Les Mystères de Paris
Eugène Sue owed his immense popularity to the series of sensational novels of Parisian low life, which he began in 1842 with Les Mystères de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris). The book appeared as a serial novel, or feuilleton, in the conservative newspaper Le Journal des Débats. The Mysteries of Paris provided its readers with an examination of working-class and criminal Paris that no novel had until then portrayed. Sue’s book, with its portraits of prostitutes, criminals, and villains of all stripes, who speak in their own language and move about in their own milieu, caused a scandal upon its release. Unlike his contemporaries, in The Mysteries of Paris Sue abandoned the drawing rooms of the beau monde for the dive bars and cabarets of central Paris, Ile de la Cité, where the story is set.
There had, of course, been fictional descriptions of urban life before, but their focus had been on the Parisian bourgeoisie and its interaction with the remnants of French aristocracy. Sue upset the codes of contemporary fiction and introduced a dark, violent underworld, a secret Paris as exotic, as foreign as any city portrayed in Sue’s popular maritime novels. Although colorful characters and cunning criminals were not novel in French fiction, Sue’s brand of insistent realism was more in keeping with the methods of a social worker or journalist. His gritty realism eschews the elements of the fabulous and the burlesque to portray characters in their natural setting. There are elements of Dickens in his work, but without the latter’s goodnatured bonhomie and humor. And while our attitudes of what is acceptable or appropriate in literature have broadened considerably since the 1840s, there was nothing picturesque about the book at the time of its appearance. The scandal was real, and Sue was reviled by conservative literary critics of his day for having shoved their noses into the gutters of Paris. He was also accused of literary speculation, and said to have profited from a depiction of the poor and the downtrodden. This was to be expected. However, elements of the socialist press took Sue at his word and championed the book as a denunciation of poverty and a plea in favor of the common man, members of what were referred to as les classes populaires.
His characters — Le Chourineur, La Goualeuse, Rodolphe, the Schoolmaster, Bras-Rouge – are types, but they are drawn from life. The abandoned girl forced into prostitution, the ex-convict who is expert with a knife, thugs and thieves, and Rodolphe, the avenging angel of upper-class guilt, who disguises himself as a laborer and mingles with the habitués of low bars and cabarets in search of a long-lost daughter, are drawn from life. They speak, in part, the language of their world, and Sue’s Mysteries incorporates the mid-nineteenth century argot of murderers and thieves to more accurately capture their reality.
Not a form of muckraking so much as an expression of the moral regeneration of society, Sue’s work embodies the spirit of social reform then coming into vogue (the book helped inspire the 1848 revolution and, in its writing, Sue himself became a republican-socialist). Like many of his contemporaries on the left, he had ideas about social reform. He believed criminals should be locked up in prison cells and that there should be created a “court of virtue” that would publicly recompense exemplary activities. These attitudes are directly reflected in the novel.
Obviously, at some 1,300 pages in length, the cast of characters is large and varied, and ample space is given to digressions of a moral and social nature on the betterment of society and suggestions for the improvement of “public morals” and reform (Sue was a firm believer in philanthropy). But what is most immediately apparent is Sue’s willingness to depict his characters much as he found them. It is this sense of vitality and the boisterous intermingling of highlife and low that made the book such a success upon publication. That and the fact that it spoke directly to the “people,” depicted the populace, the “rabble” in all its motley glory. For this Sue has been justly praised.
What is most fascinating about Sue’s book and its method of publication is that it functioned as an early form of interactive media. The novel was published serially between 1842 and October 1843. Sue wrote daily installments of a chapter in length, which appeared at the bottom of the paper’s front page. The novel became so popular that copies of Le Débat were read aloud in cafés throughout the city and frequently stolen by those who did not have the means to buy them. Its readers came from nearly every strata of society, from street sweeper to senator. It stirred up such interest and such controversy that the newspaper and Sue himself received an unprecedented number of letters from readers. Many of these have survived and are preserved in Paris (see Christopher Prendergast, For the People by the People? Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris: A Hypothesis in the Sociology of Literature, Oxford, 2003). The letters congratulate, praise, criticize, and exhort Sue, frequently correcting him on the verisimilitude of his characters, their speech, dress, behavior, and mannerisms. Some authors, notably Louis Chevalier (Classes laborieues et classes dangereuses), feel that these readers had a direct influence on the shape of the novel, modifying its structure and characterizations as it progressed. “What starts out as a fairly conventional crime novel, with its roots in the inherited tradition of popular melodrama, becomes, under the impact of the letters, progressively transformed into a novel of contemporary working-class life” (Prendergast). Therefore, while The Mysteries of Paris was certainly not the first novel to be serialized in France, it was the one that had the greatest impact on its readers and — if we are to trust Chevalier’s research — the one that was mostly greatly influenced by them in turn.
The Mysteries of Paris (with the possible addition of The Wandering Jew) is perhaps Sue’s most influential and widely read novel. It is also the one that most deeply affected its author, leading him, some would say directly, toward a more active form of socialism. Sue’s “activism” included the funding of socialist newspapers, the publication of brochures on the Fourierist movement in France, and his brief turn as a politician in the French parliament (he served as a député from the Seine region).
1. The Dive
In the language of thieves and murderers, a dive is a tavern or public house of the lowest sort. A hardened criminal, known as an abbot in this vile tongue, or a woman of the same stamp, known as an abbess, are generally the proprietors of such establishments, which harbor the detritus of the Parisian populace—ex-convicts, swindlers, thieves, and assassins being commonly in attendance. When a crime has been committed, the police casts, if we may use such an expression, its net into this slime; they nearly always capture the wrongdoer.
This brief introduction will serve to inform the reader that he is about to witness scenes that may disturb him. Should he agree to join us, he will penetrate into unknown regions of horror; for terrifying and repugnant forms proliferate in these filthy sewers, like reptiles in a swamp.
Everyone has read those admirable pages in which James Fenimore Cooper, America’s Walter Scott, traced the fierce customs of savages, their picturesque and poetic language, the thousand stratagems they employ in pursuit of their enemies or when in flight. We have shivered with fear for the colonists and inhabitants of those towns, knowing that nearby there roamed primitive tribes, whose bloodthirsty habits have made them outcasts to civilization. We shall try to place before the reader’s eyes episodes from the life of another kind of savage, equally an outcast to civilization, like the untamed peoples Cooper depicted so well.
However, these savages are among us. To find them we need merely venture into their lairs, where they gather to plot murder and theft, where they share their victims’ spoils. These men have their own customs, their own women, their own language, a mysterious language filled with dark images and blood-drenched metaphors. And like those other savages, these men generally refer to one another by names that reflect their energy, their cruelty, their physical prowess, even their deformities. So, with some trepidation we describe various scenes from that world. We fear, however, that we will be accused of seeking the most garish episodes and, once this license has been acknowledged, will be found wanting in the faithful, vigorous, and bold reproduction that such eccentric customs require.
In writing these passages, terrifying even for us, we were unable to escape a certain pang—we dare not call it anxiety—a fear of ridiculous pretense. Wondering whether our readers might experience a similar sentiment, we asked ourselves whether we should cease altogether or continue along the path we had begun, whether, in fact, such images should be placed before the eyes of our readers. There was a moment of brief doubt, and had we not been faced with the imperious need for narration, we would have regretted setting the story you are about to read in such horrifying surroundings. Nevertheless, we are to some extent relying on the sort of hesitant curiosity such disturbing scenes often excite. And we believe such juxtapositions have a power all their own.
The vantage point of art reveals the value of reproducing certain characters, certain lives, certain figures, whose dark, energetic, even crude colors will serve as a foil, a contrast to scenes of a very different nature. The reader, forewarned of the journey we invite him to undertake among the infernal race that populates our prisons and jails, whose blood darkens our scaffolds—this reader may indeed wish to follow us. Certainly, the investigation will be new to him. However, we hasten to add the warning that, should he step foot on this last rung of the social ladder, the atmosphere will become increasingly rarefied as the story unfolds.
On December 13, 1838, a cold, rainy night, a man of athletic build, wearing a cheap smock, crossed the Pont au Change and entered La Cité [*], a labyrinth of dark, narrow, winding streets that runs from the Palais de Justice [*] to Notre-Dame. The neighborhood around the Palais, although narrowly circumscribed and under constant surveillance, serves as an asylum or rendezvous for the criminals of Paris. It is indeed strange—or should I say fatal?—that some irresistible attraction drives such individuals to gravitate toward the powerful court that condemns them to prison, hard labor, or the scaffold.
That night, the wind swept violently through the narrow streets of that cheerless quarter; the pale, hesitant glow of the streetlamps, agitated by the gale, was reflected in rivulets of brackish water that flowed between the muddy cobblestones. The dun-colored houses had few windows, and of these the frames were worm-eaten and most of the panes missing. Dark, dank alleyways led to staircases that were darker and danker still, and so steeply raked that they were difficult to climb even with the aid of a rope attached to the damp walls by iron spikes. The ground floor of some houses was occupied by stalls where peddlers sold coal, offal, or meat of dubious quality. Although such goods are of little value, the displays of nearly all the shops were covered by an iron grate, for the merchants feared the bravado of the neighborhood’s thieves.
The man in question, upon entering the Rue aux Fèves [*], located in the center of La Cité [*], slowed his gait considerably, for he was now on familiar ground. The darkness was extreme, water fell in torrents, and strong gusts of wind and rain battered the walls. In the distance, the clock of the Palais de Justice struck ten. Women clustered beneath vaulted arches, dark and deep as caves, from whence the faint singing of popular melodies could be heard. One of those women was certainly known to the man in question, for stopping abruptly before her, he grabbed her by the arm.
“Good evening, Chourineur 1.”
The man, a lifelong convict, had received the nickname in prison.
“Is that you Goualeuse [*]?” said the man in the smock. “I feel like a brandy. How about standing me a brandy? Or would you prefer that I take it out of your hide?”
“I have no money,” the woman answered, trembling, for the man was greatly feared in the neighborhood.
“Well, in that case, the abbess at the local bar can give you credit for your pretty puss.”
“I’m already indebted for the clothes I’m wearing.”
“Are you arguing with me?” said the man. He lashed out wildly in the dark and struck the girl hard. She cried out in pain.
“That’s nothing, little girl. Merely a warning.”
Barely had the man spoken those words, when he let out a terrifying oath: “I’ve been cut. Your scissors!” In a rage he ran into the obscurity of the alley in pursuit of the woman.
“Don’t come any closer or I’ll poke your eyes out,” she said with determination. “I didn’t do anything to you. Why’d you hit me?”
“I’m going to tell you why,” the man said, as he continued to advance into the darkness. “There, I’ve got you. Now let’s see how you dance!” And in his large, strong hand he held a thin, frail wrist.
“You’re the one who’s going to dance,” said a man’s voice.
“Is that you Bras-Rouge [*]? Well, speak up and be done with it. I was passing through the alley on the way to your house. It is you, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Well, since you’re not a friend, there’s going to be some blood on the ground,” he exclaimed. “But who belongs to this little paw I’ve got here?”
“Here’s the other one.”
Beneath the soft, delicate skin of the hand that had suddenly tightened around his throat, Chourineur felt taut nerves and muscles of steel. La Goualeuse, having taken refuge at the back of the alley, scampered up several steps. She stopped a moment, then shouted to her unknown defender:
“Oh! Thank you, Monsieur, thank you for sticking up for me. When I refused to buy him a brandy, he hit me. Of course, I defended myself, but I didn’t hurt him, not with this small pair of scissors. I’m safe now. But you’d better let him go. That’s Chourineur.”
The fear the man inspired was great.
“Didn’t you hear me? I told you it’s Chourineur!” she repeated.
“I’m an outlaw, not a coward,” said the stranger.
Everyone was silent. Then, for several moments all that could be heard was the sound of a fierce struggle.
“I’ll finish you,” shouted the man, making a violent effort to shake off his adversary, whose strength he found to be extraordinary. “Now, you’re going to pay for her and for you,” he added, grinding his teeth.
“Sure, I’ll pay with my fists,” answered the stranger.
“If you don’t let go of my scarf, I’m going to bite your nose,” swore Chourineur, gasping for air.
“My nose is too small, and the light is bad!”
“Then step under the streetlamp.”
“Yes,” replied the stranger, “I want to see the whites of your eyes.”
And leaping on Chourineur, whom he still held by the neck, he pushed him backwards to the entrance of the alley, then shoved him violently into the street, which was barely illuminated by the glow of the lamp. The man staggered, but caught himself at once. He hurled himself with fury against the stranger, whose slender build gave no indication of his formidable strength. Chourineur, although he had the physique of an athlete and excelled in the type of fighting commonly known as savate [*], discovered that he had met his match. The stranger slipped his leg behind his knee with marvelous dexterity and flipped him twice. Chourineur, unwilling to recognize the superiority of his adversary, charged again, howling with rage. La Goualeuse’s defender suddenly altered his technique and a hailstorm of blows hammered the man’s head as if he had been struck with an iron glove. The blows, worthy of the envy and admiration of Jack Turner, one of the most famous boxers in London, were so far outside the ordinary rules of savate, that Chourineur was doubly stunned. For the third time, he fell like an ox to the ground, muttering: “I’m done.”
“He gave up! Leave him alone now. Show some pity,” said La Goualeuse, who had advanced to the threshold of the alley. Then she added with astonishment, “Just who are you? Except for the Schoolmaster, no one between Rue Saint-Éloi and Notre-Dame can get the better of Chourineur in a fight. Thank you, Monsieur. If it hadn’t been for you, he would have beaten me to a pulp.”
The stranger did not answer but listened attentively to her voice. Never before had he heard a sound so soft, so fresh, so clear. He tried to make out her features but could not; the night was too dark and the glow of the streetlamp too weak. Having remained a few minutes without stirring, Chourineur moved his legs, then his arms, and finally sat upright on the ground.
“Be careful!” cried La Goualeuse, who again took refuge in the alley and grabbed her protector by the arm. “Be careful. He’ll seek revenge.”
“Relax, child, if he wants more, I’ve plenty in reserve.”
The ruffian heard those words.
“My head feels like it’s been split,” he said to the stranger. “I’ve had enough for now; I’ve eaten my fill. But if I see you again, who knows what might happen?”
“I see you’re not satisfied. Are you complaining? Have I disappointed you?” shouted the stranger in a threatening voice.
“No, I’m not complaining. You’ve got guts for a young guy,” said the tough in a gruff voice, but with the respectful consideration that physical strength always imposes on men of his stamp. “You walloped me. And except for the Schoolmaster, who could swallow three Hercules for lunch, till now no one could ever say they’d gotten the better of me in a fight.”
“And I’ve found my better. That’s all. You’ll find yours one day, sooner or later. Everyone does. And if not a man, there’s always the One Upstairs, as the priests like to remind us. That much is certain. Now that you’ve gotten the better of Chourineur, you can play the big man around here. Every girl on the street will fall at your feet. Abbots and abbesses will give you tick [*], sure. But who the hell are you? You talk flash like you’re one of the family. If you’re a thief, I’m not your man. I’ve pinked a few men, it’s true, because, when the blood fills my eyes, I see red, and I strike. But I’ve paid for my crimes. They put me out to pasture for fifteen years. I’ve done my time. I don’t owe anything to the court, and I never stole anything from anyone. Just ask her.”
“It’s true, he’s not a thief.”
“Then come have a glass of brandy with me and you’ll find out who I am,” said the stranger. “Come on, no hard feelings.”
“Fair enough. You got the better of me, I admit it; you certainly know how to use your fists. That flurry of blows at the end there was like a hailstorm on my skull. Never saw anything like it. You’ve got a sledge hammer there. That’s a new trick, one I’ll have to learn.”
“I’ll give you a lesson whenever you’re ready.”
“Not me, you won’t, not me! My head is still ringing. So you know Bras-Rouge? You were in the alley by his house.”
“Bras-Rouge!” said the stranger, surprised by the question. “What are you saying? Bras-Rouge doesn’t live here alone, does he?”
“I’m afraid so, my friend. Bras-Rouge has his reasons for not wanting any neighbors around,” said Chourineur, a queer smile on his face.
“Oh well, good for him,” replied the stranger, who appeared to lose interest in the conversation. “I have no idea who Bras-Rouge is any more than I do Bras-Noir. It was raining, I stepped into the alley to get out of the rain. That’s when I found you trying to beat this unfortunate young woman. So I gave you your comeuppance. That’s all.”
“Yes, you’re right. However, I’m not interested in your business. Anyone who needs to see Bras-Rouge doesn’t go telling the whole city about it. Let’s drop the subject.” Then, turning to La Goualeuse: “No hard feelings? I gave you a little tap, you returned the favor with your scissors—a bit of play acting that’s all. I’m grateful you didn’t encourage this madman when I said I’d had enough. You’ll join us for a drink. He’s paying. And about that drink, my friend,” he said to the stranger, “instead of a brandy, why don’t we have a bite with the Abbess of the Lapin-Blanc?”
“Agreed. I’ll buy dinner. Goualeuse, are you coming?” asked the stranger.
“Fighting turns my stomach. I seem to have lost my appetite.”
“Nonsense,” said Chourineur. “You’ll find your appetite when we sit down to eat. And the Lapin-Blanc is known for its food.”
The three of them, all in agreement now, headed to the tavern. During the fight between Chourineur and the stranger, a coal porter of colossal stature, hidden in a nearby alley, had anxiously watched the outcome of their struggle, without so much as lifting a finger to help either of the combatants.
As the stranger, Chourineur and La Goualeuse headed to the tavern, the coal porter followed them. Chourineur and La Goualeuse were the first to enter. The stranger was at the door when the coal porter approached him and whispered in respectful protest, “Your Highness, be on your guard!”
The stranger shrugged his shoulders and joined his companions. The coal porter remained near the door to the tavern. Listening with attentiveness, he occasionally peered through a small opening in the thick layer of whitewash that always covered the inner surface of the windows of such establishments.
2. The Abbess
The Lapin-Blanc is centrally located along the Rue aux Fèves. The tavern occupies the ground floor of a tall structure whose façade consists of two so-called guillotine windows. Above the entrance to a dark, covered alleyway hangs an oblong lantern whose cracked glass bears the following inscription in red letters: “Rooms Available Nightly.” Chourineur, the stranger, and La Goualeuse entered the tavern.
It was a large, low room with a smoke-stained ceiling, striped with blackened beams and lit by the reddish light of a cheap oil lamp. The walls, faced with lime, were covered in places with crude drawings and sentences written in argot. The floor of beaten earth and saltpeter was smeared with mud; a layer of straw had been thrown down at the foot of the counter where the Abbess stood, to the right of the door and below the lamp.
On either side of the room were six tables; these were attached to the wall at one end, together with the benches before them. In back a door led to a kitchen; to the right, near the counter, was an exit to an alleyway, which led to the decrepit rooms that were rented for three sous a night.
Now, a few words about the Abbess and her guests. She was known as Mother Ponisse. Her profession was threefold. It consisted in providing lodging, running a cabaret, and renting clothing to the miserable creatures that swarmed the filthy streets nearby. About forty years old, the Abbess was tall, robust, corpulent, a bit flushed and with the shadow of a beard. Her rough, manly voice, thick arms, and large hands were indicative of uncommon strength. Her hat was held in place by a red and yellow scarf; a rabbit fur shawl was draped across her breast and tied behind her back. She wore a green wool dress beneath which could be seen a pair of black clogs, frequently charred by her small stove. Her cheeks were ruddy from an excess of strong liquor.
The counter, sheathed in lead, was decorated with pewter crocks and tin measuring cups. On a panel attached to the wall could be seen a variety of glass flasks made to look like the standing figure of the emperor. The bottles contained questionable concoctions in pink and green known by the names “perfect love” and “consolation.” A fat black cat with yellow eyes, huddling near the abbess, appeared to be the familiar spirit of the place. By what would seem to be an impossible juxtaposition if one knew only that the human soul is an impenetrable abyss, a branch of boxwood, purchased by the abbess at church for Easter, had been placed behind the case of an ancient cuckoo clock.
Two shady characters with unkempt beards, dressed in no more than rags, barely touched the carafe of wine they had been served. They were talking quietly and with an expression of concern on their faces. One of them, very pale, almost white, repeatedly pulled a cheap Greek sailor’s cap down over his brows. He kept his left hand hidden, careful to conceal it as much as possible whenever he poured himself a drink.
Farther away sat a young man barely sixteen years old, an adolescent, smoking a short white pipe. A model of precocious vice, he was beardless, haggard, gaunt, with an ashen complexion and dull eyes; his long black hair fell around his neck. He kept his back to the wall and both hands thrust into the pockets of his smock; his legs were stretched beneath the bench. He never put down his pipe except to drink from the bottle of brandy set before him.
Nothing was remarkable about the other habitués of the bar, whether men or women; their physiognomies were brutal or dull, their gaiety vulgar or licentious, their silence solemn or stupid. Such was their audience when Chourineur, La Goualeuse, and the stranger entered. These three characters play such an important role in our story, their appearances are so distinctive, that we must linger at some length upon them. Chourineur, a tall man of athletic build, had pale blond, nearly white, hair, thick eyebrows and an enormous, bright red handlebar mustache. The sun, poverty, and hard labor had given his skin the dark, nearly olive complexion typical of convicts. In spite of his nickname, the man’s features expressed a kind of brash audacity rather than cruelty, although the back of his skull, strangely protruding, indicated the predominance of appetites both murderous and carnal. He wore a cheap blue smock and thick corduroy pants whose color was once green but now could no longer be distinguished beneath the thick layer of grime that covered them.
By some strange anomaly, La Goualeuse’s features were characteristic of those angelic and candid creatures who preserve their ideal nature even in the midst of depravity, as if she were powerless to obliterate through her vices the noble imprint that God places upon the countenance of a privileged few.
La Goualeuse was sixteen and a half years old.
A pure white forehead dominated a face that was perfectly oval; a fringe of lashes, so long they curled a little, half concealed her large blue eyes. A fine layer of childish down softened her cheeks, round and red. The lines of her small coral mouth, her slim, straight nose, and dimpled chin were delicately sculpted. On either side of her smooth temples, a plait of magnificent ash-blonde hair fell, forming a loop near the middle of her cheek and curling behind her ear, whose flushed ivory lobe was barely discernible, only to disappear beneath the tight folds of a large kerchief of blue checked cotton knotted beneath her chin. A string of coral beads surrounded a neck of dazzling whiteness. Her brown dress of Syrian wool, much too large for her, concealed a waist that was slender, supple, and round as a rush. A small, cheap orange shawl with a green fringe was crossed over her breast.
The charm of La Goualeuse’s voice had struck her unknown defender. Soft, vibrant, and harmonious, it was so irresistible that the riffraff and fallen women among whom the young girl lived often begged her to sing, and listened with delight. For this reason they called her La Goualeuse – the Singer. But she had been given another name as well, the result no doubt of the virginal candor of her features. She was Fleur-de-Marie, a maid in the local slang.
Can we impart to the reader the strange impression made upon us when in the midst of this obscene vocabulary, where the words signifying thievery, blood, and murder shock and terrify more than the shocking and terrifying events they express, we came upon a metaphor of such gentle poetry, such tender piety—Fleur-de-Marie—a name that calls to mind the beautiful lily lifting high the perfumed snow of its immaculate chalice amidst a field of carnage? What a bizarre contrast! By some strange accident the inventors of that terrible language thus elevated themselves to a form of sacred poetry, lending additional charm to the chaste thought they wished to express. And do such reflections not lead us to believe, while dreaming of other contrasts that often break the horrid monotony of the most criminal existence, that certain principles of morality, of piety, felt to be innate, continue to cast their bright light into the darkest souls?
La Goualeuse’s defender (we shall call him Rodolphe) appeared to be somewhere between 30 and 36 years of age. Of average height, slender, but perfectly proportioned, the surprising vigor he had employed in his struggle with the athletic Chourineur was not immediately apparent. To assign a given character to Rodolphe’s physiognomy, a juxtaposition of the most bizarre contrasts, would be extremely difficult. His features were uniformly handsome, possibly too handsome for a man. His delicately pale complexion and large eyes, brown with an orange cast to them, almost always half-closed and surrounded by a slight blue halo, his nonchalant gait, distracted gaze, and ironic smile appeared to be the marks of a blasé individual whose constitution was if not dissipated, at least weakened by the aristocratic excess of an opulent existence. And yet, with his elegant white hands, Rodolphe had just overcome one of the strongest, most feared criminals in this nest of criminals. We speak of aristocratic excess because the drunkenness resulting from a generous wine differs completely from the drunkenness associated with some adulterated concoction; because, in the eyes of the observer, these excesses differ in their symptoms just as they differ in their nature and kind.
Certain folds on Rodolphe’s forehead revealed him to be a profound thinker, a deeply contemplative man. And yet the strength of the contours of his mouth, the imperious way he held his head upon occasion, indicated a man of action, one whose physical strength and boldness always exert an irresistible attraction upon the crowd.
His gaze was often filled with a mournful melancholy, and everything that is most charitable about sympathy, everything that is most touching about pity, could be read from his face. At other times Rodolphe’s gaze became hard and mean; his features expressed such disdain and cruelty that his ability to experience any tender emotion at all was difficult to conceive. The remainder of this story will reveal how and why such contrasting passions coexisted in this man.
In his fight with Chourineur, Rodolphe had exhibited no anger or hatred toward his adversary, a man otherwise unworthy of him. Confident of his strength, his skill, and his agility, he felt only scornful contempt for the dumb brute he had recently subdued.
To complete this portrait of Rodolphe, we should add that his hair was light chestnut, of the same color as his nobly curved eyebrows and small, silken mustache. His chin protruded slightly and was closely shaven.
As for the rest, the manners and language he affected with incredible ease made him indistinguishable from the other customers in the bar. His slender neck, as elegantly modeled as any Indian Bacchus, was wrapped in a carelessly knotted black tie, the ends of which fell over the narrow collar of his blue smock, whose paleness signaled its age. Two rows of nails protected his heavy boots. And, except for his hands, which were of a rare refinement, nothing distinguished him physically from the other men present, although his air of resolution and bold serenity immediately set him apart.
Upon entering the bar, Chourineur, placing his large, hairy hand on Rodolphe’s shoulder, shouted: “Say hello to Chourineur’s new boss ”
With these words, everyone, from the abbess to the lowliest customer in the bar, turned to look with fearful respect at the man who had defeated Chourineur. Some moved their glasses and bottles to the end of the table they occupied, hurrying to make room for Rodolphe, in the event he might wish to sit next to them; others approached Chourineur to ask him in a low voice details of the stranger who had made such a victorious entrance into their world.
Finally, the Abbess gave Rodolphe one of her most gracious smiles. And—an event that was unparalleled, extravagant, fabled in the annals of revelry at the Lapin-Blanc—she rose from her counter to take Rodolphe’s order and discover what his acquaintances should be served, an attentiveness she had never shown even for the Schoolmaster, a fearsome thug who caused Chourineur himself to tremble.
One of the two men of sinister appearance we pointed out earlier (the pale man who concealed his left hand and covered his forehead with his cap) leaned toward the Abbess, who was attentively cleaning Rodolphe’s table, and in a rough voice inquired, “The Schoolmaster didn’t show up today?”
“No,” said Mother Ponisse.
“He was here.”
“With his new ladyfriend?”
“Hey, what do you take me for, a snitch? You and your questions! As if I would peach one of my customers?” said the Abbess in a cutting tone of voice.
“I’m supposed to meet him tonight,” said the brigand, “we have business together.”
“Some business, bunch of cutthroats that you are!”
“Cutthroats!” repeated the man irritably, “it’s us that keep you alive!”
“Will you shut up,” shouted the Abbess threateningly, lifting a pitcher she held in her hand over his head. Grumbling, the man returned to his seat.
Fleur-de-Marie, entering the bar on Chourineur’s heels, had given a friendly nod to the pale adolescent. Chourineur called to him: “Hey, Barbillon! You still swilling that rotgut?”
“Still am. I’d rather go hungry and wear clogs on my feet than not have a drink in my gullet and shag in my pipe,” said the young man in a hoarse voice, without changing position and while exhaling enormous clouds of smoke.
“Good evening, Mother Ponisse,” said La Goualeuse.
“Good evening, Fleur-de-Marie,” answered the Abbess as she approached the girl to inspect the clothes she had leased to the unfortunate creature. After her examination she said, with a kind of gruff satisfaction: “I like doing business with you. Clean as a kitten, you are. And I would never have given that pretty orange shawl to the likes of La Tourneuse or Tête-de-Mort. I was the one who taught you the ropes when you got out of jail and fair’s fair. You’re the best pupil in all of La Cité.”
La Goualeuse lowered her head, showing no pride in the older woman’s remarks.
“My, my,” said Rodolphe pointing to the wall behind the old clock, “is that a piece of boxwood I see over your cuckoo, mother?”
“Well, we can’t be living like a bunch of pagans!” answered the unpleasant woman naively. Then, turning to Fleur-de-Marie, she added: “Say, Goualeuse, why don’t you sing something for us?”
“After dinner, Mother Ponisse,” said Chourineur.
“So what’ll it be big fellow?” she said to Rodolphe, whose patronage she hoped to obtain and whose support she might one day wish to purchase.
“Ask Chourineur; he’s hosting, I’m paying.”
“Alright,” said the Abbess, turning to the man, “what do you want to eat, you old cur?”
“Two double liters of wine at twelve sous, a harlequin2, and three crusts of bread—make sure it’s soft—and another harlequin,” said Chourineur, after having considered the composition of the menu for a moment.
“I see you’re still quite the bon vivant, and you haven’t lost your fondness for food.”
“What about you, Goualeuse,” asked Chourineur, “hungry?”
“Something other than a harlequin perhaps?” asked Rodolphe.
“No, I’m no longer hungry”
“But look at my master, child,” said Chourineur, laughing broadly and nodding toward Rodolphe. “Won’t you even look at him?”
La Goualeuse blushed and lowered her eyes without responding.
After a short while, the Abbess herself returned and placed on Rodolphe’s table a pitcher of wine, bread, and the harlequin, which we will not attempt to describe for you here, but which Chourineur seemed to find very much to his taste, for he exclaimed: “What a dish! Good God, what a dish! It’s like an omnibus. There’s something here for everyone, for those who are fat and for those who are thin, for those who like sugar and those who like pepper. Drumsticks, fish tails, meatless chops, crusts of paté, fried bits, some cheese, some vegetables, woodcock heads, biscuits, and salad. But you should eat something Goualeuse, this is fine stuff. Or did you already celebrate?”
“Yes, this morning, like every other morning, I had my sou of milk and my sou of bread.”
With the appearance of a new arrival in the bar, all conversation stopped and everyone raised their head. He was a man of middle age, alert, powerfully built, wearing a jacket and cap, both of which looked perfectly at home here. He asked for something
to eat in the language common to the other customers in the bar. Although this stranger was not a regular, people soon began to pay attention to him.
He was being judged. Like honest men, thieves have a sure eye when it comes to recognizing one of
The newcomer had positioned himself so he could observe the two individuals of sinister appearance, one of whom had inquired about the Schoolmaster. He didn’t let them out of his sight, but because of where they were seated, they could not tell they were being observed. The conversations that had been interrupted were resumed. In spite of his arrogance, Chourineur maintained a kind of deference toward Rodolphe and treated him with unexpected formality. This man had no respect for the law, but he did respect force.
“I swear,” he said to Rodolphe, “you may have walloped me, but I’m glad we met.”
“Because you’re enjoying your harlequin?”
“Of course—and because I’m dying to see you tangle with the Schoolmaster. He got the better of me before and now someone should get the better of him. I would like that.”
“Do you believe that, simply to amuse you, I’m going to jump on the Schoolmaster like some bulldog?”
“No. But he’ll jump you once he hears that you’re a better man than he is,” answered Chourineur, rubbing his hands together.
“I’ve still got some change left over for him,” said Rodolphe, nonchalantly. “What miserable weather. Perhaps if we asked for a pitcher of brandy and some sugar, La Goualeuse might be more inclined to sing?”
“Fine with me,” Chourineur replied.
“And why don’t we get to know one another a little better and put our cards on the table?”
“They call me the Albino,” said Chourineur. “Ex-con, docker at the Saint-Paul wharf, freeze during winter, roast during summer, that’s me,” he said to Rodolphe, making a military salute with his left hand. “And what about you, sir? This is the first time anyone’s seen you around La Cité. I intend no disrespect of course, but you did a good job on my skull and beat me like a drum. Damn, that was some beating, especially those last few shots! I can’t get over it; almost as if it had been planned. But you, you must have other things to do than wallop Chourineur, no?”
“I’m a fan painter. My name is Rodolphe.”
“A fan painter! Is that why your hands are so white?” asked Chourineur. “Well, what does it matter. If all your friends are like you, you must have to be pretty strong to paint fans. But since you’re a laborer, no doubt an honest one, why do you come here, to this dive, where there are nothing but crooks, murderers, and ex-cons like me, who have no other place to go?”
“Because I like good company.”
“Hmmm,” said Chourineur, shaking his head doubtfully. “I found you in Bras-Rouge’s alleyway. You say you don’t know the man?”
“Are you going to keep pestering me about that? Bras-Rouge can go to hell!”
“Hold on, there. Maybe you have your doubts about me, you’re right to have them. But if you care to listen, I’ll tell you my story, that is, as long as you teach me how to fight like that. Those fists got the better of me back there. I insist.”
“Alright, Chourineur, you’ll tell me your story and La Goualeuse will tell me hers.”
“Fine,” said Chourineur. “The weather is so bad even the police wouldn’t venture outside. This will be great fun. How about it, Goualeuse?”
“Fine with me, but my story won’t take long.”
“And you’ll tell us your story, comrade Rodolphe?” added Chourineur.
“Yes, I’ll begin.”
“A fan painter,” said La Goualeuse, “that’s a good way to make a living.”
“So, how much do you earn knocking yourself out with your fans?” Chourineur asked.
“I work hard at what I do. On good days I make four francs, sometimes five, but only in summer, when the days are long.”
“And you spend a lot of time wandering around doing nothing, you scoundrel?”
“As long as I have money, I do. It costs me six sous a night for my room.”
“Excuse me, my lord? You’re paying six sous!” said Chourineur, raising his hand to his cap. The word, “my lord,” said ironically by Chourineur, caused a smile to flitter across Rodolphe’s face, who continued:
“Well, I prefer comfort and cleanliness.”
“Will you look at our French gentleman! A banker! A tycoon!” cried Chourineur. “Six sous for a bed!”
“And,” continued Rodolphe, “four sous for tobacco, that makes ten; four sous for lunch, fourteen; fifteen for dinner; one or two sous for brandy, that makes roughly thirty sous a day. I don’t need to work all week long; I can take it easy the rest of the time.”
“Do you have a family?” asked La Goualeuse.
“And your parents?” she asked.
“They sold old clothes in Les Halles, and were rag wholesalers.”
“What about the business?” asked Chourineur.
“I was too young, so my guardian sold it. When I came of age, I owed him thirty francs. So much for my inheritance.”
“And who are you working for now?” asked Chourineur.
“My boss? He’s called Borel, Rue des Bourdonnais, a stupid, disagreeable man; a thief and a miser. He’d rather have his eye plucked out than pay his workers. There’s not much more to know about him. Hopefully, he’ll get lost one day and lose his way back to the workshop. I was his apprentice when I was fifteen, I drew a good number in the army lottery. I’m living on Rue de la Juiverie [*], fourth floor front. My name is Rodolphe Durand. There’s not much more to know.”
“Now it’s your turn, Goualeuse,” said Chourineur; “I’m saving my story for last.”
3. The History of La Goualeuse
“Let’s begin at the beginning,” said Chourineur.
“Yes, your parents,” said Rodolphe.
“I don’t know my parents,” said Fleur-de-Marie.
“Oh, nonsense!” cried Chourineur.
“Out of sight, out of mind; born under a bush, as the children say.”
“Very funny, Goualeuse. We’re birds of a feather.”
“You too, Chourineur?”
“An orphan from the streets of Paris, just like you, my girl.”
“Who raised you?” Rodolphe asked.
“I don’t know. As far as I can remember, when I was seven or eight, I lived with an old cyclops known as the Owl. She had a hooked nose and one round green eye, which made her look like a one-eyed owl.”
“Ahhh, haha! I can see the old Owl from here,” shouted Chourineur, laughing.
“The one-eyed owl,” resumed Fleur-de-Marie, “forced me to sell penny candy on the Pont-Neuf at night. It was a way of asking for handouts. If I came home with less than ten sous, she would beat me and send me to bed hungry.”
“I understand, child,” said Chourineur, “a kick for supper, and a couple of slaps for dessert.”
“And you’re sure this woman wasn’t your mother?” asked Rodolphe.
“I’m very sure. The Owl reproached me constantly for being without a mother or father. She always told me she had found me in the street.”
“So,” continued Chourineur, “you got a beating instead of supper when you didn’t bring back your ten sous?”
“And a glass of water to wash it down. And then I would shiver all night under a pile of straw that I would crawl into. Everyone thinks straw keeps you warm, but they’re wrong.”
“La plume de Beauce Where’d that come from?’”
The joke made Fleur-de-Marie smile. She continued.
“The next day, the old woman gave me the same thing to eat for lunch as I had had for dinner. Then, I went to Montfaucon to look for worms to use as bait. During the day, the Owl kept a store where she rented fishing lines under the Pont Notre-Dame. But for a child of seven, who’s dying of hunger and cold, it’s a long way from Rue de la Mortellerie to Montfaucon [*].”
“All that exercise made you grow up straight and tall, my child,” said Chourineur, striking a match to light his pipe.
“Eventually I returned, exhausted, with a basket full of worms. At noon, the Owl gave me a nice piece of bread. You can be sure I didn’t leave a crumb behind.”
“Don’t complain,” said Chourineur, noisily inhaling a few puffs of tobacco. “Not eating has given you a waistline like a wasp. But what’s the matter with you, comrade? No, I mean, master Rodolphe? You look terrible. Is it because she had such a tough childhood? Look, we’ve all had our share of misery.”
“Oh, I doubt you were as unhappy as I was, Chourineur,” said Fleur-de-Marie.
“Me? Child, you lived like a queen compared to me. At least when you were little you had a straw mattress and bread to eat. On good nights I slept in the gypsum kilns in Clichy, like a real vagabond, and I chewed cabbage leaves I picked up along the road. But most of the time, since it was too far to travel all the way to Clichy, and I couldn’t walk because I was so hungry, I would sleep beneath the large stones of the Louvre. In winter I had white sheets though—as long as it snowed.”
“Of course, it’s hard for a man, but for a poor little girl” said Fleur-de-Marie. “With all that, I was plump as a lark.”
“And you remember all that?”
“Oh, certainly. When the Owl beat me, I would fall down at once. Then, she would start to kick me, screaming ‘What a little beggar! She doesn’t have a penny’s worth of strength; two little slaps and down she goes.’ She would call me a little thief. That was the only name she gave me, that was my baptism.”
“Just like me. I was given the kind of baptism they give to stray dogs. They called me a ‘thing,’ ‘a machine,’ an ‘albino.’ It’s astonishing how we’re so much alike, you and I,” said Chourineur.
“It’s true,” said Fleur-de-Marie, who continued to address Chourineur. Because she experienced a kind of shame in Rodolphe’s presence, she barely dared to raise her eyes, although he appeared to be no different than the people she had always known.
“And when you would hunt worms for the Owl, what did you do?” asked Chourineur.
“Old one-eye sent me to beg near her stall until nightfall; during the evening, she would fry fish on the Pont-Neuf. By then my piece of bread was long gone; but if I made the mistake of asking the Owl for something to eat, she would hit me, saying ‘Ten sous worth of begging, little thief, and then you’ll have your dinner!’ Because I was so hungry, and because she was hurting me, I cried my eyes out. The old woman placed my little string of penny candy around my neck and planted me on the Pont-Neuf. Oh, how I cried and cried, as I shivered from hunger and cold.”
“Just like you, my child,” said Chourineur, interrupting La Goualeuse. “No one would believe it but hunger makes you shiver as much as cold.”
“I stayed on the Pont-Neuf until 11 at night, my necklace of penny candy around my neck, crying loudly. The passersby were often touched to see me cry, and once in a while would give me ten, even fifteen sous, which I turned over to the Owl.”
“A good evening for a fat little lark!”
“But not when the old woman saw me.”
“With her one eye,” said Chourineur, laughing.
“With one eye, yes, for one was all she had. But she then got into the habit of beating me before sending me out onto the Pont-Neuf so I would cry in front of the crowd and increase my take.”
“She wasn’t so stupid after all!”
“Oh, you think so, Chourineur? After a while, I grew accustomed to the beatings. I found that the Owl went into a rage if I didn’t cry. So, to get back at her, the more she hurt me, the more I laughed. And in the evening, instead of sobbing as I sold my candy, I sung like a lark, even though I had no desire to do so.”
“And what about the candy? Surely, you had an appetite for that!”
“Of course I did, Chourineur, but I wouldn’t dare eat it. That was my ambition, and it was my ambition that did me in. I’ll tell you why. One day, coming home with my worms, some young boys beat me up and stole my basket. I returned home knowing what was in store for me. I got what was coming and no bread. That evening, before going to the bridge, the old lady, furious because I had sold nothing the day before, instead of beating me as usual, tore the hair out on either side of my temples, where it’s most sensitive.”
“No, that’s going too far!” shouted Chourineur, striking his fist on the table and furrowing his brows. “To beat a child is one thing but to torture her, that’s too much!”
Rodolphe had been listening closely to Fleur-de-Marie’s story. He looked at Chourineur with astonishment, surprised by the glimmer of compassion he saw in him.
“What is it, Chourineur?”
“What is it? What is it! You mean you don’t understand? That hideous old witch was torturing this child! I see you’re a hard man, as hard as your fists.”
“Continue, child,” said Rodolphe to Fleur-de-Marie, without answering Chourineur.
“As I was saying, the Owl would punish me to make me cry. It was terrible. But I would simply laugh, sending her into a rage, and leave for the bridge with my candy. The old woman would stand by her frying pan, and from time to time, wave her fist at me. Instead of crying, I sang louder; and all that time, I was hungry, so hungry. For the six months that I wore my necklace of candy, I had never so much as tasted one. I swear! But that day, I couldn’t hold out any longer. So, because I hadn’t eaten and to get back at her, I took a piece of candy and put it in my mouth.”
“I ate two.”
“Bravo! Long live the Charter [*]!”
“It was very good. But then the man at the fruit stand yelled over to her, ‘Hey, Owl, your little thief is eating your stock!’”
“Oh, now it’s getting good, now it’s getting good,” said Chourineur with particular interest. “You poor little rat, you must have trembled when the Owl found out what you were doing.”
“So what did you do?” asked Rodolphe, who was as interested as Chourineur.
“Oh God, it was painful. But, the funny thing is,” added Fleur-de-Marie laughing, “that old one-eye, who was fuming at seeing me eat her candy, couldn’t leave her stand, because the fish was frying.”
Laughing loudly, Chourineur exclaimed “Ah haha, haha, haha! Yes! Yes! She was in a tight spot.”
Laughing along with him, Fleur-de-Marie resumed her story.
“My word, thinking about the beating I was going to get, I said to myself, ‘She’s going to hit me just as hard whether I eat one or I eat three.’ So I took another piece of candy but, before eating it, while the Owl threatened me from the other side of the bridge with a large iron fork—and what I tell you is as true as this dish before me—I showed her the piece of candy and bit it as she watched.”
“Good work! Now I understand why you grabbed your scissors earlier. See, I said you were brave. But the Owl must have skinned you alive after what you did.”
“When she finished cooking, she came over to me. I had collected three sous by begging and had eaten six sous worth of candy. When the old lady grabbed my hand, I thought I would faint on the spot I was so terrified. I can remember it now as if I were there, for it was around New Year’s Day. You know how there are always shops selling toys along the Pont-Neuf. All evening long I would look with amazement at the beautiful dolls, the little doll houses. You can imagine how I felt as a child.”
“You never had toys, Goualeuse?” asked Chourineur.
“Me? Are you mad? Who would have given them to me? Finally, the evening was over. Although it was the middle of winter, all I had to wear was a cheap cloth dress, no socks, no slip, and clogs on my feet. It couldn’t be said that I was overdressed. But when the old woman grabbed my hand, I started to sweat. What frightened me the most was that instead of swearing or shouting, the Owl just kept muttering to herself as we went on. But she never let go of my hand and forced me to walk fast, so fast that, with my little legs, I had to run to keep up. As I was running I lost one of my clogs. Still, I managed, even with my bare foot. When we got home, it was covered in blood.”
“That miserable bitch!” shouted Chourineur, as he again pounded the table in anger. “I can’t tell you how it makes me feel, thinking about this little girl running after that old thief, with her foot bleeding like that.”
“We lived in a garret on the Rue de la Mortellerie. Next to the entrance to the alleyway, there was a dram shop. The Owl went inside, still holding me by the hand, and drank a half-pint of brandy at the bar.”
“Damn! I’d be well oiled if I had as much to drink.”
“That was the old woman’s ration. She always went to bed drunk. Maybe that’s why she beat me so often. Finally, we went upstairs. I wasn’t in the best of moods, I can assure you. When we arrived at the top of the steps, the Owl double locked the door; I threw myself on my knees and asked her forgiveness for eating her candy. She didn’t answer, but I heard her muttering as she walked around the room. ‘What am I going to do with this little beggar tonight? This little candy thief?’ And then she stopped, turning her one green eye toward me. I was still on my knees. Suddenly, the old woman went over to a shelf and grabbed a pair of pliers.”
“Pliers!” screamed Chourineur.
“To hit you?” asked Rodolphe.
“To pinch you?” asked Chourineur.
“To pull out your hair?”
“You’re still cold. Give up?”
“I give up.”
“We give up.”
“It was to pull out one of my teeth !”
Chourineur uttered such an oath, accompanied by such furious imprecations, that everyone in the bar turned around to look.
“What’s the matter with him?” asked La Goualeuse.
“What’s the matter with me! If I had been near that old hag, I would have murdered her! Where is she? Tell me, where is she? If I find her, I’ll wring her neck!”
The man’s eyes filled with blood. Although Rodolphe shared Chourineur’s horror at the old woman’s cruelty, it puzzled him how a man of his stamp could exhibit so much anger upon learning that a sinister old crone planned to tear out a child’s tooth. It is our conviction that such pity is possible, even probable in a man of such brutal character.
“And did the miserable old wretch pull out your tooth?” asked Rodolphe.
“She certainly did! And not at the first try either. My God, how she went at it. She held my head between her knees as if in a vise. Then, half with the pliers, half with her fingers, she yanked on the tooth. She said, in an attempt to scare me, of course: ‘I’m going to pull one out every day, you little thief. And when you have no more teeth, I’ll throw you in the river, where you’ll be eaten by the fish. They’ll have their revenge for the worms you gathered to catch them.’ I remember that, because it seemed so unfair. As if I went to collect worms because I liked it!”
“The wretch. To pull out the teeth of a poor young girl?” shouted Chourineur with redoubled fury.
“And what of it? Does it still show? Let’s see,” said Fleur-de-Marie. And, smiling, she opened her pink lips to reveal two rows of small teeth as white as pearls.
Was it indifference, forgetfulness, instinctive generosity on the part of that unfortunate creature? Rodolphe noted that, throughout her story, she hadn’t spoken a single word of rancor against the cruel old woman who had tormented her.
“What did you do then?” continued Chourineur.
“Goodness, that was enough for me. The next day, rather than going to collect worms, I headed toward the Panthéon. I was so afraid of the Owl that I spent the day walking around the city. I would rather have gone to the ends of the Earth than to remain in her clutches. I found myself in a desolate part of the city, where there was no one to ask for help. I was ashamed to beg for money. That night I slept at a construction site. I was no bigger than a rat and slipping behind an old gate, I hid in a pile of bark. Consumed by hunger, I tried to eat some of the wood shavings, but was unable to do so. I succeeded only in chewing through a small piece of birch bark, which was softer. I then fell asleep. When it was daylight, hearing a noise, I buried myself deeper within the wood pile. It was almost warm, like a cave. If I had had something to eat, I could have stayed there all winter.”
“Like me in my kiln.”
“But I was afraid to leave the construction yard. I assumed that the Owl was looking everywhere for me and would pull out the rest of my teeth and throw me to the fish. I thought she would catch me if I left.”
“Don’t mention the old witch again. My blood is starting to boil!”
“Then, on the second day, I had eaten a little more of the birch bark and was about to fall asleep, when I heard a large dog bark. I awoke with a start. I listened. The dog continued to bark as it approached the wood pile. Here was a new source of fear. Fortunately, I don’t know why, the dog stopped. But, Chourineur, you’re going to laugh.”
“With you, there’s always something to laugh about. You’re a fine girl. Why, you see what’s happened? I’m ashamed I struck you earlier.”
“Why shouldn’t you, when there’s no one to defend me?”
“What about me?” said Rodolphe.
“You’re very kind, Monsieur Rodolphe, but Chourineur didn’t know you would be there. Nor did I.”
“All the same, I’m sticking with what I said. I’m ashamed I hit you,” Chourineur repeated.
“Continue your story, my child,” said Rodolphe.
“I was huddled beneath the wood pile, when I again heard a dog. While the animal was yapping, a gruff voice said ‘The dog is barking. Is someone here?’ ‘Thieves,’ replied another voice. Then I heard ‘Go, go!’ They encouraged the dog further, shouting ‘Git! Git!’ The dog ran toward me. I was afraid it would bite me and started to yell. ‘Wait,’ said the voice, ‘that sounds like a child.’ Someone called off the dog and went to fetch a lantern. I left my hiding place and found myself before a large man and a boy in a workman’s shift. ‘What are you doing in my construction yard, you little thief?’ the large man said to me threateningly. ‘Monsieur, I haven’t eaten in two days. I ran away from the Owl, who pulled out my tooth and was going to feed me to the fish. Because I didn’t know where to sleep, I squeezed under your gate and slept in the bark, beneath the wood pile. I wasn’t hurting anyone.’ Then the man began to laugh and said to the boy, ‘I’m no fool, the little thief came here to steal my logs.’”
“What an imbecile! What an idiot!” cried Chourineur. “Steal his logs! You were eight years old!”
“It was a joke, because the boy replied, ‘Steal your logs? And how would she do that? She’s no bigger than the smallest of your logs.’ ‘You’re right,’ said the wood merchant; ‘but it makes no difference whether she came here on her own account or not. Thieves often use children to spy for them. They lay in hiding and open the door when their confederates arrive. We’ll have to take her to the police.’”
“What a dumb brute.”
“They took me to the police station, where I told them my story and said I was a vagrant. They put me in jail. I was then brought before a magistrate and charged with vagrancy. I was sentenced to remain in a reformatory until I was sixteen. I thanked the judges for their generosity. Can you imagine! There would be food every day and no old woman to beat me at night. It was a paradise compared to the Owl’s garret. And in prison I learned to sew. But unfortunately I was lazy and absentminded. I would sing rather than work, especially when the sun was shining. When the weather was really fine outside, I couldn’t help but sing. And when I sang it seemed I was no longer a prisoner.”
“Which means, my child, that you were born a nightingale,” said Rodolphe smiling.
“You’re very kind, Monsieur Rodolphe. It was around this time they began to call me La Goualeuse instead of Little Thief. When I finally turned sixteen, I was released from the reformatory. There, at the gate, I found the Abbess and two or three old women who would visit some of the other prisoners and who had always said they would have work for me once I got out.”
“Very good, very good,” said Chourineur.
“The abbess and the other women called me their ‘pet,’ their ‘angel,’ their ‘little one’ and asked me to go with them. They promised to clothe me and said I would ‘have nothing but fun.’ You realize, Chourineur, that after eight years in prison one knows what such talk is worth. I sent them packing, the old panderers. I said to myself: I can sew, I have three hundred francs, I’m young. . .”
“And a lovely young woman too,” said Chourineur.
“After eight years in reform school, I wanted to enjoy life a little, there’s no harm in that. I told myself that when my money runs out, I can find work. Well, I put those three hundred francs to good use. That was my mistake,” added Fleur-de-Marie with a sigh. “I should have found work first. But there was no one to advise me. What’s done is done. I began to spend my money. First, I filled my room with flowers—I love flowers. Then, I bought a dress, a beautiful shawl, and went for a ride around the Bois de Boulogne on a donkey, and Saint-Germain as well, also on a donkey.”
“With your sweetheart?” asked Chourineur.
“Goodness, no; I wanted to be my own woman. I made friends with one of the girls in prison who had been an orphan. A fine girl. She was called Rigolette, because she laughed all the time.”
“Rigolette, Rigolette? Doesn’t ring a bell,” said Chourineur, looking pensive.
“I’m quite sure you don’t know her. She’s very nice, and a hard worker; she earns at least 25 sous a day and has her own apartment. But I never dared show my face to her again. So, after putting my cash to such good use, I was left with only 43 francs.”
“You should have used the money to buy some jewelry,” said Chourineur.
“My word, I did better than that. I had a washerwoman by the name of Lorraine, a lamb of the good Lord. At the time, she was so pregnant she looked like she would burst, and still she had her hands and feet in water all the time. You be the judge. No longer able to work, she asked me to take her to the La Bourbe hospital [*]. But there was no more room and they turned her away. Of course, she could no longer work. So there she was, ready to give birth and not enough money to pay for a furnished room. Fortunately, one night, at the corner of the Pont Notre-Dame, she met, quite by accident, Goubin’s wife, who had been hiding for four days in the basement of a house that was being demolished behind the Hôtel-Dieu.”
“And why was Goubin’s wife hiding during the day?”
“To save herself from her husband, who wanted to kill her! She only went out at night, to buy bread. That’s how she met poor Lorraine, who didn’t know what to do, and was expecting at any moment. When Goubin’s wife saw her, she took her to the cellar where she was hiding. It was always a hideout.”
“Wait, wait a moment, Goubin’s wife is Helmina, isn’t it?” asked Chourineur.
“Yes, a fine girl,” La Goualeuse responded, “a seamstress who had worked for me and for Rigolette. She did all she could when she gave up half her basement, her bed of straw, and her bread to Lorraine, who gave birth to a tiny infant. She didn’t even have a blanket, just a pile of straw. When she saw that, Goubin’s wife couldn’t take it any longer. At the risk of getting killed—her husband was looking everywhere for her—she went out in broad daylight and came to get me. She knew I still had a little money and that I had a good heart. In fact, I was about to climb into a victoria with Rigolette. We were planning to finish my 43 francs and take a ride in the countryside, across the fields. Fields, trees, meadows—I love all that. But when Helmina told me about Lorraine’s problems, I sent the victoria off and ran to my room to grab clothing, my mattress, my blanket, piled it all on the back of a porter, and ran to the basement with Goubin’s wife. Oh, you should have seen how happy she was, poor Lorraine. We watched over her, Helmina and I. When she was back on her feet, I gave her the rest of my money to tide her over until she was well enough to get back to her washing. Now she’s earning a living. But she refuses to give me the laundry bill. I know she wants to pay me back, but if it goes on like this, I’ll find somebody else,” said La Goualeuse with an air of importance.
“And Goubin’s wife?” asked Chourineur.
“What? Don’t you know?”
“No. Know what?”
“The poor woman. Goubin found her – stabbed her three times between the shoulders. Someone had told him that she had been seen near the Hôtel-Dieu, and one night, as she was leaving her basement to get milk for Lorraine, he killed her.”
“So, is that why he’s going to have his head sheared in a week?” asked Chourineur.
“And when you had given your money to Lorraine, what did you do?” asked Rodolphe.
“I went to find work of course. I was very good at sewing; I was willing, I wasn’t shy. I stopped at a seamstress’s shop on Rue Saint-Martin. I wanted to be truthful, so I told them I had just gotten out of prison two months earlier and was looking for work. They showed me the door. I asked for piece work to do at home; they told me I was kidding myself if I thought anyone would even give me a shift to sew. I was returning home, crestfallen, when I met the Abbess and one of the old women who had always been after me ever since I got out of prison. I didn’t know how I was going to get by. They took me with them. Forced me to drink brandy! And here I am.”
“I see,” said Chourineur. “I know you now as if I had been your mother and father and you had never left my side. Oh well, that’s a confession—at least I hope so.”
“It seems you’re unhappy about what you’ve told us,” said Rodolphe.
“It pains me to look back. This is the first time since I was a child that I’ve ever told this to anyone. And it’s not a pretty story, is it, Chourineur?”
“How true,” he said, ironically. “And you regret not being a scullery maid in some cheap public house or a domestic for a couple of old fools, taking care of them and theirs?”
“It doesn’t matter. But at least I would have had my honor,” said Fleur-de-Marie with a sigh.
“Honor! Oh, that’s rich,” cried the ruffian with a boisterous laugh. “Honor! And why not the Maid of Orleans, to honor the father and mother you
The young girl’s face had lost its typical expression of indifference.
“Look, Chourineur, I’m not one to complain. My parents threw me away at the corner of the street like a disobedient puppy. I’m not angry with them for it. They probably didn’t have enough to eat themselves. Even so, that doesn’t mean others haven’t been
“You’re never satisfied! As pretty as a picture and not yet seventeen, you sing like a nightingale, have the look of an innocent—they call you Fleur-de-Marie, don’t they?—and yet you complain. So what’ll you say when you have a warm brazier by your feet and a chinchilla mane, like the Abbess over there?”
“Oh, I’ll never get as old as that!”
“So you’ve invented the elixir of youth?”
“No, but my life won’t be as harsh. Why, I already have a bad cough.”
“Oh, really? I can see you now in the undertaker’s hearse. You can’t be serious.”
“Do you often feel this way, Goualeuse?”
“Sometimes. Perhaps you can understand, Monsieur Rodolphe. In the morning, when I leave to buy my sou of milk from the milkmaid at the corner of Rue de la Vielle-Draperie [*] and see her return home in her little cart with her donkey, I often feel envious. I say to myself, ‘She’s going back to the countryside, to the fresh air, to her house and family, while I’m returning alone to the Abbess’s hole, where it’s dark even at noon.’”
“Be reasonable, child. Make light of it,”
“Reasonable! My God, and with what should I be reasonable? The clothes on my back belong to the Abbess. I owe her for my lodging and my meals. Were I to move from here, she would have me arrested as a thief. I belong to her. I must pay.”
As she spoke those last, terrifying words, the unhappy young woman began to shiver.
“So stay the way you are and stop comparing yourself to a farm girl,” said Chourineur. “Have you gone mad? Here in the city you shine like a star while the milkmaid goes home to cook porridge for her brats, milk her cows, find grass for her rabbits, and get smacked around by her husband when he returns from the bar. Now there’s a glorious future for you.”
“Let’s drink, Chourineur,” Fleur-de-Marie exclaimed after a lengthy silence, as she offered her glass. “No, not wine, brandy. It’s stronger,” she said in her soft voice, pushing aside the jug of wine that Chourineur held over her glass.
“Brandy? Cheers! You’re my kind of girl. You’ve got pluck,” he said, without understanding the young woman’s gesture and without noticing the tear that trembled at the end of her lashes.
“It’s too bad it tastes so awful, because it gets you good and drunk,” said Fleur-de-Marie, placing her glass back on the table after having swallowed its contents with as much unwillingness as disgust. Rodolphe had listened to this story of unfortunate naiveté with growing interest. More than her own bad habits, poverty and abandonment had made the young woman’s life one of misery.
- Chourineur: one who strikes with a knife. We do not intend to use this vulgar slang for long, but merely wish to provide a few characteristic examples.
- A harlequin is a hodgepodge of meat, fish, and other leftovers collected from the tables of servants working in the homes of the wealthy.
— Eugène Sue
Abbot — A pimp.
Abbess — A procuress.
La Cité — The Île de la Cité in central Paris.
Palais de Justice — The law courts.
Rue aux Fèves — A short street on the Île de la Cité, located where the present-day flower market is found and parallel to the Rue de la Juiverie. It was destroyed in 1860 to make way for the construction of the Paris police headquarters. Currently rue de la Cité (4th Arrondissement).
Goualeuse — In period slang, a chanteuse, or singer.
Bras-Rouge — Literally, “Red Arm” for the amount of blood he had spilled.
Savate — A form of street fighting used in France in the early 19th century that was later formalized as a style of kick boxing.
Tick — Credit, a loan.
Flash — Associated with thieves, tramps, or prostitutes; or, knowing, smart, gaudy, alert.
Pinked — Stabbed.
La plume de Beauce — Straw used to sleep in or a simple straw mattress, unlike “down” as the name would imply.
Montfaucon — Site of the place of execution erected on a small hill on what is now the Place du Colonel Fabien, straddling the 10th and 19th arrondissements. On it was a gallows consisting of 16 stone pillars, approximately 25-30 feet in height and connected by wood beams. The gallows was first constructed in the late 13th century and demolished in 1761.
La Bourbe hospital — A hospital for indigents, especially indigent women about to give birth.
Rue de la Vielle-Draperie — Located on Île de la Cité, the street ran perpendicularly to the Seine. It corresponds to what is today Rue de Lutèce.
Eugène Sue, a French author (1804 – 1857), was born near the city of Cannes in southern France and came from a distinguished family of doctors. His father, a renowned surgeon, had been head physician to the Imperial Guard under Napoléon I. Following in his father’s footsteps, Sue also studied medicine. He began his career as a naval doctor but retired in 1829 to write. His life as a writer began with a series of novels based on his experiences at sea. Although the books were moderately successful, they brought him no lasting fame.
Much of Sue’s early life was spent in dissipating the family fortune and living the life of a dandy in Paris. He maintained a well-known courtisane, developed a passion for race horses, and was one of the fifteen founding members of the illustrious Jockey Club. But by 1836 Sue had run through most of his wealth and literature became a necessity rather than an avocation. Sue decided to leave Paris and retire to the countryside, where he led a quieter but no less elegant life. He returned to Paris in 1838 with Arthur, an autobiographical novel of youthful disillusion. The book was published as a feuilleton in La Presse, a new, daily paper.
Although not unusual in its subject matter, Arthur breaks with tradition by introducing its hero to the seamier side of life on the streets of nighttime Paris. Eschewing the hôtels particuliers of the beau monde, its hero wanders the dark, dank streets of working-class Paris, where he encounters the poor, the homeless, and the sick. Arthur’s fears were in keeping with the social temperament of the time. Cholera had struck Paris in 1832 and there had been increased awareness of poverty and pauperism as contributing factors to its spread. Connections were discovered between the working class and the criminal underground, “les classes dangereuses.” Middle-class anxiety increased.
Following the success of Arthur, Sue returned to Paris again, moving in to an elegantly furnished apartment on Rue de la Pépinière. Here, he wrote several more novels, most of which were historical in nature. However, in 1842 he began writing Les Mystères de Paris, a novel in parts published in Le Journal des Débats. It was the first time in a novel that readers had been exposed to the social agitation and mixing of classes experienced in the bars and cabarets of Paris’s dense core on Ile de la Cité. With its hovels and dive bars, its depiction of the prison of Saint-Lazare, which housed prostitutes and female thieves, it portrayed a world rarely described in the literature of the time.
Although immensely popular, the book was not without its critics. Several accused Sue of venal exploitation, claiming he had used poverty and vice merely to enrich himself. Moreover, the book caused considerable scandal, for it portrayed many of its characters—prostitutes, criminals, and an avenging prince disguised as a worker—openly and favorably. Of course, the socialist press saw things differently; they viewed the book as a denunciation of poverty and a plea in favor of the people of Paris, a call to arms and reform. The wealthy bourgeoisie applauded Sue for his instincts as a reformer but cast a skeptical eye on the book’s inflammatory subject matter. The public, however, adored the novel, and copies of it flew off the newsstands before the ink was dry. Copies were stolen from cafés by those too poor to buy the paper, and for those who could not read, daily installments were read aloud in informal gatherings.
Most critics view Les Mystères de Paris as the turning point in Sue’s embrace of socialism. He became a shareholder in two socialist papers La Phalange and La Démocratie pacifique, assuming his literary fame would be sufficient to help spread their influence and their ideals.
In 1844 Le Juif errant was published in Le Constitutionnel, also in serial form. The book combined a virulent anticlericalism with a far more radical social commitment. With Le Juif errant Sue had become a “political” writer, a representative of the people—at least in his writing. In that same year Sue again left Paris for the countryside, establishing himself in the town of Bordes. Here, he wrote several more novels, including Les Mystères du peuple, a history of the proletariat throughout the ages.
Sue welcomed the revolution of 1848 and supported the effort toward democracy and socialism by editing a paper devoted to republican propagandizing, Le Républicain des campagnes. This was followed by a brochure, Le Berger de Kravan. Distributed by the Fourierists, it sought to convince the rural populace of the dangers of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte’s candidacy for the presidency. After Louis-Napoléon’s election, the left proposed Sue as a candidate for a vacant seat in the assembly as deputy from the Seine. Although Sue himself wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about becoming a politician, he agreed and, on the strength of his name, was easily elected. Sue, however, made no lasting mark on French politics and proved to be a feckless and fairly incompetent politician, remaining mostly silent throughout the duration of his tenure.
After Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 1851, Sue was forced into exile along with other elected officials after refusing to dissolve the parliament. He withdrew to Annecy in the Savoy, where he continued to write. Depressed and exhausted, he died there in 1857.
His complete works, depending on the edition, run to 78 volumes.