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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. And then she went on to speak in laudatory terms of
Monsieur Lebigre, who, indeed, paid the greatest attention to the
beautiful Norman. Apart from the handsome dowry which he imagined she
would bring with her, he considered that she would be a magnificent
acquisition to his counter. The old woman never missed an opportunity to
sound his praises; there was no lankiness, at any rate, about him, said
she; he was stout and strong, with a pair of calves which would have
done honour even to one of the Emperor's footmen.

However, La Normande shrugged her shoulders and snappishly replied:
"What do I care whether he's stout or not? I don't want him or anybody.
And besides, I shall do as I please."

Then, if the old woman became too pointed in her remarks, the other
added: "It's no business of yours, and besides, it isn't true. Hold
your tongue and don't worry me." And thereupon she would go off into
her room, banging the door behind her. Florent, however, had a yet
more bitter enemy than Madame Mehudin in the house. As soon as ever he
arrived there, Claire would get up without a word, take a candle, and go
off to her own room on the other side of the landing; and she could be
heard locking her door in a burst of sullen anger. One evening when
her sister asked the tutor to dinner, she prepared her own food on
the landing, and ate it in her bedroom; and now and again she secluded
herself so closely that nothing was seen of her for a week at a time.
She usually retained her appearance of soft lissomness, but periodically
had a fit of iron rigidity, when her eyes blazed from under her pale
tawny locks like those of a distrustful wild animal. Old Mother Mehudin,
fancying that she might relieve herself in her company, only made her
furious by speaking to her of Florent; and thereupon the old woman, in
her exasperation, told everyone that she would have gone off and left
her daughters to themselves had she not been afraid of their devouring
each other if they remained alone together.

As Florent went away one evening, he passed in front of Claire's door,
which was standing wide open. He saw the girl look at him, and turn very
red. Her hostile demeanour annoyed him; and it was only the timidity
which he felt in the presence of women that restrained him from seeking
an explanation of her conduct. On this particular evening he would
certainly have addressed her if he had not detected Mademoiselle Saget's
pale face peering over the balustrade of the upper landing. So he went
his way, but had not taken a dozen steps before Claire's door was closed
behind him with such violence as to shake the whole staircase. It was
after this that Mademoiselle Saget, eager to propagate slander, went
about repeating everywhere that Madame Quenu's cousin was "carrying on"
most dreadfully with both the Mehudin girls.

Florent, however, gave very little thought to these two handsome young
women. His usual manner towards them was that of a man who has but
little success with the sex. Certainly he had come to entertain a
feeling of genuine friendship for La Normande, who really displayed a
very good heart when her impetuous temper did not run away with her. But
he never went any further than this. Moreover, the queenly proportions
of her robust figure filled him with a kind of alarm; and of an evening,
whenever she drew her chair up to the lamp and bent forward as though
to look at Muche's copy-book, he drew in his own sharp bony elbows and
shrunken shoulders as if realising what a pitiful specimen of humanity
he was by the side of that buxom, hardy creature so full of the life of
ripe womanhood. Moreover, there was another reason why he recoiled from
her. The smells of the markets distressed him; on finishing his duties
of an evening he would have liked to escape from the fishy odour amidst
which his days were spent; but, alas! beautiful though La Normande was,
this odour seemed to adhere to her silky skin. She had tried every
sort of aromatic oil, and bathed freely; but as soon as the freshening
influence of the bath was over her blood again impregnated her skin with
the faint odour of salmon, the musky perfume of smelts, and the pungent
scent of herrings and skate. Her skirts, too, as she moved about,
exhaled these fishy smells, and she walked as though amidst an
atmosphere redolent of slimy seaweed. With her tall, goddess-like
figure, her purity of form, and transparency of complexion she resembled
some lovely antique marble that had rolled about in the depths of the
sea and had been brought to land in some fisherman's net.

Mademoiselle Saget, however, swore by all her gods that Florent was the
young woman's lover. According to her account, indeed, he courted
both the sisters. She had quarrelled with the beautiful Norman about
a ten-sou dab; and ever since this falling-out she had manifested warm
friendship for handsome Lisa. By this means she hoped the sooner to
arrive at a solution of what she called the Quenus' mystery. Florent
still continued to elude her curiosity, and she told her friends that
she felt like a body without a soul, though she was careful not to
reveal what was troubling her so grievously. A young girl infatuated
with a hopeless passion could not have been in more distress than this
terrible old woman at finding herself unable to solve the mystery of the
Quenus' cousin. She was constantly playing the spy on Florent, following
him about, and watching him, in a burning rage at her failure to satisfy
her rampant curiosity. Now that he had begun to visit the Mehudins she
was for ever haunting the stairs and landings. She soon discovered that
handsome Lisa was much annoyed at Florent visiting "those women," and
accordingly she called at the pork shop every morning with a budget of
information. She went in shrivelled and shrunk by the frosty air, and,
resting her hands on the heating-pan to warm them, remained in front of
the counter buying nothing, but repeating in her shrill voice: "He
was with them again yesterday; he seems to live there now. I heard La
Normande call him 'my dear' on the staircase."

She indulged like this in all sorts of lies in order to remain in the
shop and continue warming her hands for a little longer. On the morning
after the evening when she had heard Claire close her door behind
Florent, she spun out her story for a good half hour, inventing all
sorts of mendacious and abominable particulars.

Lisa, who had assumed a look of contemptuous scorn, said but little,
simply encouraging Mademoiselle Saget's gossip by her silence. At last,
however, she interrupted her. "No, no," she said; "I can't really listen
to all that. Is it possible that there can be such women?"

Thereupon Mademoiselle Saget told Lisa that unfortunately all women were
not so well conducted as herself. And then she pretended to find all
sorts of excuses for Florent: it wasn't his fault; he was no doubt a
bachelor; these women had very likely inveigled him in their snares.
In this way she hinted questions without openly asking them. But Lisa
preserved silence with respect to her cousin, merely shrugging her
shoulders and compressing her lips. When Mademoiselle Saget at last went
away, the mistress of the shop glanced with disgust at the cover of the
heating-pan, the glistening metal of which had been tarnished by the
impression of the old woman's little hands.

"Augustine," she cried, "bring a duster, and wipe the cover of the
heating-pan. It's quite filthy!"

The rivalry between the beautiful Lisa and the beautiful Norman now
became formidable. The beautiful Norman flattered herself that she had
carried a lover off from her enemy; and the beautiful Lisa was indignant
with the hussy who, by luring the sly cousin to her home, would surely
end by compromising them all. The natural temperament of each woman
manifested itself in the hostilities which ensued. The one remained
calm and scornful, like a lady who holds up her skirts to keep them from
being soiled by the mud; while the other, much less subject to shame,
displayed insolent gaiety and swaggered along the footways with the airs
of a duellist seeking a cause of quarrel. Each of their skirmishes would
be the talk of the fish market for the whole day. When the beautiful
Norman saw the beautiful Lisa standing at the door of her shop, she
would go out of her way in order to pass her, and brush against her with
her apron; and then the angry glances of the two rivals crossed like
rapiers, with the rapid flash and thrust of pointed steel. When the
beautiful Lisa, on the other hand, went to the fish market, she assumed
an expression of disgust on approaching the beautiful Norman's stall.
And then she proceeded to purchase some big fish--a turbot or a
salmon--of a neighbouring dealer, spreading her money out on the marble
slab as she did so, for she had noticed that this seemed to have a
painful effect upon the "hussy," who ceased laughing at the sight. To
hear the two rivals speak, anyone would have supposed that the fish
and pork they sold were quite unfit for food. However, their principal
engagements took place when the beautiful Norman was seated at her stall
and the beautiful Lisa at her counter, and they glowered blackly at each
other across the Rue Rambuteau. They sat in state in their big white
aprons, decked out with showy toilets and jewels, and the battle between
them would commence early in the morning.

"Hallo, the fat woman's got up!" the beautiful Norman would exclaim.
"She ties herself up as tightly as her sausages! Ah, she's got
Saturday's collar on again, and she's still wearing that poplin dress!"

At the same moment, on the opposite side of the street, beautiful Lisa
was saying to her shop girl: "Just look at that creature staring at us
over yonder, Augustine! She's getting quite deformed by the life she
leads. Do you see her earrings?



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