More morbidly conscious than ever of a young head on old shoulders, the old ladies no longer paused at the bureau to exchange the news with Madame or even with her black-haired bookkeeping daughter. No more lounging against the newel under the carved torch-bearer, while the journalist of the fourth floor spat at the Dreyfusites, and the poet of the entresol threw versified vitriol at perfidious Albion. For the first time, too—losing their channel of communication—they grew out of touch with each other’s microscopic affairs, and their mutual detestation increased with their resentful ignorance. And so, shrinking and silent, and protected as far as possible by their big bonnets, the squat Madame Depine and the skinny Madame Valiere toiled up and down the dark, fusty stairs of the Hotel des Tourterelles, often brushing against each other, yet sundered by icy infinities. And the endurance on Madame Depine’s round face became more vindictive, and gentler grew the resignation on the angular visage of Madame Valiere.
“Tiens! Madame Depine, one never sees you now.” Madame la Proprietaire was blocking the threshold, preventing her exit. “I was almost thinking you had veritably died of Madame Valiere’s cough.”
“One has received my rent, the Monday,” the little old lady replied frigidly.
“Oh! la! la!” Madame waved her plump hands. “And La Valiere, too, makes herself invisible. What has then happened to both of you? Is it that you are doing a penance together?”
“Hist!” said Madame Depine, flushing.
For at this moment Madame Valiere appeared on the pavement outside bearing a long French roll and a bag of figs, which made an excellent lunch at low water. Madame la Proprietaire, dominatingly bestriding her doorstep, was sandwiched between the two old ladies, her wig aggressively grey between the two browns. Madame Valiere halted awkwardly, a bronze blush mounting to match her wig. To be seen by Madame Depine carrying in her meagre provisions was humiliation enough; to be juxtaposited with a grey wig was unbearable.
“Maman, maman, the English monsieur will not pay two francs for his dinner!” And the distressed bookkeeper, bill in hand, shattered the trio.
“And why will he not pay?” Fire leapt into the black eyes.
“He says you told him the night he came that by arrangement he could have his dinners for one franc fifty.”
Madame la Proprietaire made two strides towards the refractory English monsieur. “I told you one franc fifty? For dejeuner, yes, as many luncheons as you can eat. But for dinner? You eat with us as one of the family, and vin compris and cafe likewise, and it should be all for one franc fifty! Mon Dieu! it is to ruin oneself. Come here.” And she seized the surprised Anglo-Saxon by the wrist and dragged him towards a painted tablet of prices that hung in a dark niche of the hall. “I have kept this hotel for twenty years, I have grown grey in the service of artists and students, and this is the first time one has demanded dinner for one franc fifty!”