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He invariably complained, however, that the holes were not deep
enough, and rated the girl as though she were an idle workman and he an
indignant master. When she at last got up, she was black from head to
foot. Her hair was full of mould, her face was smeared with it, she
looked such a sight with her arms as black as a coalheaver's that Muche
clapped his hands with glee, and exclaimed: "Now we must water the
trees. They won't grow, you know, if we don't water them."

That was the finishing stroke. They went outside the square, scooped the
gutter-water up in the palms of their hands, and then ran back to pour
it over the bits of wood. On the way, Pauline, who was so fat that she
couldn't run properly, let the water trickle between her fingers on to
her frock, so that by the time of her sixth journey she looked as if she
had been rolled in the gutter. Muche chuckled with delight on beholding
her dreadful condition. He made her sit down beside him under a
rhododendron near the garden they had made, and told her that the trees
were already beginning to grow. He had taken hold of her hand and called
her his little wife.

"You're not sorry now that you came, are you," he asked, "instead of
mooning about on the pavement, where there was nothing to do? I know all
sorts of fun we can have in the streets; you must come with me again.
You will, won't you? But you mustn't say anything to your mother, mind.
If you say a word to her, I'll pull your hair the next time I come past
your shop."

Pauline consented to everything; and then, as a last attention, Muche
filled both pockets of her pinafore with mould. However, all the sweets
were finished, and the girl began to get uneasy, and ceased playing.
Muche thereupon started pinching her, and she burst into tears, sobbing
that she wanted to go away. But at this the lad only grinned, and played
the bully, threatening that he would not take her home at all. Then she
grew terribly alarmed, and sobbed and gasped like a maiden in the power
of a libertine. Muche would certainly have ended by punching her in
order to stop her row, had not a shrill voice, the voice of Mademoiselle
Saget, exclaimed, close by: "Why, I declare it's Pauline! Leave her
alone, you wicked young scoundrel!"

Then the old maid took the girl by the hand, with endless expressions
of amazement at the pitiful condition of her clothes. Muche showed no
alarm, but followed them, chuckling to himself, and declaring that it
was Pauline who had wanted to come with him, and had tumbled down.

Mademoiselle Saget was a regular frequenter of the Square des Innocents.
Every afternoon she would spend a good hour there to keep herself well
posted in the gossip of the common people. On either side there is a
long crescent of benches placed end to end; and on these the poor folks
who stifle in the hovels of the neighbouring narrow streets assemble in
crowds. There are withered, chilly-looking old women in tumbled caps,
and young ones in loose jackets and carelessly fastened skirts, with
bare heads and tired, faded faces, eloquent of the wretchedness of their
lives. There are some men also: tidy old buffers, porters in greasy
jackets, and equivocal-looking individuals in black silk hats, while the
foot-path is overrun by a swarm of youngsters dragging toy carts without
wheels about, filling pails with sand, and screaming and fighting;
a dreadful crew, with ragged clothes and dirty noses, teeming in the
sunshine like vermin.

Mademoiselle Saget was so slight and thin that she always managed to
insinuate herself into a place on one of the benches. She listened to
what was being said, and started a conversation with her neighbour, some
sallow-faced workingman's wife, who sat mending linen, from time to time
producing handkerchiefs and stockings riddled with holes from a little
basket patched up with string. Moreover, Mademoiselle Saget had
plenty of acquaintances here. Amidst the excruciating squalling of
the children, and the ceaseless rumble of the traffic in the Rue Saint
Denis, she took part in no end of gossip, everlasting tales about the
tradesmen of the neighbourhood, the grocers, the butchers, and the
bakers, enough, indeed, to fill the columns of a local paper, and the
whole envenomed by refusals of credit and covert envy, such as is always
harboured by the poor. From these wretched creatures she also obtained
the most disgusting revelations, the gossip of low lodging-houses and
doorkeepers' black-holes, all the filthy scandal of the neighbourhood,
which tickled her inquisitive appetite like hot spice.

As she sat with her face turned towards the markets, she had immediately
in front of her the square and its three blocks of houses, into the
windows of which her eyes tried to pry. She seemed to gradually rise
and traverse the successive floors right up to the garret skylights.
She stared at the curtains; based an entire drama on the appearance of
a head between two shutters; and, by simply gazing at the facades, ended
by knowing the history of all the dwellers in these houses. The Baratte
Restaurant, with its wine shop, its gilt wrought-iron _marquise_,
forming a sort of terrace whence peeped the foliage of a few plants in
flower-pots, and its four low storeys, all painted and decorated, had an
especial interest for her. She gazed at its yellow columns standing
out against a background of tender blue, at the whole of its imitation
temple-front daubed on the facade of a decrepit, tumble-down house,
crowned at the summit by a parapet of painted zinc. Behind the
red-striped window-blinds she espied visions of nice little lunches,
delicate suppers, and uproarious, unlimited orgies. And she did not
hesitate to invent lies about the place. It was there, she declared,
that Florent came to gorge with those two hussies, the Mehudins, on whom
he lavished his money.

However, Pauline cried yet louder than before when the old maid took
hold of her hand. Mademoiselle Saget at first led her towards the gate
of the square; but before she got there she seemed to change her mind;
for she sat down at the end of a bench and tried to pacify the child.

"Come, now, give over crying, or the policeman will lock you up," she
said to Pauline. "I'll take you home safely. You know me, don't you? I'm
a good friend. Come, come, let me see how prettily you can smile."

The child, however, was choking with sobs and wanted to go away.
Mademoiselle Saget thereupon quietly allowed her to continue weeping,
reserving further remarks till she should have finished. The poor little
creature was shivering all over; her petticoats and stockings were
wet through, and as she wiped her tears away with her dirty hands she
plastered the whole of her face with earth to the very tips of her
ears. When at last she became a little calmer the old maid resumed in
a caressing tone: "Your mamma isn't unkind, is she? She's very fond of
you, isn't she?"

"Oh, yes, indeed," replied Pauline, still sobbing.

"And your papa, he's good to you, too, isn't he? He doesn't flog you, or
quarrel with your mother, does he? What do they talk about when they go
to bed?"

"Oh, I don't know. I'm asleep then."

"Do they talk about your cousin Florent?"

"I don't know."

Mademoiselle Saget thereupon assumed a severe expression, and got up as
if about to go away.

"I'm afraid you are a little story-teller," she said. "Don't you know
that it's very wicked to tell stories? I shall go away and leave you, if
you tell me lies, and then Muche will come back and pinch you."

Pauline began to cry again at the threat of being abandoned. "Be quiet,
be quiet, you wicked little imp!" cried the old maid shaking
her. "There, there, now, I won't go away. I'll buy you a stick of
barley-sugar; yes, a stick of barley-sugar! So you don't love your
cousin Florent, eh?"

"No, mamma says he isn't good."

"Ah, then, so you see your mother does say something."

"One night when I was in bed with Mouton--I sleep with Mouton sometimes,
you know--I heard her say to father, 'Your brother has only escaped from
the galleys to take us all back with him there.'"

Mademoiselle Saget gave vent to a faint cry, and sprang to her feet,
quivering all over. A ray of light had just broken upon her. Then
without a word she caught hold of Pauline's hand and made her run till
they reached the pork shop, her lips meanwhile compressed by an inward
smile, and her eyes glistening with keen delight. At the corner of the
Rue Pirouette, Muche, who had so far followed them, amused at seeing the
girl running along in her muddy stockings, prudently disappeared.

Lisa was now in a state of terrible alarm; and when she saw her daughter
so bedraggled and limp, her consternation was such that she turned the
child round and round, without even thinking of beating her.

"She has been with little Muche," said the old maid, in her malicious
voice. "I took her away at once, and I've brought her home. I found them
together in the square. I don't know what they've been up to; but that
young vagabond is capable of anything."

Lisa could not find a word to say; and she did not know where to take
hold of her daughter, so great was her disgust at the sight of the
child's muddy boots, soiled stockings, torn skirts, and filthy face and
hands. The blue velvet ribbon, the earrings, and the necklet were all
concealed beneath a crust of mud. But what put the finishing touch to
Lisa's exasperation was the discovery of the two pockets filled with
mould. She stooped and emptied them, regardless of the pink and white
flooring of the shop. And as she dragged Pauline away, she could only
gasp: "Come along, you filthy thing!"

Quite enlivened by this scene, Mademoiselle Saget now hurriedly made
her way across the Rue Rambuteau. Her little feet scarcely touched the
ground; her joy seemed to carry her along like a breeze which fanned her
with a caressing touch. She had at last found out what she had so much
wanted to know! For nearly a year she had been consumed by curiosity,
and now at a single stroke she had gained complete power over Florent!
This was unhoped-for contentment, positive salvation, for she felt that
Florent would have brought her to the tomb had she failed much longer in
satisfying her curiosity about him.



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