Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

. (page 12 of 36)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 12 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

know where the money came from that she paid for her wretched shop! She
borrowed it from the blacksmith; and he springs from a nice family too!
Didn't the father cut his own throat to save the guillotine the trouble
of doing so? Anyhow, there was something disreputable of that sort!"

She bluntly accused Gervaise of flirting with Goujet. She lied - she
pretended she had surprised them together one night on a seat on the
exterior Boulevards. The thought of this liaison, of pleasures that her
sister-in-law was no doubt enjoying, exasperated her still more, because
of her own ugly woman's strict sense of propriety. Every day the same
cry came from her heart to her lips.

"What does she have, that wretched cripple, for people to fall in love
with her? Why doesn't any one want me?"

She busied herself in endless gossiping among the neighbors. She told
them the whole story. The day the Coupeaus got married she turned up her
nose at her. Oh, she had a keen nose, she could smell in advance how
it would turn out. Then, Clump-clump pretended to be so sweet, what a
hypocrite! She and her husband had only agreed to be Nana's godparents
for the sake of her brother. What a bundle it had cost, that fancy
christening. If Clump-clump were on her deathbed she wouldn't give her a
glass of water, no matter how much she begged.

She didn't want anything to do with such a shameless baggage. Little
Nana would always be welcome when she came up to see her godparents.
The child couldn't be blamed for her mother's sins. But there was no
use trying to tell Coupeau anything. Any real man in his situation would
have beaten his wife and put a stop to it all. All they wanted was for
him to insist on respect for his family. _Mon Dieu_! If she, Madame
Lorilleux, had acted like that, Coupeau wouldn't be so complacent. He
would have stabbed her for sure with his shears.

The Boches, however, who sternly disapproved of quarrels in their
building, said that the Lorilleuxs were in the wrong. The Lorilleuxs
were no doubt respectable persons, quiet, working the whole day long,
and paying their rent regularly. But, really, jealousy had driven them
mad. And they were mean enough to skin an egg, real misers. They were so
stingy that they'd hide their bottle when any one came in, so as not to
have to offer a glass of wine - not regular people at all.

Gervaise had brought over cassis and soda water one day to drink with
the Boches. When Madame Lorilleux went by, she acted out spitting before
the concierge's door. Well, after that when Madame Boche swept the
corridors on Saturdays, she always left a pile of trash before the
Lorilleuxs' door.

"It isn't to be wondered at!" Madame Lorilleux would exclaim,
"Clump-clump's always stuffing them, the gluttons! Ah! they're all
alike; but they had better not annoy me! I'll complain to the landlord.
Only yesterday I saw that sly old Boche chasing after Madame Gaudron's
skirts. Just fancy! A woman of that age, and who has half a dozen
children, too; it's positively disgusting! If I catch them at anything
of the sort again, I'll tell Madame Boche, and she'll give them both a
hiding. It'll be something to laugh at."

Mother Coupeau continued to visit the two houses, agreeing with
everybody and even managing to get asked oftener to dinner, by
complaisantly listening one night to her daughter and the next night to
her daughter-in-law.

However, Madame Lerat did not go to visit the Coupeaus because she had
argued with Gervaise about a Zouave who had cut the nose of his mistress
with a razor. She was on the side of the Zouave, saying it was evidence
of a great passion, but without explaining further her thought. Then,
she had made Madame Lorilleux even more angry by telling her that
Clump-clump had called her "Cow Tail" in front of fifteen or twenty
people. Yes, that's what the Boches and all the neighbors called her
now, "Cow Tail."

Gervaise remained calm and cheerful among all these goings-on. She often
stood by the door of her shop greeting friends who passed by with a nod
and a smile. It was her pleasure to take a moment between batches
of ironing to enjoy the street and take pride in her own stretch of

She felt that the Rue de la Goutte d'Or was hers, and the neighboring
streets, and the whole neighborhood. As she stood there, with her blonde
hair slightly damp from the heat of the shop, she would look left and
right, taking in the people, the buildings, and the sky. To the left
Rue de la Goutte d'Or was peaceful and almost empty, like a country town
with women idling in their doorways. While, to the right, only a short
distance away, Rue des Poissonniers had a noisy throng of people and

The stretch of gutter before her own shop became very important in her
mind. It was like a wide river which she longed to see neat and clean.
It was a lively river, colored by the dye shop with the most fanciful of
hues which contrasted with the black mud beside it.

Then there were the shops: a large grocery with a display of dried
fruits protected by mesh nets; a shop selling work clothes which had
white tunics and blue smocks hanging before it with arms that waved at
the slightest breeze. Cats were purring on the counters of the fruit
store and the tripe shop. Madame Vigouroux, the coal dealer next door,
returned her greetings. She was a plump, short woman with bright eyes
in a dark face who was always joking with the men while standing at her
doorway. Her shop was decorated in imitation of a rustic chalet. The
neighbors on the other side were a mother and daughter, the Cudorges.
The umbrella sellers kept their door closed and never came out to visit.

Gervaise always looked across the road, too, through the wide carriage
entrance of the windowless wall opposite her, at the blacksmith's forge.
The courtyard was cluttered with vans and carts. Inscribed on the wall
was the word "Blacksmith."

At the lower end of the wall between the small shops selling scrap iron
and fried potatoes was a watchmaker. He wore a frock coat and was
always very neat. His cuckoo clocks could be heard in chorus against the
background noise of the street and the blacksmith's rhythmic clanging.

The neighborhood in general thought Gervaise very nice. There was, it is
true, a good deal of scandal related regarding her; but everyone admired
her large eyes, small mouth and beautiful white teeth. In short she was
a pretty blonde, and had it not been for her crippled leg she might have
ranked amongst the comeliest. She was now in her twenty-eighth year, and
had grown considerably plumper. Her fine features were becoming puffy,
and her gestures were assuming a pleasant indolence.

At times she occasionally seemed to forget herself on the edge of a
chair, whilst she waited for her iron to heat, smiling vaguely and with
an expression of greedy joy upon her face. She was becoming fond of
good living, everybody said so; but that was not a very grave fault, but
rather the contrary. When one earns sufficient to be able to buy good
food, one would be foolish to eat potato parings. All the more so as she
continued to work very hard, slaving to please her customers, sitting
up late at night after the place was closed, whenever there was anything

She was lucky as all her neighbors said; everything prospered with
her. She did the washing for all the house - M. Madinier, Mademoiselle
Remanjou, the Boches. She even secured some of the customers of her
old employer, Madame Fauconnier, Parisian ladies living in the Rue du
Faubourg-Poissonniere. As early as the third week she was obliged to
engage two workwomen, Madame Putois and tall Clemence, the girl who
used to live on the sixth floor; counting her apprentice, that little
squint-eyed Augustine, who was as ugly as a beggar's behind, that made
three persons in her employ. Others would certainly have lost their
heads at such a piece of good fortune. It was excusable for her to slack
a little on Monday after drudging all through the week. Besides, it was
necessary to her. She would have had no courage left, and would have
expected to see the shirts iron themselves, if she had not been able to
dress up in some pretty thing.

Gervaise was always so amiable, meek as a lamb, sweet as sugar. There
wasn't any one she disliked except Madame Lorilleux. While she was
enjoying a good meal and coffee, she could be indulgent and forgive
everybody saying: "We have to forgive each other - don't we? - unless
we want to live like savages." Hadn't all her dreams come true? She
remembered her old dream: to have a job, enough bread to eat and a
corner in which to sleep, to bring up her children, not to be beaten,
and to die in her own bed. She had everything she wanted now and more
than she had ever expected. She laughed, thinking of delaying dying in
her own bed as long as possible.

It was to Coupeau especially that Gervaise behaved nicely. Never an
angry word, never a complaint behind her husband's back. The zinc-worker
had at length resumed work; and as the job he was engaged on was at
the other side of Paris, she gave him every morning forty sous for his
luncheon, his glass of wine and his tobacco. Only, two days out of every
six, Coupeau would stop on the way, spend the forty sous in drink with
a friend, and return home to lunch, with some cock-and-bull story. Once
even he did not take the trouble to go far; he treated himself, My-Boots
and three others to a regular feast - snails, roast meat, and some sealed
bottles of wine - at the "Capuchin," on the Barriere de la Chapelle.
Then, as his forty sous were not sufficient, he had sent the waiter
to his wife with the bill and the information that he was in pawn. She
laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Where was the harm if her old man
amused himself a bit? You must give men a long rein if you want to live
peaceably at home. From one word to another, one soon arrived at blows.
_Mon Dieu_! It was easy to understand. Coupeau still suffered from his
leg; besides, he was led astray. He was obliged to do as the others did,
or else he would be thought a cheap skate. And it was really a matter of
no consequence. If he came home a bit elevated, he went to bed, and two
hours afterwards he was all right again.

It was now the warm time of the year. One June afternoon, a Saturday
when there was a lot of work to get through, Gervaise herself had piled
the coke into the stove, around which ten irons were heating, whilst a
rumbling sound issued from the chimney. At that hour the sun was shining
full on the shop front, and the pavement reflected the heat waves,
causing all sorts of quaint shadows to dance over the ceiling, and that
blaze of light which assumed a bluish tinge from the color of the
paper on the shelves and against the window, was almost blinding in the
intensity with which it shone over the ironing-table, like a golden dust
shaken among the fine linen. The atmosphere was stifling. The shop door
was thrown wide open, but not a breath of air entered; the clothes
which were hung up on brass wires to dry, steamed and became as stiff as
shavings in less than three quarters of an hour. For some little while
past an oppressive silence had reigned in that furnace-like heat,
interrupted only by the smothered sound of the banging down of the irons
on the thick blanket covered with calico.

"Ah, well!" said Gervaise, "it's enough to melt one! We might have to
take off our chemises."

She was sitting on the floor, in front of a basin, starching some
things. Her sleeves were rolled up and her camisole was slipping down
her shoulders. Little curls of golden hair were stuck to her
skin by perspiration. She carefully dipped caps, shirt-fronts, entire
petticoats, and the trimmings of women's drawers into the milky water.
Then she rolled the things up and placed them at the bottom of a
square basket, after dipping her hand in a pail and shaking it over the
portions of the shirts and drawers which she had not starched.

"This basketful's for you, Madame Putois," she said. "Look sharp, now!
It dries at once, and will want doing all over again in an hour."

Madame Putois, a thin little woman of forty-five, was ironing. Though
she was buttoned up in an old chestnut-colored dress, there was not a
drop of perspiration to be seen. She had not even taken her cap off, a
black cap trimmed with green ribbons turned partly yellow. And she stood
perfectly upright in front of the ironing-table, which was too high
for her, sticking out her elbows, and moving her iron with the jerky
evolutions of a puppet. On a sudden she exclaimed:

"Ah, no! Mademoiselle Clemence, you mustn't take your camisole off. You
know I don't like such indecencies. Whilst you're about it, you'd better
show everything. There's already three men over the way stopping to

Tall Clemence called her an old beast between her teeth. She was
suffocating; she might certainly make herself comfortable; everyone was
not gifted with a skin as dry as touchwood. Besides no one could see
anything; and she held up her arms, whilst her opulent bosom almost
ripped her chemise, and her shoulders were bursting through the straps.
At the rate she was going, Clemence was not likely to have any marrow
left in her bones long before she was thirty years old. Mornings after
big parties she was unable to feel the ground she trod upon, and fell
asleep over her work, whilst her head and her stomach seemed as though
stuffed full of rags. But she was kept on all the same, for no other
workwoman could iron a shirt with her style. Shirts were her specialty.

"This is mine, isn't it?" she declared, tapping her bosom. "And it
doesn't bite; it hurts nobody!"

"Clemence, put your wrapper on again," said Gervaise. "Madame Putois is
right, it isn't decent. People will begin to take my house for what it

So tall Clemence dressed herself again, grumbling the while. "_Mon
Dieu!_ There's prudery for you."

And she vented her rage on the apprentice, that squint-eyed Augustine
who was ironing some stockings and handkerchiefs beside her. She jostled
her and pushed her with her elbow; but Augustine who was of a surly
disposition, and slyly spiteful in the way of an animal and a drudge,
spat on the back of the other's dress just out of revenge, without being
seen. Gervaise, during this incident, had commenced a cap belonging
to Madame Boche, which she intended to take great pains with. She had
prepared some boiled starch to make it look new again. She was gently
passing a little iron rounded at both ends over the inside of the crown
of the cap, when a bony-looking woman entered the shop, her face covered
with red blotches and her skirts sopping wet. It was a washerwoman
who employed three assistants at the wash-house in the Rue de la

"You've come too soon, Madame Bijard!" cried Gervaise. "I told you to
call this evening. I'm too busy to attend to you now!"

But as the washerwoman began lamenting and fearing that she would not be
able to put all the things to soak that day, she consented to give her
the dirty clothes at once. They went to fetch the bundles in the left
hand room where Etienne slept, and returned with enormous armfuls which
they piled up on the floor at the back of the shop. The sorting lasted
a good half hour. Gervaise made heaps all round her, throwing the shirts
in one, the chemises in another, the handkerchiefs, the socks, the
dish-cloths in others. Whenever she came across anything belonging to a
new customer, she marked it with a cross in red cotton thread so as to
know it again. And from all this dirty linen which they were throwing
about there issued an offensive odor in the warm atmosphere.

"Oh! La, la. What a stench!" said Clemence, holding her nose.

"Of course there is! If it were clean they wouldn't send it to us,"
quietly explained Gervaise. "It smells as one would expect it to, that's
all! We said fourteen chemises, didn't we, Madame Bijard? Fifteen,
sixteen, seventeen - "

And she continued counting aloud. Used to this kind of thing she
evinced no disgust. She thrust her bare pink arms deep into the piles of
laundry: shirts yellow with grime, towels stiff from dirty dish water,
socks threadbare and eaten away by sweat. The strong odor which slapped
her in the face as she sorted the piles of clothes made her feel drowsy.
She seemed to be intoxicating herself with this stench of humanity as
she sat on the edge of a stool, bending far over, smiling vaguely, her
eyes slightly misty. It was as if her laziness was started by a kind
of smothering caused by the dirty clothes which poisoned the air in the
shop. Just as she was shaking out a child's dirty diaper, Coupeau came

"By Jove!" he stuttered, "what a sun! It shines full on your head!"

The zinc-worker caught hold of the ironing-table to save himself from
falling. It was the first time he had been so drunk. Until then he
had sometimes come home slightly tipsy, but nothing more. This time,
however, he had a black eye, just a friendly slap he had run up against
in a playful moment. His curly hair, already streaked with grey, must
have dusted a corner in some low wineshop, for a cobweb was hanging to
one of his locks over the back of his neck. He was still as attractive
as ever, though his features were rather drawn and aged, and his under
jaw projected more; but he was always lively, as he would sometimes say,
with a complexion to be envied by a duchess.

"I'll just explain it to you," he resumed, addressing Gervaise.

"It was Celery-Root, you know him, the bloke with a wooden leg. Well,
as he was going back to his native place, he wanted to treat us. Oh! We
were all right, if it hadn't been for that devil of a sun. In the street
everybody looks shaky. Really, all the world's drunk!"

And as tall Clemence laughed at his thinking that the people in the
street were drunk, he was himself seized with an intense fit of gaiety
which almost strangled him.

"Look at them! The blessed tipplers! Aren't they funny?" he cried. "But
it's not their fault. It's the sun that's causing it."

All the shop laughed, even Madame Putois, who did not like drunkards.
That squint-eyed Augustine was cackling like a hen, suffocating with her
mouth wide open. Gervaise, however, suspected Coupeau of not having come
straight home, but of having passed an hour with the Lorilleuxs who were
always filling his head with unpleasant ideas. When he swore he had
not been near them she laughed also, full of indulgence and not even
reproaching him with having wasted another day.

"_Mon Dieu!_ What nonsense he does talk," she murmured. "How does he
manage to say such stupid things?" Then in a maternal tone of voice she
added, "Now go to bed, won't you? You see we're busy; you're in our
way. That makes thirty-two handkerchiefs, Madame Bijard; and two more,

But Coupeau was not sleepy. He stood there wagging his body from side
to side like the pendulum of a clock and chuckling in an obstinate and
teasing manner. Gervaise, wanting to finish with Madame Bijard, called
to Clemence to count the laundry while she made the list. Tall Clemence
made a dirty remark about every item that she touched. She commented
on the customers' misfortunes and their bedroom adventures. She had a
wash-house joke for every rip or stain that passed through her hands.
Augustine pretended that she didn't understand, but her ears were wide
open. Madame Putois compressed her lips, thinking it a disgrace to
say such things in front of Coupeau. It's not a man's business to have
anything to do with dirty linen. It's just not done among decent people.

Gervaise, serious and her mind fully occupied with what she was about,
did not seem to notice. As she wrote she gave a glance to each article
as it passed before her, so as to recognize it; and she never made a
mistake; she guessed the owner's name just by the look or the color.
Those napkins belonged to the Goujets, that was evident; they had not
been used to wipe out frying-pans. That pillow-case certainly came from
the Boches on account of the pomatum with which Madame Boche always
smeared her things. There was no need to put your nose close to the
flannel vests of Monsieur Madinier; his skin was so oily that it clogged
up his woolens.

She knew many peculiarities, the cleanliness of some, the ragged
underclothes of neighborhood ladies who appeared on the streets in silk
dresses; how many items each family soiled weekly; the way some people's
garments were always torn at the same spot. Oh, she had many tales
to tell. For instance, the chemises of Mademoiselle Remanjou provided
material for endless comments: they wore out at the top first because
the old maid had bony, sharp shoulders; and they were never really
dirty, proving that you dry up by her age, like a stick of wood out of
which it's hard to squeeze a drop of anything. It was thus that at
every sorting of the dirty linen in the shop they undressed the whole
neighborhood of the Goutte-d'Or.

"Oh, here's something luscious!" cried Clemence, opening another bundle.

Gervaise, suddenly seized with a great repugnance, drew back.

"Madame Gaudron's bundle?" said she. "I'll no longer wash for her, I'll
find some excuse. No, I'm not more particular than another. I've handled
some most disgusting linen in my time; but really, that lot I can't
stomach. What can the woman do to get her things into such a state?"

And she requested Clemence to look sharp. But the girl continued her
remarks, thrusting the clothes sullenly about her, with complaints on
the soiled caps she waved like triumphal banners of filth. Meanwhile the
heaps around Gervaise had grown higher. Still seated on the edge of the
stool, she was now disappearing between the petticoats and chemises.
In front of her were the sheets, the table cloths, a veritable mass of

She seemed even rosier and more languid than usual within this spreading
sea of soiled laundry. She had regained her composure, forgetting Madame
Gaudron's laundry, stirring the various piles of clothing to make sure
there had been no mistake in sorting. Squint-eyed Augustine had just
stuffed the stove so full of coke that its cast-iron sides were bright
red. The sun was shining obliquely on the window; the shop was in a
blaze. Then, Coupeau, whom the great heat intoxicated all the more, was
seized with a sudden fit of tenderness. He advanced towards Gervaise
with open arms and deeply moved.

"You're a good wife," he stammered. "I must kiss you."

But he caught his foot in the garments which barred the way and nearly

"What a nuisance you are!" said Gervaise without getting angry. "Keep
still, we're nearly done now."

No, he wanted to kiss her. He must do so because he loved her so much.
Whilst he stuttered he tried to get round the heap of petticoats and
stumbled against the pile of chemises; then as he obstinately persisted
his feet caught together and he fell flat, his nose in the midst of the
dish-cloths. Gervaise, beginning to lose her temper pushed him, saying
that he was mixing all the things up. But Clemence and even Madame
Putois maintained that she was wrong. It was very nice of him after all.
He wanted to kiss her. She might very well let herself be kissed.

"You're lucky, you are, Madame Coupeau," said Madame Bijard, whose
drunkard of a husband, a locksmith, was nearly beating her to death each
evening when he came in. "If my old man was like that when he's had a
drop, it would be a real pleasure!"

Gervaise had calmed down and was already regretting her hastiness. She
helped Coupeau up on his legs again. Then she offered her cheek with a
smile. But the zinc-worker, without caring a button for the other people
being present, seized her bosom.

"It's not for the sake of saying so," he murmured; "but your dirty linen
stinks tremendously! Still, I love you all the same, you know."

"Leave off, you're tickling me," cried she, laughing the louder. "What a
great silly you are! How can you be so absurd?"

He had caught hold of her and would not let her go. She gradually
abandoned herself to him, dizzy from the slight faintness caused by the
heap of clothes and not minding Coupeau's foul-smelling breath. The long
kiss they exchanged on each other's mouths in the midst of the filth of
the laundress's trade was perhaps the first tumble in the slow downfall
of their life together.

Madame Bijard had meanwhile been tying the laundry up into bundles and
talking about her daughter, Eulalie, who at two was as smart as a grown
woman. She could be left by herself; she never cried or played with

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 12 of 36)