The Coupeaus’ new lodging was on the sixth floor, staircase B. After passing Mademoiselle Remanjou’s door, you took the corridor to the left, and then turned again further along. The first door was for the apartment of the Bijards. Almost opposite, in an airless corner under a small staircase leading to the roof, was where Pere Bru slept. Two doors further was Bazouge’s room and the Coupeaus were opposite him, overlooking the court, with one room and a closet. There were only two more doors along the corridor before reaching that of the Lorilleuxs at the far end.
A room and a closet, no more. The Coupeaus perched there now. And the room was scarcely larger than one’s hand. And they had to do everything in there — eat, sleep, and all the rest. Nana’s bed just squeezed into the closet; she had to dress in her father and mother’s room, and her door was kept open at night-time so that she should not be suffocated. There was so little space that Gervaise had left many things in the shop for the Poissons. A bed, a table, and four chairs completely filled their new apartment but she didn’t have the courage to part with her old bureau and so it blocked off half the window. This made the room dark and gloomy, especially since one shutter was stuck shut. Gervaise was now so fat that there wasn’t room for her in the limited window space and she had to lean sideways and crane her neck if she wanted to see the courtyard.
During the first few days, the laundress would continually sit down and cry. It seemed to her too hard, not being able to move about in her home, after having been used to so much room. She felt stifled; she remained at the window for hours, squeezed between the wall and the drawers and getting a stiff neck. It was only there that she could breathe freely. However, the courtyard inspired rather melancholy thoughts. Opposite her, on the sunny side, she would see that same window she had dreamed about long ago where the spring brought scarlet vines. Her own room was on the shady side where pots of mignonette died within a week. Oh, this wasn’t at all the sort of life she had dreamed of. She had to wallow in filth instead of having flowers all about her.
On leaning out one day, Gervaise experienced a peculiar sensation: she fancied she beheld herself down below, near the concierge’s room under the porch, her nose in the air, and examining the house for the first time; and this leap thirteen years backwards caused her heart to throb. The courtyard was a little dingier and the walls more stained, otherwise it hadn’t changed much. But she herself felt terribly changed and worn. To begin with, she was no longer below, her face raised to heaven, feeling content and courageous and aspiring to a handsome lodging. She was right up under the roof, among the most wretched, in the dirtiest hole, the part that never received a ray of sunshine. And that explained her tears; she could scarcely feel enchanted with her fate.
However, when Gervaise had grown somewhat used to it, the early days of the little family in their new home did not pass off so badly. The winter was almost over, and the trifle of money received for the furniture sold to Virginie helped to make things comfortable. Then with the fine weather came a piece of luck, Coupeau was engaged to work in the country at Etampes; and he was there for nearly three months without once getting drunk, cured for a time by the fresh air. One has no idea what a quench it is to the tippler’s thirst to leave Paris where the very streets are full of the fumes of wine and brandy. On his return he was as fresh as a rose, and he brought back in his pocket four hundred francs with which they paid the two overdue quarters’ rent at the shop that the Poissons had become answerable for, and also the most pressing of their little debts in the neighborhood. Gervaise thus opened two or three streets through which she had not passed for a long time.
She had naturally become an ironer again. Madame Fauconnier was quite good-hearted if you flattered her a bit, and she was happy to take Gervaise back, even paying her the same three francs a day as her best worker. This was out of respect for her former status as an employer. The household seemed to be getting on well and Gervaise looked forward to the day when all the debts would be paid. Hard work and economy would solve all their money troubles. Unfortunately, she dreamed of this in the warm satisfaction of the large sum earned by her husband. Soon, she said that the good things never lasted and took things as they came.
What the Coupeaus most suffered from at that time was seeing the Poissons installing themselves at their former shop. They were not naturally of a particularly jealous disposition, but people aggravated them by purposely expressing amazement in their presence at the embellishments of their successors. The Boches and the Lorilleuxs especially, never tired. According to them, no one had ever seen so beautiful a shop. They were also continually mentioning the filthy state in which the Poissons had found the premises, saying that it had cost thirty francs for the cleaning alone.
After much deliberation, Virginie had decided to open a shop specializing in candies, chocolate, coffee and tea. Lantier had advised this, saying there was much money to be made from such delicacies. The shop was stylishly painted black with yellow stripes. Three carpenters worked for eight days on the interior, putting up shelves, display cases and counters. Poisson’s small inheritance must have been almost completely used, but Virginie was ecstatic. The Lorilleuxs and the Boches made sure that Gervaise did not miss a single improvement and chuckled to themselves while watching her expression.
There was also a question of a man beneath all this. It was reported that Lantier had broken off with Gervaise. The neighborhood declared that it was quite right. In short, it gave a moral tone to the street. And all the honor of the separation was accorded to the crafty hatter on whom all the ladies continued to dote. Some said that she was still crazy about him and he had to slap her to make her leave him alone. Of course, no one told the actual truth. It was too simple and not interesting enough.
Actually Lantier climbed to the sixth floor to see her whenever he felt the impulse. Mademoiselle Remanjou had often seen him coming out of the Coupeaus’ at odd hours.
The situation was even more complicated by neighborhood gossip linking Lantier and Virginie. The neighbors were a bit too hasty in this also; he had not even reached the stage of buttock-pinching with her. Still, the Lorilleuxs delighted in talking sympathetically to Gervaise about the affair between Lantier and Virginie. The Boches maintained they had never seen a more handsome couple. The odd thing in all this was that the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or seemed to have no objection to this new arrangement which everyone thought was progressing nicely. Those who had been so harsh to Gervaise were now quite lenient toward Virginie.
Gervaise had previously heard numerous reports about Lantier’s affairs with all sorts of girls on the street and they had bothered her so little that she hadn’t even felt enough resentment to break off the affair. However, this new intrigue with Virginie wasn’t quite so easy to accept because she was sure that the two of them were just out to spite her. She hid her resentment though to avoid giving any satisfaction to her enemies. Mademoiselle Remanjou thought that Gervaise had words with Lantier over this because one afternoon she heard the sound of a slap. There was certainly a quarrel because Lantier stopped speaking to Gervaise for a couple of weeks, but then he was the first one to make up and things seemed to go along the same as before.
Coupeau found all this most amusing. The complacent husband who had been blind to his own situation laughed heartily at Poisson’s predicament. Then Coupeau even teased Gervaise. Her lovers always dropped her. First the blacksmith and now the hatmaker. The trouble was that she got involved with undependable trades. She should take up with a mason, a good solid man. He said such things as if he were joking, but they upset Gervaise because his small grey eyes seemed to be boring right into her.
On evenings when Coupeau became bored being alone with his wife up in their tiny hole under the roof, he would go down for Lantier and invite him up. He thought their dump was too dreary without Lantier’s company so he patched things up between Gervaise and Lantier whenever they had a falling out.
In the midst of all this Lantier put on the most consequential airs. He showed himself both paternal and dignified. On three successive occasions he had prevented a quarrel between the Coupeaus and the Poissons. The good understanding between the two families formed a part of his contentment. Thanks to the tender though firm glances with which he watched over Gervaise and Virginie, they always pretended to entertain a great friendship for each other. He reigned over both blonde and brunette with the tranquillity of a pasha, and fattened on his cunning. The rogue was still digesting the Coupeaus when he already began to devour the Poissons. Oh, it did not inconvenience him much! As soon as one shop was swallowed, he started on a second. It was only men of his sort who ever have any luck.
It was in June of that year that Nana was confirmed. She was then nearly thirteen years old, as tall as an asparagus shoot run to seed, and had a bold, impudent air about her. The year before she had been sent away from the catechism class on account of her bad behavior; and the priest had only allowed her to join it this time through fear of losing her altogether, and of casting one more heathen onto the street. Nana danced for joy as she thought of the white dress. The Lorilleuxs, being godfather and godmother, had promised to provide it, and took care to let everyone in the house know of their present. Madame Lerat was to give the veil and the cap, Virginie the purse, and Lantier the prayer-book; so that the Coupeaus looked forward to the ceremony without any great anxiety. Even the Poissons, wishing to give a house-warming, chose this occasion, no doubt on the hatter’s advice. They invited the Coupeaus and the Boches, whose little girl was also going to be confirmed. They provided a leg of mutton and trimmings for the evening in question.
It so happened that on the evening before, Coupeau returned home in a most abominable condition, just as Nana was lost in admiration before the presents spread out on the top of the chest of drawers. The Paris atmosphere was getting the better of him again; and he fell foul of his wife and child with drunken arguments and disgusting language which no one should have uttered at such a time. Nana herself was beginning to get hold of some very bad expressions in the midst of the filthy conversations she was continually hearing. On the days when there was a row, she would often call her mother an old camel and a cow.
“Where’s my food?” yelled the zinc-worker. “I want my soup, you couple of jades! There’s females for you, always thinking of finery! I’ll sit on the gee-gaws, you know, if I don’t get my soup!”
“He’s unbearable when he’s drunk,” murmured Gervaise, out of patience; and turning towards him, she exclaimed:
“It’s warming up, don’t bother us.”
Nana was being modest, because she thought it nice on such a day. She continued to look at the presents on the chest of drawers, affectedly lowering her eyelids and pretending not to understand her father’s naughty words. But the zinc-worker was an awful plague on the nights when he had had too much. Poking his face right against her neck, he said:
“I’ll give you white dresses! So the finery tickles your fancy. They excite your imagination. Just you cut away from there, you ugly little brat! Move your hands about, bundle them all into a drawer!”
Nana, with bowed head, did not answer a word. She had taken up the little tulle cap and was asking her mother how much it cost. And as Coupeau thrust out his hand to seize hold of the cap, it was Gervaise who pushed him aside exclaiming:
“Do leave the child alone! She’s very good, she’s doing no harm.”
Then the zinc-worker let out in real earnest.
“Ah! the viragos! The mother and daughter, they make the pair. It’s a nice thing to go to church just to leer at the men. Dare to say it isn’t true, little slattern! I’ll dress you in a sack, just to disgust you, you and your priests. I don’t want you to be taught anything worse than you know already. Mon Dieu! Just listen to me, both of you!”
At this Nana turned round in a fury, whilst Gervaise had to spread out her arms to protect the things which Coupeau talked of tearing. The child looked her father straight in the face; then, forgetting the modest bearing inculcated by her confessor, she said, clinching her teeth: “Pig!”
As soon as the zinc-worker had had his soup he went off to sleep. On the morrow he awoke in a very good humor. He still felt a little of the booze of the day before but only just sufficient to make him amiable. He assisted at the dressing of the child, deeply affected by the white dress and finding that a mere nothing gave the little vermin quite the look of a young lady.
The two families started off together for the church. Nana and Pauline walked first, their prayer-books in their hands and holding down their veils on account of the wind; they did not speak but were bursting with delight at seeing people come to their shop-doors, and they smiled primly and devoutly every time they heard anyone say as they passed that they looked very nice. Madame Boche and Madame Lorilleux lagged behind, because they were interchanging their ideas about Clump-clump, a gobble-all, whose daughter would never have been confirmed if the relations had not found everything for her; yes, everything, even a new chemise, out of respect for the holy altar. Madame Lorilleux was rather concerned about the dress, calling Nana a dirty thing every time the child got dust on her skirt by brushing against the store fronts.
At church Coupeau wept all the time. It was stupid but he could not help it. It affected him to see the priest holding out his arms and all the little girls, looking like angels, pass before him, clasping their hands; and the music of the organ stirred up his stomach and the pleasant smell of the incense forced him to sniff, the same as though someone had thrust a bouquet of flowers into his face. In short he saw everything cerulean, his heart was touched. Anyway, other sensitive souls around him were wetting their handkerchiefs. This was a beautiful day, the most beautiful of his life. After leaving the church, Coupeau went for a drink with Lorilleux, who had remained dry-eyed.
That evening the Poissons’ house-warming was very lively. Friendship reigned without a hitch from one end of the feast to the other. When bad times arrive one thus comes in for some pleasant evenings, hours during which sworn enemies love each other. Lantier, with Gervaise on his left and Virginie on his right, was most amiable to both of them, lavishing little tender caresses like a cock who desires peace in his poultry-yard. But the queens of the feast were the two little ones, Nana and Pauline, who had been allowed to keep on their things; they sat bolt upright through fear of spilling anything on their white dresses and at every mouthful they were told to hold up their chins so as to swallow cleanly. Nana, greatly bored by all this fuss, ended by slobbering her wine over the body of her dress, so it was taken off and the stains were at once washed out in a glass of water.
Then at dessert the children’s future careers were gravely discussed.
Madame Boche had decided that Pauline would enter a shop to learn how to punch designs on gold and silver. That paid five or six francs a day. Gervaise didn’t know yet because Nana had never indicated any preference.
“In your place,” said Madame Lerat, “I would bring Nana up as an artificial flower-maker. It is a pleasant and clean employment.”
“Flower-makers?” muttered Lorilleux. “Every one of them might as well walk the streets.”
“Well, what about me?” objected Madame Lerat, pursing her lips. “You’re certainly not very polite. I assure you that I don’t lie down for anyone who whistles.”
Then all the rest joined together in hushing her. “Madame Lerat! Oh, Madame Lerat!” By side glances they reminded her of the two girls, fresh from communion, who were burying their noses in their glasses to keep from laughing out loud. The men had been very careful, for propriety’s sake, to use only suitable language, but Madame Lerat refused to follow their example. She flattered herself on her command of language, as she had often been complimented on the way she could say anything before children, without any offence to decency.
“Just you listen, there are some very fine women among the flower-makers!” she insisted. “They’re just like other women and they show good taste when they choose to commit a sin.”
“Mon Dieu!” interrupted Gervaise, “I’ve no dislike for artificial flower-making. Only it must please Nana, that’s all I care about; one should never thwart children on the question of a vocation. Come Nana, don’t be stupid; tell me now, would you like to make flowers?”
The child was leaning over her plate gathering up the cake crumbs with her wet finger, which she afterwards sucked. She did not hurry herself. She grinned in her vicious way.
“Why yes, mamma, I should like to,” she ended by declaring.
Then the matter was at once settled. Coupeau was quite willing that Madame Lerat should take the child with her on the morrow to the place where she worked in the Rue du Caire. And they all talked very gravely of the duties of life. Boche said that Nana and Pauline were women now that they had partaken of communion. Poisson added that for the future they ought to know how to cook, mend socks and look after a house. Something was even said of their marrying, and of the children they would some day have. The youngsters listened, laughing to themselves, elated by the thought of being women. What pleased them the most was when Lantier teased them, asking if they didn’t already have little husbands. Nana eventually admitted that she cared a great deal for Victor Fauconnier, son of her mother’s employer.
“Ah well,” said Madame Lorilleux to the Boches, as they were all leaving, “she’s our goddaughter, but as they’re going to put her into artificial flower-making, we don’t wish to have anything more to do with her. Just one more for the boulevards. She’ll be leading them a merry chase before six months are over.”
On going up to bed, the Coupeaus agreed that everything had passed off well and that the Poissons were not at all bad people. Gervaise even considered the shop was nicely got up. She was surprised to discover that it hadn’t pained her at all to spend an evening there. While Nana was getting ready for bed she contemplated her white dress and asked her mother if the young lady on the third floor had had one like it when she was married last month.
This was their last happy day. Two years passed by, during which they sank deeper and deeper. The winters were especially hard for them. If they had bread to eat during the fine weather, the rain and cold came accompanied by famine, by drubbings before the empty cupboard, and by dinner-hours with nothing to eat in the little Siberia of their larder. Villainous December brought numbing freezing spells and the black misery of cold and dampness.
The first winter they occasionally had a fire, choosing to keep warm rather than to eat. But the second winter, the stove stood mute with its rust, adding a chill to the room, standing there like a cast-iron gravestone. And what took the life out of their limbs, what above all utterly crushed them was the rent. Oh! the January quarter, when there was not a radish in the house and old Boche came up with the bill! It was like a bitter storm, a regular tempest from the north. Monsieur Marescot then arrived the following Saturday, wrapped up in a good warm overcoat, his big hands hidden in woolen gloves; and he was for ever talking of turning them out, whilst the snow continued to fall outside, as though it were preparing a bed for them on the pavement with white sheets. To have paid the quarter’s rent they would have sold their very flesh. It was the rent which emptied the larder and the stove.
No doubt the Coupeaus had only themselves to blame. Life may be a hard fight, but one always pulls through when one is orderly and economical — witness the Lorilleuxs, who paid their rent to the day, the money folded up in bits of dirty paper. But they, it is true, led a life of starved spiders, which would disgust one with hard work. Nana as yet earned nothing at flower-making; she even cost a good deal for her keep. At Madame Fauconnier’s Gervaise was beginning to be looked down upon. She was no longer so expert. She bungled her work to such an extent that the mistress had reduced her wages to two francs a day, the price paid to the clumsiest bungler. But she was still proud, reminding everyone of her former status as boss of her own shop. When Madame Fauconnier hired Madame Putois, Gervaise was so annoyed at having to work beside her former employee that she stayed away for two weeks.
As for Coupeau, he did perhaps work, but in that case he certainly made a present of his labor to the Government, for since the time he returned from Etampes Gervaise had never seen the color of his money. She no longer looked in his hands when he came home on paydays. He arrived swinging his arms, his pockets empty, and often without his handkerchief; well, yes, he had lost his rag, or else some rascally comrade had sneaked it. At first he always fibbed; there was a donation to charity, or some money slipped through the hole in his pocket, or he paid off some imaginary debts. Later, he didn’t even bother to make up anything. He had nothing left because it had all gone into his stomach.
Madame Boche suggested to Gervaise that she go to wait for him at the shop exit. This rarely worked though, because Coupeau’s comrades would warn him and the money would disappear into his shoe or someone else’s pocket.
Yes, it was their own fault if every season found them lower and lower. But that’s the sort of thing one never tells oneself, especially when one is down in the mire. They accused their bad luck; they pretended that fate was against them. Their home had become a regular shambles where they wrangled the whole day long. However, they had not yet come to blows, with the exception of a few impulsive smacks, which somehow flew about at the height of their quarrels. The saddest part of the business was that they had opened the cage of affection; all their better feelings had taken flight, like so many canaries. The genial warmth of father, mother and child, when united together and wrapped up in each other, deserted them, and left them shivering, each in his or her own corner. All three — Coupeau, Gervaise and Nana — were always in the most abominable tempers, biting each other’s noses off for nothing at all, their eyes full of hatred; and it seemed as though something had broken the mainspring of the family, the mechanism which, with happy people, causes hearts to beat in unison. Ah! it was certain Gervaise was no longer moved as she used to be when she saw Coupeau at the edge of a roof forty or fifty feet above the pavement. She would not have pushed him off herself, but if he had fallen accidentally, in truth it would have freed the earth of one who was of but little account. The days when they were more especially at enmity she would ask him why he didn’t come back on a stretcher. She was awaiting it. It would be her good luck they were bringing back to her. What use was he — that drunkard? To make her weep, to devour all she possessed, to drive her to sin. Well! Men so useless as he should be thrown as quickly as possible into the hole and the polka of deliverance be danced over them. And when the mother said “Kill him!” the daughter responded “Knock him on the head!” Nana read all of the reports of accidents in the newspapers, and made reflections that were unnatural for a girl. Her father had such good luck an omnibus had knocked him down without even sobering him. Would the beggar never croak?
In the midst of her own poverty Gervaise suffered even more because other families around her were also starving to death. Their corner of the tenement housed the most wretched. There was not a family that ate every day.
Gervaise felt the most pity for Pere Bru in his cubbyhole under the staircase where he hibernated. Sometimes he stayed on his bed of straw without moving for days. Even hunger no longer drove him out since there was no use taking a walk when no one would invite him to dinner. Whenever he didn’t show his face for several days, the neighbors would push open his door to see if his troubles were over. No, he was still alive, just barely. Even Death seemed to have neglected him. Whenever Gervaise had any bread she gave him the crusts. Even when she hated all men because of her husband, she still felt sincerely sorry for Pere Bru, the poor old man. They were letting him starve to death because he could no longer hold tools in his hand.
The laundress also suffered a great deal from the close neighborhood of Bazouge, the undertaker’s helper. A simple partition, and a very thin one, separated the two rooms. He could not put his fingers down his throat without her hearing it. As soon as he came home of an evening she listened, in spite of herself, to everything he did. His black leather hat laid with a dull thud on the chest of drawers, like a shovelful of earth; the black cloak hung up and rustling against the walls like the wings of some night bird; all the black toggery flung into the middle of the room and filling it with the trappings of mourning. She heard him stamping about, felt anxious at the least movement, and was quite startled if he knocked against the furniture or rattled any of his crockery. This confounded drunkard was her preoccupation, filling her with a secret fear mingled with a desire to know. He, jolly, his belly full every day, his head all upside down, coughed, spat, sang “Mother Godichon,” made use of many dirty expressions and fought with the four walls before finding his bedstead. And she remained quite pale, wondering what he could be doing in there. She imagined the most atrocious things. She got into her head that he must have brought a corpse home, and was stowing it away under his bedstead. Well! the newspapers had related something of the kind — an undertaker’s helper who collected the coffins of little children at his home, so as to save himself trouble and to make only one journey to the cemetery.
For certain, directly Bazouge arrived, a smell of death seemed to permeate the partition. One might have thought oneself lodging against the Pere Lachaise cemetery, in the midst of the kingdom of moles. He was frightful, the animal, continually laughing all by himself, as though his profession enlivened him. Even when he had finished his rumpus and had laid himself on his back, he snored in a manner so extraordinary that it caused the laundress to hold her breath. For hours she listened attentively, with an idea that funerals were passing through her neighbor’s room.
The worst was that, in spite of her terrors, something incited Gervaise to put her ear to the wall, the better to find out what was taking place. Bazouge had the same effect on her as handsome men have on good women: they would like to touch them. Well! if fear had not kept her back, Gervaise would have liked to have handled death, to see what it was like. She became so peculiar at times, holding her breath, listening attentively, expecting to unravel the secret through one of Bazouge’s movements, that Coupeau would ask her with a chuckle if she had a fancy for that gravedigger next door. She got angry and talked of moving, the close proximity of this neighbor was so distasteful to her; and yet, in spite of herself, as soon as the old chap arrived, smelling like a cemetery, she became wrapped again in her reflections, with the excited and timorous air of a wife thinking of passing a knife through the marriage contract. Had he not twice offered to pack her up and carry her off with him to some place where the enjoyment of sleep is so great, that in a moment one forgets all one’s wretchedness? Perhaps it was really very pleasant. Little by little the temptation to taste it became stronger. She would have liked to have tried it for a fortnight or a month. Oh! to sleep a month, especially in winter, the month when the rent became due, when the troubles of life were killing her! But it was not possible — one must sleep forever, if one commences to sleep for an hour; and the thought of this froze her, her desire for death departed before the eternal and stern friendship which the earth demanded.
However, one evening in January she knocked with both her fists against the partition. She had passed a frightful week, hustled by everyone, without a sou, and utterly discouraged. That evening she was not at all well, she shivered with fever, and seemed to see flames dancing about her. Then, instead of throwing herself out of the window, as she had at one moment thought of doing, she set to knocking and calling:
“Old Bazouge! Old Bazouge!”
The undertaker’s helper was taking off his shoes and singing, “There were three lovely girls.” He had probably had a good day, for he seemed even more maudlin than usual.
“Old Bazouge! Old Bazouge!” repeated Gervaise, raising her voice.
Did he not hear her then? She was ready to give herself at once; he might come and take her on his neck, and carry her off to the place where he carried his other women, the poor and the rich, whom he consoled. It pained her to hear his song, “There were three lovely girls,” because she discerned in it the disdain of a man with too many sweethearts.
“What is it? what is it?” stuttered Bazouge; “who’s unwell? We’re coming, little woman!”
But the sound of this husky voice awoke Gervaise as though from a nightmare. And a feeling of horror ascended from her knees to her shoulders at the thought of seeing herself lugged along in the old fellow’s arms, all stiff and her face as white as a china plate.
“Well! is there no one there now?” resumed Bazouge in silence. “Wait a bit, we’re always ready to oblige the ladies.”
“It’s nothing, nothing,” said the laundress at length in a choking voice. “I don’t require anything, thanks.”
She remained anxious, listening to old Bazouge grumbling himself to sleep, afraid to stir for fear he would think he heard her knocking again.
In her corner of misery, in the midst of her cares and the cares of others, Gervaise had, however, a beautiful example of courage in the home of her neighbors, the Bijards. Little Lalie, only eight years old and no larger than a sparrow, took care of the household as competently as a grown person. The job was not an easy one because she had two little tots, her brother Jules and her sister Henriette, aged three and five, to watch all day long while sweeping and cleaning.
Ever since Bijard had killed his wife with a kick in the stomach, Lalie had become the little mother of them all. Without saying a word, and of her own accord, she filled the place of one who had gone, to the extent that her brute of a father, no doubt to complete the resemblance, now belabored the daughter as he had formerly belabored the mother. Whenever he came home drunk, he required a woman to massacre. He did not even notice that Lalie was quite little; he would not have beaten some old trollop harder. Little Lalie, so thin it made you cry, took it all without a word of complaint in her beautiful, patient eyes. Never would she revolt. She bent her neck to protect her face and stifled her sobs so as not to alarm the neighbors. When her father got tired of kicking her, she would rest a bit until she got her strength back and then resume her work. It was part of her job, being beaten daily.
Gervaise entertained a great friendship for her little neighbor. She treated her as an equal, as a grown-up woman of experience. It must be said that Lalie had a pale and serious look, with the expression of an old girl. One might have thought her thirty on hearing her speak. She knew very well how to buy things, mend the clothes, attend to the home, and she spoke of the children as though she had already gone through two or thee nurseries in her time. It made people smile to hear her talk thus at eight years old; and then a lump would rise in their throats, and they would hurry away so as not to burst out crying. Gervaise drew the child towards her as much as she could, gave her all she could spare of food and old clothing. One day as she tried one of Nana’s old dresses on her, she almost choked with anger on seeing her back covered with bruises, the skin off her elbow, which was still bleeding, and all her innocent flesh martyred and sticking to her bones. Well! Old Bazouge could get a box ready; she would not last long at that rate! But the child had begged the laundress not to say a word. She would not have her father bothered on her account. She took his part, affirming that he would not have been so wicked if it had not been for the drink. He was mad, he did not know what he did. Oh! she forgave him, because one ought to forgive madmen everything.
From that time Gervaise watched and prepared to interfere directly she heard Bijard coming up the stairs. But on most of the occasions she only caught some whack for her trouble. When she entered their room in the day-time, she often found Lalie tied to the foot of the iron bedstead; it was an idea of the locksmith’s, before going out, to tie her legs and her body with some stout rope, without anyone being able to find out why — a mere whim of a brain diseased by drink, just for the sake, no doubt, of maintaining his tyranny over the child when he was no longer there. Lalie, as stiff as a stake, with pins and needles in her legs, remained whole days at the post. She once even passed a night there, Bijard having forgotten to come home. Whenever Gervaise, carried away by her indignation, talked of unfastening her, she implored her not to disturb the rope, because her father became furious if he did not find the knots tied the same way he had left them. Really, it wasn’t so bad, it gave her a rest. She smiled as she said this though her legs were swollen and bruised. What upset her the most was that she couldn’t do her work while tied to the bed. She could watch the children though, and even did some knitting, so as not to entirely waste the time.
The locksmith had thought of another little game too. He heated sous in the frying pan, then placed them on a corner of the mantle-piece; and he called Lalie, and told her to fetch a couple of pounds of bread. The child took up the sous unsuspectingly, uttered a cry and threw them on the ground, shaking her burnt hand. Then he flew into a fury. Who had saddled him with such a piece of carrion? She lost the money now! And he threatened to beat her to a jelly if she did not pick the sous up at once. When the child hesitated she received the first warning, a clout of such force that it made her see thirty-six candles. Speechless and with two big tears in the corners of her eyes, she would pick up the sous and go off, tossing them in the palm of her hand to cool them.
No, one could never imagine the ferocious ideas which may sprout from the depths of a drunkard’s brain. One afternoon, for instance, Lalie having made everything tidy was playing with the children. The window was open, there was a draught, and the wind blowing along the passage gently shook the door.
“It’s Monsieur Hardy,” the child was saying. “Come in, Monsieur Hardy. Pray have the kindness to walk in.”
And she curtsied before the door, she bowed to the wind. Henriette and Jules, behind her, also bowed, delighted with the game and splitting their sides with laughing, as though being tickled. She was quite rosy at seeing them so heartily amused and even found some pleasure in it on her own account, which generally only happened to her on the thirty-sixth day of each month.
“Good day, Monsieur Hardy. How do you do, Monsieur Hardy?”
But a rough hand pushed open the door, and Bijard entered. Then the scene changed. Henriette and Jules fell down flat against the wall; whilst Lalie, terrified, remained standing in the very middle of the curtsey. The locksmith held in his hand a big waggoner’s whip, quite new, with a long white wooden handle, and a leather thong, terminating with a bit of whip-cord. He placed the whip in the corner against the bed and did not give the usual kick to the child who was already preparing herself by presenting her back. A chuckle exposed his blackened teeth and he was very lively, very drunk, his red face lighted up by some idea that amused him immensely.
“What’s that?” said he. “You’re playing the deuce, eh, you confounded young hussy! I could hear you dancing about from downstairs. Now then, come here! Nearer and full face. I don’t want to sniff you from behind. Am I touching you that you tremble like a mass of giblets? Take my shoes off.”
Lalie turned quite pale again and, amazed at not receiving her usual drubbing, took his shoes off. He had seated himself on the edge of the bed. He lay down with his clothes on and remained with his eyes open, watching the child move about the room. She busied herself with one thing and another, gradually becoming bewildered beneath his glance, her limbs overcome by such a fright that she ended by breaking a cup. Then, without getting off the bed, he took hold of the whip and showed it to her.
“See, little chickie, look at this. It’s a present for you. Yes, it’s another fifty sous you’ve cost me. With this plaything I shall no longer be obliged to run after you, and it’ll be no use you getting into the corners. Will you have a try? Ah! you broke a cup! Now then, gee up! Dance away, make your curtsies to Monsieur Hardy!”
He did not even raise himself but lay sprawling on his back, his head buried in his pillow, making the big whip crack about the room with the noise of a postillion starting his horses. Then, lowering his arm he lashed Lalie in the middle of the body, encircling her with the whip and unwinding it again as though she were a top. She fell and tried to escape on her hands and knees; but lashing her again he jerked her to her feet.
“Gee up, gee up!” yelled he. “It’s the donkey race! Eh, it’ll be fine of a cold morning in winter. I can lie snug without getting cold or hurting my chilblains and catch the calves from a distance. In that corner there, a hit, you hussy! And in that other corner, a hit again! And in that one, another hit. Ah! if you crawl under the bed I’ll whack you with the handle. Gee up, you jade! Gee up! Gee up!”
A slight foam came to his lips, his yellow eyes were starting from their black orbits. Lalie, maddened, howling, jumped to the four corners of the room, curled herself up on the floor and clung to the walls; but the lash at the end of the big whip caught her everywhere, cracking against her ears with the noise of fireworks, streaking her flesh with burning weals. A regular dance of the animal being taught its tricks. This poor kitten waltzed. It was a sight! Her heels in the air like little girls playing at skipping, and crying “Father!” She was all out of breath, rebounding like an india-rubber ball, letting herself be beaten, unable to see or any longer to seek a refuge. And her wolf of a father triumphed, calling her a virago, asking her if she had had enough and whether she understood sufficiently that she was in future to give up all hope of escaping from him.
But Gervaise suddenly entered the room, attracted by the child’s howls. On beholding such a scene she was seized with a furious indignation.
“Ah! you brute of a man!” cried she. “Leave her alone, you brigand! I’ll put the police on to you.”
Bijard growled like an animal being disturbed, and stuttered:
“Mind your own business a bit, Limper. Perhaps you’d like me to put gloves on when I stir her up. It’s merely to warm her, as you can plainly see — simply to show her that I’ve a long arm.”
And he gave a final lash with the whip which caught Lalie across the face. The upper lip was cut, the blood flowed. Gervaise had seized a chair, and was about to fall on to the locksmith; but the child held her hands towards her imploringly, saying that it was nothing and that it was all over. She wiped away the blood with the corner of her apron and quieted the babies, who were sobbing bitterly, as though they had received all the blows.
Whenever Gervaise thought of Lalie, she felt she had no right to complain for herself. She wished she had as much patient courage as the little girl who was only eight years old and had to endure more than the rest of the women on their staircase put together. She had seen Lalie living on stale bread for months and growing thinner and weaker. Whenever she smuggled some remnants of meat to Lalie, it almost broke her heart to see the child weeping silently and nibbling it down only by little bits because her throat was so shrunken. Gervaise looked on Lalie as a model of suffering and forgiveness and tried to learn from her how to suffer in silence.
In the Coupeau household the vitriol of l’Assommoir was also commencing its ravages. Gervaise could see the day coming when her husband would get a whip like Bijard’s to make her dance.
Yes, Coupeau was spinning an evil thread. The time was past when a drink would make him feel good. His unhealthy soft fat of earlier years had melted away and he was beginning to wither and turn a leaden grey. He seemed to have a greenish tint like a corpse putrefying in a pond. He no longer had a taste for food, not even the most beautifully prepared stew. His stomach would turn and his decayed teeth refuse to touch it. A pint a day was his daily ration, the only nourishment he could digest. When he awoke in the mornings he sat coughing and spitting up bile for at least a quarter of an hour. It never failed, you might as well have the basin ready. He was never steady on his pins till after his first glass of consolation, a real remedy, the fire of which cauterized his bowels; but during the day his strength returned. At first he would feel a tickling sensation, a sort of pins-and-needles in his hands and feet; and he would joke, relating that someone was having a lark with him, that he was sure his wife put horse-hair between the sheets. Then his legs would become heavy, the tickling sensation would end by turning into the most abominable cramps, which gripped his flesh as though in a vise. That though did not amuse him so much. He no longer laughed; he stopped suddenly on the pavement in a bewildered way with a ringing in his ears and his eyes blinded with sparks. Everything appeared to him to be yellow; the houses danced and he reeled about for three seconds with the fear of suddenly finding himself sprawling on the ground. At other times, while the sun was shining full on his back, he would shiver as though iced water had been poured down his shoulders. What bothered him the most was a slight trembling of both his hands; the right hand especially must have been guilty of some crime, it suffered from so many nightmares. Mon Dieu! was he then no longer a man? He was becoming an old woman! He furiously strained his muscles, he seized hold of his glass and bet that he would hold it perfectly steady as with a hand of marble; but in spite of his efforts the glass danced about, jumped to the right, jumped to the left with a hurried and regular trembling movement. Then in a fury he emptied it into his gullet, yelling that he would require dozens like it, and afterwards he undertook to carry a cask without so much as moving a finger. Gervaise, on the other hand, told him to give up drink if he wished to cease trembling, and he laughed at her, emptying quarts until he experienced the sensation again, flying into a rage and accusing the passing omnibuses of shaking up his liquor.
In the month of March Coupeau returned home one evening soaked through. He had come with My–Boots from Montrouge, where they had stuffed themselves full of eel soup, and he had received the full force of the shower all the way from the Barriere des Fourneaux to the Barriere Poissonniere, a good distance. During the night he was seized with a confounded fit of coughing. He was very flushed, suffering from a violent fever and panting like a broken bellows. When the Boches’ doctor saw him in the morning and listened against his back he shook his head, and drew Gervaise aside to advise her to have her husband taken to the hospital. Coupeau was suffering from pneumonia.
Gervaise did not worry herself, you may be sure. At one time she would have been chopped into pieces before trusting her old man to the saw-bones. After the accident in the Rue de la Nation she had spent their savings in nursing him. But those beautiful sentiments don’t last when men take to wallowing in the mire. No, no; she did not intend to make a fuss like that again. They might take him and never bring him back; she would thank them heartily. Yet, when the litter arrived and Coupeau was put into it like an article of furniture, she became all pale and bit her lips; and if she grumbled and still said it was a good job, her heart was no longer in her words. Had she but ten francs in her drawer she would not have let him go.
She accompanied him to the Lariboisiere Hospital, saw the nurses put him to bed at the end of a long hall, where the patients in a row, looking like corpses, raised themselves up and followed with their eyes the comrade who had just been brought in. It was a veritable death chamber. There was a suffocating, feverish odor and a chorus of coughing. The long hall gave the impression of a small cemetery with its double row of white beds looking like an aisle of marble tombs. When Coupeau remained motionless on his pillow, Gervaise left, having nothing to say, nor anything in her pocket that could comfort him.
Outside, she turned to look up at the monumental structure of the hospital and recalled the days when Coupeau was working there, putting on the zinc roof, perched up high and singing in the sun. He wasn’t drinking in those days. She used to watch for him from her window in the Hotel Boncoeur and they would both wave their handkerchiefs in greeting. Now, instead of being on the roof like a cheerful sparrow, he was down below. He had built his own place in the hospital where he had come to die. Mon Dieu! It all seemed so far way now, that time of young love.
On the day after the morrow, when Gervaise called to obtain news of him, she found the bed empty. A Sister of Charity told her that they had been obliged to remove her husband to the Asylum of Sainte–Anne, because the day before he had suddenly gone wild. Oh! a total leave-taking of his senses; attempts to crack his skull against the wall; howls which prevented the other patients from sleeping. It all came from drink, it seemed. Gervaise went home very upset. Well, her husband had gone crazy. What would it be like if he came home? Nana insisted that they should leave him in the hospital because he might end by killing both of them.
Gervaise was not able to go to Sainte–Anne until Sunday. It was a tremendous journey. Fortunately, the omnibus from the Boulevard Rochechouart to La Glaciere passed close to the asylum. She went down the Rue de la Sante, buying two oranges on her way, so as not to arrive empty-handed. It was another monumental building, with grey courtyards, interminable corridors and a smell of rank medicaments, which did not exactly inspire liveliness. But when they had admitted her into a cell she was quite surprised to see Coupeau almost jolly. He was just then seated on the throne, a spotlessly clean wooden case, and they both laughed at her finding him in this position. Well, one knows what an invalid is. He squatted there like a pope with his cheek of earlier days. Oh! he was better, as he could do this.
“And the pneumonia?” inquired the laundress.
“Done for!” replied he. “They cured it in no time. I still cough a little, but that’s all that is left of it.”
Then at the moment of leaving the throne to get back into his bed, he joked once more. “It’s lucky you have a strong nose and are not bothered.”
They laughed louder than ever. At heart they felt joyful. It was by way of showing their contentment without a host of phrases that they thus joked together. One must have had to do with patients to know the pleasure one feels at seeing all their functions at work again.
When he was back in bed she gave him the two oranges and this filled him with emotion. He was becoming quite nice again ever since he had had nothing but tisane to drink. She ended by venturing to speak to him about his violent attack, surprised at hearing him reason like in the good old times.
“Ah, yes,” said he, joking at his own expense; “I talked a precious lot of nonsense! Just fancy, I saw rats and ran about on all fours to put a grain of salt under their tails. And you, you called to me, men were trying to kill you. In short, all sorts of stupid things, ghosts in broad daylight. Oh! I remember it well, my noodle’s still solid. Now it’s over, I dream a bit when I’m asleep. I have nightmares, but everyone has nightmares.”
Gervaise remained with him until the evening. When the house surgeon came, at the six o’clock inspection, he made him spread his hands; they hardly trembled at all, scarcely a quiver at the tips of the fingers. However, as night approached, Coupeau was little by little seized with uneasiness. He twice sat up in bed looking on the ground and in the dark corners of the room. Suddenly he thrust out an arm and appeared to crush some vermin against the wall.
“What is it?” asked Gervaise, frightened.
“The rats! The rats!” murmured he.
Then, after a pause, gliding into sleep, he tossed about, uttering disconnected phrases.
“Mon Dieu! they’re tearing my skin! — Oh! the filthy beasts! — Keep steady! Hold your skirts right round you! beware of the dirty bloke behind you! —Mon Dieu! she’s down and the scoundrels laugh! — Scoundrels! Blackguards! Brigands!”
He dealt blows into space, caught hold of his blanket and rolled it into a bundle against his chest, as though to protect the latter from the violence of the bearded men whom he beheld. Then, an attendant having hastened to the spot, Gervaise withdrew, quite frozen by the scene.
But when she returned a few days later, she found Coupeau completely cured. Even the nightmares had left him; he could sleep his ten hours right off as peacefully as a child and without stirring a limb. So his wife was allowed to take him away. The house surgeon gave him the usual good advice on leaving and advised him to follow it. If he recommenced drinking, he would again collapse and would end by dying. Yes, it solely depended upon himself. He had seen how jolly and healthy one could become when one did not get drunk. Well, he must continue at home the sensible life he had led at Sainte–Anne, fancy himself under lock and key and that dram-shops no longer existed.
“The gentleman’s right,” said Gervaise in the omnibus which was taking them back to the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or.
“Of course he’s right,” replied Coupeau.
Then, after thinking a minute, he resumed:
“Oh! you know, a little glass now and again can’t kill a man; it helps the digestion.”
And that very evening he swallowed a glass of bad spirit, just to keep his stomach in order. For eight days he was pretty reasonable. He was a great coward at heart; he had no desire to end his days in the Bicetre mad-house. But his passion got the better of him; the first little glass led him, in spite of himself, to a second, to a third and to a fourth, and at the end of a fortnight, he had got back to his old ration, a pint of vitriol a day. Gervaise, exasperated, could have beaten him. To think that she had been stupid enough to dream once more of leading a worthy life, just because she had seen him at the asylum in full possession of his good sense! Another joyful hour had flown, the last one no doubt! Oh! now, as nothing could reclaim him, not even the fear of his near death, she swore she would no longer put herself out; the home might be all at sixes and sevens, she did not care any longer; and she talked also of leaving him.
Then hell upon earth recommenced, a life sinking deeper into the mire, without a glimmer of hope for something better to follow. Nana, whenever her father clouted her, furiously asked why the brute was not at the hospital. She was awaiting the time when she would be earning money, she would say, to treat him to brandy and make him croak quicker. Gervaise, on her side, flew into a passion one day that Coupeau was regretting their marriage. Ah! she had brought him her saucy children; ah! she had got herself picked up from the pavement, wheedling him with rosy dreams! Mon Dieu! he had a rare cheek! So many words, so many lies. She hadn’t wished to have anything to do with him, that was the truth. He had dragged himself at her feet to make her give way, whilst she was advising him to think well what he was about. And if it was all to come over again, he would hear how she would just say “no!” She would sooner have an arm cut off. Yes, she’d had a lover before him; but a woman who has had a lover, and who is a worker, is worth more than a sluggard of a man who sullies his honor and that of his family in all the dram-shops. That day, for the first time, the Coupeaus went in for a general brawl, and they whacked each other so hard that an old umbrella and the broom were broken.
Gervaise kept her word. She sank lower and lower; she missed going to her work oftener, spent whole days in gossiping, and became as soft as a rag whenever she had a task to perform. If a thing fell from her hands, it might remain on the floor; it was certainly not she who would have stooped to pick it up. She took her ease about everything, and never handled a broom except when the accumulation of filth almost brought her to the ground. The Lorilleuxs now made a point of holding something to their noses whenever they passed her room; the stench was poisonous, said they. Those hypocrites slyly lived at the end of the passage, out of the way of all these miseries which filled the corner of the house with whimpering, locking themselves in so as not to have to lend twenty sou pieces. Oh! kind-hearted folks, neighbors awfully obliging! Yes, you may be sure! One had only to knock and ask for a light or a pinch of salt or a jug of water, one was certain of getting the door banged in one’s face. With all that they had vipers’ tongues. They protested everywhere that they never occupied themselves with other people. This was true whenever it was a question of assisting a neighbor; but they did so from morning to night, directly they had a chance of pulling any one to pieces. With the door bolted and a rug hung up to cover the chinks and the key-hole, they would treat themselves to a spiteful gossip without leaving their gold wire for a moment.
The fall of Clump-clump in particular kept them purring like pet cats. Completely ruined! Not a sou remaining. They smiled gleefully at the small piece of bread she would bring back when she went shopping and kept count of the days when she had nothing at all to eat. And the clothes she wore now. Disgusting rags! That’s what happened when one tried to live high.
Gervaise, who had an idea of the way in which they spoke of her, would take her shoes off, and place her ear against their door; but the rug over the door prevented her from hearing much. She was heartily sick of them; she continued to speak to them, to avoid remarks, though expecting nothing but unpleasantness from such nasty persons, but no longer having strength even to give them as much as they gave her, passed the insults off as a lot of nonsense. And besides she only wanted her own pleasure, to sit in a heap twirling her thumbs, and only moving when it was a question of amusing herself, nothing more.
One Saturday Coupeau had promised to take her to the circus. It was well worth while disturbing oneself to see ladies galloping along on horses and jumping through paper hoops. Coupeau had just finished a fortnight’s work, he could well spare a couple of francs; and they had also arranged to dine out, just the two of them, Nana having to work very late that evening at her employer’s because of some pressing order. But at seven o’clock there was no Coupeau; at eight o’clock it was still the same. Gervaise was furious. Her drunkard was certainly squandering his earnings with his comrades at the dram-shops of the neighborhood. She had washed a cap and had been slaving since the morning over the holes of an old dress, wishing to look decent. At last, towards nine o’clock, her stomach empty, her face purple with rage, she decided to go down and look for Coupeau.
“Is it your husband you want?” called Madame Boche, on catching sight of Gervaise looking very glum. “He’s at Pere Colombe’s. Boche has just been having some cherry brandy with him.”
Gervaise uttered her thanks and stalked stiffly along the pavement with the determination of flying at Coupeau’s eyes. A fine rain was falling which made the walk more unpleasant still. But when she reached l’Assommoir, the fear of receiving the drubbing herself if she badgered her old man suddenly calmed her and made her prudent. The shop was ablaze with the lighted gas, the flames of which were as brilliant as suns, and the bottles and jars illuminated the walls with their colored glass. She stood there an instant stretching her neck, her eyes close to the window, looking between two bottle placed there for show, watching Coupeau who was right at the back; he was sitting with some comrades at a little zinc table, all looking vague and blue in the tobacco smoke; and, as one could not hear them yelling, it created a funny effect to see them gesticulating with their chins thrust forward and their eyes starting out of their heads. Good heavens! Was it really possible that men could leave their wives and their homes to shut themselves up thus in a hole where they were choking?
The rain trickled down her neck; she drew herself up and went off to the exterior Boulevard, wrapped in thought and not daring to enter. Ah! well Coupeau would have welcomed her in a pleasant way, he who objected to be spied upon! Besides, it really scarcely seemed to her the proper place for a respectable woman. Twice she went back and stood before the shop window, her eyes again riveted to the glass, annoyed at still beholding those confounded drunkards out of the rain and yelling and drinking. The light of l’Assommoir was reflected in the puddles on the pavement, which simmered with little bubbles caused by the downpour. At length she thought she was too foolish, and pushing open the door, she walked straight up to the table where Coupeau was sitting. After all it was her husband she came for, was it not? And she was authorized in doing so, because he had promised to take her to the circus that evening. So much the worse! She had no desire to melt like a cake of soap out on the pavement.
“Hullo! It’s you, old woman!” exclaimed the zinc-worker, half choking with a chuckle. “Ah! that’s a good joke. Isn’t it a good joke now?”
All the company laughed. Gervaise remained standing, feeling rather bewildered. Coupeau appeared to her to be in a pleasant humor, so she ventured to say:
“You remember, we’ve somewhere to go. We must hurry. We shall still be in time to see something.”
“I can’t get up, I’m glued, oh! without joking,” resumed Coupeau, who continued laughing. “Try, just to satisfy yourself; pull my arm with all your strength; try it! harder than that, tug away, up with it! You see it’s that louse Pere Colombe who’s screwed me to his seat.”
Gervaise had humored him at this game, and when she let go of his arm, the comrades thought the joke so good that they tumbled up against one another, braying and rubbing their shoulders like donkeys being groomed. The zinc-worker’s mouth was so wide with laughter that you could see right down his throat.
“You great noodle!” said he at length, “you can surely sit down a minute. You’re better here than splashing about outside. Well, yes; I didn’t come home as I promised, I had business to attend to. Though you may pull a long face, it won’t alter matters. Make room, you others.”
“If madame would accept my knees she would find them softer than the seat,” gallantly said My–Boots.
Gervaise, not wishing to attract attention, took a chair and sat down at a short distance from the table. She looked at what the men were drinking, some rotgut brandy which shone like gold in the glasses; a little of it had dropped upon the table and Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, dipped his finger in it whilst conversing and wrote a woman’s name —“Eulalie”— in big letters. She noticed that Bibi-the-Smoker looked shockingly jaded and thinner than a hundred-weight of nails. My–Boot’s nose was in full bloom, a regular purple Burgundy dahlia. They were all quite dirty, their beards stiff, their smocks ragged and stained, their hands grimy with dirt. Yet they were still quite polite.
Gervaise noticed a couple of men at the bar. They were so drunk that they were spilling the drink down their chins when they thought they were wetting their whistles. Fat Pere Colombe was calmly serving round after round.
The atmosphere was very warm, the smoke from the pipes ascended in the blinding glare of the gas, amidst which it rolled about like dust, drowning the customers in a gradually thickening mist; and from this cloud there issued a deafening and confused uproar, cracked voices, clinking of glasses, oaths and blows sounding like detonations. So Gervaise pulled a very wry face, for such a sight is not funny for a woman, especially when she is not used to it; she was stifling, with a smarting sensation in her eyes, and her head already feeling heavy from the alcoholic fumes exhaled by the whole place. Then she suddenly experienced the sensation of something more unpleasant still behind her back. She turned round and beheld the still, the machine which manufactured drunkards, working away beneath the glass roof of the narrow courtyard with the profound trepidation of its hellish cookery. Of an evening, the copper parts looked more mournful than ever, lit up only on their rounded surface with one big red glint; and the shadow of the apparatus on the wall at the back formed most abominable figures, bodies with tails, monsters opening their jaws as though to swallow everyone up.
“Listen, mother Talk-too-much, don’t make any of your grimaces!” cried Coupeau. “To blazes, you know, with all wet blankets! What’ll you drink?”
“Nothing, of course,” replied the laundress. “I haven’t dined yet.”
“Well! that’s all the more reason for having a glass; a drop of something sustains one.”
But, as she still retained her glum expression, My–Boots again did the gallant.
“Madame probably likes sweet things,” murmured he.
“I like men who don’t get drunk,” retorted she, getting angry. “Yes, I like a fellow who brings home his earnings, and who keeps his word when he makes a promise.”
“Ah! so that’s what upsets you?” said the zinc-worker, without ceasing to chuckle. “Yes, you want your share. Then, big goose, why do you refuse a drink? Take it, it’s so much to the good.”
She looked at him fixedly, in a grave manner, a wrinkle marking her forehead with a black line. And she slowly replied:
“Why, you’re right, it’s a good idea. That way, we can drink up the coin together.”
Bibi-the-Smoker rose from his seat to fetch her a glass of anisette. She drew her chair up to the table. Whilst she was sipping her anisette, a recollection suddenly flashed across her mind, she remembered the plum she had taken with Coupeau, near the door, in the old days, when he was courting her. At that time, she used to leave the juice of fruits preserved in brandy. And now, here was she going back to liqueurs. Oh! she knew herself well, she had not two thimblefuls of will. One would only have had to have given her a walloping across the back to have made her regularly wallow in drink. The anisette even seemed to be very good, perhaps rather too sweet and slightly sickening. She went on sipping as she listened to Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, tell of his affair with fat Eulalie, a fish peddler and very shrewd at locating him. Even if his comrades tried to hide him, she could usually sniff him out when he was late. Just the night before she had slapped his face with a flounder to teach him not to neglect going to work. Bibi-the-Smoker and My–Boots nearly split their sides laughing. They slapped Gervaise on the shoulder and she began to laugh also, finding it amusing in spite of herself. They then advised her to follow Eulalie’s example and bring an iron with her so as to press Coupeau’s ears on the counters of the wineshops.
“Ah, well, no thanks,” cried Coupeau as he turned upside down the glass his wife had emptied. “You pump it out pretty well. Just look, you fellows, she doesn’t take long over it.”
“Will madame take another?” asked Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst.
No, she had had enough. Yet she hesitated. The anisette had slightly bothered her stomach. She should have taken straight brandy to settle her digestion.
She cast side glances at the drunkard manufacturing machine behind her. That confounded pot, as round as the stomach of a tinker’s fat wife, with its nose that was so long and twisted, sent a shiver down her back, a fear mingled with a desire. Yes, one might have thought it the metal pluck of some big wicked woman, of some witch who was discharging drop by drop the fire of her entrails. A fine source of poison, an operation which should have been hidden away in a cellar, it was so brazen and abominable! But all the same she would have liked to have poked her nose inside it, to have sniffed the odor, have tasted the filth, though the skin might have peeled off her burnt tongue like the rind off an orange.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” asked she slyly of the men, her eyes lighted up by the beautiful golden color of their glasses.
“That, old woman,” answered Coupeau, “is Pere Colombe’s camphor. Don’t be silly now and we’ll give you a taste.”
And when they had brought her a glass of the vitriol, the rotgut, and her jaws had contracted at the first mouthful, the zinc-worker resumed, slapping his thighs:
“Ha! It tickles your gullet! Drink it off at one go. Each glassful cheats the doctor of six francs.”
At the second glass Gervaise no longer felt the hunger which had been tormenting her. Now she had made it up with Coupeau, she no longer felt angry with him for not having kept his word. They would go to the circus some other day; it was not so funny to see jugglers galloping about on houses. There was no rain inside Pere Colombe’s and if the money went in brandy, one at least had it in one’s body; one drank it bright and shining like beautiful liquid gold. Ah! she was ready to send the whole world to blazes! Life was not so pleasant after all, besides it seemed some consolation to her to have her share in squandering the cash. As she was comfortable, why should she not remain? One might have a discharge of artillery; she did not care to budge once she had settled in a heap. She nursed herself in a pleasant warmth, her bodice sticking to her back, overcome by a feeling of comfort which benumbed her limbs. She laughed all to herself, her elbows on the table, a vacant look in her eyes, highly amused by two customers, a fat heavy fellow and a tiny shrimp, seated at a neighboring table, and kissing each other lovingly. Yes, she laughed at the things to see in l’Assommoir, at Pere Colombe’s full moon face, a regular bladder of lard, at the customers smoking their short clay pipes, yelling and spitting, and at the big flames of gas which lighted up the looking-glasses and the bottles of liqueurs. The smell no longer bothered her, on the contrary it tickled her nose, and she thought it very pleasant. Her eyes slightly closed, whilst she breathed very slowly, without the least feeling of suffocation, tasting the enjoyment of the gentle slumber which was overcoming her. Then, after her third glass, she let her chin fall on her hands; she now only saw Coupeau and his comrades, and she remained nose to nose with them, quite close, her cheeks warmed by their breath, looking at their dirty beards as though she had been counting the hairs. My–Boots drooled, his pipe between his teeth, with the dumb and grave air of a dozing ox. Bibi-the-Smoker was telling a story — the manner in which he emptied a bottle at a draught, giving it such a kiss that one instantly saw its bottom. Meanwhile Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, had gone and fetched the wheel of fortune from the counter, and was playing with Coupeau for drinks.
“Two hundred! You’re lucky; you get high numbers every time!”
The needle of the wheel grated, and the figure of Fortune, a big red woman placed under glass, turned round and round until it looked like a mere spot in the centre, similar to a wine stain.
“Three hundred and fifty! You must have been inside it, you confounded lascar! Ah! I shan’t play any more!”
Gervaise amused herself with the wheel of fortune. She was feeling awfully thirsty, and calling My–Boots “my child.” Behind her the machine for manufacturing drunkards continued working, with its murmur of an underground stream; and she despaired of ever stopping it, of exhausting it, filled with a sullen anger against it, feeling a longing to spring upon the big still as upon some animal, to kick it with her heels and stave in its belly. Then everything began to seem all mixed up. The machine seemed to be moving itself and she thought she was being grabbed by its copper claws, and that the underground stream was now flowing over her body.
Then the room danced round, the gas-jets seemed to shoot like stars. Gervaise was drunk. She heard a furious wrangle between Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, and that rascal Pere Colombe. There was a thief of a landlord who wanted one to pay for what one had not had! Yet one was not at a gangster’s hang-out. Suddenly there was a scuffling, yells were heard and tables were upset. It was Pere Colombe who was turning the party out without the least hesitation, and in the twinkling of an eye. On the other side of the door they blackguarded him and called him a scoundrel. It still rained and blew icy cold. Gervaise lost Coupeau, found him and then lost him again. She wished to go home; she felt the shops to find her way. This sudden darkness surprised her immensely. At the corner of the Rue des Poissonniers, she sat down in the gutter thinking she was at the wash-house. The water which flowed along caused her head to swim, and made her very ill. At length she arrived, she passed stiffly before the concierge’s room where she perfectly recognized the Lorilleuxs and the Poissons seated at the table having dinner, and who made grimaces of disgust on beholding her in that sorry state.
She never remembered how she had got up all those flights of stairs. Just as she was turning into the passage at the top, little Lalie, who heard her footsteps, hastened to meet her, opening her arms caressingly, and saying, with a smile:
“Madame Gervaise, papa has not returned. Just come and see my little children sleeping. Oh! they look so pretty!”
But on beholding the laundress’ besotted face, she tremblingly drew back. She was acquainted with that brandy-laden breath, those pale eyes, that convulsed mouth. Then Gervaise stumbled past without uttering a word, whilst the child, standing on the threshold of her room, followed her with her dark eyes, grave and speechless.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15