Gervaise had waited up for Lantier until two in the morning. Then, shivering from having remained in a thin loose jacket, exposed to the fresh air at the window, she had thrown herself across the bed, drowsy, feverish, and her cheeks bathed in tears.
For a week past, on leaving the “Two-Headed Calf,” where they took their meals, he had sent her home with the children and never reappeared himself till late at night, alleging that he had been in search of work. That evening, while watching for his return, she thought she had seen him enter the dancing-hall of the “Grand-Balcony,” the ten blazing windows of which lighted up with the glare of a conflagration the dark expanse of the exterior Boulevards; and five or six paces behind him, she had caught sight of little Adele, a burnisher, who dined at the same restaurant, swinging her hands, as if she had just quitted his arm so as not to pass together under the dazzling light of the globes at the door.
When, towards five o’clock, Gervaise awoke, stiff and sore, she broke forth into sobs. Lantier had not returned. For the first time he had slept away from home. She remained seated on the edge of the bed, under the strip of faded chintz, which hung from the rod fastened to the ceiling by a piece of string. And slowly, with her eyes veiled by tears, she glanced round the wretched lodging, furnished with a walnut chest of drawers, minus one drawer, three rush-bottomed chairs, and a little greasy table, on which stood a broken water-jug. There had been added, for the children, an iron bedstead, which prevented any one getting to the chest of drawers, and filled two-thirds of the room. Gervaise’s and Lantier’s trunk, wide open, in one corner, displayed its emptiness, and a man’s old hat right at the bottom almost buried beneath some dirty shirts and socks; whilst, against the walls, above the articles of furniture, hung a shawl full of holes, and a pair of trousers begrimed with mud, the last rags which the dealers in second-hand clothes declined to buy. In the centre of the mantel-piece, lying between two odd zinc candle-sticks, was a bundle of pink pawn-tickets. It was the best room of the hotel, the first floor room, looking on to the Boulevard.
The two children were sleeping side by side, with their heads on the same pillow. Claude, aged eight years, was breathing quietly, with his little hands thrown outside the coverlet; while Etienne, only four years old, was smiling, with one arm round his brother’s neck. And bare-footed, without thinking to again put on the old shoes that had fallen on the floor, she resumed her position at the window, her eyes searching the pavements in the distance.
The hotel was situated on the Boulevard de la Chapelle, to the left of the Barriere Poissonniere. It was a building of two stories high, painted a red, of the color of wine dregs, up to the second floor, and with shutters all rotted by the rain. Over a lamp with starred panes of glass, one could manage to read, between the two windows, the words, “Hotel Boncoeur, kept by Marsoullier,” painted in big yellow letters, several pieces of which the moldering of the plaster had carried away. The lamp preventing her seeing, Gervaise raised herself on tiptoe, still holding the handkerchief to her lips. She looked to the right, towards the Boulevard Rochechouart, where groups of butchers, in aprons smeared with blood, were hanging about in front of the slaughter-houses; and the fresh breeze wafted occasionally a stench of slaughtered beasts. Looking to the left, she scanned a long avenue that ended nearly in front of her, where the white mass of the Lariboisiere Hospital was then in course of construction. Slowly, from one end of the horizon to the other, she followed the octroi wall, behind which she sometimes heard, during night time, the shrieks of persons being murdered; and she searchingly looked into the remote angles, the dark corners, black with humidity and filth, fearing to discern there Lantier’s body, stabbed to death.
She looked at the endless gray wall that surrounded the city with its belt of desolation. When she raised her eyes higher, she became aware of a bright burst of sunlight. The dull hum of the city’s awakening already filled the air. Craning her neck to look at the Poissonniere gate, she remained for a time watching the constant stream of men, horses, and carts which flooded down from the heights of Montmartre and La Chapelle, pouring between the two squat octroi lodges. It was like a herd of plodding cattle, an endless throng widened by sudden stoppages into eddies that spilled off the sidewalks into the street, a steady procession of laborers on their way back to work with tools slung over their back and a loaf of bread under their arm. This human inundation kept pouring down into Paris to be constantly swallowed up. Gervaise leaned further out at the risk of falling when she thought she recognized Lantier among the throng. She pressed the handkerchief tighter against her mouth, as though to push back the pain within her.
The sound of a young and cheerful voice caused her to leave the window.
“So the old man isn’t here, Madame Lantier?”
“Why, no, Monsieur Coupeau,” she replied, trying to smile.
Coupeau, a zinc-worker who occupied a ten franc room on the top floor, having seen the door unlocked, had walked in as friends will do.
“You know,” he continued, “I’m now working over there in the hospital. What beautiful May weather, isn’t it? The air is rather sharp this morning.”
And he looked at Gervaise’s face, red with weeping. When he saw that the bed had not been slept in, he shook his head gently; then he went to the children’s couch where they were sleeping, looking as rosy as cherubs, and, lowering his voice, he said,
“Come, the old man’s not been home, has he? Don’t worry yourself, Madame Lantier. He’s very much occupied with politics. When they were voting for Eugene Sue the other day, he was acting almost crazy. He has very likely spent the night with some friends blackguarding crapulous Bonaparte.”
“No, no,” she murmured with an effort. “You don’t think that. I know where Lantier is. You see, we have our little troubles like the rest of the world!”
Coupeau winked his eye, to indicate he was not a dupe of this falsehood; and he went off, after offering to fetch her milk, if she did not care to go out: she was a good and courageous woman, and might count upon him on any day of trouble.
As soon as he was gone, Gervaise again returned to the window. At the Barriere, the tramp of the drove still continued in the morning air: locksmiths in short blue blouses, masons in white jackets, house painters in overcoats over long smocks. From a distance the crowd looked like a chalky smear of neutral hue composed chiefly of faded blue and dingy gray. When one of the workers occasionally stopped to light his pipe the others kept plodding past him, without sparing a laugh or a word to a comrade. With cheeks gray as clay, their eyes were continually drawn toward Paris which was swallowing them one by one.
At both corners of the Rue des Poissonniers however, some of the men slackened their pace as they neared the doors of the two wine-dealers who were taking down their shutters; and, before entering, they stood on the edge of the pavement, looking sideways over Paris, with no strength in their arms and already inclined for a day of idleness. Inside various groups were already buying rounds of drinks, or just standing around, forgetting their troubles, crowding up the place, coughing, spitting, clearing their throats with sip after sip.
Gervaise was watching Pere Colombe’s wineshop to the left of the street, where she thought she had seen Lantier, when a stout woman, bareheaded and wearing an apron called to her from the middle of the roadway:
“Hey, Madame Lantier, you’re up very early!”
Gervaise leaned out. “Why! It’s you, Madame Boche! Oh! I’ve got a lot of work to-day!”
“Yes, things don’t do themselves, do they?”
The conversation continued between roadway and window. Madame Boche was concierge of the building where the “Two-Headed Calf” was on the ground floor. Gervaise had waited for Lantier more than once in the concierge’s lodge, so as not to be alone at table with all the men who ate at the restaurant. Madame Boche was going to a tailor who was late in mending an overcoat for her husband. She mentioned one of her tenants who had come in with a woman the night before and kept everybody awake past three in the morning. She looked at Gervaise with intense curiosity.
“Is Monsieur Lantier, then, still in bed?” she asked abruptly.
“Yes, he’s asleep,” replied Gervaise, who could not avoid blushing.
Madame Boche saw the tears come into her eyes; and, satisfied no doubt, she turned to go, declaring men to be a cursed, lazy set. As she went off, she called back:
“It’s this morning you go to the wash-house, isn’t it? I’ve something to wash, too. I’ll keep you a place next to me, and we can chat together.” Then, as if moved with sudden pity, she added:
“My poor little thing, you had far better not remain there; you’ll take harm. You look quite blue with cold.”
Gervaise still obstinately remained at the window during two mortal hours, till eight o’clock. Now all the shops had opened. Only a few work men were still hurrying along.
The working girls now filled the boulevard: metal polishers, milliners, flower sellers, shivering in their thin clothing. In small groups they chattered gaily, laughing and glancing here and there. Occasionally there would be one girl by herself, thin, pale, serious-faced, picking her way along the city wall among the puddles and the filth.
After the working girls, the office clerks came past, breathing upon their chilled fingers and munching penny rolls. Some of them are gaunt young fellows in ill-fitting suits, their tired eyes still fogged from sleep. Others are older men, stooped and tottering, with faces pale and drawn from long hours of office work and glancing nervously at their watches for fear of arriving late.
In time the Boulevards settle into their usual morning quiet. Old folks come out to stroll in the sun. Tired young mothers in bedraggled skirts cuddle babies in their arms or sit on a bench to change diapers. Children run, squealing and laughing, pushing and shoving.
Then Gervaise felt herself choking, dizzy with anguish, all hopes gone; it seemed to her that everything was ended, even time itself, and that Lantier would return no more. Her eyes vacantly wandered from the old slaughter-house, foul with butchery and with stench, to the new white hospital which, through the yawning openings of its ranges of windows, disclosed the naked wards, where death was preparing to mow. In front of her on the other side of the octroi wall the bright heavens dazzled her, with the rising sun which rose higher and higher over the vast awaking city.
The young woman was seated on a chair, no longer crying, and with her hands abandoned on her lap, when Lantier quietly entered the room.
“It’s you! It’s you!” she cried, rising to throw herself upon his neck.
“Yes, it’s me. What of it?” he replied. “You are not going to begin any of your nonsense, I hope!”
He had pushed her aside. Then, with a gesture of ill-humor he threw his black felt hat to the chest of drawers. He was a young fellow of twenty-six years of age, short and very dark, with a handsome figure, and slight moustaches which his hand was always mechanically twirling. He wore a workman’s overalls and an old soiled overcoat, which he had belted tightly at the waist, and he spoke with a strong Provencal accent.
Gervaise, who had fallen back on her chair, gently complained, in short sentences: “I’ve not had a wink of sleep. I feared some harm had happened to you. Where have you been? Where did you spend the night? For heaven’s sake! Don’t do it again, or I shall go crazy. Tell me Auguste, where have you been?”
“Where I had business, of course,” he returned shrugging his shoulders. “At eight o’clock, I was at La Glaciere, with my friend who is to start a hat factory. We sat talking late, so I preferred to sleep there. Now, you know, I don’t like being spied upon, so just shut up!”
The young woman recommenced sobbing. The loud voices and the rough movements of Lantier, who upset the chairs, had awakened the children. They sat up in bed, half naked, disentangling their hair with their tiny hands, and, hearing their mother weep, they uttered terrible screams, crying also with their scarcely open eyes.
“Ah! there’s the music!” shouted Lantier furiously. “I warn you, I’ll take my hook! And it will be for good, this time. You won’t shut up? Then, good morning! I’ll return to the place I’ve just come from.”
He had already taken his hat from off the chest of drawers. But Gervaise threw herself before him, stammering: “No, no!”
And she hushed the little ones’ tears with her caresses, smoothed their hair, and soothed them with soft words. The children, suddenly quieted, laughing on their pillow, amused themselves by punching each other. The father however, without even taking off his boots, had thrown himself on the bed looking worn out, his face bearing signs of having been up all night. He did not go to sleep, he lay with his eyes wide open, looking round the room.
“It’s a mess here!” he muttered. And after observing Gervaise a moment, he malignantly added: “Don’t you even wash yourself now?”
Gervaise was twenty-two, tall and slim with fine features, but she was already beginning to show the strain of her hard life. She seemed to have aged ten years from the hours of agonized weeping. Lantier’s mean remark made her mad.
“You’re not fair,” she said spiritedly. “You well know I do all I can. It’s not my fault we find ourselves here. I would like to see you, with two children, in a room where there’s not even a stove to heat some water. When we arrived in Paris, instead of squandering your money, you should have made a home for us at once, as you promised.”
“Listen!” Lantier exploded. “You cracked the nut with me; it doesn’t become you to sneer at it now!”
Apparently not listening, Gervaise went on with her own thought. “If we work hard we can get out of the hole we’re in. Madame Fauconnier, the laundress on Rue Neuve, will start me on Monday. If you work with your friend from La Glaciere, in six months we will be doing well. We’ll have enough for decent clothes and a place we can call our own. But we’ll have to stick with it and work hard.”
Lantier turned over towards the wall, looking greatly bored. Then Gervaise lost her temper.
“Yes, that’s it, I know the love of work doesn’t trouble you much. You’re bursting with ambition, you want to be dressed like a gentleman. You don’t think me nice enough, do you, now that you’ve made me pawn all my dresses? Listen, Auguste, I didn’t intend to speak of it, I would have waited a bit longer, but I know where you spent the night; I saw you enter the ‘Grand-Balcony’ with that trollop Adele. Ah! you choose them well! She’s a nice one, she is! She does well to put on the airs of a princess! She’s been the ridicule of every man who frequents the restaurant.”
At a bound Lantier sprang from the bed. His eyes had become as black as ink in his pale face. With this little man, rage blew like a tempest.
“Yes, yes, of every man who frequents the restaurant!” repeated the young woman. “Madame Boche intends to give them notice, she and her long stick of a sister, because they’ve always a string of men after them on the staircase.”
Lantier raised his fists; then, resisting the desire of striking her, he seized hold of her by the arms, shook her violently and sent her sprawling upon the bed of the children, who recommenced crying. And he lay down again, mumbling, like a man resolving on something that he previously hesitated to do:
“You don’t know what you’ve done, Gervaise. You’ve made a big mistake; you’ll see.”
For an instant the children continued sobbing. Their mother, who remained bending over the bed, held them both in her embrace, and kept repeating the same words in a monotonous tone of voice.
“Ah! if it weren’t for you! My poor little ones! If it weren’t for you! If it weren’t for you!”
Stretched out quietly, his eyes raised to the faded strip of chintz, Lantier no longer listened, but seemed to be buried in a fixed idea. He remained thus for nearly an hour, without giving way to sleep, in spite of the fatigue which weighed his eyelids down.
He finally turned toward Gervaise, his face set hard in determination. She had gotten the children up and dressed and had almost finished cleaning the room. The room looked, as always, dark and depressing with its sooty black ceiling and paper peeling from the damp walls. The dilapidated furniture was always streaked and dirty despite frequent dustings. Gervaise, devouring her grief, trying to assume a look of indifference, hurried over her work.
Lantier watched as she tidied her hair in front of the small mirror hanging near the window. While she washed herself he looked at her bare arms and shoulders. He seemed to be making comparisons in his mind as his lips formed a grimace. Gervaise limped with her right leg, though it was scarcely noticeable except when she was tired. To-day, exhausted from remaining awake all night, she was supporting herself against the wall and dragging her leg.
Neither one spoke, they had nothing more to say. Lantier seemed to be waiting, while Gervaise kept busy and tried to keep her countenance expressionless. Finally, while she was making a bundle of the dirty clothes thrown in a corner, behind the trunk, he at length opened his lips and asked:
“What are you doing there? Where are you going?”
She did not answer at first. Then, when he furiously repeated his question, she made up her mind, and said:
“I suppose you can see for yourself. I’m going to wash all this. The children can’t live in filth.”
He let her pick up two or three handkerchiefs. And, after a fresh pause, he resumed: “Have you got any money?”
At these words she stood up and looked him full in the face, without leaving go of the children’s dirty clothes, which she held in her hand.
“Money! And where do you think I can have stolen any? You know well enough that I got three francs the day before yesterday on my black skirt. We’ve lunched twice off it, and money goes quick at the pork-butcher’s. No, you may be quite sure I’ve no money. I’ve four sous for the wash-house. I don’t have an extra income like some women.”
He let this allusion pass. He had moved off the bed, and was passing in review the few rags hanging about the room. He ended by taking up the pair of trousers and the shawl, and searching the drawers, he added two chemises and a woman’s loose jacket to the parcel; then, he threw the whole bundle into Gervaise’s arms, saying:
“Here, go and pop this.”
“Don’t you want me to pop the children as well?” asked she. “Eh! If they lent on children, it would be a fine riddance!”
She went to the pawn-place, however. When she returned at the end of half an hour, she laid a hundred sou piece on the mantel-shelf, and added the ticket to the others, between the two candlesticks.
“That’s what they gave me,” said she. “I wanted six francs, but I couldn’t manage it. Oh! they’ll never ruin themselves. And there’s always such a crowd there!”
Lantier did not pick up the five franc piece directly. He would rather that she got change, so as to leave her some of it. But he decided to slip it into his waistcoat pocket, when he noticed a small piece of ham wrapped up in paper, and the remains of a loaf on the chest of drawers.
“I didn’t dare go to the milkwoman’s, because we owe her a week,” explained Gervaise. “But I shall be back early; you can get some bread and some chops whilst I’m away, and then we’ll have lunch. Bring also a bottle of wine.”
He did not say no. Their quarrel seemed to be forgotten. The young woman was completing her bundle of dirty clothes. But when she went to take Lantier’s shirts and socks from the bottom of the trunk, he called to her to leave them alone.
“Leave my things, d’ye hear? I don’t want ’em touched!”
“What’s it you don’t want touched?” she asked, rising up. “I suppose you don’t mean to put these filthy things on again, do you? They must be washed.”
She studied his boyishly handsome face, now so rigid that it seemed nothing could ever soften it. He angrily grabbed his things from her and threw them back into the trunk, saying:
“Just obey me, for once! I tell you I won’t have ’em touched!”
“But why?” she asked, turning pale, a terrible suspicion crossing her mind. “You don’t need your shirts now, you’re not going away. What can it matter to you if I take them?”
He hesitated for an instant, embarrassed by the piercing glance she fixed upon him. “Why—why—” stammered he, “because you go and tell everyone that you keep me, that you wash and mend. Well! It worries me, there! Attend to your own business and I’ll attend to mine, washerwomen don’t work for dogs.”
She supplicated, she protested she had never complained; but he roughly closed the trunk and sat down upon it, saying, “No!” to her face. He could surely do as he liked with what belonged to him! Then, to escape from the inquiring looks she leveled at him, he went and laid down on the bed again, saying that he was sleepy, and requesting her not to make his head ache with any more of her row. This time indeed, he seemed to fall asleep. Gervaise, for a while, remained undecided. She was tempted to kick the bundle of dirty clothes on one side, and to sit down and sew. But Lantier’s regular breathing ended by reassuring her. She took the ball of blue and the piece of soap remaining from her last washing, and going up to the little ones who were quietly playing with some old corks in front of the window, she kissed them, and said in a low voice:
“Be very good, don’t make any noise; papa’s asleep.”
When she left the room, Claude’s and Etienne’s gentle laughter alone disturbed the great silence beneath the blackened ceiling. It was ten o’clock. A ray of sunshine entered by the half open window.
On the Boulevard, Gervaise turned to the left, and followed the Rue Neuve de la Goutte-d’Or. As she passed Madame Fauconnier’s shop, she slightly bowed her head. The wash-house she was bound for was situated towards the middle of the street, at the part where the roadway commenced to ascend.
The rounded, gray contours of the three large zinc wash tanks, studded with rivets, rose above the flat-roofed building. Behind them was the drying room, a high second story, closed in on all sides by narrow-slatted lattices so that the air could circulate freely, and through which laundry could be seen hanging on brass wires. The steam engine’s smokestack exhaled puffs of white smoke to the right of the water tanks.
Gervaise was used to puddles and did not bother to tuck her skirts up before making her way through the doorway, which was cluttered with jars of bleaching water. She was already acquainted with the mistress of the wash-house, a delicate little woman with red, inflamed eyes, who sat in a small glazed closet with account books in front of her, bars of soap on shelves, balls of blue in glass bowls, and pounds of soda done up in packets; and, as she passed, she asked for her beetle and her scouring-brush, which she had left to be taken care of the last time she had done her washing there. Then, after obtaining her number, she entered the wash-house.
It was an immense shed, with large clear windows, and a flat ceiling, showing the beams supported on cast-iron pillars. Pale rays of light passed through the hot steam, which remained suspended like a milky fog. Smoke arose from certain corners, spreading about and covering the recesses with a bluish veil. A heavy moisture hung around, impregnated with a soapy odor, a damp insipid smell, continuous though at moments overpowered by the more potent fumes of the chemicals. Along the washing-places, on either side of the central alley, were rows of women, with bare arms and necks, and skirts tucked up, showing colored stockings and heavy lace-up shoes. They were beating furiously, laughing, leaning back to call out a word in the midst of the din, or stooping over their tubs, all of them brutal, ungainly, foul of speech, and soaked as though by a shower, with their flesh red and reeking.
All around the women continuously flowed a river from hot-water buckets emptied with a sudden splash, cold-water faucets left dripping, soap suds spattering, and the dripping from rinsed laundry which was hung up. It splashed their feet and drained away across the sloping flagstones. The din of the shouting and the rhythmic beating was joined by the patter of steady dripping. It was slightly muffled by the moisture-soaked ceiling. Meanwhile, the steam engine could be heard as it puffed and snorted ceaselessly while cloaked in its white mist. The dancing vibration of its flywheel seemed to regulate the volume of the noisy turbulence.
Gervaise passed slowly along the alley, looking to the right and left, carrying her laundry bundle under one arm, with one hip thrust high and limping more than usual. She was jostled by several women in the hubbub.
“This way, my dear!” cried Madame Boche, in her loud voice. Then, when the young woman had joined her at the very end on the left, the concierge, who was furiously rubbing a dirty sock, began to talk incessantly, without leaving off her work. “Put your things there, I’ve kept your place. Oh, I sha’n’t be long over what I’ve got. Boche scarcely dirties his things at all. And you, you won’t be long either, will you? Your bundle’s quite a little one. Before twelve o’clock we shall have finished, and we can go off to lunch. I used to send my things to a laundress in the Rue Poulet, but she destroyed everything with her chlorine and her brushes; so now I do the washing myself. It’s so much saved; it only costs the soap. I say, you should have put those shirts to soak. Those little rascals of children, on my word! One would think their bodies were covered with soot.”
Gervaise, having undone her bundle, was spreading out the little ones’ shirts, and as Madame Boche advised her to take a pailful of lye, she answered, “Oh, no! warm water will do. I’m used to it.” She had sorted her laundry with several colored pieces to one side. Then, after filling her tub with four pails of cold water from the tap behind her, she plunged her pile of whites into it.
“You’re used to it?” repeated Madame Boche. “You were a washerwoman in your native place, weren’t you, my dear?”
Gervaise, with her sleeves pushed back, displayed the graceful arms of a young blonde, as yet scarcely reddened at the elbows, and started scrubbing her laundry. She spread a shirt out on the narrow rubbing board which was water-bleached and eroded by years of use. She rubbed soap into the shirt, turned it over, and soaped the other side. Before replying to Madame Boche she grasped her beetle and began to pound away so that her shouted phrases were punctuated with loud and rhythmic thumps.
“Yes, yes, a washerwoman—When I was ten—That’s twelve years ago—We used to go to the river—It smelt nicer there than it does here—You should have seen, there was a nook under the trees, with clear running water—You know, at Plassans—Don’t you know Plassans?—It’s near Marseilles.”
“How you go at it!” exclaimed Madame Boche, amazed at the strength of her blows. “You could flatten out a piece of iron with your little lady-like arms.”
The conversation continued in a very high volume. At times, the concierge, not catching what was said, was obliged to lean forward. All the linen was beaten, and with a will! Gervaise plunged it into the tub again, and then took it out once more, each article separately, to rub it over with soap a second time and brush it. With one hand she held the article firmly on the plank; with the other, which grasped the short couch-grass brush, she extracted from the linen a dirty lather, which fell in long drips. Then, in the slight noise caused by the brush, the two women drew together, and conversed in a more intimate way.
“No, we’re not married,” resumed Gervaise. “I don’t hide it. Lantier isn’t so nice for any one to care to be his wife. If it weren’t for the children! I was fourteen and he was eighteen when we had our first one. It happened in the usual way, you know how it is. I wasn’t happy at home. Old man Macquart would kick me in the tail whenever he felt like it, for no reason at all. I had to have some fun outside. We might have been married, but—I forget why—our parents wouldn’t consent.”
She shook her hands, which were growing red in the white suds. “The water’s awfully hard in Paris.”
Madame Boche was now washing only very slowly. She kept leaving off, making her work last as long as she could, so as to remain there, to listen to that story, which her curiosity had been hankering to know for a fortnight past. Her mouth was half open in the midst of her big, fat face; her eyes, which were almost at the top of her head, were gleaming. She was thinking, with the satisfaction of having guessed right.
“That’s it, the little one gossips too much. There’s been a row.”
Then, she observed out loud, “He isn’t nice, then?”
“Don’t mention it!” replied Gervaise. “He used to behave very well in the country; but, since we’ve been in Paris, he’s been unbearable. I must tell you that his mother died last year and left him some money—about seventeen hundred francs. He would come to Paris, so, as old Macquart was forever knocking me about without warning, I consented to come away with him. We made the journey with two children. He was to set me up as a laundress, and work himself at his trade of a hatter. We should have been very happy; but, you see, Lantier’s ambitious and a spendthrift, a fellow who only thinks of amusing himself. In short, he’s not worth much. On arriving, we went to the Hotel Montmartre, in the Rue Montmartre. And then there were dinners, and cabs, and the theatre; a watch for himself and a silk dress for me, for he’s not unkind when he’s got the money. You understand, he went in for everything, and so well that at the end of two months we were cleaned out. It was then that we came to live at the Hotel Boncoeur, and that this horrible life began.”
She interrupted herself. A lump had suddenly risen in her throat, and she could scarcely restrain her tears. She had finished brushing the things.
“I must go and fetch my hot water,” she murmured.
But Madame Boche, greatly disappointed at this break off in the disclosures, called to the wash-house boy, who was passing, “My little Charles, kindly get madame a pail of hot water; she’s in a hurry.”
The youth took the bucket and brought it back filled. Gervaise paid him; it was a sou the pailful. She poured the hot water into the tub, and soaped the things a last time with her hands, leaning over them in a mass of steam, which deposited small beads of grey vapor in her light hair.
“Here put some soda in, I’ve got some by me,” said the concierge, obligingly.
And she emptied into Gervaise’s tub what remained of a bag of soda which she had brought with her. She also offered her some of the chemical water, but the young woman declined it; it was only good for grease and wine stains.
“I think he’s rather a loose fellow,” resumed Madame Boche, returning to Lantier, but without naming him.
Gervaise, bent almost double, her hands all shriveled, and thrust in amongst the clothes, merely tossed her head.
“Yes, yes,” continued the other, “I have noticed several little things—” But she suddenly interrupted herself, as Gervaise jumped up, with a pale face, and staring wildly at her. Then she exclaimed, “Oh, no! I don’t know anything! He likes to laugh a bit, I think, that’s all. For instance, you know the two girls who lodge at my place, Adele and Virginie. Well, he larks about with ’em, but he just flirts for sport.”
The young woman standing before her, her face covered with perspiration, the water dripping from her arms, continued to stare at her with a fixed and penetrating look. Then the concierge got excited, giving herself a blow on the chest, and pledging her word of honor, she cried:
“I know nothing, I mean it when I say so!”
Then calming herself, she added in a gentle voice, as if speaking to a person on whom loud protestations would have no effect, “I think he has a frank look about the eyes. He’ll marry you, my dear, I’m sure of it.”
Gervaise wiped her forehead with her wet hand. Shaking her head again, she pulled another garment out of the water. Both of them kept silence for a moment. The wash-house was quieting down, for eleven o’clock had struck. Half of the washerwomen were perched on the edge of their tubs, eating sausages between slices of bread and drinking from open bottles of wine. Only housewives who had come to launder small bundles of family linen were hurrying to finish.
Occasional beetle blows could still be heard amid the subdued laughter and gossip half-choked by the greedy chewing of jawbones. The steam engine never stopped. Its vibrant, snorting voice seemed to fill the entire hall, though not one of the women even heard it. It was like the breathing of the wash-house, its hot breath collecting under the ceiling rafters in an eternal floating mist.
The heat was becoming intolerable. Through the tall windows on the left sunlight was streaming in, touching the steamy vapors with opalescent tints of soft pinks and grayish blues. Charles went from window to window, letting down the heavy canvas awnings. Then he crossed to the shady side to open the ventilators. He was applauded by cries and hand clapping and a rough sort of gaiety spread around. Soon even the last of the beetle-pounding stopped.
With full mouths, the washerwomen could only make gestures. It became so quiet that the grating sound of the fireman shoveling coal into the engine’s firebox could be heard at regular intervals from far at the other end.
Gervaise was washing her colored things in the hot water thick with lather, which she had kept for the purpose. When she had finished, she drew a trestle towards her and hung across it all the different articles; the drippings from which made bluish puddles on the floor; and she commenced rinsing. Behind her, the cold water tap was set running into a vast tub fixed to the ground, and across which were two wooden bars whereon to lay the clothes. High up in the air were two other bars for the things to finish dripping on.
“We’re almost finished, and not a bad job,” said Madame Boche. “I’ll wait and help you wring all that.”
“Oh! it’s not worth while; I’m much obliged though,” replied the young woman, who was kneading with her hands and sousing the colored things in some clean water. “If I’d any sheets, it would be another thing.”
But she had, however, to accept the concierge’s assistance. They were wringing between them, one at each end, a woolen skirt of a washed-out chestnut color, from which dribbled a yellowish water, when Madame Boche exclaimed:
“Why, there’s tall Virginie! What has she come here to wash, when all her wardrobe that isn’t on her would go into a pocket handkerchief?”
Gervaise jerked her head up. Virginie was a girl of her own age, taller than she was, dark and pretty in spite of her face being rather long and narrow. She had on an old black dress with flounces, and a red ribbon round her neck; and her hair was done up carefully, the chignon being enclosed in a blue silk net. She stood an instant in the middle of the central alley, screwing up her eyes as though seeking someone; then, when she caught sight of Gervaise, she passed close to her, erect, insolent, and with a swinging gait, and took a place in the same row, five tubs away from her.
“There’s a freak for you!” continued Madame Boche in a lower tone of voice. “She never does any laundry, not even a pair of cuffs. A seamstress who doesn’t even sew on a loose button! She’s just like her sister, the brass burnisher, that hussy Adele, who stays away from her job two days out of three. Nobody knows who their folks are or how they make a living. Though, if I wanted to talk . . . What on earth is she scrubbing there? A filthy petticoat. I’ll wager it’s seen some lovely sights, that petticoat!”
Madame Boche was evidently trying to make herself agreeable to Gervaise. The truth was she often took a cup of coffee with Adele and Virginia, when the girls had any money. Gervaise did not answer, but hurried over her work with feverish hands. She had just prepared her blue in a little tub that stood on three legs. She dipped in the linen things, and shook them an instant at the bottom of the colored water, the reflection of which had a pinky tinge; and after wringing them lightly, she spread them out on the wooden bars up above. During the time she was occupied with this work, she made a point of turning her back on Virginie. But she heard her chuckles; she could feel her sidelong glances. Virginie appeared only to have come there to provoke her. At one moment, Gervaise having turned around, they both stared into each other’s faces.
“Leave her alone,” whispered Madame Boche. “You’re not going to pull each other’s hair out, I hope. When I tell you there’s nothing to it! It isn’t her, anyhow!”
At this moment, as the young woman was hanging up the last article of clothing, there was a sound of laughter at the door of the wash-house.
“Here are two brats who want their mamma!” cried Charles.
All the women leant forward. Gervaise recognized Claude and Etienne. As soon as they caught sight of her, they ran to her through the puddles, the heels of their unlaced shoes resounding on the flagstones. Claude, the eldest, held his little brother by the hand. The women, as they passed them, uttered little exclamations of affection as they noticed their frightened though smiling faces. And they stood there, in front of their mother, without leaving go of each other’s hands, and holding their fair heads erect.
“Has papa sent you?” asked Gervaise.
But as she stooped to tie the laces of Etienne’s shoes, she saw the key of their room on one of Claude’s fingers, with the brass number hanging from it.
“Why, you’ve brought the key!” she said, greatly surprised. “What’s that for?”
The child, seeing the key which he had forgotten on his finger, appeared to recollect, and exclaimed in his clear voice:
“Papa’s gone away.”
“He’s gone to buy the lunch, and told you to come here to fetch me?”
Claude looked at his brother, hesitated, no longer recollecting. Then he resumed all in a breath: “Papa’s gone away. He jumped off the bed, he put all the things in the trunk, he carried the trunk down to a cab. He’s gone away.”
Gervaise, who was squatting down, slowly rose to her feet, her face ghastly pale. She put her hands to her cheeks and temples, as though she felt her head was breaking; and she could find only these words, which she repeated twenty times in the same tone of voice:
“Ah! good heavens!—ah! good heavens!—ah! good heavens!”
Madame Boche, however, also questioned the child, quite delighted at the chance of hearing the whole story.
“Come, little one, you must tell us just what happened. It was he who locked the door and who told you to bring the key, wasn’t it?” And, lowering her voice, she whispered in Claude’s ear: “Was there a lady in the cab?”
The child again got confused. Then he recommenced his story in a triumphant manner: “He jumped off the bed, he put all the things in the trunk. He’s gone away.”
Then, when Madame Boche let him go, he drew his brother in front of the tap, and they amused themselves by turning on the water. Gervaise was unable to cry. She was choking, leaning back against her tub, her face still buried in her hands. Brief shudders rocked her body and she wailed out long sighs while pressing her hands tighter against her eyes, as though abandoning herself to the blackness of desolation, a dark, deep pit into which she seemed to be falling.
“Come, my dear, pull yourself together!” murmured Madame Boche.
“If you only knew! If you only knew!” said she at length very faintly. “He sent me this morning to pawn my shawl and my chemises to pay for that cab.”
And she burst out crying. The memory of the events of that morning and of her trip to the pawn-place tore from her the sobs that had been choking her throat. That abominable trip to the pawn-place was the thing that hurt most in all her sorrow and despair. Tears were streaming down her face but she didn’t think of using her handkerchief.
“Be reasonable, do be quiet, everyone’s looking at you,” Madame Boche, who hovered round her, kept repeating. “How can you worry yourself so much on account of a man? You loved him, then, all the same, did you, my poor darling? A little while ago you were saying all sorts of things against him; and now you’re crying for him, and almost breaking your heart. Dear me, how silly we all are!”
Then she became quite maternal.
“A pretty little woman like you! Can it be possible? One may tell you everything now, I suppose. Well! You recollect when I passed under your window, I already had my suspicions. Just fancy, last night, when Adele came home, I heard a man’s footsteps with hers. So I thought I would see who it was. I looked up the staircase. The fellow was already on the second landing; but I certainly recognized Monsieur Lantier’s overcoat. Boche, who was on the watch this morning, saw him tranquilly nod adieu. He was with Adele, you know. Virginie has a situation now, where she goes twice a week. Only it’s highly imprudent all the same, for they’ve only one room and an alcove, and I can’t very well say where Virginie managed to sleep.”
She interrupted herself an instant, turned round, and then resumed, subduing her loud voice:
“She’s laughing at seeing you cry, that heartless thing over there. I’d stake my life that her washing’s all a pretence. She’s packed off the other two, and she’s come here so as to tell them how you take it.”
Gervaise removed her hands from her face and looked. When she beheld Virginie in front of her, amidst three or four women, speaking low and staring at her, she was seized with a mad rage. Her arms in front of her, searching the ground, she stumbled forward a few paces. Trembling all over, she found a bucket full of water, grabbed it with both hands, and emptied it at Virginie.
“The virago!” yelled tall Virginie.
She had stepped back, and her boots alone got wet. The other women, who for some minutes past had all been greatly upset by Gervaise’s tears, jostled each other in their anxiety to see the fight. Some, who were finishing their lunch, got on the tops of their tubs. Others hastened forward, their hands smothered with soap. A ring was formed.
“Ah! the virago!” repeated tall Virginie. “What’s the matter with her? She’s mad!”
Gervaise, standing on the defensive, her chin thrust out, her features convulsed, said nothing, not having yet acquired the Paris gift of street gab. The other continued:
“Get out! This girl’s tired of wallowing about in the country; she wasn’t twelve years old when the soldiers were at her. She even lost her leg serving her country. That leg’s rotting off.”
The lookers-on burst out laughing. Virginie, seeing her success, advanced a couple of steps, drawing herself up to her full height, and yelling louder than ever:
“Here! Come a bit nearer, just to see how I’ll settle you! Don’t you come annoying us here. Do I even know her, the hussy? If she’d wetted me, I’d have pretty soon shown her battle, as you’d have seen. Let her just say what I’ve ever done to her. Speak, you vixen; what’s been done to you?”
“Don’t talk so much,” stammered Gervaise. “You know well enough. Some one saw my husband last night. And shut up, because if you don’t I’ll most certainly strangle you.”
“Her husband! That’s a good one! As if cripples like her had husbands! If he’s left you it’s not my fault. Surely you don’t think I’ve stolen him, do you? He was much too good for you and you made him sick. Did you keep him on a leash? Has anyone here seen her husband? There’s a reward.”
The laughter burst forth again. Gervaise contented herself with continually murmuring in a low tone of voice:
“You know well enough, you know well enough. It’s your sister. I’ll strangle her—your sister.”
“Yes, go and try it on with my sister,” resumed Virginie sneeringly. “Ah! it’s my sister! That’s very likely. My sister looks a trifle different to you; but what’s that to me? Can’t one come and wash one’s clothes in peace now? Just dry up, d’ye hear, because I’ve had enough of it!”
But it was she who returned to the attack, after giving five or six strokes with her beetle, intoxicated by the insults she had been giving utterance to, and worked up into a passion. She left off and recommenced again, speaking in this way three times:
“Well, yes! it’s my sister. There now, does that satisfy you? They adore each other. You should just see them bill and coo! And he’s left you with your children. Those pretty kids with scabs all over their faces! You got one of them from a gendarme, didn’t you? And you let three others die because you didn’t want to pay excess baggage on your journey. It’s your Lantier who told us that. Ah! he’s been telling some fine things; he’d had enough of you!”
“You dirty jade! You dirty jade! You dirty jade!” yelled Gervaise, beside herself, and again seized with a furious trembling. She turned round, looking once more about the ground; and only observing the little tub, she seized hold of it by the legs, and flung the whole of the bluing at Virginie’s face.
“The beast! She’s spoilt my dress!” cried the latter, whose shoulder was sopping wet and whose left hand was dripping blue. “Just wait, you wretch!”
In her turn she seized a bucket, and emptied it over Gervaise. Then a formidable battle began. They both ran along the rows of tubs, seized hold of the pails that were full, and returned to dash the contents at each other’s heads. And each deluge was accompanied by a volley of words. Gervaise herself answered now:
“There, you scum! You got it that time. It’ll help to cool you.”
“Ah! the carrion! That’s for your filth. Wash yourself for once in your life.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll wash the salt out of you, you cod!”
“Another one! Brush your teeth, fix yourself up for your post to-night at the corner of the Rue Belhomme.”
They ended by having to refill the buckets at the water taps, continuing to insult each other the while. The initial bucketfuls were so poorly aimed as to scarcely reach their targets, but they soon began to splash each other in earnest. Virginie was the first to receive a bucketful in the face. The water ran down, soaking her back and front. She was still staggering when another caught her from the side, hitting her left ear and drenching her chignon which then came unwound into a limp, bedraggled string of hair.
Gervaise was hit first in the legs. One pail filled her shoes full of water and splashed up to her thighs. Two more wet her even higher. Soon both of them were soaked from top to bottom and it was impossible to count the hits. Their clothes were plastered to their bodies and they looked shrunken. Water was dripping everywhere as from umbrellas in a rainstorm.
“They look jolly funny!” said the hoarse voice of one of the women.
Everyone in the wash-house was highly amused. A good space was left to the combatants, as nobody cared to get splashed. Applause and jokes circulated in the midst of the sluice-like noise of the buckets emptied in rapid succession! On the floor the puddles were running one into another, and the two women were wading in them up to their ankles. Virginie, however, who had been meditating a treacherous move, suddenly seized hold of a pail of lye, which one of her neighbors had left there and threw it. The same cry arose from all. Everyone thought Gervaise was scalded; but only her left foot had been slightly touched. And, exasperated by the pain, she seized a bucket, without troubling herself to fill it this time, and threw it with all her might at the legs of Virginie, who fell to the ground. All the women spoke together.
“She’s broken one of her limbs!”
“Well, the other tried to cook her!”
“She’s right, after all, the blonde one, if her man’s been taken from her!”
Madame Boche held up her arms to heaven, uttering all sorts of exclamations. She had prudently retreated out of the way between two tubs; and the children, Claude and Etienne, crying, choking, terrified, clung to her dress with the continuous cry of “Mamma! Mamma!” broken by their sobs. When she saw Virginie fall she hastened forward, and tried to pull Gervaise away by her skirt, repeating the while,
“Come now, go home! Be reasonable. On my word, it’s quite upset me. Never was such a butchery seen before.”
But she had to draw back and seek refuge again between the two tubs, with the children. Virginie had just flown at Gervaise’s throat. She squeezed her round the neck, trying to strangle her. The latter freed herself with a violent jerk, and in her turn hung on to the other’s hair, as though she was trying to pull her head off. The battle was silently resumed, without a cry, without an insult. They did not seize each other round the body, they attacked each other’s faces with open hands and clawing fingers, pinching, scratching whatever they caught hold of. The tall, dark girl’s red ribbon and blue silk hair net were torn off. The body of her dress, giving way at the neck, displayed a large portion of her shoulder; whilst the blonde, half stripped, a sleeve gone from her loose white jacket without her knowing how, had a rent in her underlinen, which exposed to view the naked line of her waist. Shreds of stuff flew in all directions. It was from Gervaise that the first blood was drawn, three long scratches from the mouth to the chin; and she sought to protect her eyes, shutting them at every grab the other made, for fear of having them torn out. No blood showed on Virginie as yet. Gervaise aimed at her ears, maddened at not being able to reach them. At length she succeeded in seizing hold of one of the earrings—an imitation pear in yellow glass—which she pulled out and slit the ear, and the blood flowed.
“They’re killing each other! Separate them, the vixens!” exclaimed several voices.
The other women had drawn nearer. They formed themselves into two camps. Some were cheering the combatants on as the others were trembling and turning their heads away saying that it was making them sick. A large fight nearly broke out between the two camps as the women called each other names and brandished their fists threateningly. Three loud slaps rang out.
Madame Boche, meanwhile, was trying to discover the wash-house boy.
“Charles! Charles! Wherever has he got to?”
And she found him in the front rank, looking on with his arms folded. He was a big fellow, with an enormous neck. He was laughing and enjoying the sight of the skin which the two women displayed. The little blonde was as fat as a quail. It would be fun if her chemise burst open.
“Why,” murmured he, blinking his eye, “she’s got a strawberry birthmark under her arm.”
“What! You’re there!” cried Madame Boche, as she caught sight of him. “Just come and help us separate them. You can easily separate them, you can!”
“Oh, no! thank you, not if I know it,” said he coolly. “To get my eye scratched like I did the other day, I suppose! I’m not here for that sort of thing; I have enough to do without that. Don’t be afraid, a little bleeding does ’em good; it’ll soften ’em.”
The concierge then talked of fetching the police; but the mistress of the wash-house, the delicate young woman with the red, inflamed eyes, would not allow her to do this. She kept saying:
“No, no, I won’t; it’ll compromise my establishment.”
The struggle on the ground continued. All on a sudden, Virginie raised herself up on her knees. She had just gotten hold of a beetle and held it on high. She had a rattle in her throat and in an altered voice, she exclaimed,
“Here’s something that’ll settle you! Get your dirty linen ready!”
Gervaise quickly thrust out her hand, and also seized a beetle, and held it up like a club; and she too spoke in a choking voice,
“Ah! you want to wash. Let me get hold of your skin that I may beat it into dish-cloths!”
For a moment they remained there, on their knees, menacing each other. Their hair all over their faces, their breasts heaving, muddy, swelling with rage, they watched one another, as they waited and took breath. Gervaise gave the first blow. Her beetle glided off Virginie’s shoulder, and she at once threw herself on one side to avoid the latter’s beetle, which grazed her hip. Then, warming to their work they struck at each other like washerwomen beating clothes, roughly, and in time. Whenever there was a hit, the sound was deadened, so that one might have thought it a blow in a tub full of water. The other women around them no longer laughed. Several had gone off saying that it quite upset them; those who remained stretched out their necks, their eyes lighted up with a gleam of cruelty, admiring the pluck displayed. Madame Boche had led Claude and Etienne away, and one could hear at the other end of the building the sound of their sobs, mingled with the sonorous shocks of the two beetles. But Gervaise suddenly yelled. Virginie had caught her a whack with all her might on her bare arm, just above the elbow. A large red mark appeared, the flesh at once began to swell. Then she threw herself upon Virginie, and everyone thought she was going to beat her to death.
“Enough! Enough!” was cried on all sides.
Her face bore such a terrible expression, that no one dared approach her. Her strength seemed to have increased tenfold. She seized Virginie round the waist, bent her down and pressed her face against the flagstones. Raising her beetle she commenced beating as she used to beat at Plassans, on the banks of the Viorne, when her mistress washed the clothes of the garrison. The wood seemed to yield to the flesh with a damp sound. At each whack a red weal marked the white skin.
“Oh, oh!” exclaimed the boy Charles, opening his eyes to their full extent and gloating over the sight.
Laughter again burst forth from the lookers-on, but soon the cry, “Enough! Enough!” recommenced. Gervaise heard not, neither did she tire. She examined her work, bent over it, anxious not to leave a dry place. She wanted to see the whole of that skin beaten, covered with contusions. And she talked, seized with a ferocious gaiety, recalling a washerwoman’s song,
“Bang! Bang! Margot at her tub.
Bang! Bang! Beating rub-a-dub.
Bang! Bang! Tries to wash her heart.
Bang! Bang! Black with grief to part.”
And then she resumed,
“That’s for you, that’s for your sister.
That’s for Lantier.
When you next see them,
You can give them that.
Attention! I’m going to begin again.
That’s for Lantier, that’s for your sister.
That’s for you.
Bang! Bang! Margot at her tub.
Bang! Bang! Beating rub-a-dub—”
The others were obliged to drag Virginie away from her. The tall, dark girl, her face bathed in tears and purple with shame, picked up her things and hastened away. She was vanquished. Gervaise slipped on the sleeve of her jacket again, and fastened up her petticoats. Her arm pained her a good deal, and she asked Madame Boche to place her bundle of clothes on her shoulder. The concierge referred to the battle, spoke of her emotions, and talked of examining the young woman’s person, just to see.
“You may, perhaps, have something broken. I heard a tremendous blow.”
But Gervaise wanted to go home. She made no reply to the pitying remarks and noisy ovation of the other women who surrounded her, erect in their aprons. When she was laden she gained the door, where the children awaited her.
“Two hours, that makes two sous,” said the mistress of the wash-house, already back at her post in the glazed closet.
Why two sous? She no longer understood that she was asked to pay for her place there. Then she gave the two sous; and limping very much beneath the weight of the wet clothes on her shoulder, the water dripping from off her, her elbow black and blue, her cheek covered with blood, she went off, dragging Claude and Etienne with her bare arms, whilst they trotted along on either side of her, still trembling, and their faces besmeared with their tears.
Once she was gone, the wash-house resumed its roaring tumult. The washerwomen had eaten their bread and drunk their wine. Their faces were lit up and their spirits enlivened by the fight between Gervaise and Virginie.
The long lines of tubs were astir again with the fury of thrashing arms, of craggy profiles, of marionettes with bent backs and slumping shoulders that twisted and jerked violently as though on hinges. Conversations went on from one end to the other in loud voices. Laughter and coarse remarks crackled through the ceaseless gurgling of the water. Faucets were sputtering, buckets spilling, rivulets flowing underneath the rows of washboards. Throughout the huge shed rising wisps of steam reflected a reddish tint, pierced here and there by disks of sunlight, golden globes that had leaked through holes in the awnings. The air was stiflingly warm and odorous with soap.
Suddenly the hall was filled with a white mist. The huge copper lid of the lye-water kettle was rising mechanically along a notched shaft, and from the gaping copper hollow within its wall of bricks came whirling clouds of vapor. Meanwhile, at one side the drying machines were hard at work; within their cast-iron cylinders bundles of laundry were being wrung dry by the centrifugal force of the steam engine, which was still puffing, steaming, jolting the wash-house with the ceaseless labor of its iron limbs.
When Gervaise turned into the entry of the Hotel Boncoeur, her tears again mastered her. It was a dark, narrow passage, with a gutter for the dirty water running alongside the wall; and the stench which she again encountered there caused her to think of the fortnight she had passed in the place with Lantier—a fortnight of misery and quarrels, the recollection of which was now a bitter regret. It seemed to bring her abandonment home to her.
Upstairs the room was bare, in spite of the sunshine which entered through the open window. That blaze of light, that kind of dancing golden dust, exposed the lamentable condition of the blackened ceiling, and of the walls half denuded of paper, all the more. The only thing left hanging in the room was a woman’s small neckerchief, twisted like a piece of string. The children’s bedstead, drawn into the middle of the apartment, displayed the chest of drawers, the open drawers of which exposed their emptiness. Lantier had washed himself and had used up the last of the pomatum—two sous’ worth of pomatum in a playing card; the greasy water from his hands filled the basin. And he had forgotten nothing. The corner which until then had been filled by the trunk seemed to Gervaise an immense empty space. Even the little mirror which hung on the window-fastening was gone. When she made this discovery, she had a presentiment. She looked on the mantel-piece. Lantier had taken away the pawn tickets; the pink bundle was no longer there, between the two odd zinc candlesticks.
She hung her laundry over the back of a chair and just stood there, gazing around at the furniture. She was so dulled and bewildered that she could no longer cry. She had only one sou left. Then, hearing Claude and Etienne laughing merrily by the window, their troubles already forgotten, she went to them and put her arms about them, losing herself for a moment in contemplation of that long gray avenue where, that very morning, she had watched the awakening of the working population, of the immense work-shop of Paris.
At this hour immense heat was rising from the pavement and from all the furnaces in the factories, setting alight a reflecting oven over the city and beyond the octroi wall. Out upon this very pavement, into this furnace blast, she had been tossed, alone with her little ones. As she glanced up and down the boulevard, she was seized with a dull dread that her life would be fixed there forever, between a slaughter-house and a hospital.
Three weeks later, towards half-past eleven, one beautiful sunshiny day, Gervaise and Coupeau, the zinc-worker, were each partaking of a plum preserved in brandy, at “l’Assommoir” kept by Pere Colombe. Coupeau, who had been smoking a cigarette on the pavement, had prevailed on her to go inside as she returned from taking home a customer’s washing; and her big square laundress’s basket was on the floor beside her, behind the little zinc covered table.
Pere Colombe’s l’Assommoir was at the corner of Rue des Poissonniers and Boulevard de Rochechouart. The sign, in tall blue letters stretching from one end to the other said: Distillery. Two dusty oleanders planted in half casks stood beside the doorway. A long bar with its tin measuring cups was on the left as you entered. The large room was decorated with casks painted a gay yellow, bright with varnish, and gleaming with copper taps and hoops.
On the shelves above the bar were liquor bottles, jars of fruit preserved in brandy, and flasks of all shapes. They completely covered the wall and were reflected in the mirror behind the bar as colorful spots of apple green, pale gold, and soft brown. The main feature of the establishment, however, was the distilling apparatus. It was at the rear, behind an oak railing in a glassed-in area. The customers could watch its functioning, long-necked still-pots, copper worms disappearing underground, a devil’s kitchen alluring to drink-sodden work men in search of pleasant dreams.
L’Assommoir was nearly empty at the lunch hour. Pere Colombe, a heavy man of forty, was serving a ten year old girl who had asked him to place four sous’ worth of brandy into her cup. A shaft of sunlight came through the entrance to warm the floor which was always damp from the smokers’ spitting. From everything, the casks, the bar, the entire room, a liquorish odor arose, an alcoholic aroma which seemed to thicken and befuddle the dust motes dancing in the sunlight.
Coupeau was making another cigarette. He was very neat, in a short blue linen blouse and cap, and was laughing and showing his white teeth. With a projecting under jaw and a slightly snub nose, he had handsome chestnut eyes, and the face of a jolly dog and a thorough good fellow. His coarse curly hair stood erect. His skin still preserved the softness of his twenty-six years. Opposite to him, Gervaise, in a thin black woolen dress, and bareheaded, was finishing her plum which she held by the stalk between the tips of her fingers. They were close to the street, at the first of the four tables placed alongside the barrels facing the bar.
When the zinc-worker had lit his cigarette, he placed his elbows on the table, thrust his face forward, and for an instant looked without speaking at the young woman, whose pretty fair face had that day the milky transparency of china. Then, alluding to a matter known to themselves alone, and already discussed between them, he simply asked in a low voice:
“So it’s to be ‘no’? you say ‘no’?”
“Oh! most decidedly ‘no’ Monsieur Coupeau,” quietly replied Gervaise with a smile. “I hope you’re not going to talk to me about that here. You know you promised me you would be reasonable. Had I known, I wouldn’t have let you treat me.”
Coupeau kept silence, looking at her intently with a boldness. She sat still, at ease and friendly. At the end of a brief silence she added:
“You can’t really mean it. I’m an old woman; I’ve a big boy eight years old. Whatever could we two do together?”
“Why!” murmured Coupeau, blinking his eyes, “what the others do, of course, get married!”
She made a gesture of feeling annoyed. “Oh! do you think it’s always pleasant? One can very well see you’ve never seen much of living. No, Monsieur Coupeau, I must think of serious things. Burdening oneself never leads to anything, you know! I’ve two mouths at home which are never tired of swallowing, I can tell you! How do you suppose I can bring up my little ones, if I only sit here talking indolently? And listen, besides that, my misfortune has been a famous lesson to me. You know I don’t care a bit about men now. They won’t catch me again for a long while.”
She spoke with such cool objectivity that it was clear she had resolved this in her mind, turning it about thoroughly.
Coupeau was deeply moved and kept repeating: “I feel so sorry for you. It causes me a great deal of pain.”
“Yes, I know that,” resumed she, “and I am sorry, Monsieur Coupeau. But you mustn’t take it to heart. If I had any idea of enjoying myself, mon Dieu!, I would certainly rather be with you than anyone else. You’re a good boy and gentle. Only, where’s the use, as I’ve no inclination to wed? I’ve been for the last fortnight, now, at Madame Fauconnier’s. The children go to school. I’ve work, I’m contented. So the best is to remain as we are, isn’t it?”
And she stooped down to take her basket.
“You’re making me talk; they must be expecting me at the shop. You’ll easily find someone else prettier than I, Monsieur Coupeau, and who won’t have two boys to drag about with her.”
He looked at the clock inserted in the frame-work of the mirror, and made her sit down again, exclaiming:
“Don’t be in such a hurry! It’s only eleven thirty-five. I’ve still twenty-five minutes. You don’t have to be afraid that I shall do anything foolish; there’s the table between us. So you detest me so much that you won’t stay and have a little chat with me.”
She put her basket down again, so as not to disoblige him; and they conversed like good friends. She had eaten her lunch before going out with the laundry. He had gulped down his soup and beef hurriedly to be able to wait for her. All the while she chatted amiably, Gervaise kept looking out the window at the activity on the street. It was now unusually crowded with the lunch time rush.
Everywhere were hurried steps, swinging arms, and pushing elbows. Some late comers, hungry and angry at being kept extra long at the job, rushed across the street into the bakery. They emerged with a loaf of bread and went three doors farther to the Two-Headed Calf to gobble down a six-sou meat dish.
Next door to the bakery was a grocer who sold fried potatoes and mussels cooked with parsley. A procession of girls went in to get hot potatoes wrapped in paper and cups of steaming mussels. Other pretty girls bought bunches of radishes. By leaning a bit, Gervaise could see into the sausage shop from which children issued, holding a fried chop, a sausage or a piece of hot blood pudding wrapped in greasy paper. The street was always slick with black mud, even in clear weather. A few laborers had already finished their lunch and were strolling aimlessly about, their open hands slapping their thighs, heavy from eating, slow and peaceful amid the hurrying crowd. A group formed in front of the door of l’Assommoir.
“Say, Bibi-the-Smoker,” demanded a hoarse voice, “aren’t you going to buy us a round of vitriol?”
Five laborers came in and stood by the bar.
“Ah! Here’s that thief, Pere Colombe!” the voice continued. “We want the real old stuff, you know. And full sized glasses, too.”
Pere Colombe served them as three more laborers entered. More blue smocks gathered on the street corner and some pushed their way into the establishment.
“You’re foolish! You only think of the present,” Gervaise was saying to Coupeau. “Sure, I loved him, but after the disgusting way in which he left me—”
They were talking of Lantier. Gervaise had not seen him again; she thought he was living with Virginie’s sister at La Glaciere, in the house of that friend who was going to start a hat factory. She had no thought of running after him. She had been so distressed at first that she had thought of drowning herself in the river. But now that she had thought about it, everything seemed to be for the best. Lantier went through money so fast, that she probably never could have raised her children properly. Oh, she’d let him see his children, all right, if he bothered to come round. But as far as she was concerned, she didn’t want him to touch her, not even with his finger tips.
She told all this to Coupeau just as if her plan of life was well settled. Meanwhile, Coupeau never forgot his desire to possess her. He made a jest of everything she said, turning it into ribaldry and asking some very direct questions about Lantier. But he proceeded so gaily and which such a smile that she never thought of being offended.
“So, you’re the one who beat him,” said he at length. “Oh! you’re not kind. You just go around whipping people.”
She interrupted him with a hearty laugh. It was true, though, she had whipped Virginie’s tall carcass. She would have delighted in strangling someone on that day. She laughed louder than ever when Coupeau told her that Virginie, ashamed at having shown so much cowardice, had left the neighborhood. Her face, however, preserved an expression of childish gentleness as she put out her plump hands, insisting she wouldn’t even harm a fly.
She began to tell Coupeau about her childhood at Plassans. She had never cared overmuch for men; they had always bored her. She was fourteen when she got involved with Lantier. She had thought it was nice because he said he was her husband and she had enjoyed playing a housewife. She was too soft-hearted and too weak. She always got passionately fond of people who caused her trouble later. When she loved a man, she wasn’t thinking of having fun in the present; she was dreaming about being happy and living together forever.
And as Coupeau, with a chuckle, spoke of her two children, saying they hadn’t come from under a bolster, she slapped his fingers; she added that she was, no doubt made on the model of other women; women thought of their home, slaved to keep the place clean and tidy, and went to bed too tired at night not to go to sleep at once. Besides, she resembled her mother, a stout laboring woman who died at her work and who had served as beast of burden to old Macquart for more than twenty years. Her mother’s shoulders had been heavy enough to smash through doors, but that didn’t prevent her from being soft-hearted and madly attracted to people. And if she limped a little, she no doubt owed that to the poor woman, whom old Macquart used to belabor with blows. Her mother had told her about the times when Macquart came home drunk and brutally bruised her. She had probably been born with her lame leg as a result of one of those times.
“Oh! it’s scarcely anything, it’s hardly perceptible,” said Coupeau gallantly.
She shook her head; she knew well enough that it could be seen; at forty she would look broken in two. Then she added gently, with a slight laugh: “It’s a funny fancy of yours to fall in love with a cripple.”
With his elbows still on the table, he thrust his face closer to hers and began complimenting her in rather dubious language as though to intoxicate her with his words. But she kept shaking her head “no,” and didn’t allow herself to be tempted although she was flattered by the tone of his voice. While listening, she kept looking out the window, seeming to be fascinated by the interesting crowd of people passing.
The shops were now almost empty. The grocer removed his last panful of fried potatoes from the stove. The sausage man arranged the dishes scattered on his counter. Great bearded workmen were as playful as young boys, clumping along in their hobnailed boots. Other workmen were smoking, staring up into the sky and blinking their eyes. Factory bells began to ring in the distance, but the workers, in no hurry, relit their pipes. Later, after being tempted by one wineshop after another, they finally decided to return to their jobs, but were still dragging their feet.
Gervaise amused herself by watching three workmen, a tall fellow and two short ones who turned to look back every few yards; they ended by descending the street, and came straight to Pere Colombe’s l’Assommoir.
“Ah, well,” murmured she, “there’re three fellows who don’t seem inclined for work!”
“Why!” said Coupeau, “I know the tall one, it’s My-Boots, a comrade of mine.”
Pere Colombe’s l’Assommoir was now full. You had to shout to be heard. Fists often pounded on the bar, causing the glasses to clink. Everyone was standing, hands crossed over belly or held behind back. The drinking groups crowded close to one another. Some groups, by the casks, had to wait a quarter of an hour before being able to order their drinks of Pere Colombe.
“Hallo! It’s that aristocrat, Young Cassis!” cried My-Boots, bringing his hand down roughly on Coupeau’s shoulder. “A fine gentleman, who smokes paper, and wears shirts! So we want to do the grand with our sweetheart; we stand her little treats!”
“Shut up! Don’t bother me!” replied Coupeau, greatly annoyed.
But the other added, with a chuckle, “Right you are! We know what’s what, my boy. Muffs are muffs, that’s all!”
He turned his back after leering terribly as he looked at Gervaise. The latter drew back, feeling rather frightened. The smoke from the pipes, the strong odor of all those men, ascended in the air, already foul with the fumes of alcohol; and she felt a choking sensation in her throat, and coughed slightly.
“Oh, what a horrible thing it is to drink!” said she in a low voice.
And she related that formerly at Plassans she used to drink anisette with her mother. But on one occasion it nearly killed her, and that disgusted her with it; now, she could never touch any liqueurs.
“You see,” added she, pointing to her glass, “I’ve eaten my plum; only I must leave the juice, because it would make me ill.”
For himself, Coupeau couldn’t understand how anyone could drink glass after glass of cheap brandy. A brandied plum occasionally could not hurt, but as for cheap brandy, absinthe and the other strong stuff, no, not for him, no matter how much his comrades teased him about it. He stayed out on the sidewalk when his friends went into low establishments. Coupeau’s father had smashed his head open one day when he fell from the eaves of No. 25 on Rue Coquenard. He was drunk. This memory keeps Coupeau’s entire family from the drink. Every time Coupeau passed that spot, he thought he would rather lick up water from the gutter than accept a free drink in a bar. He would always say: “In our trade, you have to have steady legs.”
Gervaise had taken up her basket again. She did not rise from her seat however, but held the basket on her knees, with a vacant look in her eyes and lost in thought, as though the young workman’s words had awakened within her far-off thoughts of existence. And she said again, slowly, and without any apparent change of manner:
“Mon Dieu! I’m not ambitious; I don’t ask for much. My desire is to work in peace, always to have bread to eat and a decent place to sleep in, you know; with a bed, a table, and two chairs, nothing more. If I can, I’d like to raise my children to be good citizens. Also, I’d like not to be beaten up, if I ever again live with a man. It’s not my idea of amusement.” She pondered, thinking if there was anything else she wanted, but there wasn’t anything of importance. Then, after a moment she went on, “Yes, when one reaches the end, one might wish to die in one’s bed. For myself, having trudged through life, I should like to die in my bed, in my own home.”
And she rose from her seat. Coupeau, who cordially approved her wishes, was already standing up, anxious about the time. But they did not leave yet. Gervaise was curious enough to go to the far end of the room for a look at the big still behind the oak railing. It was chugging away in the little glassed-in courtyard. Coupeau explained its workings to her, pointing at the different parts of the machinery, showing her the trickling of the small stream of limpid alcohol. Not a single gay puff of steam was coming forth from the endless coils. The breathing could barely be heard. It sounded muffled as if from underground. It was like a sombre worker, performing dark deeds in the bright daylight, strong but silent.
My-Boots, accompanied by his two comrades, came to lean on the railing until they could get a place at the bar. He laughed, looking at the machine. Tonnerre de Dieu, that’s clever. There’s enough stuff in its big belly to last for weeks. He wouldn’t mind if they just fixed the end of the tube in his mouth, so he could feel the fiery spirits flowing down to his heels like a river. It would be better than the tiny sips doled out by Pere Colombe! His two comrades laughed with him, saying that My-Boots was quite a guy after all.
The huge still continued to trickle forth its alcoholic sweat. Eventually it would invade the bar, flow out along the outer Boulevards, and inundate the immense expanse of Paris.
Gervaise stepped back, shivering. She tried to smile as she said:
“It’s foolish, but that still and the liquor gives me the creeps.”
Then, returning to the idea she nursed of a perfect happiness, she resumed: “Now, ain’t I right? It’s much the nicest isn’t it—to have plenty of work, bread to eat, a home of one’s own, and to be able to bring up one’s children and to die in one’s bed?”
“And never to be beaten,” added Coupeau gaily. “But I would never beat you, if you would only try me, Madame Gervaise. You’ve no cause for fear. I don’t drink and then I love you too much. Come, shall it be marriage? I’ll get you divorced and make you my wife.”
He was speaking low, whispering at the back of her neck while she made her way through the crowd of men with her basket held before her. She kept shaking her head “no.” Yet she turned around to smile at him, apparently happy to know that he never drank. Yes, certainly, she would say “yes” to him, except she had already sworn to herself never to start up with another man. Eventually they reached the door and went out.
When they left, l’Assommoir was packed to the door, spilling its hubbub of rough voices and its heavy smell of vitriol into the street. My-Boots could be heard railing at Pere Colombe, calling him a scoundrel and accusing him of only half filling his glass. He didn’t have to come in here. He’d never come back. He suggested to his comrades a place near the Barriere Saint-Denis where you drank good stuff straight.
“Ah,” sighed Gervaise when they reached the sidewalk. “You can breathe out here. Good-bye, Monsieur Coupeau, and thank you. I must hurry now.”
He seized her hand as she started along the boulevard, insisting, “Take a walk with me along Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. It’s not much farther for you. I’ve got to see my sister before going back to work. We’ll keep each other company.”
In the end, Gervaise agreed and they walked beside each other along the Rue des Poissonniers, although she did not take his arm. He told her about his family. His mother, an old vest-maker, now had to do housekeeping because her eyesight was poor. Her birthday was the third of last month and she was sixty-two. He was the youngest. One of his sisters, a widow of thirty-six, worked in a flower shop and lived in the Batignolles section, on Rue des Moines. The other sister was thirty years old now. She had married a deadpan chainmaker named Lorilleux. That’s where he was going now. They lived in a big tenement on the left side. He ate with them in the evenings; it saved a bit for all of them. But he had been invited out this evening and he was going to tell her not to expect him.
Gervaise, who was listening to him, suddenly interrupted him to ask, with a smile: “So you’re called ‘Young Cassis,’ Monsieur Coupeau?”
“Oh!” replied he, “it’s a nickname my mates have given me because I generally drink ‘cassis’ when they force me to accompany them to the wineshop. It’s no worse to be called Young Cassis than My-Boots, is it?”
“Of course not. Young Cassis isn’t an ugly name,” observed the young woman.
And she questioned him about his work. He was still working there, behind the octroi wall at the new hospital. Oh! there was no want of work, he would not be finished there for a year at least. There were yards and yards of gutters!
“You know,” said he, “I can see the Hotel Boncoeur when I’m up there. Yesterday you were at the window, and I waved my arms, but you didn’t notice me.”
They had already gone about a hundred paces along the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, when he stood still and raising his eyes, said:
“That’s the house. I was born farther on, at No. 22. But this house is, all the same, a fine block of masonry! It’s as big as a barrack inside!”
Gervaise looked up, examining the facade. On the street side, the tenement had five stories, each with fifteen windows, whose black shutters with their broken slats gave an air of desolation to the wide expanse of wall. Four shops occupied the ground floor. To the right of the entrance, a large, greasy hash house, and to the left, a coal dealer, a notions seller, and an umbrella merchant. The building appeared even larger than it was because it had on each side a small, low building which seemed to lean against it for support. This immense, squared-off building was outlined against the sky. Its unplastered side walls were as bare as prison walls, except for rows of roughly jutting stones which suggested jaws full of decayed teeth yawning vacantly.
Gervaise was gazing at the entrance with interest. The high, arched doorway rose to the second floor and opened onto a deep porch, at the end of which could be seen the pale daylight of a courtyard. This entranceway was paved like the street, and down the center flowed a streamlet of pink-stained water.
“Come in,” said Coupeau, “no one will eat you.”
Gervaise wanted to wait for him in the street. However, she could not resist going through the porch as far as the concierge’s room on the right. And there, on the threshold, she raised her eyes. Inside, the building was six stories high, with four identical plain walls enclosing the broad central court. The drab walls were corroded by yellowish spots and streaked by drippings from the roof gutters. The walls went straight up to the eaves with no molding or ornament except the angles on the drain pipes at each floor. Here the sink drains added their stains. The glass window panes resembled murky water. Mattresses of checkered blue ticking were hanging out of several windows to air. Clothes lines stretched from other windows with family washing hanging to dry. On a third floor line was a baby’s diaper, still implanted with filth. This crowded tenement was bursting at the seams, spilling out poverty and misery through every crevice.
Each of the four walls had, at ground level, a narrow entrance, plastered without a trace of woodwork. This opened into a vestibule containing a dirt-encrusted staircase which spiraled upward. They were each labeled with one of the first four letters of the alphabet painted on the wall.
Several large work-shops with weather-blackened skylights were scattered about the court. Near the concierge’s room was the dyeing establishment responsible for the pink streamlet. Puddles of water infested the courtyard, along with wood shavings and coal cinders. Grass and weeds grew between the paving stones. The unforgiving sunlight seemed to cut the court into two parts. On the shady side was a dripping water tap with three small hens scratching for worms with their filth-smeared claws.
Gervaise slowly gazed about, lowering her glance from the sixth floor to the paving stones, then raising it again, surprised at the vastness, feeling as it were in the midst of a living organ, in the very heart of a city, and interested in the house, as though it were a giant before her.
“Is madame seeking for any one?” called out the inquisitive concierge, emerging from her room.
The young woman explained that she was waiting for a friend. She returned to the street; then as Coupeau did not come, she went back to the courtyard seized with the desire to take another look. She did not think the house ugly. Amongst the rags hanging from the windows she discovered various cheerful touches—a wall-flower blooming in a pot, a cage of chirruping canaries, shaving-glasses shining like stars in the depth of the shadow. A carpenter was singing in his work-shop, accompanied by the whining of his plane. The blacksmith’s hammers were ringing rhythmically.
In contrast to the apparent wretched poverty, at nearly every open window appeared the begrimed faces of laughing children. Women with peaceful faces could be seen bent over their sewing. The rooms were empty of men who had gone back to work after lunch. The whole tenement was tranquil except for the sounds from the work-shops below which served as a sort of lullaby that went on, unceasingly, always the same.
The only thing she did not like was the courtyard’s dampness. She would want rooms at the rear, on the sunny side. Gervaise took a few more steps into the courtyard, inhaling the characteristic odor of the slums, comprised of dust and rotten garbage. But the sharp odor of the waste water from the dye shop was strong, and Gervaise thought it smelled better here than at the Hotel Boncoeur. She chose a window for herself, the one at the far left with a small window box planted with scarlet runners.
“I’m afraid I’ve kept you waiting rather a long time,” said Coupeau, whom she suddenly heard close beside her. “They always make an awful fuss whenever I don’t dine with them, and it was worse than ever to-day as my sister had bought some veal.”
And as Gervaise had slightly started with surprise, he continued glancing around in his turn:
“You were looking at the house. It’s always all let from the top to the bottom. There are three hundred lodgers, I think. If I had any furniture, I would have secured a small room. One would be comfortable here, don’t you think so?”
“Yes, one would be comfortable,” murmured Gervaise. “In our street at Plassans there weren’t near so many people. Look, that’s pretty—that window up on the fifth floor, with the scarlet runners.”
The zinc-worker’s obstinate desire made him ask her once more whether she would or she wouldn’t. They could rent a place here as soon as they found a bed. She hurried out the arched entranceway, asking him not to start that subject again. There was as much chance of this building collapsing as there was of her sleeping under the same blanket with him. Still, when Coupeau left her in front of Madame Fauconnier’s shop, he was allowed to hold her hand for a moment.
For a month the young woman and the zinc-worker were the best of friends. He admired her courage, when he beheld her half killing herself with work, keeping her children tidy and clean, and yet finding time at night to do a little sewing. Often other women were hopelessly messy, forever nibbling or gadding about, but she wasn’t like them at all. She was much too serious. Then she would laugh, and modestly defend herself. It was her misfortune that she had not always been good, having been with a man when only fourteen. Then too, she had often helped her mother empty a bottle of anisette. But she had learned a few things from experience. He was wrong to think of her as strong-willed; her will power was very weak. She had always let herself be pushed into things because she didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Her one hope now was to live among decent people, for living among bad people was like being hit over the head. It cracks your skull. Whenever she thought of the future, she shivered. Everything she had seen in life so far, especially when a child, had given her lessons to remember.
Coupeau, however, chaffed her about her gloomy thoughts, and brought back all her courage by trying to pinch her hips. She pushed him away from her, and slapped his hands, whilst he called out laughingly that, for a weak woman, she was not a very easy capture. He, who always joked about everything did not trouble himself regarding the future. One day followed another, that was all. There would always be somewhere to sleep and a bite to eat. The neighborhood seemed decent enough to him, except for a gang of drunkards that ought to be cleaned out of the gutters.
Coupeau was not a bad sort of fellow. He sometimes had really sensible things to say. He was something of a dandy with his Parisian working man’s gift for banter, a regular gift of gab, and besides, he was attractive.
They had ended by rendering each other all sorts of services at the Hotel Boncoeur. Coupeau fetched her milk, ran her errands, carried her bundles of clothes; often of an evening, as he got home first from work, he took the children for a walk on the exterior Boulevard. Gervaise, in return for his polite attentions, would go up into the narrow room at the top of the house where he slept, and see to his clothes, sewing buttons on his blue linen trousers, and mending his linen jackets. A great familiarity existed between them. She was never bored when he was around. The gay songs he sang amused her, and so did his continuous banter of jokes and jibes characteristic of the Paris streets, this being still new to her.
On Coupeau’s side, this continual familiarity inflamed him more and more until it began to seriously bother him. He began to feel tense and uneasy. He continued with his foolish talk, never failing to ask her, “When will it be?” She understood what he meant and teased him. He would then come to visit her carrying his bedroom slippers, as if he were moving in. She joked about it and continued calmly without blushing at the allusions with which he was always surrounding her. She stood for anything from him as long as he didn’t get rough. She only got angry once when he pulled a strand of her hair while trying to force a kiss from her.
Towards the end of June, Coupeau lost his liveliness. He became most peculiar. Gervaise, feeling uneasy at some of his glances, barricaded herself in at night. Then, after having sulked ever since the Sunday, he suddenly came on the Tuesday night about eleven o’clock and knocked at her room. She would not open to him; but his voice was so gentle and so trembling that she ended by removing the chest of drawers she had pushed against the door. When he entered, she thought he was ill; he looked so pale, his eyes were so red, and the veins on his face were all swollen. And he stood there, stuttering and shaking his head. No, no, he was not ill. He had been crying for two hours upstairs in his room; he wept like a child, biting his pillow so as not to be heard by the neighbors. For three nights past he had been unable to sleep. It could not go on like that.
“Listen, Madame Gervaise,” said he, with a swelling in his throat and on the point of bursting out crying again; “we must end this, mustn’t we? We’ll go and get married. It’s what I want. I’ve quite made up my mind.”
Gervaise showed great surprise. She was very grave.
“Oh! Monsieur Coupeau,” murmured she, “whatever are you thinking of? You know I’ve never asked you for that. I didn’t care about it—that was all. Oh, no, no! it’s serious now; think of what you’re saying, I beg of you.”
But he continued to shake his head with an air of unalterable resolution. He had already thought it all over. He had come down because he wanted to have a good night. She wasn’t going to send him back to weep again he supposed! As soon as she said “yes,” he would no longer bother her, and she could go quietly to bed. He only wanted to hear her say “yes.” They could talk it over on the morrow.
“But I certainly can’t say ‘yes’ just like that,” resumed Gervaise. “I don’t want you to be able to accuse me later on of having incited you to do a foolish thing. You shouldn’t be so insistent, Monsieur Coupeau. You can’t really be sure that you’re in love with me. If you didn’t see me for a week, it might fade away. Sometimes men get married and then there’s day after day, stretching out into an entire lifetime, and they get pretty well bored by it all. Sit down there; I’m willing to talk it over at once.”
Then until one in the morning, in the dark room and by the faint light of a smoky tallow candle which they forgot to snuff, they talked of their marriage, lowering their voices so as not to wake the two children, Claude and Etienne, who were sleeping, both heads on the same pillow. Gervaise kept pointing out the children to Coupeau, what a funny kind of dowry they were. She really shouldn’t burden him with them. Besides, what would the neighbors say? She’d feel ashamed for him because everyone knew about the story of her life and her lover. They wouldn’t think it decent if they saw them getting married barely two months later.
Coupeau replied by shrugging his shoulders. He didn’t care about the neighbors! He never bothered about their affairs. So, there was Lantier before him, well, so what? What’s so bad about that? She hadn’t been constantly bringing men upstairs, as some women did, even rich ladies! The children would grow up, they’d raise them right. Never had he known before such a woman, such sound character, so good-hearted. Anyway, she could have been anything, a streetwalker, ugly, lazy and good-for-nothing, with a whole gang of dirty kids, and so what? He wanted her.
“Yes, I want you,” he repeated, bringing his hand down on his knee with a continuos hammering. “You understand, I want you. There’s nothing to be said to that, is there?”
Little by little, Gervaise gave way. Her emotions began to take control when faced with his encompassing desire. Still, with her hands in her lap and her face suffused with a soft sweetness, she hesitantly offered objections. From outside, through the half-open window, a lovely June night breathed in puffs of sultry air, disturbing the candle with its long wick gleaming red like a glowing coal. In the deep silence of the sleeping neighborhood the only sound was the infantile weeping of a drunkard lying in the middle of the street. Far away, in the back room of some restaurant, a violin was playing a dance tune for some late party.
Coupeau was silent. Then, knowing she had no more arguments, he smiled, took hold of her hands and pulled her toward him. She was in one of those moments of weakness she so greatly mistrusted, persuaded at last, too emotionally stirred to refuse anything or to hurt anyone’s feelings. Coupeau didn’t realize that she was giving way. He held her wrists so tightly as to almost crush them. Together they breathed a long sigh that to both of them meant a partial satisfaction of their desire.
“You’ll say ‘yes,’ won’t you,” asked he.
“How you worry me!” she murmured. “You wish it? Well then, ‘yes.’ Ah! we’re perhaps doing a very foolish thing.”
He jumped up, and, seizing her round the waist, kissed her roughly on the face, at random. Then, as this caress caused a noise, he became anxious, and went softly and looked at Claude and Etienne.
“Hush, we must be careful,” said he in a whisper, “and not wake the children. Good-bye till to-morrow.”
And he went back to his room. Gervaise, all in a tremble, remained seated on the edge of her bed, without thinking of undressing herself for nearly an hour. She was touched; she felt that Coupeau was very honorable; for at one moment she had really thought it was all over, and that he would forget her. The drunkard below, under the window, was now hoarsely uttering the plaintive cry of some lost animal. The violin in the distance had left off its saucy tune and was now silent.
During the following days Coupeau sought to get Gervaise to call some evening on his sister in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or; but the young woman, who was very timid, showed a great dread of this visit to the Lorilleux. She knew that Coupeau had a lingering fear of that household, even though he certainly wasn’t dependent on his sister, who wasn’t even the oldest of the family. Mamma Coupeau would certainly give her consent at once, as she never refused her only son anything. The thing was that the Lorilleuxs were supposed to be earning ten francs a day or more and that gave them a certain authority. Coupeau would never dare to get married unless his wife was acceptable to them.
“I have spoken to them of you, they know our plans,” explained he to Gervaise. “Come now! What a child you are! Let’s call on them this evening. I’ve warned you, haven’t I? You’ll find my sister rather stiff. Lorilleux, too, isn’t always very amiable. In reality they are greatly annoyed, because if I marry, I shall no longer take my meals with them, and it’ll be an economy the less. But that doesn’t matter, they won’t turn you out. Do this for me, it’s absolutely necessary.”
These words only frightened Gervaise the more. One Saturday evening, however, she gave in. Coupeau came for her at half-past eight. She had dressed herself in a black dress, a crape shawl with yellow palms, and a white cap trimmed with a little cheap lace. During the six weeks she had been working, she had saved the seven francs for the shawl, and the two and a half francs for the cap; the dress was an old one cleaned and made up afresh.
“They’re expecting you,” said Coupeau to her, as they went round by the Rue des Poissonniers. “Oh! they’re beginning to get used to the idea of my being married. They seem nice indeed, to-night. And you know if you’ve never seen gold chains made, it’ll amuse you to watch them. They just happen to have a pressing order for Monday.”
“They’ve got gold in their room?” asked Gervaise.
“I should think so; there’s some on the walls, on the floor, in fact everywhere.”
They had passed the arched doorway and crossed the courtyard. The Lorilleuxs lived on the sixth floor, staircase B. Coupeau laughingly told her to hold the hand-rail tight and not to leave go of it. She looked up, and blinked her eyes, as she perceived the tall hollow tower of the staircase, lighted by three gas jets, one on every second landing; the last one, right up at the top looked like a star twinkling in a black sky, whilst the other two cast long flashes of light, of fantastic shapes, among the interminable windings of the stairs.
“By Jove!” said the zinc-worker as he reached the first floor, smiling, “there’s a strong smell of onion soup. Someone’s having onion soup, I’m sure.”
Staircase B, with its gray, dirty steps and hand-rail, its scratched walls and chipped plaster, was full of strong kitchen odors. Long corridors, echoing with noise, led away from each landing. Doors, painted yellow, gaped open, smeared black around the latch from dirty hands. A sink on each landing gave forth a fetid humidity, adding its stench to the sharp flavor of the cooking of onions. From the basement, all the way to the sixth floor, you could hear dishes clattering, saucepans being rinsed, pots being scraped and scoured.
On the first floor Gervaise saw a half-opened door with the word “Designer” written on it in large letters. Inside were two men sitting by a table, the dishes cleared away from its oilcloth cover, arguing furiously amid a cloud of pipe smoke. The second and third floors were quieter, and through cracks in the woodwork only such sounds filtered as the rhythm of a cradle rocking, the stifled crying of a child, a woman’s voice sounding like the dull murmur of running water with no words distinct. Gervaise read the various signs on the doors giving the names of the occupants: “Madame Gaudron, wool-carder” and “Monsieur Madinier, cardboard boxes.” There was a fight in progress on the fourth floor: a stomping of feet that shook the floor, furniture banged around, a racket of curses and blows; but this did not bother the neighbors opposite, who were playing cards with their door opened wide to admit more air.
When Gervaise reached the fifth floor, she had to stop to take a breath; she was not used to going up so high; that wall for ever turning, the glimpses she had of the lodgings following each other, made her head ache. Anyway, there was a family almost blocking the landing: the father washing the dishes over a small earthenware stove near the sink and the mother sitting with her back to the stair-rail and cleaning the baby before putting it to bed.
Coupeau kept urging Gervaise along, and they finally reached the sixth floor. He encouraged her with a smile; they had arrived! She had been hearing a voice all the way up from the bottom and she was gazing upward, wondering where it could be coming from, a voice so clear and piercing that it had dominated all the other sounds. It came from a little old woman in an attic room who sang while putting dresses on cheap dolls. When a tall girl came by with a pail of water and entered a nearby apartment, Gervaise saw a tumbled bed on which a man was sprawled, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. As the door closed behind her, Gervaise saw the hand-written card: “Mademoiselle Clemence, ironing.”
Now that she had finally made it to the top, her legs weary and her breath short, Gervaise leaned over the railing to look down. Now it was the gaslight on the first floor which seemed a distant star at the bottom of a narrow well six stories deep. All the odors and all the murmurings of the immense variety of life within the tenement came up to her in one stifling breath that flushed her face as she hazarded a worried glance down into the gulf below.
“We’re not there yet,” said Coupeau. “Oh! It’s quite a journey!”
He had gone down a long corridor on the left. He turned twice, the first time also to the left, the second time to the right. The corridor still continued branching off, narrowing between walls full of crevices, with plaster peeling off, and lighted at distant intervals by a slender gas-jet; and the doors all alike, succeeded each other the same as the doors of a prison or a convent, and nearly all open, continued to display homes of misery and work, which the hot June evening filled with a reddish mist. At length they reached a small passage in complete darkness.
“We’re here,” resumed the zinc-worker. “Be careful, keep to the wall; there are three steps.”
And Gervaise carefully took another ten steps in the obscurity. She stumbled and then counted the three steps. But at the end of the passage Coupeau had opened a door, without knocking. A brilliant light spread over the tiled floor. They entered.
It was a narrow apartment, and seemed as if it were the continuation of the corridor. A faded woolen curtain, raised up just then by a string, divided the place in two. The first part contained a bedstead pushed beneath an angle of the attic ceiling, a cast-iron stove still warm from the cooking of the dinner, two chairs, a table and a wardrobe, the cornice of which had had to be sawn off to make it fit in between the door and the bedstead. The second part was fitted up as a work-shop; at the end, a narrow forge with its bellows; to the right, a vise fixed to the wall beneath some shelves on which pieces of old iron lay scattered; to the left near the window, a small workman’s bench, encumbered with greasy and very dirty pliers, shears and microscopical saws, all very dirty and grimy.
“It’s us!” cried Coupeau advancing as far as the woolen curtain.
But no one answered at first. Gervaise, deeply affected, moved especially by the thought that she was about to enter a place full of gold, stood behind the zinc-worker, stammering and venturing upon nods of her head by way of bowing. The brilliant light, a lamp burning on the bench, a brazier full of coals flaring in the forge, increased her confusion still more. She ended however, by distinguishing Madame Lorilleux—little, red-haired and tolerably strong, pulling with all the strength of her short arms, and with the assistance of a big pair of pincers, a thread of black metal which she passed through the holes of a draw-plate fixed to the vise. Seated in front of the bench, Lorilleux, quite as small of stature, but more slender in the shoulders, worked with the tips of his pliers, with the vivacity of a monkey, at a labor so minute, that it was impossible to follow it between his scraggy fingers. It was the husband who first raised his head—a head with scanty locks, the face of the yellow tinge of old wax, long, and with an ailing expression.
“Ah! it’s you; well, well!” murmured he. “We’re in a hurry you know. Don’t come into the work-room, you’d be in our way. Stay in the bedroom.”
And he resumed his minute task, his face again in the reflection of a glass globe full of green-colored water, through which the lamp shed a circle of bright light over his work.
“Take the chairs!” called out Madame Lorilleux in her turn. “It’s that lady, isn’t it? Very well, very well!”
She had rolled the wire and she carried it to the forge, and then, reviving the fire of the brazier with a large wooden fan, she proceeded to temper the wire before passing it through the last holes of the draw-plate.
Coupeau moved the chairs forward and seated Gervaise by the curtain. The room was so narrow that he could not sit beside her, so he sat behind her, leaning over her shoulder to explain the work in progress. Gervaise was intimidated by this strange reception and felt uneasy. She had a buzzing in her ears and couldn’t hear clearly. She thought the wife looked older than her thirty years and not very neat with her hair in a pigtail dangling down the back of her loosely worn wrapper. The husband, who was only a year older, appeared already an old man with mean, thin lips, as he sat there working in his shirt sleeves with his bare feet thrust into down at the heel slippers. Gervaise was dismayed by the smallness of the shop, the grimy walls, the rustiness of the tools, and the black soot spread all over what looked like the odds and ends of a scrap-iron peddler’s wares.
“And the gold?” asked Gervaise in a low voice.
Her anxious glances searched the corners and sought amongst all that filth for the resplendence she had dreamt of. But Coupeau burst out laughing.
“Gold?” said he; “why there’s some; there’s some more, and there’s some at your feet!”
He pointed successively to the fine wire at which his sister was working, and to another roll of wire, similar to the ordinary iron wire, hanging against the wall close to the vise; then going down on all fours, he picked up, beneath the wooden screen which covered the tiled floor of the work-room, a piece of waste, a tiny fragment resembling the point of a rusty needle. But Gervaise protested; that couldn’t be gold, that blackish piece of metal as ugly as iron! He had to bite into the piece and show her the gleaming notch made by his teeth. Then he continued his explanations: the employers provided the gold wire, already alloyed; the craftsmen first pulled it through the draw-plate to obtain the correct size, being careful to anneal it five or six times to keep it from breaking. It required a steady, strong hand, and plenty of practice. His sister would not let her husband touch the wire-drawing since he was subject to coughing spells. She had strong arms for it; he had seen her draw gold to the fineness of a hair.
Lorilleux, seized with a fit of coughing, almost doubled up on his stool. In the midst of the paroxysm, he spoke, and said in a choking voice, still without looking at Gervaise, as though he was merely mentioning the thing to himself:
“I’m making the herring-bone chain.”
Coupeau urged Gervaise to get up. She might draw nearer and see. The chainmaker consented with a grunt. He wound the wire prepared by his wife round a mandrel, a very thin steel rod. Then he sawed gently, cutting the wire the whole length of the mandrel, each turn forming a link, which he soldered. The links were laid on a large piece of charcoal. He wetted them with a drop of borax, taken from the bottom of a broken glass beside him; and he made them red-hot at the lamp beneath the horizontal flame produced by the blow-pipe. Then, when he had soldered about a hundred links he returned once more to his minute work, propping his hands against the edge of the cheville, a small piece of board which the friction of his hands had polished. He bent each link almost double with the pliers, squeezed one end close, inserted it in the last link already in place and then, with the aid of a point opened out again the end he had squeezed; and he did this with a continuous regularity, the links joining each other so rapidly that the chain gradually grew beneath Gervaise’s gaze, without her being able to follow, or well understand how it was done.
“That’s the herring-bone chain,” said Coupeau. “There’s also the long link, the cable, the plain ring, and the spiral. But that’s the herring-bone. Lorilleux only makes the herring-bone chain.”
The latter chuckled with satisfaction. He exclaimed, as he continued squeezing the links, invisible between his black finger-nails.
“Listen to me, Young Cassis! I was making a calculation this morning. I commenced work when I was twelve years old, you know. Well! Can you guess how long a herring-bone chain I must have made up till to-day?”
He raised his pale face, and blinked his red eye-lids.
“Twenty-six thousand feet, do you hear? Two leagues! That’s something! A herring-bone chain two leagues long! It’s enough to twist round the necks of all the women of the neighborhood. And you know, it’s still increasing. I hope to make it long enough to reach from Paris to Versailles.”
Gervaise had returned to her seat, disenchanted and thinking everything very ugly. She smiled to be polite to the Lorilleuxs. The complete silence about her marriage bothered her. It was the sole reason for her having come. The Lorilleuxs were treating her as some stranger brought in by Coupeau. When a conversation finally did get started, it concerned the building’s tenants. Madame Lorilleux asked her husband if he had heard the people on the fourth floor having a fight. They fought every day. The husband usually came home drunk and the wife had her faults too, yelling in the filthiest language. Then they spoke of the designer on the first floor, an uppity show-off with a mound of debts, always smoking, always arguing loudly with his friends. Monsieur Madinier’s cardboard business was barely surviving. He had let two girl workers go yesterday. The business ate up all his money, leaving his children to run around in rags. And that Madame Gaudron was pregnant again; this was almost indecent at her age. The landlord was going to evict the Coquets on the fifth floor. They owed nine months’ rent, and besides, they insisted on lighting their stove out on the landing. Last Saturday the old lady on the sixth floor, Mademoiselle Remanjou, had arrived just in time to save the Linguerlot child from being badly burned. Mademoiselle Clemence, one who took in ironing, well, she lived life as she pleased. She was so kind to animals though and had such a good heart that you couldn’t say anything against her. It was a pity, a fine girl like her, the company she kept. She’d be walking the streets before long.
“Look, here’s one,” said Lorilleux to his wife, giving her the piece of chain he had been working on since his lunch. “You can trim it.” And he added, with the persistence of a man who does not easily relinquish a joke: “Another four feet and a half. That brings me nearer to Versailles.”
Madame Lorilleux, after tempering it again, trimmed it by passing it through the regulating draw-plate. Then she put it in a little copper saucepan with a long handle, full of lye-water, and placed it over the fire of the forge. Gervaise, again pushed forward by Coupeau, had to follow this last operation. When the chain was thoroughly cleansed, it appeared a dull red color. It was finished, and ready to be delivered.
“They’re always delivered like that, in their rough state,” the zinc-worker explained. “The polishers rub them afterwards with cloths.”
Gervaise felt her courage failing her. The heat, more and more intense, was suffocating her. They kept the door shut, because Lorilleux caught cold from the least draught. Then as they still did not speak of the marriage, she wanted to go away and gently pulled Coupeau’s jacket. He understood. Besides, he also was beginning to feel ill at ease and vexed at their affectation of silence.
“Well, we’re off,” said he. “We mustn’t keep you from your work.”
He moved about for a moment, waiting, hoping for a word or some allusion or other. At length he decided to broach the subject himself.
“I say, Lorilleux, we’re counting on you to be my wife’s witness.”
The chainmaker pretended, with a chuckle, to be greatly surprised; whilst his wife, leaving her draw-plates, placed herself in the middle of the work-room.
“So it’s serious then?” murmured he. “That confounded Young Cassis, one never knows whether he is joking or not.”
“Ah! yes, madame’s the person involved,” said the wife in her turn, as she stared rudely at Gervaise. “Mon Dieu! We’ve no advice to give you, we haven’t. It’s a funny idea to go and get married, all the same. Anyhow, it’s your own wish. When it doesn’t succeed, one’s only got oneself to blame, that’s all. And it doesn’t often succeed, not often, not often.”
She uttered these last words slower and slower, and shaking her head, she looked from the young woman’s face to her hands, and then to her feet as though she had wished to undress her and see the very pores of her skin. She must have found her better than she expected.
“My brother is perfectly free,” she continued more stiffly. “No doubt the family might have wished—one always makes projects. But things take such funny turns. For myself, I don’t want to have any unpleasantness. Had he brought us the lowest of the low, I should merely have said: ‘Marry her and go to blazes!’ He was not badly off though, here with us. He’s fat enough; one can very well see he didn’t fast much; and he always found his soup hot right on time. I say, Lorilleux, don’t you think madame’s like Therese—you know who I mean, that woman who used to live opposite, and who died of consumption?”
“Yes, there’s a certain resemblance,” replied the chainmaker.
“And you’ve got two children, madame? Now, I must admit I said to my brother: ‘I can’t understand how you can want to marry a woman who’s got two children.’ You mustn’t be offended if I consult his interests; its only natural. You don’t look strong either. Don’t you think, Lorilleux, that madame doesn’t look very strong?”
“No, no, she’s not strong.”
They did not mention her leg; but Gervaise understood by their side glances, and the curling of their lips, that they were alluding to it. She stood before them, wrapped in her thin shawl with the yellow palms, replying in monosyllables, as though in the presence of her judges. Coupeau, seeing she was suffering, ended by exclaiming:
“All that’s nothing to do with it. What you are talking about isn’t important. The wedding will take place on Saturday, July 29. I calculated by the almanac. Is it settled? Does it suit you?”
“Oh, it’s all the same to us,” said his sister. “There was no necessity to consult us. I shan’t prevent Lorilleux being witness. I only want peace and quiet.”
Gervaise, hanging her head, not knowing what to do with herself had put the toe of her boot through one of the openings in the wooden screen which covered the tiled floor of the work-room; then afraid of having disturbed something when she had withdrawn it, she stooped down and felt about with her hand. Lorilleux hastily brought the lamp, and he examined her fingers suspiciously.
“You must be careful,” said he, “the tiny bits of gold stick to the shoes, and get carried away without one knowing it.”
It was all to do with business. The employers didn’t allow a single speck for waste. He showed her the rabbit’s foot he used to brush off any flecks of gold left on the cheville and the leather he kept on his lap to catch any gold that fell. Twice weekly the shop was swept out carefully, the sweepings collected and burned and the ashes sifted. This recovered up to twenty-five or thirty francs’ worth of gold a month.
Madame Lorilleux could not take her eyes from Gervaise’s shoes.
“There’s no reason to get angry,” murmured she with an amiable smile. “But, perhaps madame would not mind looking at the soles of her shoes.”
And Gervaise, turning very red, sat down again, and holding up her feet showed that there was nothing clinging to them. Coupeau had opened the door, exclaiming: “Good-night!” in an abrupt tone of voice. He called to her from the corridor. Then she in her turn went off, after stammering a few polite words: she hoped to see them again, and that they would all agree well together. Both of the Lorilleux had already gone back to their work at the far end of their dark hole of a work-room. Madame Lorilleux, her skin reflecting the red glow from the bed of coals, was drawing on another wire, each effort swelling her neck and making the strained muscles stand out like taut cords. Her husband, hunched over beneath the greenish gleam of the globe was starting another length of chain, twisting each link with his pliers, pressing it on one side, inserting it into the next link above, opening it again with the pointed tool, continuously, mechanically, not wasting a motion, even to wipe the sweat from his face.
When Gervaise emerged from the corridor on to the landing, she could not help saying, with tears in her eyes:
“That doesn’t promise much happiness.”
Coupeau shook his head furiously. He would get even with Lorilleux for that evening. Had anyone ever seen such a miserly fellow? To think that they were going to walk off with two or three grains of his gold dust! All the fuss they made was from pure avarice. His sister thought perhaps that he would never marry, so as to enable her to economize four sous on her dinner every day. However, it would take place all the same on July 29. He did not care a hang for them!
Nevertheless, Gervaise still felt depressed. Tormented by a foolish fearfulness, she peered anxiously into every dark shadow along the stair-rail as she descended. It was dark and deserted at this hour, lit only by a single gas jet on the second floor. In the shadowy depths of the dark pit, it gave a spot of brightness, even with its flame turned so low. It was now silent behind the closed doors; the weary laborers had gone to sleep after eating. However, there was a soft laugh from Mademoiselle Clemence’s room and a ray of light shone through the keyhole of Mademoiselle Remanjou’s door. She was still busy cutting out dresses for the dolls. Downstairs at Madame Gaudron’s, a child was crying. The sinks on the landings smelled more offensive than ever in the midst of the darkness and stillness.
In the courtyard, Gervaise turned back for a last look at the tenement as Coupeau called out to the concierge. The building seemed to have grown larger under the moonless sky. The drip-drip of water from the faucet sounded loud in the quiet. Gervaise felt that the building was threatening to suffocate her and a chill went through her body. It was a childish fear and she smiled at it a moment later.
“Watch your step,” warned Coupeau.
To get to the entrance, Gervaise had to jump over a wide puddle that had drained from the dye shop. The puddle was blue now, the deep blue of a summer sky. The reflections from the night light of the concierge sparkled in it like stars.