At ten o'clock the next morning Nana was still asleep. She occupied the second floor of a large new house in the Boulevard Haussmann, the landlord of which let flats to single ladies in order by their means to dry the paint. A rich merchant from Moscow, who had come to pass a winter in Paris, had installed her there after paying six months' rent in advance. The rooms were too big for her and had never been completely furnished. The vulgar sumptuosity of gilded consoles and gilded chairs formed a crude contrast therein to the bric-a-brac of a secondhand furniture shop--to mahogany round tables, that is to say, and zinc candelabras, which sought to imitate Florentine bronze. All of which smacked of the courtesan too early deserted by her first serious protector and fallen back on shabby lovers, of a precarious first appearance of a bad start, handicapped by refusals of credit and threats of eviction.
Nana was sleeping on her face, hugging in her bare arms a pillow in which she was burying cheeks grown pale in sleep. The bedroom and the dressing room were the only two apartments which had been properly furnished by a neighboring upholsterer. A ray of light, gliding in under a curtain, rendered visible rosewood furniture and hangings and chairbacks of figured damask with a pattern of big blue flowers on a gray ground. But in the soft atmosphere of that slumbering chamber Nana suddenly awoke with a start, as though surprised to find an empty place at her side. She looked at the other pillow lying next to hers; there was the dint of a human head among its flounces: it was still warm. And groping with one hand, she pressed the knob of an electric bell by her bed's head.
"He's gone then?" she asked the maid who presented herself.
"Yes, madame, Monsieur Paul went away not ten minutes back. As Madame was tired, he did not wish to wake her. But he ordered me to tell Madame that he would come tomorrow."
As she spoke Zoe, the lady's maid, opened the outer shutter. A flood of daylight entered. Zoe, a dark brunette with hair in little plaits, had a long canine face, at once livid and full of seams, a snub nose, thick lips and two black eyes in continual movement.
"Tomorrow, tomorrow," repeated Nana, who was not yet wide awake, "is tomorrow the day?"
"Yes, madame, Monsieur Paul has always come on the Wednesday."
"No, now I remember," said the young woman, sitting up. "It's all changed. I wanted to tell him so this morning. He would run against the nigger! We should have a nice to-do!"
"Madame did not warn me; I couldn't be aware of it," murmured Zoe. "When Madame changes her days she will do well to tell me so that I may know. Then the old miser is no longer due on the Tuesday?"
Between themselves they were wont thus gravely to nickname as "old miser" and "nigger" their two paying visitors, one of whom was a tradesman of economical tendencies from the Faubourg Saint-Denis, while the other was a Walachian, a mock count, whose money, paid always at the most irregular intervals, never looked as though it had been honestly come by. Daguenet had made Nana give him the days subsequent to the old miser's visits, and as the trader had to be at home by eight o'clock in the morning, the young man would watch for his departure from Zoes kitchen and would take his place, which was still quite warm, till ten o'clock. Then he, too, would go about his business. Nana and he were wont to think it a very comfortable arrangement.
"So much the worse," said Nana; "I'll write to him this afternoon. And if he doesn't receive my letter, then tomorrow you will stop him coming in."
In the meantime Zoe was walking softly about the room. She spoke of yesterday's great hit. Madame had shown such talent; she sang so well! Ah! Madame need not fret at all now!
Nana, her elbow dug into her pillow, only tossed her head in reply. Her nightdress had slipped down on her shoulders, and her hair, unfastened and entangled, flowed over them in masses.
"Without doubt," she murmured, becoming thoughtful; "but what's to be done to gain time? I'm going to have all sorts of bothers today. Now let's see, has the porter come upstairs yet this morning?"
Then both the women talked together seriously. Nana owed three quarters' rent; the landlord was talking of seizing the furniture. Then, too, there was a perfect downpour of creditors; there was a livery-stable man, a needlewoman, a ladies' tailor, a charcoal dealer and others besides, who came every day and settled themselves on a bench in the little hall. The charcoal dealer especially was a dreadful fellow--he shouted on the staircase. But Nana's greatest cause of distress was her little Louis, a child she had given birth to when she was sixteen and now left in charge of a nurse in a village in the neighborhood of Rambouillet. This woman was clamoring for the sum of three hundred francs before she would consent to give the little Louis back to her. Nana, since her last visit to the child, had been seized with a fit of maternal love and was desperate at the thought that she could not realize a project, which had now become a hobby with her. This was to pay off the nurse and to place the little man with his aunt, Mme Lerat, at the Batignolles, whither she could go and see him as often as she liked.
Meanwhile the lady's maid kept hinting that her mistress ought to have confided her necessities to the old miser.
"To be sure, I told him everything," cried Nana, "and he told me in answer that he had too many big liabilities. He won't go beyond his thousand francs a month. The nigger's beggared just at present; I expect he's lost at play. As to that poor Mimi, he stands in great need of a loan himself; a fall in stocks has cleaned him out--he can't even bring me flowers now."
She was speaking of Daguenet. In the self-abandonment of her awakening she had no secrets from Zoe, and the latter, inured to such confidences, received them with respeciful sympathy. Since Madame condescended to speak to her of her affairs she would permit herself to say what she thought. Besides, she was very fond of Madame; she had left Mme Blanche for the express purpose of taking service with her, and heaven knew Mme Blanche was straining every nerve to have her again! Situations weren't lacking; she was pretty well known, but she would have stayed with Madame even in narrow circumstances, because she believed in Madame's future. And she concluded by stating her advice with precision. When one was young one often did silly things. But this time it was one's duty to look alive, for the men only thought of having their fun. Oh dear, yes! Things would right themselves. Madame had only to say one word in order to quiet her creditors and find the money she stood in need of.
"All that doesn't help me to three hundred francs," Nana kept repeating as she plunged her fingers into the vagrant convolutions of her back hair. "I must have three hundred francs today, at once! It's stupid not to know anyone who'll give you three hundred francs."
She racked her brains. She would have sent Mme Lerat, whom she was expecting that very morning, to Rambouillet. The counteraction of her sudden fancy spoiled for her the triumph of last night. Among all those men who had cheered her, to think that there wasn't one to bring her fifteen louis! And then one couldn't accept money in that way! Dear heaven, how unfortunate she was! And she kept harking back again to the subject of her baby--he had blue eyes like a cherub's; he could lisp "Mamma" in such a funny voice that you were ready to die of laughing!
But at this moment the electric bell at the outer door was heard to ring with its quick and tremulous vibration. Zoe returned, murmuring with a confidential air:
"It's a woman."
She had seen this woman a score of times, only she made believe never to recognize her and to be quite ignorant of the nature of her relations with ladies in difficulties.
"She has told me her name--Madame Tricon."
"The Tricon," cried Nana. "Dear me! That's true. I'd forgotten her. Show her in."
Zoe ushered in a tall old lady who wore ringlets and looked like a countess who haunts lawyers' offices. Then she effaced herself, disappearing noiselessly with the lithe, serpentine movement wherewith she was wont to withdraw from a room on the arrival of a gentleman. However, she might have stayed. The Tricon did not even sit down. Only a brief exchange of words took place.
"I have someone for you today. Do you care about it?"
"Yes. How much?"
"At what o'clock?"
"At three. It's settled then?"
Straightway the Tricon talked of the state of the weather. It was dry weather, pleasant for walking. She had still four or five persons to see. And she took her departure after consulting a small memorandum book. When she was once more alone Nana appeared comforted. A slight shiver agitated her shoulders, and she wrapped herself softly up again in her warm bedclothes with the lazy movements of a cat who is susceptible to cold. Little by little her eyes closed, and she lay smiling at the thought of dressing Louiset prettily on the following day, while in the slumber into which she once more sank last night's long, feverish dream of endlessly rolling applause returned like a sustained accompaniment to music and gently soothed her lassitude.
At eleven o'clock, when Zoe showed Mme Lerat into the room, Nana was still asleep. But she woke at the noise and cried out at once:
"It's you. You'll go to Rambouillet today?"
"That's what I've come for," said the aunt. "There's a train at twenty past twelve. I've got time to catch it."
"No, I shall only have the money by and by," replied the young woman, stretching herself and throwing out her bosom. "You'll have lunch, and then we'll see."
Zoe brought a dressing jacket.
"The hairdresser's here, madame," she murmured.
But Nana did not wish to go into the dressing room. And she herself cried out:
"Come in, Francis."
A well-dressed man pushed open the door and bowed. Just at that moment Nana was getting out of bed, her bare legs in full view. But she did not hurry and stretched her hands out so as to let Zoe draw on the sleeves of the dressing jacket. Francis, on his part, was quite at his ease and without turning away waited with a sober expression on his face.
"Perhaps Madame has not seen the papers. There's a very nice article in the Figaro."
He had brought the journal. Mme Lerat put on her spectacles and read the article aloud, standing in front of the window as she did so. She had the build of a policeman, and she drew herself up to her full height, while her nostrils seemed to compress themselves whenever she uttered a gallant epithet. It was a notice by Fauchery, written just after the performance, and it consisted of a couple of very glowing columns, full of witty sarcasm about the artist and of broad admiration for the woman.
"Excellent!" Francis kept repeating.
Nana laughed good-humoredly at his chaffing her about her voice! He was a nice fellow, was that Fauchery, and she would repay him for his charming style of writing. Mme Lerat, after having reread the notice, roundly declared that the men all had the devil in their shanks, and she refused to explain her self further, being fully satisfied with a brisk allusion of which she alone knew the meaning her in an income of six hundred francs a year. Nana promised to rent some pretty little lodgings for her and to give her a hundred francs a month besides. At the mention of this sum the aunt forgot herself and shrieked to her niece, bidding her squeeze their throats, since she had them in her grasp. She was meaning the men, of course. Then they both embraced again, but i. Francis finished turning up and fastening Nana's hair. He bowed and said:
"I'll keep my eye on the evening papers. At half-past five as usual, eh?"
"Bring me a pot of pomade and a pound of burnt almonds from Boissier's," Nana cried to him across the drawing room just as he was shutting the door after him.
Then the two women, once more alone, recollected that they had not embraced, and they planted big kisses on each other's cheeks. The notice warmed their hearts. Nana, who up till now had been half asleep, was again seized with the fever of her triumph. Dear, dear, 'twas Rose Mignon that would be spending a pleasant morning! Her aunt having been unwilling to go to the theater because, as she averred, sudden emotions ruined her stomach, Nana set herself to describe the events of the evening and grew intoxicated at her own recital, as though all Paris had been shaken to the ground by the applause. Then suddenly interrupting herself, she asked with a laugh if one would ever have imagined it all when she used to go traipsing about the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or. Mme Lerat shook her head. No, no, one never could have foreseen it! And she began talking in her turn, assuming a serious air as she did so and calling Nana "daughter." Wasn't she a second mother to her since the first had gone to rejoin Papa and Grandmamma? Nana was greatly softened and on the verge of tears. But Mme Lerat declared that the past was the past--oh yes, to be sure, a dirty past with things in it which it was as well not to stir up every day. She had left off seeing her niece for a long time because among the family she was accused of ruining herself along with the little thing. Good God, as though that were possible! She didn't ask for confidences; she believed that Nana had always lived decently, and now it was enough for her to have found her again in a fine position and to observe her kind feelings toward her son. Virtue and hard work were still the only things worth anything in this world.
"Who is the baby's father?" she said, interrupting herself, her eyes lit up with an exhad crossed two knives on the table in front of her. Notwithstanding this, the young woman defended herself from the charge of superstition. Thus, if the salt were upset, it meant nothing, even on a Friday; but when it came to knives, that was too much of a good thing; that had never proved fallacious. There could be no doubt that something unpleasant was going to happen to her. She yawned, and then with an air, of profound boredom:
"Two o'clock already. I must go out. What a nuisance!"
The two old ladies looked at one another. The three women shook their heads without speaking. To be sure, life was not always amusing. Nana had tilted her chair back anew and lit a cigarette, while the others sat pursing up their lips discreetly, thinking deeply philosophic thoughts.
"While waiting for you to return we'll play a game of bezique," said Mme Maloir after a short silence. "Does Madame play bezique?"
Certainly Mme Lerat played it, and that to perfection. It was no good troubling Zoe, who had vanished--a corner of the table would do quite well. And they pushepression of acute curiosity.
Nana was taken by surprise and hesitated a moment.
"A gentleman," she replied.
"There now!" rejoined the aunt. "They declared that you had him by a stonemason who was in the habit of beating you. Indeed, you shall tell me all about it someday; you know I'm discreet! Tut, tut, I'll look after him as though he were a prince's son."
She had retired from business as a florist and was living on her savings, which she had got together sou by sou, till now they broughtn the midst of her rejoicing Nana's face, as she led the talk back to the subject of Louiset, seemed to be overshadowed by a sudden recollection.
"Isn't it a bore I've got to go out at three o'clock?" she muttered. "It is a nuisance!"
Just then Zoe came in to say that lunch was on the table. They went into the dining room, where an old lady was already seated at table. She had not taken her hat off, and she wore a dark dress of an indecisive color midway between puce and goose dripping. Nana did not seem surprised at sight of her. She simply asked her why she hadn't come into the bedroom.
"I heard voices," replied the old lady. "I thought you had company."
Mme Maloir, a respectable-looking and mannerly woman, was Nana's old friend, chaperon and companion. Mme Lerat's presence seemed to fidget her at first. Afterward, when she became aware that it was Nana's aunt, she looked at her with a sweet expression and a die- away smile. In the meantime Nana, who averred that she was as hungry as a wolf, threw herself on the radishes and gobbled them up without bread. Mme Lerat had become ceremonious; she refused the radishes as provocative of phlegm. By and by when Zoe had brought in the cutlets Nana just chipped the meat and contented herself with sucking the bones. Now and again she scrutinized her old friend's hat out of the corners of her eyes.
"It's the new hat I gave you?" she ended by saying.
"Yes, I made it up," murmured Mme Maloir, her mouth full of meat.
The hat was smart to distraction. In front it was greatly exaggerated, and it was adorned with a lofty feather. Mme Maloir had a mania for doing up all her hats afresh; she alone knew what really became her, and with a few stitches she could manufacture a toque out of the most elegant headgear. Nana, who had bought her this very hat in order not to be ashamed of her when in her company out of doors, was very near being vexed.
"Push it up, at any rate," she cried.
"No, thank you," replied the old lady with dignity. "It doesn't get in my way; I can eat very comfortably as it is."
After the cutlets came cauliflowers and the remains of a cold chicken. But at the arrival of each successive dish Nana made a little face, hesitated, sniffed and left her plateful untouched. She finished her lunch with the help of preserve.
Dessert took a long time. Zoe did not remove the cloth before serving the coffee. Indeed, the ladies simply pushed back their plates before taking it. They talked continually of yesterday's charming evening. Nana kept rolling cigarettes, which she smoked, swinging up and down on her backward-tilted chair. And as Zoe had remained behind and was lounging idly against the sideboard, it came about that the company were favored with her history. She said she was the daughter of a midwife at Bercy who had failed in business. First of all she had taken service with a dentist and after that with an insurance agent, but neither place suited her, and she thereupon enumerated, not without a certain amount of pride, the names of the ladies with whom she had served as lady's maid. Zoe spoke of these ladies as one who had had the making of their fortunes. It was very certain that without her more than one would have had some queer tales to tell. Thus one day, when Mme Blanche was with M. Octave, in came the old gentleman. What did Zoe do? She made believe to tumble as she crossed the drawing room; the old boy rushed up to her assistance, flew to the kitchen to fetch her a glass of water, and M. Octave slipped away.
"Oh, she's a good girl, you bet!" said Nana, who was listening to her with tender interest and a sort of submissive admiration.
"Now I've had my troubles," began Mme Lerat. And edging up to Mme Maloir, she imparted to her certain confidential confessions. Both ladies took lumps of sugar dipped in cognac and sucked them. But Mme Maloir was wont to listen to other people's secrets without even confessing anything concerning herself. People said that she lived on a mysterious allowance in a room whither no one ever penetrated.
All of a sudden Nana grew excited.
"Don't play with the knives, Aunt. You know it gives me a turn!"
Without thinking about it Mme Lerat d back the tablecloth over the dirty plates. But as Mme Maloir was herself going to take the cards out of a drawer in the sideboard, Nana remarked that before she sat down to her game it would be very nice of her if she would write her a letter. It bored Nana to write letters; besides, she was not sure of her spelling, while her old friend could turn out the most feeling epistles. She ran to fetch some good note paper in her bedroom. An inkstand consisting of a bottle of ink worth about three sous stood untidily on one of the pieces of furniture, with a pen deep in rust beside it. The letter was for Daguenet. Mme Maloir herself wrote in her bold English hand, "My darling little man," and then she told him not to come tomorrow because "that could not be" but hastened to add that "she was with him in thought at every moment of the day, whether she were near or far away."
"And I end with 'a thousand kisses,'" she murmured.
Mme Lerat had shown her approval of each phrase with an emphatic nod. Her eyes were sparkling; she loved to find herself in the midst of love affairs. Nay, she was seized with a desire to add some words of her own and, assuming a tender look and cooing like a dove, she suggested:
"A thousand kisses on thy beautiful eyes."
"That's the thing: 'a thousand kisses on thy beautiful eyes'!" Nana repeated, while the two old ladies assumed a beatified expression.
Zoe was rung for and told to take the letter down to a commissionaire. She had just been talking with the theater messenger, who had brought her mistress the day's playbill and rehearsal arrangements, which he had forgotten in the morning. Nana had this individual ushered in and got him to take the latter to Daguenet on his return. Then she put questions to him. Oh yes! M. Bordenave was very pleased; people had already taken seats for a week to come; Madame had no idea of the number of people who had been asking her address since morning. When the man had taken his departure Nana announced that at most she would only be out half an hour. If there were any visitors Zoe would make them wait. As she spoke the electric bell sounded. It was a creditor in the shape of the man of whom she jobbed her carriages. He had settled himself on the bench in the anteroom, and the fellow was free to twiddle his thumbs till night--there wasn't the least hurry now.
"Come, buck up!" said Nana, still torpid with laziness and yawning and stretching afresh. "I ought to be there now!"
Yet she did not budge but kept watching the play of her aunt, who had just announced four aces. Chin on hand, she grew quite engrossed in it but gave a violent start on hearing three o'clock strike.
"Good God!" she cried roughly.
Then Mme Maloir, who was counting the tricks she had won with her tens and aces, said cheeringly to her in her soft voice:
"It would be better, dearie, to give up your expedition at once."
"No, be quick about it," said Mme Lerat, shuffling the cards. "I shall take the half-past four o'clock train if you're back here with the money before four o'clock."
"Oh, there'll be no time lost," she murmured.
Ten minutes after Zoe helped her on with a dress and a hat. It didn't matter much if she were badly turned out. Just as she was about to go downstairs there was a new ring at the bell. This time it was the charcoal dealer. Very well, he might keep the livery- stable keeper company--it would amuse the fellows. Only, as she dreaded a scene, she crossed the kitchen and made her escape by the back stairs. She often went that way and in return had only to lift up her flounces.
"When one is a good mother anything's excusable," said Mme Maloir sententiously when left alone with Mme Lerat.
"Four kings," replied this lady, whom the play greatly excited.
And they both plunged into an interminable game.
The table had not been cleared. The smell of lunch and the cigarette smoke filled the room with an ambient, steamy vapor. The two ladies had again set to work dipping lumps of sugar in brandy and sucking the same. For twenty minutes at least they played and sucked simultaneously when, the electric bell having rung a third time, Zoe bustled into the room and roughly disturbed them, just as if they had been her own friends.
"Look here, that's another ring. You can't stay where you are. If many foiks call I must have the whole flat. Now off you go, off you go!"
Mme Maloir was for finishing the game, but Zoe looked as if she was going to pounce down on the cards, and so she decided to carry them off without in any way altering their positions, while Mme Lerat undertook the removal of the brandy bottle, the glasses and the sugar. Then they both scudded to the kitchen, where they installed themselves at the table in an empty space between the dishcloths, which were spread out to dry, and the bowl still full of dishwater.
"We said it was three hundred and forty. It's your turn."
"I play hearts."
When Zoe returned she found them once again absorbed. After a silence, as Mme Lerat was shuffling, Mme Maloir asked who it was.
"Oh, nobody to speak of," replied the servant carelessly; "a slip of a lad! I wanted to send him away again, but he's such a pretty boy with never a hair on his chin and blue eyes and a girl's face! So I told him to wait after all. He's got an enormous bouquet in his hand, which he never once consented to put down. One would like to catch him one--a brat like that who ought to be at school still!"
Mme Lerat went to fetch a water bottle to mix herself some brandy and water, the lumps of sugar having rendered her thirsty. Zoe muttered something to the effect that she really didn't mind if she drank something too. Her mouth, she averred, was as bitter as gall.
"So you put him--?" continued Mme Maloir.
"Oh yes, I put him in the closet at the end of the room, the little unfurnished one. There's only one of my lady's trunks there and a table. It's there I stow the lubbers."
And she was putting plenty of sugar in her grog when the electric bell made her jump. Oh, drat it all! Wouldn't they let her have a drink in peace? If they were to have a peal of bells things promised well. Nevertheless, she ran off to open the door. Returning presently, she saw Mme Maloir questioning her with a glance.
"It's nothing," she said, "only a bouquet."
All three refreshed themselves, nodding to each other in token of salutation. Then while Zoe was at length busy clearing the table, bringing the plates out one by one and putting them in the sink, two other rings followed close upon one another. But they weren't serious, for while keeping the kitchen informed of what was going on she twice repeated her disdainful expression:
"Nothing, only a bouquet."
Notwithstanding which, the old ladies laughed between two of their tricks when they heard her describe the looks of the creditors in the anteroom after the flowers had arrived. Madame would find her bouquets on her toilet table. What a pity it was they cost such a lot and that you could only get ten sous for them! Oh dear, yes, plenty of money was wasted!
"For my part," said Mme Maloir, "I should be quite content if every day of my life I got what the men in Paris had spent on flowers for the women."
"Now, you know, you're not hard to please," murmured Mme Lerat. "Why, one would have only just enough to buy thread with. Four queens, my dear."
It was ten minutes to four. Zoe was astonished, could not understand why her mistress was out so long. Ordinarily when Madame found herself obliged to go out in the afternoons she got it over in double-quick time. But Mme Maloir declared that one didn't always manage things as one wished. Truly, life was beset with obstacles, averred Mme Lerat. The best course was to wait. If her niece was long in coming it was because her occupations detained her; wasn't it so? Besides, they weren't overworked--it was comfortable in the kitchen. And as hearts were out, Mme Lerat threw down diamonds.
The bell began again her small gloved hands.
It was too late now--Mme Lerat would not go to Rambouillet till tomorrow, and Nana entered into long explanations.
"There's company waiting for you," the lady's maid repeated.
But Nana grew excited again. The company might wait: she'd go to them all in good time when she'd finished. And as her aunt began putting her hand out for the money:
"Ah no! Not all of it," she said. "Three hundred francs for the nurse, fifty for your journey and expenses, that's three hundred and fifty. Fifty francs I keep."
The big difficulty was how to find change. There were not ten francs in the house. But they did not even address themselves to Mme Maloir who, never having more than a six-sou omnibus fair upon her, was listening in quite a disinterested manner. At length Zoe went out of the room, remarking that she would go and looin, and when Zoe reappeared she was burning with excitement.
"My children, it's fat Steiner!" she said in the doorway, lowering her voice as she spoke. "I've put him in the little sitting room."
Thereupon Mme Maloir spoke about the banker to Mme Lerat, who knew no such gentleman. Was he getting ready to give Rose Mignon the go- by? Zoe shook her head; she knew a thing or two. But once more she had to go and open the door.
"Here's bothers!" she murmured when she came back. "It's the nigger! 'Twasn't any good telling him that my lady's gone out, and so he's settled himself in the bedroom. We only expected him this evening."
At a quarter past four Nana was not in yet. What could she be after? It was silly of her! Two other bouquets were brought round, and Zoe, growing bored looked to see if there were any coffee left. Yes, the ladies would willingly finish off the coffee; it would waken them up. Sitting hunched up on their chairs, they were beginning to fall asleep through dint of constantly taking their cards between their fingers with the accustomed movement. The half- hour sounded. Something must decidedly have happened to Madame. And they began whispering to each other.
Suddenly Mme Maloir forgot herself and in a ringing voice announced: "I've the five hundred! Trumps, Major Quint!"
"Oh, do be quiet!" said Zoe angrily. "What will all those gentlemen think?" And in the silence which ensued and amid the whispered muttering of the two old women at strife over their game, the sound of rapid footsteps ascended from the back stairs. It was Nana at last. Before she had opened the door her breathlessness became audible. She bounced abruptly in, looking very red in the face. Her skirt, the string of which must have been broken, was trailing over the stairs, and her flounces had just been dipped in a puddle of something unpleasant which had oozed out on the landing of the first floor, where the servant girl was a regular slut.
"Here you are! It's lucky!" said Mme Lerat, pursing up her lips, for she was still vexed at Mme Maloir's "five hundred." "You may flatter yourself at the way you keep folks waiting."
"Madame isn't reasonable; indeed, she isn't!" added Zoe.
Nana was already harassed, and these reproaches exasperated her. Was that the way people received her after the worry she had gone through?
"Will you blooming well leave me alone, eh?" she cried.
"Hush, ma'am, there are people in there," said the maid.
Then in lower tones the young Woman stuttered breathlessly:
"D'you suppose I've been having a good time? Why, there was no end to it. I should have liked to see you there! I was boiling with rage! I felt inclined to smack somebody. And never a cab to come home in! Luckily it's only a step from here, but never mind that; I did just run home."
"You have the money?" asked the aunt.
"Dear, dear! That question!" rejoined Nana.
She had sat herself down on a chair close up against the stove, for her legs had failed her after so much running, and without stopping to take breath she drew from behind her stays an envelope in which there were four hundred-franc notes. They were visible through a large rent she had torn with savage fingers in order to be sure of the contents. The three women round about her stared fixedly at the envelope, a big, crumpled, dirty receptacle, as it lay claspedk in her box, and she brought back a hundred francs in hundred-sou pieces. They were counted out on a corner of the table, and Mme Lerat took her departure at once after having promised to bring Louiset back with her the following day.
"You say there's company there?" continued Nana, still sitting on the chair and resting herself.
"Yes, madame, three people."
And Zoe mentioned the banker first. Nana made a face. Did that man Steiner think she was going to let herself be bored because he had thrown her a bouquet yesterday evening?
"Besides, I've had enough of it," she declared. "I shan't receive today. Go and say you don't expect me now."
"Madame will think the matter over; Madame will receive Monsieur Steiner," murmured Zoe gravely, without budging from her place. She was annoyed to see her mistress on the verge of committing another foolish mistake.
Then she mentioned the Walachian, who ought by now to find time hanging heavy on his hands in the bedroom. Whereupon Nana grew furious and more obstinate than ever. No, she would see nobody, nobody! Who'd sent her such a blooming leech of a man?
"Chuck 'em all out! I--I'm going to play a game of bezique with Madame Maloir. I prefer doing that."
The bell interrupted her remarks. That was the last straw. Another of the beggars yet! She forbade Zoe to go and open the door, but the latter had left the kitchen without listening to her, and when she reappeared she brought back a couple of cards and said authoritatively:
"I told them that Madame was receiving visitors. The gentlemen are in the drawing room."
Nana had sprung up, raging, but the names of the Marquis de Chouard and of Count Muffat de Beuville, which were inscribed on the cards, calmed her down. For a moment or two she remained silent.
"Who are they?" she asked at last. "You know them?"
"I know the old fellow," replied Zoe, discreetly pursing up her lips.
And her mistress continuing to question her with her eyes, she added simply:
"I've seen him somewhere."
This remark seemed to decide the young woman. Regretfully she left the kitchen, that asylum of steaming warmth, where you could talk and take your ease amid the pleasant fumes of the coffeepot which was being kept warm over a handful of glowing embers. She left Mme Maloir behind her. That lady was now busy reading her fortune by the cards; she had never yet taken her hat off, but now in order to be more at her ease she undid the strings and threw them back over her shoulders.
In the dressing room, where Zoe rapidly helped her on with a tea gown, Nana revenged herself for the way in which they were all boring her by muttering quiet curses upon the male sex. These big words caused the lady's maid not a little distress, for she saw with pain that her mistress was not rising superior to her origin as quickly as she could have desired. She even made bold to beg Madame to calm herself.
"You bet," was Nana's crude answer; "they're swine; they glory in that sort of thing."
Nevertheless, she assumed her princesslike manner, as she was wont to call it. But just when she was turning to go into the drawing room Zoe held her back and herself introduced the Marquis de Chouard and the Count Muffat into the dressing room. It was much better so.
"I regret having kept you waiting, gentlemen," said the young woman with studied politeness.
The two men bowed and seated themselves. A blind of embroidered tulle kept the little room in twilight. It was the most elegant chamber in the flat, for it was hung with some light-colored fabric and contained a cheval glass framed in inlaid wood, a lounge chair and some others with arms and blue satin upholsteries. On the toilet table the bouquets--roses, lilacs and hyacinths--appeared like a very ruin of flowers. Their perfume was strong and penetrating, while through the dampish air of the place, which was full of the spoiled exhalations of the washstand, came occasional whiffs of a more pungent scent, the scent of some grains or dry patchouli ground to fine powder at the bottom of a cup. And as she gathered herself together and drew up her dressing jacket, which had been ill fastened, Nana had all the appearance of having been surprised at her toilet: her skin was still damp; she smiled and looked quite startled amid her frills and laces.
"Madame, you will pardon our insistence," said the Count Muffat gravely. "We come on a quest. Monsieur and I are members of the Benevolent Organization of the district."
The Marquis de Chouard hastened gallantly to add:
"When we learned that a great artiste lived in this house we promised ourselves that we would put the claims of our poor people before her in a very special manner. Talent is never without a heart."
Nana pretended to be modest. She answered them with little assenting movements of her head, making rapid reflections at the same time. It must be the old man that had brought the other one: he had such wicked eyes. And yet the other was not to be trusted either: the veins near his temples were so queerly puffed up. He might quite well have come by himself. Ah, now that she thought of it, it was this way: the porter had given them her name, and they had egged one another on, each with his own ends in view.
"Most certainly, gentlemen, you were quite right to come up," she said with a very good grace.
But the electric bell made her tremble again. Another call, and that Zoe always opening the door! She went on:
"One is only too happy to be able to give."
At bottom she was flattered.
"Ah, madame," rejoined the marquis, "if only you knew about it! there's such misery! Our district has more than three thousand poor people in it, and yet it's one of the richest. You cannot picture to yourself anything like the present distress--children with no bread, women ill, utterly without assistance, perishing of the cold!"
"The poor souls!" cried Nana, very much moved.
Such was her feeling of compassion that tears flooded her fine eyes. No longer studying deportment, she leaned forward with a quick movement, and under her open dressing jacket her neck became visible, while the bent position of her knees served to outline the rounded contour of the thigh under the thin fabric of her skirt. A little flush of blood appeared in the marquis's cadaverous cheeks. Count Muffat, who was on the point of speaking, lowered his eyes. The air of that little room was too hot: it had the close, heavy warmth of a greenhouse. The roses were withering, and intoxicating odors floated up from the patchouli in the cup.
"One would like to be very rich on occasions like this," added Nana. "Well, well, we each do what we can. Believe me, gentlemen, if I had known--"
She was on the point of being guilty of a silly speech, so melted was she at heart. But she did not end her sentence and for a moment was worried at not being able to remember where she had put her fifty francs on changing her dress. But she recollected at last: they must be on the corner of her toilet table under an inverted pomatum pot. As she was in the act of rising the bell sounded for quite a long time. Capital! Another of them still! It would never end. The count and the marquis had both risen, too, and the ears of the latter seemed to be pricked up and, as it were, pointing toward the door; doubtless he knew that kind of ring. Muffat looked at him; then they averted their gaze mutually. They felt awkward and once more assumed their frigid bearing, the one looking square-set and solid with his thick head of hair, the other drawing back his lean shoulders, over which fell his fringe of thin white locks.
"My faith," said Nana, bringing the ten big silver pieces and quite determined to laugh about it, "I am going to entrust you with this, gentlemen. It is for the poor."
And the adorable little dimple in her chin became apparent. She assumed her favorite pose, her amiable baby expression, as she held the pile of five-franc pieces on her open palm and offered it to the men, as though she were saying to them, "Now then, who wants some?" The count was the sharper of the two. He took fifty francs but left one piece behind and, in order to gain possession of it, had to pick it off the young woman's very skin, a moist, supple skin, the touch of which sent a thrill through him. She was thoroughly merry and did not cease laughing.
"Come, gentlemen," she continued. "Another time I hope to give more."
The gentlemen no longer had any pretext for staying, and they bowed and went toward the door. But just as they were about to go out the bell rang anew. The marquis could not conceal a faint smile, while a frown made the count look more grave than before. Nana detained them some seconds so as to give Zoe time to find yet another corner for the newcomers. She did not relish meetings at her house. Only this time the whole place must be packed! She was therefore much relieved when she saw the drawing room empty and asked herself whether Zoe had really stuffed them into the cupboards.
"Au revoir, gentlemen," she said, pausing on the threshold of the drawing room.
It was as though she lapped them in her laughing smile and clear, unclouded glance. The Count Muffat bowed slightly. Despite his great social experience he felt that he had lost his equilibrium. He needed air; he was overcome with the dizzy feeling engendered in that dressing room with a scent of flowers, with a feminine essence which choked him. And behind his back, the Marquis de Chouard, who was sure that he could not be seen, made so bold as to wink at Nana, his whole face suddenly altering its expression as he did so, and his tongue nigh lolling from his mouth.
When the young woman re-entered the little room, where Zoe was awaiting her with letters and visiting cards, she cried out, laughing more heartily than ever:
"There are a pair of beggars for you! Why, they've got away with my fifty francs!"
She wasn't vexed. It struck her as a joke that men should have got money out of her. All the same, they were swine, for she hadn't a sou left. But at sight of the cards and the letters her bad temper returned. As to the letters, why, she said "pass" to them. They were from fellows who, after applauding her last night, were now making their declarations. And as to the callers, they might go about their business!
Zoe had stowed them all over the place, and she called attention to the great capabilities of the flat, every room in which opened on the corridor. That wasn't the case at Mme Blanche's, where people had all to go through the drawing room. Oh yes, Mme Blanche had had plenty of bothers over it!
"You will send them all away," continued Nana in pursuance of her idea. "Begin with the nigger."
"Oh, as to him, madame, I gave him his marching orders a while ago," said Zoe with a grin. "He only wanted to tell Madame that he couldn't come to-night."
There was vast joy at this announcement, and Nana clapped her hands. He wasn't coming, what good luck! She would be free then! And she emitted sighs of relief, as though she had been let off the most abominable of tortures. Her first thought was for Daguenet. Poor duck, why, she had just written to tell him to wait till Thursday! Quick, quick, Mme Maloir should write a second letter! But Zoe announced that Mme Maloir had slipped away unnoticed, according to her wont. Whereupon Nana, after talking of sending someone to him, began to hesitate. She was very tired. A long night's sleep--oh, it would be so jolly! The thought of such a treat overcame her at last. For once in a way she could allow herself that!
"I shall go to bed when I come back from the theater," she murmured greedily, "and you won't wake me before noon."
Then raising her voice:
"Now then, gee up! Shove the others downstairs!"
Zoe did not move. She would never have dreamed of giving her mistress overt advice, only now she made shift to give Madame the benefit of her experience when Madame seemed to be running her hot head against a wall.
"Monsieur Steiner as well?" she queried curtly.
"Why, certainly!" replied Nana. "Before all the rest."
The maid still waited, in order to give her mistress time for reflection. Would not Madame be proud to get such a rich gentleman away from her rival Rose Mignon--a man, moreover, who was known in all the theaters?
"Now make haste, my dear," rejoined Nana, who perfectly understood the situation, "and tell him he pesters me."
But suddenly there was a reversion of feeling. Tomorrow she might want him. Whereupon she laughed, winked once or twice and with a naughty little gesture cried out:
"After all's said and done, if I want him the best way even now is to kick him out of doors."
Zoe seemed much impressed. Struck with a sudden admiration, she gazed at her mistress and then went and chucked Steiner out of doors without further deliberation.
Meanwhile Nana waited patiently for a second or two in order to give her time to sweep the place out, as she phrased it. No one would ever have expected such a siege! She craned her head into the drawing room and found it empty. The dining room was empty too. But as she continued her visitation in a calmer frame of mind, feeling certain that nobody remained behind, she opened the door of a closet and came suddenly upon a very young man. He was sitting on the top of a trunk, holding a huge bouquet on his knees and looking exceedingly quiet and extremely well behaved.
"Goodness gracious me!" she cried. "There's one of 'em in there even now!" The very young man had jumped down at sight of her and was blushing as red as a poppy. He did not know what to do with his bouquet, which he kept shifting from one hand to the other, while his looks betrayed the extreme of emotion. His youth, his embarrassment and the funny figure he cut in his struggles with his flowers melted Nana's heart, and she burst into a pretty peal of laughter. Well, now, the very children were coming, were they? Men were arriving in long clothes. So she gave up all airs and graces, became familiar and maternal, tapped her leg and asked for fun:
"You want me to wipe your nose; do you, baby?"
"Yes," replied the lad in a low, supplicating tone.
This answer made her merrier than ever. He was seventeen years old, he said. His name was Georges Hugon. He was at the Varietes last night and now he had come to see her.
"These flowers are for me?"
"Then give 'em to me, booby!"
But as she took the bouquet from him he sprang upon her hands and kissed them with all the gluttonous eagerness peculiar to his charming time of life. She had to beat him to make him let go. There was a dreadful little dribbling customer for you! But as she scolded him she flushed rosy-red and began smiling. And with that she sent him about his business, telling him that he might call again. He staggered away; he could not find the doors.
Nana went back into her dressing room, where Francis made his appearance almost simultaneously in order to dress her hair for the evening. Seated in front of her mirror and bending her head beneath the hairdresser's nimble hands, she stayed silently meditative. Presently, however, Zoe entered, remarking:
"There's one of them, madame, who refuses to go."
"Very well, he must be left alone," she answered quietly.
"If that comes to that they still keep arriving."
"Bah! Tell 'em to wait. When they begin to feel too hungry they'll be off." Her humor had changed, and she was now delighted to make people wait about for nothing. A happy thought struck her as very amusing; she escaped from beneath Francis' hands and ran and bolted the doors. They might now crowd in there as much as they liked; they would probably refrain from making a hole through the wall. Zoe could come in and out through the little doorway leading to the kitchen. However, the electric bell rang more lustily than ever. Every five minutes a clear, lively little ting-ting recurred as regularly as if it had been produced by some well-adjusted piece of mechanism. And Nana counted these rings to while the time away withal. But suddenly she remembered something.
"I say, where are my burnt almonds?"
Francis, too, was forgetting about the burnt almonds. But now he drew a paper bag from one of the pockets of his frock coat and presented it to her with the discreet gesture of a man who is offering a lady a present. Nevertheless, whenever his accounts came to be settled, he always put the burnt almonds down on his bill. Nana put the bag between her knees and set to work munching her sweetmeats, turning her head from time to time under the hairdresser's gently compelling touch.
"The deuce," she murmured after a silence, "there's a troop for you!"
Thrice, in quick succession, the bell had sounded. Its summonses became fast and furious. There were modest tintinnabulations which seemed to stutter and tremble like a first avowal; there were bold rings which vibrated under some rough touch and hasty rings which sounded through the house with shivering rapidity. It was a regular peal, as Zoe said, a peal loud enough to upset the neighborhood, seeing that a whole mob of men were jabbing at the ivory button, one after the other. That old joker Bordenave had really been far too lavish with her address. Why, the whole of yesterday's house was coming!
"By the by, Francis, have you five louis?" said Nana.
He drew back, looked carefully at her headdress and then quietly remarked:
"Five louis, that's according!"
"Ah, you know if you want securities. . ." she continued.
And without finishing her sentence, she indicated the adjoining rooms with a sweeping gesture. Francis lent the five louis. Zoe, during each momentary respite, kept coming in to get Madame's things ready. Soon she came to dress her while the hairdresser lingered with the intention of giving some finishing touches to the headdress. But the bell kept continually disturbing the lady's maid, who left Madame with her stays half laced and only one shoe on. Despite her long experience, the maid was losing her head. After bringing every nook and corner into requisition and putting men pretty well everywhere, she had been driven to stow them away in threes and fours, which was a course of procedure entirely opposed to her principles. So much the worse for them if they ate each other up! It would afford more room! And Nana, sheltering behind her carefully bolted door, began laughing at them, declaring that she could hear them pant. They ought to be looking lovely in there with their tongues hanging out like a lot of bowwows sitting round on their behinds. Yesterday's success was not yet over, and this pack of men had followed up her scent.
"Provided they don't break anything," she murmured.
She began to feel some anxiety, for she fancied she felt their hot breath coming through chinks in the door. But Zoe ushered Labordette in, and the young woman gave a little shout of relief. He was anxious to tell her about an account he had settled for her at the justice of peace's court. But she did not attend and said:
"I'll take you along with me. We'll have dinner together, and afterward you shall escort me to the Varietes. I don't go on before half-past nine."
Good old Labordette, how lucky it was he had come! He was a fellow who never asked for any favors. He was only the friend of the women, whose little bits of business he arranged for them. Thus on his way in he had dismissed the creditors in the anteroom. Indeed, those good folks really didn't want to be paid. On the contrary, if they had been pressing for payment it was only for the sake of complimenting Madame and of personally renewing their offers of service after her grand success of yesterday.
"Let's be off, let's be off," said Nana, who was dressed by now.
But at that moment Zoe came in again, shouting:
"I refuse to open the door any more. They're waiting in a crowd all down the stairs."
A crowd all down the stairs! Francis himself, despite the English stolidity of manner which he was wont to affect, began laughing as he put up his combs. Nana, who had already taken Labordette's arm, pushed him into the kitchen and effected her escape. At last she was delivered from the men and felt happily conscious that she might now enjoy his society anywhere without fear of stupid interruptions.
"You shall see me back to my door," she said as they went down the kitchen stairs. "I shall feel safe, in that case. Just fancy, I want to sleep a whole night quite by myself--yes, a whole night! It's sort of infatuation, dear boy!"