Copyright
Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

. (page 16 of 36)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 16 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


No one spoke at first; all kept their noses in their glasses, enjoying
their coffee.

"It's not bad, all the same," declared Clemence.

But she was seized with a fit of coughing, and almost choked. She leant
her head against the wall to cough with more force.

"That's a bad cough you've got," said Virginie. "Wherever did you catch
it?"

"One never knows!" replied Clemence, wiping her face with her sleeve.
"It must have been the other night. There were two girls who were
flaying each other outside the 'Grand-Balcony.' I wanted to see, so I
stood there whilst the snow was falling. Ah, what a drubbing! It was
enough to make one die with laughing. One had her nose almost pulled
off; the blood streamed on the ground. When the other, a great long
stick like me, saw the blood, she slipped away as quick as she could.
And I coughed nearly all night. Besides that too, men are so stupid in
bed, they don't let you have any covers over you half the time."

"Pretty conduct that," murmured Madame Putois. "You're killing yourself,
my girl."

"And if it pleases me to kill myself! Life isn't so very amusing.
Slaving all the blessed day long to earn fifty-five sous, cooking one's
blood from morning to night in front of the stove; no, you know, I've
had enough of it! All the same though, this cough won't do me the
service of making me croak. It'll go off the same way it came."

A short silence ensued. The good-for-nothing Clemence, who led riots
in low dancing establishments, and shrieked like a screech-owl at work,
always saddened everyone with her thoughts of death. Gervaise knew her
well, and so merely said:

"You're never very gay the morning after a night of high living."

The truth was that Gervaise did not like this talk about women fighting.
Because of the flogging at the wash-house it annoyed her whenever anyone
spoke before her and Virginie of kicks with wooden shoes and of slaps
in the face. It so happened, too, that Virginie was looking at her and
smiling.

"By the way," she said quietly, "yesterday I saw some hair-pulling. They
almost tore each other to pieces."

"Who were they?" Madame Putois inquired.

"The midwife and her maid, you know, a little blonde. What a pest the
girl is! She was yelling at her employer that she had got rid of a child
for the fruit woman and that she was going to tell the police if she
wasn't paid to keep quiet. So the midwife slapped her right in the face
and then the little blonde jumped on her and started scratching her and
pulling her hair, really - by the roots. The sausage-man had to grab her
to put a stop to it."

The workwomen laughed. Then they all took a sip of coffee.

"Do you believe that she really got rid of a child?" Clemence asked.

"Oh, yes! The rumor was all round the neighborhood," Virginie answered.
"I didn't see it myself, you understand, but it's part of the job. All
midwives do it."

"Well!" exclaimed Madame Putois. "You have to be pretty stupid to put
yourself in their hands. No thanks, you could be maimed for life. But
there's a sure way to do it. Drink a glass of holy water every evening
and make the sign of the cross three times over your stomach with your
thumb. Then your troubles will be over."

Everyone thought mother Coupeau was asleep, but she shook her head in
protest. She knew another way and it was infallible. You had to eat a
hard-cooked egg every two hours, and put spinach leaves on your loins.
Squint-eyed Augustine set up a hen-cackling when she heard this. They
had forgotten about her. Gervaise lifted up the petticoat that was being
ironed and found her rolling on the floor with laughter. She jerked
her upright. What was she laughing about? Was it right for her to be
eavesdropping when older people were talking, the little goose? Anyway
it was time for her to deliver the laundry to a friend of Madame Lerat
at Les Batignolles. So Gervaise hung a basket on her arm and pushed her
toward the door. Augustine went off, sobbing and sniveling, dragging her
feet in the snow.

Meanwhile mother Coupeau, Madame Putois and Clemence were discussing the
effectiveness of hard-cooked eggs and spinach leaves. Then Virginie said
softly:

"_Mon Dieu!_ you have a fight, and then you make it up, if you have
a generous heart." She leaned toward Gervaise with a smile and added,
"Really, I don't hold any grudge against you for that business at the
wash-house. You remember it, don't you?"

This was what Gervaise had been dreading. She guessed that the subject
of Lantier and Adele would now come up.

Virginie had moved close to Gervaise so as not to be overheard by the
others. Gervaise, lulled by the excessive heat, felt so limp that she
couldn't even summon the willpower to change the subject. She foresaw
what the tall brunette would say and her heart was stirred with an
emotion which she didn't want to admit to herself.

"I hope I'm not hurting your feelings," Virginie continued. "Often I've
had it on the tip of my tongue. But since we are now on the subject,
word of honor, I don't have any grudge against you."

She stirred her remaining coffee and then took a small sip. Gervaise,
with her heart in her throat, wondered if Virginie had really forgiven
her as completely as she said, for she seemed to observe sparks in her
dark eyes.

"You see," Virginie went on, "you had an excuse. They played a really
rotten, dirty trick on you. To be fair about it, if it had been me, I'd
have taken a knife to her."

She drank another small sip, then added rapidly without a pause:

"Anyway, it didn't bring them happiness, _mon Dieu_! Not a bit of it.
They went to live over at La Glaciere, in a filthy street that was
always muddy. I went two days later to have lunch with them. I can tell
you, it was quite a trip by bus. Well, I found them already fighting.
Really, as I came in they were boxing each other's ears. Fine pair of
love birds! Adele isn't worth the rope to hang her. I say that even if
she is my own sister. It would take too long to relate all the nasty
tricks she played on me, and anyhow, it's between the two of us. As
for Lantier - well, he's no good either. He'd beat the hide off you for
anything, and with his fist closed too. They fought all the time. The
police even came once."

Virginie went on about other fights. Oh, she knew of things that would
make your hair stand up. Gervaise listened in silence, her face pale.
It was nearly seven years since she had heard a word about Lantier. She
hadn't realized what a strong curiosity she had as to what had become of
the poor man, even though he had treated her badly. And she never would
have believed that just the mention of his name could put such a glowing
warmth in the pit of her stomach. She certainly had no reason to be
jealous of Adele any more but she rejoiced to think of her body all
bruised from the beatings. She could have listened to Virginie all
night, but she didn't ask any questions, not wanting to appear much
interested.

Virginie stopped to sip at her coffee. Gervaise, realizing that she was
expected to say something, asked, with a pretence of indifference:

"Are they still living at La Glaciere?"

"No!" the other replied. "Didn't I tell you? They separated last week.
One morning, Adele moved out and Lantier didn't chase after her."

"So they're separated!" Gervaise exclaimed.

"Who are you talking about?" Clemence asked, interrupting her
conversation with mother Coupeau and Madame Putois.

"Nobody you know," said Virginie.

She was looking at Gervaise carefully and could see that she was upset.
She moved still closer, maliciously finding pleasure in bringing up
these old stories. Of a sudden she asked Gervaise what she would do
if Lantier came round here. Men were really such strange creatures, he
might decide to return to his first love. This caused Gervaise to sit
up very straight and dignified. She was a married woman; she would send
Lantier off immediately. There was no possibility of anything further
between them, not even a handshake. She would not even want to look that
man in the face.

"I know that Etienne is his son, and that's a relationship that
remains," she said. "If Lantier wants to see his son, I'll send the boy
to him because you can't stop a father from seeing his child. But as for
myself, I don't want him to touch me even with the tip of his finger.
That is all finished."

Desiring to break off this conversation, she seemed to awake with a
start and called out to the women:

"You ladies! Do you think all these clothes are going to iron
themselves? Get to work!"

The workwomen, slow from the heat and general laziness, didn't hurry
themselves, but went right on talking, gossiping about other people they
had known.

Gervaise shook herself and got to her feet. Couldn't earn money by
sitting all day. She was the first to return to the ironing, but found
that her curtains had been spotted by the coffee and she had to rub out
the stains with a damp cloth. The other women were now stretching and
getting ready to begin ironing.

Clemence had a terrible attack of coughing as soon as she moved. Finally
she was able to return to the shirt she had been doing. Madame Putois
began to work on the petticoat again.

"Well, good-bye," said Virginie. "I only came out for a quarter-pound of
Swiss cheese. Poisson must think I've frozen to death on the way."

She had only just stepped outside when she turned back to say that
Augustine was at the end of the street, sliding on the ice with some
urchins. The squint-eyed imp rushed in all red-faced and out of breath
with snow all in her hair. She didn't mind the scolding she received,
merely saying that she hadn't been able to walk fast because of the ice
and then some brats threw snow at her.

The afternoons were all the same these winter days. The laundry was the
refuge for anyone in the neighborhood who was cold. There was an endless
procession of gossiping women. Gervaise took pride in the comforting
warmth of her shop and welcomed those who came in, "holding a salon," as
the Lorilleuxs and the Boches remarked meanly.

Gervaise was always thoughtful and generous. Sometimes she even invited
poor people in if she saw them shivering outside. A friendship sprang up
with an elderly house-painter who was seventy. He lived in an attic room
and was slowly dying of cold and hunger. His three sons had been killed
in the war. He survived the best he could, but it had been two years
since he had been able to hold a paint-brush in his hand. Whenever
Gervaise saw Pere Bru walking outside, she would call him in and arrange
a place for him close to the stove. Often she gave him some bread and
cheese. Pere Bru's face was as wrinkled as a withered apple. He would
sit there, with his stooping shoulders and his white beard, without
saying a word, just listening to the coke sputtering in the stove. Maybe
he was thinking of his fifty years of hard work on high ladders, his
fifty years spent painting doors and whitewashing ceilings in every
corner of Paris.

"Well, Pere Bru," Gervaise would say, "what are you thinking of now?"

"Nothing much. All sorts of things," he would answer quietly.

The workwomen tried to joke with him to cheer him up, saying he was
worrying over his love affairs, but he scarcely listened to them before
he fell back into his habitual attitude of meditative melancholy.

Virginie now frequently spoke to Gervaise of Lantier. She seemed to find
amusement in filling her mind with ideas of her old lover just for the
pleasure of embarrassing her by making suggestions. One day she related
that she had met him; then, as the laundress took no notice, she said
nothing further, and it was only on the morrow that she added he had
spoken about her for a long time, and with a great show of affection.
Gervaise was much upset by these reports whispered in her ear in a
corner of the shop. The mention of Lantier's name always caused a
worried sensation in the pit of her stomach. She certainly thought
herself strong; she wished to lead the life of an industrious woman,
because labor is the half of happiness. So she never considered Coupeau
in this matter, having nothing to reproach herself with as regarded her
husband, not even in her thoughts. But with a hesitating and suffering
heart, she would think of the blacksmith. It seemed to her that the
memory of Lantier - that slow possession which she was resuming - rendered
her unfaithful to Goujet, to their unavowed love, sweet as friendship.
She passed sad days whenever she felt herself guilty towards her good
friend. She would have liked to have had no affection for anyone but him
outside of her family. It was a feeling far above all carnal thoughts,
for the signs of which upon her burning face Virginie was ever on the
watch.

As soon as spring came Gervaise often went and sought refuge with
Goujet. She could no longer sit musing on a chair without immediately
thinking of her first lover; she pictured him leaving Adele, packing his
clothes in the bottom of their old trunk, and returning to her in a cab.
The days when she went out, she was seized with the most foolish fears
in the street; she was ever thinking she heard Lantier's footsteps
behind her. She did not dare turn round, but tremblingly fancied she
felt his hands seizing her round the waist. He was, no doubt, spying
upon her; he would appear before her some afternoon; and the bare idea
threw her into a cold perspiration, because he would to a certainty kiss
her on the ear, as he used to do in former days solely to tease her. It
was this kiss which frightened her; it rendered her deaf beforehand; it
filled her with a buzzing amidst which she could only distinguish the
sound of her heart beating violently. So, as soon as these fears
seized upon her, the forge was her only shelter; there, under Goujet's
protection, she once more became easy and smiling, as his sonorous
hammer drove away her disagreeable reflections.

What a happy time! The laundress took particular pains with the washing
of her customer in the Rue des Portes-Blanches; she always took it
home herself because that errand, every Friday, was a ready excuse for
passing through the Rue Marcadet and looking in at the forge. The moment
she turned the corner of the street she felt light and gay, as though in
the midst of those plots of waste land surrounded by grey factories, she
were out in the country; the roadway black with coal-dust, the plumage
of steam over the roofs, amused her as much as a moss-covered path
leading through masses of green foliage in a wood in the environs; and
she loved the dull horizon, streaked by the tall factory-chimneys, the
Montmartre heights, which hid the heavens from view, the chalky white
houses pierced with the uniform openings of their windows. She would
slacken her steps as she drew near, jumping over the pools of water, and
finding a pleasure in traversing the deserted ins and outs of the yard
full of old building materials. Right at the further end the forge shone
with a brilliant light, even at mid-day. Her heart leapt with the dance
of the hammers. When she entered, her face turned quite red, the little
fair hairs at the nape of her neck flew about like those of a woman
arriving at some lovers' meeting. Goujet was expecting her, his arms and
chest bare, whilst he hammered harder on the anvil on those days so
as to make himself heard at a distance. He divined her presence, and
greeted her with a good silent laugh in his yellow beard. But she would
not let him leave off his work; she begged him to take up his hammer
again, because she loved him the more when he wielded it with his big
arms swollen with muscles. She would go and give Etienne a gentle tap
on the cheek, as he hung on to the bellows, and then remain for an hour
watching the rivets.

The two did not exchange a dozen words. They could not have more
completely satisfied their love if alone in a room with the
door double-locked. The snickering of Salted-Mouth, otherwise
Drink-without-Thirst, did not bother them in the least, for they no
longer even heard him. At the end of a quarter of an hour she would
begin to feel slightly oppressed; the heat, the powerful smell, the
ascending smoke, made her dizzy, whilst the dull thuds of the hammers
shook her from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet. Then she
desired nothing more; it was her pleasure. Had Goujet pressed her in his
arms it would not have procured her so sweet an emotion. She drew close
to him that she might feel the wind raised by his hammer beat upon her
cheek, and become, as it were, a part of the blow he struck. When the
sparks made her soft hands smart, she did not withdraw them; on the
contrary, she enjoyed the rain of fire which stung her skin. He for
certain, divined the happiness which she tasted there; he always kept
the most difficult work for the Fridays, so as to pay his court to her
with all his strength and all his skill; he no longer spared himself
at the risk of splitting the anvils in two, as he panted and his loins
vibrated with the joy he was procuring her. All one spring-time their
love thus filled Goujet with the rumbling of a storm. It was an idyll
amongst giant-like labor in the midst of the glare of the coal fire, and
of the shaking of the shed, the cracking carcass of which was black with
soot. All that beaten iron, kneaded like red wax, preserved the rough
marks of their love. When on the Fridays the laundress parted from
Golden-Mug, she slowly reascended the Rue des Poissonniers, contented
and tired, her mind and her body alike tranquil.

Little by little, her fear of Lantier diminished; her good sense got the
better of her. At that time she would still have led a happy life, had
it not been for Coupeau, who was decidedly going to the bad. One day
she just happened to be returning from the forge, when she fancied she
recognized Coupeau inside Pere Colombe's l'Assommoir, in the act of
treating himself to a round of vitriol in the company of My-Boots,
Bibi-the-Smoker, and Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst.
She passed quickly by, so as not to seem to be spying on them. But she
glanced back; it was indeed Coupeau who was tossing his little glass
of bad brandy down his throat with a gesture already familiar. He lied
then; so he went in for brandy now! She returned home in despair; all
her old dread of brandy took possession of her. She forgave the
wine, because wine nourishes the workman; all kinds of spirit, on the
contrary, were filth, poisons which destroyed in the workman the taste
for bread. Ah! the government ought to prevent the manufacture of such
horrid stuff!

On arriving at the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, she found the whole house
upset. Her workwomen had left the shop, and were in the courtyard
looking up above. She questioned Clemence.

"It's old Bijard who's giving his wife a hiding," replied the ironer.
"He was in the doorway, as drunk as a trooper, watching for her
return from the wash-house. He whacked her up the stairs, and now he's
finishing her off up there in their room. Listen, can't you hear her
shrieks?"

Gervaise hastened to the spot. She felt some friendship for her
washer-woman, Madame Bijard, who was a very courageous woman. She had
hoped to put a stop to what was going on. Upstairs, on the sixth floor
the door of the room was wide open, some lodgers were shouting on the
landing, whilst Madame Boche, standing in front of the door, was calling
out:

"Will you leave off? I shall send for the police; do you hear?"

No one dared to venture inside the room, because it was known that
Bijard was like a brute beast when he was drunk. As a matter of fact, he
was scarcely ever sober. The rare days on which he worked, he placed a
bottle of brandy beside his blacksmith's vise, gulping some of it down
every half hour. He could not keep himself going any other way. He would
have blazed away like a torch if anyone had placed a lighted match close
to his mouth.

"But we mustn't let her be murdered!" said Gervaise, all in a tremble.

And she entered. The room, an attic, and very clean, was bare and cold,
almost emptied by the drunken habits of the man, who took the very
sheets from the bed to turn them into liquor. During the struggle the
table had rolled away to the window, the two chairs, knocked over, had
fallen with their legs in the air. In the middle of the room, on the
tile floor, lay Madame Bijard, all bloody, her skirts, still soaked with
the water of the wash-house, clinging to her thighs, her hair straggling
in disorder. She was breathing heavily, with a rattle in her throat, as
she muttered prolonged ohs! each time she received a blow from the heel
of Bijard's boot. He had knocked her down with his fists, and now he
stamped upon her.

"Ah, strumpet! Ah, strumpet! Ah strumpet!" grunted he in a choking
voice, accompanying each blow with the word, taking a delight in
repeating it, and striking all the harder the more he found his voice
failing him.

Then when he could no longer speak, he madly continued to kick with
a dull sound, rigid in his ragged blue blouse and overalls, his face
turned purple beneath his dirty beard, and his bald forehead streaked
with big red blotches. The neighbors on the landing related that he
was beating her because she had refused him twenty sous that morning.
Boche's voice was heard at the foot of the staircase. He was calling
Madame Boche, saying:

"Come down; let them kill each other, it'll be so much scum the less."

Meanwhile, Pere Bru had followed Gervaise into the room. Between them
they were trying to get him towards the door. But he turned round,
speechless and foaming at the lips, and in his pale eyes the alcohol was
blazing with a murderous glare. The laundress had her wrist injured; the
old workman was knocked against the table. On the floor, Madame Bijard
was breathing with greater difficulty, her mouth wide open, her eyes
closed. Now Bijard kept missing her. He had madly returned to the
attack, but blinded by rage, his blows fell on either side, and at
times he almost fell when his kicks went into space. And during all this
onslaught, Gervaise beheld in a corner of the room little Lalie, then
four years old, watching her father murdering her mother. The child
held in her arms, as though to protect her, her sister Henriette, only
recently weaned. She was standing up, her head covered with a cotton
cap, her face very pale and grave. Her large black eyes gazed with a
fixedness full of thought and were without a tear.

When at length Bijard, running against a chair, stumbled onto the tiled
floor, where they left him snoring, Pere Bru helped Gervaise to raise
Madame Bijard. The latter was now sobbing bitterly; and Lalie, drawing
near, watched her crying, being used to such sights and already resigned
to them. As the laundress descended the stairs, in the silence of the
now quieted house, she kept seeing before her that look of this child of
four, as grave and courageous as that of a woman.

"Monsieur Coupeau is on the other side of the street," called out
Clemence as soon as she caught sight of her. "He looks awfully drunk."

Coupeau was just then crossing the street. He almost smashed a pane
of glass with his shoulder as he missed the door. He was in a state of
complete drunkenness, with his teeth clinched and his nose inflamed. And
Gervaise at once recognized the vitriol of l'Assommoir in the poisoned
blood which paled his skin. She tried to joke and get him to bed, the
same as on the days when the wine had made him merry; but he pushed her
aside without opening his lips, and raised his fist in passing as he
went to bed of his own accord. He made Gervaise think of the other - the
drunkard who was snoring upstairs, tired out by the blows he had struck.
A cold shiver passed over her. She thought of the men she knew - of her
husband, of Goujet, of Lantier - her heart breaking, despairing of ever
being happy.



CHAPTER VII.

Gervaise's saint's day fell on the 19th of June. On such occasions, the
Coupeaus always made a grand display; they feasted till they were as
round as balls, and their stomachs were filled for the rest of the week.
There was a complete clear out of all the money they had. The moment
there were a few sous in the house they went in gorging. They invented
saints for those days which the almanac had not provided with any, just
for the sake of giving themselves a pretext for gormandizing. Virginie
highly commended Gervaise for stuffing herself with all sorts of savory
dishes. When one has a husband who turns all he can lay hands on into
drink, it's good to line one's stomach well, and not to let everything



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 16 of 36)