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It has grown up at least half
a score of times in that corner yonder by the apricot tree."

This remark made Florent laugh. But he soon became grave again, and
strolled slowly through the kitchen garden, while Claude made a sketch
of the stable, and Madame Francois got breakfast ready. The kitchen
garden was a long strip of ground, divided in the middle by a narrow
path; it rose slightly, and at the top end, on raising the head, you
could perceive the low barracks of Mont Valerien. Green hedges separated
it from other plots of land, and these lofty walls of hawthorn fringed
the horizon with a curtain of greenery in such wise that of all the
surrounding country Mont Valerien alone seemed to rise inquisitively
on tip-toe in order to peer into Madame Francois's close. Great
peacefulness came from the countryside which could not be seen. Along
the kitchen garden, between the four hedges, the May sun shone with
a languid heat, a silence disturbed only by the buzzing of insects,
a somnolence suggestive of painless parturition. Every now and then a
faint cracking sound, a soft sigh, made one fancy that one could hear
the vegetables sprout into being. The patches of spinach and sorrel,
the borders of radishes, carrots, and turnips, the beds of potatoes
and cabbages, spread out in even regularity, displaying their dark
leaf-mould between their tufts of greenery. Farther away, the trenched
lettuces, onions, leeks, and celery, planted by line in long straight
rows, looked like soldiers on parade; while the peas and beans were
beginning to twine their slender tendrils round a forest of sticks,
which, when June came, they would transform into a thick and verdant
wood. There was not a weed to be seen. The garden resembled two parallel
strips of carpet of a geometrical pattern of green on a reddish ground,
which were carefully swept every morning. Borders of thyme grew like
greyish fringe along each side of the pathway.

Florent paced backwards and forwards amidst the perfume of the thyme,
which the sun was warming. He felt profoundly happy in the peacefulness
and cleanliness of the garden. For nearly a year past he had only seen
vegetables bruised and crushed by the jolting of the market-carts;
vegetables torn up on the previous evening, and still bleeding. He
rejoiced to find them at home, in peace in the dark mould, and sound in
every part. The cabbages had a bulky, prosperous appearance; the carrots
looked bright and gay; and the lettuces lounged in line with an air of
careless indolence. And as he looked at them all, the markets which he
had left behind him that morning seemed to him like a vast mortuary,
an abode of death, where only corpses could be found, a charnel-house
reeking with foul smells and putrefaction. He slackened his steps, and
rested in that kitchen garden, as after a long perambulation amidst
deafening noises and repulsive odours. The uproar and the sickening
humidity of the fish market had departed from him; and he felt as though
he were being born anew in the pure fresh air. Claude was right, he
thought. The markets were a sphere of death. The soil was the life, the
eternal cradle, the health of the world.

"The omelet's ready!" suddenly cried Madame Francois.

When they were all three seated round the table in the kitchen, with
the door thrown open to the sunshine, they ate their breakfast with
such light-hearted gaiety that Madame Francois looked at Florent in
amazement, repeating between each mouthful: "You're quite altered.
You're ten years younger. It is that villainous Paris which makes you
seem so gloomy. You've got a little sunshine in your eyes now. Ah! those
big towns do one's health no good, you ought to come and live here."

Claude laughed, and retorted that Paris was a glorious place. He stuck
up for it and all that belonged to it, even to its gutters; though at
the same time retaining a keen affection for the country.

In the afternoon Madame Francois and Florent found themselves alone
at the end of the garden, in a corner planted with a few fruit trees.
Seated on the ground, they talked somewhat seriously together. The good
woman advised Florent with an affectionate and quite maternal kindness.
She asked him endless questions about his life, and his intentions for
the future, and begged him to remember that he might always count
upon her, if ever he thought that she could in the slightest degree
contribute to his happiness. Florent was deeply touched. No woman had
ever spoken to him in that way before. Madame Francois seemed to him
like some healthy, robust plant that had grown up with the vegetables
in the leaf-mould of the garden; while the Lisas, the Normans, and
other pretty women of the markets appeared to him like flesh of doubtful
freshness decked out for exhibition. He here enjoyed several hours of
perfect well-being, delivered from all that reek of food which sickened
him in the markets, and reviving to new life amidst the fertile
atmosphere of the country, like that cabbage stalk which Claude declared
he had seen sprout up more than half a score of times.

The two men took leave of Madame Francois at about five o'clock. They
had decided to walk back to Paris; and the market gardener accompanied
them into the lane. As she bade good-bye to Florent, she kept his hand
in her own for a moment, and said gently: "If ever anything happens to
trouble you, remember to come to me."

For a quarter of an hour Florent walked on without speaking, already
getting gloomy again, and reflecting that he was leaving health behind
him. The road to Courbevoie was white with dust. However, both men were
fond of long walks and the ringing of stout boots on the hard ground.
Little clouds of dust rose up behind their heels at every step,
while the rays of the sinking sun darted obliquely over the avenue,
lengthening their shadows in such wise that their heads reached the
other side of the road, and journeyed along the opposite footway.

Claude, swinging his arms, and taking long, regular strides,
complacently watched these two shadows, whilst enjoying the rhythmical
cadence of his steps, which he accentuated by a motion of his shoulders.
Presently, however, as though just awaking from a dream, he exclaimed:
"Do you know the 'Battle of the Fat and the Thin'?"

Florent, surprised by the question, replied in the negative; and
thereupon Claude waxed enthusiastic, talking of that series of prints
in very eulogical fashion. He mentioned certain incidents: the Fat, so
swollen that they almost burst, preparing their evening debauch, while
the Thin, bent double by fasting, looked in from the street with the
appearance of envious laths; and then, again, the Fat, with hanging
cheeks, driving off one of the Thin, who had been audacious enough to
introduce himself into their midst in lowly humility, and who looked
like a ninepin amongst a population of balls.

In these designs Claude detected the entire drama of human life, and he
ended by classifying men into Fat and Thin, two hostile groups, one of
which devours the other, and grows fat and sleek and enjoys itself.

"Cain," said he, "was certainly one of the Fat, and Abel one of the
Thin. Ever since that first murder, there have been rampant appetites
which have drained the life-blood of small eaters. It's a continual
preying of the stronger upon the weaker; each swallowing his neighbour,
and then getting swallowed in his turn. Beware of the Fat, my friend."

He relapsed into silence for a moment, still watching their two shadows,
which the setting sun elongated more than ever. Then he murmured: "You
see, we belong to the Thin--you and I. Those who are no more corpulent
than we are don't take up much room in the sunlight, eh?"

Florent glanced at the two shadows, and smiled. But Claude waxed angry,
and exclaimed: "You make a mistake if you think it is a laughing matter.
For my own part, I greatly suffer from being one of the Thin. If I were
one of the Fat, I could paint at my ease; I should have a fine studio,
and sell my pictures for their weight in gold. But, instead of that,
I'm one of the Thin; and I have to grind my life out in producing things
which simply make the Fat ones shrug their shoulders. I shall die of it
all in the end, I'm sure of it, with my skin clinging to my bones, and
so flattened that they will be able to bury me between two leaves of a
book. And you, too, you are one of the Thin, a wonderful one; the very
king of Thin, in fact! Do you remember your quarrel with the fish-wives?
It was magnificent; all those colossal bosoms flying at your scraggy
breast! Oh! they were simply acting from natural instinct; they were
pursuing one of the Thin just as cats pursue a mouse. The Fat, you know,
have an instinctive hatred of the Thin, to such an extent that they must
needs drive the latter from their sight, either by means of their teeth
or their feet. And that is why, if I were in your place, I should take
my precautions. The Quenus belong to the Fat, and so do the Mehudins;
indeed, you have none but Fat ones around you. I should feel uneasy
under such circumstances."

"And what about Gavard, and Mademoiselle Saget, and your friend
Marjolin?" asked Florent, still smiling.

"Oh, if you like, I will classify all our acquaintances for you,"
replied Claude. "I've had their heads in a portfolio in my studio for a
long time past, with memoranda of the order to which they belong. Gavard
is one of the Fat, but of the kind which pretends to belong to the
Thin. The variety is by no means uncommon. Mademoiselle Saget and
Madame Lecoeur belong to the Thin, but to a variety which is much to be
feared--the Thin ones whom envy drives to despair, and who are capable
of anything in their craving to fatten themselves. My friend Marjolin,
little Cadine, and La Sarriette are three Fat ones, still innocent,
however, and having nothing but the guileless hunger of youth. I may
remark that the Fat, so long as they've not grown old, are charming
creatures. Monsieur Lebigre is one of the Fat--don't you think so? As
for your political friends, Charvet, Clemence, Logre, and Lacaille, they
mostly belong to the Thin.



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