Émile Zola.

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You could see his muscles swelling, mountains of flesh rippling and
hardening under the skin; his shoulders, his chest, his neck expanded;
he seemed to shed light about him, becoming beautiful and all-powerful
like a kindly god.

He had now swung Fifine twenty times, his eyes always fixed on the iron,
drawing a deep breath with each blow, yet showing only two great drops
of sweat trickling down from his temples. He counted: "Twenty-one,
twenty-two, twenty-three - " Calmly Fifine continued, like a noble lady

"What a show-off!" jeeringly murmured Salted-Mouth, otherwise

Gervaise, standing opposite Goujet, looked at him with an affectionate
smile. _Mon Dieu!_ What fools men are! Here these two men were, pounding
on their bolts to pay court to her. She understood it. They were
battling with hammer blows, like two big red roosters vying for the
favors of a little white hen. Sometimes the human heart has fantastic
ways of expressing itself. This thundering of Dedele and Fifine upon the
anvil was for her, this forge roaring and overflowing was for her. They
were forging their love before her, battling over her.

To be honest, she rather enjoyed it. All women are happy to receive
compliments. The mighty blows of Golden-Mug found echoes in her heart;
they rang within her, a crystal-clear music in time with the throbbing
of her pulse. She had the feeling that this hammering was driving
something deep inside of her, something solid, something hard as the
iron of the bolt.

She had no doubt Goujet would win. Salted-Mouth, otherwise
Drink-without-Thirst, was much too ugly in his dirty tunic, jumping
around like a monkey that had escaped from a zoo. She waited, blushing
red, happy that the heat could explain the blush.

Goujet was still counting.

"And twenty-eight!" cried he at length, laying the hammer on the ground.
"It's finished; you can look."

The head of the bolt was clean, polished, and without a flaw, regular
goldsmith's work, with the roundness of a marble cast in a mold. The
other men looked at it and nodded their heads; there was no denying
it was lovely enough to be worshipped. Salted-Mouth, otherwise
Drink-without-Thirst, tried indeed to chuff; but it was no use, and
ended by returning to his anvil, with his nose put out of joint.
Gervaise had squeezed up against Goujet, as though to get a better view.
Etienne having let go the bellows, the forge was once more becoming
enveloped in shadow, like a brilliant red sunset suddenly giving way to
black night. And the blacksmith and the laundress experienced a sweet
pleasure in feeling this gloom surround them in that shed black with
soot and filings, and where an odor of old iron prevailed. They could
not have thought themselves more alone in the Bois de Vincennes had they
met there in the depths of some copse. He took her hand as though he had
conquered her.

Outside, they scarcely exchanged a word. All he could find to say was
that she might have taken Etienne away with her, had it not been that
there was still another half-hour's work to get through. When she
started away he called her back, wanting a few more minutes with her.

"Come along. You haven't seen all the place. It's quite interesting."

He led her to another shed where the owner was installing a new machine.
She hesitated in the doorway, oppressed by an instinctive dread. The
great hall was vibrating from the machines and black shadows filled the
air. He reassured her with a smile, swearing that there was nothing to
fear, only she should be careful not to let her skirts get caught in any
of the gears. He went first and she followed into the deafening hubbub
of whistling, amid clouds of steam peopled by human shadows moving

The passages were very narrow and there were obstacles to step
over, holes to avoid, passing carts to move back from. She couldn't
distinguish anything clearly or hear what Goujet was saying.

Gervaise looked up and stopped to stare at the leather belts hanging
from the roof in a gigantic spider web, each strip ceaselessly
revolving. The steam engine that drove them was hidden behind a low
brick wall so that the belts seemed to be moving by themselves. She
stumbled and almost fell while looking up.

Goujet raised his voice with explanations. There were the tapping
machines operated by women, which put threads on bolts and nuts. Their
steel gears were shining with oil. She could follow the entire process.
She nodded her head and smiled.

She was still a little tense, however, feeling uneasy at being so small
among these rough metalworkers. She jumped back more than once, her
blood suddenly chilled by the dull thud of a machine.

Goujet had stopped before one of the rivet machines. He stood there
brooding, his head lowered, his gaze fixed. This machine forged forty
millimetre rivets with the calm ease of a giant. Nothing could be
simpler. The stoker took the iron shank from the furnace; the striker
put it into the socket, where a continuous stream of water cooled it to
prevent softening of the steel. The press descended and the bolt flew
out onto the ground, its head as round as though cast in a mold. Every
twelve hours this machine made hundreds of kilograms of bolts!

Goujet was not a mean person, but there were moments when he wanted to
take Fifine and smash this machine to bits because he was angry to see
that its arms were stronger than his own. He reasoned with himself,
telling himself that human flesh cannot compete with steel. But he was
still deeply hurt. The day would come when machinery would destroy the
skilled worker. Their day's pay had already fallen from twelve francs
to nine francs. There was talk of cutting it again. He stared at it,
frowning, for three minutes without saying a word. His yellow
beard seemed to bristle defiantly. Then, gradually an expression of
resignation came over his face and he turned toward Gervaise who was
clinging tightly to him and said with a sad smile:

"Well! That machine would certainly win a contest. But perhaps it will
be for the good of mankind in the long run."

Gervaise didn't care a bit about the welfare of mankind. Smiling, she
said to Goujet:

"I like yours better, because they show the hand of an artist."

Hearing this gave him great happiness because he had been afraid that
she might be scornful of him after seeing the machines. _Mon Dieu!_ He
might be stronger than Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, but
the machines were stronger yet. When Gervaise finally took her leave,
Goujet was so happy that he almost crushed her with a hug.

The laundress went every Saturday to the Goujets to deliver their
washing. They still lived in the little house in the Rue Neuve de la
Goutte-d'Or. During the first year she had regularly repaid them twenty
francs a month; so as not to jumble up the accounts, the washing-book
was only made up at the end of each month, and then she added to the
amount whatever sum was necessary to make the twenty francs, for the
Goujets' washing rarely came to more than seven or eight francs during
that time. She had therefore paid off nearly half the sum owing, when
one quarter day, not knowing what to do, some of her customers not
having kept their promises, she had been obliged to go to the Goujets
and borrow from them sufficient for her rent. On two other occasions she
had also applied to them for the money to pay her workwomen, so that the
debt had increased again to four hundred and twenty-five francs. Now,
she no longer gave a halfpenny; she worked off the amount solely by the
washing. It was not that she worked less, or that her business was not
so prosperous. But something was going wrong in her home; the money
seemed to melt away, and she was glad when she was able to make both
ends meet. _Mon Dieu!_ What's the use of complaining as long as one gets
by. She was putting on weight and this caused her to become a bit lazy.
She no longer had the energy that she had in the past. Oh well, there
was always something coming in.

Madame Goujet felt a motherly concern for Gervaise and sometimes
reprimanded her. This wasn't due to the money owed but because she
liked her and didn't want to see her get into difficulties. She never
mentioned the debt. In short, she behaved with the utmost delicacy.

The morrow of Gervaise's visit to the forge happened to be the last
Saturday of the month. When she reached the Goujets, where she made a
point of going herself, her basket had so weighed on her arms that she
was quite two minutes before she could get her breath. One would hardly
believe how heavy clothes are, especially when there are sheets among

"Are you sure you've brought everything?" asked Madame Goujet.

She was very strict on that point. She insisted on having her washing
brought home without a single article being kept back for the sake of
order, as she said. She also required the laundress always to come on
the day arranged and at the same hour; in that way there was no time

"Oh! yes, everything is here," replied Gervaise smiling. "You know I
never leave anything behind."

"That's true," admitted Madame Goujet; "you've got into many bad habits
but you're still free of that one."

And while the laundress emptied her basket, laying the linen on the bed,
the old woman praised her; she never burnt the things nor tore them like
so many others did, neither did she pull the buttons off with the iron;
only she used too much blue and made the shirt-fronts too stiff with

"Just look, it's like cardboard," continued she, making one crackle
between her fingers. "My son does not complain, but it cuts his neck.
To-morrow his neck will be all scratched when we return from Vincennes."

"No, don't say that!" exclaimed Gervaise, quite grieved. "To look nice,
shirts must be rather stiff, otherwise it's as though one had a rag on
one's body. You should just see what the gentlemen wear. I do all your
things myself. The workwomen never touch them and I assure you I take
great pains. I would, if necessary, do everything over a dozen times,
because it's for you, you know."

She slightly blushed as she stammered out the last words. She was afraid
of showing the great pleasure she took in ironing Goujet's shirts. She
certainly had no wicked thoughts, but she was none the less a little bit

"Oh! I'm not complaining of your work; I know it's perfection," said
Madame Goujet. "For instance, you've done this cap splendidly, only you
could bring out the embroidery like that. And the flutings are all so
even. Oh! I recognize your hand at once. When you give even a dish-cloth
to one of your workwomen I detect it at once. In future, use a little
less starch, that's all! Goujet does not care to look like a stylish

She had taken out her notebook and was crossing off the various items.
Everything was in order. She noticed that Gervaise was charging six sous
for each bonnet. She protested, but had to agree that it was in line
with present prices. Men's shirts were five sous, women's underdrawers
four sous, pillow-cases a sou and a half, and aprons one sou. No, the
prices weren't high. Some laundresses charged a sou more for each item.

Gervaise was now calling out the soiled clothes, as she packed them in
her basket, for Madame Goujet to list. Then she lingered on, embarrassed
by a request which she wished to make.

"Madame Goujet," she said at length, "if it does not inconvenience you,
I would like to take the money for the month's washing."

It so happened that that month was a very heavy one, the account they
had made up together amounting to ten francs, seven sous. Madame Goujet
looked at her a moment in a serious manner, then she replied:

"My child, it shall be as you wish. I will not refuse you the money as
you are in need of it. Only it's scarcely the way to pay off your debt;
I say that for your sake, you know. Really now, you should be careful."

Gervaise received the lecture with bowed head and stammering excuses.
The ten francs were to make up the amount of a bill she had given her
coke merchant. But on hearing the word "bill," Madame Goujet became
severer still. She gave herself as an example; she had reduced her
expenditure ever since Goujet's wages had been lowered from twelve to
nine francs a day. When one was wanting in wisdom whilst young, one dies
of hunger in one's old age. But she held back and didn't tell Gervaise
that she gave her their laundry only in order to help her pay off the
debt. Before that she had done all her own washing, and she would have
to do it herself again if the laundry continued taking so much cash out
of her pocket. Gervaise spoke her thanks and left quickly as soon as she
had received the ten francs seven sous. Outside on the landing she was
so relieved she wanted to dance. She was becoming used to the annoying,
unpleasant difficulties caused by a shortage of money and preferred to
remember not the embarrassment but the joy in escaping from them.

It was also on that Saturday that Gervaise met with a rather strange
adventure as she descended the Goujets' staircase. She was obliged to
stand up close against the stair-rail with her basket to make way for
a tall bare-headed woman who was coming up, carrying in her hand a very
fresh mackerel, with bloody gills, in a piece of paper. She recognized
Virginie, the girl whose face she had slapped at the wash-house. They
looked each other full in the face. Gervaise shut her eyes. She thought
for a moment that she was going to be hit in the face with the fish. But
no, Virginie even smiled slightly. Then, as her basket was blocking the
staircase, the laundress wished to show how polite she, too, could be.

"I beg your pardon," she said.

"You are completely excused," replied the tall brunette.

And they remained conversing together on the stairs, reconciled at once
without having ventured on a single allusion to the past. Virginie,
then twenty-nine years old, had become a superb woman of strapping
proportions, her face, however, looking rather long between her two
plaits of jet black hair. She at once began to relate her history just
to show off. She had a husband now; she had married in the spring an
ex-journeyman cabinetmaker, who recently left the army, and who had
applied to be admitted into the police, because a post of that kind is
more to be depended upon and more respectable. She had been out to buy
the mackerel for him.

"He adores mackerel," said she. "We must spoil them, those naughty men,
mustn't we? But come up. You shall see our home. We are standing in a
draught here."

After Gervaise had told of her own marriage and that she had formerly
occupied the very apartment Virginie now had, Virginie urged her even
more strongly to come up since it is always nice to visit a spot where
one had been happy.

Virginie had lived for five years on the Left Bank at Gros-Caillou. That
was where she had met her husband while he was still in the army.
But she got tired of it, and wanted to come back to the Goutte-d'Or
neighborhood where she knew everyone. She had only been living in the
rooms opposite the Goujets for two weeks. Oh! everything was still a
mess, but they were slowly getting it in order.

Then, still on the staircase, they finally told each other their names.

"Madame Coupeau."

"Madame Poisson."

And from that time forth, they called each other on every possible
occasion Madame Poisson and Madame Coupeau, solely for the pleasure of
being madame, they who in former days had been acquainted when occupying
rather questionable positions. However, Gervaise felt rather mistrustful
at heart. Perhaps the tall brunette had made it up the better to avenge
herself for the beating at the wash-house by concocting some plan worthy
of a spiteful hypocritical creature. Gervaise determined to be upon her
guard. For the time being, as Virginie behaved so nicely, she would be
nice also.

In the room upstairs, Poisson, the husband, a man of thirty-five, with
a cadaverous-looking countenance and carroty moustaches and beard, was
seated working at a table near the window. He was making little boxes.
His only tools were a knife, a tiny saw the size of a nail file and
a pot of glue. He was using wood from old cigar boxes, thin boards of
unfinished mahogany upon which he executed fretwork and embellishments
of extraordinary delicacy. All year long he worked at making the same
size boxes, only varying them occasionally by inlay work, new designs
for the cover, or putting compartments inside. He did not sell his work,
he distributed it in presents to persons of his acquaintance. It was
for his own amusement, a way of occupying his time while waiting for his
appointment to the police force. It was all that remained with him from
his former occupation of cabinetmaking.

Poisson rose from his seat and politely bowed to Gervaise, when his
wife introduced her as an old friend. But he was no talker; he at once
returned to his little saw. From time to time he merely glanced in the
direction of the mackerel placed on the corner of the chest of drawers.
Gervaise was very pleased to see her old lodging once more. She told
them whereabouts her own furniture stood, and pointed out the place on
the floor where Nana had been born. How strange it was to meet like
this again, after so many years! They never dreamed of running into each
other like this and even living in the same rooms.

Virginie added some further details. Her husband had inherited a little
money from an aunt and he would probably set her up in a shop before
long. Meanwhile she was still sewing. At length, at the end of a full
half hour, the laundress took her leave. Poisson scarcely seemed to
notice her departure. While seeing her to the door, Virginie promised
to return the visit. And she would have Gervaise do her laundry.
While Virginie was keeping her in further conversation on the landing,
Gervaise had the feeling that she wanted to say something about Lantier
and her sister Adele, and this notion upset her a bit. But not a word
was uttered respecting those unpleasant things; they parted, wishing
each other good-bye in a very amiable manner.

"Good-bye, Madame Coupeau."

"Good-bye, Madame Poisson."

That was the starting point of a great friendship. A week later,
Virginie never passed Gervaise's shop without going in; and she remained
there gossiping for hours together, to such an extent indeed that
Poisson, filled with anxiety, fearing she had been run over, would come
and seek her with his expressionless and death-like countenance. Now
that she was seeing the dressmaker every day Gervaise became aware of
a strange obsession. Every time Virginie began to talk Gervaise had the
feeling Lantier was going to be mentioned. So she had Lantier on her
mind throughout all of Virginie's visits. This was silly because, in
fact, she didn't care a bit about Lantier or Adele at this time. She
was quite certain that she had no curiosity as to what had happened to
either of them. But this obsession got hold of her in spite of herself.
Anyway, she didn't hold it against Virginie, it wasn't her fault,
surely. She enjoyed being with her and looked forward to her visits.

Meanwhile winter had come, the Coupeaus' fourth winter in the Rue de la
Goutte-d'Or. December and January were particularly cold. It froze hard
as it well could. After New Year's day the snow remained three weeks
without melting. It did not interfere with work, but the contrary, for
winter is the best season for the ironers. It was very pleasant inside
the shop! There was never any ice on the window-panes like there was
at the grocer's and the hosier's opposite. The stove was always stuffed
with coke and kept things as hot as a Turkish bath. With the laundry
steaming overhead you could almost imagine it was summer. You were quite
comfortable with the doors closed and so much warmth everywhere that you
were tempted to doze off with your eyes open. Gervaise laughed and said
it reminded her of summer in the country. The street traffic made no
noise in the snow and you could hardly hear the pedestrians who passed
by. Only children's voices were heard in the silence, especially the
noisy band of urchins who had made a long slide in the gutter near the
blacksmith's shop.

Gervaise would sometimes go over to the door, wipe the moisture from one
of the panes with her hand, and look out to see what was happening to
her neighborhood due to this extraordinary cold spell. Not one nose
was being poked out of the adjacent shops. The entire neighborhood was
muffled in snow. The only person she was able to exchange nods with was
the coal-dealer next door, who still walked out bare-headed despite the
severe freeze.

What was especially enjoyable in this awful weather was to have some
nice hot coffee in the middle of the day. The workwomen had no cause
for complaint. The mistress made it very strong and without a grain of
chicory. It was quite different to Madame Fauconnier's coffee, which was
like ditch-water. Only whenever mother Coupeau undertook to make it, it
was always an interminable time before it was ready, because she would
fall asleep over the kettle. On these occasions, when the workwomen had
finished their lunch, they would do a little ironing whilst waiting for
the coffee.

It so happened that on the morrow of Twelfth-day half-past twelve struck
and still the coffee was not ready. It seemed to persist in declining to
pass through the strainer. Mother Coupeau tapped against the pot with a
tea-spoon; and one could hear the drops falling slowly, one by one, and
without hurrying themselves any the more.

"Leave it alone," said tall Clemence; "you'll make it thick. To-day
there'll be as much to eat as to drink."

Tall Clemence was working on a man's shirt, the plaits of which she
separated with her finger-nail. She had caught a cold, her eyes were
frightfully swollen and her chest was shaken with fits of coughing,
which doubled her up beside the work-table. With all that she had not
even a handkerchief round her neck and she was dressed in some cheap
flimsy woolen stuff in which she shivered. Close by, Madame Putois,
wrapped up in flannel muffled up to her ears, was ironing a petticoat
which she turned round the skirt-board, the narrow end of which rested
on the back of a chair; whilst a sheet laid on the floor prevented the
petticoat from getting dirty as it trailed along the tiles. Gervaise
alone occupied half the work-table with some embroidered muslin
curtains, over which she passed her iron in a straight line with her
arms stretched out to avoid making any creases. All on a sudden the
coffee running through noisily caused her to raise her head. It was that
squint-eyed Augustine who had just given it an outlet by thrusting a
spoon through the strainer.

"Leave it alone!" cried Gervaise. "Whatever is the matter with you?
It'll be like drinking mud now."

Mother Coupeau had placed five glasses on a corner of the work-table
that was free. The women now left their work. The mistress always poured
out the coffee herself after putting two lumps of sugar into each glass.
It was the moment that they all looked forward to. On this occasion, as
each one took her glass and squatted down on a little stool in front of
the stove, the shop-door opened. Virginie entered, shivering all over.

"Ah, my children," said she, "it cuts you in two! I can no longer feel
my ears. The cold is something awful!"

"Why, it's Madame Poisson!" exclaimed Gervaise. "Ah, well! You've come
at the right time. You must have some coffee with us."

"On my word, I can't say no. One feels the frost in one's bones merely
by crossing the street."

There was still some coffee left, luckily. Mother Coupeau went and
fetched a sixth glass, and Gervaise let Virginie help herself to sugar
out of politeness. The workwomen moved to give Virginie a small space
close to the stove. Her nose was very red, she shivered a bit, pressing
her hands which were stiff with cold around the glass to warm them. She
had just come from the grocery store where you froze to death waiting
for a quarter-pound of cheese and so she raved about the warmth of the
shop. It felt so good on one's skin. After warming up, she stretched out
her long legs and the six of them relaxed together, supping their coffee
slowly, surround by all the work still to be done. Mother Coupeau and
Virginie were the only ones on chairs, the others, on low benches,
seemed to be sitting on the floor. Squint-eyed Augustine had pulled over
a corner of the cloth below the skirt, stretching herself out on it.

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