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His good friend Florent had drawn him pictures
of trees and of men in huts, said he. His good friend Florent waved his
arm and said that men would be far better if they all knew how to read.
And at last La Normande heard so much about Florent that she seemed
to be almost intimate with this man against whom she harboured so much
rancour. One day she shut Muche up at home to prevent him from going to
the inspector's, but he cried so bitterly that she gave him his liberty
again on the following morning. There was very little determination
about her, in spite of her broad shoulders and bold looks. When the lad
told her how nice and warm he had been in the office, and came back to
her with his clothes quite dry, she felt a sort of vague gratitude, a
pleasure in knowing that he had found a shelter-place where he could sit
with his feet in front of a fire. Later on, she was quite touched when
he read her some words from a scrap of soiled newspaper wrapped round
a slice of conger-eel. By degrees, indeed, she began to think, though
without admitting it, that Florent could not really be a bad sort of
fellow. She felt respect for his knowledge, mingled with an increasing
curiosity to see more of him and learn something of his life. Then, all
at once, she found an excuse for gratifying this inquisitiveness. She
would use it as a means of vengeance. It would be fine fun to make
friends with Florent and embroil him with that great fat Lisa.

"Does your good friend Florent ever speak to you about me?" she asked
Muche one morning as she was dressing him.

"Oh, no," replied the boy. "We enjoy ourselves."

"Well, you can tell him that I've quite forgiven him, and that I'm much
obliged to him for having taught you to read."

Thenceforward the child was entrusted with some message every day. He
went backwards and forwards from his mother to the inspector, and from
the inspector to his mother, charged with kindly words and questions and
answers, which he repeated mechanically without knowing their meaning.
He might, indeed, have been safely trusted with the most compromising
communications. However, the beautiful Norman felt afraid of appearing
timid, and so one day she herself went to the inspector's office and sat
down on the second chair, while Muche was having his writing lesson.
She proved very suave and complimentary, and Florent was by far the more
embarrassed of the two. They only spoke of the lad; and when Florent
expressed a fear that he might not be able to continue the lessons
in the office, La Normande invited him to come to their home in the
evening. She spoke also of payment; but at this he blushed, and said
that he certainly would not come if any mention were made of money.
Thereupon the young woman determined in her own mind that she would
recompense him with presents of choice fish.

Peace was thus made between them; the beautiful Norman even took Florent
under her protection. Apart from this, however, the whole market was
becoming reconciled to the new inspector, the fish-wives arriving at the
conclusion that he was really a better fellow than Monsieur Verlaque,
notwithstanding his strange eyes. It was only old Madame Mehudin who
still shrugged her shoulders, full of rancour as she was against the
"long lanky-guts," as she contemptuously called him. And then, too, a
strange thing happened. One morning, when Florent stopped with a smile
before Claire's tanks, the girl dropped an eel which she was holding and
angrily turned her back upon him, her cheeks quite swollen and reddened
by temper. The inspector was so much astonished that he spoke to La
Normande about it.

"Oh, never mind her," said the young woman; "she's cracked. She makes
a point of always differing from everybody else. She only behaved like
that to annoy me."

La Normande was now triumphant--she strutted about her stall, and became
more coquettish than ever, arranging her hair in the most elaborate
manner. Meeting the handsome Lisa one day she returned her look of
scorn, and even burst out laughing in her face. The certainty she felt
of driving the mistress of the pork shop to despair by winning her
cousin from her endowed her with a gay, sonorous laugh, which rolled up
from her chest and rippled her white plump neck. She now had the whim
of dressing Muche very showily in a little Highland costume and velvet
bonnet. The lad had never previously worn anything but a tattered
blouse. It unfortunately happened, however, that just about this time he
again became very fond of the water. The ice had melted and the weather
was mild, so he gave his Scotch jacket a bath, turning the fountain tap
on at full flow and letting the water pour down his arm from his elbow
to his hand. He called this "playing at gutters." Then a little later,
when his mother came up and caught him, she found him with two other
young scamps watching a couple of little fishes swimming about in his
velvet cap, which he had filled with water.

For nearly eight months Florent lived in the markets, feeling continual
drowsiness. After his seven years of suffering he had lighted upon such
calm quietude, such unbroken regularity of life, that he was scarcely
conscious of existing. He gave himself up to this jog-trot peacefulness
with a dazed sort of feeling, continually experiencing surprise at
finding himself each morning in the same armchair in the little office.
This office with its bare hut-like appearance had a charm for him. He
here found a quiet and secluded refuge amidst that ceaseless roar of the
markets which made him dream of some surging sea spreading around
him, and isolating him from the world. Gradually, however, a vague
nervousness began to prey upon him; he became discontented, accused
himself of faults which he could not define, and began to rebel against
the emptiness which he experienced more and more acutely in mind and
body. Then, too, the evil smells of the fish market brought him nausea.
By degrees he became unhinged, his vague boredom developing into
restless, nervous excitement.

All his days were precisely alike, spent among the same sounds and the
same odours. In the mornings the noisy buzzing of the auction sales
resounded in his ears like a distant echo of bells; and sometimes, when
there was a delay in the arrival of the fish, the auctions continued
till very late. Upon these occasions he remained in the pavilion till
noon, disturbed at every moment by quarrels and disputes, which he
endeavoured to settle with scrupulous justice. Hours elapsed before he
could get free of some miserable matter or other which was exciting the
market. He paced up and down amidst the crush and uproar of the sales,
slowly perambulating the alleys and occasionally stopping in front of
the stalls which fringed the Rue Rambuteau, and where lay rosy heaps of
prawns and baskets of boiled lobsters with tails tied backwards, while
live ones were gradually dying as they sprawled over the marble
slabs. And then he would watch gentlemen in silk hats and black gloves
bargaining with the fish-wives, and finally going off with boiled
lobsters wrapped in paper in the pockets of their frock-coats.[*]
Farther away, at the temporary stalls, where the commoner sorts of fish
were sold, he would recognise the bareheaded women of the neighbourhood,
who always came at the same hour to make their purchases.

[*] The little fish-basket for the use of customers, so
familiar in London, is not known in Paris.--Translator.

At times he took an interest in some well-dressed lady trailing her lace
petticoats over the damp stones, and escorted by a servant in a white
apron; and he would follow her at a little distance on noticing how the
fish-wives shrugged their shoulders at sight of her air of disgust. The
medley of hampers and baskets and bags, the crowd of skirts flitting
along the damp alleys, occupied his attention until lunchtime. He took a
delight in the dripping water and the fresh breeze as he passed from the
acrid smell of the shell-fish to the pungent odour of the salted fish.
It was always with the latter that he brought his official round of
inspection to a close. The cases of red herrings, the Nantes sardines on
their layers of leaves, and the rolled cod, exposed for sale under
the eyes of stout, faded fish-wives, brought him thoughts of a voyage
necessitating a vast supply of salted provisions.

In the afternoon the markets became quieter, grew drowsy; and Florent
then shut himself up in his office, made out his reports, and enjoyed
the happiest hours of his day. If he happened to go out and cross
the fish market, he found it almost deserted. There was no longer the
crushing and pushing and uproar of ten o'clock in the morning. The
fish-wives, seated behind their stalls, leant back knitting, while a
few belated purchasers prowled about casting sidelong glances at the
remaining fish, with the thoughtful eyes and compressed lips of women
closely calculating the price of their dinner. At last the twilight
fell, there was a noise of boxes being moved, and the fish was laid for
the night on beds of ice; and then, after witnessing the closing of the
gates, Florent went off, seemingly carrying the fish market along with
him in his clothes and his beard and his hair.

For the first few months this penetrating odour caused him no great
discomfort. The winter was a severe one, the frosts converted the alleys
into slippery mirrors, and the fountains and marble slabs were fringed
with a lacework of ice. In the mornings it was necessary to place little
braziers underneath the taps before a drop of water could be drawn. The
frozen fish had twisted tails; and, dull of hue and hard to the touch
like unpolished metal, gave out a ringing sound akin to that of pale
cast-iron when it snaps. Until February the pavilion presented a most
mournful appearance: it was deserted, and wrapped in a bristling shroud
of ice. But with March came a thaw, with mild weather and fogs and rain.
Then the fish became soft again, and unpleasant odours mingled with the
smell of mud wafted from the neighbouring streets.



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