned very red, and snapped off
its claw with a quick, angry gesture, though still continuing to smile.

"By the way," she continued quickly, to conceal her emotion, "I wouldn't
trust myself with a pike; he'd cut off my fingers like a knife."

She thereupon showed him some big pike arranged in order of size upon
clean scoured shelves, beside some bronze-hued tench and little heaps of
gudgeon. Her hands were now quite slimy with handling the carp, and as
she stood there in the dampness rising from the tanks, she held them
outstretched over the dripping fish on the stall. She seemed enveloped
by an odour of spawn, that heavy scent which rises from among the reeds
and water-lilies when the fish, languid in the sunlight, discharge their
eggs. Then she wiped her hands on her apron, still smiling the placid
smile of a girl who knew nothing of passion in that quivering atmosphere
of the frigid loves of the river.

The kindliness which Claire showed to Florent was but a slight
consolation to him. By stopping to talk to the girl he only drew upon
himself still coarser jeers from the other stallkeepers. Claire shrugged
her shoulders, and said that her mother was an old jade, and her sister
a worthless creature. The injustice of the market folk towards the new
inspector filled her with indignation. The war between them, however,
grew more bitter every day. Florent had serious thoughts of resigning
his post; indeed, he would not have retained it for another twenty-four
hours if he had not been afraid that Lisa might imagine him to be a
coward. He was frightened of what she might say and what she might
think. She was naturally well aware of the contest which was going on
between the fish-wives and their inspector; for the whole echoing market
resounded with it, and the entire neighbourhood discussed each fresh
incident with endless comments.

"Ah, well," Lisa would often say in the evening, after dinner, "I'd soon
bring them to reason if I had anything to do with them! Why, they are a
lot of dirty jades that I wouldn't touch with the tip of my finger! That
Normande is the lowest of the low! I'd soon crush her, that I would! You
should really use your authority, Florent. You are wrong to behave as
you do. Put your foot down, and they'll all come to their senses very
quickly, you'll see."

A terrible climax was presently reached. One morning the servant of
Madame Taboureau, the baker, came to the market to buy a brill; and
the beautiful Norman, having noticed her lingering near her stall for
several minutes, began to make overtures to her in a coaxing way: "Come
and see me; I'll suit you," she said. "Would you like a pair of soles,
or a fine turbot?"

Then as the servant at last came up, and sniffed at a brill with that
dissatisfied pout which buyers assume in the hope of getting what they
want at a lower price, La Normande continued:

"Just feel the weight of that, now," and so saying she laid the brill,
wrapped in a sheet of thick yellow paper, on the woman's open palm.

The servant, a mournful little woman from Auvergne, felt the weight of
the brill, and examined its gills, still pouting, and saying not a word.

"And how much do you want for it?" she asked presently, in a reluctant
tone.

"Fifteen francs," replied La Normande.

At this the servant hastily laid the brill on the stall again, and
seemed anxious to hurry away, but the other detained her. "Wait a
moment," said she. "What do you offer?"

"No, no, I can't take it. It is much too dear."

"Come, now, make me an offer."

"Well, will you take eight francs?"

Old Madame Mehudin, who was there, suddenly seemed to wake up, and
broke out into a contemptuous laugh. Did people think that she and her
daughter stole the fish they sold? "Eight francs for a brill that size!"
she exclaimed. "You'll be wanting one for nothing next, to use as a
cooling plaster!"

Meantime La Normande turned her head away, as though greatly offended.
However, the servant came back twice and offered nine francs; and
finally she increased her bid to ten.

"All right, come on, give me your money!" cried the fish-girl, seeing
that the woman was now really going away.

The servant took her stand in front of the stall and entered into a
friendly gossip with old Madame Mehudin. Madame Taboureau, she said, was
so exacting! She had got some people coming to dinner that evening, some
cousins from Blois a notary and his wife. Madame Taboureau's family,
she added, was a very respectable one, and she herself, although only a
baker, had received an excellent education.

"You'll clean it nicely for me, won't you?" added the woman, pausing in
her chatter.

With a jerk of her finger La Normande had removed the fish's entrails
and tossed them into a pail. Then she slipped a corner of her apron
under its gills to wipe away a few grains of sand. "There, my dear," she
said, putting the fish into the servant's basket, "you'll come back to
thank me."

Certainly the servant did come back a quarter of an hour afterwards,
but it was with a flushed, red face. She had been crying, and her little
body was trembling all over with anger. Tossing the brill on to the
marble slab, she pointed to a broad gash in its belly that reached the
bone. Then a flood of broken words burst from her throat, which was
still contracted by sobbing: "Madame Taboureau won't have it. She says
she couldn't put it on her table. She told me, too, that I was an idiot,
and let myself be cheated by anyone. You can see for yourself that the
fish is spoilt. I never thought of turning it round; I quite trusted
you. Give me my ten francs back."

"You should look at what you buy," the handsome Norman calmly observed.

And then, as the servant was just raising her voice again, old Madame
Mehudin got up. "Just you shut up!" she cried. "We're not going to take
back a fish that's been knocking about in other people's houses. How do
we know that you didn't let it fall and damage it yourself?"

"I! I damage it!" The little servant was choking with indignation. "Ah!
you're a couple of thieves!" she cried, sobbing bitterly. "Yes, a couple
of thieves! Madame Taboureau herself told me so!"

Matters then became uproarious. Boiling over with rage and brandishing
their fists, both mother and daughter fairly exploded; while the poor
little servant, quite bewildered by their voices, the one hoarse and
the other shrill, which belaboured her with insults as though they were
battledores and she a shuttlecock, sobbed on more bitterly than ever.

"Be off with you! Your Madame Taboureau would like to be half as fresh
as that fish is! She'd like us to sew it up for her, no doubt!"

"A whole fish for ten francs! What'll she want next!"

Then came coarse words and foul accusations. Had the servant been
the most worthless of her sex she could not have been more bitterly
upbraided.

Florent, whom the market keeper had gone to fetch, made his appearance
when the quarrel was at its hottest.



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