Émile Zola.

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All around the women continuously flowed a river from hot-water buckets
emptied with a sudden splash, cold-water faucets left dripping, soap
suds spattering, and the dripping from rinsed laundry which was hung up.
It splashed their feet and drained away across the sloping flagstones.
The din of the shouting and the rhythmic beating was joined by
the patter of steady dripping. It was slightly muffled by the
moisture-soaked ceiling. Meanwhile, the steam engine could be heard as
it puffed and snorted ceaselessly while cloaked in its white mist. The
dancing vibration of its flywheel seemed to regulate the volume of the
noisy turbulence.

Gervaise passed slowly along the alley, looking to the right and left,
carrying her laundry bundle under one arm, with one hip thrust high and
limping more than usual. She was jostled by several women in the hubbub.

"This way, my dear!" cried Madame Boche, in her loud voice. Then,
when the young woman had joined her at the very end on the left,
the concierge, who was furiously rubbing a dirty sock, began to talk
incessantly, without leaving off her work. "Put your things there,
I've kept your place. Oh, I sha'n't be long over what I've got. Boche
scarcely dirties his things at all. And you, you won't be long either,
will you? Your bundle's quite a little one. Before twelve o'clock we
shall have finished, and we can go off to lunch. I used to send my
things to a laundress in the Rue Poulet, but she destroyed everything
with her chlorine and her brushes; so now I do the washing myself. It's
so much saved; it only costs the soap. I say, you should have put those
shirts to soak. Those little rascals of children, on my word! One would
think their bodies were covered with soot."

Gervaise, having undone her bundle, was spreading out the little ones'
shirts, and as Madame Boche advised her to take a pailful of lye, she
answered, "Oh, no! warm water will do. I'm used to it." She had sorted
her laundry with several colored pieces to one side. Then, after filling
her tub with four pails of cold water from the tap behind her, she
plunged her pile of whites into it.

"You're used to it?" repeated Madame Boche. "You were a washerwoman in
your native place, weren't you, my dear?"

Gervaise, with her sleeves pushed back, displayed the graceful arms of
a young blonde, as yet scarcely reddened at the elbows, and started
scrubbing her laundry. She spread a shirt out on the narrow rubbing
board which was water-bleached and eroded by years of use. She rubbed
soap into the shirt, turned it over, and soaped the other side. Before
replying to Madame Boche she grasped her beetle and began to pound
away so that her shouted phrases were punctuated with loud and rhythmic

"Yes, yes, a washerwoman - When I was ten - That's twelve years ago - We
used to go to the river - It smelt nicer there than it does here - You
should have seen, there was a nook under the trees, with clear running
water - You know, at Plassans - Don't you know Plassans? - It's near

"How you go at it!" exclaimed Madame Boche, amazed at the strength
of her blows. "You could flatten out a piece of iron with your little
lady-like arms."

The conversation continued in a very high volume. At times, the
concierge, not catching what was said, was obliged to lean forward. All
the linen was beaten, and with a will! Gervaise plunged it into the tub
again, and then took it out once more, each article separately, to rub
it over with soap a second time and brush it. With one hand she held
the article firmly on the plank; with the other, which grasped the short
couch-grass brush, she extracted from the linen a dirty lather, which
fell in long drips. Then, in the slight noise caused by the brush, the
two women drew together, and conversed in a more intimate way.

"No, we're not married," resumed Gervaise. "I don't hide it. Lantier
isn't so nice for any one to care to be his wife. If it weren't for the
children! I was fourteen and he was eighteen when we had our first one.
It happened in the usual way, you know how it is. I wasn't happy at
home. Old man Macquart would kick me in the tail whenever he felt like
it, for no reason at all. I had to have some fun outside. We might have
been married, but - I forget why - our parents wouldn't consent."

She shook her hands, which were growing red in the white suds. "The
water's awfully hard in Paris."

Madame Boche was now washing only very slowly. She kept leaving off,
making her work last as long as she could, so as to remain there, to
listen to that story, which her curiosity had been hankering to know for
a fortnight past. Her mouth was half open in the midst of her big, fat
face; her eyes, which were almost at the top of her head, were gleaming.
She was thinking, with the satisfaction of having guessed right.

"That's it, the little one gossips too much. There's been a row."

Then, she observed out loud, "He isn't nice, then?"

"Don't mention it!" replied Gervaise. "He used to behave very well in
the country; but, since we've been in Paris, he's been unbearable.
I must tell you that his mother died last year and left him some
money - about seventeen hundred francs. He would come to Paris, so, as
old Macquart was forever knocking me about without warning, I consented
to come away with him. We made the journey with two children. He was to
set me up as a laundress, and work himself at his trade of a hatter.
We should have been very happy; but, you see, Lantier's ambitious and a
spendthrift, a fellow who only thinks of amusing himself. In short, he's
not worth much. On arriving, we went to the Hotel Montmartre, in the Rue
Montmartre. And then there were dinners, and cabs, and the theatre; a
watch for himself and a silk dress for me, for he's not unkind when he's
got the money. You understand, he went in for everything, and so well
that at the end of two months we were cleaned out. It was then that we
came to live at the Hotel Boncoeur, and that this horrible life began."

She interrupted herself. A lump had suddenly risen in her throat, and
she could scarcely restrain her tears. She had finished brushing the

"I must go and fetch my hot water," she murmured.

But Madame Boche, greatly disappointed at this break off in the
disclosures, called to the wash-house boy, who was passing, "My little
Charles, kindly get madame a pail of hot water; she's in a hurry."

The youth took the bucket and brought it back filled. Gervaise paid him;
it was a sou the pailful. She poured the hot water into the tub, and
soaped the things a last time with her hands, leaning over them in a
mass of steam, which deposited small beads of grey vapor in her light

"Here put some soda in, I've got some by me," said the concierge,

And she emptied into Gervaise's tub what remained of a bag of soda which
she had brought with her. She also offered her some of the chemical
water, but the young woman declined it; it was only good for grease and
wine stains.

"I think he's rather a loose fellow," resumed Madame Boche, returning to
Lantier, but without naming him.

Gervaise, bent almost double, her hands all shriveled, and thrust in
amongst the clothes, merely tossed her head.

"Yes, yes," continued the other, "I have noticed several little
things - " But she suddenly interrupted herself, as Gervaise jumped up,
with a pale face, and staring wildly at her. Then she exclaimed, "Oh,
no! I don't know anything! He likes to laugh a bit, I think, that's all.
For instance, you know the two girls who lodge at my place, Adele and
Virginie. Well, he larks about with 'em, but he just flirts for sport."

The young woman standing before her, her face covered with perspiration,
the water dripping from her arms, continued to stare at her with a fixed
and penetrating look. Then the concierge got excited, giving herself a
blow on the chest, and pledging her word of honor, she cried:

"I know nothing, I mean it when I say so!"

Then calming herself, she added in a gentle voice, as if speaking to a
person on whom loud protestations would have no effect, "I think he has
a frank look about the eyes. He'll marry you, my dear, I'm sure of it."

Gervaise wiped her forehead with her wet hand. Shaking her head again,
she pulled another garment out of the water. Both of them kept silence
for a moment. The wash-house was quieting down, for eleven o'clock had
struck. Half of the washerwomen were perched on the edge of their tubs,
eating sausages between slices of bread and drinking from open bottles
of wine. Only housewives who had come to launder small bundles of family
linen were hurrying to finish.

Occasional beetle blows could still be heard amid the subdued laughter
and gossip half-choked by the greedy chewing of jawbones. The steam
engine never stopped. Its vibrant, snorting voice seemed to fill the
entire hall, though not one of the women even heard it. It was like the
breathing of the wash-house, its hot breath collecting under the ceiling
rafters in an eternal floating mist.

The heat was becoming intolerable. Through the tall windows on the left
sunlight was streaming in, touching the steamy vapors with opalescent
tints of soft pinks and grayish blues. Charles went from window to
window, letting down the heavy canvas awnings. Then he crossed to the
shady side to open the ventilators. He was applauded by cries and hand
clapping and a rough sort of gaiety spread around. Soon even the last of
the beetle-pounding stopped.

With full mouths, the washerwomen could only make gestures. It became
so quiet that the grating sound of the fireman shoveling coal into the
engine's firebox could be heard at regular intervals from far at the
other end.

Gervaise was washing her colored things in the hot water thick with
lather, which she had kept for the purpose. When she had finished,
she drew a trestle towards her and hung across it all the different
articles; the drippings from which made bluish puddles on the floor; and
she commenced rinsing. Behind her, the cold water tap was set running
into a vast tub fixed to the ground, and across which were two wooden
bars whereon to lay the clothes. High up in the air were two other bars
for the things to finish dripping on.

"We're almost finished, and not a bad job," said Madame Boche. "I'll
wait and help you wring all that."

"Oh! it's not worth while; I'm much obliged though," replied the young
woman, who was kneading with her hands and sousing the colored things in
some clean water. "If I'd any sheets, it would be another thing."

But she had, however, to accept the concierge's assistance. They were
wringing between them, one at each end, a woolen skirt of a washed-out
chestnut color, from which dribbled a yellowish water, when Madame Boche

"Why, there's tall Virginie! What has she come here to wash, when all
her wardrobe that isn't on her would go into a pocket handkerchief?"

Gervaise jerked her head up. Virginie was a girl of her own age, taller
than she was, dark and pretty in spite of her face being rather long and
narrow. She had on an old black dress with flounces, and a red ribbon
round her neck; and her hair was done up carefully, the chignon being
enclosed in a blue silk net. She stood an instant in the middle of the
central alley, screwing up her eyes as though seeking someone; then,
when she caught sight of Gervaise, she passed close to her, erect,
insolent, and with a swinging gait, and took a place in the same row,
five tubs away from her.

"There's a freak for you!" continued Madame Boche in a lower tone
of voice. "She never does any laundry, not even a pair of cuffs. A
seamstress who doesn't even sew on a loose button! She's just like her
sister, the brass burnisher, that hussy Adele, who stays away from her
job two days out of three. Nobody knows who their folks are or how they
make a living. Though, if I wanted to talk . . . What on earth is she
scrubbing there? A filthy petticoat. I'll wager it's seen some lovely
sights, that petticoat!"

Madame Boche was evidently trying to make herself agreeable to Gervaise.
The truth was she often took a cup of coffee with Adele and Virginia,
when the girls had any money. Gervaise did not answer, but hurried over
her work with feverish hands. She had just prepared her blue in a little
tub that stood on three legs. She dipped in the linen things, and shook
them an instant at the bottom of the colored water, the reflection of
which had a pinky tinge; and after wringing them lightly, she spread
them out on the wooden bars up above. During the time she was occupied
with this work, she made a point of turning her back on Virginie. But
she heard her chuckles; she could feel her sidelong glances. Virginie
appeared only to have come there to provoke her. At one moment, Gervaise
having turned around, they both stared into each other's faces.

"Leave her alone," whispered Madame Boche. "You're not going to pull
each other's hair out, I hope. When I tell you there's nothing to it! It
isn't her, anyhow!"

At this moment, as the young woman was hanging up the last article of
clothing, there was a sound of laughter at the door of the wash-house.

"Here are two brats who want their mamma!" cried Charles.

All the women leant forward. Gervaise recognized Claude and Etienne. As
soon as they caught sight of her, they ran to her through the puddles,
the heels of their unlaced shoes resounding on the flagstones. Claude,
the eldest, held his little brother by the hand. The women, as they
passed them, uttered little exclamations of affection as they noticed
their frightened though smiling faces. And they stood there, in front
of their mother, without leaving go of each other's hands, and holding
their fair heads erect.

"Has papa sent you?" asked Gervaise.

But as she stooped to tie the laces of Etienne's shoes, she saw the key
of their room on one of Claude's fingers, with the brass number hanging
from it.

"Why, you've brought the key!" she said, greatly surprised. "What's that

The child, seeing the key which he had forgotten on his finger, appeared
to recollect, and exclaimed in his clear voice:

"Papa's gone away."

"He's gone to buy the lunch, and told you to come here to fetch me?"

Claude looked at his brother, hesitated, no longer recollecting. Then
he resumed all in a breath: "Papa's gone away. He jumped off the bed,
he put all the things in the trunk, he carried the trunk down to a cab.
He's gone away."

Gervaise, who was squatting down, slowly rose to her feet, her face
ghastly pale. She put her hands to her cheeks and temples, as though she
felt her head was breaking; and she could find only these words, which
she repeated twenty times in the same tone of voice:

"Ah! good heavens! - ah! good heavens! - ah! good heavens!"

Madame Boche, however, also questioned the child, quite delighted at the
chance of hearing the whole story.

"Come, little one, you must tell us just what happened. It was he who
locked the door and who told you to bring the key, wasn't it?" And,
lowering her voice, she whispered in Claude's ear: "Was there a lady in
the cab?"

The child again got confused. Then he recommenced his story in a
triumphant manner: "He jumped off the bed, he put all the things in the
trunk. He's gone away."

Then, when Madame Boche let him go, he drew his brother in front of the
tap, and they amused themselves by turning on the water. Gervaise was
unable to cry. She was choking, leaning back against her tub, her face
still buried in her hands. Brief shudders rocked her body and she wailed
out long sighs while pressing her hands tighter against her eyes, as
though abandoning herself to the blackness of desolation, a dark, deep
pit into which she seemed to be falling.

"Come, my dear, pull yourself together!" murmured Madame Boche.

"If you only knew! If you only knew!" said she at length very faintly.
"He sent me this morning to pawn my shawl and my chemises to pay for
that cab."

And she burst out crying. The memory of the events of that morning
and of her trip to the pawn-place tore from her the sobs that had been
choking her throat. That abominable trip to the pawn-place was the thing
that hurt most in all her sorrow and despair. Tears were streaming down
her face but she didn't think of using her handkerchief.

"Be reasonable, do be quiet, everyone's looking at you," Madame Boche,
who hovered round her, kept repeating. "How can you worry yourself so
much on account of a man? You loved him, then, all the same, did you,
my poor darling? A little while ago you were saying all sorts of things
against him; and now you're crying for him, and almost breaking your
heart. Dear me, how silly we all are!"

Then she became quite maternal.

"A pretty little woman like you! Can it be possible? One may tell you
everything now, I suppose. Well! You recollect when I passed under your
window, I already had my suspicions. Just fancy, last night, when Adele
came home, I heard a man's footsteps with hers. So I thought I would
see who it was. I looked up the staircase. The fellow was already on the
second landing; but I certainly recognized Monsieur Lantier's overcoat.
Boche, who was on the watch this morning, saw him tranquilly nod adieu.
He was with Adele, you know. Virginie has a situation now, where she
goes twice a week. Only it's highly imprudent all the same, for they've
only one room and an alcove, and I can't very well say where Virginie
managed to sleep."

She interrupted herself an instant, turned round, and then resumed,
subduing her loud voice:

"She's laughing at seeing you cry, that heartless thing over there. I'd
stake my life that her washing's all a pretence. She's packed off the
other two, and she's come here so as to tell them how you take it."

Gervaise removed her hands from her face and looked. When she beheld
Virginie in front of her, amidst three or four women, speaking low and
staring at her, she was seized with a mad rage. Her arms in front of
her, searching the ground, she stumbled forward a few paces. Trembling
all over, she found a bucket full of water, grabbed it with both hands,
and emptied it at Virginie.

"The virago!" yelled tall Virginie.

She had stepped back, and her boots alone got wet. The other women, who
for some minutes past had all been greatly upset by Gervaise's tears,
jostled each other in their anxiety to see the fight. Some, who were
finishing their lunch, got on the tops of their tubs. Others hastened
forward, their hands smothered with soap. A ring was formed.

"Ah! the virago!" repeated tall Virginie. "What's the matter with her?
She's mad!"

Gervaise, standing on the defensive, her chin thrust out, her features
convulsed, said nothing, not having yet acquired the Paris gift of
street gab. The other continued:

"Get out! This girl's tired of wallowing about in the country; she
wasn't twelve years old when the soldiers were at her. She even lost her
leg serving her country. That leg's rotting off."

The lookers-on burst out laughing. Virginie, seeing her success,
advanced a couple of steps, drawing herself up to her full height, and
yelling louder than ever:

"Here! Come a bit nearer, just to see how I'll settle you! Don't you
come annoying us here. Do I even know her, the hussy? If she'd wetted
me, I'd have pretty soon shown her battle, as you'd have seen. Let her
just say what I've ever done to her. Speak, you vixen; what's been done
to you?"

"Don't talk so much," stammered Gervaise. "You know well enough. Some
one saw my husband last night. And shut up, because if you don't I'll
most certainly strangle you."

"Her husband! That's a good one! As if cripples like her had husbands!
If he's left you it's not my fault. Surely you don't think I've stolen
him, do you? He was much too good for you and you made him sick. Did
you keep him on a leash? Has anyone here seen her husband? There's a

The laughter burst forth again. Gervaise contented herself with
continually murmuring in a low tone of voice:

"You know well enough, you know well enough. It's your sister. I'll
strangle her - your sister."

"Yes, go and try it on with my sister," resumed Virginie sneeringly.
"Ah! it's my sister! That's very likely. My sister looks a trifle
different to you; but what's that to me? Can't one come and wash one's
clothes in peace now? Just dry up, d'ye hear, because I've had enough of

But it was she who returned to the attack, after giving five or six
strokes with her beetle, intoxicated by the insults she had been giving
utterance to, and worked up into a passion. She left off and recommenced
again, speaking in this way three times:

"Well, yes! it's my sister. There now, does that satisfy you? They adore
each other. You should just see them bill and coo! And he's left you
with your children. Those pretty kids with scabs all over their faces!
You got one of them from a gendarme, didn't you? And you let three
others die because you didn't want to pay excess baggage on your
journey. It's your Lantier who told us that. Ah! he's been telling some
fine things; he'd had enough of you!"

"You dirty jade! You dirty jade! You dirty jade!" yelled Gervaise,
beside herself, and again seized with a furious trembling. She turned
round, looking once more about the ground; and only observing the little
tub, she seized hold of it by the legs, and flung the whole of the
bluing at Virginie's face.

"The beast! She's spoilt my dress!" cried the latter, whose shoulder
was sopping wet and whose left hand was dripping blue. "Just wait, you

In her turn she seized a bucket, and emptied it over Gervaise. Then a
formidable battle began. They both ran along the rows of tubs, seized
hold of the pails that were full, and returned to dash the contents
at each other's heads. And each deluge was accompanied by a volley of
words. Gervaise herself answered now:

"There, you scum! You got it that time. It'll help to cool you."

"Ah! the carrion! That's for your filth. Wash yourself for once in your

"Yes, yes, I'll wash the salt out of you, you cod!"

"Another one! Brush your teeth, fix yourself up for your post to-night
at the corner of the Rue Belhomme."

They ended by having to refill the buckets at the water taps, continuing
to insult each other the while. The initial bucketfuls were so poorly
aimed as to scarcely reach their targets, but they soon began to splash
each other in earnest. Virginie was the first to receive a bucketful in
the face. The water ran down, soaking her back and front. She was still
staggering when another caught her from the side, hitting her left
ear and drenching her chignon which then came unwound into a limp,
bedraggled string of hair.

Gervaise was hit first in the legs. One pail filled her shoes full of
water and splashed up to her thighs. Two more wet her even higher. Soon
both of them were soaked from top to bottom and it was impossible to
count the hits. Their clothes were plastered to their bodies and they
looked shrunken. Water was dripping everywhere as from umbrellas in a

"They look jolly funny!" said the hoarse voice of one of the women.

Everyone in the wash-house was highly amused. A good space was left
to the combatants, as nobody cared to get splashed. Applause and jokes
circulated in the midst of the sluice-like noise of the buckets emptied
in rapid succession! On the floor the puddles were running one into
another, and the two women were wading in them up to their ankles.
Virginie, however, who had been meditating a treacherous move, suddenly
seized hold of a pail of lye, which one of her neighbors had left there
and threw it. The same cry arose from all. Everyone thought Gervaise
was scalded; but only her left foot had been slightly touched. And,
exasperated by the pain, she seized a bucket, without troubling herself
to fill it this time, and threw it with all her might at the legs of
Virginie, who fell to the ground. All the women spoke together.

"She's broken one of her limbs!"

"Well, the other tried to cook her!"

"She's right, after all, the blonde one, if her man's been taken from

Madame Boche held up her arms to heaven, uttering all sorts of
exclamations. She had prudently retreated out of the way between two
tubs; and the children, Claude and Etienne, crying, choking, terrified,
clung to her dress with the continuous cry of "Mamma! Mamma!" broken by
their sobs. When she saw Virginie fall she hastened forward, and tried
to pull Gervaise away by her skirt, repeating the while,

"Come now, go home! Be reasonable. On my word, it's quite upset me.

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 2 of 36)