One afternoon in the autumn Gervaise, who had been taking some washing home to a customer in the Rue des Portes–Blanches, found herself at the bottom of the Rue des Poissonniers just as the day was declining. It had rained in the morning, the weather was very mild and an odor rose from the greasy pavement; and the laundress, burdened with her big basket, was rather out of breath, slow of step, and inclined to take her ease as she ascended the street with the vague preoccupation of a longing increased by her weariness. She would have liked to have had something to eat. Then, on raising her eyes she beheld the name of the Rue Marcadet, and she suddenly had the idea of going to see Goujet at his forge. He had no end of times told her to look in any day she was curious to see how iron was wrought. Besides in the presence of other workmen she would ask for Etienne, and make believe that she had merely called for the youngster.
The factory was somewhere on this end of the Rue Marcadet, but she didn’t know exactly where and street numbers were often lacking on those ramshackle buildings separated by vacant lots. She wouldn’t have lived on this street for all the gold in the world. It was a wide street, but dirty, black with soot from factories, with holes in the pavement and deep ruts filled with stagnant water. On both sides were rows of sheds, workshops with beams and brickwork exposed so that they seemed unfinished, a messy collection of masonry. Beside them were dubious lodging houses and even more dubious taverns. All she could recall was that the bolt factory was next to a yard full of scrap iron and rags, a sort of open sewer spread over the ground, storing merchandise worth hundreds of thousands of francs, according to Goujet.
The street was filled with a noisy racket. Exhaust pipes on roofs puffed out violent jets of steam; an automatic sawmill added a rhythmic screeching; a button factory shook the ground with the rumbling of its machines. She was looking up toward the Montmartre height, hesitant, uncertain whether to continue, when a gust of wind blew down a mass of sooty smoke that covered the entire street. She closed her eyes and held her breath. At that moment she heard the sound of hammers in cadence. Without realizing it, she had arrived directly in front of the bolt factory which she now recognized by the vacant lot beside it full of piles of scrap iron and old rags.
She still hesitated, not knowing where to enter. A broken fence opened a passage which seemed to lead through the heaps of rubbish from some buildings recently pulled down. Two planks had been thrown across a large puddle of muddy water that barred the way. She ended by venturing along them, turned to the left and found herself lost in the depths of a strange forest of old carts, standing on end with their shafts in the air, and of hovels in ruins, the wood-work of which was still standing. Toward the back, stabbing through the half-light of sundown, a flame gleamed red. The clamor of the hammers had ceased. She was advancing carefully when a workman, his face blackened with coal-dust and wearing a goatee passed near her, casting a side-glance with his pale eyes.
“Sir,” asked she, “it’s here is it not that a boy named Etienne works? He’s my son.”
“Etienne, Etienne,” repeated the workman in a hoarse voice as he twisted himself about. “Etienne; no I don’t know him.”
An alcoholic reek like that from old brandy casks issued from his mouth. Meeting a woman in this dark corner seemed to be giving the fellow ideas, and so Gervaise drew back saying:
“But yet it’s here that Monsieur Goujet works, isn’t it?”
“Ah! Goujet, yes!” said the workman; “I know Goujet! If you come for Goujet, go right to the end.”
And turning round he called out at the top of his voice, which had a sound of cracked brass:
“I say Golden–Mug, here’s a lady wants you!”
But a clanging of iron drowned the cry! Gervaise went to the end. She reached a door and stretching out her neck looked in. At first she could distinguish nothing. The forge had died down, but there was still a little glow which held back the advancing shadows from its corner. Great shadows seemed to float in the air. At times black shapes passed before the fire, shutting off this last bit of brightness, silhouettes of men so strangely magnified that their arms and legs were indistinct. Gervaise, not daring to venture in, called from the doorway in a faint voice:
“Monsieur Goujet! Monsieur Goujet!”
Suddenly all became lighted up. Beneath the puff of the bellows a jet of white flame had ascended and the whole interior of the shed could be seen, walled in by wooden planks, with openings roughly plastered over, and brick walls reinforcing the corners. Coal-ash had painted the whole expanse a sooty grey. Spider webs hung from the beams like rags hung up to dry, heavy with the accumulated dust of years. On shelves along the walls, or hanging from nails, or tossed into corners, she saw rusty iron, battered implements and huge tools. The white flame flared higher, like an explosion of dazzling sunlight revealing the trampled dirt underfoot, where the polished steel of four anvils fixed on blocks took on a reflection of silver sprinkled with gold.
Then Gervaise recognized Goujet in front of the forge by his beautiful yellow beard. Etienne was blowing the bellows. Two other workmen were there, but she only beheld Goujet and walked forward and stood before him.
“Why it’s Madame Gervaise!” he exclaimed with a bright look on his face. “What a pleasant surprise.”
But as his comrades appeared to be rather amused, he pushed Etienne towards his mother and resumed:
“You’ve come to see the youngster. He behaves himself well, he’s beginning to get some strength in his wrists.”
“Well!” she said, “it isn’t easy to find your way here. I thought I was going to the end of the world.”
After telling about her journey, she asked why no one in the shop knew Etienne’s name. Goujet laughed and explained to her that everybody called him “Little Zouzou” because he had his hair cut short like that of a Zouave. While they were talking together Etienne stopped working the bellows and the flame of the forge dwindled to a rosy glow amid the gathering darkness. Touched by the presence of this smiling young woman, the blacksmith stood gazing at her.
Then, as neither continued speaking, he seemed to recollect and broke the silence:
“Excuse me, Madame Gervaise, I’ve something that has to be finished. You’ll stay, won’t you? You’re not in anybody’s way.”
She remained. Etienne returned to the bellows. The forge was soon ablaze again with a cloud of sparks; the more so as the youngster, wanting to show his mother what he could do, was making the bellows blow a regular hurricane. Goujet, standing up watching a bar of iron heating, was waiting with the tongs in his hand. The bright glare illuminated him without a shadow — sleeves rolled back, shirt neck open, bare arms and chest. When the bar was at white heat he seized it with the tongs and cut it with a hammer on the anvil, in pieces of equal length, as though he had been gently breaking pieces of glass. Then he put the pieces back into the fire, from which he took them one by one to work them into shape. He was forging hexagonal rivets. He placed each piece in a tool-hole of the anvil, bent down the iron that was to form the head, flattened the six sides and threw the finished rivet still red-hot on to the black earth, where its bright light gradually died out; and this with a continuous hammering, wielding in his right hand a hammer weighing five pounds, completing a detail at every blow, turning and working the iron with such dexterity that he was able to talk to and look at those about him. The anvil had a silvery ring. Without a drop of perspiration, quite at his ease, he struck in a good-natured sort of a way, not appearing to exert himself more than on the evenings when he cut out pictures at home.
“Oh! these are little rivets of twenty millimetres,” said he in reply to Gervaise’s questions. “A fellow can do his three hundred a day. But it requires practice, for one’s arm soon grows weary.”
And when she asked him if his wrist did not feel stiff at the end of the day he laughed aloud. Did she think him a young lady? His wrist had had plenty of drudgery for fifteen years past; it was now as strong as the iron implements it had been so long in contact with. She was right though; a gentleman who had never forged a rivet or a bolt, and who would try to show off with his five pound hammer, would find himself precious stiff in the course of a couple of hours. It did not seem much, but a few years of it often did for some very strong fellows. During this conversation the other workmen were also hammering away all together. Their tall shadows danced about in the light, the red flashes of the iron that the fire traversed, the gloomy recesses, clouds of sparks darted out from beneath the hammers and shone like suns on a level with the anvils. And Gervaise, feeling happy and interested in the movement round the forge, did not think of leaving. She was going a long way round to get nearer to Etienne without having her hands burnt, when she saw the dirty and bearded workman, whom she had spoken to outside, enter.
“So you’ve found him, madame?” asked he in his drunken bantering way. “You know, Golden–Mug, it’s I who told madame where to find you.”
He was called Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, the brick of bricks, a dab hand at bolt forging, who wetted his iron every day with a pint and a half of brandy. He had gone out to have a drop, because he felt he wanted greasing to make him last till six o’clock. When he learnt that Little Zouzou’s real name was Etienne, he thought it very funny; and he showed his black teeth as he laughed. Then he recognized Gervaise. Only the day before he had had a glass of wine with Coupeau. You could speak to Coupeau about Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst; he would at once say: “He’s a jolly dog!” Ah! that joker Coupeau! He was one of the right sort; he stood treat oftener than his turn.
“I’m awfully glad to know you’re his missus,” added he.
“He deserves to have a pretty wife. Eh, Golden–Mug, madame is a fine woman, isn’t she?”
He was becoming quite gallant, sidling up towards the laundress, who took hold of her basket and held it in front of her so as to keep him at a distance. Goujet, annoyed and seeing that his comrade was joking because of his friendship for Gervaise, called out to him:
“I say, lazybones, what about the forty millimetre bolts? Do you think you’re equal to them now that you’ve got your gullet full, you confounded guzzler?”
The blacksmith was alluding to an order for big bolts which necessitated two beaters at the anvil.
“I’m ready to start at this moment, big baby!” replied Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst. “It sucks it’s thumb and thinks itself a man. In spite of your size I’m equal to you!”
“Yes, that’s it, at once. Look sharp and off we go!”
“Right you are, my boy!”
They taunted each other, stimulated by Gervaise’s presence. Goujet placed the pieces of iron that had been cut beforehand in the fire, then he fixed a tool-hole of large bore on an anvil. His comrade had taken from against the wall two sledge-hammers weighing twenty pounds each, the two big sisters of the factory whom the workers called Fifine and Dedele. And he continued to brag, talking of a half-gross of rivets which he had forged for the Dunkirk lighthouse, regular jewels, things to be put in a museum, they were so daintily finished off. Hang it all, no! he did not fear competition; before meeting with another chap like him, you might search every factory in the capital. They were going to have a laugh; they would see what they would see.
“Madame will be judge,” said he, turning towards the young woman.
“Enough chattering,” cried Goujet. “Now then, Zouzou, show your muscle! It’s not hot enough, my lad.”
But Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, asked: “So we strike together?”
“Not a bit of it! each his own bolt, my friend!”
This statement operated as a damper, and Goujet’s comrade, on hearing it, remained speechless, in spite of his boasting. Bolts of forty millimetres fashioned by one man had never before been seen; the more so as the bolts were to be round-headed, a work of great difficulty, a real masterpiece to achieve.
The three other workmen came over, leaving their jobs, to watch. A tall, lean one wagered a bottle of wine that Goujet would be beaten. Meanwhile the two blacksmiths had chosen their sledge hammers with eyes closed, because Fifine weighed a half pound more than Dedele. Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, had the good luck to put his hand on Dedele; Fifine fell to Golden–Mug.
While waiting for the iron to get hot enough, Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, again showing off, struck a pose before the anvil while casting side glances toward Gervaise. He planted himself solidly, tapping his feet impatiently like a man ready for a fight, throwing all his strength into practice swings with Dedele. Mon Dieu! He was good at this; he could have flattened the Vendome column like a pancake.
“Now then, off you go!” said Goujet, placing one of the pieces of iron, as thick as a girl’s wrist, in the tool-hole.
Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, leant back, and swung Dedele round with both hands. Short and lean, with his goatee bristling, and with his wolf-like eyes glaring beneath his unkempt hair, he seemed to snap at each swing of the hammer, springing up from the ground as though carried away by the force he put into the blow. He was a fierce one, who fought with the iron, annoyed at finding it so hard, and he even gave a grunt whenever he thought he had planted a fierce stroke. Perhaps brandy did weaken other people’s arms, but he needed brandy in his veins, instead of blood. The drop he had taken a little while before had made his carcass as warm as a boiler; he felt he had the power of a steam-engine within him. And the iron seemed to be afraid of him this time; he flattened it more easily than if it had been a quid of tobacco. And it was a sight to see how Dedele waltzed! She cut such capers, with her tootsies in the air, just like a little dancer at the Elysee Montmartre, who exhibits her fine underclothes; for it would never do to dawdle, iron is so deceitful, it cools at once, just to spite the hammer. With thirty blows, Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, had fashioned the head of his bolt. But he panted, his eyes were half out of his head, and got into a great rage as he felt his arms growing tired. Then, carried away by wrath, jumping about and yelling, he gave two more blows, just out of revenge for his trouble. When he took the bolt from the hole, it was deformed, its head being askew like a hunchback’s.
“Come now! Isn’t that quickly beaten into shape?” said he all the same, with his self-confidence, as he presented his work to Gervaise.
“I’m no judge, sir,” replied the laundress, reservedly.
But she saw plainly enough the marks of Dedele’s last two kicks on the bolt, and she was very pleased. She bit her lips so as not to laugh, for now Goujet had every chance of winning.
It was now Golden–Mug’s turn. Before commencing, he gave the laundress a look full of confident tenderness. Then he did not hurry himself. He measured his distance, and swung the hammer from on high with all his might and at regular intervals. He had the classic style, accurate, evenly balanced, and supple. Fifine, in his hands, did not cut capers, like at a dance-hall, but made steady, certain progress; she rose and fell in cadence, like a lady of quality solemnly leading some ancient minuet.
There was no brandy in Golden–Mug’s veins, only blood, throbbing powerfully even into Fifine and controlling the job. That stalwart fellow! What a magnificent man he was at work. The high flame of the forge shone full on his face. His whole face seemed golden indeed with his short hair curling over his forehead and his splendid yellow beard. His neck was as straight as a column and his immense chest was wide enough for a woman to sleep across it. His shoulders and sculptured arms seemed to have been copied from a giant’s statue in some museum. You could see his muscles swelling, mountains of flesh rippling and hardening under the skin; his shoulders, his chest, his neck expanded; he seemed to shed light about him, becoming beautiful and all-powerful like a kindly god.
He had now swung Fifine twenty times, his eyes always fixed on the iron, drawing a deep breath with each blow, yet showing only two great drops of sweat trickling down from his temples. He counted: “Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three —” Calmly Fifine continued, like a noble lady dancing.
“What a show-off!” jeeringly murmured Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst.
Gervaise, standing opposite Goujet, looked at him with an affectionate smile. Mon Dieu! What fools men are! Here these two men were, pounding on their bolts to pay court to her. She understood it. They were battling with hammer blows, like two big red roosters vying for the favors of a little white hen. Sometimes the human heart has fantastic ways of expressing itself. This thundering of Dedele and Fifine upon the anvil was for her, this forge roaring and overflowing was for her. They were forging their love before her, battling over her.
To be honest, she rather enjoyed it. All women are happy to receive compliments. The mighty blows of Golden–Mug found echoes in her heart; they rang within her, a crystal-clear music in time with the throbbing of her pulse. She had the feeling that this hammering was driving something deep inside of her, something solid, something hard as the iron of the bolt.
She had no doubt Goujet would win. Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, was much too ugly in his dirty tunic, jumping around like a monkey that had escaped from a zoo. She waited, blushing red, happy that the heat could explain the blush.
Goujet was still counting.
“And twenty-eight!” cried he at length, laying the hammer on the ground. “It’s finished; you can look.”
The head of the bolt was clean, polished, and without a flaw, regular goldsmith’s work, with the roundness of a marble cast in a mold. The other men looked at it and nodded their heads; there was no denying it was lovely enough to be worshipped. Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, tried indeed to chuff; but it was no use, and ended by returning to his anvil, with his nose put out of joint. Gervaise had squeezed up against Goujet, as though to get a better view. Etienne having let go the bellows, the forge was once more becoming enveloped in shadow, like a brilliant red sunset suddenly giving way to black night. And the blacksmith and the laundress experienced a sweet pleasure in feeling this gloom surround them in that shed black with soot and filings, and where an odor of old iron prevailed. They could not have thought themselves more alone in the Bois de Vincennes had they met there in the depths of some copse. He took her hand as though he had conquered her.
Outside, they scarcely exchanged a word. All he could find to say was that she might have taken Etienne away with her, had it not been that there was still another half-hour’s work to get through. When she started away he called her back, wanting a few more minutes with her.
“Come along. You haven’t seen all the place. It’s quite interesting.”
He led her to another shed where the owner was installing a new machine. She hesitated in the doorway, oppressed by an instinctive dread. The great hall was vibrating from the machines and black shadows filled the air. He reassured her with a smile, swearing that there was nothing to fear, only she should be careful not to let her skirts get caught in any of the gears. He went first and she followed into the deafening hubbub of whistling, amid clouds of steam peopled by human shadows moving busily.
The passages were very narrow and there were obstacles to step over, holes to avoid, passing carts to move back from. She couldn’t distinguish anything clearly or hear what Goujet was saying.
Gervaise looked up and stopped to stare at the leather belts hanging from the roof in a gigantic spider web, each strip ceaselessly revolving. The steam engine that drove them was hidden behind a low brick wall so that the belts seemed to be moving by themselves. She stumbled and almost fell while looking up.
Goujet raised his voice with explanations. There were the tapping machines operated by women, which put threads on bolts and nuts. Their steel gears were shining with oil. She could follow the entire process. She nodded her head and smiled.
She was still a little tense, however, feeling uneasy at being so small among these rough metalworkers. She jumped back more than once, her blood suddenly chilled by the dull thud of a machine.
Goujet had stopped before one of the rivet machines. He stood there brooding, his head lowered, his gaze fixed. This machine forged forty millimetre rivets with the calm ease of a giant. Nothing could be simpler. The stoker took the iron shank from the furnace; the striker put it into the socket, where a continuous stream of water cooled it to prevent softening of the steel. The press descended and the bolt flew out onto the ground, its head as round as though cast in a mold. Every twelve hours this machine made hundreds of kilograms of bolts!
Goujet was not a mean person, but there were moments when he wanted to take Fifine and smash this machine to bits because he was angry to see that its arms were stronger than his own. He reasoned with himself, telling himself that human flesh cannot compete with steel. But he was still deeply hurt. The day would come when machinery would destroy the skilled worker. Their day’s pay had already fallen from twelve francs to nine francs. There was talk of cutting it again. He stared at it, frowning, for three minutes without saying a word. His yellow beard seemed to bristle defiantly. Then, gradually an expression of resignation came over his face and he turned toward Gervaise who was clinging tightly to him and said with a sad smile:
“Well! That machine would certainly win a contest. But perhaps it will be for the good of mankind in the long run.”
Gervaise didn’t care a bit about the welfare of mankind. Smiling, she said to Goujet:
“I like yours better, because they show the hand of an artist.”
Hearing this gave him great happiness because he had been afraid that she might be scornful of him after seeing the machines. Mon Dieu! He might be stronger than Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, but the machines were stronger yet. When Gervaise finally took her leave, Goujet was so happy that he almost crushed her with a hug.
The laundress went every Saturday to the Goujets to deliver their washing. They still lived in the little house in the Rue Neuve de la Goutte-d’Or. During the first year she had regularly repaid them twenty francs a month; so as not to jumble up the accounts, the washing-book was only made up at the end of each month, and then she added to the amount whatever sum was necessary to make the twenty francs, for the Goujets’ washing rarely came to more than seven or eight francs during that time. She had therefore paid off nearly half the sum owing, when one quarter day, not knowing what to do, some of her customers not having kept their promises, she had been obliged to go to the Goujets and borrow from them sufficient for her rent. On two other occasions she had also applied to them for the money to pay her workwomen, so that the debt had increased again to four hundred and twenty-five francs. Now, she no longer gave a halfpenny; she worked off the amount solely by the washing. It was not that she worked less, or that her business was not so prosperous. But something was going wrong in her home; the money seemed to melt away, and she was glad when she was able to make both ends meet. Mon Dieu! What’s the use of complaining as long as one gets by. She was putting on weight and this caused her to become a bit lazy. She no longer had the energy that she had in the past. Oh well, there was always something coming in.
Madame Goujet felt a motherly concern for Gervaise and sometimes reprimanded her. This wasn’t due to the money owed but because she liked her and didn’t want to see her get into difficulties. She never mentioned the debt. In short, she behaved with the utmost delicacy.
The morrow of Gervaise’s visit to the forge happened to be the last Saturday of the month. When she reached the Goujets, where she made a point of going herself, her basket had so weighed on her arms that she was quite two minutes before she could get her breath. One would hardly believe how heavy clothes are, especially when there are sheets among them.
“Are you sure you’ve brought everything?” asked Madame Goujet.
She was very strict on that point. She insisted on having her washing brought home without a single article being kept back for the sake of order, as she said. She also required the laundress always to come on the day arranged and at the same hour; in that way there was no time wasted.
“Oh! yes, everything is here,” replied Gervaise smiling. “You know I never leave anything behind.”
“That’s true,” admitted Madame Goujet; “you’ve got into many bad habits but you’re still free of that one.”
And while the laundress emptied her basket, laying the linen on the bed, the old woman praised her; she never burnt the things nor tore them like so many others did, neither did she pull the buttons off with the iron; only she used too much blue and made the shirt-fronts too stiff with starch.
“Just look, it’s like cardboard,” continued she, making one crackle between her fingers. “My son does not complain, but it cuts his neck. To-morrow his neck will be all scratched when we return from Vincennes.”
“No, don’t say that!” exclaimed Gervaise, quite grieved. “To look nice, shirts must be rather stiff, otherwise it’s as though one had a rag on one’s body. You should just see what the gentlemen wear. I do all your things myself. The workwomen never touch them and I assure you I take great pains. I would, if necessary, do everything over a dozen times, because it’s for you, you know.”
She slightly blushed as she stammered out the last words. She was afraid of showing the great pleasure she took in ironing Goujet’s shirts. She certainly had no wicked thoughts, but she was none the less a little bit ashamed.
“Oh! I’m not complaining of your work; I know it’s perfection,” said Madame Goujet. “For instance, you’ve done this cap splendidly, only you could bring out the embroidery like that. And the flutings are all so even. Oh! I recognize your hand at once. When you give even a dish-cloth to one of your workwomen I detect it at once. In future, use a little less starch, that’s all! Goujet does not care to look like a stylish gentleman.”
She had taken out her notebook and was crossing off the various items. Everything was in order. She noticed that Gervaise was charging six sous for each bonnet. She protested, but had to agree that it was in line with present prices. Men’s shirts were five sous, women’s underdrawers four sous, pillow-cases a sou and a half, and aprons one sou. No, the prices weren’t high. Some laundresses charged a sou more for each item.
Gervaise was now calling out the soiled clothes, as she packed them in her basket, for Madame Goujet to list. Then she lingered on, embarrassed by a request which she wished to make.
“Madame Goujet,” she said at length, “if it does not inconvenience you, I would like to take the money for the month’s washing.”
It so happened that that month was a very heavy one, the account they had made up together amounting to ten francs, seven sous. Madame Goujet looked at her a moment in a serious manner, then she replied:
“My child, it shall be as you wish. I will not refuse you the money as you are in need of it. Only it’s scarcely the way to pay off your debt; I say that for your sake, you know. Really now, you should be careful.”
Gervaise received the lecture with bowed head and stammering excuses. The ten francs were to make up the amount of a bill she had given her coke merchant. But on hearing the word “bill,” Madame Goujet became severer still. She gave herself as an example; she had reduced her expenditure ever since Goujet’s wages had been lowered from twelve to nine francs a day. When one was wanting in wisdom whilst young, one dies of hunger in one’s old age. But she held back and didn’t tell Gervaise that she gave her their laundry only in order to help her pay off the debt. Before that she had done all her own washing, and she would have to do it herself again if the laundry continued taking so much cash out of her pocket. Gervaise spoke her thanks and left quickly as soon as she had received the ten francs seven sous. Outside on the landing she was so relieved she wanted to dance. She was becoming used to the annoying, unpleasant difficulties caused by a shortage of money and preferred to remember not the embarrassment but the joy in escaping from them.
It was also on that Saturday that Gervaise met with a rather strange adventure as she descended the Goujets’ staircase. She was obliged to stand up close against the stair-rail with her basket to make way for a tall bare-headed woman who was coming up, carrying in her hand a very fresh mackerel, with bloody gills, in a piece of paper. She recognized Virginie, the girl whose face she had slapped at the wash-house. They looked each other full in the face. Gervaise shut her eyes. She thought for a moment that she was going to be hit in the face with the fish. But no, Virginie even smiled slightly. Then, as her basket was blocking the staircase, the laundress wished to show how polite she, too, could be.
“I beg your pardon,” she said.
“You are completely excused,” replied the tall brunette.
And they remained conversing together on the stairs, reconciled at once without having ventured on a single allusion to the past. Virginie, then twenty-nine years old, had become a superb woman of strapping proportions, her face, however, looking rather long between her two plaits of jet black hair. She at once began to relate her history just to show off. She had a husband now; she had married in the spring an ex-journeyman cabinetmaker, who recently left the army, and who had applied to be admitted into the police, because a post of that kind is more to be depended upon and more respectable. She had been out to buy the mackerel for him.
“He adores mackerel,” said she. “We must spoil them, those naughty men, mustn’t we? But come up. You shall see our home. We are standing in a draught here.”
After Gervaise had told of her own marriage and that she had formerly occupied the very apartment Virginie now had, Virginie urged her even more strongly to come up since it is always nice to visit a spot where one had been happy.
Virginie had lived for five years on the Left Bank at Gros–Caillou. That was where she had met her husband while he was still in the army. But she got tired of it, and wanted to come back to the Goutte-d’Or neighborhood where she knew everyone. She had only been living in the rooms opposite the Goujets for two weeks. Oh! everything was still a mess, but they were slowly getting it in order.
Then, still on the staircase, they finally told each other their names.
And from that time forth, they called each other on every possible occasion Madame Poisson and Madame Coupeau, solely for the pleasure of being madame, they who in former days had been acquainted when occupying rather questionable positions. However, Gervaise felt rather mistrustful at heart. Perhaps the tall brunette had made it up the better to avenge herself for the beating at the wash-house by concocting some plan worthy of a spiteful hypocritical creature. Gervaise determined to be upon her guard. For the time being, as Virginie behaved so nicely, she would be nice also.
In the room upstairs, Poisson, the husband, a man of thirty-five, with a cadaverous-looking countenance and carroty moustaches and beard, was seated working at a table near the window. He was making little boxes. His only tools were a knife, a tiny saw the size of a nail file and a pot of glue. He was using wood from old cigar boxes, thin boards of unfinished mahogany upon which he executed fretwork and embellishments of extraordinary delicacy. All year long he worked at making the same size boxes, only varying them occasionally by inlay work, new designs for the cover, or putting compartments inside. He did not sell his work, he distributed it in presents to persons of his acquaintance. It was for his own amusement, a way of occupying his time while waiting for his appointment to the police force. It was all that remained with him from his former occupation of cabinetmaking.
Poisson rose from his seat and politely bowed to Gervaise, when his wife introduced her as an old friend. But he was no talker; he at once returned to his little saw. From time to time he merely glanced in the direction of the mackerel placed on the corner of the chest of drawers. Gervaise was very pleased to see her old lodging once more. She told them whereabouts her own furniture stood, and pointed out the place on the floor where Nana had been born. How strange it was to meet like this again, after so many years! They never dreamed of running into each other like this and even living in the same rooms.
Virginie added some further details. Her husband had inherited a little money from an aunt and he would probably set her up in a shop before long. Meanwhile she was still sewing. At length, at the end of a full half hour, the laundress took her leave. Poisson scarcely seemed to notice her departure. While seeing her to the door, Virginie promised to return the visit. And she would have Gervaise do her laundry. While Virginie was keeping her in further conversation on the landing, Gervaise had the feeling that she wanted to say something about Lantier and her sister Adele, and this notion upset her a bit. But not a word was uttered respecting those unpleasant things; they parted, wishing each other good-bye in a very amiable manner.
“Good-bye, Madame Coupeau.”
“Good-bye, Madame Poisson.”
That was the starting point of a great friendship. A week later, Virginie never passed Gervaise’s shop without going in; and she remained there gossiping for hours together, to such an extent indeed that Poisson, filled with anxiety, fearing she had been run over, would come and seek her with his expressionless and death-like countenance. Now that she was seeing the dressmaker every day Gervaise became aware of a strange obsession. Every time Virginie began to talk Gervaise had the feeling Lantier was going to be mentioned. So she had Lantier on her mind throughout all of Virginie’s visits. This was silly because, in fact, she didn’t care a bit about Lantier or Adele at this time. She was quite certain that she had no curiosity as to what had happened to either of them. But this obsession got hold of her in spite of herself. Anyway, she didn’t hold it against Virginie, it wasn’t her fault, surely. She enjoyed being with her and looked forward to her visits.
Meanwhile winter had come, the Coupeaus’ fourth winter in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. December and January were particularly cold. It froze hard as it well could. After New Year’s day the snow remained three weeks without melting. It did not interfere with work, but the contrary, for winter is the best season for the ironers. It was very pleasant inside the shop! There was never any ice on the window-panes like there was at the grocer’s and the hosier’s opposite. The stove was always stuffed with coke and kept things as hot as a Turkish bath. With the laundry steaming overhead you could almost imagine it was summer. You were quite comfortable with the doors closed and so much warmth everywhere that you were tempted to doze off with your eyes open. Gervaise laughed and said it reminded her of summer in the country. The street traffic made no noise in the snow and you could hardly hear the pedestrians who passed by. Only children’s voices were heard in the silence, especially the noisy band of urchins who had made a long slide in the gutter near the blacksmith’s shop.
Gervaise would sometimes go over to the door, wipe the moisture from one of the panes with her hand, and look out to see what was happening to her neighborhood due to this extraordinary cold spell. Not one nose was being poked out of the adjacent shops. The entire neighborhood was muffled in snow. The only person she was able to exchange nods with was the coal-dealer next door, who still walked out bare-headed despite the severe freeze.
What was especially enjoyable in this awful weather was to have some nice hot coffee in the middle of the day. The workwomen had no cause for complaint. The mistress made it very strong and without a grain of chicory. It was quite different to Madame Fauconnier’s coffee, which was like ditch-water. Only whenever mother Coupeau undertook to make it, it was always an interminable time before it was ready, because she would fall asleep over the kettle. On these occasions, when the workwomen had finished their lunch, they would do a little ironing whilst waiting for the coffee.
It so happened that on the morrow of Twelfth-day half-past twelve struck and still the coffee was not ready. It seemed to persist in declining to pass through the strainer. Mother Coupeau tapped against the pot with a tea-spoon; and one could hear the drops falling slowly, one by one, and without hurrying themselves any the more.
“Leave it alone,” said tall Clemence; “you’ll make it thick. To-day there’ll be as much to eat as to drink.”
Tall Clemence was working on a man’s shirt, the plaits of which she separated with her finger-nail. She had caught a cold, her eyes were frightfully swollen and her chest was shaken with fits of coughing, which doubled her up beside the work-table. With all that she had not even a handkerchief round her neck and she was dressed in some cheap flimsy woolen stuff in which she shivered. Close by, Madame Putois, wrapped up in flannel muffled up to her ears, was ironing a petticoat which she turned round the skirt-board, the narrow end of which rested on the back of a chair; whilst a sheet laid on the floor prevented the petticoat from getting dirty as it trailed along the tiles. Gervaise alone occupied half the work-table with some embroidered muslin curtains, over which she passed her iron in a straight line with her arms stretched out to avoid making any creases. All on a sudden the coffee running through noisily caused her to raise her head. It was that squint-eyed Augustine who had just given it an outlet by thrusting a spoon through the strainer.
“Leave it alone!” cried Gervaise. “Whatever is the matter with you? It’ll be like drinking mud now.”
Mother Coupeau had placed five glasses on a corner of the work-table that was free. The women now left their work. The mistress always poured out the coffee herself after putting two lumps of sugar into each glass. It was the moment that they all looked forward to. On this occasion, as each one took her glass and squatted down on a little stool in front of the stove, the shop-door opened. Virginie entered, shivering all over.
“Ah, my children,” said she, “it cuts you in two! I can no longer feel my ears. The cold is something awful!”
“Why, it’s Madame Poisson!” exclaimed Gervaise. “Ah, well! You’ve come at the right time. You must have some coffee with us.”
“On my word, I can’t say no. One feels the frost in one’s bones merely by crossing the street.”
There was still some coffee left, luckily. Mother Coupeau went and fetched a sixth glass, and Gervaise let Virginie help herself to sugar out of politeness. The workwomen moved to give Virginie a small space close to the stove. Her nose was very red, she shivered a bit, pressing her hands which were stiff with cold around the glass to warm them. She had just come from the grocery story where you froze to death waiting for a quarter-pound of cheese and so she raved about the warmth of the shop. It felt so good on one’s skin. After warming up, she stretched out her long legs and the six of them relaxed together, supping their coffee slowly, surround by all the work still to be done. Mother Coupeau and Virginie were the only ones on chairs, the others, on low benches, seemed to be sitting on the floor. Squint-eyed Augustine had pulled over a corner of the cloth below the skirt, stretching herself out on it.
No one spoke at first; all kept their noses in their glasses, enjoying their coffee.
“It’s not bad, all the same,” declared Clemence.
But she was seized with a fit of coughing, and almost choked. She leant her head against the wall to cough with more force.
“That’s a bad cough you’ve got,” said Virginie. “Wherever did you catch it?”
“One never knows!” replied Clemence, wiping her face with her sleeve. “It must have been the other night. There were two girls who were flaying each other outside the ‘Grand–Balcony.’ I wanted to see, so I stood there whilst the snow was falling. Ah, what a drubbing! It was enough to make one die with laughing. One had her nose almost pulled off; the blood streamed on the ground. When the other, a great long stick like me, saw the blood, she slipped away as quick as she could. And I coughed nearly all night. Besides that too, men are so stupid in bed, they don’t let you have any covers over you half the time.”
“Pretty conduct that,” murmured Madame Putois. “You’re killing yourself, my girl.”
“And if it pleases me to kill myself! Life isn’t so very amusing. Slaving all the blessed day long to earn fifty-five sous, cooking one’s blood from morning to night in front of the stove; no, you know, I’ve had enough of it! All the same though, this cough won’t do me the service of making me croak. It’ll go off the same way it came.”
A short silence ensued. The good-for-nothing Clemence, who led riots in low dancing establishments, and shrieked like a screech-owl at work, always saddened everyone with her thoughts of death. Gervaise knew her well, and so merely said:
“You’re never very gay the morning after a night of high living.”
The truth was that Gervaise did not like this talk about women fighting. Because of the flogging at the wash-house it annoyed her whenever anyone spoke before her and Virginie of kicks with wooden shoes and of slaps in the face. It so happened, too, that Virginie was looking at her and smiling.
“By the way,” she said quietly, “yesterday I saw some hair-pulling. They almost tore each other to pieces.”
“Who were they?” Madame Putois inquired.
“The midwife and her maid, you know, a little blonde. What a pest the girl is! She was yelling at her employer that she had got rid of a child for the fruit woman and that she was going to tell the police if she wasn’t paid to keep quiet. So the midwife slapped her right in the face and then the little blonde jumped on her and started scratching her and pulling her hair, really — by the roots. The sausage-man had to grab her to put a stop to it.”
The workwomen laughed. Then they all took a sip of coffee.
“Do you believe that she really got rid of a child?” Clemence asked.
“Oh, yes! The rumor was all round the neighborhood,” Virginie answered. “I didn’t see it myself, you understand, but it’s part of the job. All midwives do it.”
“Well!” exclaimed Madame Putois. “You have to be pretty stupid to put yourself in their hands. No thanks, you could be maimed for life. But there’s a sure way to do it. Drink a glass of holy water every evening and make the sign of the cross three times over your stomach with your thumb. Then your troubles will be over.”
Everyone thought mother Coupeau was asleep, but she shook her head in protest. She knew another way and it was infallible. You had to eat a hard-cooked egg every two hours, and put spinach leaves on your loins. Squint-eyed Augustine set up a hen-cackling when she heard this. They had forgotten about her. Gervaise lifted up the petticoat that was being ironed and found her rolling on the floor with laughter. She jerked her upright. What was she laughing about? Was it right for her to be eavesdropping when older people were talking, the little goose? Anyway it was time for her to deliver the laundry to a friend of Madame Lerat at Les Batignolles. So Gervaise hung a basket on her arm and pushed her toward the door. Augustine went off, sobbing and sniveling, dragging her feet in the snow.
Meanwhile mother Coupeau, Madame Putois and Clemence were discussing the effectiveness of hard-cooked eggs and spinach leaves. Then Virginie said softly:
“Mon Dieu! you have a fight, and then you make it up, if you have a generous heart.” She leaned toward Gervaise with a smile and added, “Really, I don’t hold any grudge against you for that business at the wash-house. You remember it, don’t you?”
This was what Gervaise had been dreading. She guessed that the subject of Lantier and Adele would now come up.
Virginie had moved close to Gervaise so as not to be overheard by the others. Gervaise, lulled by the excessive heat, felt so limp that she couldn’t even summon the willpower to change the subject. She foresaw what the tall brunette would say and her heart was stirred with an emotion which she didn’t want to admit to herself.
“I hope I’m not hurting your feelings,” Virginie continued. “Often I’ve had it on the tip of my tongue. But since we are now on the subject, word of honor, I don’t have any grudge against you.”
She stirred her remaining coffee and then took a small sip. Gervaise, with her heart in her throat, wondered if Virginie had really forgiven her as completely as she said, for she seemed to observe sparks in her dark eyes.
“You see,” Virginie went on, “you had an excuse. They played a really rotten, dirty trick on you. To be fair about it, if it had been me, I’d have taken a knife to her.”
She drank another small sip, then added rapidly without a pause:
“Anyway, it didn’t bring them happiness, mon Dieu! Not a bit of it. They went to live over at La Glaciere, in a filthy street that was always muddy. I went two days later to have lunch with them. I can tell you, it was quite a trip by bus. Well, I found them already fighting. Really, as I came in they were boxing each other’s ears. Fine pair of love birds! Adele isn’t worth the rope to hang her. I say that even if she is my own sister. It would take too long to relate all the nasty tricks she played on me, and anyhow, it’s between the two of us. As for Lantier — well, he’s no good either. He’d beat the hide off you for anything, and with his fist closed too. They fought all the time. The police even came once.”
Virginie went on about other fights. Oh, she knew of things that would make your hair stand up. Gervaise listened in silence, her face pale. It was nearly seven years since she had heard a word about Lantier. She hadn’t realized what a strong curiosity she had as to what had become of the poor man, even though he had treated her badly. And she never would have believed that just the mention of his name could put such a glowing warmth in the pit of her stomach. She certainly had no reason to be jealous of Adele any more but she rejoiced to think of her body all bruised from the beatings. She could have listened to Virginie all night, but she didn’t ask any questions, not wanting to appear much interested.
Virginie stopped to sip at her coffee. Gervaise, realizing that she was expected to say something, asked, with a pretence of indifference:
“Are they still living at La Glaciere?”
“No!” the other replied. “Didn’t I tell you? They separated last week. One morning, Adele moved out and Lantier didn’t chase after her.”
“So they’re separated!” Gervaise exclaimed.
“Who are you talking about?” Clemence asked, interrupting her conversation with mother Coupeau and Madame Putois.
“Nobody you know,” said Virginie.
She was looking at Gervaise carefully and could see that she was upset. She moved still closer, maliciously finding pleasure in bringing up these old stories. Of a sudden she asked Gervaise what she would do if Lantier came round here. Men were really such strange creatures, he might decide to return to his first love. This caused Gervaise to sit up very straight and dignified. She was a married woman; she would send Lantier off immediately. There was no possibility of anything further between them, not even a handshake. She would not even want to look that man in the face.
“I know that Etienne is his son, and that’s a relationship that remains,” she said. “If Lantier wants to see his son, I’ll send the boy to him because you can’t stop a father from seeing his child. But as for myself, I don’t want him to touch me even with the tip of his finger. That is all finished.”
Desiring to break off this conversation, she seemed to awake with a start and called out to the women:
“You ladies! Do you think all these clothes are going to iron themselves? Get to work!”
The workwomen, slow from the heat and general laziness, didn’t hurry themselves, but went right on talking, gossiping about other people they had known.
Gervaise shook herself and got to her feet. Couldn’t earn money by sitting all day. She was the first to return to the ironing, but found that her curtains had been spotted by the coffee and she had to rub out the stains with a damp cloth. The other women were now stretching and getting ready to begin ironing.
Clemence had a terrible attack of coughing as soon as she moved. Finally she was able to return to the shirt she had been doing. Madame Putois began to work on the petticoat again.
“Well, good-bye,” said Virginie. “I only came out for a quarter-pound of Swiss cheese. Poisson must think I’ve frozen to death on the way.”
She had only just stepped outside when she turned back to say that Augustine was at the end of the street, sliding on the ice with some urchins. The squint-eyed imp rushed in all red-faced and out of breath with snow all in her hair. She didn’t mind the scolding she received, merely saying that she hadn’t been able to walk fast because of the ice and then some brats threw snow at her.
The afternoons were all the same these winter days. The laundry was the refuge for anyone in the neighborhood who was cold. There was an endless procession of gossiping women. Gervaise took pride in the comforting warmth of her shop and welcomed those who came in, “holding a salon,” as the Lorilleuxs and the Boches remarked meanly.
Gervaise was always thoughtful and generous. Sometimes she even invited poor people in if she saw them shivering outside. A friendship sprang up with an elderly house-painter who was seventy. He lived in an attic room and was slowly dying of cold and hunger. His three sons had been killed in the war. He survived the best he could, but it had been two years since he had been able to hold a paint-brush in his hand. Whenever Gervaise saw Pere Bru walking outside, she would call him in and arrange a place for him close to the stove. Often she gave him some bread and cheese. Pere Bru’s face was as wrinkled as a withered apple. He would sit there, with his stooping shoulders and his white beard, without saying a word, just listening to the coke sputtering in the stove. Maybe he was thinking of his fifty years of hard work on high ladders, his fifty years spent painting doors and whitewashing ceilings in every corner of Paris.
“Well, Pere Bru,” Gervaise would say, “what are you thinking of now?”
“Nothing much. All sorts of things,” he would answer quietly.
The workwomen tried to joke with him to cheer him up, saying he was worrying over his love affairs, but he scarcely listened to them before he fell back into his habitual attitude of meditative melancholy.
Virginie now frequently spoke to Gervaise of Lantier. She seemed to find amusement in filling her mind with ideas of her old lover just for the pleasure of embarrassing her by making suggestions. One day she related that she had met him; then, as the laundress took no notice, she said nothing further, and it was only on the morrow that she added he had spoken about her for a long time, and with a great show of affection. Gervaise was much upset by these reports whispered in her ear in a corner of the shop. The mention of Lantier’s name always caused a worried sensation in the pit of her stomach. She certainly thought herself strong; she wished to lead the life of an industrious woman, because labor is the half of happiness. So she never considered Coupeau in this matter, having nothing to reproach herself with as regarded her husband, not even in her thoughts. But with a hesitating and suffering heart, she would think of the blacksmith. It seemed to her that the memory of Lantier — that slow possession which she was resuming — rendered her unfaithful to Goujet, to their unavowed love, sweet as friendship. She passed sad days whenever she felt herself guilty towards her good friend. She would have liked to have had no affection for anyone but him outside of her family. It was a feeling far above all carnal thoughts, for the signs of which upon her burning face Virginie was ever on the watch.
As soon as spring came Gervaise often went and sought refuge with Goujet. She could no longer sit musing on a chair without immediately thinking of her first lover; she pictured him leaving Adele, packing his clothes in the bottom of their old trunk, and returning to her in a cab. The days when she went out, she was seized with the most foolish fears in the street; she was ever thinking she heard Lantier’s footsteps behind her. She did not dare turn round, but tremblingly fancied she felt his hands seizing her round the waist. He was, no doubt, spying upon her; he would appear before her some afternoon; and the bare idea threw her into a cold perspiration, because he would to a certainty kiss her on the ear, as he used to do in former days solely to tease her. It was this kiss which frightened her; it rendered her deaf beforehand; it filled her with a buzzing amidst which she could only distinguish the sound of her heart beating violently. So, as soon as these fears seized upon her, the forge was her only shelter; there, under Goujet’s protection, she once more became easy and smiling, as his sonorous hammer drove away her disagreeable reflections.
What a happy time! The laundress took particular pains with the washing of her customer in the Rue des Portes–Blanches; she always took it home herself because that errand, every Friday, was a ready excuse for passing through the Rue Marcadet and looking in at the forge. The moment she turned the corner of the street she felt light and gay, as though in the midst of those plots of waste land surrounded by grey factories, she were out in the country; the roadway black with coal-dust, the plumage of steam over the roofs, amused her as much as a moss-covered path leading through masses of green foliage in a wood in the environs; and she loved the dull horizon, streaked by the tall factory-chimneys, the Montmartre heights, which hid the heavens from view, the chalky white houses pierced with the uniform openings of their windows. She would slacken her steps as she drew near, jumping over the pools of water, and finding a pleasure in traversing the deserted ins and outs of the yard full of old building materials. Right at the further end the forge shone with a brilliant light, even at mid-day. Her heart leapt with the dance of the hammers. When she entered, her face turned quite red, the little fair hairs at the nape of her neck flew about like those of a woman arriving at some lovers’ meeting. Goujet was expecting her, his arms and chest bare, whilst he hammered harder on the anvil on those days so as to make himself heard at a distance. He divined her presence, and greeted her with a good silent laugh in his yellow beard. But she would not let him leave off his work; she begged him to take up his hammer again, because she loved him the more when he wielded it with his big arms swollen with muscles. She would go and give Etienne a gentle tap on the cheek, as he hung on to the bellows, and then remain for an hour watching the rivets.
The two did not exchange a dozen words. They could not have more completely satisfied their love if alone in a room with the door double-locked. The snickering of Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, did not bother them in the least, for they no longer even heard him. At the end of a quarter of an hour she would begin to feel slightly oppressed; the heat, the powerful smell, the ascending smoke, made her dizzy, whilst the dull thuds of the hammers shook her from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet. Then she desired nothing more; it was her pleasure. Had Goujet pressed her in his arms it would not have procured her so sweet an emotion. She drew close to him that she might feel the wind raised by his hammer beat upon her cheek, and become, as it were, a part of the blow he struck. When the sparks made her soft hands smart, she did not withdraw them; on the contrary, she enjoyed the rain of fire which stung her skin. He for certain, divined the happiness which she tasted there; he always kept the most difficult work for the Fridays, so as to pay his court to her with all his strength and all his skill; he no longer spared himself at the risk of splitting the anvils in two, as he panted and his loins vibrated with the joy he was procuring her. All one spring-time their love thus filled Goujet with the rumbling of a storm. It was an idyll amongst giant-like labor in the midst of the glare of the coal fire, and of the shaking of the shed, the cracking carcass of which was black with soot. All that beaten iron, kneaded like red wax, preserved the rough marks of their love. When on the Fridays the laundress parted from Golden–Mug, she slowly reascended the Rue des Poissonniers, contented and tired, her mind and her body alike tranquil.
Little by little, her fear of Lantier diminished; her good sense got the better of her. At that time she would still have led a happy life, had it not been for Coupeau, who was decidedly going to the bad. One day she just happened to be returning from the forge, when she fancied she recognized Coupeau inside Pere Colombe’s l’Assommoir, in the act of treating himself to a round of vitriol in the company of My–Boots, Bibi-the-Smoker, and Salted–Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst. She passed quickly by, so as not to seem to be spying on them. But she glanced back; it was indeed Coupeau who was tossing his little glass of bad brandy down his throat with a gesture already familiar. He lied then; so he went in for brandy now! She returned home in despair; all her old dread of brandy took possession of her. She forgave the wine, because wine nourishes the workman; all kinds of spirit, on the contrary, were filth, poisons which destroyed in the workman the taste for bread. Ah! the government ought to prevent the manufacture of such horrid stuff!
On arriving at the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, she found the whole house upset. Her workwomen had left the shop, and were in the courtyard looking up above. She questioned Clemence.
“It’s old Bijard who’s giving his wife a hiding,” replied the ironer. “He was in the doorway, as drunk as a trooper, watching for her return from the wash-house. He whacked her up the stairs, and now he’s finishing her off up there in their room. Listen, can’t you hear her shrieks?”
Gervaise hastened to the spot. She felt some friendship for her washer-woman, Madame Bijard, who was a very courageous woman. She had hoped to put a stop to what was going on. Upstairs, on the sixth floor the door of the room was wide open, some lodgers were shouting on the landing, whilst Madame Boche, standing in front of the door, was calling out:
“Will you leave off? I shall send for the police; do you hear?”
No one dared to venture inside the room, because it was known that Bijard was like a brute beast when he was drunk. As a matter of fact, he was scarcely ever sober. The rare days on which he worked, he placed a bottle of brandy beside his blacksmith’s vise, gulping some of it down every half hour. He could not keep himself going any other way. He would have blazed away like a torch if anyone had placed a lighted match close to his mouth.
“But we mustn’t let her be murdered!” said Gervaise, all in a tremble.
And she entered. The room, an attic, and very clean, was bare and cold, almost emptied by the drunken habits of the man, who took the very sheets from the bed to turn them into liquor. During the struggle the table had rolled away to the window, the two chairs, knocked over, had fallen with their legs in the air. In the middle of the room, on the tile floor, lay Madame Bijard, all bloody, her skirts, still soaked with the water of the wash-house, clinging to her thighs, her hair straggling in disorder. She was breathing heavily, with a rattle in her throat, as she muttered prolonged ohs! each time she received a blow from the heel of Bijard’s boot. He had knocked her down with his fists, and now he stamped upon her.
“Ah, strumpet! Ah, strumpet! Ah strumpet!” grunted he in a choking voice, accompanying each blow with the word, taking a delight in repeating it, and striking all the harder the more he found his voice failing him.
Then when he could no longer speak, he madly continued to kick with a dull sound, rigid in his ragged blue blouse and overalls, his face turned purple beneath his dirty beard, and his bald forehead streaked with big red blotches. The neighbors on the landing related that he was beating her because she had refused him twenty sous that morning. Boche’s voice was heard at the foot of the staircase. He was calling Madame Boche, saying:
“Come down; let them kill each other, it’ll be so much scum the less.”
Meanwhile, Pere Bru had followed Gervaise into the room. Between them they were trying to get him towards the door. But he turned round, speechless and foaming at the lips, and in his pale eyes the alcohol was blazing with a murderous glare. The laundress had her wrist injured; the old workman was knocked against the table. On the floor, Madame Bijard was breathing with greater difficulty, her mouth wide open, her eyes closed. Now Bijard kept missing her. He had madly returned to the attack, but blinded by rage, his blows fell on either side, and at times he almost fell when his kicks went into space. And during all this onslaught, Gervaise beheld in a corner of the room little Lalie, then four years old, watching her father murdering her mother. The child held in her arms, as though to protect her, her sister Henriette, only recently weaned. She was standing up, her head covered with a cotton cap, her face very pale and grave. Her large black eyes gazed with a fixedness full of thought and were without a tear.
When at length Bijard, running against a chair, stumbled onto the tiled floor, where they left him snoring, Pere Bru helped Gervaise to raise Madame Bijard. The latter was now sobbing bitterly; and Lalie, drawing near, watched her crying, being used to such sights and already resigned to them. As the laundress descended the stairs, in the silence of the now quieted house, she kept seeing before her that look of this child of four, as grave and courageous as that of a woman.
“Monsieur Coupeau is on the other side of the street,” called out Clemence as soon as she caught sight of her. “He looks awfully drunk.”
Coupeau was just then crossing the street. He almost smashed a pane of glass with his shoulder as he missed the door. He was in a state of complete drunkenness, with his teeth clinched and his nose inflamed. And Gervaise at once recognized the vitriol of l’Assommoir in the poisoned blood which paled his skin. She tried to joke and get him to bed, the same as on the days when the wine had made him merry; but he pushed her aside without opening his lips, and raised his fist in passing as he went to bed of his own accord. He made Gervaise think of the other — the drunkard who was snoring upstairs, tired out by the blows he had struck. A cold shiver passed over her. She thought of the men she knew — of her husband, of Goujet, of Lantier — her heart breaking, despairing of ever being happy.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02