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Émile Zola.

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had one regular house cleaning job but she was able to pick up some
small jobs now and again.

On the day on which Nana was three years old, Coupeau, on returning home
in the evening, found Gervaise quite upset. She refused to talk about
it; there was nothing at all the matter with her, she said. But, as she
had the table all wrong, standing still with the plates in her hands,
absorbed in deep reflection, her husband insisted upon knowing what was
the matter.

"Well, it is this," she ended by saying, "the little draper's shop in
the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, is to let. I saw it only an hour ago, when
going to buy some cotton. It gave me quite a turn."

It was a very decent shop, and in that big house where they dreamed of
living in former days. There was the shop, a back room, and two other
rooms to the right and left; in short, just what they required. The
rooms were rather small, but well placed. Only, she considered they
wanted too much; the landlord talked of five hundred francs.

"So you've been over the place, and asked the price?" said Coupeau.

"Oh! you know, only out of curiosity!" replied she, affecting an air
of indifference. "One looks about, and goes in wherever there's a bill
up - that doesn't bind one to anything. But that shop is altogether too
dear. Besides, it would perhaps be foolish of me to set up in business."

However, after dinner, she again referred to the draper's shop. She drew
a plan of the place on the margin of a newspaper. And, little by little,
she talked it over, measuring the corners, and arranging the rooms, as
though she were going to move all her furniture in there on the morrow.
Then Coupeau advised her to take it, seeing how she wanted to do so; she
would certainly never find anything decent under five hundred francs;
besides they might perhaps get a reduction. He knew only one objection
to it and that was living in the same house as the Lorilleux, whom she
could not bear.

Gervaise declared that she wasn't mad at anybody. So much did she want
her own shop that she even spoke up for the Lorilleuxs, saying that they
weren't mean at heart and that she would be able to get along just fine
with them. When they went to bed, Coupeau fell asleep immediately, but
she stayed awake, planning how she could arrange the new place even
though she hadn't yet made up her mind completely.

On the morrow, when she was alone, she could not resist removing the
glass cover from the clock, and taking a peep at the savings-bank book.
To think that her shop was there, in those dirty pages, covered with
ugly writing! Before going off to her work, she consulted Madame Goujet,
who highly approved her project of setting up in business for herself;
with a husband like hers, a good fellow who did not drink, she was
certain of getting on, and of not having her earnings squandered. At
the luncheon hour Gervaise even called on the Lorilleuxs to ask their
advice; she did not wish to appear to be doing anything unknown to the
family. Madame Lorilleux was struck all of a heap. What! Clump-clump
was going in for a shop now! And her heart bursting with envy, she
stammered, and tried to pretend to be pleased: no doubt the shop was a
convenient one - Gervaise was right in taking it. However, when she had
somewhat recovered, she and her husband talked of the dampness of the
courtyard, of the poor light of the rooms on the ground floor. Oh! it
was a good place for rheumatism. Yet, if she had made up her mind to
take it, their observations, of course, would not make her alter her
decision.

That evening Gervaise frankly owned with a laugh that she would have
fallen ill if she had been prevented from having the shop. Nevertheless,
before saying "it's done!" she wished to take Coupeau to see the place,
and try and obtain a reduction in the rent.

"Very well, then, to-morrow, if you like," said her husband. "You can
come and fetch me towards six o'clock at the house where I'm working, in
the Rue de la Nation, and we'll call in at the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or on
our way home."

Coupeau was then finishing the roofing of a new three-storied house. It
so happened that on that day he was to fix the last sheets of zinc. As
the roof was almost flat, he had set up his bench on it, a wide shutter
supported on two trestles. A beautiful May sun was setting, giving a
golden hue to the chimney-pots. And, right up at the top, against the
clear sky, the workman was quietly cutting up his zinc with a big pair
of shears, leaning over the bench, and looking like a tailor in his shop
cutting out a pair of trousers. Close to the wall of the next house, his
boy, a youngster of seventeen, thin and fair, was keeping the fire of
the chafing dish blazing by the aid of an enormous pair of bellows, each
puff of which raised a cloud of sparks.

"Hi! Zidore, put in the irons!" cried Coupeau.

The boy stuck the soldering irons into the midst of the charcoal, which
looked a pale rose color in the daylight. Then he resumed blowing.
Coupeau held the last sheet of zinc. It had to be placed at the edge of
the roof, close to the gutter-pipe; there was an abrupt slant there, and
the gaping void of the street opened beneath. The zinc-worker, just as
though in his own home, wearing his list-shoes, advanced, dragging his
feet, and whistling the air, "Oh! the little lambs." Arrived in front of
the opening, he let himself down, and then, supporting himself with one
knee against the masonry of a chimney-stack, remained half-way out over
the pavement below. One of his legs dangled. When he leant back to call
that young viper, Zidore, he held on to a corner of the masonry, on
account of the street beneath him.

"You confounded dawdler! Give me the irons! It's no use looking up
in the air, you skinny beggar! The larks won't tumble into your mouth
already cooked!"

But Zidore did not hurry himself. He was interested in the neighboring
roofs, and in a cloud of smoke which rose from the other side of Paris,
close to Grenelle; it was very likely a fire. However, he came and laid
down on his stomach, his head over the opening, and he passed the irons
to Coupeau. Then the latter commenced to solder the sheet. He squatted,
he stretched, always managing to balance himself, sometimes seated on
one side, at other times standing on the tip of one foot, often only
holding on by a finger. He had a confounded assurance, the devil's own
cheek, familiar with danger, and braving it. It knew him. It was the
street that was afraid, not he. As he kept his pipe in his mouth, he
turned round every now and then to spit onto the pavement.

"Look, there's Madame Boche," he suddenly exclaimed and called down to
her. "Hi! Madame Boche."

He had just caught sight of the concierge crossing the road. She raised
her head and recognised him, and a conversation ensued between them.
She hid her hands under her apron, her nose elevated in the air. He,
standing up now, his left arm passed round a chimney-pot, leant over.

"Have you seen my wife?" asked he.

"No, I haven't," replied the concierge. "Is she around here?"

"She's coming to fetch me. And are they all well at home?"

"Why, yes, thanks; I'm the most ill, as you see. I'm going to the
Chaussee Clignancourt to buy a small leg of mutton. The butcher near the
Moulin-Rouge only charges sixteen sous."

They raised their voices, because a vehicle was passing. In the wide,
deserted Rue de la Nation, their words, shouted out with all their
might, had only caused a little old woman to come to her window; and
this little old woman remained there leaning out, giving herself the
treat of a grand emotion by watching that man on the roof over the way,
as though she expected to see him fall, from one minute to another.

"Well! Good evening," cried Madame Boche. "I won't disturb you."

Coupeau turned round, and took back the iron that Zidore was holding
for him. But just as the concierge was moving off, she caught sight of
Gervaise on the other side of the way, holding Nana by the hand. She was
already raising her head to tell the zinc-worker, when the young woman
closed her mouth by an energetic gesture, and, in a low voice, so as
not to be heard up there, she told her of her fear: she was afraid, by
showing herself suddenly, of giving her husband a shock which might make
him lose his balance. During the four years, she had only been once
to fetch him at his work. That day was the second time. She could not
witness it, her blood turned cold when she beheld her old man between
heaven and earth, in places where even the sparrows would not venture.

"No doubt, it's not pleasant," murmured Madame Boche. "My husband's a
tailor, so I have none of these terrors."

"If you only knew, in the early days," said Gervaise again, "I had
frights from morning till night. I was always seeing him on a stretcher,
with his head smashed. Now, I don't think of it so much. One gets used
to everything. Bread must be earned. All the same, it's a precious dear
loaf, for one risks one's bones more than is fair."

And she left off speaking, hiding Nana in her skirt, fearing a cry from
the little one. Very pale, she looked up in spite of herself. At that
moment Coupeau was soldering the extreme edge of the sheet close to the
gutter; he slid down as far as possible, but without being able to reach
the edge. Then, he risked himself with those slow movements peculiar to
workmen. For an instant he was immediately over the pavement, no long
holding on, all absorbed in his work; and, from below, one could see
the little white flame of the solder frizzling up beneath the carefully
wielded iron. Gervaise, speechless, her throat contracted with anguish,
had clasped her hands together, and held them up in mechanical gesture
of prayer. But she breathed freely as Coupeau got up and returned back
along the roof, without hurrying himself, and taking the time to spit
once more into the street.

"Ah! ah! so you've been playing the spy on me!" cried he, gaily, on
beholding her. "She's been making a stupid of herself, eh, Madame
Boche? She wouldn't call to me. Wait a bit, I shall have finished in ten
minutes."

All that remained to do was to fix the top of the chimney - a mere
nothing. The laundress and the concierge waited on the pavement,
discussing the neighborhood, and giving an eye to Nana, to prevent her
from dabbling in the gutter, where she wanted to look for little fishes;
and the two women kept glancing up at the roof, smiling and nodding
their heads, as though to imply that they were not losing patience. The
old woman opposite had not left her window, had continued watching the
man, and waiting.

"Whatever can she have to look at, that old she-goat?" said Madame
Boche. "What a mug she has!"

One could hear the loud voice of the zinc-worker up above singing, "Ah!
it's nice to gather strawberries!" Bending over his bench, he was now
artistically cutting out his zinc. With his compasses he traced a line,
and he detached a large fan-shaped piece with the aid of a pair of
curved shears; then he lightly bent this fan with his hammer into the
form of a pointed mushroom. Zidore was again blowing the charcoal in the
chafing-dish. The sun was setting behind the house in a brilliant rosy
light, which was gradually becoming paler, and turning to a delicate
lilac. And, at this quiet hour of the day, right up against the sky,
the silhouettes of the two workmen, looking inordinately large, with the
dark line of the bench, and the strange profile of the bellows, stood
out from the limpid back-ground of the atmosphere.

When the chimney-top was got into shape, Coupeau called out: "Zidore!
The irons!"

But Zidore had disappeared. The zinc-worker swore, and looked about for
him, even calling him through the open skylight of the loft. At length
he discovered him on a neighboring roof, two houses off. The young rogue
was taking a walk, exploring the environs, his fair scanty locks blowing
in the breeze, his eyes blinking as they beheld the immensity of Paris.

"I say, lazy bones! Do you think you're having a day in the country?"
asked Coupeau, in a rage. "You're like Monsieur Beranger, composing
verses, perhaps! Will you give me those irons! Did any one ever see
such a thing! Strolling about on the house-tops! Why not bring your
sweetheart at once, and tell her of your love? Will you give me those
irons? You confounded little shirker!"

He finished his soldering, and called to Gervaise: "There, it's done.
I'm coming down."

The chimney-pot to which he had to fix the flue was in the middle of
the roof. Gervaise, who was no longer uneasy, continued to smile as she
followed his movements. Nana, amused all on a sudden by the view of her
father, clapped her little hands. She had seated herself on the pavement
to see the better up there.

"Papa! Papa!" called she with all her might. "Papa! Just look!"

The zinc-worker wished to lean forward, but his foot slipped. Then
suddenly, stupidly, like a cat with its legs entangled, he rolled and
descended the slight slope of the roof without being able to grab hold
of anything.

"_Mon Dieu_," he cried in a choked voice.

And he fell. His body described a gentle curve, turned twice over on
itself, and came smashing into the middle of the street with the dull
thud of a bundle of clothes thrown from on high.

Gervaise, stupefied, her throat rent by one great cry, stood holding
up her arms. Some passers-by hastened to the spot; a crowd soon formed.
Madame Boche, utterly upset, her knees bending under her, took Nana in
her arms, to hide her head and prevent her seeing. Meanwhile, the little
old woman opposite quietly closed her window, as though satisfied.

Four men ended by carrying Coupeau into a chemist's, at the corner of
the Rue des Poissonniers; and he remained there on a blanket, in the
middle of the shop, whilst they sent to the Lariboisiere Hospital for a
stretcher. He was still breathing.

Gervaise, sobbing, was kneeling on the floor beside him, her face
smudged with tears, stunned and unseeing. Her hands would reach to feel
her husband's limbs with the utmost gentleness. Then she would draw back
as she had been warned not to touch him. But a few seconds later she
would touch him to assure herself that he was still warm, feeling
somehow that she was helping him.

When the stretcher at length arrived, and they talked of starting for
the hospital, she got up, saying violently:

"No, no, not to the hospital! We live in the Rue Neuve de la
Goutte-d'Or."

It was useless for them to explain to her that the illness would cost
her a great deal of money, if she took her husband home. She obstinately
repeated:

"Rue Neuve de la Goutte-d'Or; I will show you the house. What can it
matter to you? I've got money. He's my husband, isn't he? He's mine, and
I want him at home."

And they had to take Coupeau to his own home. When the stretcher was
carried through the crowd which was crushing up against the chemist's
shop, the women of the neighborhood were excitedly talking of Gervaise.
She limped, the dolt, but all the same she had some pluck. She would
be sure to save her old man; whilst at the hospital the doctors let the
patients die who were very bad, so as not to have the bother of trying
to cure them. Madame Boche, after taking Nana home with her, returned,
and gave her account of the accident, with interminable details, and
still feeling agitated with the emotion she had passed through.

"I was going to buy a leg of mutton; I was there, I saw him fall,"
repeated she. "It was all through the little one; he turned to look at
her, and bang! Ah! good heavens! I never want to see such a sight again.
However, I must be off to get my leg of mutton."

For a week Coupeau was very bad. The family, the neighbors, everyone,
expected to see him turn for the worse at any moment. The doctor - a very
expensive doctor, who charged five francs for each visit - apprehended
internal injuries, and these words filled everyone with fear. It was
said in the neighborhood that the zinc-worker's heart had been injured
by the shock. Gervaise alone, looking pale through her nights of
watching, serious and resolute, shrugged her shoulders. Her old man's
right leg was broken, everyone knew that; it would be set for him, and
that was all. As for the rest, the injured heart, that was nothing.
She knew how to restore a heart with ceaseless care. She was certain of
getting him well and displayed magnificent faith. She stayed close by
him and caressed him gently during the long bouts of fever without a
moment of doubt. She was on her feet continuously for a whole week,
completely absorbed by her determination to save him. She forgot the
street outside, the entire city, and even her own children. On the ninth
day, the doctor finally said that Coupeau would live. Gervaise collapsed
into a chair, her body limp from fatigue. That night she consented to
sleep for two hours with her head against the foot of the bed.

Coupeau's accident had created quite a commotion in the family. Mother
Coupeau passed the nights with Gervaise; but as early as nine o'clock
she fell asleep on a chair. Every evening, on returning from work,
Madame Lerat went a long round out of her way to inquire how her brother
was getting on. At first the Lorilleuxs had called two or three times a
day, offering to sit up and watch, and even bringing an easy-chair for
Gervaise. Then it was not long before there were disputes as to the
proper way to nurse invalids. Madame Lorilleux said that she had saved
enough people's lives to know how to go about it. She accused the young
wife of pushing her aside, of driving her away from her own brother's
bed. Certainly that Clump-clump ought to be concerned about Coupeau's
getting well, for if she hadn't gone to Rue de la Nation to disturb him
at his job, he would never had fallen. Only, the way she was taking care
of him, she would certainly finish him.

When Gervaise saw that Coupeau was out of danger, she ceased guarding
his bedside with so much jealous fierceness. Now, they could no longer
kill him, and she let people approach without mistrust. The family
invaded the room. The convalescence would be a very long one; the doctor
had talked of four months. Then, during the long hours the zinc-worker
slept, the Lorilleux talked of Gervaise as of a fool. She hadn't done
any good by having her husband at home. At the hospital they would have
cured him twice as quickly. Lorilleux would have liked to have been ill,
to have caught no matter what, just to show her that he did not hesitate
for a moment to go to Lariboisiere. Madame Lorilleux knew a lady who
had just come from there. Well! She had had chicken to eat morning and
night.

Again and again the two of them went over their estimate of how much
four months of convalescence would cost; workdays lost, the doctor and
the medicines, and afterward good wine and fresh meat. If the Coupeaus
only used up their small savings, they would be very lucky indeed. They
would probably have to go into debt. Well, that was to be expected and
it was their business. They had no right to expect any help from the
family, which couldn't afford the luxury of keeping an invalid at home.
It was just Clump-clump's bad luck, wasn't it? Why couldn't she have
done as others did and let her man be taken to hospital? This just
showed how stuck up she was.

One evening Madame Lorilleux had the spitefulness to ask Gervaise
suddenly:

"Well! And your shop, when are you going to take it?"

"Yes," chuckled Lorilleux, "the landlord's still waiting for you."

Gervaise was astonished. She had completely forgotten the shop; but she
saw the wicked joy of those people, at the thought that she would no
longer be able to take it, and she was bursting with anger. From that
evening, in fact, they watched for every opportunity to twit her about
her hopeless dream. When any one spoke of some impossible wish, they
would say that it might be realized on the day that Gervaise started in
business, in a beautiful shop opening onto the street. And behind her
back they would laugh fit to split their sides. She did not like to
think such an unkind thing, but, really, the Lorilleuxs now seemed to be
very pleased at Coupeau's accident, as it prevented her setting up as a
laundress in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or.

Then she also wished to laugh, and show them how willingly she parted
with the money for the sake of curing her husband. Each time she took
the savings-bank book from beneath the glass clock-tower in their
presence, she would say gaily:

"I'm going out; I'm going to rent my shop."

She had not been willing to withdraw the money all at once. She took it
out a hundred francs at a time, so as not to keep such a pile of gold
and silver in her drawer; then, too, she vaguely hoped for some miracle,
some sudden recovery, which would enable them not to part with the
entire sum. At each journey to the savings-bank, on her return home, she
added up on a piece of paper the money they had still left there. It
was merely for the sake of order. Their bank account might be getting
smaller all the time, yet she went on with her quiet smile and
common-sense attitude, keeping the account straight. It was a
consolation to be able to use this money for such a good purpose, to
have had it when faced with their misfortune.

While Coupeau was bed-ridden the Goujets were very kind to Gervaise.
Madame Goujet was always ready to assist. She never went to shop without
stopping to ask Gervaise if there was anything she needed, sugar or
butter or salt. She always brought over hot bouillon on the evenings she
cooked _pot au feu_. Sometimes, when Gervaise seemed to have too much
to do, Madame Goujet helped her do the dishes, or cleaned the kitchen
herself. Goujet took her water pails every morning and filled them
at the tap on Rue des Poissonniers, saving her two sous a day. After
dinner, if no family came to visit, the Goujets would come over to visit
with the Coupeaus.

Until ten o'clock, the blacksmith would smoke his pipe and watch
Gervaise busy with her invalid. He would not speak ten words the entire
evening. He was moved to pity by the sight of her pouring Coupeau's tea
and medicine into a cup, or stirring the sugar in it very carefully so
as to make no sound with the spoon. It stirred him deeply when she would
lean over Coupeau and speak in her soft voice. Never before had he known
such a fine woman. Her limp increased the credit due her for wearing
herself out doing things for her husband all day long. She never sat
down for ten minutes, not even to eat. She was always running to the
chemist's. And then she would still keep the house clean, not even a
speck of dust. She never complained, no matter how exhausted she became.
Goujet developed a very deep affection for Gervaise in this atmosphere
of unselfish devotion.

One day he said to the invalid, "Well, old man, now you're patched up
again! I wasn't worried about you. Your wife works miracles."

Goujet was supposed to be getting married. His mother had found a
suitable girl, a lace-mender like herself, whom she was urging him to
marry. He had agreed so as not to hurt her feelings and the wedding had
been set for early September. Money had long since been saved to set
them up in housekeeping. However, when Gervaise referred to his coming
marriage, he shook his head, saying, "Not every woman is like you,
Madame Coupeau. If all women were like you, I'd marry ten of them."

At the end of two months, Coupeau was able to get up. He did not go far,
only from the bed to the window, and even then Gervaise had to support
him. There he would sit down in the easy-chair the Lorilleuxs had
brought, with his right leg stretched out on a stool. This joker,
who used to laugh at the people who slipped down on frosty days, felt
greatly put out by his accident. He had no philosophy. He had spent
those two months in bed, in cursing, and in worrying the people about
him. It was not an existence, really, to pass one's life on one's back,
with a pin all tied up and as stiff as a sausage. Ah, he certainly knew
the ceiling by heart; there was a crack, at the corner of the alcove,
that he could have drawn with his eyes shut. Then, when he was made
comfortable in the easy-chair, it was another grievance. Would he be
fixed there for long, just like a mummy?

Nobody ever passed along the street, so it was no fun to watch. Besides,
it stank of bleach water all day. No, he was just growing old; he'd have
given ten years of his life just to go see how the fortifications were
getting along. He kept going on about his fate. It wasn't right, what



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 10 of 36)