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calmer, but felt a vague sadness as she continued to watch the objects
that appeared, wondering if they were from her time or from the time of
others.

"I say, Badingue, do you know this?" resumed Lantier.

He thrust under his nose a little book printed at Brussels. "The Amours
of Napoleon III.," Illustrated with engravings. It related, among other
anecdotes, how the Emperor had seduced a girl of thirteen, the daughter
of a cook; and the picture represented Napoleon III., bare-legged, and
also wearing the grand ribbon of the Legion of Honor, pursuing a little
girl who was trying to escape his lust.

"Ah! that's it exactly!" exclaimed Boche, whose slyly ridiculous
instincts felt flattered by the sight. "It always happens like that!"

Poisson was seized with consternation, and he could not find a word to
say in the Emperor's defense. It was in a book, so he could not deny
it. Then, Lantier, continuing to push the picture under his nose in a
jeering way, he extended his arms and exclaimed:

"Well, so what?"

Lantier didn't reply. He busied himself arranging his books and
newspapers on a shelf in the wardrobe. He seemed upset not to have a
small bookshelf over his table, so Gervaise promised to get him one.
He had "The History of Ten Years" by Louis Blanc (except for the first
volume), Lamartine's "The Girondins" in installments, "The Mysteries of
Paris" and "The Wandering Jew" by Eugene Sue, and a quantity of booklets
on philosophic and humanitarian subjects picked up from used book
dealers.

His newspapers were his prized possessions, a collection made over a
number of years. Whenever he read an article in a cafe that seemed to
him to agree with his own ideas, he would buy that newspaper and keep
it. He had an enormous bundle of them, papers of every date and every
title, piled up in no discernable order. He patted them and said to the
other two:

"You see that? No one else can boast of having anything to match it.
You can't imagine all that's in there. I mean, if they put into practice
only half the ideas, it would clean up the social order overnight. That
would be good medicine for your Emperor and all his stool pigeons."

The policeman's red mustache and beard began to bristle on his pale face
and he interrupted:

"And the army, tell me, what are you going to do about that?"

Lantier flew into a passion. He banged his fists down on the newspapers
as he yelled:

"I require the suppression of militarism, the fraternity of peoples.
I require the abolition of privileges, of titles, and of monopolies.
I require the equality of salaries, the division of benefits, the
glorification of the protectorate. All liberties, do you hear? All of
them! And divorce!"

"Yes, yes, divorce for morality!" insisted Boche.

Poisson had assumed a majestic air.

"Yet if I won't have your liberties, I'm free to refuse them," he
answered.

Lantier was choking with passion.

"If you don't want them - if you don't want them - " he replied. "No,
you're not free at all! If you don't want them, I'll send you off to
Devil's Island. Yes, Devil's Island with your Emperor and all the rats
of his crew."

They always quarreled thus every time they met. Gervaise, who did not
like arguments, usually interfered. She roused herself from the torpor
into which the sight of the box, full of the stale perfume of her past
love, had plunged her, and she drew the three men's attention to the
glasses.

"Ah! yes," said Lantier, becoming suddenly calm and taking his glass.
"Good health!"

"Good health!" replied Boche and Poisson, clinking glasses with him.

Boche, however, was moving nervously about, troubled by an anxiety as he
looked at the policeman out of the corner of his eye.

"All this between ourselves, eh, Monsieur Poisson?" murmured he at
length. "We say and show you things to show off."

But Poisson did not let him finish. He placed his hand upon his heart,
as though to explain that all remained buried there. He certainly did
not go spying about on his friends. Coupeau arriving, they emptied a
second quart. Then the policeman went off by way of the courtyard and
resumed his stiff and measured tread along the pavement.

At the beginning of the new arrangement, the entire routine of the
establishment was considerably upset. Lantier had his own separate room,
with his own entrance and his own key. However, since they had decided
not to close off the door between the rooms, he usually came and went
through the shop. Besides, the dirty clothes were an inconvenience to
Gervaise because her husband never made the case he had promised and she
had to tuck the dirty laundry into any odd corner she could find. They
usually ended up under the bed and this was not very pleasant on warm
summer nights. She also found it a nuisance having to make up Etienne's
bed every evening in the shop. When her employees worked late, the lad
had to sleep in a chair until they finished.

Goujet had mentioned sending Etienne to Lille where a machinist he knew
was looking for apprentices. As the boy was unhappy at home and eager to
be out on his own, Gervaise seriously considered the proposal. Her only
fear was that Lantier would refuse. Since he had come to live with them
solely to be near his son, surely he wouldn't want to lose him only two
weeks after he moved in. However he approved whole-heartedly when she
timidly broached the matter to him. He said that young men needed to
see a bit of the country. The morning that Etienne left Lantier made a
speech to him, kissed him and ended by saying:

"Never forget that a workingman is not a slave, and that whoever is not
a workingman is a lazy drone."

The household was now able to get into the new routine. Gervaise became
accustomed to having dirty laundry lying all around. Lantier was forever
talking of important business deals. Sometimes he went out, wearing
fresh linen and neatly combed. He would stay out all night and on his
return pretend that he was completely exhausted because he had been
discussing very serious matters. Actually he was merely taking life
easy. He usually slept until ten. In the afternoons he would take a walk
if the weather was nice. If it was raining, he would sit in the shop
reading his newspaper. This atmosphere suited him. He always felt at his
ease with women and enjoyed listening to them.

Lantier first took his meals at Francois's, at the corner of the Rue
des Poissonniers. But of the seven days in the week he dined with the
Coupeaus on three or four; so much so that he ended by offering to board
with them and to pay them fifteen francs every Saturday. From that time
he scarcely ever left the house, but made himself completely at home
there. Morning to night he was in the shop, even giving orders and
attending to customers.

Lantier didn't like the wine from Francois's, so he persuaded Gervaise
to buy her wine from Vigouroux, the coal-dealer. Then he decided
that Coudeloup's bread was not baked to his satisfaction, so he sent
Augustine to the Viennese bakery in the Faubourg Poissonniers for their
bread. He changed from the grocer Lehongre but kept the butcher, fat
Charles, because of his political opinions. After a month he wanted all
the cooking done with olive oil. Clemence joked that with a Provencal
like him you could never wash out the oil stains. He wanted his omelets
fried on both sides, as hard as pancakes. He supervised mother Coupeau's
cooking, wanting his steaks cooked like shoe leather and with garlic on
everything. He got angry if she put herbs in the salad.

"They're just weeds and some of them might be poisonous," he declared.
His favorite soup was made with over-boiled vermicelli. He would pour
in half a bottle of olive oil. Only he and Gervaise could eat this soup,
the others being too used to Parisian cooking.

Little by little Lantier also came to mixing himself up in the affairs
of the family. As the Lorilleuxs always grumbled at having to part with
the five francs for mother Coupeau, he explained that an action could
be brought against them. They must think that they had a set of fools
to deal with! It was ten francs a month which they ought to give! And he
would go up himself for the ten francs so boldly and yet so amiably
that the chainmaker never dared refuse them. Madame Lerat also gave two
five-franc pieces now. Mother Coupeau could have kissed Lantier's hands.
He was, moreover, the grand arbiter in all the quarrels between the old
woman and Gervaise. Whenever the laundress, in a moment of impatience,
behaved roughly to her mother-in-law and the latter went and cried on
her bed, he hustled them about and made them kiss each other, asking
them if they thought themselves amusing with their bad tempers.

And Nana, too; she was being brought up badly, according to his idea. In
that he was right, for whenever the father spanked the child, the mother
took her part, and if the mother, in her turn, boxed her ears, the
father made a disturbance. Nana delighted at seeing her parents abuse
each other, and knowing that she was forgiven beforehand, was up to all
kinds of tricks. Her latest mania was to go and play in the blacksmith
shop opposite; she would pass the entire day swinging on the shafts of
the carts; she would hide with bands of urchins in the remotest corners
of the gray courtyard, lighted up with the red glare of the forge; and
suddenly she would reappear, running and shouting, unkempt and dirty
and followed by the troop of urchins, as though a sudden clash of the
hammers had frightened the ragamuffins away. Lantier alone could scold
her; and yet she knew perfectly well how to get over him. This tricky
little girl of ten would walk before him like a lady, swinging herself
about and casting side glances at him, her eyes already full of vice.
He had ended by undertaking her education: he taught her to dance and to
talk patois.

A year passed thus. In the neighborhood it was thought that Lantier had
a private income, for this was the only way to account for the Coupeaus'
grand style of living. No doubt Gervaise continued to earn money; but
now that she had to support two men in doing nothing, the shop certainly
could not suffice; more especially as the shop no longer had so good a
reputation, customers were leaving and the workwomen were tippling from
morning till night. The truth was that Lantier paid nothing, neither
for rent nor board. During the first months he had paid sums on account,
then he had contented himself with speaking of a large amount he was
going to receive, with which later on he would pay off everything in a
lump sum. Gervaise no longer dared ask him for a centime. She had the
bread, the wine, the meat, all on credit. The bills increased everywhere
at the rate of three and four francs a day. She had not paid a sou to
the furniture dealer nor to the three comrades, the mason, the carpenter
and the painter. All these people commenced to grumble, and she was no
longer greeted with the same politeness at the shops.

She was as though intoxicated by a mania for getting into debt; she
tried to drown her thoughts, ordered the most expensive things, and gave
full freedom to her gluttony now that she no longer paid for anything;
she remained withal very honest at heart, dreaming of earning from
morning to night hundreds of francs, though she did not exactly know
how, to enable her to distribute handfuls of five-franc pieces to her
tradespeople. In short, she was sinking, and as she sank lower and lower
she talked of extending her business. Instead she went deeper into
debt. Clemence left around the middle of the summer because there was
no longer enough work for two women and she had not been paid in several
weeks.

During this impending ruin, Coupeau and Lantier were, in effect,
devouring the shop and growing fat on the ruin of the establishment.
At table they would challenge each other to take more helpings and slap
their rounded stomachs to make more room for dessert.

The great subject of conversation in the neighborhood was as to whether
Lantier had really gone back to his old footing with Gervaise. On this
point opinions were divided. According to the Lorilleuxs, Clump-clump
was doing everything she could to hook Lantier again, but he would no
longer have anything to do with her because she was getting old and
faded and he had plenty of younger girls that were prettier. On the
other hand, according to the Boches, Gervaise had gone back to her
former mate the very first night, just as soon as poor Coupeau had gone
to sleep. The picture was not pretty, but there were a lot of worse
things in life, so folks ended by accepting the threesome as altogether
natural. In fact, they thought them rather nice since there were never
any fights and the outward decencies remained. Certainly if you stuck
your nose into some of the other neighborhood households you could smell
far worse things. So what if they slept together like a nice little
family. It never kept the neighbors awake. Besides, everyone was still
very much impressed by Lantier's good manners. His charm helped greatly
to keep tongues from wagging. Indeed, when the fruit dealer insisted to
the tripe seller that there had been no intimacies, the latter appeared
to feel that this was really too bad, because it made the Coupeaus less
interesting.

Gervaise was quite at her ease in this matter, and not much troubled
with these thoughts. Things reached the point that she was accused of
being heartless. The family did not understand why she continued to bear
a grudge against the hatter. Madame Lerat now came over every evening.
She considered Lantier as utterly irresistible and said that most ladies
would be happy to fall into his arms. Madame Boche declared that her own
virtue would not be safe if she were ten years younger. There was a sort
of silent conspiracy to push Gervaise into the arms of Lantier, as if
all the women around her felt driven to satisfy their own longings
by giving her a lover. Gervaise didn't understand this because she no
longer found Lantier seductive. Certainly he had changed for the better.
He had gotten a sort of education in the cafes and political meetings
but she knew him well. She could pierce to the depths of his soul and
she found things there that still gave her the shivers. Well, if the
others found him so attractive, why didn't they try it themselves.
In the end she suggested this one day to Virginie who seemed the most
eager. Then, to excite Gervaise, Madame Lerat and Virginie told her of
the love of Lantier and tall Clemence. Yes, she had not noticed anything
herself; but as soon as she went out on an errand, the hatter would
bring the workgirl into his room. Now people met them out together; he
probably went to see her at her own place.

"Well," said the laundress, her voice trembling slightly, "what can it
matter to me?"

She looked straight into Virginie's eyes. Did this woman still have it
in for her?

Virginie replied with an air of innocence:

"It can't matter to you, of course. Only, you ought to advise him to
break off with that girl, who is sure to cause him some unpleasantness."

The worst of it was that Lantier, feeling himself supported by public
opinion, changed altogether in his behavior towards Gervaise. Now,
whenever he shook hands with her, he held her fingers for a minute
between his own. He tried her with his glance, fixing a bold look upon
her, in which she clearly read that he wanted her. If he passed behind
her, he dug his knees into her skirt, or breathed upon her neck. Yet he
waited a while before being rough and openly declaring himself. But
one evening, finding himself alone with her, he pushed her before him
without a word, and viewed her all trembling against the wall at the
back of the shop, and tried to kiss her. It so chanced that Goujet
entered just at that moment. Then she struggled and escaped. And all
three exchanged a few words, as though nothing had happened. Goujet, his
face deadly pale, looked on the ground, fancying that he had disturbed
them, and that she had merely struggled so as not to be kissed before a
third party.

The next day Gervaise moved restlessly about the shop. She was miserable
and unable to iron even a single handkerchief. She only wanted to
see Goujet and explain to him how Lantier happened to have pinned her
against the wall. But since Etienne had gone to Lille, she had hesitated
to visit Goujet's forge where she felt she would be greeted by his
fellow workers with secret laughter. This afternoon, however, she
yielded to the impulse. She took an empty basket and went out under
the pretext of going for the petticoats of her customer on Rue des
Portes-Blanches. Then, when she reached Rue Marcadet, she walked very
slowly in front of the bolt factory, hoping for a lucky meeting. Goujet
must have been hoping to see her, too, for within five minutes he came
out as if by chance.

"You have been on an errand," he said, smiling. "And now you are on your
way home."

Actually Gervaise had her back toward Rue des Poissonniers. He only said
that for something to say. They walked together up toward Montmartre,
but without her taking his arm. They wanted to get a bit away from the
factory so as not to seem to be having a rendezvous in front of it. They
turned into a vacant lot between a sawmill and a button factory. It was
like a small green meadow. There was even a goat tied to a stake.

"It's strange," remarked Gervaise. "You'd think you were in the
country."

They went to sit under a dead tree. Gervaise placed the laundry basket by
her feet.

"Yes," Gervaise said, "I had an errand to do, and so I came out."

She felt deeply ashamed and was afraid to try to explain. Yet
she realized that they had come here to discuss it. It remained a
troublesome burden.

Then, all in a rush, with tears in her eyes, she told him of the
death that morning of Madame Bijard, her washerwoman. She had suffered
horrible agonies.

"Her husband caused it by kicking her in the stomach," she said in a
monotone. "He must have damaged her insides. _Mon Dieu!_ She was
in agony for three days with her stomach all swelled up. Plenty of
scoundrels have been sent to the galleys for less than that, but the
courts won't concern themselves with a wife-beater. Especially since the
woman said she had hurt herself falling. She wanted to save him from the
scaffold, but she screamed all night long before she died."

Goujet clenched his hands and remained silent.

"She weaned her youngest only two weeks ago, little Jules," Gervaise
went on. "That's lucky for the baby, he won't have to suffer. Still,
there's the child Lalie and she has two babies to look after. She isn't
eight yet, but she's already sensible. Her father will beat her now even
more than before."

Goujet gazed at her silently. Then, his lips trembling:

"You hurt me yesterday, yes, you hurt me badly."

Gervaise turned pale and clasped her hands as he continued:

"I thought it would happen. You should have told me, you should have
trusted me enough to confess what was happening, so as not to leave me
thinking that - "

Goujet could not finish the sentence. Gervaise stood up, realizing that
he thought she had gone back with Lantier as the neighbors asserted.
Stretching her arms toward him, she cried:

"No, no, I swear to you. He was pushing against me, trying to kiss me,
but his face never even touched mine. It's true, and that was the first
time he tried. Oh, I swear on my life, on the life of my children, oh,
believe me!"

Goujet was shaking his head. Gervaise said slowly:

"Monsieur Goujet, you know me well. You know that I do not lie. On my
word of honor, it never happened, and it never will, do you understand?
Never! I'd be the lowest of the low if it ever happened, and I wouldn't
deserve the friendship of an honest man like you."

She seemed so sincere that he took her hand and made her sit down again.
He could breathe freely; his heart rejoiced. This was the first time he
had ever held her hand like this. He pressed it in his own and they both
sat quietly for a time.

"I know your mother doesn't like me," Gervaise said in a low voice.
"Don't bother to deny it. We owe you so much money."

He squeezed her hand tightly. He didn't want to talk of money. Finally
he said:

"I've been thinking of something for a long time. You are not happy
where you are. My mother tells me things are getting worse for you.
Well, then, we can go away together."

She didn't understand at first and stared at him, startled by this
sudden declaration of a love that he had never mentioned.

Finally she asked:

"What do you mean?"

"We'll get away from here," he said, looking down at the ground.
"We'll go live somewhere else, in Belgium, if you wish. With both of us
working, we would soon be very comfortable."

Gervaise flushed. She thought she would have felt less shame if he
had taken her in his arms and kissed her. Goujet was an odd fellow,
proposing to elope, just the way it happens in novels. Well, she had
seen plenty of workingmen making up to married women, but they never
took them even as far as Saint-Denis.

"Ah, Monsieur Goujet," she murmured, not knowing what else to say.

"Don't you see?" he said. "There would only be the two of us. It annoys
me having others around."

Having regained her self-possession, however, she refused his proposal.

"It's impossible, Monsieur Goujet. It would be very wrong. I'm a married
woman and I have children. We'd soon regret it. I know you care for me,
and I care for you also, too much to let you do anything foolish. It's
much better to stay just as we are. We have respect for each other and
that's a lot. It's been a comfort to me many times. When people in our
situation stay on the straight, it is better in the end."

He nodded his head as he listened. He agreed with her and was unable
to offer any arguments. Suddenly he pulled her into his arms and kissed
her, crushing her. Then he let her go and said nothing more about their
love. She wasn't angry. She felt they had earned that small moment of
pleasure.

Goujet now didn't know what to do with his hands, so he went around
picking dandelions and tossing them into her basket. This amused him and
gradually soothed him. Gervaise was becoming relaxed and cheerful. When
they finally left the vacant lot they walked side by side and talked
of how much Etienne liked being at Lille. Her basket was full of yellow
dandelions.

Gervaise, at heart, did not feel as courageous when with Lantier as she
said. She was, indeed, perfectly resolved not to hear his flattery, even
with the slightest interest; but she was afraid, if ever he should touch
her, of her old cowardice, of that feebleness and gloominess into which
she allowed herself to glide, just to please people. Lantier, however,
did not avow his affection. He several times found himself alone with
her and kept quiet. He seemed to think of marrying the tripe-seller, a
woman of forty-five and very well preserved. Gervaise would talk of the
tripe-seller in Goujet's presence, so as to set his mind at ease. She
would say to Virginie and Madame Lerat, whenever they were singing the
hatter's praises, that he could very well do without her admiration,
because all the women of the neighborhood were smitten with him.

Coupeau went braying about everywhere that Lantier was a friend and a
true one. People might jabber about them; he knew what he knew and did
not care a straw for their gossip, for he had respectability on his
side. When they all three went out walking on Sundays, he made his wife
and the hatter walk arm-in-arm before him, just by way of swaggering in
the street; and he watched the people, quite prepared to administer a
drubbing if anyone had ventured on the least joke. It was true that he
regarded Lantier as a bit of a high flyer. He accused him of avoiding
hard liquor and teased him because he could read and spoke like an
educated man. Still, he accepted him as a regular comrade. They
were ideally suited to each other and friendship between men is more
substantial than love for a woman.

Coupeau and Lantier were forever going out junketing together. Lantier
would now borrow money from Gervaise - ten francs, twenty francs at a
time, whenever he smelt there was money in the house. Then on those days
he would keep Coupeau away from his work, talk of some distant errand
and take him with him. Then seated opposite to each other in the corner
of some neighboring eating house, they would guzzle fancy dishes which
one cannot get at home and wash them down with bottles of expensive



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 21 of 36)