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Émile Zola.

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it felt flattered and excited at seeing the crowd gathered there, gaping
with gluttony; it would have liked to have knocked out the shop-front
and dragged the table into the road-way, and there to have enjoyed the
dessert under the very nose of the public, and amidst the commotion of
the thoroughfare. Nothing disgusting was to be seen in them, was there?
Then there was no need to shut themselves in like selfish people.
Coupeau, noticing the little clockmaker looked very thirsty, held up a
bottle; and as the other nodded his head, he carried him the bottle
and a glass. A fraternity was established in the street. They drank to
anyone who passed. They called in any chaps who looked the right sort.
The feast spread, extending from one to another, to the degree that the
entire neighborhood of the Goutte-d'Or sniffed the grub, and held its
stomach, amidst a rumpus worthy of the devil and all his demons. For
some minutes, Madame Vigouroux, the charcoal-dealer, had been passing to
and fro before the door.

"Hi! Madame Vigouroux! Madame Vigouroux!" yelled the party.

She entered with a broad grin on her face, which was washed for once,
and so fat that the body of her dress was bursting. The men liked
pinching her, because they might pinch her all over without ever
encountering a bone. Boche made room for her beside him and reached
slyly under the table to grab her knee. But she, being accustomed to
that sort of thing, quietly tossed off a glass of wine, and related that
all the neighbors were at their windows, and that some of the people of
the house were beginning to get angry.

"Oh, that's our business," said Madame Boche. "We're the concierges,
aren't we? Well, we're answerable for good order. Let them come and
complain to us, we'll receive them in a way they don't expect."

In the back-room there had just been a furious fight between Nana and
Augustine, on account of the Dutch oven, which both wanted to scrape
out. For a quarter of an hour, the Dutch oven had rebounded over the
tile floor with the noise of an old saucepan. Nana was now nursing
little Victor, who had a goose-bone in his throat. She pushed her
fingers under his chin, and made him swallow big lumps of sugar by way
of a remedy. That did not prevent her keeping an eye on the big table.
At every minute she came and asked for wine, bread, or meat, for Etienne
and Pauline, she said.

"Here! Burst!" her mother would say to her. "Perhaps you'll leave us in
peace now!"

The children were scarcely able to swallow any longer, but they
continued to eat all the same, banging their forks down on the table to
the tune of a canticle, in order to excite themselves.

In the midst of the noise, however, a conversation was going on between
Pere Bru and mother Coupeau. The old fellow, who was ghastly pale in
spite of the wine and the food, was talking of his sons who had died in
the Crimea. Ah! if the lads had only lived, he would have had bread to
eat every day. But mother Coupeau, speaking thickly, leant towards him
and said:

"Ah! one has many worries with children! For instance, I appear to be
happy here, don't I? Well! I cry more often than you think. No, don't
wish you still had your children."

Pere Bru shook his head.

"I can't get work anywhere," murmured he. "I'm too old. When I enter a
workshop the young fellows joke, and ask me if I polished Henri IV.'s
boots. To-day it's all over; they won't have me anywhere. Last year I
could still earn thirty sous a day painting a bridge. I had to lie on
my back with the river flowing under me. I've had a bad cough ever since
then. Now, I'm finished."

He looked at his poor stiff hands and added:

"It's easy to understand, I'm no longer good for anything. They're
right; were I in their place I should do the same. You see, the
misfortune is that I'm not dead. Yes, it's my fault. One should lie down
and croak when one's no longer able to work."

"Really," said Lorilleux, who was listening, "I don't understand why
the Government doesn't come to the aid of the invalids of labor. I was
reading that in a newspaper the other day."

But Poisson thought it his duty to defend the Government.

"Workmen are not soldiers," declared he. "The Invalides is for soldiers.
You must not ask for what is impossible."

Dessert was now served. In the centre of the table was a Savoy cake in
the form of a temple, with a dome fluted with melon slices; and this
dome was surmounted by an artificial rose, close to which was a silver
paper butterfly, fluttering at the end of a wire. Two drops of gum in
the centre of the flower imitated dew. Then, to the left, a piece of
cream cheese floated in a deep dish; whilst in another dish to the
right, were piled up some large crushed strawberries, with the juice
running from them. However, there was still some salad left, some large
coss lettuce leaves soaked with oil.

"Come, Madame Boche," said Gervaise, coaxingly, "a little more salad. I
know how fond you are of it."

"No, no, thank you! I've already had as much as I can manage," replied
the concierge.

The laundress turning towards Virginie, the latter put her finger in her
mouth, as though to touch the food she had taken.

"Really, I'm full," murmured she. "There's no room left. I couldn't
swallow a mouthful."

"Oh! but if you tried a little," resumed Gervaise with a smile. "One can
always find a tiny corner empty. Once doesn't need to be hungry to be
able to eat salad. You're surely not going to let this be wasted?"

"You can eat it to-morrow," said Madame Lerat; "it's nicer when its
wilted."

The ladies sighed as they looked regretfully at the salad-bowl. Clemence
related that she had one day eaten three bunches of watercresses at
her lunch. Madame Putois could do more than that, she would take a coss
lettuce and munch it up with some salt just as it was without separating
the leaves. They could all have lived on salad, would have treated
themselves to tubfuls. And, this conversation aiding, the ladies cleaned
out the salad-bowl.

"I could go on all fours in a meadow," observed the concierge with her
mouth full.

Then they chuckled together as they eyed the dessert. Dessert did not
count. It came rather late but that did not matter; they would nurse
it all the same. When you're that stuffed, you can't let yourself be
stopped by strawberries and cake. There was no hurry. They had
the entire night if they wished. So they piled their plates with
strawberries and cream cheese. Meanwhile the men lit their pipes. They
were drinking the ordinary wine while they smoked since the special wine
had been finished. Now they insisted that Gervaise cut the Savoy cake.
Poisson got up and took the rose from the cake and presented it in
his most gallant manner to the hostess amidst applause from the other
guests. She pinned it over her left breast, near the heart. The silver
butterfly fluttered with her every movement.

"Well, look," exclaimed Lorilleux, who had just made a discovery, "it's
your work-table that we're eating off! Ah, well! I daresay it's never
seen so much work before!"

This malicious joke had a great success. Witty allusions came from all
sides. Clemence could not swallow a spoonful of strawberries without
saying that it was another shirt ironed; Madame Lerat pretended that the
cream cheese smelt of starch; whilst Madame Lorilleux said between her
teeth that it was capital fun to gobble up the money so quickly on the
very boards on which one had had so much trouble to earn it. There was
quite a tempest of shouts and laughter.

But suddenly a loud voice called for silence. It was Boche who, standing
up in an affected and vulgar way, was commencing to sing "The Volcano of
Love, or the Seductive Trooper."

A thunder of applause greeted the first verse. Yes, yes, they would sing
songs! Everyone in turn. It was more amusing than anything else. And
they all put their elbows on the table or leant back in their chairs,
nodding their heads at the best parts and sipping their wine when they
came to the choruses. That rogue Boche had a special gift for comic
songs. He would almost make the water pitchers laugh when he imitated
the raw recruit with his fingers apart and his hat on the back of his
head. Directly after "The Volcano of Love," he burst out into "The
Baroness de Follebiche," one of his greatest successes. When he reached
the third verse he turned towards Clemence and almost murmured it in a
slow and voluptuous tone of voice:

"The baroness had people there,
Her sisters four, oh! rare surprise;
And three were dark, and one was fair;
Between them, eight bewitching eyes."

Then the whole party, carried away, joined in the chorus. The men beat
time with their heels, whilst the ladies did the same with their knives
against their glasses. All of them singing at the top of their voices:

"By Jingo! who on earth will pay
A drink to the pa - to the pa - pa - ?
By Jingo! who on earth will pay
A drink to the pa - to the pa - tro - o - l?"

The panes of glass of the shop-front resounded, the singers' great
volume of breath agitated the muslin curtains. Whilst all this was going
on, Virginie had already twice disappeared and each time, on returning,
had leant towards Gervaise's ear to whisper a piece of information. When
she returned the third time, in the midst of the uproar, she said to
her:

"My dear, he's still at Francois's; he's pretending to read the
newspaper. He's certainly meditating some evil design."

She was speaking of Lantier. It was him that she had been watching. At
each fresh report Gervaise became more and more grave.

"Is he drunk?" asked she of Virginie.

"No," replied the tall brunette. "He looks as though he had merely had
what he required. It's that especially which makes me anxious. Why does
he remain there if he's had all he wanted? _Mon Dieu!_ I hope nothing is
going to happen!"

The laundress, greatly upset, begged her to leave off. A profound
silence suddenly succeeded the clamor. Madame Putois had just risen and
was about to sing "The Boarding of the Pirate." The guests, silent and
thoughtful, watched her; even Poisson had laid his pipe down on the
edge of the table the better to listen to her. She stood up to the full
height of her little figure, with a fierce expression about her, though
her face looked quite pale beneath her black cap; she thrust out her
left fist with a satisfied pride as she thundered in a voice bigger than
herself:

"If the pirate audacious
Should o'er the waves chase us,
The buccaneer slaughter,
Accord him no quarter.
To the guns every man,
And with rum fill each can!
While these pests of the seas
Dangle from the cross-trees."

That was something serious. By Jove! it gave one a fine idea of the real
thing. Poisson, who had been on board ship nodded his head in approval
of the description. One could see too that that song was in accordance
with Madame Putois's own feeling. Coupeau then told how Madame Putois,
one evening on Rue Poulet, had slapped the face of four men who sought
to attack her virtue.

With the assistance of mother Coupeau, Gervaise was now serving the
coffee, though some of the guests had not yet finished their Savoy cake.
They would not let her sit down again, but shouted that it was her turn.
With a pale face, and looking very ill at ease, she tried to excuse
herself; she seemed so queer that someone inquired whether the goose
had disagreed with her. She finally gave them "Oh! let me slumber!" in a
sweet and feeble voice. When she reached the chorus with its wish for
a sleep filled with beautiful dreams, her eyelids partly closed and her
rapt gaze lost itself in the darkness of the street.

Poisson stood next and with an abrupt bow to the ladies, sang a drinking
song: "The Wines of France." But his voice wasn't very musical and only
the final verse, a patriotic one mentioning the tricolor flag, was a
success. Then he raised his glass high, juggled it a moment, and poured
the contents into his open mouth.

Then came a string of ballads; Madame Boche's barcarolle was all about
Venice and the gondoliers; Madame Lorilleux sang of Seville and the
Andalusians in her bolero; whilst Lorilleux went so far as to allude to
the perfumes of Arabia, in reference to the loves of Fatima the dancer.

Golden horizons were opening up all around the heavily laden table. The
men were smoking their pipes and the women unconsciously smiling with
pleasure. All were dreaming they were far away.

Clemence began to sing softly "Let's Make a Nest" with a tremolo in
her voice which pleased them greatly for it made them think of the open
country, of songbirds, of dancing beneath an arbor, and of flowers. In
short, it made them think of the Bois de Vincennes when they went there
for a picnic.

But Virginie revived the joking with "My Little Drop of Brandy." She
imitated a camp follower, with one hand on her hip, the elbow arched to
indicate the little barrel; and with the other hand she poured out the
brandy into space by turning her fist round. She did it so well that
the party then begged mother Coupeau to sing "The Mouse." The old woman
refused, vowing that she did not know that naughty song. Yet she started
off with the remnants of her broken voice; and her wrinkled face
with its lively little eyes underlined the allusions, the terrors of
Mademoiselle Lise drawing her skirts around her at the sight of a mouse.
All the table laughed; the women could not keep their countenances, and
continued casting bright glances at their neighbors; it was not indecent
after all, there were no coarse words in it. All during the song Boche
was playing mouse up and down the legs of the lady coal-dealer. Things
might have gotten a bit out of line if Goujet, in response to a glance
from Gervaise, had not brought back the respectful silence with "The
Farewell of Abdul-Kader," which he sang out loudly in his bass voice.
The song rang out from his golden beard as if from a brass trumpet.
All the hearts skipped a beat when he cried, "Ah, my noble comrade!"
referring to the warrior's black mare. They burst into applause even
before the end.

"Now, Pere Bru, it's your turn!" said mother Coupeau. "Sing your song.
The old ones are the best any day!"

And everybody turned towards the old man, pressing him and encouraging
him. He, in a state of torpor, with his immovable mask of tanned skin,
looked at them without appearing to understand. They asked him if he
knew the "Five Vowels." He held down his head; he could not recollect
it; all the songs of the good old days were mixed up in his head. As
they made up their minds to leave him alone, he seemed to remember, and
began to stutter in a cavernous voice:

"Trou la la, trou la la,
Trou la, trou la, trou la la!"

His face assumed an animated expression, this chorus seemed to awake
some far-off gaieties within him, enjoyed by himself alone, as he
listened with a childish delight to his voice which became more and more
hollow.

"Say there, my dear," Virginie came and whispered in Gervaise's ear,
"I've just been there again, you know. It worried me. Well! Lantier has
disappeared from Francois's."

"You didn't meet him outside?" asked the laundress.

"No, I walked quickly, not as if I was looking for him."

But Virginie raised her eyes, interrupted herself and heaved a smothered
sigh.

"Ah! _Mon Dieu!_ He's there, on the pavement opposite; he's looking this
way."

Gervaise, quite beside herself, ventured to glance in the direction
indicated. Some persons had collected in the street to hear the party
sing. And Lantier was indeed there in the front row, listening and
coolly looking on. It was rare cheek, everything considered. Gervaise
felt a chill ascend from her legs to her heart, and she no longer dared
to move, whilst old Bru continued:

"Trou la la, trou la la,
Trou la, trou la, trou la la!"

"Very good. Thank you, my ancient one, that's enough!" said Coupeau. "Do
you know the whole of it? You shall sing it for us another day when we
need something sad."

This raised a few laughs. The old fellow stopped short, glanced round
the table with his pale eyes and resumed his look of a meditative
animal. Coupeau called for more wine as the coffee was finished.
Clemence was eating strawberries again. With the pause in singing, they
began to talk about a woman who had been found hanging that morning in
the building next door. It was Madame Lerat's turn, but she required
to prepare herself. She dipped the corner of her napkin into a glass of
water and applied it to her temples because she was too hot. Then, she
asked for a thimbleful of brandy, drank it, and slowly wiped her lips.

"The 'Child of God,' shall it be?" she murmured, "the 'Child of God.'"

And, tall and masculine-looking, with her bony nose and her shoulders as
square as a grenadier's she began:

"The lost child left by its mother alone
Is sure of a home in Heaven above,
God sees and protects it on earth from His throne,
The child that is lost is the child of God's love."

Her voice trembled at certain words, and dwelt on them in liquid notes;
she looked out of the corner of her eyes to heaven, whilst her right
hand swung before her chest or pressed against her heart with an
impressive gesture. Then Gervaise, tortured by Lantier's presence, could
not restrain her tears; it seemed to her that the song was relating her
own suffering, that she was the lost child, abandoned by its mother, and
whom God was going to take under his protection. Clemence was now very
drunk and she burst into loud sobbing and placed her head down onto the
table in an effort to smother her gasps. There was a hush vibrant with
emotion.

The ladies had pulled out their handkerchiefs, and were drying their
eyes, with their heads erect from pride. The men had bowed their heads
and were staring straight before them, blinking back their tears.
Poisson bit off the end of his pipe twice while gulping and gasping.
Boche, with two large tears trickling down his face, wasn't even
bothering to squeeze the coal-dealer's knee any longer. All these drunk
revelers were as soft-hearted as lambs. Wasn't the wine almost coming
out of their eyes? When the refrain began again, they all let themselves
go, blubbering into their plates.

But Gervaise and Virginie could not, in spite of themselves, take their
eyes off the pavement opposite. Madame Boche, in her turn, caught sight
of Lantier and uttered a faint cry without ceasing to besmear her face
with her tears. Then all three had very anxious faces as they exchanged
involuntary signs. _Mon Dieu!_ if Coupeau were to turn round, if Coupeau
caught sight of the other! What a butchery! What carnage! And they went
on to such an extent that the zinc-worker asked them:

"Whatever are you looking at?"

He leant forward and recognized Lantier.

"Damnation! It's too much," muttered he. "Ah! the dirty scoundrel - ah!
the dirty scoundrel. No, it's too much, it must come to an end."

And as he rose from his seat muttering most atrocious threats, Gervaise,
in a low voice, implored him to keep quiet.

"Listen to me, I implore you. Leave the knife alone. Remain where you
are, don't do anything dreadful."

Virginie had to take the knife which he had picked up off the table
from him. But she could not prevent him leaving the shop and going up to
Lantier.

Those around the table saw nothing of this, so involved were they in
weeping over the song as Madame Lerat sang the last verse. It sounded
like a moaning wail of the wind and Madame Putois was so moved that she
spilled her wine over the table. Gervaise remained frozen with fright,
one hand tight against her lips to stifle her sobs. She expected at any
moment to see one of the two men fall unconscious in the street.

As Coupeau rushed toward Lantier, he was so astonished by the fresh air
that he staggered, and Lantier, with his hands in his pockets, merely
took a step to the side. Now the two men were almost shouting at each
other, Coupeau calling the other a lousy pig and threatening to make
sausage of his guts. They were shouting loudly and angrily and waving
their arms violently. Gervaise felt faint and as it continued for a
while, she closed her eyes. Suddenly, she didn't hear any shouting and
opened her eyes. The two men were chatting amiably together.

Madame Lerat's voice rose higher and higher, warbling another verse.

Gervaise exchanged a glance with Madame Boche and Virginie. Was it going
to end amicably then? Coupeau and Lantier continued to converse on
the edge of the pavement. They were still abusing each other, but in a
friendly way. As people were staring at them, they ended by strolling
leisurely side by side past the houses, turning round again every ten
yards or so. A very animated conversation was now taking place. Suddenly
Coupeau appeared to become angry again, whilst the other was refusing
something and required to be pressed. And it was the zinc-worker who
pushed Lantier along and who forced him to cross the street and enter
the shop.

"I tell you, you're quite welcome!" shouted he. "You'll take a glass of
wine. Men are men, you know. We ought to understand each other."

Madame Lerat was finishing the last chorus. The ladies were singing all
together as they twisted their handkerchiefs.

"The child that is lost is the child of God's love."

The singer was greatly complimented and she resumed her seat affecting
to be quite broken down. She asked for something to drink because she
always put too much feeling into that song and she was constantly afraid
of straining her vocal chords. Everyone at the table now had their eyes
fixed on Lantier who, quietly seated beside Coupeau, was devouring the
last piece of Savoy cake which he dipped in his glass of wine. With the
exception of Virginie and Madame Boche none of the guests knew him. The
Lorilleuxs certainly scented some underhand business, but not knowing
what, they merely assumed their most conceited air. Goujet, who had
noticed Gervaise's emotion, gave the newcomer a sour look. As an awkward
pause ensued Coupeau simply said:

"A friend of mine."

And turning to his wife, added:

"Come, stir yourself! Perhaps there's still some hot coffee left."

Gervaise, feeling meek and stupid, looked at them one after the other.
At first, when her husband pushed her old lover into the shop, she
buried her head between her hands, the same as she instinctively did on
stormy days at each clap of thunder. She could not believe it possible;
the walls would fall in and crush them all. Then, when she saw the two
sitting together peacefully, she suddenly accepted it as quite natural.
A happy feeling of languor benumbed her, retained her all in a heap at
the edge of the table, with the sole desire of not being bothered. _Mon
Dieu!_ what is the use of putting oneself out when others do not, and
when things arrange themselves to the satisfaction of everybody? She got
up to see if there was any coffee left.

In the back-room the children had fallen asleep. That squint-eyed
Augustine had tyrannized over them all during the dessert, pilfering
their strawberries and frightening them with the most abominable
threats. Now she felt very ill, and was bent double upon a stool, not
uttering a word, her face ghastly pale. Fat Pauline had let her head
fall against Etienne's shoulder, and he himself was sleeping on the
edge of the table. Nana was seated with Victor on the rug beside the
bedstead, she had passed her arm round his neck and was drawing him
towards her; and, succumbing to drowsiness and with her eyes shut, she
kept repeating in a feeble voice:

"Oh! Mamma, I'm not well; oh! mamma, I'm not well."

"No wonder!" murmured Augustine, whose head was rolling about on her
shoulders, "they're drunk; they've been singing like grown up persons."

Gervaise received another blow on beholding Etienne. She felt as though
she would choke when she thought of the youngster's father being there
in the other room, eating cake, and that he had not even expressed
a desire to kiss the little fellow. She was on the point of rousing
Etienne and of carrying him there in her arms. Then she again felt that
the quiet way in which matters had been arranged was the best. It would
not have been proper to have disturbed the harmony of the end of the
dinner. She returned with the coffee-pot and poured out a glass of
coffee for Lantier, who, by the way, did not appear to take any notice
of her.

"Now, it's my turn," stuttered Coupeau, in a thick voice. "You've



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 19 of 36)