L'Assommoir, by Émile Zola

Chapter 2

Three weeks later, towards half-past eleven, one beautiful sunshiny day, Gervaise and Coupeau, the zinc-worker, were each partaking of a plum preserved in brandy, at “l’Assommoir” kept by Pere Colombe. Coupeau, who had been smoking a cigarette on the pavement, had prevailed on her to go inside as she returned from taking home a customer’s washing; and her big square laundress’s basket was on the floor beside her, behind the little zinc covered table.

Pere Colombe’s l’Assommoir was at the corner of Rue des Poissonniers and Boulevard de Rochechouart. The sign, in tall blue letters stretching from one end to the other said: Distillery. Two dusty oleanders planted in half casks stood beside the doorway. A long bar with its tin measuring cups was on the left as you entered. The large room was decorated with casks painted a gay yellow, bright with varnish, and gleaming with copper taps and hoops.

On the shelves above the bar were liquor bottles, jars of fruit preserved in brandy, and flasks of all shapes. They completely covered the wall and were reflected in the mirror behind the bar as colorful spots of apple green, pale gold, and soft brown. The main feature of the establishment, however, was the distilling apparatus. It was at the rear, behind an oak railing in a glassed-in area. The customers could watch its functioning, long-necked still-pots, copper worms disappearing underground, a devil’s kitchen alluring to drink-sodden work men in search of pleasant dreams.

L’Assommoir was nearly empty at the lunch hour. Pere Colombe, a heavy man of forty, was serving a ten year old girl who had asked him to place four sous’ worth of brandy into her cup. A shaft of sunlight came through the entrance to warm the floor which was always damp from the smokers’ spitting. From everything, the casks, the bar, the entire room, a liquorish odor arose, an alcoholic aroma which seemed to thicken and befuddle the dust motes dancing in the sunlight.

Coupeau was making another cigarette. He was very neat, in a short blue linen blouse and cap, and was laughing and showing his white teeth. With a projecting under jaw and a slightly snub nose, he had handsome chestnut eyes, and the face of a jolly dog and a thorough good fellow. His coarse curly hair stood erect. His skin still preserved the softness of his twenty-six years. Opposite to him, Gervaise, in a thin black woolen dress, and bareheaded, was finishing her plum which she held by the stalk between the tips of her fingers. They were close to the street, at the first of the four tables placed alongside the barrels facing the bar.

When the zinc-worker had lit his cigarette, he placed his elbows on the table, thrust his face forward, and for an instant looked without speaking at the young woman, whose pretty fair face had that day the milky transparency of china. Then, alluding to a matter known to themselves alone, and already discussed between them, he simply asked in a low voice:

“So it’s to be ‘no’? you say ‘no’?”

“Oh! most decidedly ‘no’ Monsieur Coupeau,” quietly replied Gervaise with a smile. “I hope you’re not going to talk to me about that here. You know you promised me you would be reasonable. Had I known, I wouldn’t have let you treat me.”

Coupeau kept silence, looking at her intently with a boldness. She sat still, at ease and friendly. At the end of a brief silence she added:

“You can’t really mean it. I’m an old woman; I’ve a big boy eight years old. Whatever could we two do together?”

“Why!” murmured Coupeau, blinking his eyes, “what the others do, of course, get married!”

She made a gesture of feeling annoyed. “Oh! do you think it’s always pleasant? One can very well see you’ve never seen much of living. No, Monsieur Coupeau, I must think of serious things. Burdening oneself never leads to anything, you know! I’ve two mouths at home which are never tired of swallowing, I can tell you! How do you suppose I can bring up my little ones, if I only sit here talking indolently? And listen, besides that, my misfortune has been a famous lesson to me. You know I don’t care a bit about men now. They won’t catch me again for a long while.”

She spoke with such cool objectivity that it was clear she had resolved this in her mind, turning it about thoroughly.

Coupeau was deeply moved and kept repeating: “I feel so sorry for you. It causes me a great deal of pain.”

“Yes, I know that,” resumed she, “and I am sorry, Monsieur Coupeau. But you mustn’t take it to heart. If I had any idea of enjoying myself, mon Dieu!, I would certainly rather be with you than anyone else. You’re a good boy and gentle. Only, where’s the use, as I’ve no inclination to wed? I’ve been for the last fortnight, now, at Madame Fauconnier’s. The children go to school. I’ve work, I’m contented. So the best is to remain as we are, isn’t it?”

And she stooped down to take her basket.

“You’re making me talk; they must be expecting me at the shop. You’ll easily find someone else prettier than I, Monsieur Coupeau, and who won’t have two boys to drag about with her.”

He looked at the clock inserted in the frame-work of the mirror, and made her sit down again, exclaiming:

“Don’t be in such a hurry! It’s only eleven thirty-five. I’ve still twenty-five minutes. You don’t have to be afraid that I shall do anything foolish; there’s the table between us. So you detest me so much that you won’t stay and have a little chat with me.”

She put her basket down again, so as not to disoblige him; and they conversed like good friends. She had eaten her lunch before going out with the laundry. He had gulped down his soup and beef hurriedly to be able to wait for her. All the while she chatted amiably, Gervaise kept looking out the window at the activity on the street. It was now unusually crowded with the lunch time rush.

Everywhere were hurried steps, swinging arms, and pushing elbows. Some late comers, hungry and angry at being kept extra long at the job, rushed across the street into the bakery. They emerged with a loaf of bread and went three doors farther to the Two–Headed Calf to gobble down a six-sou meat dish.

Next door to the bakery was a grocer who sold fried potatoes and mussels cooked with parsley. A procession of girls went in to get hot potatoes wrapped in paper and cups of steaming mussels. Other pretty girls bought bunches of radishes. By leaning a bit, Gervaise could see into the sausage shop from which children issued, holding a fried chop, a sausage or a piece of hot blood pudding wrapped in greasy paper. The street was always slick with black mud, even in clear weather. A few laborers had already finished their lunch and were strolling aimlessly about, their open hands slapping their thighs, heavy from eating, slow and peaceful amid the hurrying crowd. A group formed in front of the door of l’Assommoir.

“Say, Bibi-the-Smoker,” demanded a hoarse voice, “aren’t you going to buy us a round of vitriol?”

Five laborers came in and stood by the bar.

“Ah! Here’s that thief, Pere Colombe!” the voice continued. “We want the real old stuff, you know. And full sized glasses, too.”

Pere Colombe served them as three more laborers entered. More blue smocks gathered on the street corner and some pushed their way into the establishment.

“You’re foolish! You only think of the present,” Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. “Sure, I loved him, but after the disgusting way in which he left me —”

They were talking of Lantier. Gervaise had not seen him again; she thought he was living with Virginie’s sister at La Glaciere, in the house of that friend who was going to start a hat factory. She had no thought of running after him. She had been so distressed at first that she had thought of drowning herself in the river. But now that she had thought about it, everything seemed to be for the best. Lantier went through money so fast, that she probably never could have raised her children properly. Oh, she’d let him see his children, all right, if he bothered to come round. But as far as she was concerned, she didn’t want him to touch her, not even with his finger tips.

She told all this to Coupeau just as if her plan of life was well settled. Meanwhile, Coupeau never forgot his desire to possess her. He made a jest of everything she said, turning it into ribaldry and asking some very direct questions about Lantier. But he proceeded so gaily and which such a smile that she never thought of being offended.

“So, you’re the one who beat him,” said he at length. “Oh! you’re not kind. You just go around whipping people.”

She interrupted him with a hearty laugh. It was true, though, she had whipped Virginie’s tall carcass. She would have delighted in strangling someone on that day. She laughed louder than ever when Coupeau told her that Virginie, ashamed at having shown so much cowardice, had left the neighborhood. Her face, however, preserved an expression of childish gentleness as she put out her plump hands, insisting she wouldn’t even harm a fly.

She began to tell Coupeau about her childhood at Plassans. She had never cared overmuch for men; they had always bored her. She was fourteen when she got involved with Lantier. She had thought it was nice because he said he was her husband and she had enjoyed playing a housewife. She was too soft-hearted and too weak. She always got passionately fond of people who caused her trouble later. When she loved a man, she wasn’t thinking of having fun in the present; she was dreaming about being happy and living together forever.

And as Coupeau, with a chuckle, spoke of her two children, saying they hadn’t come from under a bolster, she slapped his fingers; she added that she was, no doubt made on the model of other women; women thought of their home, slaved to keep the place clean and tidy, and went to bed too tired at night not to go to sleep at once. Besides, she resembled her mother, a stout laboring woman who died at her work and who had served as beast of burden to old Macquart for more than twenty years. Her mother’s shoulders had been heavy enough to smash through doors, but that didn’t prevent her from being soft-hearted and madly attracted to people. And if she limped a little, she no doubt owed that to the poor woman, whom old Macquart used to belabor with blows. Her mother had told her about the times when Macquart came home drunk and brutally bruised her. She had probably been born with her lame leg as a result of one of those times.

“Oh! it’s scarcely anything, it’s hardly perceptible,” said Coupeau gallantly.

She shook her head; she knew well enough that it could be seen; at forty she would look broken in two. Then she added gently, with a slight laugh: “It’s a funny fancy of yours to fall in love with a cripple.”

With his elbows still on the table, he thrust his face closer to hers and began complimenting her in rather dubious language as though to intoxicate her with his words. But she kept shaking her head “no,” and didn’t allow herself to be tempted although she was flattered by the tone of his voice. While listening, she kept looking out the window, seeming to be fascinated by the interesting crowd of people passing.

The shops were now almost empty. The grocer removed his last panful of fried potatoes from the stove. The sausage man arranged the dishes scattered on his counter. Great bearded workmen were as playful as young boys, clumping along in their hobnailed boots. Other workmen were smoking, staring up into the sky and blinking their eyes. Factory bells began to ring in the distance, but the workers, in no hurry, relit their pipes. Later, after being tempted by one wineshop after another, they finally decided to return to their jobs, but were still dragging their feet.

Gervaise amused herself by watching three workmen, a tall fellow and two short ones who turned to look back every few yards; they ended by descending the street, and came straight to Pere Colombe’s l’Assommoir.

“Ah, well,” murmured she, “there’re three fellows who don’t seem inclined for work!”

“Why!” said Coupeau, “I know the tall one, it’s My–Boots, a comrade of mine.”

Pere Colombe’s l’Assommoir was now full. You had to shout to be heard. Fists often pounded on the bar, causing the glasses to clink. Everyone was standing, hands crossed over belly or held behind back. The drinking groups crowded close to one another. Some groups, by the casks, had to wait a quarter of an hour before being able to order their drinks of Pere Colombe.

“Hallo! It’s that aristocrat, Young Cassis!” cried My–Boots, bringing his hand down roughly on Coupeau’s shoulder. “A fine gentleman, who smokes paper, and wears shirts! So we want to do the grand with our sweetheart; we stand her little treats!”

“Shut up! Don’t bother me!” replied Coupeau, greatly annoyed.

But the other added, with a chuckle, “Right you are! We know what’s what, my boy. Muffs are muffs, that’s all!”

He turned his back after leering terribly as he looked at Gervaise. The latter drew back, feeling rather frightened. The smoke from the pipes, the strong odor of all those men, ascended in the air, already foul with the fumes of alcohol; and she felt a choking sensation in her throat, and coughed slightly.

“Oh, what a horrible thing it is to drink!” said she in a low voice.

And she related that formerly at Plassans she used to drink anisette with her mother. But on one occasion it nearly killed her, and that disgusted her with it; now, she could never touch any liqueurs.

“You see,” added she, pointing to her glass, “I’ve eaten my plum; only I must leave the juice, because it would make me ill.”

For himself, Coupeau couldn’t understand how anyone could drink glass after glass of cheap brandy. A brandied plum occasionally could not hurt, but as for cheap brandy, absinthe and the other strong stuff, no, not for him, no matter how much his comrades teased him about it. He stayed out on the sidewalk when his friends went into low establishments. Coupeau’s father had smashed his head open one day when he fell from the eaves of No. 25 on Rue Coquenard. He was drunk. This memory keep Coupeau’s entire family from the drink. Every time Coupeau passed that spot, he thought he would rather lick up water from the gutter than accept a free drink in a bar. He would always say: “In our trade, you have to have steady legs.”

Gervaise had taken up her basket again. She did not rise from her seat however, but held the basket on her knees, with a vacant look in her eyes and lost in thought, as though the young workman’s words had awakened within her far-off thoughts of existence. And she said again, slowly, and without any apparent change of manner:

Mon Dieu! I’m not ambitious; I don’t ask for much. My desire is to work in peace, always to have bread to eat and a decent place to sleep in, you know; with a bed, a table, and two chairs, nothing more. If I can, I’d like to raise my children to be good citizens. Also, I’d like not to be beaten up, if I ever again live with a man. It’s not my idea of amusement.” She pondered, thinking if there was anything else she wanted, but there wasn’t anything of importance. Then, after a moment she went on, “Yes, when one reaches the end, one might wish to die in one’s bed. For myself, having trudged through life, I should like to die in my bed, in my own home.”

And she rose from her seat. Coupeau, who cordially approved her wishes, was already standing up, anxious about the time. But they did not leave yet. Gervaise was curious enough to go to the far end of the room for a look at the big still behind the oak railing. It was chugging away in the little glassed-in courtyard. Coupeau explained its workings to her, pointing at the different parts of the machinery, showing her the trickling of the small stream of limpid alcohol. Not a single gay puff of steam was coming forth from the endless coils. The breathing could barely be heard. It sounded muffled as if from underground. It was like a sombre worker, performing dark deeds in the bright daylight, strong but silent.

My–Boots, accompanied by his two comrades, came to lean on the railing until they could get a place at the bar. He laughed, looking at the machine. Tonnerre de Dieu, that’s clever. There’s enough stuff in its big belly to last for weeks. He wouldn’t mind if they just fixed the end of the tube in his mouth, so he could feel the fiery spirits flowing down to his heels like a river. It would be better than the tiny sips doled out by Pere Colombe! His two comrades laughed with him, saying that My–Boots was quite a guy after all.

The huge still continued to trickle forth its alcoholic sweat. Eventually it would invade the bar, flow out along the outer Boulevards, and inundate the immense expanse of Paris.

Gervaise stepped back, shivering. She tried to smile as she said:

“It’s foolish, but that still and the liquor gives me the creeps.”

Then, returning to the idea she nursed of a perfect happiness, she resumed: “Now, ain’t I right? It’s much the nicest isn’t it — to have plenty of work, bread to eat, a home of one’s own, and to be able to bring up one’s children and to die in one’s bed?”

“And never to be beaten,” added Coupeau gaily. “But I would never beat you, if you would only try me, Madame Gervaise. You’ve no cause for fear. I don’t drink and then I love you too much. Come, shall it be marriage? I’ll get you divorced and make you my wife.”

He was speaking low, whispering at the back of her neck while she made her way through the crowd of men with her basket held before her. She kept shaking her head “no.” Yet she turned around to smile at him, apparently happy to know that he never drank. Yes, certainly, she would say “yes” to him, except she had already sworn to herself never to start up with another man. Eventually they reached the door and went out.

When they left, l’Assommoir was packed to the door, spilling its hubbub of rough voices and its heavy smell of vitriol into the street. My–Boots could be heard railing at Pere Colombe, calling him a scoundrel and accusing him of only half filling his glass. He didn’t have to come in here. He’d never come back. He suggested to his comrades a place near the Barriere Saint–Denis where you drank good stuff straight.

“Ah,” sighed Gervaise when they reached the sidewalk. “You can breathe out here. Good-bye, Monsieur Coupeau, and thank you. I must hurry now.”

He seized her hand as she started along the boulevard, insisting, “Take a walk with me along Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. It’s not much farther for you. I’ve got to see my sister before going back to work. We’ll keep each other company.”

In the end, Gervaise agreed and they walked beside each other along the Rue des Poissonniers, although she did not take his arm. He told her about his family. His mother, an old vest-maker, now had to do housekeeping because her eyesight was poor. Her birthday was the third of last month and she was sixty-two. He was the youngest. One of his sisters, a widow of thirty-six, worked in a flower shop and lived in the Batignolles section, on Rue des Moines. The other sister was thirty years old now. She had married a deadpan chainmaker named Lorilleux. That’s where he was going now. They lived in a big tenement on the left side. He ate with them in the evenings; it saved a bit for all of them. But he had been invited out this evening and he was going to tell her not to expect him.

Gervaise, who was listening to him, suddenly interrupted him to ask, with a smile: “So you’re called ‘Young Cassis,’ Monsieur Coupeau?”

“Oh!” replied he, “it’s a nickname my mates have given me because I generally drink ‘cassis’ when they force me to accompany them to the wineshop. It’s no worse to be called Young Cassis than My–Boots, is it?”

“Of course not. Young Cassis isn’t an ugly name,” observed the young woman.

And she questioned him about his work. He was still working there, behind the octroi wall at the new hospital. Oh! there was no want of work, he would not be finished there for a year at least. There were yards and yards of gutters!

“You know,” said he, “I can see the Hotel Boncoeur when I’m up there. Yesterday you were at the window, and I waved my arms, but you didn’t notice me.”

They had already gone about a hundred paces along the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, when he stood still and raising his eyes, said:

“That’s the house. I was born farther on, at No. 22. But this house is, all the same, a fine block of masonry! It’s as big as a barrack inside!”

Gervaise looked up, examining the facade. On the street side, the tenement had five stories, each with fifteen windows, whose black shutters with their broken slats gave an air of desolation to the wide expanse of wall. Four shops occupied the ground floor. To the right of the entrance, a large, greasy hash house, and to the left, a coal dealer, a notions seller, and an umbrella merchant. The building appeared even larger than it was because it had on each side a small, low building which seemed to lean against it for support. This immense, squared-off building was outlined against the sky. Its unplastered side walls were as bare as prison walls, except for rows of roughly jutting stones which suggested jaws full of decayed teeth yawning vacantly.

Gervaise was gazing at the entrance with interest. The high, arched doorway rose to the second floor and opened onto a deep porch, at the end of which could be seen the pale daylight of a courtyard. This entranceway was paved like the street, and down the center flowed a streamlet of pink-stained water.

“Come in,” said Coupeau, “no one will eat you.”

Gervaise wanted to wait for him in the street. However, she could not resist going through the porch as far as the concierge’s room on the right. And there, on the threshold, she raised her eyes. Inside, the building was six stories high, with four identical plain walls enclosing the broad central court. The drab walls were corroded by yellowish spots and streaked by drippings from the roof gutters. The walls went straight up to the eaves with no molding or ornament except the angles on the drain pipes at each floor. Here the sink drains added their stains. The glass window panes resembled murky water. Mattresses of checkered blue ticking were hanging out of several windows to air. Clothes lines stretched from other windows with family washing hanging to dry. On a third floor line was a baby’s diaper, still implanted with filth. This crowded tenement was bursting at the seams, spilling out poverty and misery through every crevice.

Each of the four walls had, at ground level, a narrow entrance, plastered without a trace of woodwork. This opened into a vestibule containing a dirt-encrusted staircase which spiraled upward. They were each labeled with one of the first four letters of the alphabet painted on the wall.

Several large work-shops with weather-blackened skylights were scattered about the court. Near the concierge’s room was the dyeing establishment responsible for the pink streamlet. Puddles of water infested the courtyard, along with wood shavings and coal cinders. Grass and weeds grew between the paving stones. The unforgiving sunlight seemed to cut the court into two parts. On the shady side was a dripping water tap with three small hens scratching for worms with their filth-smeared claws.

Gervaise slowly gazed about, lowering her glance from the sixth floor to the paving stones, then raising it again, surprised at the vastness, feeling as it were in the midst of a living organ, in the very heart of a city, and interested in the house, as though it were a giant before her.

“Is madame seeking for any one?” called out the inquisitive concierge, emerging from her room.

The young woman explained that she was waiting for a friend. She returned to the street; then as Coupeau did not come, she went back to the courtyard seized with the desire to take another look. She did not think the house ugly. Amongst the rags hanging from the windows she discovered various cheerful touches — a wall-flower blooming in a pot, a cage of chirruping canaries, shaving-glasses shining like stars in the depth of the shadow. A carpenter was singing in his work-shop, accompanied by the whining of his plane. The blacksmith’s hammers were ringing rhythmically.

In contrast to the apparent wretched poverty, at nearly every open window appeared the begrimed faces of laughing children. Women with peaceful faces could be seen bent over their sewing. The rooms were empty of men who had gone back to work after lunch. The whole tenement was tranquil except for the sounds from the work-shops below which served as a sort of lullaby that went on, unceasingly, always the same.

The only thing she did not like was the courtyard’s dampness. She would want rooms at the rear, on the sunny side. Gervaise took a few more steps into the courtyard, inhaling the characteristic odor of the slums, comprised of dust and rotten garbage. But the sharp odor of the waste water from the dye shop was strong, and Gervaise thought it smelled better here than at the Hotel Boncoeur. She chose a window for herself, the one at the far left with a small window box planted with scarlet runners.

“I’m afraid I’ve kept you waiting rather a long time,” said Coupeau, whom she suddenly heard close beside her. “They always make an awful fuss whenever I don’t dine with them, and it was worse than ever to-day as my sister had bought some veal.”

And as Gervaise had slightly started with surprise, he continued glancing around in his turn:

“You were looking at the house. It’s always all let from the top to the bottom. There are three hundred lodgers, I think. If I had any furniture, I would have secured a small room. One would be comfortable here, don’t you think so?”

“Yes, one would be comfortable,” murmured Gervaise. “In our street at Plassans there weren’t near so many people. Look, that’s pretty — that window up on the fifth floor, with the scarlet runners.”

The zinc-worker’s obstinate desire made him ask her once more whether she would or she wouldn’t. They could rent a place here as soon as they found a bed. She hurried out the arched entranceway, asking him not to start that subject again. There was as much chance of this building collapsing as there was of her sleeping under the same blanket with him. Still, when Coupeau left her in front of Madame Fauconnier’s shop, he was allowed to hold her hand for a moment.

For a month the young woman and the zinc-worker were the best of friends. He admired her courage, when he beheld her half killing herself with work, keeping her children tidy and clean, and yet finding time at night to do a little sewing. Often other women were hopelessly messy, forever nibbling or gadding about, but she wasn’t like them at all. She was much too serious. Then she would laugh, and modestly defend herself. It was her misfortune that she had not always been good, having been with a man when only fourteen. Then too, she had often helped her mother empty a bottle of anisette. But she had learned a few things from experience. He was wrong to think of her as strong-willed; her will power was very weak. She had always let herself be pushed into things because she didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Her one hope now was to live among decent people, for living among bad people was like being hit over the head. It cracks your skull. Whenever she thought of the future, she shivered. Everything she had seen in life so far, especially when a child, had given her lessons to remember.

Coupeau, however, chaffed her about her gloomy thoughts, and brought back all her courage by trying to pinch her hips. She pushed him away from her, and slapped his hands, whilst he called out laughingly that, for a weak woman, she was not a very easy capture. He, who always joked about everything did not trouble himself regarding the future. One day followed another, that was all. There would always be somewhere to sleep and a bite to eat. The neighborhood seemed decent enough to him, except for a gang of drunkards that ought to be cleaned out of the gutters.

Coupeau was not a bad sort of fellow. He sometimes had really sensible things to say. He was something of a dandy with his Parisian working man’s gift for banter, a regular gift of gab, and besides, he was attractive.

They had ended by rendering each other all sorts of services at the Hotel Boncoeur. Coupeau fetched her milk, ran her errands, carried her bundles of clothes; often of an evening, as he got home first from work, he took the children for a walk on the exterior Boulevard. Gervaise, in return for his polite attentions, would go up into the narrow room at the top of the house where he slept, and see to his clothes, sewing buttons on his blue linen trousers, and mending his linen jackets. A great familiarity existed between them. She was never bored when he was around. The gay songs he sang amused her, and so did his continuous banter of jokes and jibes characteristic of the Paris streets, this being still new to her.

On Coupeau’s side, this continual familiarity inflamed him more and more until it began to seriously bother him. He began to feel tense and uneasy. He continued with his foolish talk, never failing to ask her, “When will it be?” She understood what he meant and teased him. He would then come to visit her carrying his bedroom slippers, as if he were moving in. She joked about it and continued calmly without blushing at the allusions with which he was always surrounding her. She stood for anything from him as long as he didn’t get rough. She only got angry once when he pulled a strand of her hair while trying to force a kiss from her.

Towards the end of June, Coupeau lost his liveliness. He became most peculiar. Gervaise, feeling uneasy at some of his glances, barricaded herself in at night. Then, after having sulked ever since the Sunday, he suddenly came on the Tuesday night about eleven o’clock and knocked at her room. She would not open to him; but his voice was so gentle and so trembling that she ended by removing the chest of drawers she had pushed against the door. When he entered, she thought he was ill; he looked so pale, his eyes were so red, and the veins on his face were all swollen. And he stood there, stuttering and shaking his head. No, no, he was not ill. He had been crying for two hours upstairs in his room; he wept like a child, biting his pillow so as not to be heard by the neighbors. For three nights past he had been unable to sleep. It could not go on like that.

“Listen, Madame Gervaise,” said he, with a swelling in his throat and on the point of bursting out crying again; “we must end this, mustn’t we? We’ll go and get married. It’s what I want. I’ve quite made up my mind.”

Gervaise showed great surprise. She was very grave.

“Oh! Monsieur Coupeau,” murmured she, “whatever are you thinking of? You know I’ve never asked you for that. I didn’t care about it — that was all. Oh, no, no! it’s serious now; think of what you’re saying, I beg of you.”

But he continued to shake his head with an air of unalterable resolution. He had already thought it all over. He had come down because he wanted to have a good night. She wasn’t going to send him back to weep again he supposed! As soon as she said “yes,” he would no longer bother her, and she could go quietly to bed. He only wanted to hear her say “yes.” They could talk it over on the morrow.

“But I certainly can’t say ‘yes’ just like that,” resumed Gervaise. “I don’t want you to be able to accuse me later on of having incited you to do a foolish thing. You shouldn’t be so insistent, Monsieur Coupeau. You can’t really be sure that you’re in love with me. If you didn’t see me for a week, it might fade away. Sometimes men get married and then there’s day after day, stretching out into an entire lifetime, and they get pretty well bored by it all. Sit down there; I’m willing to talk it over at once.”

Then until one in the morning, in the dark room and by the faint light of a smoky tallow candle which they forgot to snuff, they talked of their marriage, lowering their voices so as not to wake the two children, Claude and Etienne, who were sleeping, both heads on the same pillow. Gervaise kept pointing out the children to Coupeau, what a funny kind of dowry they were. She really shouldn’t burden him with them. Besides, what would the neighbors say? She’d feel ashamed for him because everyone knew about the story of her life and her lover. They wouldn’t think it decent if they saw them getting married barely two months later.

Coupeau replied by shrugging his shoulders. He didn’t care about the neighbors! He never bothered about their affairs. So, there was Lantier before him, well, so what? What’s so bad about that? She hadn’t been constantly bringing men upstairs, as some women did, even rich ladies! The children would grow up, they’d raise them right. Never had he known before such a woman, such sound character, so good-hearted. Anyway, she could have been anything, a streetwalker, ugly, lazy and good-for-nothing, with a whole gang of dirty kids, and so what? He wanted her.

“Yes, I want you,” he repeated, bringing his hand down on his knee with a continuos hammering. “You understand, I want you. There’s nothing to be said to that, is there?”

Little by little, Gervaise gave way. Her emotions began to take control when faced with his encompassing desire. Still, with her hands in her lap and her face suffused with a soft sweetness, she hesitantly offered objections. From outside, through the half-open window, a lovely June night breathed in puffs of sultry air, disturbing the candle with its long wick gleaming red like a glowing coal. In the deep silence of the sleeping neighborhood the only sound was the infantile weeping of a drunkard lying in the middle of the street. Far away, in the back room of some restaurant, a violin was playing a dance tune for some late party.

Coupeau was silent. Then, knowing she had no more arguments, he smiled, took hold of her hands and pulled her toward him. She was in one of those moments of weakness she so greatly mistrusted, persuaded at last, too emotionally stirred to refuse anything or to hurt anyone’s feelings. Coupeau didn’t realize that she was giving way. He held her wrists so tightly as to almost crush them. Together they breathed a long sigh that to both of them meant a partial satisfaction of their desire.

“You’ll say ‘yes,’ won’t you,” asked he.

“How you worry me!” she murmured. “You wish it? Well then, ‘yes.’ Ah! we’re perhaps doing a very foolish thing.”

He jumped up, and, seizing her round the waist, kissed her roughly on the face, at random. Then, as this caress caused a noise, he became anxious, and went softly and looked at Claude and Etienne.

“Hush, we must be careful,” said he in a whisper, “and not wake the children. Good-bye till to-morrow.”

And he went back to his room. Gervaise, all in a tremble, remained seated on the edge of her bed, without thinking of undressing herself for nearly an hour. She was touched; she felt that Coupeau was very honorable; for at one moment she had really thought it was all over, and that he would forget her. The drunkard below, under the window, was now hoarsely uttering the plaintive cry of some lost animal. The violin in the distance had left off its saucy tune and was now silent.

During the following days Coupeau sought to get Gervaise to call some evening on his sister in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or; but the young woman, who was very timid, showed a great dread of this visit to the Lorilleux. She knew that Coupeau had a lingering fear of that household, even though he certainly wasn’t dependent on his sister, who wasn’t even the oldest of the family. Mamma Coupeau would certainly give her consent at once, as she never refused her only son anything. The thing was that the Lorilleuxs were supposed to be earning ten francs a day or more and that gave them a certain authority. Coupeau would never dare to get married unless his wife was acceptable to them.

“I have spoken to them of you, they know our plans,” explained he to Gervaise. “Come now! What a child you are! Let’s call on them this evening. I’ve warned you, haven’t I? You’ll find my sister rather stiff. Lorilleux, too, isn’t always very amiable. In reality they are greatly annoyed, because if I marry, I shall no longer take my meals with them, and it’ll be an economy the less. But that doesn’t matter, they won’t turn you out. Do this for me, it’s absolutely necessary.”

These words only frightened Gervaise the more. One Saturday evening, however, she gave in. Coupeau came for her at half-past eight. She had dressed herself in a black dress, a crape shawl with yellow palms, and a white cap trimmed with a little cheap lace. During the six weeks she had been working, she had saved the seven francs for the shawl, and the two and a half francs for the cap; the dress was an old one cleaned and made up afresh.

“They’re expecting you,” said Coupeau to her, as they went round by the Rue des Poissonniers. “Oh! they’re beginning to get used to the idea of my being married. They seem nice indeed, to-night. And you know if you’ve never seen gold chains made, it’ll amuse you to watch them. They just happen to have a pressing order for Monday.”

“They’ve got gold in their room?” asked Gervaise.

“I should think so; there’s some on the walls, on the floor, in fact everywhere.”

They had passed the arched doorway and crossed the courtyard. The Lorilleuxs lived on the sixth floor, staircase B. Coupeau laughingly told her to hold the hand-rail tight and not to leave go of it. She looked up, and blinked her eyes, as she perceived the tall hollow tower of the staircase, lighted by three gas jets, one on every second landing; the last one, right up at the top looked like a star twinkling in a black sky, whilst the other two cast long flashes of light, of fantastic shapes, among the interminable windings of the stairs.

“By Jove!” said the zinc-worker as he reached the first floor, smiling, “there’s a strong smell of onion soup. Someone’s having onion soup, I’m sure.”

Staircase B, with its gray, dirty steps and hand-rail, its scratched walls and chipped plaster, was full of strong kitchen odors. Long corridors, echoing with noise, led away from each landing. Doors, painted yellow, gaped open, smeared black around the latch from dirty hands. A sink on each landing gave forth a fetid humidity, adding its stench to the sharp flavor of the cooking of onions. From the basement, all the way to the sixth floor, you could hear dishes clattering, saucepans being rinsed, pots being scraped and scoured.

On the first floor Gervaise saw a half-opened door with the word “Designer” written on it in large letters. Inside were two men sitting by a table, the dishes cleared away from its oilcloth cover, arguing furiously amid a cloud of pipe smoke. The second and third floors were quieter, and through cracks in the woodwork only such sounds filtered as the rhythm of a cradle rocking, the stifled crying of a child, a woman’s voice sounding like the dull murmur of running water with no words distinct. Gervaise read the various signs on the doors giving the names of the occupants: “Madame Gaudron, wool-carder” and “Monsieur Madinier, cardboard boxes.” There was a fight in progress on the fourth floor: a stomping of feet that shook the floor, furniture banged around, a racket of curses and blows; but this did not bother the neighbors opposite, who were playing cards with their door opened wide to admit more air.

When Gervaise reached the fifth floor, she had to stop to take a breath; she was not used to going up so high; that wall for ever turning, the glimpses she had of the lodgings following each other, made her head ache. Anyway, there was a family almost blocking the landing: the father washing the dishes over a small earthenware stove near the sink and the mother sitting with her back to the stair-rail and cleaning the baby before putting it to bed.

Coupeau kept urging Gervaise along, and they finally reached the sixth floor. He encouraged her with a smile; they had arrived! She had been hearing a voice all the way up from the bottom and she was gazing upward, wondering where it could be coming from, a voice so clear and piercing that it had dominated all the other sounds. It came from a little old woman in an attic room who sang while putting dresses on cheap dolls. When a tall girl came by with a pail of water and entered a nearby apartment, Gervaise saw a tumbled bed on which a man was sprawled, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. As the door closed behind her, Gervaise saw the hand-written card: “Mademoiselle Clemence, ironing.”

Now that she had finally made it to the top, her legs weary and her breath short, Gervaise leaned over the railing to look down. Now it was the gaslight on the first floor which seemed a distant star at the bottom of a narrow well six stories deep. All the odors and all the murmurings of the immense variety of life within the tenement came up to her in one stifling breath that flushed her face as she hazarded a worried glance down into the gulf below.

“We’re not there yet,” said Coupeau. “Oh! It’s quite a journey!”

He had gone down a long corridor on the left. He turned twice, the first time also to the left, the second time to the right. The corridor still continued branching off, narrowing between walls full of crevices, with plaster peeling off, and lighted at distant intervals by a slender gas-jet; and the doors all alike, succeeded each other the same as the doors of a prison or a convent, and nearly all open, continued to display homes of misery and work, which the hot June evening filled with a reddish mist. At length they reached a small passage in complete darkness.

“We’re here,” resumed the zinc-worker. “Be careful, keep to the wall; there are three steps.”

And Gervaise carefully took another ten steps in the obscurity. She stumbled and then counted the three steps. But at the end of the passage Coupeau had opened a door, without knocking. A brilliant light spread over the tiled floor. They entered.

It was a narrow apartment, and seemed as if it were the continuation of the corridor. A faded woolen curtain, raised up just then by a string, divided the place in two. The first part contained a bedstead pushed beneath an angle of the attic ceiling, a cast-iron stove still warm from the cooking of the dinner, two chairs, a table and a wardrobe, the cornice of which had had to be sawn off to make it fit in between the door and the bedstead. The second part was fitted up as a work-shop; at the end, a narrow forge with its bellows; to the right, a vise fixed to the wall beneath some shelves on which pieces of old iron lay scattered; to the left near the window, a small workman’s bench, encumbered with greasy and very dirty pliers, shears and microscopical saws, all very dirty and grimy.

“It’s us!” cried Coupeau advancing as far as the woolen curtain.

But no one answered at first. Gervaise, deeply affected, moved especially by the thought that she was about to enter a place full of gold, stood behind the zinc-worker, stammering and venturing upon nods of her head by way of bowing. The brilliant light, a lamp burning on the bench, a brazier full of coals flaring in the forge, increased her confusion still more. She ended however, by distinguishing Madame Lorilleux — little, red-haired and tolerably strong, pulling with all the strength of her short arms, and with the assistance of a big pair of pincers, a thread of black metal which she passed through the holes of a draw-plate fixed to the vise. Seated in front of the bench, Lorilleux, quite as small of stature, but more slender in the shoulders, worked with the tips of his pliers, with the vivacity of a monkey, at a labor so minute, that it was impossible to follow it between his scraggy fingers. It was the husband who first raised his head — a head with scanty locks, the face of the yellow tinge of old wax, long, and with an ailing expression.

“Ah! it’s you; well, well!” murmured he. “We’re in a hurry you know. Don’t come into the work-room, you’d be in our way. Stay in the bedroom.”

And he resumed his minute task, his face again in the reflection of a glass globe full of green-colored water, through which the lamp shed a circle of bright light over his work.

“Take the chairs!” called out Madame Lorilleux in her turn. “It’s that lady, isn’t it? Very well, very well!”

She had rolled the wire and she carried it to the forge, and then, reviving the fire of the brazier with a large wooden fan, she proceeded to temper the wire before passing it through the last holes of the draw-plate.

Coupeau moved the chairs forward and seated Gervaise by the curtain. The room was so narrow that he could not sit beside her, so he sat behind her, leaning over her shoulder to explain the work in progress. Gervaise was intimidated by this strange reception and felt uneasy. She had a buzzing in her ears and couldn’t hear clearly. She thought the wife looked older than her thirty years and not very neat with her hair in a pigtail dangling down the back of her loosely worn wrapper. The husband, who was only a year older, appeared already an old man with mean, thin lips, as he sat there working in his shirt sleeves with his bare feet thrust into down at the heel slippers. Gervaise was dismayed by the smallness of the shop, the grimy walls, the rustiness of the tools, and the black soot spread all over what looked like the odds and ends of a scrap-iron peddler’s wares.

“And the gold?” asked Gervaise in a low voice.

Her anxious glances searched the corners and sought amongst all that filth for the resplendence she had dreamt of. But Coupeau burst out laughing.

“Gold?” said he; “why there’s some; there’s some more, and there’s some at your feet!”

He pointed successively to the fine wire at which his sister was working, and to another roll of wire, similar to the ordinary iron wire, hanging against the wall close to the vise; then going down on all fours, he picked up, beneath the wooden screen which covered the tiled floor of the work-room, a piece of waste, a tiny fragment resembling the point of a rusty needle. But Gervaise protested; that couldn’t be gold, that blackish piece of metal as ugly as iron! He had to bite into the piece and show her the gleaming notch made by his teeth. Then he continued his explanations: the employers provided the gold wire, already alloyed; the craftsmen first pulled it through the draw-plate to obtain the correct size, being careful to anneal it five or six times to keep it from breaking. It required a steady, strong hand, and plenty of practice. His sister would not let her husband touch the wire-drawing since he was subject to coughing spells. She had strong arms for it; he had seen her draw gold to the fineness of a hair.

Lorilleux, seized with a fit of coughing, almost doubled up on his stool. In the midst of the paroxysm, he spoke, and said in a choking voice, still without looking at Gervaise, as though he was merely mentioning the thing to himself:

“I’m making the herring-bone chain.”

Coupeau urged Gervaise to get up. She might draw nearer and see. The chainmaker consented with a grunt. He wound the wire prepared by his wife round a mandrel, a very thin steel rod. Then he sawed gently, cutting the wire the whole length of the mandrel, each turn forming a link, which he soldered. The links were laid on a large piece of charcoal. He wetted them with a drop of borax, taken from the bottom of a broken glass beside him; and he made them red-hot at the lamp beneath the horizontal flame produced by the blow-pipe. Then, when he had soldered about a hundred links he returned once more to his minute work, propping his hands against the edge of the cheville, a small piece of board which the friction of his hands had polished. He bent each link almost double with the pliers, squeezed one end close, inserted it in the last link already in place and then, with the aid of a point opened out again the end he had squeezed; and he did this with a continuous regularity, the links joining each other so rapidly that the chain gradually grew beneath Gervaise’s gaze, without her being able to follow, or well understand how it was done.

“That’s the herring-bone chain,” said Coupeau. “There’s also the long link, the cable, the plain ring, and the spiral. But that’s the herring-bone. Lorilleux only makes the herring-bone chain.”

The latter chuckled with satisfaction. He exclaimed, as he continued squeezing the links, invisible between his black finger-nails.

“Listen to me, Young Cassis! I was making a calculation this morning. I commenced work when I was twelve years old, you know. Well! Can you guess how long a herring-bone chain I must have made up till to-day?”

He raised his pale face, and blinked his red eye-lids.

“Twenty-six thousand feet, do you hear? Two leagues! That’s something! A herring-bone chain two leagues long! It’s enough to twist round the necks of all the women of the neighborhood. And you know, it’s still increasing. I hope to make it long enough to reach from Paris to Versailles.”

Gervaise had returned to her seat, disenchanted and thinking everything very ugly. She smiled to be polite to the Lorilleuxs. The complete silence about her marriage bothered her. It was the sole reason for her having come. The Lorilleuxs were treating her as some stranger brought in by Coupeau. When a conversation finally did get started, it concerned the building’s tenants. Madame Lorilleux asked her husband if he had heard the people on the fourth floor having a fight. They fought every day. The husband usually came home drunk and the wife had her faults too, yelling in the filthiest language. Then they spoke of the designer on the first floor, an uppity show-off with a mound of debts, always smoking, always arguing loudly with his friends. Monsieur Madinier’s cardboard business was barely surviving. He had let two girl workers go yesterday. The business ate up all his money, leaving his children to run around in rags. And that Madame Gaudron was pregnant again; this was almost indecent at her age. The landlord was going to evict the Coquets on the fifth floor. They owed nine months’ rent, and besides, they insisted on lighting their stove out on the landing. Last Saturday the old lady on the sixth floor, Mademoiselle Remanjou, had arrived just in time to save the Linguerlot child from being badly burned. Mademoiselle Clemence, one who took in ironing, well, she lived life as she pleased. She was so kind to animals though and had such a good heart that you couldn’t say anything against her. It was a pity, a fine girl like her, the company she kept. She’d be walking the streets before long.

“Look, here’s one,” said Lorilleux to his wife, giving her the piece of chain he had been working on since his lunch. “You can trim it.” And he added, with the persistence of a man who does not easily relinquish a joke: “Another four feet and a half. That brings me nearer to Versailles.”

Madame Lorilleux, after tempering it again, trimmed it by passing it through the regulating draw-plate. Then she put it in a little copper saucepan with a long handle, full of lye-water, and placed it over the fire of the forge. Gervaise, again pushed forward by Coupeau, had to follow this last operation. When the chain was thoroughly cleansed, it appeared a dull red color. It was finished, and ready to be delivered.

“They’re always delivered like that, in their rough state,” the zinc-worker explained. “The polishers rub them afterwards with cloths.”

Gervaise felt her courage failing her. The heat, more and more intense, was suffocating her. They kept the door shut, because Lorilleux caught cold from the least draught. Then as they still did not speak of the marriage, she wanted to go away and gently pulled Coupeau’s jacket. He understood. Besides, he also was beginning to feel ill at ease and vexed at their affectation of silence.

“Well, we’re off,” said he. “We mustn’t keep you from your work.”

He moved about for a moment, waiting, hoping for a word or some allusion or other. At length he decided to broach the subject himself.

“I say, Lorilleux, we’re counting on you to be my wife’s witness.”

The chainmaker pretended, with a chuckle, to be greatly surprised; whilst his wife, leaving her draw-plates, placed herself in the middle of the work-room.

“So it’s serious then?” murmured he. “That confounded Young Cassis, one never knows whether he is joking or not.”

“Ah! yes, madame’s the person involved,” said the wife in her turn, as she stared rudely at Gervaise. “Mon Dieu! We’ve no advice to give you, we haven’t. It’s a funny idea to go and get married, all the same. Anyhow, it’s your own wish. When it doesn’t succeed, one’s only got oneself to blame, that’s all. And it doesn’t often succeed, not often, not often.”

She uttered these last words slower and slower, and shaking her head, she looked from the young woman’s face to her hands, and then to her feet as though she had wished to undress her and see the very pores of her skin. She must have found her better than she expected.

“My brother is perfectly free,” she continued more stiffly. “No doubt the family might have wished — one always makes projects. But things take such funny turns. For myself, I don’t want to have any unpleasantness. Had he brought us the lowest of the low, I should merely have said: ‘Marry her and go to blazes!’ He was not badly off though, here with us. He’s fat enough; one can very well see he didn’t fast much; and he always found his soup hot right on time. I say, Lorilleux, don’t you think madame’s like Therese — you know who I mean, that woman who used to live opposite, and who died of consumption?”

“Yes, there’s a certain resemblance,” replied the chainmaker.

“And you’ve got two children, madame? Now, I must admit I said to my brother: ‘I can’t understand how you can want to marry a woman who’s got two children.’ You mustn’t be offended if I consult his interests; its only natural. You don’t look strong either. Don’t you think, Lorilleux, that madame doesn’t look very strong?”

“No, no, she’s not strong.”

They did not mention her leg; but Gervaise understood by their side glances, and the curling of their lips, that they were alluding to it. She stood before them, wrapped in her thin shawl with the yellow palms, replying in monosyllables, as though in the presence of her judges. Coupeau, seeing she was suffering, ended by exclaiming:

“All that’s nothing to do with it. What you are talking about isn’t important. The wedding will take place on Saturday, July 29. I calculated by the almanac. Is it settled? Does it suit you?”

“Oh, it’s all the same to us,” said his sister. “There was no necessity to consult us. I shan’t prevent Lorilleux being witness. I only want peace and quiet.”

Gervaise, hanging her head, not knowing what to do with herself had put the toe of her boot through one of the openings in the wooden screen which covered the tiled floor of the work-room; then afraid of having disturbed something when she had withdrawn it, she stooped down and felt about with her hand. Lorilleux hastily brought the lamp, and he examined her fingers suspiciously.

“You must be careful,” said he, “the tiny bits of gold stick to the shoes, and get carried away without one knowing it.”

It was all to do with business. The employers didn’t allow a single speck for waste. He showed her the rabbit’s foot he used to brush off any flecks of gold left on the cheville and the leather he kept on his lap to catch any gold that fell. Twice weekly the shop was swept out carefully, the sweepings collected and burned and the ashes sifted. This recovered up to twenty-five or thirty francs’ worth of gold a month.

Madame Lorilleux could not take her eyes from Gervaise’s shoes.

“There’s no reason to get angry,” murmured she with an amiable smile. “But, perhaps madame would not mind looking at the soles of her shoes.”

And Gervaise, turning very red, sat down again, and holding up her feet showed that there was nothing clinging to them. Coupeau had opened the door, exclaiming: “Good-night!” in an abrupt tone of voice. He called to her from the corridor. Then she in her turn went off, after stammering a few polite words: she hoped to see them again, and that they would all agree well together. Both of the Lorilleux had already gone back to their work at the far end of their dark hole of a work-room. Madame Lorilleux, her skin reflecting the red glow from the bed of coals, was drawing on another wire. Each effort swelling her neck and making the strained muscles stand out like taut cords. Her husband, hunched over beneath the greenish gleam of the globe was starting another length of chain, twisting each link with his pliers, pressing it on one side, inserting it into the next link above, opening it again with the pointed tool, continuously, mechanically, not wasting a motion, even to wipe the sweat from his face.

When Gervaise emerged from the corridor on to the landing, she could not help saying, with tears in her eyes:

“That doesn’t promise much happiness.”

Coupeau shook his head furiously. He would get even with Lorilleux for that evening. Had anyone ever seen such a miserly fellow? To think that they were going to walk off with two or three grains of his gold dust! All the fuss they made was from pure avarice. His sister thought perhaps that he would never marry, so as to enable her to economize four sous on her dinner every day. However, it would take place all the same on July 29. He did not care a hang for them!

Nevertheless, Gervaise still felt depressed. Tormented by a foolish fearfulness, she peered anxiously into every dark shadow along the stair-rail as she descended. It was dark and deserted at this hour, lit only by a single gas jet on the second floor. In the shadowy depths of the dark pit, it gave a spot of brightness, even with its flamed turned so low. It was now silent behind the closed doors; the weary laborers had gone to sleep after eating. However, there was a soft laugh from Mademoiselle Clemence’s room and a ray of light shone through the keyhole of Mademoiselle Remanjou’s door. She was still busy cutting out dresses for the dolls. Downstairs at Madame Gaudron’s, a child was crying. The sinks on the landings smelled more offensive than ever in the midst of the darkness and stillness.

In the courtyard, Gervaise turned back for a last look at the tenement as Coupeau called out to the concierge. The building seemed to have grown larger under the moonless sky. The drip-drip of water from the faucet sounded loud in the quiet. Gervaise felt that the building was threatening to suffocate her and a chill went through her body. It was a childish fear and she smiled at it a moment later.

“Watch your step,” warned Coupeau.

To get to the entrance, Gervaise had to jump over a wide puddle that had drained from the dye shop. The puddle was blue now, the deep blue of a summer sky. The reflections from the night light of the concierge sparkled in it like stars.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/z/zola/emile/assommoir/chapter2.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 15:06