It so happened that the Boches had left the Rue des Poissonniers at the April quarter, and were now taking charge of the great house in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. It was a curious coincidence, all the same! One thing that worried Gervaise who had lived so quietly in her lodgings in the Rue Neuve, was the thought of again being under the subjection of some unpleasant person, with whom she would be continually quarrelling, either on account of water spilt in the passage or of a door shut too noisily at night-time. Concierges are such a disagreeable class! But it would be a pleasure to be with the Boches. They knew one another — they would always get on well together. It would be just like members of the same family.
On the day the Coupeaus went to sign their lease, Gervaise felt her heart swollen with pride as she passed through the high doorway. She was then at length going to live in that house as vast as a little town, with its interminable staircases, and passages as long and winding as streets. She was excited by everything: the gray walls with varicolored rugs hanging from windows to dry in the sun, the dingy courtyard with as many holes in its pavement as a public square, the hum of activity coming through the walls. She felt joy that she was at last about to realize her ambition. She also felt fear that she would fail and be crushed in the endless struggle against the poverty and starvation she could feel breathing down her neck. It seemed to her that she was doing something very bold, throwing herself into the midst of some machinery in motion, as she listened to the blacksmith’s hammers and the cabinetmakers’ planes, hammering and hissing in the depths of the work-shops on the ground floor. On that day the water flowing from the dyer’s under the entrance porch was a very pale apple green. She smilingly stepped over it; to her the color was a pleasant omen.
The meeting with the landlord was to take place in the Boches’ room. Monsieur Marescot, a wealthy cutler of the Rue de la Paix, had at one time turned a grindstone through the streets. He was now stated to be worth several millions. He was a man of fifty-five, large and big-boned. Even though he now wore a decoration in his button-hole, his huge hands were still those of a former workingman. It was his joy to carry off the scissors and knives of his tenants, to sharpen them himself, for the fun of it. He often stayed for hours with his concierges, closed up in the darkness of their lodges, going over the accounts. That’s where he did all his business. He was now seated by Madame Boche’s kitchen table, listening to her story of how the dressmaker on the third floor, staircase A, had used a filthy word in refusing to pay her rent. He had had to work precious hard once upon a time. But work was the high road to everything. And, after counting the two hundred and fifty francs for the first two quarters in advance, and dropping them into his capacious pocket, he related the story of his life, and showed his decoration.
Gervaise, however, felt rather ill at ease on account of the Boches’ behavior. They pretended not to know her. They were most assiduous in their attentions to the landlord, bowing down before him, watching for his least words, and nodding their approval of them. Madame Boche suddenly ran out and dispersed a group of children who were paddling about in front of the cistern, the tap of which they had turned full on, causing the water to flow over the pavement; and when she returned, upright and severe in her skirts, crossing the courtyard and glancing slowly up at all the windows, as though to assure herself of the good behavior of the household, she pursed her lips in a way to show with what authority she was invested, now that she reigned over three hundred tenants. Boche again spoke of the dressmaker on the second floor; he advised that she should be turned out; he reckoned up the number of quarters she owed with the importance of a steward whose management might be compromised. Monsieur Marescot approved the suggestion of turning her out, but he wished to wait till the half quarter. It was hard to turn people out into the street, more especially as it did not put a sou into the landlord’s pocket. And Gervaise asked herself with a shudder if she too would be turned out into the street the day that some misfortune rendered her unable to pay.
The concierge’s lodge was as dismal as a cellar, black from smoke and crowded with dark furniture. All the sunlight fell upon the tailor’s workbench by the window. An old frock coat that was being reworked lay on it. The Boches’ only child, a four-year-old redhead named Pauline, was sitting on the floor, staring quietly at the veal simmering on the stove, delighted with the sharp odor of cooking that came from the frying pan.
Monsieur Marescot again held out his hand to the zinc-worker, when the latter spoke of the repairs, recalling to his mind a promise he had made to talk the matter over later on. But the landlord grew angry, he had never promised anything; besides, it was not usual to do any repairs to a shop. However, he consented to go over the place, followed by the Coupeaus and Boche. The little linen-draper had carried off all his shelves and counters; the empty shop displayed its blackened ceiling and its cracked wall, on which hung strips of an old yellow paper. In the sonorous emptiness of the place, there ensued a heated discussion. Monsieur Marescot exclaimed that it was the business of shopkeepers to embellish their shops, for a shopkeeper might wish to have gold put about everywhere, and he, the landlord, could not put out gold. Then he related that he had spent more than twenty thousand francs in fitting up his premises in the Rue de la Paix. Gervaise, with her woman’s obstinacy, kept repeating an argument which she considered unanswerable. He would repaper a lodging, would he not? Then, why did he not treat the shop the same as a lodging? She did not ask him for anything else — only to whitewash the ceiling, and put some fresh paper on the walls.
Boche, all this while, remained dignified and impenetrable; he turned about and looked up in the air, without expressing an opinion. Coupeau winked at him in vain; he affected not to wish to take advantage of his great influence over the landlord. He ended, however, by making a slight grimace — a little smile accompanied by a nod of the head. Just then Monsieur Marescot, exasperated, and seemingly very unhappy, and clutching his fingers like a miser being despoiled of his gold, was giving way to Gervaise, promising to do the ceiling and repaper the shop on condition that she paid for half of the paper. And he hurried away declining to discuss anything further.
Now that Boche was alone with the Coupeaus, the concierge became quite talkative and slapped them on the shoulders. Well, well, see what they had gotten. Without his help, they would never have gotten the concessions. Didn’t they notice how the landlord had looked to him out of the corner of his eye for advice and how he’d made up his mind suddenly when he saw Boche smile? He confessed to them confidentially that he was the real boss of the building. It was he who decided who got eviction notices and who could become tenants. He collected all the rents and kept them for a couple of weeks in his bureau drawer.
That evening the Coupeaus, to express their gratitude to the Boches, sent them two bottles of wine as a present.
The following Monday the workmen started doing up the shop. The purchasing of the paper turned out especially to be a very big affair. Gervaise wanted a grey paper with blue flowers, so as to enliven and brighten the walls. Boche offered to take her to the dealers, so that she might make her own selection. But the landlord had given him formal instructions not to go beyond the price of fifteen sous the piece. They were there an hour. The laundress kept looking in despair at a very pretty chintz pattern costing eighteen sous the piece, and thought all the other papers hideous. At length the concierge gave in; he would arrange the matter, and, if necessary, would make out there was a piece more used than was really the case. So, on her way home, Gervaise purchased some tarts for Pauline. She did not like being behindhand — one always gained by behaving nicely to her.
The shop was to be ready in four days. The workmen were there three weeks. At first it was arranged that they should merely wash the paint. But this paint, originally maroon, was so dirty and so sad-looking, that Gervaise allowed herself to be tempted to have the whole of the frontage painted a light blue with yellow moldings. Then the repairs seemed as though they would last for ever. Coupeau, as he was still not working, arrived early each morning to see how things were going. Boche left the overcoat or trousers on which he was working to come and supervise. Both of them would stand and watch with their hands behind their backs, puffing on their pipes.
The painters were very merry fellows who would often desert their work to stand in the middle of the shop and join the discussion, shaking their heads for hours, admiring the work already done. The ceiling had been whitewashed quickly, but the paint on the walls never seemed to dry in a hurry.
Around nine o’clock the painters would arrive with their paint pots which they stuck in a corner. They would look around and then disappear. Perhaps they went to eat breakfast. Sometimes Coupeau would take everyone for a drink — Boche, the two painters and any of Coupeau’s friends who were nearby. This meant another afternoon wasted.
Gervaise’s patience was thoroughly exhausted, when, suddenly, everything was finished in two days, the paint varnished, the paper hung, and the dirt all cleared away. The workmen had finished it off as though they were playing, whistling away on their ladders, and singing loud enough to deafen the whole neighborhood.
The moving in took place at once. During the first few days Gervaise felt as delighted as a child. Whenever she crossed the road on returning from some errand, she lingered to smile at her home. From a distance her shop appeared light and gay with its pale blue signboard, on which the word “Laundress” was painted in big yellow letters, amidst the dark row of the other frontages. In the window, closed in behind by little muslin curtains, and hung on either side with blue paper to show off the whiteness of the linen, some shirts were displayed, with some women’s caps hanging above them on wires. She thought her shop looked pretty, being the same color as the heavens.
Inside there was more blue; the paper, in imitation of a Pompadour chintz, represented a trellis overgrown with morning-glories. A huge table, taking up two-thirds of the room, was her ironing-table. It was covered with thick blanketing and draped with a strip of cretonne patterned with blue flower sprays that hid the trestles beneath.
Gervaise was enchanted with her pretty establishment and would often seat herself on a stool and sigh with contentment, delighted with all the new equipment. Her first glance always went to the cast-iron stove where the irons were heated ten at a time, arranged over the heat on slanting rests. She would kneel down to look into the stove to make sure the apprentice had not put in too much coke.
The lodging at the back of the shop was quite decent. The Coupeaus slept in the first room, where they also did the cooking and took their meals; a door at the back opened on to the courtyard of the house. Nana’s bed was in the right hand room, which was lighted by a little round window close to the ceiling. As for Etienne, he shared the left hand room with the dirty clothes, enormous bundles of which lay about on the floor. However, there was one disadvantage — the Coupeaus would not admit it at first — but the damp ran down the walls, and it was impossible to see clearly in the place after three o’clock in the afternoon.
In the neighborhood the new shop produced a great sensation. The Coupeaus were accused of going too fast, and making too much fuss. They had, in fact, spent the five hundred francs lent by the Goujets in fitting up the shop and in moving, without keeping sufficient to live upon for a fortnight, as they had intended doing. The morning that Gervaise took down her shutters for the first time, she had just six francs in her purse. But that did not worry her, customers began to arrive, and things seemed promising. A week later on the Saturday, before going to bed, she remained two hours making calculations on a piece of paper, and she awoke Coupeau to tell him, with a bright look on her face, that there were hundreds and thousands of francs to be made, if they were only careful.
“Ah, well!” said Madame Lorilleux all over the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, “my fool of a brother is seeing some funny things! All that was wanting was that Clump-clump should go about so haughty. It becomes her well, doesn’t it?”
The Lorilleuxs had declared a feud to the death against Gervaise. To begin with, they had almost died of rage during the time while the repairs were being done to the shop. If they caught sight of the painters from a distance, they would walk on the other side of the way, and go up to their rooms with their teeth set. A blue shop for that “nobody,” it was enough to discourage all honest, hard-working people! Besides, the second day after the shop opened the apprentice happened to throw out a bowl of starch just at the moment when Madame Lorilleux was passing. The zinc-worker’s sister caused a great commotion in the street, accusing her sister-in-law of insulting her through her employees. This broke off all relations. Now they only exchanged terrible glares when they encountered each other.
“Yes, she leads a pretty life!” Madame Lorilleux kept saying. “We all know where the money came from that she paid for her wretched shop! She borrowed it from the blacksmith; and he springs from a nice family too! Didn’t the father cut his own throat to save the guillotine the trouble of doing so? Anyhow, there was something disreputable of that sort!”
She bluntly accused Gervaise of flirting with Goujet. She lied — she pretended she had surprised them together one night on a seat on the exterior Boulevards. The thought of this liaison, of pleasures that her sister-in-law was no doubt enjoying, exasperated her still more, because of her own ugly woman’s strict sense of propriety. Every day the same cry came from her heart to her lips.
“What does she have, that wretched cripple, for people to fall in love with her? Why doesn’t any one want me?”
She busied herself in endless gossiping among the neighbors. She told them the whole story. The day the Coupeaus got married she turned up her nose at her. Oh, she had a keen nose, she could smell in advance how it would turn out. Then, Clump-clump pretended to be so sweet, what a hypocrite! She and her husband had only agreed to be Nana’s godparents for the sake of her brother. What a bundle it had cost, that fancy christening. If Clump-clump were on her deathbed she wouldn’t give her a glass of water, no matter how much she begged.
She didn’t want anything to do with such a shameless baggage. Little Nana would always be welcome when she came up to see her godparents. The child couldn’t be blamed for her mother’s sins. But there was no use trying to tell Coupeau anything. Any real man in his situation would have beaten his wife and put a stop to it all. All they wanted was for him to insist on respect for his family. Mon Dieu! If she, Madame Lorilleux, had acted like that, Coupeau wouldn’t be so complacent. He would have stabbed her for sure with his shears.
The Boches, however, who sternly disapproved of quarrels in their building, said that the Lorilleuxs were in the wrong. The Lorilleuxs were no doubt respectable persons, quiet, working the whole day long, and paying their rent regularly. But, really, jealousy had driven them mad. And they were mean enough to skin an egg, real misers. They were so stingy that they’d hide their bottle when any one came in, so as not to have to offer a glass of wine — not regular people at all.
Gervaise had brought over cassis and soda water one day to drink with the Boches. When Madame Lorilleux went by, she acted out spitting before the concierge’s door. Well, after that when Madame Boches swept the corridors on Saturdays, she always left a pile of trash before the Lorilleuxs’ door.
“It isn’t to be wondered at!” Madame Lorilleux would exclaim, “Clump-clump’s always stuffing them, the gluttons! Ah! they’re all alike; but they had better not annoy me! I’ll complain to the landlord. Only yesterday I saw that sly old Boche chasing after Madame Gaudron’s skirts. Just fancy! A woman of that age, and who has half a dozen children, too; it’s positively disgusting! If I catch them at anything of the sort again, I’ll tell Madame Boche, and she’ll give them both a hiding. It’ll be something to laugh at.”
Mother Coupeau continued to visit the two houses, agreeing with everybody and even managing to get asked oftener to dinner, by complaisantly listening one night to her daughter and the next night to her daughter-in-law.
However, Madame Lerat did not go to visit the Coupeaus because she had argued with Gervaise about a Zouave who had cut the nose of his mistress with a razor. She was on the side of the Zouave, saying it was evidence of a great passion, but without explaining further her thought. Then, she had made Madame Lorilleux even more angry by telling her that Clump-clump had called her “Cow Tail” in front of fifteen or twenty people. Yes, that’s what the Boches and all the neighbors called her now, “Cow Tail.”
Gervaise remained calm and cheerful among all these goings-on. She often stood by the door of her shop greeting friends who passed by with a nod and a smile. It was her pleasure to take a moment between batches of ironing to enjoy the street and take pride in her own stretch of sidewalk.
She felt that the Rue de la Goutte d’Or was hers, and the neighboring streets, and the whole neighborhood. As she stood there, with her blonde hair slightly damp from the heat of the shop, she would look left and right, taking in the people, the buildings, and the sky. To the left Rue de la Goutte d’Or was peaceful and almost empty, like a country town with women idling in their doorways. While, to the right, only a short distance away, Rue des Poissonniers had a noisy throng of people and vehicles.
The stretch of gutter before her own shop became very important in her mind. It was like a wide river which she longed to see neat and clean. It was a lively river, colored by the dye shop with the most fanciful of hues which contrasted with the black mud beside it.
Then there were the shops: a large grocery with a display of dried fruits protected by mesh nets; a shop selling work clothes which had white tunics and blue smocks hanging before it with arms that waved at the slightest breeze. Cats were purring on the counters of the fruit store and the tripe shop. Madame Vigouroux, the coal dealer next door, returned her greetings. She was a plump, short woman with bright eyes in a dark face who was always joking with the men while standing at her doorway. Her shop was decorated in imitation of a rustic chalet. The neighbors on the other side were a mother and daughter, the Cudorges. The umbrella sellers kept their door closed and never came out to visit.
Gervaise always looked across the road, too, through the wide carriage entrance of the windowless wall opposite her, at the blacksmith’s forge. The courtyard was cluttered with vans and carts. Inscribed on the wall was the word “Blacksmith.”
At the lower end of the wall between the small shops selling scrap iron and fried potatoes was a watchmaker. He wore a frock coat and was always very neat. His cuckoo clocks could be heard in chorus against the background noise of the street and the blacksmith’s rhythmic clanging.
The neighborhood in general thought Gervaise very nice. There was, it is true, a good deal of scandal related regarding her; but everyone admired her large eyes, small mouth and beautiful white teeth. In short she was a pretty blonde, and had it not been for her crippled leg she might have ranked amongst the comeliest. She was now in her twenty-eighth year, and had grown considerably plumper. Her fine features were becoming puffy, and her gestures were assuming a pleasant indolence.
At times she occasionally seemed to forget herself on the edge of a chair, whilst she waited for her iron to heat, smiling vaguely and with an expression of greedy joy upon her face. She was becoming fond of good living, everybody said so; but that was not a very grave fault, but rather the contrary. When one earns sufficient to be able to buy good food, one would be foolish to eat potato parings. All the more so as she continued to work very hard, slaving to please her customers, sitting up late at night after the place was closed, whenever there was anything urgent.
She was lucky as all her neighbors said; everything prospered with her. She did the washing for all the house — M. Madinier, Mademoiselle Remanjou, the Boches. She even secured some of the customers of her old employer, Madame Fauconnier, Parisian ladies living in the Rue du Faubourg–Poissonniere. As early as the third week she was obliged to engage two workwomen, Madame Putois and tall Clemence, the girl who used to live on the sixth floor; counting her apprentice, that little squint-eyed Augustine, who was as ugly as a beggar’s behind, that made three persons in her employ. Others would certainly have lost their heads at such a piece of good fortune. It was excusable for her to slack a little on Monday after drudging all through the week. Besides, it was necessary to her. She would have had no courage left, and would have expected to see the shirts iron themselves, if she had not been able to dress up in some pretty thing.
Gervaise was always so amiable, meek as a lamb, sweet as sugar. There wasn’t any one she disliked except Madame Lorilleux. While she was enjoying a good meal and coffee, she could be indulgent and forgive everybody saying: “We have to forgive each other — don’t we? — unless we want to live like savages.” Hadn’t all her dreams come true? She remembered her old dream: to have a job, enough bread to eat and a corner in which to sleep, to bring up her children, not to be beaten, and to die in her own bed. She had everything she wanted now and more than she had ever expected. She laughed, thinking of delaying dying in her own bed as long as possible.
It was to Coupeau especially that Gervaise behaved nicely. Never an angry word, never a complaint behind her husband’s back. The zinc-worker had at length resumed work; and as the job he was engaged on was at the other side of Paris, she gave him every morning forty sous for his luncheon, his glass of wine and his tobacco. Only, two days out of every six, Coupeau would stop on the way, spend the forty sous in drink with a friend, and return home to lunch, with some cock-and-bull story. Once even he did not take the trouble to go far; he treated himself, My–Boots and three others to a regular feast — snails, roast meat, and some sealed bottles of wine — at the “Capuchin,” on the Barriere de la Chapelle. Then, as his forty sous were not sufficient, he had sent the waiter to his wife with the bill and the information that he was in pawn. She laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Where was the harm if her old man amused himself a bit? You must give men a long rein if you want to live peaceably at home. From one word to another, one soon arrived at blows. Mon Dieu! It was easy to understand. Coupeau still suffered from his leg; besides, he was led astray. He was obliged to do as the others did, or else he would be thought a cheap skate. And it was really a matter of no consequence. If he came home a bit elevated, he went to bed, and two hours afterwards he was all right again.
It was now the warm time of the year. One June afternoon, a Saturday when there was a lot of work to get through, Gervaise herself had piled the coke into the stove, around which ten irons were heating, whilst a rumbling sound issued from the chimney. At that hour the sun was shining full on the shop front, and the pavement reflected the heat waves, causing all sorts of quaint shadows to dance over the ceiling, and that blaze of light which assumed a bluish tinge from the color of the paper on the shelves and against the window, was almost blinding in the intensity with which it shone over the ironing-table, like a golden dust shaken among the fine linen. The atmosphere was stifling. The shop door was thrown wide open, but not a breath of air entered; the clothes which were hung up on brass wires to dry, steamed and became as stiff as shavings in less than three quarters of an hour. For some little while past an oppressive silence had reigned in that furnace-like heat, interrupted only by the smothered sound of the banging down of the irons on the thick blanket covered with calico.
“Ah, well!” said Gervaise, “it’s enough to melt one! We might have to take off our chemises.”
She was sitting on the floor, in front of a basin, starching some things. Her sleeves were rolled up and her camisole was slipping down her shoulders. Little curls of golden hair stuck were stuck to her skin by perspiration. She carefully dipped caps, shirt-fronts, entire petticoats, and the trimmings of women’s drawers into the milky water. Then she rolled the things up and placed them at the bottom of a square basket, after dipping her hand in a pail and shaking it over the portions of the shirts and drawers which she had not starched.
“This basketful’s for you, Madame Putois,” she said. “Look sharp, now! It dries at once, and will want doing all over again in an hour.”
Madame Putois, a thin little woman of forty-five, was ironing. Though she was buttoned up in an old chestnut-colored dress, there was not a drop of perspiration to be seen. She had not even taken her cap off, a black cap trimmed with green ribbons turned partly yellow. And she stood perfectly upright in front of the ironing-table, which was too high for her, sticking out her elbows, and moving her iron with the jerky evolutions of a puppet. On a sudden she exclaimed:
“Ah, no! Mademoiselle Clemence, you mustn’t take your camisole off. You know I don’t like such indecencies. Whilst you’re about it, you’d better show everything. There’s already three men over the way stopping to look.”
Tall Clemence called her an old beast between her teeth. She was suffocating; she might certainly make herself comfortable; everyone was not gifted with a skin as dry as touchwood. Besides no one could see anything; and she held up her arms, whilst her opulent bosom almost ripped her chemise, and her shoulders were bursting through the straps. At the rate she was going, Clemence was not likely to have any marrow left in her bones long before she was thirty years old. Mornings after big parties she was unable to feel the ground she trod upon, and fell asleep over her work, whilst her head and her stomach seemed as though stuffed full of rags. But she was kept on all the same, for no other workwoman could iron a shirt with her style. Shirts were her specialty.
“This is mine, isn’t it?” she declared, tapping her bosom. “And it doesn’t bite; it hurts nobody!”
“Clemence, put your wrapper on again,” said Gervaise. “Madame Putois is right, it isn’t decent. People will begin to take my house for what it isn’t.”
So tall Clemence dressed herself again, grumbling the while. “Mon Dieu! There’s prudery for you.”
And she vented her rage on the apprentice, that squint-eyed Augustine who was ironing some stockings and handkerchiefs beside her. She jostled her and pushed her with her elbow; but Augustine who was of a surly disposition, and slyly spiteful in the way of an animal and a drudge, spat on the back of the other’s dress just out of revenge, without being seen. Gervaise, during this incident, had commenced a cap belonging to Madame Boche, which she intended to take great pains with. She had prepared some boiled starch to make it look new again. She was gently passing a little iron rounded at both ends over the inside of the crown of the cap, when a bony-looking woman entered the shop, her face covered with red blotches and her skirts sopping wet. It was a washerwoman who employed three assistants at the wash-house in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or.
“You’ve come too soon, Madame Bijard!” cried Gervaise. “I told you to call this evening. I’m too busy to attend to you now!”
But as the washerwoman began lamenting and fearing that she would not be able to put all the things to soak that day, she consented to give her the dirty clothes at once. They went to fetch the bundles in the left hand room where Etienne slept, and returned with enormous armfuls which they piled up on the floor at the back of the shop. The sorting lasted a good half hour. Gervaise made heaps all round her, throwing the shirts in one, the chemises in another, the handkerchiefs, the socks, the dish-cloths in others. Whenever she came across anything belonging to a new customer, she marked it with a cross in red cotton thread so as to know it again. And from all this dirty linen which they were throwing about there issued an offensive odor in the warm atmosphere.
“Oh! La, la. What a stench!” said Clemence, holding her nose.
“Of course there is! If it were clean they wouldn’t send it to us,” quietly explained Gervaise. “It smells as one would expect it to, that’s all! We said fourteen chemises, didn’t we, Madame Bijard? Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen —”
And she continued counting aloud. Used to this kind of thing she evinced no disgust. She thrust her bare pink arms deep into the piles of laundry: shirts yellow with grime, towels stiff from dirty dish water, socks threadbare and eaten away by sweat. The strong odor which slapped her in the face as she sorted the piles of clothes made her feel drowsy. She seemed to be intoxicating herself with this stench of humanity as she sat on the edge of a stool, bending far over, smiling vaguely, her eyes slightly misty. It was as if her laziness was started by a kind of smothering caused by the dirty clothes which poisoned the air in the shop. Just as she was shaking out a child’s dirty diaper, Coupeau came in.
“By Jove!” he stuttered, “what a sun! It shines full on your head!”
The zinc-worker caught hold of the ironing-table to save himself from falling. It was the first time he had been so drunk. Until then he had sometimes come home slightly tipsy, but nothing more. This time, however, he had a black eye, just a friendly slap he had run up against in a playful moment. His curly hair, already streaked with grey, must have dusted a corner in some low wineshop, for a cobweb was hanging to one of his locks over the back of his neck. He was still as attractive as ever, though his features were rather drawn and aged, and his under jaw projected more; but he was always lively, as he would sometimes say, with a complexion to be envied by a duchess.
“I’ll just explain it to you,” he resumed, addressing Gervaise.
“It was Celery–Root, you know him, the bloke with a wooden leg. Well, as he was going back to his native place, he wanted to treat us. Oh! We were all right, if it hadn’t been for that devil of a sun. In the street everybody looks shaky. Really, all the world’s drunk!”
And as tall Clemence laughed at his thinking that the people in the street were drunk, he was himself seized with an intense fit of gaiety which almost strangled him.
“Look at them! The blessed tipplers! Aren’t they funny?” he cried. “But it’s not their fault. It’s the sun that’s causing it.”
All the shop laughed, even Madame Putois, who did not like drunkards. That squint-eyed Augustine was cackling like a hen, suffocating with her mouth wide open. Gervaise, however, suspected Coupeau of not having come straight home, but of having passed an hour with the Lorilleuxs who were always filling his head with unpleasant ideas. When he swore he had not been near them she laughed also, full of indulgence and not even reproaching him with having wasted another day.
“Mon Dieu! What nonsense he does talk,” she murmured. “How does he manage to say such stupid things?” Then in a maternal tone of voice she added, “Now go to bed, won’t you? You see we’re busy; you’re in our way. That makes thirty-two handkerchiefs, Madame Bijard; and two more, thirty-four.”
But Coupeau was not sleepy. He stood there wagging his body from side to side like the pendulum of a clock and chuckling in an obstinate and teasing manner. Gervaise, wanting to finish with Madame Bijard, called to Clemence to count the laundry while she made the list. Tall Clemence made a dirty remark about every item that she touched. She commented on the customers’ misfortunes and their bedroom adventures. She had a wash-house joke for every rip or stain that passed through her hands. Augustine pretended that she didn’t understand, but her ears were wide open. Madame Putois compressed her lips, thinking it a disgrace to say such things in front of Coupeau. It’s not a man’s business to have anything to do with dirty linen. It’s just not done among decent people.
Gervaise, serious and her mind fully occupied with what she was about, did not seem to notice. As she wrote she gave a glance to each article as it passed before her, so as to recognize it; and she never made a mistake; she guessed the owner’s name just by the look or the color. Those napkins belonged to the Goujets, that was evident; they had not been used to wipe out frying-pans. That pillow-case certainly came from the Boches on account of the pomatum with which Madame Boche always smeared her things. There was no need to put your nose close to the flannel vests of Monsieur Madinier; his skin was so oily that it clogged up his woolens.
She knew many peculiarities, the cleanliness of some, the ragged underclothes of neighborhood ladies who appeared on the streets in silk dresses; how many items each family soiled weekly; the way some people’s garments were always torn at the same spot. Oh, she had many tales to tell. For instance, the chemises of Mademoiselle Remanjou provided material for endless comments: they wore out at the top first because the old maid had bony, sharp shoulders; and they were never really dirty, proving that you dry up by her age, like a stick of wood out of which it’s hard to squeeze a drop of anything. It was thus that at every sorting of the dirty linen in the shop they undressed the whole neighborhood of the Goutte-d’Or.
“Oh, here’s something luscious!” cried Clemence, opening another bundle.
Gervaise, suddenly seized with a great repugnance, drew back.
“Madame Gaudron’s bundle?” said she. “I’ll no longer wash for her, I’ll find some excuse. No, I’m not more particular than another. I’ve handled some most disgusting linen in my time; but really, that lot I can’t stomach. What can the woman do to get her things into such a state?”
And she requested Clemence to look sharp. But the girl continued her remarks, thrusting the clothes sullenly about her, with complaints on the soiled caps she waved like triumphal banners of filth. Meanwhile the heaps around Gervaise had grown higher. Still seated on the edge of the stool, she was now disappearing between the petticoats and chemises. In front of her were the sheets, the table cloths, a veritable mass of dirtiness.
She seemed even rosier and more languid than usual within this spreading sea of soiled laundry. She had regained her composure, forgetting Madame Gaudron’s laundry, stirring the various piles of clothing to make sure there had been no mistake in sorting. Squint-eyed Augustine had just stuffed the stove so full of coke that its cast-iron sides were bright red. The sun was shining obliquely on the window; the shop was in a blaze. Then, Coupeau, whom the great heat intoxicated all the more, was seized with a sudden fit of tenderness. He advanced towards Gervaise with open arms and deeply moved.
“You’re a good wife,” he stammered. “I must kiss you.”
But he caught his foot in the garments which barred the way and nearly fell.
“What a nuisance you are!” said Gervaise without getting angry. “Keep still, we’re nearly done now.”
No, he wanted to kiss her. He must do so because he loved her so much. Whilst he stuttered he tried to get round the heap of petticoats and stumbled against the pile of chemises; then as he obstinately persisted his feet caught together and he fell flat, his nose in the midst of the dish-cloths. Gervaise, beginning to lose her temper pushed him, saying that he was mixing all the things up. But Clemence and even Madame Putois maintained that she was wrong. It was very nice of him after all. He wanted to kiss her. She might very well let herself be kissed.
“You’re lucky, you are, Madame Coupeau,” said Madame Bijard, whose drunkard of a husband, a locksmith, was nearly beating her to death each evening when he came in. “If my old man was like that when he’s had a drop, it would be a real pleasure!”
Gervaise had calmed down and was already regretting her hastiness. She helped Coupeau up on his legs again. Then she offered her cheek with a smile. But the zinc-worker, without caring a button for the other people being present, seized her bosom.
“It’s not for the sake of saying so,” he murmured; “but your dirty linen stinks tremendously! Still, I love you all the same, you know.”
“Leave off, you’re tickling me,” cried she, laughing the louder. “What a great silly you are! How can you be so absurd?”
He had caught hold of her and would not let her go. She gradually abandoned herself to him, dizzy from the slight faintness caused by the heap of clothes and not minding Coupeau’s foul-smelling breath. The long kiss they exchanged on each other’s mouths in the midst of the filth of the laundress’s trade was perhaps the first tumble in the slow downfall of their life together.
Madame Bijard had meanwhile been tying the laundry up into bundles and talking about her daughter, Eulalie, who at two was as smart as a grown woman. She could be left by herself; she never cried or played with matches. Finally Madame Bijard took the laundry away a bundle at a time, her face splotched with purple and her tall form bent under the weight.
“This heat is becoming unbearable, we’re roasting,” said Gervaise, wiping her face before returning to Madame Boche’s cap.
They talked of boxing Augustine’s ears when they saw that the stove was red-hot. The irons, also, were getting in the same condition. She must have the very devil in her body! One could not turn one’s back a moment without her being up to some of her tricks. Now they would have to wait a quarter of an hour before they would be able to use their irons. Gervaise covered the fire with two shovelfuls of cinders. Then she thought to hang some sheets on the brass wires near the ceiling to serve as curtains to keep out the sunlight.
Things were now better in the shop. The temperature was still high, but you could imagine it was cooler. Footsteps could still be heard outside but you were free to make yourself comfortable. Clemence removed her camisole again. Coupeau still refused to go to bed, so they allowed him to stay, but he had to promise to be quiet in a corner, for they were very busy.
“Whatever has that vermin done with my little iron?” murmured Gervaise, speaking of Augustine.
They were for ever seeking the little iron, which they found in the most out-of-the-way places, where the apprentice, so they said, hid it out of spite. Gervaise could now finish Madame Boche’s cap. First she roughly smoothed the lace, spreading it out with her hand, and then she straightened it up by light strokes of the iron. It had a very fancy border consisting of narrow puffs alternating with insertions of embroidery. She was working on it silently and conscientiously, ironing the puffs and insertions.
Silence prevailed for a time. Nothing was to be heard except the soft thud of irons on the ironing pad. On both sides of the huge rectangular table Gervaise, her two employees, and the apprentice were bending over, slaving at their tasks with rounded shoulders, their arms moving incessantly. Each had a flat brick blackened by hot irons near her. A soup plate filled with clean water was on the middle of the table with a moistening rag and a small brush soaking in it.
A bouquet of large white lilies bloomed in what had once been a brandied cherry jar. Its cluster of snowy flowers suggested a corner of a royal garden. Madame Putois had begun the basket that Gervaise had brought to her filled with towels, wrappers, cuffs and underdrawers. Augustine was dawdling with the stockings and washcloths, gazing into the air, seemingly fascinated by a large fly that was buzzing around. Clemence had done thirty-four men’s shirts so far that day.
“Always wine, never spirits!” suddenly said the zinc-worker, who felt the necessity of making this declaration. “Spirits make me drunk, I’ll have none of them.”
Clemence took an iron from the stove with her leather holder in which a piece of sheet iron was inserted, and held it up to her cheek to see how hot it was. She rubbed it on her brick, wiped it on a piece of rag hanging from her waist-band and started on her thirty-fifth shirt, first of all ironing the shoulders and the sleeves.
“Bah! Monsieur Coupeau,” said she after a minute or two, “a little glass of brandy isn’t bad. It sets me going. Besides, the sooner you’re merry, the jollier it is. Oh! I don’t make any mistake; I know that I shan’t make old bones.”
“What a nuisance you are with your funeral ideas!” interrupted Madame Putois who did not like hearing people talk of anything sad.
Coupeau had arisen and was becoming angry thinking that he had been accused of drinking brandy. He swore on his own head and on the heads of his wife and child that there was not a drop of brandy in his veins. And he went up to Clemence and blew in her face so that she might smell his breath. Then he began to giggle because her bare shoulders were right under his nose. He thought maybe he could see more. Clemence, having folded over the back of the shirt and ironed it on both sides, was now working on the cuffs and collar. However, as he was shoving against her, he caused her to make a wrinkle, obliging her to reach for the brush soaking in the soup plate to smooth it out.
“Madame,” said she, “do make him leave off bothering me.”
“Leave her alone; it’s stupid of you to go on like that,” quietly observed Gervaise. “We’re in a hurry, do you hear?”
They were in a hurry, well! What? It was not his fault. He was doing no harm. He was not touching, he was only looking. Was it no longer allowed to look at the beautiful things that God had made? All the same, she had precious fine arms, that artful Clemence! She might exhibit herself for two sous and nobody would have to regret his money. The girl allowed him to go on, laughing at these coarse compliments of a drunken man. And she soon commenced joking with him. He chuffed her about the shirts. So she was always doing shirts? Why yes, she practically lived in them. Mon Dieu! She knew them pretty well. Hundreds and hundreds of them had passed through her hands. Just about every man in the neighborhood was wearing her handiwork on his body. Her shoulders were shaking with laughter through all this, but she managed to continue ironing.
“That’s the banter!” said she, laughing harder than ever.
That squint-eyed Augustine almost burst, the joke seemed to her so funny. The others bullied her. There was a brat for you who laughed at words she ought not to understand! Clemence handed her her iron; the apprentice finished up the irons on the stockings and the dish-cloths when they were not hot enough for the starched things. But she took hold of this one so clumsily that she made herself a cuff in the form of a long burn on the wrist. And she sobbed and accused Clemence of having burnt her on purpose. The latter who had gone to fetch a very hot iron for the shirt-front consoled her at once by threatening to iron her two ears if she did not leave off. Then she placed a piece of flannel under the front and slowly passed the iron over it giving the starch time to show up and dry. The shirt-front became as stiff and as shiny as cardboard.
“By golly!” swore Coupeau, who was treading behind her with the obstinacy of a drunkard.
He raised himself up with a shrill laugh that resembled a pulley in want of grease. Clemence, leaning heavily over the ironing-table, her wrists bent in, her elbows sticking out and wide apart was bending her neck in a last effort; and all her muscles swelled, her shoulders rose with the slow play of the muscles beating beneath the soft skin, her breasts heaved, wet with perspiration in the rosy shadow of the half open chemise. Then Coupeau thrust out his hands, trying to touch her bare flesh.
“Madame! Madame!” cried Clemence, “do make him leave off! I shall go away if it continues. I won’t be intimated.”
Gervaise glanced over just as her husband’s hands began to explore inside the chemise.
“Really, Coupeau, you’re too foolish,” said she, with a vexed air, as though she were scolding a child who persisted in eating his jam without bread. “You must go to bed.”
“Yes, go to bed, Monsieur Coupeau; it will be far better,” exclaimed Madame Putois.
“Ah! Well,” stuttered he, without ceasing to chuckle, “you’re all precious particular! So one mustn’t amuse oneself now? Women, I know how to handle them; I’ll only kiss them, no more. One admires a lady, you know, and wants to show it. And, besides, when one displays one’s goods, it’s that one may make one’s choice, isn’t it? Why does the tall blonde show everything she’s got? It’s not decent.”
And turning towards Clemence, he added: “You know, my lovely, you’re wrong to be to very insolent. If it’s because there are others here —”
But he was unable to continue. Gervaise very calmly seized hold of him with one hand, and placed the other on his mouth. He struggled, just by way of a joke, whilst she pushed him to the back of the shop, towards the bedroom. He got his mouth free and said that he was willing to go to bed, but that the tall blonde must come and warm his feet.
Then Gervaise could be heard taking off his shoes. She removed his clothes too, bullying him in a motherly way. He burst out laughing after she had removed his trousers and kicked about, pretending that she was tickling him. At last she tucked him in carefully like a child. Was he comfortable now? But he did not answer; he called to Clemence:
“I say, my lovely, I’m here, and waiting for you!”
When Gervaise went back into the shop, the squint-eyed Augustine was being properly chastised by Clemence because of a dirty iron that Madame Putois had used and which had caused her to soil a camisole. Clemence, in defending herself for not having cleaned her iron, blamed Augustine, swearing that it wasn’t hers, in spite of the spot of burned starch still clinging to the bottom. The apprentice, outraged at the injustice, openly spat on the front of Clemence’s dress, earning a slap for her boldness. Now, as Augustine went about cleaning the iron, she saved up her spit and each time she passed Clemence spat on her back and laughed to herself.
Gervaise continued with the lace of Madame Boche’s cap. In the sudden calm which ensued, one could hear Coupeau’s husky voice issuing from the depths of the bedroom. He was still jolly, and was laughing to himself as he uttered bits of phrases.
“How stupid she is, my wife! How stupid of her to put me to bed! Really, it’s too absurd, in the middle of the day, when one isn’t sleepy.”
But, all on a sudden, he snored. Then Gervaise gave a sigh of relief, happy in knowing that he was at length quiet, and sleeping off his intoxication on two good mattresses. And she spoke out in the silence, in a slow and continuous voice, without taking her eyes off her work.
“You see, he hasn’t his reason, one can’t be angry. Were I to be harsh with him, it would be of no use. I prefer to agree with him and get him to bed; then, at least, it’s over at once and I’m quiet. Besides, he isn’t ill-natured, he loves me very much. You could see that just a moment ago when he was desperate to give me a kiss. That’s quite nice of him. There are plenty of men, you know, who after drinking a bit don’t come straight home but stay out chasing women. Oh, he may fool around with the women in the shop, but it doesn’t lead to anything. Clemence, you mustn’t feel insulted. You know how it is when a man’s had too much to drink. He could do anything and not even remember it.”
She spoke composedly, not at all angry, being quite used to Coupeau’s sprees and not holding them against him. A silence settled down for a while when she stopped talking. There was a lot of work to get done. They figured they would have to keep at it until eleven, working as fast as they could. Now that they were undisturbed, all of them were pounding away. Bare arms were moving back and forth, showing glimpses of pink among the whiteness of the laundry.
More coke had been put into the stove and the sunlight slanted in between the sheets onto the stove. You could see the heat rising up through the rays of the sun. It became so stifling that Augustine ran out of spit and was forced to lick her lips. The room smelled of the heat and of the working women. The white lilies in the jar were beginning to fade, yet they still exuded a pure and strong perfume. Coupeau’s heavy snores were heard like the regular ticking of a huge clock, setting the tempo for the heavy labor in the shop.
On the morrow of his carouses, the zinc-worker always had a headache, a splitting headache which kept him all day with his hair uncombed, his breath offensive, and his mouth all swollen and askew. He got up late on those days, not shaking the fleas off till about eight o’clock; and he would hang about the shop, unable to make up his mind to start off to his work. It was another day lost. In the morning he would complain that his legs bent like pieces of thread, and would call himself a great fool to guzzle to such an extent, as it broke one’s constitution. Then, too, there were a lot of lazy bums who wouldn’t let you go and you’d get to drinking more in spite of yourself. No, no, no more for him.
After lunch he would always begin to perk up and deny that he had been really drunk the night before. Maybe just a bit lit up. He was rock solid and able to drink anything he wanted without even blinking an eye.
When he had thoroughly badgered the workwomen, Gervaise would give him twenty sous to clear out. And off he would go to buy his tobacco at the “Little Civet,” in the Rue des Poissonniers, where he generally took a plum in brandy whenever he met a friend. Then, he spent the rest of the twenty sous at old Francois’s, at the corner of the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, where there was a famous wine, quite young, which tickled your gullet. This was an old-fashioned place with a low ceiling. There was a smoky room to one side where soup was served. He would stay there until evening drinking because there was an understanding that he didn’t have to pay right away and they would never send the bill to his wife. Besides he was a jolly fellow, who would never do the least harm — a chap who loved a spree sure enough, and who colored his nose in his turn but in a nice manner, full of contempt for those pigs of men who have succumbed to alcohol, and whom one never sees sober! He always went home as gay and as gallant as a lark.
“Has your lover been?” he would sometimes ask Gervaise by way of teasing her. “One never sees him now; I must go and rout him out.”
The lover was Goujet. He avoided, in fact, calling too often for fear of being in the way, and also of causing people to talk. Yet he frequently found a pretext, such as bringing the washing; and he would pass no end of time on the pavement in front of the shop. There was a corner right at the back in which he liked to sit, without moving for hours, and smoke his short pipe. Once every ten days, in the evening after his dinner, he would venture there and take up his favorite position. And he was no talker, his mouth almost seemed sewn up, as he sat with his eyes fixed on Gervaise, and only removed his pipe to laugh at everything she said. When they were working late on a Saturday he would stay on, and appeared to amuse himself more than if he had gone to a theatre.
Sometimes the women stayed in the shop ironing until three in the morning. A lamp hung from the ceiling and spread a brilliant light making the linen look like fresh snow. The apprentice would put up the shop shutters, but since these July nights were scorching hot, the door would be left open. The later the hour the more casual the women became with their clothes while trying to be comfortable. The lamplight flecked their rosy skin with gold specks, especially Gervaise who was so pleasantly rounded.
On these nights Goujet would be overcome by the heat from the stove and the odor of linen steaming under the hot irons. He would drift into a sort of giddiness, his thinking slowed and his eyes obsessed by these hurrying women as their naked arms moved back and forth, working far into the night to have the neighborhood’s best clothes ready for Sunday.
Everything around the laundry was slumbering, settled into sleep for the night. Midnight rang, then one o’clock, then two o’clock. There were no vehicles or pedestrians. In the dark and deserted street, only their shop door let out any light. Once in a while, footsteps would be heard and a man would pass the shop. As he crossed the path of light he would stretch his neck to look in, startled by the sound of the thudding irons, and carry with him the quick glimpse of bare-shouldered laundresses immersed in a rosy mist.
Goujet, seeing that Gervaise did not know what to do with Etienne, and wishing to deliver him from Coupeau’s kicks, had engaged him to go and blow the bellows at the factory where he worked. The profession of bolt-maker, if not one to be proud of on account of the dirt of the forge and of the monotony of constantly hammering on pieces of iron of a similar kind, was nevertheless a well paid one, at which ten and even twelve francs a day could be earned. The youngster, who was then twelve years old, would soon be able to go in for it, if the calling was to his liking. And Etienne had thus become another link between the laundress and the blacksmith. The latter would bring the child home and speak of his good conduct. Everyone laughingly said that Goujet was smitten with Gervaise. She knew it, and blushed like a young girl, the flush of modesty coloring her cheeks with the bright tints of an apple. The poor fellow, he was never any trouble! He never made a bold gesture or an indelicate remark. You didn’t find many men like him. Gervaise didn’t want to admit it, but she derived a great deal of pleasure from being adored like this. Whenever a problem arose she thought immediately of the blacksmith and was consoled. There was never any awkward tension when they were alone together. They just looked at each other and smiled happily with no need to talk. It was a very sensible kind of affection.
Towards the end of the summer, Nana quite upset the household. She was six years old and promised to be a thorough good-for-nothing. So as not to have her always under her feet her mother took her every morning to a little school in the Rue Polonceau kept by Mademoiselle Josse. She fastened her playfellows’ dresses together behind, she filled the school-mistress’s snuff-box with ashes, and invented other tricks much less decent which could not be mentioned. Twice Mademoiselle Josse expelled her and then took her back again so as not to lose the six francs a month. Directly lessons were over Nana avenged herself for having been kept in by making an infernal noise under the porch and in the courtyard where the ironers, whose ears could not stand the racket, sent her to play. There she would meet Pauline, the Boches’ daughter, and Victor, the son of Gervaise’s old employer — a big booby of ten who delighted in playing with very little girls. Madame Fauconnier who had not quarreled with the Coupeaus would herself send her son. In the house, too, there was an extraordinary swarm of brats, flights of children who rolled down the four staircases at all hours of the day and alighted on the pavement of the courtyard like troops of noisy pillaging sparrows. Madame Gaudron was responsible for nine of them, all with uncombed hair, runny noses, hand-me-down clothes, saggy stockings and ripped jackets. Another woman on the sixth floor had seven of them. This hoard that only got their faces washed when it rained were in all shapes and sizes, fat, thin, big and barely out of the cradle.
Nana reigned supreme over this host of urchins; she ordered about girls twice her own size, and only deigned to relinquish a little of her power in favor of Pauline and Victor, intimate confidants who enforced her commands. This precious chit was for ever wanting to play at being mamma, undressing the smallest ones to dress them again, insisting on examining the others all over, messing them about and exercising the capricious despotism of a grown-up person with a vicious disposition. Under her leadership they got up tricks for which they should have been well spanked. The troop paddled in the colored water from the dyer’s and emerged from it with legs stained blue or red as high as the knees; then off it flew to the locksmith’s where it purloined nails and filings and started off again to alight in the midst of the carpenter’s shavings, enormous heaps of shavings, which delighted it immensely and in which it rolled head over heels exposing their behinds.
The courtyard was her kingdom. It echoed with the clatter of little shoes as they stampeded back and forth with piercing cries. On some days the courtyard was too small for them and the troop would dash down into the cellar, race up a staircase, run along a corridor, then dash up another staircase and follow another corridor for hours. They never got tired of their yelling and clambering.
“Aren’t they abominable, those little toads?” cried Madame Boche. “Really, people can have but very little to do to have time get so many brats. And yet they complain of having no bread.”
Boche said that children pushed up out of poverty like mushrooms out of manure. All day long his wife was screaming at them and chasing them with her broom. Finally she had to lock the door of the cellar when she learned from Pauline that Nana was playing doctor down there in the dark, viciously finding pleasure in applying remedies to the others by beating them with sticks.
Well, one afternoon there was a frightful scene. It was bound to have come sooner or later. Nana had thought of a very funny little game. She had stolen one of Madame Boche’s wooden shoes from outside the concierge’s room. She tied a string to it and began dragging it about like a cart. Victor on his side had had the idea to fill it with potato parings. Then a procession was formed. Nana came first dragging the wooden shoe. Pauline and Victor walked on her right and left. Then the entire crowd of urchins followed in order, the big ones first, the little ones next, jostling one another; a baby in long skirts about as tall as a boot with an old tattered bonnet cocked on one side of its head, brought up the rear. And the procession chanted something sad with plenty of ohs! and ahs! Nana had said that they were going to play at a funeral; the potato parings represented the body. When they had gone the round of the courtyard, they recommenced. They thought it immensely amusing.
“What can they be up to?” murmured Madame Boche, who emerged from her room to see, ever mistrustful and on the alert.
And when she understood: “But it’s my shoe!” cried she furiously. “Ah, the rogues!”
She distributed some smacks, clouted Nana on both cheeks and administered a kick to Pauline, that great goose who allowed the others to steal her mother’s shoe. It so happened that Gervaise was filling a bucket at the top. When she beheld Nana, her nose bleeding and choking with sobs, she almost sprang at the concierge’s chignon. It was not right to hit a child as though it were an ox. One could have no heart, one must be the lowest of the low if one did so. Madame Boche naturally replied in a similar strain. When one had a beast of a girl like that one should keep her locked up. At length Boche himself appeared in the doorway to call his wife to come in and not to enter into so many explanations with a filthy thing like her. There was a regular quarrel.
As a matter of fact things had not gone on very pleasantly between the Boches and the Coupeaus for a month past. Gervaise, who was of a very generous nature, was continually bestowing wine, broth, oranges and slices of cake on the Boches. One night she had taken the remains of an endive and beetroot salad to the concierge’s room, knowing that the latter would have done anything for such a treat. But on the morrow she became quite pale with rage on hearing Mademoiselle Remanjou relate how Madame Boche had thrown the salad away in the presence of several persons with an air of disgust and under the pretext that she, thank goodness, was not yet reduced to feeding on things which others had messed about. From that time Gervaise took no more presents to the Boches — nothing. Now the Boches seemed to think that Gervaise was stealing something which was rightfully theirs. Gervaise saw that she had made a mistake. If she hadn’t catered to them so much in the beginning, they wouldn’t have gotten into the habit of expecting it and might have remained on good terms with her.
Now the concierge began to spread slander about Gervaise. There was a great fuss with the landlord, Monsieur Marescot, at the October rental period, because Gervaise was a day late with the rent. Madame Boche accused her of eating up all her money in fancy dishes. Monsieur Marescot charged into the laundry demanding to be paid at once. He didn’t even bother to remove his hat. The money was ready and was paid to him immediately. The Boches had now made up with the Lorilleuxs who now came and did their guzzling in the concierge’s lodge. They assured each other that they never would have fallen out if it hadn’t been for Clump-clump. She was enough to set mountains to fighting. Ah! the Boches knew her well now, they could understand how much the Lorilleuxs must suffer. And whenever she passed beneath the doorway they all affected to sneer at her.
One day, Gervaise went up to see the Lorilleuxs in spite of this. It was with respect to mother Coupeau who was then sixty-seven years old. Mother Coupeau’s eyesight was almost completely gone. Her legs too were no longer what they used to be. She had been obliged to give up her last cleaning job and now threatened to die of hunger if assistance were not forthcoming. Gervaise thought it shameful that a woman of her age, having three children should be thus abandoned by heaven and earth. And as Coupeau refused to speak to the Lorilleuxs on the subject saying that she, Gervaise, could very well go and do so, the latter went up in a fit of indignation with which her heart was almost bursting.
When she reached their door she entered without knocking. Nothing had been changed since the night when the Lorilleuxs, at their first meeting had received her so ungraciously. The same strip of faded woolen stuff separated the room from the workshop, a lodging like a gun barrel, and which looked as though it had been built for an eel. Right at the back Lorilleux, leaning over his bench, was squeezing together one by one the links of a piece of chain, whilst Madame Lorilleux, standing in front of the vise was passing a gold wire through the draw-plate. In the broad daylight the little forge had a rosy reflection.
“Yes, it’s I!” said Gervaise. “I daresay you’re surprised to see me as we’re at daggers drawn. But I’ve come neither for you nor myself you may be quite sure. It’s for mother Coupeau that I’ve come. Yes, I have come to see if we’re going to let her beg her bread from the charity of others.”
“Ah, well, that’s a fine way to burst in upon one!” murmured Madame Lorilleux. “One must have a rare cheek.”
And she turned her back and resumed drawing her gold wire, affecting to ignore her sister-in-law’s presence. But Lorilleux raised his pale face and cried:
“What’s that you say?”
Then, as he had heard perfectly well, he continued:
“More back-bitings, eh? She’s nice, mother Coupeau, to go and cry starvation everywhere! Yet only the day before yesterday she dined here. We do what we can. We haven’t got all the gold of Peru. Only if she goes about gossiping with others she had better stay with them, for we don’t like spies.”
He took up the piece of chain and turned his back also, adding as though with regret:
“When everyone gives five francs a month, we’ll give five francs.”
Gervaise had calmed down and felt quite chilled by the wooden looking faces of the Lorilleux. She had never once set foot in their rooms without experiencing a certain uneasiness. With her eyes fixed on the floor, staring at the holes of the wooden grating through which the waste gold fell she now explained herself in a reasonable manner. Mother Coupeau had three children; if each one gave five francs it would only make fifteen francs, and really that was not enough, one could not live on it; they must at least triple the sum. But Lorilleux cried out. Where did she think he could steal fifteen francs a month? It was quite amusing, people thought he was rich simply because he had gold in his place. He began then to criticize mother Coupeau: she had to have her morning coffee, she took a sip of brandy now and then, she was as demanding as if she were rich. Mon Dieu! Sure, everyone liked the good things of life. But if you’ve never saved a sou, you had to do what other folks did and do without. Besides, mother Coupeau wasn’t too old to work. She could see well enough when she was trying to pick a choice morsel from the platter. She was just an old spendthrift trying to get others to provide her with comforts. Even had he had the means, he would have considered it wrong to support any one in idleness.
Gervaise remained conciliatory, and peaceably argued against all this bad reasoning. She tried to soften the Lorilleuxs. But the husband ended by no longer answering her. The wife was now at the forge scouring a piece of chain in the little, long-handled brass saucepan full of lye-water. She still affectedly turned her back, as though a hundred leagues away. And Gervaise continued speaking, watching them pretending to be absorbed in their labor in the midst of the black dust of the workshop, their bodies distorted, their clothes patched and greasy, both become stupidly hardened like old tools in the pursuit of their narrow mechanical task. Then suddenly anger again got the better of her and she exclaimed:
“Very well, I’d rather it was so; keep your money! I’ll give mother Coupeau a home, do you hear? I picked up a cat the other evening, so I can at least do the same for your mother. And she shall be in want of nothing; she shall have her coffee and her drop of brandy! Good heavens! what a vile family!”
At these words Madame Lorilleux turned round. She brandished the saucepan as though she was about to throw the lye-water in her sister-in-law’s face. She stammered with rage:
“Be off, or I shall do you an injury! And don’t count on the five francs because I won’t give a radish! No, not a radish! Ah well, yes, five francs! Mother would be your servant and you would enjoy yourself with my five francs! If she goes to live with you, tell her this, she may croak, I won’t even send her a glass of water. Now off you go! Clear out!”
“What a monster of a woman!” said Gervaise violently slamming the door.
On the morrow she brought mother Coupeau to live with her, putting her bed in the inner room where Nana slept. The moving did not take long, for all the furniture mother Coupeau had was her bed, an ancient walnut wardrobe which was put in the dirty-clothes room, a table, and two chairs. They sold the table and had the chairs recaned. From the very first the old lady took over the sweeping. She washed the dishes and made herself useful, happy to have settled her problem.
The Lorilleux were furious enough to explode, especially since Madame Lerat was now back on good terms with the Coupeaus. One day the two sisters, the flower-maker and the chainmaker came to blows about Gervaise because Madame Lerat dared to express approval of the way she was taking care of their mother. When she noticed how this upset the other, she went on to remark that Gervaise had magnificent eyes, eyes warm enough to set paper on fire. The two of them commenced slapping each other and swore they never would see each other again. Nowadays Madame Lerat often spent her evenings in the shop, laughing to herself at Clemence’s spicy remarks.
Three years passed by. There were frequent quarrels and reconciliations. Gervaise did not care a straw for the Lorilleux, the Boches and all the others who were not of her way of thinking. If they did not like it, they could forget it. She earned what she wished, that was her principal concern. The people of the neighborhood had ended by greatly esteeming her, for one did not find many customers so kind as she was, paying punctually, never caviling or higgling. She bought her bread of Madame Coudeloup, in the Rue des Poissonniers; her meat of stout Charles, a butcher in the Rue Polonceau; her groceries at Lehongre’s, in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, almost opposite her own shop. Francois, the wine merchant at the corner of the street, supplied her with wine in baskets of fifty bottles. Her neighbor Vigouroux, whose wife’s hips must have been black and blue, the men pinched her so much, sold coke to her at the same price as the gas company. And, in all truth, her tradespeople served her faithfully, knowing that there was everything to gain by treating her well.
Besides, whenever she went out around the neighborhood, she was greeted everywhere. She felt quite at home. Sometimes she put off doing a laundry job just to enjoy being outdoors among her good friends. On days when she was too rushed to do her own cooking and had to go out to buy something already cooked, she would stop to gossip with her arms full of bowls. The neighbor she respected the most was still the watchmaker. Often she would cross the street to greet him in his tiny cupboard of a shop, taking pleasure in the gaiety of the little cuckoo clocks with their pendulums ticking away the hours in chorus.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02