Family Life

The tramcar to Neuilly had just passed Porte Maillot, and now was jogging along the long avenue which leads to the Seine. The little engine, harnessed to its wagon, whistled to clear away all obstacles, spat out its steam, panted like a man out of breath who is running; and its pistons made a hurrying noise of iron legs in motion. The heavy heat of the end of a summer’s day fell on the road, from which rose, though no breeze was blowing, a white dust, chalky, opaque, suffocating, and hot, that stuck on the damp skin, filled the eyes, entered the lungs.

People came out to their doors, seeking air.

The windows of the tram were lowered, and all the curtains were fluttering, moved by the rapidity of the course. Only a few passengers were seated inside (for people preferred on a hot day the top, or the platforms). There were fat ladies with over-stuffed dresses, those ladies of the suburbs who replace the distinction they lack by an ill-timed dignity: gentlemen tired of the office, with yellowed faces, their figures stooping, one shoulder a little higher than the other, through long hours of duty bent over tables. Their restless, sad faces told besides of domestic troubles, of incessant demands for money, old expectations definitely disappointed: for all of them belonged to that army of poor out-at-elbow devils who vegetate economically in a mean plaster house, with a flower bed for garden, amid that region of night-soil deposits which borders Paris.

Quite near to the door, a little fat man, his face puffed out, his stomach hanging down between his straddling legs, all dressed in black with a ribbon in his buttonhole, was talking to a tall, thin-faced, untidy fellow, dressed in very dirty white duck, and wearing an old panama hat. The first man spoke slowly with hesitations which made him sometimes seem to stutter: it was Monsieur Caravan, principal clerk at the Admiralty. The other, formerly a medical officer on board a merchant vessel, had finished by setting himself up at the Rond-Point of Courbevoie, where he applied to the wretched population of that spot the vague medical knowledge that was left him after an adventurous life. His name was Chenet, and he got himself called Doctor. Rumours were current as regards his morality.

Monsieur Caravan had always led the normal existence of men in offices. For thirty years he invariably went to his office, every morning, by the same route, meeting at the same time, at the same spots, the same faces of men going to their businesses: and he came back from the office every evening, by the same road, where he found the same faces that he had seen growing old.

Every day, after buying his halfpenny newspaper at the corner of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, he went to get his two rolls of bread, then he entered the Ministry like a guilty man who is giving himself up as a prisoner: and he gained his desk quietly, his heart full of uneasiness, in the eternal expectation of a reprimand for some bit of negligence that he might have committed.

Nothing had ever come to change the monotonous order of his existence: for no event affected him outside the business of his office, promotions, and increases of salary. Whether he was at the Ministry or whether he was at home (for he had married, without a dowry, the daughter of a colleague), he only spoke of the service. Never did his mind, atrophied by the degrading daily task, have other thoughts, other hopes, other dreams, than those relative to the Ministry. But bitterness always ruined his clerkly satisfaction; the accession of navy pursers, ‘tinmen’ as they were called on account of their silver stripes, to the posts of under-chief and chief: and each Sunday, at dinner-time, with his wife, who shared his hate, he had a hot argument to prove that it is iniquitous in every respect to give positions in Paris to people bred to the sea.

He was old, now, not having felt his life go by, for without transition school had been continued by the office, and the school supervisors before whom he used to tremble in days gone by, were to-day replaced by his chiefs, whom he feared frightfully. The threshold of those chamber despots made him shudder from head to foot; and from this continual fear he had contracted an awkward way of approach, a humble attitude, and a sort of nervous stutter.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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