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Florent
admitted him with some impatience. The assistant sat down in front of
the fire, speaking but little, and never saying why he had come. His
eyes would all the time remain fixed upon the photograph of himself and
Augustine in their Sunday finery. Florent came to the conclusion that
the young man took a pleasure in visiting the room for the simple reason
that it had been occupied by his sweetheart; and one evening he asked
him with a smile if he had guessed rightly.

"Well, perhaps it is so," replied Auguste, very much surprised at the
discovery which he himself now made of the reasons which actuated him.
"I'd really never thought of that before. I came to see you without
knowing why. But if I were to tell Augustine, how she'd laugh!"

Whenever he showed himself at all loquacious, his one eternal theme was
the pork shop which he was going to set up with Augustine at Plaisance.
He seemed so perfectly assured of arranging his life in accordance
with his desires, that Florent grew to feel a sort of respect for him,
mingled with irritation. After all, the young fellow was very resolute
and energetic, in spite of his seeming stupidity. He made straight
for the goal he had in view, and would doubtless reach it in perfect
assurance and happiness. On the evenings of these visits from the
apprentice, Florent could not settle down to work again; he went off to
bed in a discontented mood, and did not recover his equilibrium till
the thought passed through his mind, "Why, that Auguste is a perfect
animal!"

Every month he went to Clamart to see Monsieur Verlaque. These visits
were almost a delight to him. The poor man still lingered on, to the
great astonishment of Gavard, who had not expected him to last for more
than six months. Every time that Florent went to see him Verlaque would
declare that he was feeling better, and was most anxious to resume his
work again. But the days glided by, and he had serious relapses. Florent
would sit by his bedside, chat about the fish market, and do what he
could to enliven him. He deposited on the pedestal table the fifty
francs which he surrendered to him each month; and the old inspector,
though the payment had been agreed upon, invariably protested, and
seemed disinclined to take the money. Then they would begin to speak of
something else, and the coins remained lying on the table. When Florent
went away, Madame Verlaque always accompanied him to the street door.
She was a gentle little woman, of a very tearful disposition. Her one
topic of conversation was the expense necessitated by her husband's
illness, the costliness of chicken broth, butcher's meat, Bordeaux
wine, medicine, and doctors' fees. Her doleful conversation greatly
embarrassed Florent, and on the first few occasions he did not
understand the drift of it. But at last, as the poor woman seemed always
in a state of tears, and kept saying how happy and comfortable they had
been when they had enjoyed the full salary of eighteen hundred francs
a year, he timidly offered to make her a private allowance, to be
kept secret from her husband. This offer, however, she declined,
inconsistently declaring that the fifty francs were sufficient. But in
the course of the month she frequently wrote to Florent, calling
him their saviour. Her handwriting was small and fine, yet she would
contrive to fill three pages of letter paper with humble, flowing
sentences entreating the loan of ten francs; and this she at last did so
regularly that wellnigh the whole of Florent's hundred and fifty francs
found its way to the Verlaques. The husband was probably unaware of
it; however, the wife gratefully kissed Florent's hands. This charity
afforded him the greatest pleasure, and he concealed it as though it
were some forbidden selfish indulgence.

"That rascal Verlaque is making a fool of you," Gavard would sometimes
say. "He's coddling himself up finely now that you are doing the work
and paying him an income."

At last one day Florent replied:

"Oh, we've arranged matters together. I'm only to give him twenty-five
francs a month in future."

As a matter of fact, Florent had but little need of money. The Quenus
continued to provide him with board and lodging; and the few francs
which he kept by him sufficed to pay for the refreshment he took in the
evening at Monsieur Lebigre's. His life had gradually assumed all the
regularity of clockwork. He worked in his bedroom, continued to teach
little Muche twice a week from eight to nine o'clock, devoted an evening
to Lisa, to avoid offending her, and spent the rest of his spare time in
the little "cabinet" with Gavard and his friends.

When he went to the Mehudins' there was a touch of tutorial stiffness
in his gentle demeanour. He was pleased with the old house in the
Rue Pirouette. On the ground floor he passed through the faint odours
pervading the premises of the purveyor of cooked vegetables. Big pans of
boiled spinach and sorrel stood cooling in the little backyard. Then he
ascended the winding staircase, greasy and dark, with worn and bulging
steps which sloped in a disquieting manner. The Mehudins occupied the
whole of the second floor. Even when they had attained to comfortable
circumstances the old mother had always declined to move into fresh
quarters, despite all the supplications of her daughters, who dreamt of
living in a new house in a fine broad street. But on this point the old
woman was not to be moved; she had lived there, she said, and meant to
die there. She contented herself, moreover, with a dark little closet,
leaving the largest rooms to Claire and La Normande. The later, with
the authority of the elder born, had taken possession of the room that
overlooked the street; it was the best and largest of the suite. Claire
was so much annoyed at her sister's action in the matter that she
refused to occupy the adjoining room, whose window overlooked the yard,
and obstinately insisted on sleeping on the other side of the landing,
in a sort of garret, which she did not even have whitewashed. However,
she had her own key, and so was independent; directly anything happened
to displease her she locked herself up in her own quarters.

As a rule, when Florent arrived the Mehudins were just finishing
their dinner. Muche sprang to his neck, and for a moment the young man
remained seated with the lad chattering between his legs. Then, when
the oilcloth cover had been wiped, the lesson began on a corner of
the table. The beautiful Norman gave Florent a cordial welcome. She
generally began to knit or mend some linen, and would draw her chair up
to the table and work by the light of the same lamp as the others; and
she frequently put down her needle to listen to the lesson, which filled
her with surprise. She soon began to feel warm esteem for this man who
seemed so clever, who, in speaking to the little one, showed himself as
gentle as a woman, and manifested angelic patience in again and again
repeating the same instructions. She no longer considered him at all
plain, but even felt somewhat jealous of beautiful Lisa. And then she
drew her chair still nearer, and gazed at Florent with an embarrassing
smile.

"But you are jogging my elbow, mother, and I can't write," Muche
exclaimed angrily. "There! see what a blot you've made me make! Get
further away, do!"

La Normande now gradually began to say a good many unpleasant things
about beautiful Lisa. She pretended that the latter concealed her real
age, that she laced her stays so tightly that she nearly suffocated
herself, and that if she came down of a morning looking so trim and
neat, without a single hair out of place, it must be because she looked
perfectly hideous when in dishabille. Then La Normande would raise her
arm a little, and say that there was no need for her to wear any stays
to cramp and deform her figure. At these times the lessons would be
interrupted, and Muche gazed with interest at his mother as she raised
her arms. Florent listened to her, and even laughed, thinking to himself
that women were very odd creatures. The rivalry between the beautiful
Norman and beautiful Lisa amused him.

Muche, however, managed to finish his page of writing. Florent, who was
a good penman, set him copies in large hand and round hand on slips of
paper. The words he chose were very long and took up the whole line, and
he evinced a marked partiality for such expressions as "tyrannically,"
"liberticide," "unconstitutional," and "revolutionary." At times also
he made the boy copy such sentences as these: "The day of justice will
surely come"; "The suffering of the just man is the condemnation of the
oppressor"; "When the hour strikes, the guilty shall fall." In preparing
these copy slips he was, indeed, influenced by the ideas which haunted
his brain; he would for the time become quite oblivious of Muche, the
beautiful Norman, and all his surroundings. The lad would have copied
Rousseau's "Contrat Social" had he been told to do so; and thus,
drawing each letter in turn, he filled page after page with lines of
"tyrannically" and "unconstitutional."

As long as the tutor remained there, old Madame Mehudin kept fidgeting
round the table, muttering to herself. She still harboured terrible
rancour against Florent; and asserted that it was folly to make the lad
work in that way at a time when children should be in bed. She would
certainly have turned that "spindle-shanks" out of the house, if the
beautiful Norman, after a stormy scene, had not bluntly told her that
she would go to live elsewhere if she were not allowed to receive whom
she chose. However, the pair began quarrelling again on the subject
every evening.

"You may say what you like," exclaimed the old woman; "but he's got
treacherous eyes. And, besides, I'm always suspicious of those skinny
people. A skinny man's capable of anything. I've never come across a
decent one yet. That one's as flat as a board. And he's got such an ugly
face, too! Though I'm sixty-five and more, I'd precious soon send him
about his business if he came a-courting of me!"

She said this because she had a shrewd idea of how matters were likely
to turn out.



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