Paul Guéret is an incompetent, prematurely aged tutor hired to instruct the sickly, unintelligent son of a prosperous provincial family named Grosgeorge. Knowing himself to be a failure and tired of his wife, whom he no longer loves, Guéret had hoped that life would be better in Chanteilles; within a month, however, he is just as wretched there as he had been in Paris, where his feelings of self-pity and frustration had often driven him into sordid love affairs. In Chanteilles, bored by his dreary surroundings, he soon finds himself infatuated with Angèle, a young woman who works in a laundry. Hoping to become her lover, he begins to write her letters asking her to meet him. Sometimes he follows her at a distance when she delivers clean laundry to her customers.
One night, Guéret accosts Angèle at a footbridge on the outskirts of the town. Hating himself for his shabby clothes and stammering speech, he offers her a cheap ring stolen from his wife. Although she accepts the ring, Angèle does not encourage his attentions. His abrupt yet furtive ardor both attracts and repels her.
That same night, Guéret goes by chance to the Restaurant Londe in nearby Lorges. There Madame Londe, the proprietor, presides majestically behind her cashier’s desk. A sly woman whose days are given over to spying and gossip, she delights in alternately cajoling and bullying her patrons, who seem to hold her resentfully in awe. When Guéret enters, she is disturbed because he is a stranger and she knows nothing about him. She refuses to let him pay for his dinner and has him write his name in her account book. Her desire is to add him to her regular clientele.
Madame Londe’s hold over her patrons is a sinister one, maintained through her niece, Angèle. Because the young woman is indebted to her for food and a room, Madame Londe is able to force Angèle to sell her favors to the regular customers of the restaurant. With knowledge thus gained of the guilt and secret vices of her patrons, Madame Londe is able to dictate to them as she pleases. Her own position as a procurer gives her no worry—her only concern is her lust for power over others.
Upset by his desire for Angèle, Guéret pays little attention to his duties as a tutor. André Grosgeorge is a poor student, but his mother shrewdly blames Guéret for her son’s slow progress. Madame Grosgeorge is a woman in whom the starved passions of her girlhood have turned to a tortured kind of love that finds its outlet in cruelty and treachery. Because her husband, whom she despises, ignores her nagging tirades, she takes special pleasure in beating her son and in humiliating Guéret.
Monsieur Grosgeorge feels sorry for the browbeaten tutor. Having guessed that Guéret is unhappily married, Grosgeorge bluntly advises him to find a mistress before he wastes his years in moping dullness, saying that is the course he himself has followed. One day, Monsieur Grosgeorge boastingly shows Guéret a note he has received in which the writer asks Grosgeorge to meet her the next night. Guéret, staring at the letter, shakes with suppressed rage when he recognizes Angèle’s handwriting....
(The entire section is 1294 words.)