InSerial: The Mysteries of Paris, Part Eighteen

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Earlier chapters of The Mysteries of Paris can be found in the Fiction section of The Brooklyn Rail, where they were serialized in seventeen parts from September 2018 to May 2020.


Translator’s Note

Eugène Sue owed his immense popularity to the series of sensational novels of Parisian low life 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. It provided readers with an examination of working-class and criminal Paris that no novel had until then portrayed. With its portraits of prostitutes, criminals, and villains of all stripes, who speak in their own language and move about in their own milieu, the book caused a scandal upon its release. Unlike his contemporaries, Sue abandoned the drawing rooms of the beau monde for the dive bars and cabarets of central Paris, the 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 the French aristocracy. Sue upset the codes of contemporary action 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 unknown in French fiction, Sue’s brand of insistent realism was more in keeping with the methods of a social worker or journalist. His gritty depictions of the poor and the criminal classes eschew 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 good-natured 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. Elements of the socialist press took Sue at his word, however, and championed the book as a denunciation of poverty and a plea in favor of the common man, those who were referred to as les classes populaires.

Sue’s characters are types–the abandoned girl forced into prostitution, the ex-convict who is expert with a knife, thugs and thieves, and 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–but they are drawn from life. They speak, in part, the language of their world, and Sue’s Mysteries incorporates the mid-nineteenth century argot of the criminal underworld 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 high life and low that made the book such a success upon publication. That, and the fact that it spoke directly to the “people,” depicting 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 June 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 Journal des débats 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 stratum 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 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 following chapters are taken from Part 2 of The Mysteries of Paris. In Part 1 we were introduced to several of the book’s leading characters: Rodolphe (the Prince of Gerolstein, acting incognito as a common laborer), La Goualeuese (an orphaned young woman rescued by Rodolphe), the ex-convict Chourineur, the Schoolmaster (a criminal mastermind) and his companion, Finette, David and Cecily. At the end of Part 1, Rodolphe has paid La Goualeuse’s debts to the Abbess, owner of a local dive bar for whom the young woman is forced to work, and taken her to a farm outside Paris run by one Madame Georges, who agrees to watch over the young woman as if she were her own daughter. Rodolphe returns to Paris to settle matters with the Schoolmaster once and for all and to offer Chourineur an opportunity to lead a life outside the confines of the criminal underworld. In a scene of unqualified revenge, Rodolphe has his personal physician, David, a former slave on an American plantation in Florida whose freedom Rodolphe has bought, blind the Schoolmaster to ensure he will never commit another crime. After leaving him with sufficient money to enable him to obtain food and lodging for the future, he sends him off into the night.

Part 2 begins with Rodolphe’s offer to set Chourineur up in business for himself as recompense for changing his ways and coming to his aid. Rodolphe entrusts his private secretary, Sir Walter Murph, and the Baron de Graün, a member of the court of Gerolstein, with obtaining information about the birth of La Goualeuse and the whereabouts of a young man by the name of François Germain, the Schoolmaster’s son. We are introduced to the Marquis d’Harville, an old friend of Rodolphe’s, to whom, it turns out, Madame Georges is related. A brief history of David and Cecily and their escape to France with Rodolphe is given. The installment presented here, chapter 8, takes us to the house on the Rue du Temple, where Rodolphe rents a room as a base of operations from which he can continue his search for François Germain.

– Robert Bononno

8. The House on the Rue du Temple

To make use of the information that Baron de Graün had gathered concerning Goualeuse and Germain, Rodolphe had first to go to the Rue du Temple and visit Jacques Ferrand, the notary. Having located Ferrand, he would obtain further details from Madame Séraphin about Fleur-de-Marie’s family. He would also need to question Mademoiselle Rigolette to find out where the young man had gone, a matter of some difficulty considering that it was in the boy’s interest to tell no one of his current whereabouts. By renting the room formerly occupied by Germain on the Rue du Temple, Rodolphe considerably simplified his search. Once there he began to observe the various classes of people who occupied the house.

About three o’clock on a drab winter afternoon, the very day of his interview with Baron de Graün, Rodolphe went to the Rue du Temple. Located in the center of a populous commercial neighborhood, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the house. The ground floor was occupied by a dram seller, above that were four floors and an attic story. A dark, narrow alleyway led to a small courtyard. This was more like a square shaft five or six feet in width, completely deprived of air or light, a receptacle befouled with all the building’s detritus, which rained down from the upper floors, where glassless dormers were placed directly above the lead wastewater pots kept on the landings. At the foot of a damp, dark staircase, a reddish glow indicated the porter’s apartment. The room was filled with smoke from the combustion of a lamp, which had to be kept lit even at midday to illuminate the dark cave into which we shall follow Rodolphe, who was dressed somewhat like an ordinary clerk. He wore a paletot of indeterminate color, a crumpled hat, a red neckcloth, an umbrella, and immense jointed clogs. To complete the illusion, Rodolphe held a large roll of carefully wrapped fabric under his arm.

He entered the lodge to ask if he might see the vacant room. An Argand lamp behind a glass globe filled with water that served as a reflector illuminated the room. Against the rear wall was a bed covered with a patchwork quilt, sewn from a multitude of pieces of fabric of all types and colors; on the left a walnut dresser with a marble top, and upon this top were: a small, wax Saint John, with his white sheep and blond wig, standing in a glass cage decorated with stars, whose cracks had been ingeniously repaired with strips of blue paper; two candelabras of old plated metal that had rusted over time and which held, in place of candles, decorative oranges that had probably been given to the porter’s wife as a New Year’s gift; two boxes, one made of multicolored wicker, the other covered in small shells, the two handicraft boxes being very similar to those generally made by prisoners. (For the sake of the porter’s morality, let us hope the gift is not a sign of its author’s esteem.)

Between the two boxes, and beneath the globe of a clock, was a pair of miniature Hessian boots of red Morocco leather, small enough to fit a doll but beautifully and carefully stitched, with perforated accents and pinked edges. This “masterpiece,” as the artisans of old would say, combined with a foul odor of rancid leather and fantastic arabesques drawn upon the walls, together with countless numbers of old shoes, provided sufficient evidence to deduce that the porter had once worked upon the new before descending to the repair of old shoes.

When Rodolphe advanced into the lodge, Monsieur Pipelet, the porter, momentarily absent, was represented by Madame Pipelet. The woman, standing near a cast-iron pot in the center of the lodge, appeared to be listening with great purpose to the sounds of her kettle (as the object is commonly known).

Henri Monnier, the French Hogarth, has provided us with such an admirable stereotype of the porter’s wife that we ask the reader, should he desire a description of Madame Pipelet, to call to mind the most repulsive, wrinkled, carbuncled, sordid, shabby, irascible, rancorous of women immortalized by this eminent artist.

The only feature we would add to this ideal–an image marvelous in its veracity–would be a bizarre coiffure consisting primarily of a cropped wig, commonly known as a perruque à la Titus. Originally blonde, it had been altered by time with a quantity of red, yellow, brown and beige tones, which decorated, so to speak, an inextricable confusion of locks: hardened, stiff, upright, and entangled. It was a singular and ever-present ornament, which Madame Pipelet never removed from her sexagenarian head.

Seeing Rodolphe, Madame Pipelet, in a rough voice, uttered these sacramental words: “Where are you going?”

“Madame, I believe there’s a room with a bath for rent in this house,” asked Rodolphe, emphasizing the word “Madame,” which was more than run-of-the-mill flattery to Madame Pipelet’s ears. Her response was somewhat less sharp:

“There’s a room for rent on the fourth floor, but you can’t see it. Alfred has gone out.”

“Your son, no doubt, Madame? Will he return soon?”

“No, Monsieur, he is not my son, he’s my husband! And why shouldn’t Pipelet call himself Alfred?”

“He’s perfectly free to do so, Madame, but, if you’ll allow me, I’ll wait until he returns. I would very much like to rent the room. I find the neighborhood quite agreeable. The house as well, for it appears to be admirably well maintained. However, before seeing the room I wish to occupy, I would like to know if you, Madame, can take care of the housekeeping? As a rule I only rely on the concierge, providing they agree, of course.”

His proposal, expressed in such flattering terms–“concierge!”–completely won over Madame Pipelet.

“Why certainly, Monsieur, I’ll do your housekeeping. I’d be honored. For six francs a month you’ll be served like a prince.”

“Agreed for the six francs, Madame. Your name?”

“Pomone-Fortunée-Anastasie Pipelet.”

“Well, Madame Pipelet, I agree to the six francs a month for your wages. And if I like the room, what will it cost?”

“With the toilet, 150 francs a month, Monsieur, not a sou less. The prime tenant is a dog, a dog who could shear an egg.”

“And what is his name?”

“Bras-Rouge.”

Rodolphe shivered at the sound of the name and the memories it evoked.

“You were saying, Madame, that the prime tenant is called . . . ?”

“Monsieur Bras-Rouge.”

“And where does he live?”

“Rue aux Fèves, no. 13. He also owns a small tavern near the Champs-Elysées.”

There could no longer be any doubt, it was the same man. The coincidence seemed strange to Rodolphe.

“If Monsieur Bras-Rouge is the prime tenant, then who is the owner of the building?”

“Monsieur Bourdon, but I’ve only done business with Monsieur Bras-Rouge.”

Wishing to earn the woman’s confidence, Rodolphe resumed, “My dear Madame Pipelet, I’m a bit tired, the cold has given me a chill. Would you be so kind as to ask the barkeep who resides in the house for a small bottle of cassis and two glasses, three glasses rather, since your husband will be back soon.”

He gave the woman 100 sous.

“Oh, Monsieur, must the first words out of my mouth be words of adoration?” exclaimed the porter, whose swollen nose seemed to blossom with all the fires of bacchanalian envy.

“Yes, Madame Pipelet, I wish to be adored.”

“Fine with me, fine with me, but I’ll only bring two glasses; me and Alfred always drink from the same one. The poor dear, he is so fond of the ladies!”

“Come, Madame Pipelet, we shall wait for Alfred.”

“Oh, of course. If someone comes, can you watch the room?”

“Rest assured.”

The old woman went out. Rodolphe, now alone, reflected upon the bizarre circumstance that drew him closer to Bras-Rouge. He was surprised only by the fact that François Germain had been able to remain in the house for three months before being discovered by the Schoolmaster’s accomplices, who were in contact with Bras-Rouge. At that moment, a postman tapped on the window, stuck in his arm, and held out two letters, exclaiming, “Three sous!”

“Six, since there are two letters,” Rodolphe replied.

“One is prepaid,” said the postman.

When he had paid, Rodolphe glanced mechanically at the two letters that had been handed to him; however, they soon appeared worthy of closer examination. One of them, addressed to Madame Pipelet, exuded, through its glazed paper envelope, a strong aroma of a sachet of Spanish Leather. The red wax seal bore the initials “C.R.” surmounted by a helmet and resting upon the starry cross of the Legion of Honor. The address was written with a firm hand. The heraldic pretensions of the helmet and cross caused Rodolphe to smile and confirmed his belief that the letter was not written by a woman. But who was this musky, heraldic correspondent of . . . Madame Pipelet?

The other letter, on ordinary gray paper, closed with a sealing wafer that had been pricked with a pin, was addressed to a César Bradamanti, dentist. The writing, obviously counterfeit, consisted entirely of capital letters. Whether presentiment, fantasy, or reality, there seemed to Rodolphe to be something melancholy about the letter’s appearance.  He noted that several letters of the address had been partly obscured where the paper had been lightly soiled by a falling tear.

Madame Pipelet returned, bearing the bottle of cassis and two glasses.

“I dawdled a little, isn’t that so, Monsieur? But once inside Old Joseph’s boutique, there’s no way to get out. Oh, he’s an old devil! Would you believe that he presumed to be bold with me? A woman of my age!”

“No! Why, what if Alfred found out?”

“Not another word, please. My blood runs cold just thinking about it. Alfred is as jealous as a Bedouin; but as far as Old Joseph’s concerned, he does it for laughs; there’s nothing improper about it at all.”

“The mailman brought you these two letters.”

“Oh, good Heavens! I’m so sorry, Monsieur. Did you pay?”

“Yes.”

“That’s very good of you. I’m going to deduct it from your change, then. How much was it?”

“Three sous,” Rodolphe answered, smiling at the unusual method of payment Madame Pipelet had adopted.

“How’s that? Three sous? It’s six sous, since there are two letters.”

“I cannot abuse your confidence by asking you to deduct six sous from my change instead of three, Madame Pipelet, I cannot. One of the letters addressed to you was prepaid. And, although I don’t wish to be indiscreet, I would point out that your correspondent’s love letters smell awfully good.”

“Let’s see,” said the porter, taking the letter on glazed paper. “Why, it’s true. It appears to be a billet doux! My word, Monsieur, a billet doux! Well, well, and what rapscallion would dare?”

“And what if Alfred had been here, Madame Pipelet?”

“Not another word or I’ll faint in your arms.”

“My lips are sealed, Madame!”

“Oh, how silly of me. Why, look at me,” she exclaimed, shrugging her shoulders, “I know. I know. It’s from the Commander. Oh, what a fright I had! But let’s get on with our business. Let’s see, that’s three sous for the other letter, isn’t that right? So, let’s say, 15 sous for the cassis and three sous for delivery of the letter, that makes 18. And 18 and 2 makes 20, and four francs makes 100 sous. Neither a lender nor a borrower be, as they say.”

“And here’s 20 sous for you, Madame Pipelet. Your way of reimbursing an advance is so exceptional that I want to encourage it.”

“Twenty sous! You’re giving me 20 sous! But what for?” exclaimed Madame Pipelet in a voice that displayed both alarm and astonishment at such boundless generosity.

“Consider it my tithe to the good Lord if I take the room.”

“Well, in that case, I accept; but I’ll have to inform Alfred.”

“Certainly, but here is the other letter; it’s addressed to a Monsieur César Bradamanti.”

“Oh, yes, the dentist on the third floor. I’ll put it in the mailboot.”

Rodolphe thought he had misunderstood, but he saw Madame Pipelet gravely deposit the letter into an old grenadier boot hung on the wall. Rodolphe looked at her with surprise.

“What? You’re putting the letter . . .”

“Of course, Monsieur, I’m putting it in the mailboot. This way, nothing gets lost. When the tenants return, one of us, Alfred or me, shakes the boot, we draw out a letter, and everyone is happy.”

“Your house is so well run that I can’t wait to move in; your mailboot in particular delights me.”

“My goodness, it’s quite simple,” Madame Pipelet replied modestly. “It used to be Alfred’s old boot; may as well use it for the tenants.”

Upon which, the porter unsealed the letter addressed to her, turned it every which way, and after a brief moment of embarrassment, said to Rodolphe, “Alfred is the one in charge of the reading. I don’t know how. Would you be willing, Monsieur, to be Alfred for me?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Rodolphe, who was very curious about Madame Pipelet’s correspondent. He read the letter on its glossy paper, in the corner of which could be found the helmet, the letters “C. R.”, the heraldic base and cross of honor.

“Tomorrow, Friday, at 11, a good fire will be made in the two rooms, and the mirrors shall be cleaned, and all the covers removed, and the gilding on the furniture carefully polished. If, by chance, I haven’t arrived by the time a lady wanders by, around one o’clock, to ask for me using the name Monsieur Charles, have her brought up to the apartment and bring down the key, which shall be returned to me when I arrive.”

Notwithstanding the composition of the letter, which was hardly academic, Rodolphe knew perfectly well what it was about, and said to the porter, “Who lives on the first floor?”

The old woman brought her wrinkled yellow finger to her pendulous lip and responded with a malicious laugh, “Shhhh, it has to do with a woman.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m asking, Madame Pipelet; before taking up residence in a building, it’s helpful to know . . .”

“It’s quite simple. Tell me who you know, I’ll tell you who your friends are. Isn’t that so?”

“Quite right.”

“I can tell you what I know, but it isn’t much. About six weeks ago, an upholsterer came here, looked at the first floor, which was then for rent, asked the price, and returned the following day with a handsome young man, blond, small mustache, cross of honor, well dressed. The upholsterer called him . . . commander.”

“He’s a soldier, then?”

“Soldier!” replied Madame Pipelet, hiking her shoulders, “Please, that would be like calling Alfred the concierge.”

“How’s that?”

“He is part of the National Guard, the general staff; the upholsterer calls him commander to flatter him, the way it flatters Alfred when someone calls him the concierge. And after the commander (that’s the only name we know) had looked around, he said to the upholsterer, ‘That’s fine. I like it. Arrange it with the owner.’ The other man said ‘Yes, Commander.’ And the next day, the upholsterer signed the lease in his name, the upholsterer’s name, with Monsieur Bras-Rouge, paid him six months in advance, because it appeared that the young man does not wish to be known. Immediately after, the laborers came in to renovate the first floor. They carried in sofas, silk curtains, gilt-edged mirrors, expensive furniture–it’s as beautiful as a café along the boulevard! And there are rugs everywhere, so thick and soft you would think you were walking on an animal. When they were done, the commander returned to check the work. He said to Alfred ‘Can you take care of the apartment? I won’t be coming here often. Make a fire from time to time and prepare things for my return when I write.’ ‘Yes, Commander,’ said Alfred, that flatterer. ‘And how much would you charge?’ ‘Twenty francs a month, Commander.’ ‘Twenty francs! Come, come, you’re joking.’ And that handsome young man began to bargain like a miser, to haggle with us poor folk. Imagine, for one or two miserable hundred-sous coins, after he had gone through all that expense for an apartment he doesn’t even live in! Finally, after all that effort, we managed to get 12 francs. Twelve francs! How exasperating. A commander of two sous, that’s what! What a difference with you, Monsieur,” added the porter’s wife, addressing Rodolphe with a smile, “you don’t ask to be called ‘Commander,’ why you don’t look like anything at all, and you agreed to pay six francs right away.”

“And has the young man returned?”

“You’ll see for yourself. That’s what’s so strange. Somebody must have drugged him for sure. He has already written three times, just like today, asking me to light the fire and prepare the room, because a woman would be arriving. Well, go see for yourself if they show up!”

“No one came?”

“Well, on the first of the three occasions, when the Commander arrived he was all dressed up. He was humming a tune and preening. He waited two full hours–no one came. When he passed before the lodge, we kept an eye on him, us two Pipelets; we wanted to get a look at his face and give him a bit of a hard time. ‘Commander, nobody was here, the young lady never showed up,’ I said to him. ‘That’s quite alright, quite alright,’ he answered, looking embarrassed and extremely annoyed, and he left at once, biting his nails in anger. The second time, before he showed up, a messenger brought a letter addressed to Monsieur Charles. I suspected he was done for this time too. We were laughing to ourselves, Pipelet and me, when the Commander arrived. ‘Commander,’ I said, placing the back of my left hand on my wig like a real trooper, here’s a letter for you; it seems you’re scheduled for maneuvers again today.’ He looked at me, proud as a peacock, opened the letter, examined it, turned beet red, and said to us, pretending not to be upset, ‘I knew no one would show up. I’ve come to ask you to keep an eye on things.’ That wasn’t true, however. He wanted to hide the fact that someone had got the better of him that made him say it. And on top of that, when he left, he was swaggering this way and that way, and whistling between his teeth, but he was terribly upset. Very upset, in fact. Well done, well done, Commander two-sous! That will teach you to pay 12 francs for your housekeeping.”

“And the third time?”

“Oh! the third time I thought he was done for. The Commander was dressed to the nines; he was so satisfied and so sure of himself that his eyes were popping out of his head. A good-looking young man all the same, and well dressed, and smelling of musk. He was so puffed up, he barely touched the ground. He took the key and as he headed upstairs, looking smug and satisfied as if he were trying to get back at us for the other times, said ‘Please inform the lady that the door is just opposite.’ Now, the two of us Pipelets were so curious to see the little lady, though we didn’t really believe she would show up, that we left the lodge and positioned ourselves near the door to the alley. This time a small blue fiacre, with the shades down, stopped in front of the building. ‘Look, it’s her,’ I said to Alfred. ‘Get back from the door so we don’t scare her.’ The coachman opened the carriage door. We saw a small lady with a muff on her knees and a black veil that hid her features, not to mention the handkerchief she held to her mouth, for she looked like she had been crying. But when the coach steps were lowered, instead of stepping down, the lady said a few words to the coachman, who, quite surprised, closed the door.”

“She didn’t get out?”

“No, Monsieur. She threw herself into the back of the carriage and put her hands over her eyes. I ran forward and before the coachman could return to his seat, I said to him, ‘One moment there driver, are you going back?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And where is that?’ I asked him. ‘Back to where I came from.’ ‘And where did you come from?’ ‘Rue Saint-Dominique, at the corner of Rue Belle-Chasse.’”

Rodolphe shuddered when he heard the words. The Marquis d’Harville, one of his best friends, who had for some time now been overcome by melancholy, had an apartment on Rue Saint-Dominique and the corner of Rue Belle-Chasse. Was it the Marquise d’Harville who had been risking her reputation? Did her husband suspect her of something? And was her behavior the only reason for the sorrow that appeared to devour him? A mass of doubts filled Rodolphe’s thoughts. He was familiar with the marquise’s circle of friends, however, and could not recall anyone who resembled the Commander. After all, the young woman in question may have taken a fiacre at that location without residing on the street; nothing proved she was the marquise. Nevertheless, he was unable to shake off his doubts. His air of self-absorbed consternation did not escape the porter’s notice.

“Well, Monsieur, what’s on your mind?”

“I’m wondering why the woman came all the way here and then suddenly changed her mind.”

“Who knows, some feeling, some fear or superstition. We women are so weak, so cowardly,” said the awful woman, looking simultaneously timid and alarmed. “It seems to me that if I had been like that, doing things behind Alfred’s back, I would have had to gather my strength I don’t know how many times. Oh, but never, I would never! The poor dear! There isn’t a soul on Earth who could boast of . . .”

“I believe you, Madame Pipelet. But the woman?”

“I don’t know if she was young, you couldn’t see the tip of her nose. And she left just as she came, without fanfare. Even if someone had given us, Alfred and me, ten francs we couldn’t have been more content.”

“Why is that?”

“Thinking about the expression on the Commander’s face, it would have been enough to make you die laughing. Why, instead of telling him right away that the woman had left, we let him steep in his own juices for a good long hour. Then I went upstairs. I was wearing my wool slippers on my poor feet. I get to the door, just opposite the landing. I push the door, which creaks loudly. The stairwell was as dark as an oven, the entrance to the apartment as well. Just as I enter, the Commander grabs me in his arms and says in a soft voice, ‘My dear, my angel, you’ve come so late!’”

In spite of the gravity of his thoughts, Rodolphe was unable to suppress a laugh, especially when he stopped to consider the grotesque wig and wrinkled, bloated face of the heroine of that ridiculous adventure. Madame Pipelet continued with a broad laugh, which made her even more hideous.

“Well, that’s a good one! But wait. I didn’t say a word, I held my breath and gave myself to the Commander. But suddenly he cried out and shoved me away from him–the brute–with an air of disgust, as if he had lay down beside a spider, ‘Who the devil are you?’ ‘It’s me, Commander, Madame Pipelet, the porter, so you’d better calm down and take your hands off my waist, and don’t call me your little angel or tell me I’ve come too late. What if Alfred had been here?’ ‘What do you want?’ he said to me in a rage. ‘Commander, the young lady has just arrived in a fiacre.’ ‘Well, show her up. How stupid can you be, didn’t I tell you to have her come up?’ I let him go on. ‘Yes, Commander, it’s true, you told me to show her up.’ ‘Well?’ ‘It’s just that the young lady . . .’ ‘Well, out with it!’ ‘The young lady went away.’ ‘So you must have said or done something stupid,’ he shouted, even angrier than before. ‘No, Commander, the young lady didn’t get out of the fiacre. When the coachman opened the door, she told him to take her back where she had come from.’ ‘The carriage can’t be very far then!’ shouted the Commander, and he rushed toward the door. ‘But she left over an hour ago,’ I said. ‘An hour! An hour! And why did you wait so long to tell me?’ he shouted, apoplectic with rage. ‘We were afraid you would be upset at not getting your money’s worth this time.’ There, I said to myself, you little fop, that’ll teach you to gag when you touch me. ‘Get out! You’re only capable of stupidity,’ he screamed, undoing his “Tartar” bathrobe and throwing his embroidered velvet smoking cap on the ground. A fine cap all the same. And the bathrobe! what a sight; the Commander looked like a shiny worm.”

“And since then neither one of them has returned?”

“No, but wait till I tell you the rest of the story,” said Madame Pipelet.

Bios

Eugène Sue

Eugène Sue (1804–1857) was born near the city of Cannes in southern France and came from a distinguished family of doctors. Like his father, Sue studied medicine. He began his career as a naval doctor but retired in 1829 to write. In 1842, he began writing Les Mystères de Paris, a novel in parts published serially in Le Journal des débats. It was the first novel to expose readers to the social agitation and mixing of classes experienced in the bars and cabarets of Paris’s dense core on Ile de la Cité. His complete works, depending on the edition, run to 78 volumes.

Robert Bononno

Robert Bononno is credited with the translation of over two dozen full-length works of fiction and nonfiction, and numerous shorter pieces. These include René Crevel’s My Body and I, a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation Prize, Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymow’s Swan’s Way. In 2002, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete a translation of the nonfiction work of Isabelle Eberhardt, and in 2010, he received an NEA grant for the retranslation of Eugène Sue’s classic crime novel, The Mysteries of Paris. Mr. Bononno’s latest translation, Pascal Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father, was published by Bellevue Literary Press.

English translation copyright (c) Robert Bononno, 2020.