Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

. (page 23 of 36)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 23 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

when she knocked at the window of the concierge's room to ask for her
key, the concierge, who was half asleep, pulled out some rigmarole
which she could make nothing of at first. She eventually understood that
Poisson, the policeman, had brought Coupeau home in a frightful state,
and that the key was no doubt in the lock.

"The deuce!" murmured Lantier, when they had entered, "whatever has he
been up to here? The stench is abominable."

There was indeed a most powerful stench. As Gervaise went to look
for matches, she stepped into something messy. After she succeeded in
lighting a candle, a pretty sight met their eyes. Coupeau appeared to
have disgorged his very insides. The bed was splattered all over, so was
the carpet, and even the bureau had splashes on its sides. Besides that,
he had fallen from the bed where Poisson had probably thrown him, and
was snoring on the floor in the midst of the filth like a pig wallowing
in the mire, exhaling his foul breath through his open mouth. His grey
hair was straggling into the puddle around his head.

"Oh! the pig! the pig!" repeated Gervaise, indignant and exasperated.
"He's dirtied everything. No, a dog wouldn't have done that, even a dead
dog is cleaner."

They both hesitated to move, not knowing where to place their feet.
Coupeau had never before come home and put the bedroom into such a
shocking state. This sight was a blow to whatever affection his wife
still had for him. Previously she had been forgiving and not seriously
offended, even when he had been blind drunk. But this made her sick; it
was too much. She wouldn't have touched Coupeau for the world, and just
the thought of this filthy bum touching her caused a repugnance such as
she might have felt had she been required to sleep beside the corpse of
someone who had died from a terrible disease.

"Oh, I must get into that bed," murmured she. "I can't go and sleep in
the street. Oh! I'll crawl into it foot first."

She tried to step over the drunkard, but had to catch hold of a corner
of the chest of drawers to save herself from slipping in the mess.
Coupeau completely blocked the way to the bed. Then, Lantier, who
laughed to himself on seeing that she certainly could not sleep on her
own pillow that night, took hold of her hand, saying, in a low and angry

"Gervaise, he is a pig."

She understood what he meant and pulled her hand free. She sighed to
herself, and, in her bewilderment, addressed him familiarly, as in the
old days.

"No, leave me alone, Auguste. Go to your own bed. I'll manage somehow to
lie at the foot of the bed."

"Come, Gervaise, don't be foolish," resumed he. "It's too abominable;
you can't remain here. Come with me. He won't hear us. What are you
afraid of?"

"No," she replied firmly, shaking her head vigorously. Then, to show
that she would remain where she was, she began to take off her clothes,
throwing her silk dress over a chair. She was quickly in only her
chemise and petticoat. Well, it was her own bed. She wanted to sleep in
her own bed and made two more attempts to reach a clean corner of the

Lantier, having no intention of giving up, whispered things to her.

What a predicament she was in, with a louse of a husband that prevented
her from crawling under her own blankets and a low skunk behind her just
waiting to take advantage of the situation to possess her again. She
begged Lantier to be quiet. Turning toward the small room where Nana and
mother Coupeau slept, she listened anxiously. She could hear only steady

"Leave me alone, Auguste," she repeated. "You'll wake them. Be

Lantier didn't answer, but just smiled at her. Then he began to kiss her
on the ear just as in the old days.

Gervaise felt like sobbing. Her strength deserted her; she felt a great
buzzing in her ears, a violent tremor passed through her. She advanced
another step forward. And she was again obliged to draw back. It was not
possible, the disgust was too great. She felt on the verge of vomiting
herself. Coupeau, overpowered by intoxication, lying as comfortably as
though on a bed of down, was sleeping off his booze, without life in his
limbs, and with his mouth all on one side. The whole street might have
entered and laughed at him, without a hair of his body moving.

"Well, I can't help it," she faltered. "It's his own fault. _Mon Dieu!_
He's forcing me out of my own bed. I've no bed any longer. No, I can't
help it. It's his own fault."

She was trembling so she scarcely knew what she was doing. While Lantier
was urging her into his room, Nana's face appeared at one of the glass
panes in the door of the little room. The young girl, pale from sleep,
had awakened and gotten out of bed quietly. She stared at her
father lying in his vomit. Then, she stood watching until her mother
disappeared into Lantier's room. She watched with the intensity and the
wide-open eyes of a vicious child aflame with curiosity.


That winter mother Coupeau nearly went off in one of her coughing fits.
Each December she could count on her asthma keeping her on her back for
two and three weeks at a time. She was no longer fifteen, she would be
seventy-three on Saint-Anthony's day. With that she was very rickety,
getting a rattling in her throat for nothing at all, though she was
plump and stout. The doctor said she would go off coughing, just time
enough to say: "Good-night, the candle's out!"

When she was in her bed mother Coupeau became positively unbearable. It
is true though that the little room in which she slept with Nana was not
at all gay. There was barely room for two chairs between the beds. The
wallpaper, a faded gray, hung loose in long strips. The small window
near the ceiling let in only a dim light. It was like a cavern. At
night, as she lay awake, she could listen to the breathing of the
sleeping Nana as a sort of distraction; but in the day-time, as there
was no one to keep her company from morning to night, she grumbled and
cried and repeated to herself for hours together, as she rolled her head
on the pillow:

"Good heavens! What a miserable creature I am! Good heavens! What a
miserable creature I am! They'll leave me to die in prison, yes, in

As soon as anyone called, Virginie or Madame Boche, to ask after her
health, she would not reply directly, but immediately started on her
list of complaints: "Oh, I pay dearly for the food I eat here. I'd be
much better off with strangers. I asked for a cup of tisane and they
brought me an entire pot of hot water. It was a way of saying that I
drank too much. I brought Nana up myself and she scurries away in her
bare feet every morning and I never see her again all day. Then at night
she sleeps so soundly that she never wakes up to ask me if I'm in pain.
I'm just a nuisance to them. They're waiting for me to die. That will
happen soon enough. I don't even have a son any more; that laundress has
taken him from me. She'd beat me to death if she wasn't afraid of the

Gervaise was indeed rather hasty at times. The place was going to the
dogs, everyone's temper was getting spoilt and they sent each other to
the right about for the least word. Coupeau, one morning that he had a
hangover, exclaimed: "The old thing's always saying she's going to die,
and yet she never does!" The words struck mother Coupeau to the heart.
They frequently complained of how much she cost them, observing that
they would save a lot of money when she was gone.

When at her worst that winter, one afternoon, when Madame Lorilleux and
Madame Lerat had met at her bedside, mother Coupeau winked her eye as
a signal to them to lean over her. She could scarcely speak. She rather
hissed than said in a low voice:

"It's becoming indecent. I heard them last night. Yes, Clump-clump and
the hatter. And they were kicking up such a row together! Coupeau's too
decent for her."

And she related in short sentences, coughing and choking between each,
that her son had come home dead drunk the night before. Then, as she
was not asleep, she was easily able to account for all the noises, of
Clump-clump's bare feet tripping over the tiled floor, the hissing voice
of the hatter calling her, the door between the two rooms gently closed,
and the rest. It must have lasted till daylight. She could not tell the
exact time, because, in spite of her efforts, she had ended by falling
into a dose.

"What's most disgusting is that Nana might have heard everything,"
continued she. "She was indeed restless all the night, she who usually
sleeps so sound. She tossed about and kept turning over as though there
had been some lighted charcoal in her bed."

The other two women did not seem at all surprised.

"Of course!" murmured Madame Lorilleux, "it probably began the very
first night. But as it pleases Coupeau, we've no business to interfere.
All the same, it's not very respectable."

"As for me," declared Madame Lerat through clenched teeth, "if I'd been
there, I'd have thrown a fright into them. I'd have shouted something,
anything. A doctor's maid told me once that the doctor had told her that
a surprise like that, at a certain moment, could strike a woman dead.
If she had died right there, that would have been well, wouldn't it? She
would have been punished right where she had sinned."

It wasn't long until the entire neighborhood knew that Gervaise visited
Lantier's room every night. Madame Lorilleux was loudly indignant,
calling her brother a poor fool whose wife had shamed him. And her poor
mother, forced to live in the midst of such horrors. As a result, the
neighbors blamed Gervaise. Yes, she must have led Lantier astray; you
could see it in her eyes. In spite of the nasty gossip, Lantier was
still liked because he was always so polite. He always had candy or
flowers to give the ladies. _Mon Dieu!_ Men shouldn't be expected to
push away women who threw themselves at them. There was no excuse for
Gervaise. She was a disgrace. The Lorilleuxs used to bring Nana up
to their apartment in order to find out more details from her, their
godchild. But Nana would put on her expression of innocent stupidity
and lower her long silky eyelashes to hide the fire in her eyes as she

In the midst of this general indignation, Gervaise lived quietly on,
feeling tired out and half asleep. At first she considered herself very
sinful and felt a disgust for herself. When she left Lantier's room she
would wash her hands and scrub herself as if trying to get rid of an
evil stain. If Coupeau then tried to joke with her, she would fly into a
passion, and run and shiveringly dress herself in the farthest corner
of the shop; neither would she allow Lantier near her soon after her
husband had kissed her. She would have liked to have changed her skin as
she changed men. But she gradually became accustomed to it. Soon it was
too much trouble to scrub herself each time. Her thirst for happiness
led her to enjoy as much as she could the difficult situation. She had
always been disposed to make allowances for herself, so why not for
others? She only wanted to avoid causing trouble. As long as the
household went along as usual, there was nothing to complain about.

Then, after all, she could not be doing anything to make Coupeau stop
drinking; matters were arranged so easily to the general satisfaction.
One is generally punished if one does what is not right. His
dissoluteness had gradually become a habit. Now it was as regular an
affair as eating and drinking. Each time Coupeau came home drunk, she
would go to Lantier's room. This was usually on Mondays, Tuesdays
and Wednesdays. Sometimes on other nights, if Coupeau was snoring too
loudly, she would leave in the middle of the night. It was not that she
cared more for Lantier, but just that she slept better in his room.

Mother Coupeau never dared speak openly of it. But after a quarrel,
when the laundress had bullied her, the old woman was not sparing in her
allusions. She would say that she knew men who were precious fools and
women who were precious hussies, and she would mutter words far
more biting, with the sharpness of language pertaining to an old
waistcoat-maker. The first time this had occurred Gervaise looked at her
straight in the face without answering. Then, also avoiding going into
details, she began to defend herself with reasons given in a general
sort of way. When a woman had a drunkard for a husband, a pig who lived
in filth, that woman was to be excused if she sought for cleanliness
elsewhere. Once she pointed out that Lantier was just as much her
husband as Coupeau was. Hadn't she known him since she was fourteen and
didn't she have children by him?

Anyway, she'd like to see anyone make trouble for her. She wasn't
the only one around the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or. Madame Vigouroux, the
coal-dealer had a merry dance from morning to night. Then there was the
grocer's wife, Madame Lehongre with her brother-in-law. _Mon Dieu!_ What
a slob of a fellow. He wasn't worth touching with a shovel. Even
the neat little clockmaker was said to have carried on with his own
daughter, a streetwalker. Ah, the entire neighborhood. Oh, she knew
plenty of dirt.

One day when mother Coupeau was more pointed than usual in her
observations, Gervaise had replied to her, clinching her teeth:

"You're confined to your bed and you take advantage of it. Listen!
You're wrong. You see that I behave nicely to you, for I've never thrown
your past life into your teeth. Oh! I know all about it. No, don't
cough. I've finished what I had to say. It's only to request you to mind
your own business, that's all!"

The old woman almost choked. On the morrow, Goujet having called about
his mother's washing when Gervaise happened to be out, mother Coupeau
called him to her and kept him some time seated beside her bed. She knew
all about the blacksmith's friendship, and had noticed that for some
time past he had looked dismal and wretched, from a suspicion of the
melancholy things that were taking place. So, for the sake of gossiping,
and out of revenge for the quarrel of the day before, she bluntly told
him the truth, weeping and complaining as though Gervaise's wicked
behavior did her some special injury. When Goujet quitted the little
room, he leant against the wall, almost stifling with grief. Then, when
the laundress returned home, mother Coupeau called to her that Madame
Goujet required her to go round with her clothes, ironed or not; and she
was so animated that Gervaise, seeing something was wrong, guessed
what had taken place and had a presentiment of the unpleasantness which
awaited her.

Very pale, her limbs already trembling, she placed the things in a
basket and started off. For years past she had not returned the Goujets
a sou of their money. The debt still amounted to four hundred and
twenty-five francs. She always spoke of her embarrassments and received
the money for the washing. It filled her with shame, because she seemed
to be taking advantage of the blacksmith's friendship to make a fool of
him. Coupeau, who had now become less scrupulous, would chuckle and say
that Goujet no doubt had fooled around with her a bit, and had so paid
himself. But she, in spite of the relations she had fallen into with
Coupeau, would indignantly ask her husband if he already wished to eat
of that sort of bread. She would not allow anyone to say a word against
Goujet in her presence; her affection for the blacksmith remained like
a last shred of her honor. Thus, every time she took the washing home to
those worthy people, she felt a spasm of her heart the moment she put a
foot on their stairs.

"Ah! it's you, at last!" said Madame Goujet sharply, on opening the door
to her. "When I'm in want of death, I'll send you to fetch him."

Gervaise entered, greatly embarrassed, not even daring to mutter an
excuse. She was no longer punctual, never came at the time arranged, and
would keep her customers waiting for days on end. Little by little she
was giving way to a system of thorough disorder.

"For a week past I've been expecting you," continued the lace-mender.
"And you tell falsehoods too; you send your apprentice to me with all
sorts of stories; you are then busy with my things, you will deliver
them the same evening, or else you've had an accident, the bundle's
fallen into a pail of water. Whilst all this is going on, I waste my
time, nothing turns up, and it worries me exceedingly. No, you're most
unreasonable. Come, what have you in your basket? Is everything there
now? Have you brought me the pair of sheets you've been keeping back
for a month past, and the chemise which was missing the last time you
brought home the washing?"

"Yes, yes," murmured Gervaise, "I have the chemise. Here it is."

But Madame Goujet cried out. That chemise was not hers, she would have
nothing to do with it. Her things were changed now; it was too bad! Only
the week before, there were two handkerchiefs which hadn't her mark on
them. It was not to her taste to have clothes coming from no one knew
where. Besides that, she liked to have her own things.

"And the sheets?" she resumed. "They're lost, aren't they? Well!
Woman, you must see about them, for I insist upon having them to-morrow
morning, do you hear?"

There was a silence which particularly bothered Gervaise when she
noticed that the door to Goujet's room was open. If he was in there, it
was most annoying that he should hear these just criticisms. She made
no reply, meekly bowing her head, and placing the laundry on the bed as
quickly as possible.

Matters became worse when Madame Goujet began to look over the things,
one by one. She took hold of them and threw them down again saying:

"Ah! you don't get them up nearly so well as you used to do. One
can't compliment you every day now. Yes, you've taken to mucking your
work - doing it in a most slovenly way. Just look at this shirt-front,
it's scorched, there's the mark of the iron on the plaits; and the
buttons have all been torn off. I don't know how you manage it, but
there's never a button left on anything. Oh! now, here's a petticoat
body which I shall certainly not pay you for. Look there! The dirt's
still on it, you've simply smoothed it over. So now the things are not
even clean!"

She stopped whilst she counted the different articles. Then she

"What! This is all you've brought? There are two pairs of stockings, six
towels, a table-cloth, and several dish-cloths short. You're regularly
trifling with me, it seems! I sent word that you were to bring me
everything, ironed or not. If your apprentice isn't here on the hour
with the rest of the things, we shall fall out, Madame Coupeau, I warn

At this moment Goujet coughed in his room. Gervaise slightly started.
_Mon Dieu!_ How she was treated before him. And she remained standing
in the middle of the rooms, embarrassed and confused and waiting for the
dirty clothes; but after making up the account Madame Goujet had quietly
returned to her seat near the window, and resumed the mending of a lace

"And the dirty things?" timidly inquired the laundress.

"No, thank you," replied the old woman, "there will be no laundry this

Gervaise turned pale. She was no longer to have the washing. Then she
quite lost her head; she was obliged to sit down on a chair, for
her legs were giving way under her. She did not attempt to vindicate
herself. All that she would find to say was:

"Is Monsieur Goujet ill?"

Yes, he was not well. He had been obliged to come home instead of
returning to the forge, and he had gone to lie down on his bed to get a
rest. Madame Goujet talked gravely, wearing her black dress as usual
and her white face framed in her nun-like coif. The pay at the forge had
been cut again. It was now only seven francs a day because the machines
did so much of the work. This forced her to save money every way she
could. She would do her own washing from now on. It would naturally have
been very helpful if the Coupeaus had been able to return her the money
lent them by her son; but she was not going to set the lawyers on them,
as they were unable to pay. As she was talking about the debt, Gervaise
lowered her eyes in embarrassment.

"All the same," continued the lace-maker, "by pinching yourselves a
little you could manage to pay it off. For really now, you live very
well; and spend a great deal, I'm sure. If you were only to pay off ten
francs a month - "

She was interrupted by the sound of Goujet's voice as he called:

"Mamma! Mamma!"

And when she returned to her seat, which was almost immediately, she
changed the conversation. The blacksmith had doubtless begged her not to
ask Gervaise for money; but in spite of herself she again spoke of the
debt at the expiration of five minutes. Oh! She had foreseen long
ago what was now happening. Coupeau was drinking all that the laundry
business brought in and dragging his wife down with him. Her son would
never have loaned the money if he had only listened to her. By now he
would have been married, instead of miserably sad with only unhappiness
to look forward to for the rest of his life. She grew quite stern and
angry, even accusing Gervaise of having schemed with Coupeau to take
advantage of her foolish son. Yes, some women were able to play the
hypocrite for years, but eventually the truth came out.

"Mamma! Mamma!" again called Goujet, but louder this time.

She rose from her seat and when she returned she said, as she resumed
her lace mending:

"Go in, he wishes to see you."

Gervaise, all in a tremble left the door open. This scene filled her
with emotion because it was like an avowal of their affection before
Madame Goujet. She again beheld the quiet little chamber, with its
narrow iron bedstead, and papered all over with pictures, the whole
looking like the room of some girl of fifteen. Goujet's big body was
stretched on the bed. Mother Coupeau's disclosures and the things his
mother had been saying seemed to have knocked all the life out of his
limbs. His eyes were red and swollen, his beautiful yellow beard was
still wet. In the first moment of rage he must have punched away at
his pillow with his terrible fists, for the ticking was split and the
feathers were coming out.

"Listen, mamma's wrong," said he to the laundress in a voice that was
scarcely audible. "You owe me nothing. I won't have it mentioned again."

He had raised himself up and was looking at her. Big tears at once
filled his eyes.

"Do you suffer, Monsieur Goujet?" murmured she. "What is the matter with
you? Tell me!"

"Nothing, thanks. I tired myself with too much work yesterday. I will
rest a bit."

Then, his heart breaking, he could not restrain himself and burst out:

"_Mon Dieu!_ Ah! _Mon Dieu!_ It was never to be - never. You swore it.
And now it is - it is! Ah, it pains me too much, leave me!"

And with his hand he gently and imploringly motioned to her to go. She
did not draw nearer to the bed. She went off as he requested her to,
feeling stupid, unable to say anything to soothe him. When in the other
room she took up her basket; but she did not go home. She stood there
trying to find something to say. Madame Goujet continued her mending
without raising her head. It was she who at length said:

"Well! Good-night; send me back my things and we will settle up

"Yes, it will be best so - good-night," stammered Gervaise.

She took a last look around the neatly arranged room and thought as she
shut the door that she seemed to be leaving some part of her better self
behind. She plodded blindly back to the laundry, scarcely knowing where
she was going.

When Gervaise arrived, she found mother Coupeau out of her bed, sitting
on a chair by the stove. Gervaise was too tired to scold her. Her bones
ached as though she had been beaten and she was thinking that her life
was becoming too hard to bear. Surely a quick death was the only escape
from the pain in her heart.

After this, Gervaise became indifferent to everything. With a vague
gesture of her hand she would send everybody about their business. At
each fresh worry she buried herself deeper in her only pleasure, which
was to have her three meals a day. The shop might have collapsed.
So long as she was not beneath it, she would have gone off willingly
without a chemise to her back. And the little shop was collapsing, not
suddenly, but little by little, morning and evening. One by one
the customers got angry, and sent their washing elsewhere. Monsieur
Madinier, Mademoiselle Remanjou, the Boches themselves had returned to

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 23 of 36)