Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1294
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.
After several meetings with Guéret, Angèle becomes more independent in her attitude toward Madame Londe. Because Guéret’s conduct is quite different from that of other men who seek her favors, she no longer wishes to sell herself and act as her aunt’s informant. During a quarrel she has with Madame Londe when she refuses to keep an assignation the old woman has arranged, Angèle threatens to leave. Madame Londe becomes worried. Afraid that she will lose her hold over her patrons, she begins to train Fernande, a twelve-year-old girl, to take Angèle’s place.
Guéret returns to the Restaurant Londe. As he eats his meal, he learns from the talk of the other diners that Angèle is Madame Londe’s niece and that she has sold herself to most of the men there. That night, driven to desperation by his knowledge, he breaks into Angèle’s bedroom. It is empty. When Madame Londe, awakened by his entry, screams for help, he runs away and hides in the woods. On his way back to Chanteilles, he meets Angèle. In a sudden, brutal fury, he picks up a branch and strikes her until her face and head are covered in blood.
All that day Guéret skulks beside the river. As he is sneaking back into town after dark, he meets a feeble old man. Fearing capture, he seizes the old man’s stick and beats him to death. Filled with blind terror, he flees across the yards of unknown houses and through back streets of the town.
The neighborhood is shocked by the brutality of the crimes that have been committed, and for weeks the townspeople refuse to venture into the streets at night. Angèle, disfigured for life, refuses to give the name of her assailant and remains shut up in her room above the restaurant. Only Madame Grosgeorge scoffs at those who bolt their doors at dusk. Indeed, she seems to relish the idea that the shabby, blundering tutor has scarred the face of her husband’s mistress and violently disrupted the monotony of her own existence.
Eventually the outcry diminishes, and Guéret, unable to stay away from Angèle, returns to the district. Madame Grosgeorge sees him near the footbridge and calls out to him that she will meet him there the next evening. She returns the next night, but Guéret does not appear, although she waits impatiently for more than an hour. Later, he comes to her villa, and she, unknown to her husband, hides the fugitive in her private sitting room. She promises that she will give him money and some of her husband’s clothing before she sends him away in the morning.
His presence in the house, however, gives her such strange satisfaction that she refuses to let him go as she had promised. The next morning, she goes to her sitting room and tries to talk to him about his crimes. When his answers show only that he is still in love with Angèle, Madame Grosgeorge feels cheated. She had admired Guéret for his violence, but now she despises him for his foolish passion. Again, she locks him in the room while she tries to decide what to do. Little Fernande arrives to deliver some laundry, and, on impulse, Madame Grosgeorge writes a note for Fernande to take to Angèle, telling her that Guéret is in her house and asking that the police be called.
Madame Londe, always on the alert, intercepts the message and hurries to give the alarm. Angèle, learning what has happened, sends Fernande to warn the fugitive that he must escape at once. Meanwhile, Madame Grosgeorge has returned to Guéret. When he insists that she let him go, she locks both of them in the sitting room and throws the key out the window. Then she tells him that Angèle knows his whereabouts and that if he is betrayed, Angèle will be to blame. Madame Grosgeorge takes a revolver from her desk, puts it in her belt, and calmly prepares to write a letter. Fernande runs into the garden, and Guéret, leaning out the window, asks her to pick up the key and unlock the door. He then hears the sound of a shot behind him—Madame Grosgeorge has shot herself.
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