That winter mother Coupeau nearly went off in one of her coughing fits. Each December she could count on her asthma keeping her on her back for two and three weeks at a time. She was no longer fifteen, she would be seventy-three on Saint–Anthony’s day. With that she was very rickety, getting a rattling in her throat for nothing at all, though she was plump and stout. The doctor said she would go off coughing, just time enough to say: “Good-night, the candle’s out!”
When she was in her bed mother Coupeau became positively unbearable. It is true though that the little room in which she slept with Nana was not at all gay. There was barely room for two chairs between the beds. The wallpaper, a faded gray, hung loose in long strips. The small window near the ceiling let in only a dim light. It was like a cavern. At night, as she lay awake, she could listen to the breathing of the sleeping Nana as a sort of distraction; but in the day-time, as there was no one to keep her company from morning to night, she grumbled and cried and repeated to herself for hours together, as she rolled her head on the pillow:
“Good heavens! What a miserable creature I am! Good heavens! What a miserable creature I am! They’ll leave me to die in prison, yes, in prison!”
As soon as anyone called, Virginie or Madame Boche, to ask after her health, she would not reply directly, but immediately started on her list of complaints: “Oh, I pay dearly for the food I eat here. I’d be much better off with strangers. I asked for a cup of tisane and they brought me an entire pot of hot water. It was a way of saying that I drank too much. I brought Nana up myself and she scurries away in her bare feet every morning and I never see her again all day. Then at night she sleeps so soundly that she never wakes up to ask me if I’m in pain. I’m just a nuisance to them. They’re waiting for me to die. That will happen soon enough. I don’t even have a son any more; that laundress has taken him from me. She’d beat me to death if she wasn’t afraid of the law.”
Gervaise was indeed rather hasty at times. The place was going to the dogs, everyone’s temper was getting spoilt and they sent each other to the right about for the least word. Coupeau, one morning that he had a hangover, exclaimed: “The old thing’s always saying she’s going to die, and yet she never does!” The words struck mother Coupeau to the heart. They frequently complained of how much she cost them, observing that they would save a lot of money when she was gone.
When at her worst that winter, one afternoon, when Madame Lorilleux and Madame Lerat had met at her bedside, mother Coupeau winked her eye as a signal to them to lean over her. She could scarcely speak. She rather hissed than said in a low voice:
“It’s becoming indecent. I heard them last night. Yes, Clump-clump and the hatter. And they were kicking up such a row together! Coupeau’s too decent for her.”
And she related in short sentences, coughing and choking between each, that her son had come home dead drunk the night before. Then, as she was not asleep, she was easily able to account for all the noises, of Clump-clump’s bare feet tripping over the tiled floor, the hissing voice of the hatter calling her, the door between the two rooms gently closed, and the rest. It must have lasted till daylight. She could not tell the exact time, because, in spite of her efforts, she had ended by falling into a dose.
“What’s most disgusting is that Nana might have heard everything,” continued she. “She was indeed restless all the night, she who usually sleeps so sound. She tossed about and kept turning over as though there had been some lighted charcoal in her bed.”
The other two women did not seem at all surprised.
“Of course!” murmured Madame Lorilleux, “it probably began the very first night. But as it pleases Coupeau, we’ve no business to interfere. All the same, it’s not very respectable.”
“As for me,” declared Madame Lerat through clenched teeth, “if I’d been there, I’d have thrown a fright into them. I’d have shouted something, anything. A doctor’s maid told me once that the doctor had told her that a surprise like that, at a certain moment, could strike a woman dead. If she had died right there, that would have been well, wouldn’t it? She would have been punished right where she had sinned.”
It wasn’t long until the entire neighborhood knew that Gervaise visited Lantier’s room every night. Madame Lorilleux was loudly indignant, calling her brother a poor fool whose wife had shamed him. And her poor mother, forced to live in the midst of such horrors. As a result, the neighbors blamed Gervaise. Yes, she must have led Lantier astray; you could see it in her eyes. In spite of the nasty gossip, Lantier was still liked because he was always so polite. He always had candy or flowers to give the ladies. Mon Dieu! Men shouldn’t be expected to push away women who threw themselves at them. There was no excuse for Gervaise. She was a disgrace. The Lorilleuxs used to bring Nana up to their apartment in order to find out more details from her, their godchild. But Nana would put on her expression of innocent stupidity and lower her long silky eyelashes to hide the fire in her eyes as she replied.
In the midst of this general indignation, Gervaise lived quietly on, feeling tired out and half asleep. At first she considered herself very sinful and felt a disgust for herself. When she left Lantier’s room she would wash her hands and scrub herself as if trying to get rid of an evil stain. If Coupeau then tried to joke with her, she would fly into a passion, and run and shiveringly dress herself in the farthest corner of the shop; neither would she allow Lantier near her soon after her husband had kissed her. She would have liked to have changed her skin as she changed men. But she gradually became accustomed to it. Soon it was too much trouble to scrub herself each time. Her thirst for happiness led her to enjoy as much as she could the difficult situation. She had always been disposed to make allowances for herself, so why not for others? She only wanted to avoid causing trouble. As long as the household went along as usual, there was nothing to complain about.
Then, after all, she could not be doing anything to make Coupeau stop drinking; matters were arranged so easily to the general satisfaction. One is generally punished if one does what is not right. His dissoluteness had gradually become a habit. Now it was as regular an affair as eating and drinking. Each time Coupeau came home drunk, she would go to Lantier’s room. This was usually on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sometimes on other nights, if Coupeau was snoring too loudly, she would leave in the middle of the night. It was not that she cared more for Lantier, but just that she slept better in his room.
Mother Coupeau never dared speak openly of it. But after a quarrel, when the laundress had bullied her, the old woman was not sparing in her allusions. She would say that she knew men who were precious fools and women who were precious hussies, and she would mutter words far more biting, with the sharpness of language pertaining to an old waistcoat-maker. The first time this had occurred Gervaise looked at her straight in the face without answering. Then, also avoiding going into details, she began to defend herself with reasons given in a general sort of way. When a woman had a drunkard for a husband, a pig who lived in filth, that woman was to be excused if she sought for cleanliness elsewhere. Once she pointed out that Lantier was just as much her husband as Coupeau was. Hadn’t she known him since she was fourteen and didn’t she have children by him?
Anyway, she’d like to see anyone make trouble for her. She wasn’t the only one around the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. Madame Vigouroux, the coal-dealer had a merry dance from morning to night. Then there was the grocer’s wife, Madame Lehongre with her brother-in-law. Mon Dieu! What a slob of a fellow. He wasn’t worth touching with a shovel. Even the neat little clockmaker was said to have carried on with his own daughter, a streetwalker. Ah, the entire neighborhood. Oh, she knew plenty of dirt.
One day when mother Coupeau was more pointed than usual in her observations, Gervaise had replied to her, clinching her teeth:
“You’re confined to your bed and you take advantage of it. Listen! You’re wrong. You see that I behave nicely to you, for I’ve never thrown your past life into your teeth. Oh! I know all about it. No, don’t cough. I’ve finished what I had to say. It’s only to request you to mind your own business, that’s all!”
The old woman almost choked. On the morrow, Goujet having called about his mother’s washing when Gervaise happened to be out, mother Coupeau called him to her and kept him some time seated beside her bed. She knew all about the blacksmith’s friendship, and had noticed that for some time past he had looked dismal and wretched, from a suspicion of the melancholy things that were taking place. So, for the sake of gossiping, and out of revenge for the quarrel of the day before, she bluntly told him the truth, weeping and complaining as though Gervaise’s wicked behavior did her some special injury. When Goujet quitted the little room, he leant against the wall, almost stifling with grief. Then, when the laundress returned home, mother Coupeau called to her that Madame Goujet required her to go round with her clothes, ironed or not; and she was so animated that Gervaise, seeing something was wrong, guessed what had taken place and had a presentiment of the unpleasantness which awaited her.
Very pale, her limbs already trembling, she placed the things in a basket and started off. For years past she had not returned the Goujets a sou of their money. The debt still amounted to four hundred and twenty-five francs. She always spoke of her embarrassments and received the money for the washing. It filled her with shame, because she seemed to be taking advantage of the blacksmith’s friendship to make a fool of him. Coupeau, who had now become less scrupulous, would chuckle and say that Goujet no doubt had fooled around with her a bit, and had so paid himself. But she, in spite of the relations she had fallen into with Coupeau, would indignantly ask her husband if he already wished to eat of that sort of bread. She would not allow anyone to say a word against Goujet in her presence; her affection for the blacksmith remained like a last shred of her honor. Thus, every time she took the washing home to those worthy people, she felt a spasm of her heart the moment she put a foot on their stairs.
“Ah! it’s you, at last!” said Madame Goujet sharply, on opening the door to her. “When I’m in want of death, I’ll send you to fetch him.”
Gervaise entered, greatly embarrassed, not even daring to mutter an excuse. She was no longer punctual, never came at the time arranged, and would keep her customers waiting for days on end. Little by little she was giving way to a system of thorough disorder.
“For a week past I’ve been expecting you,” continued the lace-mender. “And you tell falsehoods too; you send your apprentice to me with all sorts of stories; you are then busy with my things, you will deliver them the same evening, or else you’ve had an accident, the bundle’s fallen into a pail of water. Whilst all this is going on, I waste my time, nothing turns up, and it worries me exceedingly. No, you’re most unreasonable. Come, what have you in your basket? Is everything there now? Have you brought me the pair of sheets you’ve been keeping back for a month past, and the chemise which was missing the last time you brought home the washing?”
“Yes, yes,” murmured Gervaise, “I have the chemise. Here it is.”
But Madame Goujet cried out. That chemise was not hers, she would have nothing to do with it. Her things were changed now; it was too bad! Only the week before, there were two handkerchiefs which hadn’t her mark on them. It was not to her taste to have clothes coming from no one knew where. Besides that, she liked to have her own things.
“And the sheets?” she resumed. “They’re lost, aren’t they? Well! Woman, you must see about them, for I insist upon having them to-morrow morning, do you hear?”
There was a silence which particularly bothered Gervaise when she noticed that the door to Goujet’s room was open. If he was in there, it was most annoying that he should hear these just criticisms. She made no reply, meekly bowing her head, and placing the laundry on the bed as quickly as possible.
Matters became worse when Madame Goujet began to look over the things, one by one. She took hold of them and threw them down again saying:
“Ah! you don’t get them up nearly so well as you used to do. One can’t compliment you every day now. Yes, you’ve taken to mucking your work — doing it in a most slovenly way. Just look at this shirt-front, it’s scorched, there’s the mark of the iron on the plaits; and the buttons have all been torn off. I don’t know how you manage it, but there’s never a button left on anything. Oh! now, here’s a petticoat body which I shall certainly not pay you for. Look there! The dirt’s still on it, you’ve simply smoothed it over. So now the things are not even clean!”
She stopped whilst she counted the different articles. Then she exclaimed:
“What! This is all you’ve brought? There are two pairs of stockings, six towels, a table-cloth, and several dish-cloths short. You’re regularly trifling with me, it seems! I sent word that you were to bring me everything, ironed or not. If your apprentice isn’t here on the hour with the rest of the things, we shall fall out, Madame Coupeau, I warn you.”
At this moment Goujet coughed in his room. Gervaise slightly started. Mon Dieu! How she was treated before him. And she remained standing in the middle of the rooms, embarrassed and confused and waiting for the dirty clothes; but after making up the account Madame Goujet had quietly returned to her seat near the window, and resumed the mending of a lace shawl.
“And the dirty things?” timidly inquired the laundress.
“No, thank you,” replied the old woman, “there will be no laundry this week.”
Gervaise turned pale. She was no longer to have the washing. Then she quite lost her head; she was obliged to sit down on a chair, for her legs were giving way under her. She did not attempt to vindicate herself. All that she would find to say was:
“Is Monsieur Goujet ill?”
Yes, he was not well. He had been obliged to come home instead of returning to the forge, and he had gone to lie down on his bed to get a rest. Madame Goujet talked gravely, wearing her black dress as usual and her white face framed in her nun-like coif. The pay at the forge had been cut again. It was now only seven francs a day because the machines did so much of the work. This forced her to save money every way she could. She would do her own washing from now on. It would naturally have been very helpful if the Coupeaus had been able to return her the money lent them by her son; but she was not going to set the lawyers on them, as they were unable to pay. As she was talking about the debt, Gervaise lowered her eyes in embarrassment.
“All the same,” continued the lace-maker, “by pinching yourselves a little you could manage to pay it off. For really now, you live very well; and spend a great deal, I’m sure. If you were only to pay off ten francs a month —”
She was interrupted by the sound of Goujet’s voice as he called:
And when she returned to her seat, which was almost immediately, she changed the conversation. The blacksmith had doubtless begged her not to ask Gervaise for money; but in spite of herself she again spoke of the debt at the expiration of five minutes. Oh! She had foreseen long ago what was now happening. Coupeau was drinking all that the laundry business brought in and dragging his wife down with him. Her son would never have loaned the money if he had only listened to her. By now he would have been married, instead of miserably sad with only unhappiness to look forward to for the rest of his life. She grew quite stern and angry, even accusing Gervaise of having schemed with Coupeau to take advantage of her foolish son. Yes, some women were able to play the hypocrite for years, but eventually the truth came out.
“Mamma! Mamma!” again called Goujet, but louder this time.
She rose from her seat and when she returned she said, as she resumed her lace mending:
“Go in, he wishes to see you.”
Gervaise, all in a tremble left the door open. This scene filled her with emotion because it was like an avowal of their affection before Madame Goujet. She again beheld the quiet little chamber, with its narrow iron bedstead, and papered all over with pictures, the whole looking like the room of some girl of fifteen. Goujet’s big body was stretched on the bed. Mother Coupeau’s disclosures and the things his mother had been saying seemed to have knocked all the life out of his limbs. His eyes were red and swollen, his beautiful yellow beard was still wet. In the first moment of rage he must have punched away at his pillow with his terrible fists, for the ticking was split and the feathers were coming out.
“Listen, mamma’s wrong,” said he to the laundress in a voice that was scarcely audible. “You owe me nothing. I won’t have it mentioned again.”
He had raised himself up and was looking at her. Big tears at once filled his eyes.
“Do you suffer, Monsieur Goujet?” murmured she. “What is the matter with you? Tell me!”
“Nothing, thanks. I tired myself with too much work yesterday. I will rest a bit.”
Then, his heart breaking, he could not restrain himself and burst out:
“Mon Dieu! Ah! Mon Dieu! It was never to be — never. You swore it. And now it is — it is! Ah, it pains me too much, leave me!”
And with his hand he gently and imploringly motioned to her to go. She did not draw nearer to the bed. She went off as he requested her to, feeling stupid, unable to say anything to soothe him. When in the other room she took up her basket; but she did not go home. She stood there trying to find something to say. Madame Goujet continued her mending without raising her head. It was she who at length said:
“Well! Good-night; send me back my things and we will settle up afterwards.”
“Yes, it will be best so — good-night,” stammered Gervaise.
She took a last look around the neatly arranged room and thought as she shut the door that she seemed to be leaving some part of her better self behind. She plodded blindly back to the laundry, scarcely knowing where she was going.
When Gervaise arrived, she found mother Coupeau out of her bed, sitting on a chair by the stove. Gervaise was too tired to scold her. Her bones ached as though she had been beaten and she was thinking that her life was becoming too hard to bear. Surely a quick death was the only escape from the pain in her heart.
After this, Gervaise became indifferent to everything. With a vague gesture of her hand she would send everybody about their business. At each fresh worry she buried herself deeper in her only pleasure, which was to have her three meals a day. The shop might have collapsed. So long as she was not beneath it, she would have gone off willingly without a chemise to her back. And the little shop was collapsing, not suddenly, but little by little, morning and evening. One by one the customers got angry, and sent their washing elsewhere. Monsieur Madinier, Mademoiselle Remanjou, the Boches themselves had returned to Madame Fauconnier, where they could count on great punctuality. One ends by getting tired of asking for a pair of stockings for three weeks straight, and of putting on shirts with grease stains dating from the previous Sunday. Gervaise, without losing a bite, wished them a pleasant journey, and spoke her mind about them, saying that she was precious glad she would no longer have to poke her nose into their filth. The entire neighborhood could quit her; that would relieve her of the piles of stinking junk and give her less work to do.
Now her only customers were those who didn’t pay regularly, the street-walkers, and women like Madame Gaudron, whose laundry smelled so bad that not one of the laundresses on the Rue Neuve would take it. She had to let Madame Putois go, leaving only her apprentice, squint-eyed Augustine, who seemed to grow more stupid as time passed. Frequently there was not even enough work for the two of them and they sat on stools all afternoon doing nothing.
Whilst idleness and poverty entered, dirtiness naturally entered also. One would never have recognised that beautiful blue shop, the color of heaven, which had once been Gervaise’s pride. Its window-frames and panes, which were never washed, were covered from top to bottom with the splashes of the passing vehicles. On the brass rods in the windows were displayed three grey rags left by customers who had died in the hospital. And inside it was more pitiable still; the dampness of the clothes hung up at the ceiling to dry had loosed all the wallpaper; the Pompadour chintz hung in strips like cobwebs covered with dust; the big stove, broken and in holes from the rough use of the poker, looked in its corner like the stock in trade of a dealer in old iron; the work-table appeared as though it had been used by a regiment, covered as it was with wine and coffee stains, sticky with jam, greasy from spilled gravy.
Gervaise was so at ease among it all that she never even noticed the shop was getting filthy. She became used to it all, just as she got used to wearing torn skirts and no longer washing herself carefully. The disorder was like a warm nest.
Her own ease was her sole consideration; she did not care a pin for anything else. The debts, though still increasing, no longer troubled her. Her honesty gradually deserted her; whether she would be able to pay or not was altogether uncertain, and she preferred not to think about it. When her credit was stopped at one shop, she would open an account at some other shop close by. She was in debt all over the neighborhood, she owed money every few yards. To take merely the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, she no longer dared pass in front of the grocer’s, nor the charcoal-dealer’s, nor the greengrocer’s; and this obliged her, whenever she required to be at the wash-house, to go round by the Rue des Poissonniers, which was quite ten minutes out of her way. The tradespeople came and treated her as a swindler. One evening the dealer from whom she had purchased Lantier’s furniture made a scene in the street. Scenes like this upset her at the time, but were soon forgotten and never spoiled her appetite. What a nerve to bother her like that when she had no money to pay. They were all robbers anyway and it served them right to have to wait. Well, she’d have to go bankrupt, but she didn’t intend to fret about it now.
Meanwhile mother Coupeau had recovered. For another year the household jogged along. During the summer months there was naturally a little more work — the white petticoats and the cambric dresses of the street-walkers of the exterior Boulevard. The catastrophe was slowly approaching; the home sank deeper into the mire every week; there were ups and downs, however — days when one had to rub one’s stomach before the empty cupboard, and others when one ate veal enough to make one burst. Mother Coupeau was for ever being seen in the street, hiding bundles under her apron, and strolling in the direction of the pawn-place in the Rue Polonceau. She strutted along with the air of a devotee going to mass; for she did not dislike these errands; haggling about money amused her; this crying up of her wares like a second-hand dealer tickled the old woman’s fancy for driving hard bargains. The clerks knew her well and called her “Mamma Four Francs,” because she always demanded four francs when they offered three, on bundles no bigger than two sous’ worth of butter.
At the start, Gervaise took advantage of good weeks to get things back from the pawn-shops, only to put them back again the next week. Later she let things go altogether, selling her pawn tickets for cash.
One thing alone gave Gervaise a pang — it was having to pawn her clock to pay an acceptance for twenty francs to a bailiff who came to seize her goods. Until then, she had sworn rather to die of hunger than to part with her clock. When mother Coupeau carried it away in a little bonnet-box, she sunk on to a chair, without a particle of strength left in her arms, her eyes full of tears, as though a fortune was being torn from her. But when mother Coupeau reappeared with twenty-five francs, the unexpected loan, the five francs profit consoled her; she at once sent the old woman out again for four sous’ worth of brandy in a glass, just to toast the five-franc piece.
The two of them would often have a drop together, when they were on good terms with each other. Mother Coupeau was very successful at bringing back a full glass hidden in her apron pocket without spilling a drop. Well, the neighbors didn’t need to know, did they. But the neighbors knew perfectly well. This turned the neighborhood even more against Gervaise. She was devouring everything; a few more mouthfuls and the place would be swept clean.
In the midst of this general demolishment, Coupeau continued to prosper. The confounded tippler was as well as well could be. The sour wine and the “vitriol” positively fattened him. He ate a great deal, and laughed at that stick Lorilleux, who accused drink of killing people, and answered him by slapping himself on the stomach, the skin of which was so stretched by the fat that it resembled the skin of a drum. He would play him a tune on it, the glutton’s vespers, with rolls and beats loud enough to have made a quack’s fortune. Lorilleux, annoyed at not having any fat himself, said that it was soft and unhealthy. Coupeau ignored him and went on drinking more and more, saying it was for his health’s sake.
His hair was beginning to turn grey and his face to take on the drunkard’s hue of purplish wine. He continued to act like a mischievous child. Well, it wasn’t his concern if there was nothing about the place to eat. When he went for weeks without work he became even more difficult.
Still, he was always giving Lantier friendly slaps on the back. People swore he had no suspicion at all. Surely something terrible would happen if he ever found out. Madame Lerat shook her head at this. His sister said she had known of husbands who didn’t mind at all.
Lantier wasn’t wasting away either. He took great care of himself, measuring his stomach by the waist-board of his trousers, with the constant dread of having to loosen the buckle or draw it tighter; for he considered himself just right, and out of coquetry neither desired to grow fatter nor thinner. That made him hard to please in the matter of food, for he regarded every dish from the point of view of keeping his waist as it was. Even when there was not a sou in the house, he required eggs, cutlets, light and nourishing things. Since he was sharing the lady of the house, he considered himself to have a half interest in everything and would pocket any franc pieces he saw lying about. He kept Gervaise running here and there and seemed more at home than Coupeau. Nana was his favorite because he adored pretty little girls, but he paid less and less attention to Etienne, since boys, according to him, ought to know how to take care of themselves. If anyone came to see Coupeau while he was out, Lantier, in shirt sleeves and slippers, would come out of the back room with the bored expression of a husband who has been disturbed, saying he would answer for Coupeau as it was all the same.
Between these two gentlemen, Gervaise had nothing to laugh about. She had nothing to complain of as regards her health, thank goodness! She was growing too fat. But two men to coddle was often more than she could manage. Ah! Mon Dieu! one husband is already too much for a woman! The worst was that they got on very well together, the rogues. They never quarreled; they would chuckle in each other’s faces, as they sat of an evening after dinner, their elbows on the table; they would rub up against one another all the live-long day, like cats which seek and cultivate their pleasure. The days when they came home in a rage, it was on her that they vented it. Go it! hammer away at the animal! She had a good back; it made them all the better friends when they yelled together. And it never did for her to give them tit-for-tat. In the beginning, whenever one of them yelled at her, she would appeal to the other, but this seldom worked. Coupeau had a foul mouth and called her horrible things. Lantier chose his insults carefully, but they often hurt her even more.
But one can get used to anything. Soon their nasty remarks and all the wrongs done her by these two men slid off her smooth skin like water off a duck’s back. It was even easier to have them angry, because when they were in good moods they bothered her too much, never giving her time to get a bonnet ironed.
Yes, Coupeau and Lantier were wearing her out. The zinc-worker, sure enough, lacked education; but the hatter had too much, or at least he had education in the same way that dirty people have a white shirt, with uncleanliness underneath it. One night, she dreamt that she was on the edge of a wall; Coupeau was knocking her into it with a blow of his fist, whilst Lantier was tickling her in the ribs to make her fall quicker. Well! That resembled her life. It was no surprise if she was becoming slipshod. The neighbors weren’t fair in blaming her for the frightful habits she had fallen into. Sometimes a cold shiver ran through her, but things could have been worse, so she tried to make the best of it. Once she had seen a play in which the wife detested her husband and poisoned him for the sake of her lover. Wasn’t it more sensible for the three of them to live together in peace? In spite of her debts and poverty she thought she was quite happy and could live in peace if only Coupeau and Lantier would stop yelling at her so much.
Towards the autumn, unfortunately, things became worse. Lantier pretended he was getting thinner, and pulled a longer face over the matter every day. He grumbled at everything, sniffed at the dishes of potatoes — a mess he could not eat, he would say, without having the colic. The least jangling now turned to quarrels, in which they accused one another of being the cause of all their troubles, and it was a devil of a job to restore harmony before they all retired for the night.
Lantier sensed a crisis coming and it exasperated him to realise that this place was already so thoroughly cleaned out that he could see the day coming when he’d have to take his hat and seek elsewhere for his bed and board. He had become accustomed to this little paradise where he was nicely treated by everybody. He should have blamed himself for eating himself out of house and home, but instead he blamed the Coupeaus for letting themselves be ruined in less than two years. He thought Gervaise was too extravagant. What was going to happen to them now?
One evening in December they had no dinner at all. There was not a radish left. Lantier, who was very glum, went out early, wandering about in search of some other den where the smell of the kitchen would bring a smile to one’s face. He would now remain for hours beside the stove wrapt in thought. Then, suddenly, he began to evince a great friendship for the Poissons. He no longer teased the policeman and even went so far as to concede that the Emperor might not be such a bad fellow after all. He seemed to especially admire Virginie. No doubt he was hoping to board with them. Virginie having acquainted him with her desire to set up in some sort of business, he agreed with everything she said, and declared that her idea was a most brilliant one. She was just the person for trade — tall, engaging and active. Oh! she would make as much as she liked. The capital had been available for some time, thanks to an inheritance from an aunt. Lantier told her of all the shopkeepers who were making fortunes. The time was right for it; you could sell anything these days. Virginie, however, hesitated; she was looking for a shop that was to be let, she did not wish to leave the neighborhood. Then Lantier would take her into corners and converse with her in an undertone for ten minutes at a time. He seemed to be urging her to do something in spite of herself; and she no longer said “no,” but appeared to authorize him to act. It was as a secret between them, with winks and words rapidly exchanged, some mysterious understanding which betrayed itself even in their handshakings.
From this moment the hatter would covertly watch the Coupeaus whilst eating their dry bread, and becoming very talkative again, would deafen them with his continual jeremiads. All day long Gervaise moved in the midst of that poverty which he so obligingly spread out. Mon Dieu! he wasn’t thinking of himself; he would go on starving with his friends as long as they liked. But look at it with common sense. They owed at least five hundred francs in the neighborhood. Besides which, they were two quarters rent behind with the rent, which meant another two hundred and fifty francs; the landlord, Monsieur Marescot, even spoke of having them evicted if they did not pay him by the first of January. Finally the pawn-place had absorbed everything, one could not have got together three francs’ worth of odds and ends, the clearance had been so complete; the nails remained in the walls and that was all and perhaps there were two pounds of them at three sous the pound. Gervaise, thoroughly entangled in it all, her nerves quite upset by this calculation, would fly into a passion and bang her fists down upon the table or else she would end by bursting into tears like a fool. One night she exclaimed:
“I’ll be off to-morrow! I prefer to put the key under the door and to sleep on the pavement rather than continue to live in such frights.”
“It would be wiser,” said Lantier slyly, “to get rid of the lease if you could find someone to take it. When you are both decided to give up the shop —”
She interrupted him more violently:
“At once, at once! Ah! it’ll be a good riddance!”
Then the hatter became very practical. On giving up the lease one would no doubt get the new tenant to be responsible for the two overdue quarters. And he ventured to mention the Poissons, he reminded them that Virginie was looking for a shop; theirs would perhaps suit her. He remembered that he had heard her say she longed for one just like it. But when Virginie’s name was mentioned the laundress suddenly regained her composure. We’ll see how things go along. When you’re angry you always talk of quitting, but it isn’t so easy when you just stop to think about it.
During the following days it was in vain that Lantier harped upon the subject. Gervaise replied that she had seen herself worse off and had pulled through. How would she be better off when she no longer had her shop? That would not put bread into their mouths. She would, on the contrary, engage some fresh workwomen and work up a fresh connection.
Lantier made the mistake of mentioning Virginie again. This stirred Gervaise into furious obstinacy. No! Never! She had always had her suspicions of what was in Virginie’s heart. Virginie only wanted to humiliate her. She would rather turn it over to the first woman to come in from the street than to that hypocrite who had been waiting for years to see her fail. Yes, Virginie still had in mind that fight in the wash-house. Well, she’d be wiser to forget about it, unless she wanted another one now.
In the face of this flow of angry retorts, Lantier began by attacking Gervaise. He called her stupid and stuck-up. He even went so far as to abuse Coupeau, accusing him of not knowing how to make his wife respect his friend. Then, realising that passion would compromise everything, he swore that he would never again interest himself in the affairs of other people, for one always got more kicks than thanks; and indeed he appeared to have given up all idea of talking them into parting with the lease, but he was really watching for a favorable opportunity of broaching the subject again and of bringing the laundress round to his views.
January had now arrived; the weather was wretched, both damp and cold. Mother Coupeau, who had coughed and choked all through December, was obliged to take to her bed after Twelfth-night. It was her annuity, which she expected every winter. This winter though, those around her said she’d never come out of her bedroom except feet first. Indeed, her gaspings sounded like a death rattle. She was still fat, but one eye was blind and one side of her face was twisted. The doctor made one call and didn’t return again. They kept giving her tisanes and going to check on her every hour. She could no longer speak because her breathing was so difficult.
One Monday evening, Coupeau came home totally drunk. Ever since his mother was in danger, he had lived in a continual state of deep emotion. When he was in bed, snoring soundly, Gervaise walked about the place for a while. She was in the habit of watching over mother Coupeau during a part of the night. Nana had showed herself very brave, always sleeping beside the old woman, and saying that if she heard her dying, she would wake everyone. Since the invalid seemed to be sleeping peacefully this night, Gervaise finally yielded to the appeals of Lantier to come into his room for a little rest. They only kept a candle alight, standing on the ground behind the wardrobe. But towards three o’clock Gervaise abruptly jumped out of bed, shivering and oppressed with anguish. She thought she had felt a cold breath pass over her body. The morsel of candle had burnt out; she tied on her petticoats in the dark, all bewildered, and with feverish hands. It was not till she got into the little room, after knocking up against the furniture, that she was able to light a small lamp. In the midst of the oppressive silence of night, the zinc-worker’s snores alone sounded as two grave notes. Nana, stretched on her back, was breathing gently between her pouting lips. And Gervaise, holding down the lamp which caused big shadows to dance about the room, cast the light on mother Coupeau’s face, and beheld it all white, the head lying on the shoulder, the eyes wide open. Mother Coupeau was dead.
Gently, without uttering a cry, icy cold yet prudent, the laundress returned to Lantier’s room. He had gone to sleep again. She bent over him and murmured:
“Listen, it’s all over, she’s dead.”
Heavy with sleep, only half awake, he grunted at first:
“Leave me alone, get into bed. We can’t do her any good if she’s dead.”
Then he raised himself on his elbow and asked:
“What’s the time?”
“Only three o’clock! Get into bed quick. You’ll catch cold. When it’s daylight, we’ll see what’s to be done.”
But she did not listen to him, she dressed herself completely. Bundling himself in the blankets, Lantier muttered about how stubborn women were. What was the hurry to announce a death in the house? He was irritated at having his sleep spoiled by such gloomy matters.
Meanwhile, Gervaise had moved her things back into her own room. Then she felt free to sit down and cry, no longer fearful of being caught in Lantier’s room. She had been fond of mother Coupeau and felt a deep sorrow at her loss. She sat, crying by herself, her sobs loud in the silence, but Coupeau never stirred. She had spoken to him and even shaken him and finally decided to let him sleep. He would be more of a nuisance if he woke up.
On returning to the body, she found Nana sitting up in bed rubbing her eyes. The child understood, and with her vicious urchin’s curiosity, stretched out her neck to get a better view of her grandmother; she said nothing but she trembled slightly, surprised and satisfied in the presence of this death which she had been promising herself for two days past, like some nasty thing hidden away and forbidden to children; and her young cat-like eyes dilated before that white face all emaciated at the last gasp by the passion of life, she felt that tingling in her back which she felt behind the glass door when she crept there to spy on what was no concern of chits like her.
“Come, get up,” said her mother in a low voice. “You can’t remain here.”
She regretfully slid out of bed, turning her head round and not taking her eyes off the corpse. Gervaise was much worried about her, not knowing where to put her till day-time. She was about to tell her to dress herself, when Lantier, in his trousers and slippers, rejoined her. He could not get to sleep again, and was rather ashamed of his behavior. Then everything was arranged.
“She can sleep in my bed,” murmured he. “She’ll have plenty of room.”
Nana looked at her mother and Lantier with her big, clear eyes and put on her stupid air, the same as on New Year’s day when anyone made her a present of a box of chocolate candy. And there was certainly no need for them to hurry her. She trotted off in her night-gown, her bare feet scarcely touching the tiled floor; she glided like a snake into the bed, which was still quite warm, and she lay stretched out and buried in it, her slim body scarcely raising the counterpane. Each time her mother entered the room she beheld her with her eyes sparkling in her motionless face — not sleeping, not moving, very red with excitement, and appearing to reflect on her own affairs.
Lantier assisted Gervaise in dressing mother Coupeau — and it was not an easy matter, for the body was heavy. One would never have thought that that old woman was so fat and so white. They put on her stockings, a white petticoat, a short linen jacket and a white cap — in short, the best of her linen. Coupeau continued snoring, a high note and a low one, the one sharp, the other flat. One could almost have imagined it to be church music accompanying the Good Friday ceremonies. When the corpse was dressed and properly laid out on the bed, Lantier poured himself out a glass of wine, for he felt quite upset. Gervaise searched the chest of drawers to find a little brass crucifix which she had brought from Plassans, but she recollected that mother Coupeau had, in all probability, sold it herself. They had lighted the stove, and they passed the rest of the night half asleep on chairs, finishing the bottle of wine that had been opened, worried and sulking, as though it was their own fault.
Towards seven o’clock, before daylight, Coupeau at length awoke. When he learnt his loss he at first stood still with dry eyes, stuttering and vaguely thinking that they were playing him some joke. Then he threw himself on the ground and went and knelt beside the corpse. His kissed it and wept like a child, with such a copious flow of tears that he quite wetted the sheet with wiping his cheeks. Gervaise had recommenced sobbing, deeply affected by her husband’s grief, and the best of friends with him again. Yes, he was better at heart than she thought he was. Coupeau’s despair mingled with a violent pain in his head. He passed his fingers through his hair. His mouth was dry, like on the morrow of a booze, and he was still a little drunk in spite of his ten hours of sleep. And, clenching his fist, he complained aloud. Mon Dieu! she was gone now, his poor mother, whom he loved so much! Ah! what a headache he had; it would settle him! It was like a wig of fire! And now they were tearing out his heart! No, it was not just of fate thus to set itself against one man!
“Come, cheer up, old fellow,” said Lantier, raising him from the ground; “you must pull yourself together.”
He poured him out a glass of wine, but Coupeau refused to drink.
“What’s the matter with me? I’ve got copper in my throat. It’s mamma. When I saw her I got a taste of copper in my mouth. Mamma! Mon Dieu! mamma, mamma!”
And he recommenced crying like a child. Then he drank the glass of wine, hoping to put out the flame searing his breast. Lantier soon left, using the excuse of informing the family and filing the necessary declaration at the town hall. Really though, he felt the need of fresh air, and so he took his time, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the morning air. When he left Madame Lerat’s house, he went into a dairy place on Les Batignolles for a cup of hot coffee and remained there an hour, thinking things over.
Towards nine o’clock the family were all united in the shop, the shutters of which were kept up. Lorilleux did not cry. Moreover he had some pressing work to attend to, and he returned almost directly to his room, after having stalked about with a face put on for the occasion. Madame Lorilleux and Madame Lerat embraced the Coupeaus and wiped their eyes, from which a few tears were falling. But Madame Lorilleux, after giving a hasty glance round the death chamber, suddenly raised her voice to say that it was unheard of, that one never left a lighted lamp beside a corpse; there should be a candle, and Nana was sent to purchase a packet of tall ones. Ah, well! It made one long to die at Clump-clump’s, she laid one out in such a fine fashion! What a fool, not even to know what to do with a corpse! Had she then never buried anyone in her life? Madame Lerat had to go to the neighbors and borrow a crucifix; she brought one back which was too big, a cross of black wood with a Christ in painted cardboard fastened to it, which covered the whole of mother Coupeau’s chest, and seemed to crush her under its weight. Then they tried to obtain some holy water, but no one had any, and it was again Nana who was sent to the church to bring some back in a bottle. In practically no time the tiny room presented quite another appearance; on a little table a candle was burning beside a glass full of holy water into which a sprig of boxwood was dipped. Now, if anyone came, it would at least look decent. And they arranged the chairs in a circle in the shop for receiving people.
Lantier only returned at eleven o’clock. He had been to the undertaker’s for information.
“The coffin is twelve francs,” said he. “If you desire a mass, it will be ten francs more. Then there’s the hearse, which is charged for according to the ornaments.”
“Oh! it’s quite unnecessary to be fancy,” murmured Madame Lorilleux, raising her head in a surprised and anxious manner. “We can’t bring mamma to life again, can we? One must do according to one’s means.”
“Of course, that’s just what I think,” resumed the hatter. “I merely asked the prices to guide you. Tell me what you desire; and after lunch I will give the orders.”
They were talking in lowered voices. Only a dim light came into the room through the cracks in the shutters. The door to the little room stood half open, and from it came the deep silence of death. Children’s laughter echoed in the courtyard. Suddenly they heard the voice of Nana, who had escaped from the Boches to whom she had been sent. She was giving commands in her shrill voice and the children were singing a song about a donkey.
Gervaise waited until it was quiet to say:
“We’re not rich certainly; but all the same we wish to act decently. If mother Coupeau has left us nothing, it’s no reason for pitching her into the ground like a dog. No; we must have a mass, and a hearse with a few ornaments.”
“And who will pay for them?” violently inquired Madame Lorilleux. “Not we, who lost some money last week; and you either, as you’re stumped. Ah! you ought, however, to see where it has led you, this trying to impress people!”
Coupeau, when consulted, mumbled something with a gesture of profound indifference, and then fell asleep again on his chair. Madame Lerat said that she would pay her share. She was of Gervaise’s opinion, they should do things decently. Then the two of them fell to making calculations on a piece of paper: in all, it would amount to about ninety francs, because they decided, after a long discussion, to have a hearse ornamented with a narrow scallop.
“We’re three,” concluded the laundress. “We’ll give thirty francs each. It won’t ruin us.”
But Madame Lorilleux broke out in a fury.
“Well! I refuse, yes, I refuse! It’s not for the thirty francs. I’d give a hundred thousand, if I had them, and if it would bring mamma to life again. Only, I don’t like vain people. You’ve got a shop, you only dream of showing off before the neighborhood. We don’t fall in with it, we don’t. We don’t try to make ourselves out what we are not. Oh! you can manage it to please yourself. Put plumes on the hearse if it amuses you.”
“No one asks you for anything,” Gervaise ended by answering. “Even though I should have to sell myself, I’ll not have anything to reproach myself with. I’ve fed mother Coupeau without your help, and I can certainly bury her without your help also. I already once before gave you a bit of my mind; I pick up stray cats, I’m not likely to leave your mother in the mire.”
Then Madame Lorilleux burst into tears and Lantier had to prevent her from leaving. The argument became so noisy that Madame Lerat felt she had to go quietly into the little room and glance tearfully at her dead mother, as though fearing to find her awake and listening. Just at this moment the girls playing in the courtyard, led by Nana, began singing again.
“Mon Dieu! how those children grate on one’s nerves with their singing!” said Gervaise, all upset and on the point of sobbing with impatience and sadness. Turning to the hatter, she said:
“Do please make them leave off, and send Nana back to the concierge’s with a kick.”
Madame Lerat and Madame Lorilleux went away to eat lunch, promising to return. The Coupeaus sat down to eat a bite without much appetite, feeling hesitant about even raising a fork. After lunch Lantier went to the undertaker’s again with the ninety francs. Thirty had come from Madame Lerat and Gervaise had run, with her hair all loose, to borrow sixty francs from Goujet.
Several of the neighbors called in the afternoon, mainly out of curiosity. They went into the little room to make the sign of the cross and sprinkle some holy water with the boxwood sprig. Then they sat in the shop and talked endlessly about the departed. Mademoiselle Remanjou had noticed that her right eye was still open. Madame Gaudron maintained that she had a fine complexion for her age. Madame Fauconnier kept repeating that she had seen her having coffee only three days earlier.
Towards evening the Coupeaus were beginning to have had enough of it. It was too great an affliction for a family to have to keep a corpse so long a time. The government ought to have made a new law on the subject. All through another evening, another night, and another morning — no! it would never come to an end. When one no longer weeps, grief turns to irritation; is it not so? One would end by misbehaving oneself. Mother Coupeau, dumb and stiff in the depths of the narrow chamber, was spreading more and more over the lodging and becoming heavy enough to crush the people in it. And the family, in spite of itself, gradually fell into the ordinary mode of life, and lost some portion of its respect.
“You must have a mouthful with us,” said Gervaise to Madame Lerat and Madame Lorilleux, when they returned. “We’re too sad; we must keep together.”
They laid the cloth on the work-table. Each one, on seeing the plates, thought of the feastings they had had on it. Lantier had returned. Lorilleux came down. A pastry-cook had just brought a meat pie, for the laundress was too upset to attend to any cooking. As they were taking their seats, Boche came to say that Monsieur Marescot asked to be admitted, and the landlord appeared, looking very grave, and wearing a broad decoration on his frock-coat. He bowed in silence and went straight to the little room, where he knelt down. All the family, leaving the table, stood up, greatly impressed. Monsieur Marescot, having finished his devotions, passed into the shop and said to the Coupeaus:
“I have come for the two quarters’ rent that’s overdue. Are you prepared to pay?”
“No, sir, not quite,” stammered Gervaise, greatly put out at hearing this mentioned before the Lorilleuxs. “You see, with the misfortune which has fallen upon us —”
“No doubt, but everyone has their troubles,” resumed the landlord, spreading out his immense fingers, which indicated the former workman. “I am very sorry, but I cannot wait any longer. If I am not paid by the morning after to-morrow, I shall be obliged to have you put out.”
Gervaise, struck dumb, imploringly clasped her hands, her eyes full of tears. With an energetic shake of his big bony head, he gave her to understand that supplications were useless. Besides, the respect due to the dead forbade all discussion. He discreetly retired, walking backwards.
“A thousand pardons for having disturbed you,” murmured he. “The morning after to-morrow; do not forget.”
And as on withdrawing he again passed before the little room, he saluted the corpse a last time through the wide open door by devoutly bending his knee.
They began eating and gobbled the food down very quickly, so as not to seem to be enjoying it, only slowing down when they reached the dessert. Occasionally Gervaise or one of the sisters would get up, still holding her napkin, to look into the small room. They made plenty of strong coffee to keep them awake through the night. The Poissons arrived about eight and were invited for coffee.
Then Lantier, who had been watching Gervaise’s face, seemed to seize an opportunity that he had been waiting for ever since the morning. In speaking of the indecency of landlords who entered houses of mourning to demand their money, he said:
“He’s a Jesuit, the beast, with his air of officiating at a mass! But in your place, I’d just chuck up the shop altogether.”
Gervaise, quite worn out and feeling weak and nervous, gave way and replied:
“Yes, I shall certainly not wait for the bailiffs. Ah! it’s more than I can bear — more than I can bear.”
The Lorilleuxs, delighted at the idea that Clump-clump would no longer have a shop, approved the plan immensely. One could hardly conceive the great cost a shop was. If she only earned three francs working for others she at least had no expenses; she did not risk losing large sums of money. They repeated this argument to Coupeau, urging him on; he drank a great deal and remained in a continuous fit of sensibility, weeping all day by himself in his plate. As the laundress seemed to be allowing herself to be convinced, Lantier looked at the Poissons and winked. And tall Virginie intervened, making herself most amiable.
“You know, we might arrange the matter between us. I would relieve you of the rest of the lease and settle your matter with the landlord. In short, you would not be worried nearly so much.”
“No thanks,” declared Gervaise, shaking herself as though she felt a shudder pass over her. “I’ll work; I’ve got my two arms, thank heaven! to help me out of my difficulties.”
“We can talk about it some other time,” the hatter hastened to put in. “It’s scarcely the thing to do so this evening. Some other time — in the morning for instance.”
At this moment, Madame Lerat, who had gone into the little room, uttered a faint cry. She had had a fright because she had found the candle burnt out. They all busied themselves in lighting another; they shook their heads, saying that it was not a good sign when the light went out beside a corpse.
The wake commenced. Coupeau had gone to lie down, not to sleep, said he, but to think; and five minutes afterwards he was snoring. When they sent Nana off to sleep at the Boches’ she cried; she had been looking forward ever since the morning to being nice and warm in her good friend Lantier’s big bed. The Poissons stayed till midnight. Some hot wine had been made in a salad-bowl because the coffee affected the ladies’ nerves too much. The conversation became tenderly effusive. Virginie talked of the country: she would like to be buried at the corner of a wood with wild flowers on her grave. Madame Lerat had already put by in her wardrobe the sheet for her shroud, and she kept it perfumed with a bunch of lavender; she wished always to have a nice smell under her nose when she would be eating the dandelions by the roots. Then, with no sort of transition, the policeman related that he had arrested a fine girl that morning who had been stealing from a pork-butcher’s shop; on undressing her at the commissary of police’s they had found ten sausages hanging round her body. And Madame Lorilleux having remarked, with a look of disgust, that she would not eat any of those sausages, the party burst into a gentle laugh. The wake became livelier, though not ceasing to preserve appearances.
But just as they were finishing the hot wine a peculiar noise, a dull trickling sound, issued from the little room. All raised their heads and looked at each other.
“It’s nothing,” said Lantier quietly, lowering his voice. “She’s emptying.”
The explanation caused the others to nod their heads in a reassured way, and they replaced their glasses on the table.
When the Poissons left for home, Lantier left also, saying he would sleep with a friend and leave his bed for the ladies in case they wanted to take turns napping. Lorilleux went upstairs to bed. Gervaise and the two sisters arranged themselves by the stove where they huddled together close to the warmth, talking quietly. Coupeau was still snoring.
Madame Lorilleux was complaining that she didn’t have a black dress and asked Gervaise about the black skirt they had given mother Coupeau on her saint’s day. Gervaise went to look for it. Madame Lorilleux then wanted some of the old linen and mentioned the bed, the wardrobe, and the two chairs as she looked around for other odds and ends. Madame Lerat had to serve as peace maker when a quarrel nearly broke out. She pointed out that as the Coupeaus had cared for their mother, they deserved to keep the few things she had left. Soon they were all dozing around the stove.
The night seemed terribly long to them. Now and again they shook themselves, drank some coffee and stretched their necks in the direction of the little room, where the candle, which was not to be snuffed, was burning with a dull red flame, flickering the more because of the black soot on the wick. Towards morning, they shivered, in spite of the great heat of the stove. Anguish, and the fatigue of having talked too much was stifling them, whilst their mouths were parched, and their eyes ached. Madame Lerat threw herself on Lantier’s bed, and snored as loud as a man; whilst the other two, their heads falling forward, and almost touching their knees, slept before the fire. At daybreak, a shudder awoke them. Mother Coupeau’s candle had again gone out; and as, in the obscurity, the dull trickling sound recommenced, Madame Lorilleux gave the explanation of it anew in a loud voice, so as to reassure herself:
“She’s emptying,” repeated she, lighting another candle.
The funeral was to take place at half-past ten. A nice morning to add to the night and the day before! Gervaise, though without a sou, said she would have given a hundred francs to anybody who would have come and taken mother Coupeau away three hours sooner. No, one may love people, but they are too great a weight when they are dead; and the more one has loved them, the sooner one would like to be rid of their bodies.
The morning of a funeral is, fortunately, full of diversions. One has all sorts of preparations to make. To begin with, they lunched. Then it happened to be old Bazouge, the undertaker’s helper, who lived on the sixth floor, who brought the coffin and the sack of bran. He was never sober, the worthy fellow. At eight o’clock that day, he was still lively from the booze of the day before.
“This is for here, isn’t it?” asked he.
And he laid down the coffin, which creaked like a new box. But as he was throwing the sack of bran on one side, he stood with a look of amazement in his eyes, his mouth opened wide, on beholding Gervaise before him.
“Beg pardon, excuse me. I’ve made a mistake,” stammered he. “I was told it was for you.”
He had already taken up the sack again, and the laundress was obliged to call to him:
“Leave it alone, it’s for here.”
“Ah! Mon Dieu! Now I understand!” resumed he, slapping his thigh. “It’s for the old lady.”
Gervaise had turned quite pale. Old Bazouge had brought the coffin for her. By way of apology, he tried to be gallant, and continued:
“I’m not to blame, am I? It was said yesterday that someone on the ground floor had passed away. Then I thought — you know, in our business, these things enter by one ear and go out by the other. All the same, my compliments to you. As late as possible, eh? That’s best, though life isn’t always amusing; ah! no, by no means.”
As Gervaise listened to him, she draw back, afraid he would grab her and take her away in the box. She remembered the time before, when he had told her he knew of women who would thank him to come and get them. Well, she wasn’t ready yet. Mon Dieu! The thought sent chills down her spine. Her life may have been bitter, but she wasn’t ready to give it up yet. No, she would starve for years first.
“He’s abominably drunk,” murmured she, with an air of disgust mingled with dread. “They at least oughtn’t to send us tipplers. We pay dear enough.”
Then he became insolent, and jeered:
“See here, little woman, it’s only put off until another time. I’m entirely at your service, remember! You’ve only to make me a sign. I’m the ladies’ consoler. And don’t spit on old Bazouge, because he’s held in his arms finer ones than you, who let themselves be tucked in without a murmur, very pleased to continue their by-by in the dark.”
“Hold your tongue, old Bazouge!” said Lorilleux severely, having hastened to the spot on hearing the noise, “such jokes are highly improper. If we complained about you, you would get the sack. Come, be off, as you’ve no respect for principles.”
Bazouge moved away, but one could hear him stuttering as he dragged along the pavement:
“Well! What? Principles! There’s no such thing as principles, there’s no such thing as principles — there’s only common decency!”
At length ten o’clock struck. The hearse was late. There were already several people in the shop, friends and neighbors — Monsieur Madinier, My–Boots, Madame Gaudron, Mademoiselle Remanjou; and every minute, a man’s or a woman’s head was thrust out of the gaping opening of the door between the closed shutters, to see if that creeping hearse was in sight. The family, all together in the back room, was shaking hands. Short pauses occurred interrupted by rapid whisperings, a tiresome and feverish waiting with sudden rushes of skirts — Madame Lorilleux who had forgotten her handkerchief, or else Madame Lerat who was trying to borrow a prayer-book. Everyone, on arriving, beheld the open coffin in the centre of the little room before the bed; and in spite of oneself, each stood covertly studying it, calculating that plump mother Coupeau would never fit into it. They all looked at each other with this thought in their eyes, though without communicating it. But there was a slight pushing at the front door. Monsieur Madinier, extending his arms, came and said in a low grave voice:
“Here they are!”
It was not the hearse though. Four helpers entered hastily in single file, with their red faces, their hands all lumpy like persons in the habit of moving heavy things, and their rusty black clothes worn and frayed from constant rubbing against coffins. Old Bazouge walked first, very drunk and very proper. As soon as he was at work he found his equilibrium. They did not utter a word, but slightly bowed their heads, already weighing mother Coupeau with a glance. And they did not dawdle; the poor old woman was packed in, in the time one takes to sneeze. A young fellow with a squint, the smallest of the men, poured the bran into the coffin and spread it out. The tall and thin one spread the winding sheet over the bran. Then, two at the feet and two at the head, all four took hold of the body and lifted it. Mother Coupeau was in the box, but it was a tight fit. She touched on every side.
The undertaker’s helpers were now standing up and waiting; the little one with the squint took the coffin lid, by way of inviting the family to bid their last farewell, whilst Bazouge had filled his mouth with nails and was holding the hammer in readiness. Then Coupeau, his two sisters and Gervaise threw themselves on their knees and kissed the mamma who was going away, weeping bitterly, the hot tears falling on and streaming down the stiff face now cold as ice. There was a prolonged sound of sobbing. The lid was placed on, and old Bazouge knocked the nails in with the style of a packer, two blows for each; and they none of them could hear any longer their own weeping in that din, which resembled the noise of furniture being repaired. It was over. The time for starting had arrived.
“What a fuss to make at such a time!” said Madame Lorilleux to her husband as she caught sight of the hearse before the door.
The hearse was creating quite a revolution in the neighborhood. The tripe-seller called to the grocer’s men, the little clockmaker came out on to the pavement, the neighbors leant out of their windows; and all these people talked about the scallop with its white cotton fringe. Ah! the Coupeaus would have done better to have paid their debts. But as the Lorilleuxs said, when one is proud it shows itself everywhere and in spite of everything.
“It’s shameful!” Gervaise was saying at the same moment, speaking of the chainmaker and his wife. “To think that those skinflints have not even brought a bunch of violets for their mother!”
The Lorilleuxs, true enough, had come empty-handed. Madame Lerat had given a wreath of artificial flowers. And a wreath of immortelles and a bouquet bought by the Coupeaus were also placed on the coffin. The undertaker’s helpers had to give a mighty heave to lift the coffin and carry it to the hearse. It was some time before the procession was formed. Coupeau and Lorilleux, in frock coats and with their hats in their hands, were chief mourners. The first, in his emotion which two glasses of white wine early in the morning had helped to sustain, clung to his brother-in-law’s arm, with no strength in his legs, and a violent headache. Then followed the other men — Monsieur Madinier, very grave and all in black; My–Boots, wearing a great-coat over his blouse; Boche, whose yellow trousers produced the effect of a petard; Lantier, Gaudron, Bibi-the-Smoker, Poisson and others. The ladies came next — in the first row Madame Lorilleux, dragging the deceased’s skirt, which she had altered; Madame Lerat, hiding under a shawl her hastily got-up mourning, a gown with lilac trimmings; and following them, Virginie, Madame Gaudron, Madame Fauconnier, Mademoiselle Remanjou and the rest. When the hearse started and slowly descended the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, amidst signs of the cross and heads bared, the four helpers took the lead, two in front, the two others on the right and left. Gervaise had remained behind to close the shop. She left Nana with Madame Boche and ran to rejoin the procession, whilst the child, firmly held by the concierge under the porch, watched with a deeply interested gaze her grandmother disappear at the end of the street in that beautiful carriage.
At the moment when Gervaise caught up with the procession, Goujet arrived from another direction. He nodded to her so sympathetically that she was reminded of how unhappy she was, and began to cry again as Goujet took his place with the men.
The ceremony at the church was soon got through. The mass dragged a little, though, because the priest was very old. My–Boots and Bibi-the-Smoker preferred to remain outside on account of the collection. Monsieur Madinier studied the priests all the while, and communicated his observations to Lantier. Those jokers, though so glib with their Latin, did not even know a word of what they were saying. They buried a person just in the same way that they would have baptized or married him, without the least feeling in their heart.
Happily, the cemetery was not far off, the little cemetery of La Chapelle, a bit of a garden which opened on to the Rue Marcadet. The procession arrived disbanded, with stampings of feet and everybody talking of his own affairs. The hard earth resounded, and many would have liked to have moved about to keep themselves warm. The gaping hole beside which the coffin was laid was already frozen over, and looked white and stony, like a plaster quarry; and the followers, grouped round little heaps of gravel, did not find it pleasant standing in such piercing cold, whilst looking at the hole likewise bored them. At length a priest in a surplice came out of a little cottage. He shivered, and one could see his steaming breath at each de profundis that he uttered. At the final sign of the cross he bolted off, without the least desire to go through the service again. The sexton took his shovel, but on account of the frost, he was only able to detach large lumps of earth, which beat a fine tune down below, a regular bombardment of the coffin, an enfilade of artillery sufficient to make one think the wood was splitting. One may be a cynic; nevertheless that sort of music soon upsets one’s stomach. The weeping recommenced. They moved off, they even got outside, but they still heard the detonations. My–Boots, blowing on his fingers, uttered an observation aloud.
“Tonnerre de Dieu! poor mother Coupeau won’t feel very warm!”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said the zinc-worker to the few friends who remained in the street with the family, “will you permit us to offer you some refreshments?”
He led the way to a wine shop in the Rue Marcadet, the “Arrival at the Cemetery.” Gervaise, remaining outside, called Goujet, who was moving off, after again nodding to her. Why didn’t he accept a glass of wine? He was in a hurry; he was going back to the workshop. Then they looked at each other a moment without speaking.
“I must ask your pardon for troubling you about the sixty francs,” at length murmured the laundress. “I was half crazy, I thought of you —”
“Oh! don’t mention it; you’re fully forgiven,” interrupted the blacksmith. “And you know, I am quite at your service if any misfortune should overtake you. But don’t say anything to mamma, because she has her ideas, and I don’t wish to cause her annoyance.”
She gazed at him. He seemed to her such a good man, and sad-looking, and so handsome. She was on the verge of accepting his former proposal, to go away with him and find happiness together somewhere else. Then an evil thought came to her. It was the idea of borrowing the six months’ back rent from him.
She trembled and resumed in a caressing tone of voice:
“We’re still friends, aren’t we?”
He shook his head as he answered:
“Yes, we’ll always be friends. It’s just that, you know, all is over between us.”
And he went off with long strides, leaving Gervaise bewildered, listening to his last words which rang in her ears with the clang of a big bell. On entering the wine shop, she seemed to hear a hollow voice within her which said, “All is over, well! All is over; there is nothing more for me to do if all is over!” Sitting down, she swallowed a mouthful of bread and cheese, and emptied a glass full of wine which she found before her.
The wine shop was a single, long room with a low ceiling occupied by two large tables on which loaves of bread, large chunks of Brie cheese and bottles of wine were set out. They ate informally, without a tablecloth. Near the stove at the back the undertaker’s helpers were finishing their lunch.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed Monsieur Madinier, “we each have our time. The old folks make room for the young ones. Your lodging will seem very empty to you now when you go home.”
“Oh! my brother is going to give notice,” said Madame Lorilleux quickly. “That shop’s ruined.”
They had been working upon Coupeau. Everyone was urging him to give up the lease. Madame Lerat herself, who had been on very good terms with Lantier and Virginie for some time past, and who was tickled with the idea that they were a trifle smitten with each other, talked of bankruptcy and prison, putting on the most terrified airs. And suddenly, the zinc-worker, already overdosed with liquor, flew into a passion, his emotion turned to fury.
“Listen,” cried he, poking his nose in his wife’s face; “I intend that you shall listen to me! Your confounded head will always have its own way. But, this time, I intend to have mine, I warn you!”
“Ah! well,” said Lantier, “one never yet brought her to reason by fair words; it wants a mallet to drive it into her head.”
For a time they both went on at her. Meanwhile, the Brie was quickly disappearing and the wine bottles were pouring like fountains. Gervaise began to weaken under this persistent pounding. She answered nothing, but hurried herself, her mouth ever full, as though she had been very hungry. When they got tired, she gently raised her head and said,
“That’s enough, isn’t it? I don’t care a straw for the shop! I want no more of it. Do you understand? It can go to the deuce! All is over!”
Then they ordered some more bread and cheese and talked business. The Poissons took the rest of the lease and agreed to be answerable for the two quarters’ rent overdue. Boche, moreover, pompously agreed to the arrangement in the landlord’s name. He even then and there let a lodging to the Coupeaus — the vacant one on the sixth floor, in the same passage as the Lorilleuxs’ apartment. As for Lantier, well! He would like to keep his room, if it did not inconvenience the Poissons. The policeman bowed; it did not inconvenience him at all; friends always get on together, in spite of any difference in their political ideas. And Lantier, without mixing himself up any more in the matter, like a man who has at length settled his little business, helped himself to an enormous slice of bread and cheese; he leant back in his chair and ate devoutly, his blood tingling beneath his skin, his whole body burning with a sly joy, and he blinked his eyes to peep first at Gervaise, and then at Virginie.
“Hi! Old Bazouge!” called Coupeau, “come and have a drink. We’re not proud; we’re all workers.”
The four undertaker’s helpers, who had started to leave, came back to raise glasses with the group. They thought that the lady had weighed quite a bit and they had certainly earned a glass of wine. Old Bazouge gazed steadily at Gervaise without saying a word. It made her feel uneasy though and she got up and left the men who were beginning to show signs of being drunk. Coupeau began to sob again, saying he was feeling very sad.
That evening when Gervaise found herself at home again, she remained in a stupefied state on a chair. It seemed to her that the rooms were immense and deserted. Really, it would be a good riddance. But it was certainly not only mother Coupeau that she had left at the bottom of the hole in the little garden of the Rue Marcadet. She missed too many things, most likely a part of her life, and her shop, and her pride of being an employer, and other feelings besides, which she had buried on that day. Yes, the walls were bare, and her heart also; it was a complete clear out, a tumble into the pit. And she felt too tired; she would pick herself up again later on if she could.
At ten o’clock, when undressing, Nana cried and stamped. She wanted to sleep in mother Coupeau’s bed. Her mother tried to frighten her; but the child was too precocious. Corpses only filled her with a great curiosity; so that, for the sake of peace, she was allowed to lie down in mother Coupeau’s place. She liked big beds, the chit; she spread herself out and rolled about. She slept uncommonly well that night in the warm and pleasant feather bed.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02