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Florent Quenu, a wrongly accused man who escapes imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Returning to his native Paris, Florent finds a city he barely recognizes, with its working classes displaced to make way for broad boulevards and bourgeois flats. Living with his brother’s family in the newly rebuilt Les Halles market, Florent is soon caught up in a dangerous maelstrom of food and politics. Amid intrigue among the market’s sellers–the fishmonger, the charcutière, the fruit girl, and the cheese vendor–and the glorious culinary bounty of their labors, we see the dramatic difference between ‘fat and thin’ (the rich and the poor) and how the widening gulf between them strains a city to the breaking point.
540 pages, with a reading time of ~8.25 hours (135,083 words), and first published in 1873. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2015.
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Amidst the deep silence and solitude prevailing in the avenue several market gardeners’ carts were climbing the slope which led towards Paris, and the fronts of the houses, asleep behind the dim lines of elms on either side of the road, echoed back the rhythmical jolting of the wheels. At the Neuilly bridge a cart full of cabbages and another full of peas had joined the eight waggons of carrots and turnips coming down from Nanterre; and the horses, left to themselves, had continued plodding along with lowered heads, at a regular though lazy pace, which the ascent of the slope now slackened. The sleeping waggoners, wrapped in woollen cloaks, striped black and grey, and grasping the reins slackly in their closed hands, were stretched at full length on their stomachs atop of the piles of vegetables. Every now and then, a gas lamp, following some patch of gloom, would light up the hobnails of a boot, the blue sleeve of a blouse, or the peak of a cap peering out of the huge florescence of vegetables–red bouquets of carrots, white bouquets of turnips, and the overflowing greenery of peas and cabbages.
And all along the road, and along the neighbouring roads, in front and behind, the distant rumbling of vehicles told of the presence of similar contingents of the great caravan which was travelling onward through the gloom and deep slumber of that matutinal hour, lulling the dark city to continued repose with its echoes of passing food.
Madame Francois’s horse, Balthazar, an animal that was far too fat, led the van. He was plodding on, half asleep and wagging his ears, when suddenly, on reaching the Rue de Longchamp, he quivered with fear and came to a dead stop. The horses behind, thus unexpectedly checked, ran their heads against the backs of the carts in front of them, and the procession halted amidst a clattering of bolts and chains and the oaths of the awakened waggoners. Madame Francois, who sat in front of her vehicle, with her back to a board which kept her vegetables in position, looked down; but, in the dim light thrown to the left by a small square lantern, which illuminated little beyond one of Balthazar’s sheeny flanks, she could distinguish nothing.
“Come, old woman, let’s get on!” cried one of the men, who had raised himself to a kneeling position amongst his turnips; “it’s only some drunken sot.”
Madame Francois, however, had bent forward and on her right hand had caught sight of a black mass, lying almost under the horse’s hoofs, and blocking the road.
“You wouldn’t have us drive over a man, would you?” said she, jumping to the ground.
It was indeed a man lying at full length upon the road, with his arms stretched out and his face in the dust. He seemed to be remarkably tall, but as withered as a dry branch, and the wonder was that Balthazar had not broken him in half with a blow from his hoof. Madame Francois thought that he was dead; but on stooping and taking hold of one of his hands, she found that it was quite warm.
“Poor fellow!” she murmured softly.
The waggoners, however, were getting impatient.
“Hurry up, there!” said the man kneeling amongst the turnips, in a hoarse voice. “He’s drunk till he can hold no more, the hog! Shove him into the gutter.”
Meantime, the man on the road had opened his eyes. He looked at Madame Francois with a startled air, but did not move. She herself now thought that he must indeed be drunk.
“You mustn’t stop here,” she said to him, “or you’ll get run over and killed. Where were you going?”
“I don’t know,” replied the man in a faint voice.
Then, with an effort and an anxious expression, he added: “I was going to Paris; I fell down, and don’t remember any more.”
Madame Francois could now see him more distinctly, and he was truly a pitiable object, with his ragged black coat and trousers, through the rents in which you could espy his scraggy limbs. Underneath a black cloth cap, which was drawn low over his brows, as though he were afraid of being recognised, could be seen two large brown eyes, gleaming with peculiar softness in his otherwise stern and harassed countenance. It seemed to Madame Francois that he was in far too famished a condition to have got drunk.
“And what part of Paris were you going to?” she continued.
The man did not reply immediately. This questioning seemed to distress him. He appeared to be thinking the matter over, but at last said hesitatingly, “Over yonder, towards the markets.”
He had now, with great difficulty, got to his feet again, and seemed anxious to resume his journey. But Madame Francois noticed that he tottered, and clung for support to one of the shafts of her waggon.
“Are you tired?” she asked him.
“Yes, very tired,” he replied.
Then she suddenly assumed a grumpy tone, as though displeased, and, giving him a push, exclaimed: “Look sharp, then, and climb into my cart. You’ve made us lose a lot of time. I’m going to the markets, and I’ll turn you out there with my vegetables.”