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For a long time he
suffered from not knowing her name, from being forced to look upon her
as a mere shadow, whose recollection filled him with sorrow. Whenever
any idea of woman crossed his mind it was always she that rose up before
him, as the one pure, tender wife. He often found himself fancying that
she might be looking for him on that boulevard where she had fallen
dead, and that if she had met him a few seconds sooner she would have
given him a life of joy. And he wished for no other wife; none other
existed for him. When he spoke of her, his voice trembled to such a
degree that La Normande, her wits quickened by her love, guessed his
secret, and felt jealous.

"Oh, it's really much better that you shouldn't see her again," she said
maliciously. "She can't look particularly nice by this time."

Florent turned pale with horror at the vision which these words evoked.
His love was rotting in her grave. He could not forgive La Normande's
savage cruelty, which henceforth made him see the grinning jaws and
hollow eyes of a skeleton within that lovely pink bonnet. Whenever the
fish-girl tried to joke with him on the subject he turned quite angry,
and silenced her with almost coarse language.

That, however, which especially surprised the beautiful Norman in
these revelations was the discovery that she had been quite mistaken in
supposing that she was enticing a lover away from handsome Lisa. This
so diminished her feeling of triumph, that for a week or so her love
for Florent abated. She consoled herself, however, with the story of the
inheritance, no longer calling Lisa a strait-laced prude, but a thief
who kept back her brother-in-law's money, and assumed sanctimonious airs
to deceive people. Every evening, while Muche took his writing lesson,
the conversation turned upon old Gradelle's treasure.

"Did anyone ever hear of such an idea?" the fish-girl would exclaim,
with a laugh. "Did the old man want to salt his money, since he put
it in a salting-tub? Eighty-five thousand francs! That's a nice sum
of money! And, besides, the Quenus, no doubt, lied about it--there
was perhaps two or three times as much. Ah, if I were in your place, I
shouldn't lose any time about claiming my share; indeed I shouldn't."

"I've no need of anything," was Florent's invariable answer. "I
shouldn't know what to do with the money if I had it."

"Oh, you're no man!" cried La Normande, losing all control over herself.
"It's pitiful! Can't you see that the Quenus are laughing at you? That
great fat thing passes all her husband's old clothes over to you. I'm
not saying this to hurt your feelings, but everybody makes remarks about
it. Why, the whole neighbourhood has seen the greasy pair of trousers,
which you're now wearing, on your brother's legs for three years and
more! If I were in your place I'd throw their dirty rags in their faces,
and insist upon my rights. Your share comes to forty-two thousand five
hundred francs, doesn't it? Well, I shouldn't go out of the place till
I'd got forty-two thousand five hundred francs."

It was useless for Florent to explain to her that his sister-in-law had
offered to pay him his share, that she was taking care of it for him,
and that it was he himself who had refused to receive it. He entered
into the most minute particulars, seeking to convince her of the Quenus'
honesty, but she sarcastically replied: "Oh, yes, I dare say! I know all
about their honesty. That fat thing folds it up every morning and puts
it away in her wardrobe for fear it should get soiled. Really, I quite
pity you, my poor friend. It's easy to gull you, for you can't see any
further than a child of five. One of these days she'll simply put your
money in her pocket, and you'll never look on it again. Shall I go, now,
and claim your share for you, just to see what she says? There'd be
some fine fun, I can tell you! I'd either have the money, or I'd break
everything in the house--I swear I would!"

"No, no, it's no business of yours," Florent replied, quite alarmed.
"I'll see about it; I may possibly be wanting some money soon."

At this La Normande assumed an air of doubt, shrugged her shoulders, and
told him that he was really too chicken-hearted. Her one great aim now
was to embroil him with the Quenu-Gradelles, and she employed every
means she could think of to effect her purpose, both anger and banter,
as well as affectionate tenderness. She also cherished another design.
When she had succeeded in marrying Florent, she would go and administer
a sound cuffing to beautiful Lisa, if the latter did not yield up the
money. As she lay awake in her bed at night she pictured every detail of
the scene. She saw herself sitting down in the middle of the pork shop
in the busiest part of the day, and making a terrible fuss. She brooded
over this idea to such an extent, it obtained such a hold upon her, that
she would have been willing to marry Florent simply in order to be able
to go and demand old Gradelle's forty-two thousand five hundred francs.

Old Madame Mehudin, exasperated by La Normande's dismissal of Monsieur
Lebigre, proclaimed everywhere that her daughter was mad, and that the
"long spindle-shanks" must have administered some insidious drug to her.
When she learned the Cayenne story, her anger was terrible. She called
Florent a convict and murderer, and said it was no wonder that his
villainy had kept him lank and flat. Her versions of Florent's biography
were the most horrible of all that were circulated in the neighbourhood.
At home she kept a moderately quiet tongue in her head, and restricted
herself to muttered indignation, and a show of locking up the drawer
where the silver was kept whenever Florent arrived. One day, however,
after a quarrel with her elder daughter, she exclaimed:

"Things can't go on much longer like this! It is that vile man who is
setting you against me. Take care that you don't try me too far, or I'll
go and denounce him to the police. I will, as true as I stand here!"

"You'll denounce him!" echoed La Normande, trembling violently,
and clenching her fists. "You'd better not! Ah, if you weren't my
mother----"

At this, Claire, who was a spectator of the quarrel, began to laugh,
with a nervous laughter that seemed to rasp her throat. For some time
past she had been gloomier and more erratic than ever, invariably
showing red eyes and a pale face.

"Well, what would you do?" she asked. "Would you give her a cuffing?
Perhaps you'd like to give me, your sister, one as well? I dare say it
will end in that. But I'll clear the house of him. I'll go to the police
to save mother the trouble."

Then, as La Normande almost choked with the angry threats that rose
to her throat, the younger girl added: "I'll spare you the exertion of
beating me. I'll throw myself into the river as I come back over the
bridge."

Big tears were streaming from her eyes; and she rushed off to her
bedroom, banging the doors violently behind her. Old Madame Mehudin said
nothing more about denouncing Florent. Muche, however, told La Normande
that he met his grandma talking with Monsieur Lebigre in every corner of
the neighbourhood.

The rivalry between the beautiful Norman and the beautiful Lisa
now assumed a less aggressive but more disturbing character. In the
afternoon, when the red-striped canvas awning was drawn down in front
of the pork shop, the fish-girl would remark that the big fat thing felt
afraid, and was concealing herself. She was also much exasperated by
the occasional lowering of the window-blind, on which was pictured
a hunting-breakfast in a forest glade, with ladies and gentlemen in
evening dress partaking of a red pasty, as big as themselves, on the
yellow grass.

Beautiful Lisa, however, was by no means afraid. As soon as the sun
began to sink she drew up the blind; and, as she sat knitting behind her
counter, she serenely scanned the market square, where numerous urchins
were poking about in the soil under the gratings which protected the
roots of the plane-trees, while porters smoked their pipes on the
benches along the footway, at either end of which was an advertisement
column covered with theatrical posters, alternately green, yellow, red,
and blue, like some harlequin's costume. And while pretending to watch
the passing vehicles, Lisa would really be scrutinising the beautiful
Norman. She might occasionally be seen bending forward, as though her
eyes were following the Bastille and Place Wagram omnibus to the Pointe
Saint Eustache, where it always stopped for a time. But this was only a
manoeuvre to enable her to get a better view of the fish-girl, who, as
a set-off against the blind, retorted by covering her head and fish with
large sheets of brown paper, on the pretext of warding off the rays of
the setting sun. The advantage at present was on Lisa's side, for as
the time for striking the decisive blow approached she manifested the
calmest serenity of bearing, whereas her rival, in spite of all her
efforts to attain the same air of distinction, always lapsed into some
piece of gross vulgarity, which she afterwards regretted. La Normande's
ambition was to look "like a lady." Nothing irritated her more than to
hear people extolling the good manners of her rival. This weak point
of hers had not escaped old Madame Mehudin's observation, and she now
directed all her attacks upon it.

"I saw Madame Quenu standing at her door this evening," she would
say sometimes. "It is quite amazing how well she wears. And she's so
refined-looking, too; quite the lady, indeed. It's the counter that does
it, I'm sure. A fine counter gives a woman such a respectable look."

In this remark there was a veiled allusion to Monsieur Lebigre's
proposal. The beautiful Norman would make no reply; but for a moment or
two she would seem deep in thought. In her mind's eye she saw herself
behind the counter of the wine shop at the other corner of the street,
forming a pendent, as it were, to beautiful Lisa. It was this that first
shook her love for Florent.

To tell the truth, it was now becoming a very difficult thing to defend
Florent.



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