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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. The whole pavilion seemed to be
in a state of insurrection. The fish-wives, who manifest the keenest
jealousy of each other when the sale of a penny herring is in question,
display a united front when a quarrel arises with a buyer. They sang the
popular old ditty, "The baker's wife has heaps of crowns, which cost her
precious little"; they stamped their feet, and goaded the Mehudins
as though the latter were dogs which they were urging on to bite and
devour. And there were even some, having stalls at the other end of
the alley, who rushed up wildly, as though they meant to spring at the
chignon of the poor little woman, she meantime being quite submerged by
the flood of insulting abuse poured upon her.

"Return mademoiselle her ten francs," said Florent sternly, when he had
learned what had taken place.

But old Madame Mehudin had her blood up. "As for you, my little man,"
quoth she, "go to blazes! Here, that's how I'll return the ten francs!"

As she spoke, she flung the brill with all her force at the head of
Madame Taboureau's servant, who received it full in the face. The blood
spurted from her nose, and the brill, after adhering for a moment to
her cheeks, fell to the ground and burst with a flop like that of a wet
clout. This brutal act threw Florent into a fury. The beautiful Norman
felt frightened and recoiled, as he cried out: "I suspend you for a
week, and I will have your licence withdrawn. You hear me?"

Then, as the other fish-wives were still jeering behind him, he turned
round with such a threatening air that they quailed like wild beasts
mastered by the tamer, and tried to assume an expression of innocence.
When the Mehudins had returned the ten francs, Florent peremptorily
ordered them to cease selling at once. The old woman was choking with
rage, while the daughter kept silent, but turned very white. She, the
beautiful Norman, to be driven out of her stall!

Claire said in her quiet voice that it served her mother and sister
right, a remark which nearly resulted in the two girls tearing each
other's hair out that evening when they returned home to the Rue
Pirouette. However, when the Mehudins came back to the market at the
week's end, they remained very quiet, reserved, and curt of speech,
though full of a cold-blooded wrath. Moreover, they found the pavilion
quite calm and restored to order again. From that day forward the
beautiful Norman must have harboured the thought of some terrible
vengeance. She felt that she really had Lisa to thank for what had
happened. She had met her, the day after the battle, carrying her head
so high, that she had sworn she would make her pay dearly for her glance
of triumph. She held interminable confabulations with Madame Saget,
Madame Lecoeur, and La Sarriette, in quiet corners of the market;
however, all their chatter about the shameless conduct which they
slanderously ascribed to Lisa and her cousin, and about the hairs which
they declared were found in Quenu's chitterlings, brought La Normande
little consolation. She was trying to think of some very malicious plan
of vengeance, which would strike her rival to the heart.

Her child was growing up in the fish market in all freedom and neglect.
When but three years old the youngster had been brought there, and day
by day remained squatting on some rag amidst the fish. He would fall
asleep beside the big tunnies as though he were one of them, and awake
among the mackerel and whiting. The little rascal smelt of fish as
strongly as though he were some big fish's offspring. For a long time
his favourite pastime, whenever his mother's back was turned, was to
build walls and houses of herrings; and he would also play at soldiers
on the marble slab, arranging the red gurnets in confronting lines,
pushing them against each other, and battering their heads, while
imitating the sound of drum and trumpet with his lips; after which he
would throw them all into a heap again, and exclaim that they were dead.
When he grew older he would prowl about his aunt Claire's stall to get
hold of the bladders of the carp and pike which she gutted. He placed
them on the ground and made them burst, an amusement which afforded
him vast delight. When he was seven he rushed about the alleys, crawled
under the stalls, ferreted amongst the zinc bound fish boxes, and became
the spoiled pet of all the women. Whenever they showed him something
fresh which pleased him, he would clasp his hands and exclaim in
ecstasy, "Oh, isn't it stunning!" _Muche_ was the exact word which he
used; _muche_ being the equivalent of "stunning" in the lingo of the
markets; and he used the expression so often that it clung to him as a
nickname. He became known all over the place as "Muche." It was Muche
here, there and everywhere; no one called him anything else. He was to
be met with in every nook; in out-of-the-way corners of the offices in
the auction pavilion; among the piles of oyster baskets, and betwixt the
buckets where the refuse was thrown. With a pinky fairness of skin, he
was like a young barbel frisking and gliding about in deep water. He
was as fond of running, streaming water as any young fry. He was
ever dabbling in the pools in the alleys. He wetted himself with the
drippings from the tables, and when no one was looking often slyly
turned on the taps, rejoicing in the bursting gush of water. But it was
especially beside the fountains near the cellar steps that his mother
went to seek him in the evening, and she would bring him thence with his
hands quite blue, and his shoes, and even his pockets, full of water.

At seven years old Muche was as pretty as an angel, and as coarse in his
manners as any carter. He had curly chestnut hair, beautiful eyes,
and an innocent-looking mouth which gave vent to language that even a
gendarme would have hesitated to use. Brought up amidst all the ribaldry
and profanity of the markets, he had the whole vocabulary of the place
on the tip of his tongue. With his hands on his hips he often mimicked
Grandmother Mehudin in her anger, and at these times the coarsest and
vilest expressions would stream from his lips in a voice of crystalline
purity that might have belonged to some little chorister chanting the
_Ave Maria_. He would even try to assume a hoarse roughness of tone,
seek to degrade and taint that exquisite freshness of childhood which
made him resemble a _bambino_ on the Madonna's knees. The fish-wives
laughed at him till they cried; and he, encouraged, could scarcely say a
couple of words without rapping out an oath. But in spite of all this he
still remained charming, understanding nothing of the dirt amidst which
he lived, kept in vigorous health by the fresh breezes and sharp odours
of the fish market, and reciting his vocabulary of coarse indecencies
with as pure a face as though he were saying his prayers.

The winter was approaching, and Muche seemed very sensitive to the cold.
As soon as the chilly weather set in he manifested a strong predilection
for the inspector's office. This was situated in the left-hand corner of
the pavilion, on the side of the Rue Rambuteau. The furniture consisted
of a table, a stack of drawers, an easy-chair, two other chairs, and a
stove. It was this stove which attracted Muche. Florent quite worshipped
children, and when he saw the little fellow, with his dripping legs,
gazing wistfully through the window, he made him come inside. His first
conversation with the lad caused him profound amazement. Muche sat down
in front of the stove, and in his quiet voice exclaimed: "I'll just
toast my toes, do you see? It's d----d cold this morning." Then he broke
into a rippling laugh, and added: "Aunt Claire looks awfully blue this
morning. Is it true, sir, that you are sweet on her?"

Amazed though he was, Florent felt quite interested in the odd little
fellow. The handsome Norman retained her surly bearing, but allowed
her son to frequent the inspector's office without a word of objection.
Florent consequently concluded that he had the mother's permission to
receive the boy, and every afternoon he asked him in; by degrees forming
the idea of turning him into a steady, respectable young fellow. He
could almost fancy that his brother Quenu had grown little again, and
that they were both in the big room in the Rue Royer-Collard once more.
The life which his self-sacrificing nature pictured to him as perfect
happiness was a life spent with some young being who would never grow
up, whom he could go on teaching for ever, and in whose innocence he
might still love his fellow man. On the third day of his acquaintance
with Muche he brought an alphabet to the office, and the lad delighted
him by the intelligence he manifested. He learned his letters with all
the sharp precocity which marks the Parisian street arab, and derived
great amusement from the woodcuts illustrating the alphabet.

He found opportunities, too, for plenty of fine fun in the little
office, where the stove still remained the chief attraction and a source
of endless enjoyment. At first he cooked potatoes and chestnuts at it,
but presently these seemed insipid, and he thereupon stole some gudgeons
from his aunt Claire, roasted them one by one, suspended from a string
in front of the glowing fire, and then devoured them with gusto, though
he had no bread. One day he even brought a carp with him; but it was
impossible to roast it sufficiently, and it made such a smell in the
office that both window and door had to be thrown open. Sometimes, when
the odour of all these culinary operations became too strong, Florent
would throw the fish into the street, but as a rule he only laughed. By
the end of a couple of months Muche was able to read fairly well, and
his copy-books did him credit.

Meantime, every evening the lad wearied his mother with his talk about
his good friend Florent.



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