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Émile Zola.

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Madame Fauconnier, where they could count on great punctuality. One
ends by getting tired of asking for a pair of stockings for three weeks
straight, and of putting on shirts with grease stains dating from the
previous Sunday. Gervaise, without losing a bite, wished them a pleasant
journey, and spoke her mind about them, saying that she was precious
glad she would no longer have to poke her nose into their filth. The
entire neighborhood could quit her; that would relieve her of the piles
of stinking junk and give her less work to do.

Now her only customers were those who didn't pay regularly, the
street-walkers, and women like Madame Gaudron, whose laundry smelled so
bad that not one of the laundresses on the Rue Neuve would take it. She
had to let Madame Putois go, leaving only her apprentice, squint-eyed
Augustine, who seemed to grow more stupid as time passed. Frequently
there was not even enough work for the two of them and they sat on
stools all afternoon doing nothing.

Whilst idleness and poverty entered, dirtiness naturally entered also.
One would never have recognised that beautiful blue shop, the color
of heaven, which had once been Gervaise's pride. Its window-frames and
panes, which were never washed, were covered from top to bottom with the
splashes of the passing vehicles. On the brass rods in the windows
were displayed three grey rags left by customers who had died in the
hospital. And inside it was more pitiable still; the dampness of the
clothes hung up at the ceiling to dry had loosed all the wallpaper; the
Pompadour chintz hung in strips like cobwebs covered with dust; the big
stove, broken and in holes from the rough use of the poker, looked
in its corner like the stock in trade of a dealer in old iron; the
work-table appeared as though it had been used by a regiment, covered as
it was with wine and coffee stains, sticky with jam, greasy from spilled
gravy.

Gervaise was so at ease among it all that she never even noticed the
shop was getting filthy. She became used to it all, just as she got
used to wearing torn skirts and no longer washing herself carefully. The
disorder was like a warm nest.

Her own ease was her sole consideration; she did not care a pin for
anything else. The debts, though still increasing, no longer troubled
her. Her honesty gradually deserted her; whether she would be able to
pay or not was altogether uncertain, and she preferred not to think
about it. When her credit was stopped at one shop, she would open
an account at some other shop close by. She was in debt all over the
neighborhood, she owed money every few yards. To take merely the Rue de
la Goutte-d'Or, she no longer dared pass in front of the grocer's, nor
the charcoal-dealer's, nor the greengrocer's; and this obliged her,
whenever she required to be at the wash-house, to go round by the
Rue des Poissonniers, which was quite ten minutes out of her way. The
tradespeople came and treated her as a swindler. One evening the dealer
from whom she had purchased Lantier's furniture made a scene in the
street. Scenes like this upset her at the time, but were soon forgotten
and never spoiled her appetite. What a nerve to bother her like that
when she had no money to pay. They were all robbers anyway and it served
them right to have to wait. Well, she'd have to go bankrupt, but she
didn't intend to fret about it now.

Meanwhile mother Coupeau had recovered. For another year the household
jogged along. During the summer months there was naturally a little more
work - the white petticoats and the cambric dresses of the street-walkers
of the exterior Boulevard. The catastrophe was slowly approaching; the
home sank deeper into the mire every week; there were ups and downs,
however - days when one had to rub one's stomach before the empty
cupboard, and others when one ate veal enough to make one burst. Mother
Coupeau was for ever being seen in the street, hiding bundles under
her apron, and strolling in the direction of the pawn-place in the Rue
Polonceau. She strutted along with the air of a devotee going to mass;
for she did not dislike these errands; haggling about money amused her;
this crying up of her wares like a second-hand dealer tickled the old
woman's fancy for driving hard bargains. The clerks knew her well and
called her "Mamma Four Francs," because she always demanded four francs
when they offered three, on bundles no bigger than two sous' worth of
butter.

At the start, Gervaise took advantage of good weeks to get things back
from the pawn-shops, only to put them back again the next week. Later
she let things go altogether, selling her pawn tickets for cash.

One thing alone gave Gervaise a pang - it was having to pawn her clock to
pay an acceptance for twenty francs to a bailiff who came to seize her
goods. Until then, she had sworn rather to die of hunger than to
part with her clock. When mother Coupeau carried it away in a little
bonnet-box, she sunk on to a chair, without a particle of strength left
in her arms, her eyes full of tears, as though a fortune was being torn
from her. But when mother Coupeau reappeared with twenty-five francs,
the unexpected loan, the five francs profit consoled her; she at once
sent the old woman out again for four sous' worth of brandy in a glass,
just to toast the five-franc piece.

The two of them would often have a drop together, when they were on good
terms with each other. Mother Coupeau was very successful at bringing
back a full glass hidden in her apron pocket without spilling a drop.
Well, the neighbors didn't need to know, did they. But the neighbors
knew perfectly well. This turned the neighborhood even more against
Gervaise. She was devouring everything; a few more mouthfuls and the
place would be swept clean.

In the midst of this general demolishment, Coupeau continued to prosper.
The confounded tippler was as well as well could be. The sour wine and
the "vitriol" positively fattened him. He ate a great deal, and laughed
at that stick Lorilleux, who accused drink of killing people, and
answered him by slapping himself on the stomach, the skin of which was
so stretched by the fat that it resembled the skin of a drum. He would
play him a tune on it, the glutton's vespers, with rolls and beats loud
enough to have made a quack's fortune. Lorilleux, annoyed at not having
any fat himself, said that it was soft and unhealthy. Coupeau ignored
him and went on drinking more and more, saying it was for his health's
sake.

His hair was beginning to turn grey and his face to take on the
drunkard's hue of purplish wine. He continued to act like a mischievous
child. Well, it wasn't his concern if there was nothing about the
place to eat. When he went for weeks without work he became even more
difficult.

Still, he was always giving Lantier friendly slaps on the back. People
swore he had no suspicion at all. Surely something terrible would happen
if he ever found out. Madame Lerat shook her head at this. His sister
said she had known of husbands who didn't mind at all.

Lantier wasn't wasting away either. He took great care of himself,
measuring his stomach by the waist-band of his trousers, with the
constant dread of having to loosen the buckle or draw it tighter; for
he considered himself just right, and out of coquetry neither desired to
grow fatter nor thinner. That made him hard to please in the matter of
food, for he regarded every dish from the point of view of keeping his
waist as it was. Even when there was not a sou in the house, he required
eggs, cutlets, light and nourishing things. Since he was sharing the
lady of the house, he considered himself to have a half interest in
everything and would pocket any franc pieces he saw lying about. He kept
Gervaise running here and there and seemed more at home than Coupeau.
Nana was his favorite because he adored pretty little girls, but he paid
less and less attention to Etienne, since boys, according to him, ought
to know how to take care of themselves. If anyone came to see Coupeau
while he was out, Lantier, in shirt sleeves and slippers, would come
out of the back room with the bored expression of a husband who has been
disturbed, saying he would answer for Coupeau as it was all the same.

Between these two gentlemen, Gervaise had nothing to laugh about. She
had nothing to complain of as regards her health, thank goodness! She
was growing too fat. But two men to coddle was often more than she could
manage. Ah! _Mon Dieu!_ one husband is already too much for a woman! The
worst was that they got on very well together, the rogues. They never
quarreled; they would chuckle in each other's faces, as they sat of
an evening after dinner, their elbows on the table; they would rub up
against one another all the live-long day, like cats which seek and
cultivate their pleasure. The days when they came home in a rage, it was
on her that they vented it. Go it! hammer away at the animal! She had
a good back; it made them all the better friends when they yelled
together. And it never did for her to give them tit-for-tat. In the
beginning, whenever one of them yelled at her, she would appeal to the
other, but this seldom worked. Coupeau had a foul mouth and called her
horrible things. Lantier chose his insults carefully, but they often
hurt her even more.

But one can get used to anything. Soon their nasty remarks and all the
wrongs done her by these two men slid off her smooth skin like water off
a duck's back. It was even easier to have them angry, because when they
were in good moods they bothered her too much, never giving her time to
get a bonnet ironed.

Yes, Coupeau and Lantier were wearing her out. The zinc-worker, sure
enough, lacked education; but the hatter had too much, or at least he
had education in the same way that dirty people have a white shirt, with
uncleanliness underneath it. One night, she dreamt that she was on the
edge of a wall; Coupeau was knocking her into it with a blow of his
fist, whilst Lantier was tickling her in the ribs to make her fall
quicker. Well! That resembled her life. It was no surprise if she was
becoming slipshod. The neighbors weren't fair in blaming her for the
frightful habits she had fallen into. Sometimes a cold shiver ran
through her, but things could have been worse, so she tried to make
the best of it. Once she had seen a play in which the wife detested
her husband and poisoned him for the sake of her lover. Wasn't it more
sensible for the three of them to live together in peace? In spite of
her debts and poverty she thought she was quite happy and could live in
peace if only Coupeau and Lantier would stop yelling at her so much.

Towards the autumn, unfortunately, things became worse. Lantier
pretended he was getting thinner, and pulled a longer face over the
matter every day. He grumbled at everything, sniffed at the dishes of
potatoes - a mess he could not eat, he would say, without having the
colic. The least jangling now turned to quarrels, in which they accused
one another of being the cause of all their troubles, and it was a devil
of a job to restore harmony before they all retired for the night.

Lantier sensed a crisis coming and it exasperated him to realise that
this place was already so thoroughly cleaned out that he could see the
day coming when he'd have to take his hat and seek elsewhere for his bed
and board. He had become accustomed to this little paradise where he was
nicely treated by everybody. He should have blamed himself for eating
himself out of house and home, but instead he blamed the Coupeaus for
letting themselves be ruined in less than two years. He thought Gervaise
was too extravagant. What was going to happen to them now?

One evening in December they had no dinner at all. There was not a
radish left. Lantier, who was very glum, went out early, wandering about
in search of some other den where the smell of the kitchen would bring
a smile to one's face. He would now remain for hours beside the stove
wrapt in thought. Then, suddenly, he began to evince a great friendship
for the Poissons. He no longer teased the policeman and even went so far
as to concede that the Emperor might not be such a bad fellow after all.
He seemed to especially admire Virginie. No doubt he was hoping to board
with them. Virginie having acquainted him with her desire to set up in
some sort of business, he agreed with everything she said, and declared
that her idea was a most brilliant one. She was just the person for
trade - tall, engaging and active. Oh! she would make as much as she
liked. The capital had been available for some time, thanks to an
inheritance from an aunt. Lantier told her of all the shopkeepers who
were making fortunes. The time was right for it; you could sell anything
these days. Virginie, however, hesitated; she was looking for a shop
that was to be let, she did not wish to leave the neighborhood.
Then Lantier would take her into corners and converse with her in an
undertone for ten minutes at a time. He seemed to be urging her to do
something in spite of herself; and she no longer said "no," but appeared
to authorize him to act. It was as a secret between them, with winks and
words rapidly exchanged, some mysterious understanding which betrayed
itself even in their handshakings.

From this moment the hatter would covertly watch the Coupeaus whilst
eating their dry bread, and becoming very talkative again, would deafen
them with his continual jeremiads. All day long Gervaise moved in the
midst of that poverty which he so obligingly spread out. _Mon Dieu!_ he
wasn't thinking of himself; he would go on starving with his friends as
long as they liked. But look at it with common sense. They owed at least
five hundred francs in the neighborhood. Besides which, they were two
quarters' rent behind with the rent, which meant another two hundred and
fifty francs; the landlord, Monsieur Marescot, even spoke of having them
evicted if they did not pay him by the first of January. Finally the
pawn-place had absorbed everything, one could not have got together
three francs' worth of odds and ends, the clearance had been so
complete; the nails remained in the walls and that was all and perhaps
there were two pounds of them at three sous the pound. Gervaise,
thoroughly entangled in it all, her nerves quite upset by this
calculation, would fly into a passion and bang her fists down upon the
table or else she would end by bursting into tears like a fool. One
night she exclaimed:

"I'll be off to-morrow! I prefer to put the key under the door and to
sleep on the pavement rather than continue to live in such frights."

"It would be wiser," said Lantier slyly, "to get rid of the lease if you
could find someone to take it. When you are both decided to give up the
shop - "

She interrupted him more violently:

"At once, at once! Ah! it'll be a good riddance!"

Then the hatter became very practical. On giving up the lease one
would no doubt get the new tenant to be responsible for the two overdue
quarters. And he ventured to mention the Poissons, he reminded them
that Virginie was looking for a shop; theirs would perhaps suit her. He
remembered that he had heard her say she longed for one just like it.
But when Virginie's name was mentioned the laundress suddenly regained
her composure. We'll see how things go along. When you're angry you
always talk of quitting, but it isn't so easy when you just stop to
think about it.

During the following days it was in vain that Lantier harped upon the
subject. Gervaise replied that she had seen herself worse off and had
pulled through. How would she be better off when she no longer had her
shop? That would not put bread into their mouths. She would, on the
contrary, engage some fresh workwomen and work up a fresh connection.

Lantier made the mistake of mentioning Virginie again. This stirred
Gervaise into furious obstinacy. No! Never! She had always had her
suspicions of what was in Virginie's heart. Virginie only wanted to
humiliate her. She would rather turn it over to the first woman to come
in from the street than to that hypocrite who had been waiting for
years to see her fail. Yes, Virginie still had in mind that fight in the
wash-house. Well, she'd be wiser to forget about it, unless she wanted
another one now.

In the face of this flow of angry retorts, Lantier began by attacking
Gervaise. He called her stupid and stuck-up. He even went so far as to
abuse Coupeau, accusing him of not knowing how to make his wife respect
his friend. Then, realising that passion would compromise everything, he
swore that he would never again interest himself in the affairs of
other people, for one always got more kicks than thanks; and indeed he
appeared to have given up all idea of talking them into parting with
the lease, but he was really watching for a favorable opportunity of
broaching the subject again and of bringing the laundress round to his
views.

January had now arrived; the weather was wretched, both damp and cold.
Mother Coupeau, who had coughed and choked all through December, was
obliged to take to her bed after Twelfth-night. It was her annuity,
which she expected every winter. This winter though, those around her
said she'd never come out of her bedroom except feet first. Indeed, her
gaspings sounded like a death rattle. She was still fat, but one eye was
blind and one side of her face was twisted. The doctor made one call and
didn't return again. They kept giving her tisanes and going to check on
her every hour. She could no longer speak because her breathing was so
difficult.

One Monday evening, Coupeau came home totally drunk. Ever since his
mother was in danger, he had lived in a continual state of deep emotion.
When he was in bed, snoring soundly, Gervaise walked about the place for
a while. She was in the habit of watching over mother Coupeau during a
part of the night. Nana had showed herself very brave, always sleeping
beside the old woman, and saying that if she heard her dying, she would
wake everyone. Since the invalid seemed to be sleeping peacefully this
night, Gervaise finally yielded to the appeals of Lantier to come into
his room for a little rest. They only kept a candle alight, standing
on the ground behind the wardrobe. But towards three o'clock Gervaise
abruptly jumped out of bed, shivering and oppressed with anguish. She
thought she had felt a cold breath pass over her body. The morsel
of candle had burnt out; she tied on her petticoats in the dark, all
bewildered, and with feverish hands. It was not till she got into the
little room, after knocking up against the furniture, that she was able
to light a small lamp. In the midst of the oppressive silence of
night, the zinc-worker's snores alone sounded as two grave notes. Nana,
stretched on her back, was breathing gently between her pouting lips.
And Gervaise, holding down the lamp which caused big shadows to dance
about the room, cast the light on mother Coupeau's face, and beheld it
all white, the head lying on the shoulder, the eyes wide open. Mother
Coupeau was dead.

Gently, without uttering a cry, icy cold yet prudent, the laundress
returned to Lantier's room. He had gone to sleep again. She bent over
him and murmured:

"Listen, it's all over, she's dead."

Heavy with sleep, only half awake, he grunted at first:

"Leave me alone, get into bed. We can't do her any good if she's dead."

Then he raised himself on his elbow and asked:

"What's the time?"

"Three o'clock."

"Only three o'clock! Get into bed quick. You'll catch cold. When it's
daylight, we'll see what's to be done."

But she did not listen to him, she dressed herself completely. Bundling
himself in the blankets, Lantier muttered about how stubborn women were.
What was the hurry to announce a death in the house? He was irritated at
having his sleep spoiled by such gloomy matters.

Meanwhile, Gervaise had moved her things back into her own room. Then
she felt free to sit down and cry, no longer fearful of being caught
in Lantier's room. She had been fond of mother Coupeau and felt a deep
sorrow at her loss. She sat, crying by herself, her sobs loud in the
silence, but Coupeau never stirred. She had spoken to him and even
shaken him and finally decided to let him sleep. He would be more of a
nuisance if he woke up.

On returning to the body, she found Nana sitting up in bed rubbing her
eyes. The child understood, and with her vicious urchin's curiosity,
stretched out her neck to get a better view of her grandmother; she
said nothing but she trembled slightly, surprised and satisfied in the
presence of this death which she had been promising herself for two days
past, like some nasty thing hidden away and forbidden to children; and
her young cat-like eyes dilated before that white face all emaciated at
the last gasp by the passion of life, she felt that tingling in her back
which she felt behind the glass door when she crept there to spy on what
was no concern of chits like her.

"Come, get up," said her mother in a low voice. "You can't remain here."

She regretfully slid out of bed, turning her head round and not taking
her eyes off the corpse. Gervaise was much worried about her, not
knowing where to put her till day-time. She was about to tell her to
dress herself, when Lantier, in his trousers and slippers, rejoined her.
He could not get to sleep again, and was rather ashamed of his behavior.
Then everything was arranged.

"She can sleep in my bed," murmured he. "She'll have plenty of room."

Nana looked at her mother and Lantier with her big, clear eyes and put
on her stupid air, the same as on New Year's day when anyone made her a
present of a box of chocolate candy. And there was certainly no need
for them to hurry her. She trotted off in her night-gown, her bare feet
scarcely touching the tiled floor; she glided like a snake into the bed,
which was still quite warm, and she lay stretched out and buried in it,
her slim body scarcely raising the counterpane. Each time her mother
entered the room she beheld her with her eyes sparkling in her
motionless face - not sleeping, not moving, very red with excitement, and
appearing to reflect on her own affairs.

Lantier assisted Gervaise in dressing mother Coupeau - and it was not an
easy matter, for the body was heavy. One would never have thought that
that old woman was so fat and so white. They put on her stockings, a
white petticoat, a short linen jacket and a white cap - in short, the
best of her linen. Coupeau continued snoring, a high note and a low one,
the one sharp, the other flat. One could almost have imagined it to be
church music accompanying the Good Friday ceremonies. When the corpse
was dressed and properly laid out on the bed, Lantier poured himself out
a glass of wine, for he felt quite upset. Gervaise searched the chest
of drawers to find a little brass crucifix which she had brought
from Plassans, but she recollected that mother Coupeau had, in all
probability, sold it herself. They had lighted the stove, and they
passed the rest of the night half asleep on chairs, finishing the bottle
of wine that had been opened, worried and sulking, as though it was
their own fault.

Towards seven o'clock, before daylight, Coupeau at length awoke. When
he learnt his loss he at first stood still with dry eyes, stuttering
and vaguely thinking that they were playing him some joke. Then he threw
himself on the ground and went and knelt beside the corpse. His kissed
it and wept like a child, with such a copious flow of tears that he
quite wetted the sheet with wiping his cheeks. Gervaise had recommenced
sobbing, deeply affected by her husband's grief, and the best of friends
with him again. Yes, he was better at heart than she thought he was.
Coupeau's despair mingled with a violent pain in his head. He passed
his fingers through his hair. His mouth was dry, like on the morrow of
a booze, and he was still a little drunk in spite of his ten hours of
sleep. And, clenching his fist, he complained aloud. _Mon Dieu!_ she was
gone now, his poor mother, whom he loved so much! Ah! what a headache he
had; it would settle him! It was like a wig of fire! And now they were
tearing out his heart! No, it was not just of fate thus to set itself
against one man!

"Come, cheer up, old fellow," said Lantier, raising him from the ground;
"you must pull yourself together."

He poured him out a glass of wine, but Coupeau refused to drink.

"What's the matter with me? I've got copper in my throat. It's mamma.
When I saw her I got a taste of copper in my mouth. Mamma! _Mon Dieu!_



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 24 of 36)