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The Quai de la Seine is a broad road, connecting the Rue de Flandres with the canal de l'Ourcq. On the left-hand side it is bordered with miserable shanties interspersed with some tiny shops, and several huge coal depots. On the right-hand side--that next to the canal--there are also a few provision stores. In the daytime there is no noisier nor livelier place than this same Quai; but nothing could be more gloomy at night-time when the shops are closed, when the few gas-lamps only increase the grimness of the shadows, and when the only sound that breaks the silence is the rippling of the water as its smooth surface is ruffled by some boatman propelling his skiff through the canal.
"The Viscount must certainly have made a mistake," thought Chupin; "there is no such shop on the Quai." He was wrong, however; for after passing the Rue de Soissons he espied the red lantern of a tobacco-shop, glimmering through the fog.
Having almost reached the goal, Chupin slackened his pace. He approached the shop very cautiously and peered inside, deeming it prudent to reconnoitre a little before he went in. And certainly there was nothing to prevent a prolonged scrutiny. The night was very dark, the quay deserted. No one was to be seen; not a sound broke the stillness. The darkness, the surroundings, and the silence were sinister enough to make even Chupin shudder, though he was usually as thoroughly at home in the loneliest and most dangerous by-ways of Paris as an honest man of the middle classes would be in the different apartments of his modest household. "That scoundrel's wife must have less than a hundred thousand a year if she takes up her abode here!" thought Chupin.
And, in fact, nothing could be more repulsive than the tenement in which Madame Paul had installed herself. It was but one story high, and built of clay, and it had fallen to ruin to such an extent that it had been found necessary to prop it up with timber, and to nail some old boards over the yawning fissures in the walls. "If I lived here, I certainly shouldn't feel quite at ease on a windy day," continued Chupin, sotto voce.
The shop itself was of a fair size, but most wretched in its appointments, and disgustingly dirty. The floor was covered with that black and glutinous coal-dust which forms the soil of the Quai de la Seine. An auctioneer would have sold the entire stock and fixtures for a few shillings. Four stone jars, and a couple of pairs of scales, a few odd tumblers, filled with pipes and packets of cigarettes, some wine-glasses, and three or four labelled bottles, five or six boxes of cigars, and as many packages of musty tobacco, constituted the entire stock in trade.
As Chupin compared this vile den with the viscount's luxurious abode, his blood fairly boiled in his veins. "He ought to be shot for this, if for nothing else," he muttered through his set teeth. "To let his wife die of starvation here!" For it was M. de Coralth's wife who kept this shop. Chupin, who had seen her years before, recognized her now as she sat behind her counter, although she was cruelly changed. "That's her," he murmured. "That's certainly Mademoiselle Flavie."
He had used her maiden name in speaking of her. Poor woman! She was undoubtedly still young--but sorrow, regret, and privations, days spent in hard work to earn a miserable subsistence, and nights spent in weeping, had made her old, haggard, and wrinkled before her time. Of her once remarkable beauty naught remained but her hair, which was still magnificent, though it was in wild disorder, and looked as if it had not been touched by a comb for weeks; and her big black eyes, which gleamed with the phosphorescent and destructive brilliancy of fever. Everything about her person bespoke terrible reverses, borne without dignity. Even if she had struggled at first, it was easy to see that she struggled no longer. Her attire--her torn and soiled silk dress, and her dirty cap--revealed thorough indolence, and that morbid indifference which at times follows great misfortunes with weak natures.
"Such is life," thought Chupin, philosophically. "Here's a girl who was brought up like a queen and allowed to have her own way in everything! If any one had predicted this in those days, how she would have sneered! I can see her now as she looked that day when I met her driving her gray ponies. If people didn't clear the road it was so much the worse for them! In those times Paris was like some great shop where she could select whatever she chose. She said: 'I want this,' and she got it. She saw a handsome young fellow and wanted him for her husband; her father, who could refuse her nothing, consented, and now behold the result!"
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