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Émile Zola.

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children, without any offence to decency.

"Just you listen, there are some very fine women among the
flower-makers!" she insisted. "They're just like other women and they
show good taste when they choose to commit a sin."

"_Mon Dieu!_" interrupted Gervaise, "I've no dislike for artificial
flower-making. Only it must please Nana, that's all I care about; one
should never thwart children on the question of a vocation. Come Nana,
don't be stupid; tell me now, would you like to make flowers?"

The child was leaning over her plate gathering up the cake crumbs with
her wet finger, which she afterwards sucked. She did not hurry herself.
She grinned in her vicious way.

"Why yes, mamma, I should like to," she ended by declaring.

Then the matter was at once settled. Coupeau was quite willing that
Madame Lerat should take the child with her on the morrow to the place
where she worked in the Rue du Caire. And they all talked very gravely
of the duties of life. Boche said that Nana and Pauline were women now
that they had partaken of communion. Poisson added that for the future
they ought to know how to cook, mend socks and look after a house.
Something was even said of their marrying, and of the children they
would some day have. The youngsters listened, laughing to themselves,
elated by the thought of being women. What pleased them the most was
when Lantier teased them, asking if they didn't already have little
husbands. Nana eventually admitted that she cared a great deal for
Victor Fauconnier, son of her mother's employer.

"Ah well," said Madame Lorilleux to the Boches, as they were all
leaving, "she's our goddaughter, but as they're going to put her into
artificial flower-making, we don't wish to have anything more to do with
her. Just one more for the boulevards. She'll be leading them a merry
chase before six months are over."

On going up to bed, the Coupeaus agreed that everything had passed off
well and that the Poissons were not at all bad people. Gervaise even
considered the shop was nicely got up. She was surprised to discover
that it hadn't pained her at all to spend an evening there. While Nana
was getting ready for bed she contemplated her white dress and asked her
mother if the young lady on the third floor had had one like it when she
was married last month.

This was their last happy day. Two years passed by, during which they
sank deeper and deeper. The winters were especially hard for them. If
they had bread to eat during the fine weather, the rain and cold came
accompanied by famine, by drubbings before the empty cupboard, and by
dinner-hours with nothing to eat in the little Siberia of their larder.
Villainous December brought numbing freezing spells and the black misery
of cold and dampness.

The first winter they occasionally had a fire, choosing to keep warm
rather than to eat. But the second winter, the stove stood mute with
its rust, adding a chill to the room, standing there like a cast-iron
gravestone. And what took the life out of their limbs, what above all
utterly crushed them was the rent. Oh! the January quarter, when there
was not a radish in the house and old Boche came up with the bill! It
was like a bitter storm, a regular tempest from the north. Monsieur
Marescot then arrived the following Saturday, wrapped up in a good warm
overcoat, his big hands hidden in woolen gloves; and he was for ever
talking of turning them out, whilst the snow continued to fall outside,
as though it were preparing a bed for them on the pavement with white
sheets. To have paid the quarter's rent they would have sold their very
flesh. It was the rent which emptied the larder and the stove.

No doubt the Coupeaus had only themselves to blame. Life may be a
hard fight, but one always pulls through when one is orderly and
economical - witness the Lorilleuxs, who paid their rent to the day, the
money folded up in bits of dirty paper. But they, it is true, led a life
of starved spiders, which would disgust one with hard work. Nana as yet
earned nothing at flower-making; she even cost a good deal for her keep.
At Madame Fauconnier's Gervaise was beginning to be looked down upon.
She was no longer so expert. She bungled her work to such an extent that
the mistress had reduced her wages to two francs a day, the price paid
to the clumsiest bungler. But she was still proud, reminding everyone of
her former status as boss of her own shop. When Madame Fauconnier hired
Madame Putois, Gervaise was so annoyed at having to work beside her
former employee that she stayed away for two weeks.

As for Coupeau, he did perhaps work, but in that case he certainly made
a present of his labor to the Government, for since the time he returned
from Etampes Gervaise had never seen the color of his money. She no
longer looked in his hands when he came home on paydays. He
arrived swinging his arms, his pockets empty, and often without his
handkerchief; well, yes, he had lost his rag, or else some rascally
comrade had sneaked it. At first he always fibbed; there was a donation
to charity, or some money slipped through the hole in his pocket, or he
paid off some imaginary debts. Later, he didn't even bother to make up
anything. He had nothing left because it had all gone into his stomach.

Madame Boche suggested to Gervaise that she go to wait for him at the
shop exit. This rarely worked though, because Coupeau's comrades would
warn him and the money would disappear into his shoe or someone else's
pocket.

Yes, it was their own fault if every season found them lower and lower.
But that's the sort of thing one never tells oneself, especially when
one is down in the mire. They accused their bad luck; they pretended
that fate was against them. Their home had become a regular shambles
where they wrangled the whole day long. However, they had not yet come
to blows, with the exception of a few impulsive smacks, which somehow
flew about at the height of their quarrels. The saddest part of the
business was that they had opened the cage of affection; all their
better feelings had taken flight, like so many canaries. The genial
warmth of father, mother and child, when united together and wrapped up
in each other, deserted them, and left them shivering, each in his or
her own corner. All three - Coupeau, Gervaise and Nana - were always in
the most abominable tempers, biting each other's noses off for nothing
at all, their eyes full of hatred; and it seemed as though something
had broken the mainspring of the family, the mechanism which, with happy
people, causes hearts to beat in unison. Ah! it was certain Gervaise was
no longer moved as she used to be when she saw Coupeau at the edge of a
roof forty or fifty feet above the pavement. She would not have pushed
him off herself, but if he had fallen accidentally, in truth it would
have freed the earth of one who was of but little account. The days when
they were more especially at enmity she would ask him why he didn't come
back on a stretcher. She was awaiting it. It would be her good luck they
were bringing back to her. What use was he - that drunkard? To make her
weep, to devour all she possessed, to drive her to sin. Well! Men so
useless as he should be thrown as quickly as possible into the hole and
the polka of deliverance be danced over them. And when the mother said
"Kill him!" the daughter responded "Knock him on the head!" Nana read
all of the reports of accidents in the newspapers, and made reflections
that were unnatural for a girl. Her father had such good luck an omnibus
had knocked him down without even sobering him. Would the beggar never
croak?

In the midst of her own poverty Gervaise suffered even more because
other families around her were also starving to death. Their corner of
the tenement housed the most wretched. There was not a family that ate
every day.

Gervaise felt the most pity for Pere Bru in his cubbyhole under the
staircase where he hibernated. Sometimes he stayed on his bed of straw
without moving for days. Even hunger no longer drove him out since
there was no use taking a walk when no one would invite him to dinner.
Whenever he didn't show his face for several days, the neighbors would
push open his door to see if his troubles were over. No, he was still
alive, just barely. Even Death seemed to have neglected him. Whenever
Gervaise had any bread she gave him the crusts. Even when she hated all
men because of her husband, she still felt sincerely sorry for Pere Bru,
the poor old man. They were letting him starve to death because he could
no longer hold tools in his hand.

The laundress also suffered a great deal from the close neighborhood of
Bazouge, the undertaker's helper. A simple partition, and a very thin
one, separated the two rooms. He could not put his fingers down his
throat without her hearing it. As soon as he came home of an evening she
listened, in spite of herself, to everything he did. His black leather
hat laid with a dull thud on the chest of drawers, like a shovelful of
earth; the black cloak hung up and rustling against the walls like the
wings of some night bird; all the black toggery flung into the middle
of the room and filling it with the trappings of mourning. She heard
him stamping about, felt anxious at the least movement, and was quite
startled if he knocked against the furniture or rattled any of his
crockery. This confounded drunkard was her preoccupation, filling her
with a secret fear mingled with a desire to know. He, jolly, his belly
full every day, his head all upside down, coughed, spat, sang "Mother
Godichon," made use of many dirty expressions and fought with the
four walls before finding his bedstead. And she remained quite pale,
wondering what he could be doing in there. She imagined the most
atrocious things. She got into her head that he must have brought a
corpse home, and was stowing it away under his bedstead. Well! the
newspapers had related something of the kind - an undertaker's helper
who collected the coffins of little children at his home, so as to save
himself trouble and to make only one journey to the cemetery.

For certain, directly Bazouge arrived, a smell of death seemed to
permeate the partition. One might have thought oneself lodging against
the Pere Lachaise cemetery, in the midst of the kingdom of moles. He was
frightful, the animal, continually laughing all by himself, as though
his profession enlivened him. Even when he had finished his rumpus and
had laid himself on his back, he snored in a manner so extraordinary
that it caused the laundress to hold her breath. For hours she listened
attentively, with an idea that funerals were passing through her
neighbor's room.

The worst was that, in spite of her terrors, something incited Gervaise
to put her ear to the wall, the better to find out what was taking
place. Bazouge had the same effect on her as handsome men have on good
women: they would like to touch them. Well! if fear had not kept her
back, Gervaise would have liked to have handled death, to see what it
was like. She became so peculiar at times, holding her breath, listening
attentively, expecting to unravel the secret through one of Bazouge's
movements, that Coupeau would ask her with a chuckle if she had a fancy
for that gravedigger next door. She got angry and talked of moving, the
close proximity of this neighbor was so distasteful to her; and yet,
in spite of herself, as soon as the old chap arrived, smelling like a
cemetery, she became wrapped again in her reflections, with the excited
and timorous air of a wife thinking of passing a knife through the
marriage contract. Had he not twice offered to pack her up and carry
her off with him to some place where the enjoyment of sleep is so great,
that in a moment one forgets all one's wretchedness? Perhaps it was
really very pleasant. Little by little the temptation to taste it became
stronger. She would have liked to have tried it for a fortnight or a
month. Oh! to sleep a month, especially in winter, the month when the
rent became due, when the troubles of life were killing her! But it was
not possible - one must sleep forever, if one commences to sleep for an
hour; and the thought of this froze her, her desire for death departed
before the eternal and stern friendship which the earth demanded.

However, one evening in January she knocked with both her fists against
the partition. She had passed a frightful week, hustled by everyone,
without a sou, and utterly discouraged. That evening she was not at all
well, she shivered with fever, and seemed to see flames dancing about
her. Then, instead of throwing herself out of the window, as she had at
one moment thought of doing, she set to knocking and calling:

"Old Bazouge! Old Bazouge!"

The undertaker's helper was taking off his shoes and singing, "There
were three lovely girls." He had probably had a good day, for he seemed
even more maudlin than usual.

"Old Bazouge! Old Bazouge!" repeated Gervaise, raising her voice.

Did he not hear her then? She was ready to give herself at once; he
might come and take her on his neck, and carry her off to the place
where he carried his other women, the poor and the rich, whom he
consoled. It pained her to hear his song, "There were three lovely
girls," because she discerned in it the disdain of a man with too many
sweethearts.

"What is it? what is it?" stuttered Bazouge; "who's unwell? We're
coming, little woman!"

But the sound of this husky voice awoke Gervaise as though from a
nightmare. And a feeling of horror ascended from her knees to her
shoulders at the thought of seeing herself lugged along in the old
fellow's arms, all stiff and her face as white as a china plate.

"Well! is there no one there now?" resumed Bazouge in silence. "Wait a
bit, we're always ready to oblige the ladies."

"It's nothing, nothing," said the laundress at length in a choking
voice. "I don't require anything, thanks."

She remained anxious, listening to old Bazouge grumbling himself to
sleep, afraid to stir for fear he would think he heard her knocking
again.

In her corner of misery, in the midst of her cares and the cares of
others, Gervaise had, however, a beautiful example of courage in the
home of her neighbors, the Bijards. Little Lalie, only eight years old
and no larger than a sparrow, took care of the household as competently
as a grown person. The job was not an easy one because she had two
little tots, her brother Jules and her sister Henriette, aged three and
five, to watch all day long while sweeping and cleaning.

Ever since Bijard had killed his wife with a kick in the stomach, Lalie
had become the little mother of them all. Without saying a word, and of
her own accord, she filled the place of one who had gone, to the extent
that her brute of a father, no doubt to complete the resemblance, now
belabored the daughter as he had formerly belabored the mother. Whenever
he came home drunk, he required a woman to massacre. He did not even
notice that Lalie was quite little; he would not have beaten some old
trollop harder. Little Lalie, so thin it made you cry, took it all
without a word of complaint in her beautiful, patient eyes. Never would
she revolt. She bent her neck to protect her face and stifled her sobs
so as not to alarm the neighbors. When her father got tired of kicking
her, she would rest a bit until she got her strength back and then
resume her work. It was part of her job, being beaten daily.

Gervaise entertained a great friendship for her little neighbor. She
treated her as an equal, as a grown-up woman of experience. It must be
said that Lalie had a pale and serious look, with the expression of an
old girl. One might have thought her thirty on hearing her speak. She
knew very well how to buy things, mend the clothes, attend to the home,
and she spoke of the children as though she had already gone through
two or thee nurseries in her time. It made people smile to hear her talk
thus at eight years old; and then a lump would rise in their throats,
and they would hurry away so as not to burst out crying. Gervaise drew
the child towards her as much as she could, gave her all she could spare
of food and old clothing. One day as she tried one of Nana's old dresses
on her, she almost choked with anger on seeing her back covered with
bruises, the skin off her elbow, which was still bleeding, and all her
innocent flesh martyred and sticking to her bones. Well! Old Bazouge
could get a box ready; she would not last long at that rate! But the
child had begged the laundress not to say a word. She would not have
her father bothered on her account. She took his part, affirming that he
would not have been so wicked if it had not been for the drink. He was
mad, he did not know what he did. Oh! she forgave him, because one ought
to forgive madmen everything.

From that time Gervaise watched and prepared to interfere directly she
heard Bijard coming up the stairs. But on most of the occasions she only
caught some whack for her trouble. When she entered their room in the
day-time, she often found Lalie tied to the foot of the iron bedstead;
it was an idea of the locksmith's, before going out, to tie her legs
and her body with some stout rope, without anyone being able to find
out why - a mere whim of a brain diseased by drink, just for the sake, no
doubt, of maintaining his tyranny over the child when he was no longer
there. Lalie, as stiff as a stake, with pins and needles in her legs,
remained whole days at the post. She once even passed a night there,
Bijard having forgotten to come home. Whenever Gervaise, carried away
by her indignation, talked of unfastening her, she implored her not to
disturb the rope, because her father became furious if he did not find
the knots tied the same way he had left them. Really, it wasn't so bad,
it gave her a rest. She smiled as she said this though her legs were
swollen and bruised. What upset her the most was that she couldn't do
her work while tied to the bed. She could watch the children though, and
even did some knitting, so as not to entirely waste the time.

The locksmith had thought of another little game too. He heated sous in
the frying pan, then placed them on a corner of the mantle-piece; and
he called Lalie, and told her to fetch a couple of pounds of bread. The
child took up the sous unsuspectingly, uttered a cry and threw them on
the ground, shaking her burnt hand. Then he flew into a fury. Who had
saddled him with such a piece of carrion? She lost the money now! And
he threatened to beat her to a jelly if she did not pick the sous up at
once. When the child hesitated she received the first warning, a clout
of such force that it made her see thirty-six candles. Speechless and
with two big tears in the corners of her eyes, she would pick up the
sous and go off, tossing them in the palm of her hand to cool them.

No, one could never imagine the ferocious ideas which may sprout from
the depths of a drunkard's brain. One afternoon, for instance, Lalie
having made everything tidy was playing with the children. The window
was open, there was a draught, and the wind blowing along the passage
gently shook the door.

"It's Monsieur Hardy," the child was saying. "Come in, Monsieur Hardy.
Pray have the kindness to walk in."

And she curtsied before the door, she bowed to the wind. Henriette and
Jules, behind her, also bowed, delighted with the game and splitting
their sides with laughing, as though being tickled. She was quite rosy
at seeing them so heartily amused and even found some pleasure in it
on her own account, which generally only happened to her on the
thirty-sixth day of each month.

"Good day, Monsieur Hardy. How do you do, Monsieur Hardy?"

But a rough hand pushed open the door, and Bijard entered. Then the
scene changed. Henriette and Jules fell down flat against the wall;
whilst Lalie, terrified, remained standing in the very middle of the
curtsey. The locksmith held in his hand a big waggoner's whip, quite
new, with a long white wooden handle, and a leather thong, terminating
with a bit of whip-cord. He placed the whip in the corner against
the bed and did not give the usual kick to the child who was already
preparing herself by presenting her back. A chuckle exposed his
blackened teeth and he was very lively, very drunk, his red face lighted
up by some idea that amused him immensely.

"What's that?" said he. "You're playing the deuce, eh, you confounded
young hussy! I could hear you dancing about from downstairs. Now then,
come here! Nearer and full face. I don't want to sniff you from behind.
Am I touching you that you tremble like a mass of giblets? Take my shoes
off."

Lalie turned quite pale again and, amazed at not receiving her usual
drubbing, took his shoes off. He had seated himself on the edge of the
bed. He lay down with his clothes on and remained with his eyes open,
watching the child move about the room. She busied herself with one
thing and another, gradually becoming bewildered beneath his glance, her
limbs overcome by such a fright that she ended by breaking a cup. Then,
without getting off the bed, he took hold of the whip and showed it to
her.

"See, little chickie, look at this. It's a present for you. Yes, it's
another fifty sous you've cost me. With this plaything I shall no longer
be obliged to run after you, and it'll be no use you getting into the
corners. Will you have a try? Ah! you broke a cup! Now then, gee up!
Dance away, make your curtsies to Monsieur Hardy!"

He did not even raise himself but lay sprawling on his back, his head
buried in his pillow, making the big whip crack about the room with the
noise of a postillion starting his horses. Then, lowering his arm he
lashed Lalie in the middle of the body, encircling her with the whip
and unwinding it again as though she were a top. She fell and tried to
escape on her hands and knees; but lashing her again he jerked her to
her feet.

"Gee up, gee up!" yelled he. "It's the donkey race! Eh, it'll be fine of
a cold morning in winter. I can lie snug without getting cold or hurting
my chilblains and catch the calves from a distance. In that corner
there, a hit, you hussy! And in that other corner, a hit again! And in
that one, another hit. Ah! if you crawl under the bed I'll whack you
with the handle. Gee up, you jade! Gee up! Gee up!"

A slight foam came to his lips, his yellow eyes were starting from their
black orbits. Lalie, maddened, howling, jumped to the four corners of
the room, curled herself up on the floor and clung to the walls; but the
lash at the end of the big whip caught her everywhere, cracking against
her ears with the noise of fireworks, streaking her flesh with burning
weals. A regular dance of the animal being taught its tricks. This poor
kitten waltzed. It was a sight! Her heels in the air like little girls
playing at skipping, and crying "Father!" She was all out of breath,
rebounding like an india-rubber ball, letting herself be beaten,
unable to see or any longer to seek a refuge. And her wolf of a father
triumphed, calling her a virago, asking her if she had had enough and
whether she understood sufficiently that she was in future to give up
all hope of escaping from him.

But Gervaise suddenly entered the room, attracted by the child's howls.
On beholding such a scene she was seized with a furious indignation.

"Ah! you brute of a man!" cried she. "Leave her alone, you brigand! I'll
put the police on to you."

Bijard growled like an animal being disturbed, and stuttered:

"Mind your own business a bit, Limper. Perhaps you'd like me to put
gloves on when I stir her up. It's merely to warm her, as you can
plainly see - simply to show her that I've a long arm."

And he gave a final lash with the whip which caught Lalie across the
face. The upper lip was cut, the blood flowed. Gervaise had seized a
chair, and was about to fall on to the locksmith; but the child held her
hands towards her imploringly, saying that it was nothing and that it
was all over. She wiped away the blood with the corner of her apron
and quieted the babies, who were sobbing bitterly, as though they had
received all the blows.

Whenever Gervaise thought of Lalie, she felt she had no right to
complain for herself. She wished she had as much patient courage as the
little girl who was only eight years old and had to endure more than the
rest of the women on their staircase put together. She had seen Lalie
living on stale bread for months and growing thinner and weaker.
Whenever she smuggled some remnants of meat to Lalie, it almost broke
her heart to see the child weeping silently and nibbling it down only by



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 27 of 36)