Copyright
Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

. (page 28 of 36)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 28 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


little bits because her throat was so shrunken. Gervaise looked on Lalie
as a model of suffering and forgiveness and tried to learn from her how
to suffer in silence.

In the Coupeau household the vitriol of l'Assommoir was also commencing
its ravages. Gervaise could see the day coming when her husband would
get a whip like Bijard's to make her dance.

Yes, Coupeau was spinning an evil thread. The time was past when a drink
would make him feel good. His unhealthy soft fat of earlier years had
melted away and he was beginning to wither and turn a leaden grey. He
seemed to have a greenish tint like a corpse putrefying in a pond. He
no longer had a taste for food, not even the most beautifully prepared
stew. His stomach would turn and his decayed teeth refuse to touch it.
A pint a day was his daily ration, the only nourishment he could digest.
When he awoke in the mornings he sat coughing and spitting up bile for
at least a quarter of an hour. It never failed, you might as well have
the basin ready. He was never steady on his pins till after his first
glass of consolation, a real remedy, the fire of which cauterized his
bowels; but during the day his strength returned. At first he would feel
a tickling sensation, a sort of pins-and-needles in his hands and feet;
and he would joke, relating that someone was having a lark with him,
that he was sure his wife put horse-hair between the sheets. Then his
legs would become heavy, the tickling sensation would end by turning
into the most abominable cramps, which gripped his flesh as though in
a vise. That though did not amuse him so much. He no longer laughed; he
stopped suddenly on the pavement in a bewildered way with a ringing in
his ears and his eyes blinded with sparks. Everything appeared to him to
be yellow; the houses danced and he reeled about for three seconds with
the fear of suddenly finding himself sprawling on the ground. At other
times, while the sun was shining full on his back, he would shiver as
though iced water had been poured down his shoulders. What bothered
him the most was a slight trembling of both his hands; the right hand
especially must have been guilty of some crime, it suffered from so many
nightmares. _Mon Dieu!_ was he then no longer a man? He was becoming
an old woman! He furiously strained his muscles, he seized hold of his
glass and bet that he would hold it perfectly steady as with a hand of
marble; but in spite of his efforts the glass danced about, jumped
to the right, jumped to the left with a hurried and regular trembling
movement. Then in a fury he emptied it into his gullet, yelling that
he would require dozens like it, and afterwards he undertook to carry
a cask without so much as moving a finger. Gervaise, on the other
hand, told him to give up drink if he wished to cease trembling, and
he laughed at her, emptying quarts until he experienced the sensation
again, flying into a rage and accusing the passing omnibuses of shaking
up his liquor.

In the month of March Coupeau returned home one evening soaked through.
He had come with My-Boots from Montrouge, where they had stuffed
themselves full of eel soup, and he had received the full force of
the shower all the way from the Barriere des Fourneaux to the Barriere
Poissonniere, a good distance. During the night he was seized with
a confounded fit of coughing. He was very flushed, suffering from a
violent fever and panting like a broken bellows. When the Boches' doctor
saw him in the morning and listened against his back he shook his head,
and drew Gervaise aside to advise her to have her husband taken to the
hospital. Coupeau was suffering from pneumonia.

Gervaise did not worry herself, you may be sure. At one time she
would have been chopped into pieces before trusting her old man to the
saw-bones. After the accident in the Rue de la Nation she had spent
their savings in nursing him. But those beautiful sentiments don't last
when men take to wallowing in the mire. No, no; she did not intend to
make a fuss like that again. They might take him and never bring him
back; she would thank them heartily. Yet, when the litter arrived and
Coupeau was put into it like an article of furniture, she became all
pale and bit her lips; and if she grumbled and still said it was a good
job, her heart was no longer in her words. Had she but ten francs in her
drawer she would not have let him go.

She accompanied him to the Lariboisiere Hospital, saw the nurses put him
to bed at the end of a long hall, where the patients in a row, looking
like corpses, raised themselves up and followed with their eyes the
comrade who had just been brought in. It was a veritable death chamber.
There was a suffocating, feverish odor and a chorus of coughing. The
long hall gave the impression of a small cemetery with its double row of
white beds looking like an aisle of marble tombs. When Coupeau remained
motionless on his pillow, Gervaise left, having nothing to say, nor
anything in her pocket that could comfort him.

Outside, she turned to look up at the monumental structure of the
hospital and recalled the days when Coupeau was working there, putting
on the zinc roof, perched up high and singing in the sun. He wasn't
drinking in those days. She used to watch for him from her window in the
Hotel Boncoeur and they would both wave their handkerchiefs in greeting.
Now, instead of being on the roof like a cheerful sparrow, he was down
below. He had built his own place in the hospital where he had come to
die. _Mon Dieu!_ It all seemed so far way now, that time of young love.

On the day after the morrow, when Gervaise called to obtain news of him,
she found the bed empty. A Sister of Charity told her that they had been
obliged to remove her husband to the Asylum of Sainte-Anne, because the
day before he had suddenly gone wild. Oh! a total leave-taking of
his senses; attempts to crack his skull against the wall; howls which
prevented the other patients from sleeping. It all came from drink, it
seemed. Gervaise went home very upset. Well, her husband had gone crazy.
What would it be like if he came home? Nana insisted that they should
leave him in the hospital because he might end by killing both of them.

Gervaise was not able to go to Sainte-Anne until Sunday. It was
a tremendous journey. Fortunately, the omnibus from the Boulevard
Rochechouart to La Glaciere passed close to the asylum. She went down
the Rue de la Sante, buying two oranges on her way, so as not to arrive
empty-handed. It was another monumental building, with grey courtyards,
interminable corridors and a smell of rank medicaments, which did not
exactly inspire liveliness. But when they had admitted her into a cell
she was quite surprised to see Coupeau almost jolly. He was just then
seated on the throne, a spotlessly clean wooden case, and they both
laughed at her finding him in this position. Well, one knows what an
invalid is. He squatted there like a pope with his cheek of earlier
days. Oh! he was better, as he could do this.

"And the pneumonia?" inquired the laundress.

"Done for!" replied he. "They cured it in no time. I still cough a
little, but that's all that is left of it."

Then at the moment of leaving the throne to get back into his bed,
he joked once more. "It's lucky you have a strong nose and are not
bothered."

They laughed louder than ever. At heart they felt joyful. It was by way
of showing their contentment without a host of phrases that they thus
joked together. One must have had to do with patients to know the
pleasure one feels at seeing all their functions at work again.

When he was back in bed she gave him the two oranges and this filled
him with emotion. He was becoming quite nice again ever since he had
had nothing but tisane to drink. She ended by venturing to speak to him
about his violent attack, surprised at hearing him reason like in the
good old times.

"Ah, yes," said he, joking at his own expense; "I talked a precious lot
of nonsense! Just fancy, I saw rats and ran about on all fours to put
a grain of salt under their tails. And you, you called to me, men were
trying to kill you. In short, all sorts of stupid things, ghosts in
broad daylight. Oh! I remember it well, my noodle's still solid.
Now it's over, I dream a bit when I'm asleep. I have nightmares, but
everyone has nightmares."

Gervaise remained with him until the evening. When the house surgeon
came, at the six o'clock inspection, he made him spread his hands; they
hardly trembled at all, scarcely a quiver at the tips of the fingers.
However, as night approached, Coupeau was little by little seized with
uneasiness. He twice sat up in bed looking on the ground and in the dark
corners of the room. Suddenly he thrust out an arm and appeared to crush
some vermin against the wall.

"What is it?" asked Gervaise, frightened.

"The rats! The rats!" murmured he.

Then, after a pause, gliding into sleep, he tossed about, uttering
disconnected phrases.

"_Mon Dieu!_ they're tearing my skin! - Oh! the filthy beasts! - Keep
steady! Hold your skirts right round you! beware of the dirty
bloke behind you! - _Mon Dieu!_ she's down and the scoundrels
laugh! - Scoundrels! Blackguards! Brigands!"

He dealt blows into space, caught hold of his blanket and rolled it into
a bundle against his chest, as though to protect the latter from the
violence of the bearded men whom he beheld. Then, an attendant having
hastened to the spot, Gervaise withdrew, quite frozen by the scene.

But when she returned a few days later, she found Coupeau completely
cured. Even the nightmares had left him; he could sleep his ten hours
right off as peacefully as a child and without stirring a limb. So his
wife was allowed to take him away. The house surgeon gave him the usual
good advice on leaving and advised him to follow it. If he recommenced
drinking, he would again collapse and would end by dying. Yes, it solely
depended upon himself. He had seen how jolly and healthy one could
become when one did not get drunk. Well, he must continue at home the
sensible life he had led at Sainte-Anne, fancy himself under lock and
key and that dram-shops no longer existed.

"The gentleman's right," said Gervaise in the omnibus which was taking
them back to the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or.

"Of course he's right," replied Coupeau.

Then, after thinking a minute, he resumed:

"Oh! you know, a little glass now and again can't kill a man; it helps
the digestion."

And that very evening he swallowed a glass of bad spirit, just to keep
his stomach in order. For eight days he was pretty reasonable. He was a
great coward at heart; he had no desire to end his days in the Bicetre
mad-house. But his passion got the better of him; the first little glass
led him, in spite of himself, to a second, to a third and to a fourth,
and at the end of a fortnight, he had got back to his old ration, a pint
of vitriol a day. Gervaise, exasperated, could have beaten him. To think
that she had been stupid enough to dream once more of leading a worthy
life, just because she had seen him at the asylum in full possession of
his good sense! Another joyful hour had flown, the last one no doubt!
Oh! now, as nothing could reclaim him, not even the fear of his near
death, she swore she would no longer put herself out; the home might
be all at sixes and sevens, she did not care any longer; and she talked
also of leaving him.

Then hell upon earth recommenced, a life sinking deeper into the mire,
without a glimmer of hope for something better to follow. Nana, whenever
her father clouted her, furiously asked why the brute was not at the
hospital. She was awaiting the time when she would be earning money, she
would say, to treat him to brandy and make him croak quicker. Gervaise,
on her side, flew into a passion one day that Coupeau was regretting
their marriage. Ah! she had brought him her saucy children; ah! she had
got herself picked up from the pavement, wheedling him with rosy dreams!
_Mon Dieu!_ he had a rare cheek! So many words, so many lies. She hadn't
wished to have anything to do with him, that was the truth. He had
dragged himself at her feet to make her give way, whilst she was
advising him to think well what he was about. And if it was all to come
over again, he would hear how she would just say "no!" She would sooner
have an arm cut off. Yes, she'd had a lover before him; but a woman who
has had a lover, and who is a worker, is worth more than a sluggard of a
man who sullies his honor and that of his family in all the dram-shops.
That day, for the first time, the Coupeaus went in for a general brawl,
and they whacked each other so hard that an old umbrella and the broom
were broken.

Gervaise kept her word. She sank lower and lower; she missed going to
her work oftener, spent whole days in gossiping, and became as soft as a
rag whenever she had a task to perform. If a thing fell from her hands,
it might remain on the floor; it was certainly not she who would have
stooped to pick it up. She took her ease about everything, and never
handled a broom except when the accumulation of filth almost brought her
to the ground. The Lorilleuxs now made a point of holding something to
their noses whenever they passed her room; the stench was poisonous,
said they. Those hypocrites slyly lived at the end of the passage, out
of the way of all these miseries which filled the corner of the house
with whimpering, locking themselves in so as not to have to lend twenty
sou pieces. Oh! kind-hearted folks, neighbors awfully obliging! Yes,
you may be sure! One had only to knock and ask for a light or a pinch
of salt or a jug of water, one was certain of getting the door banged
in one's face. With all that they had vipers' tongues. They protested
everywhere that they never occupied themselves with other people. This
was true whenever it was a question of assisting a neighbor; but they
did so from morning to night, directly they had a chance of pulling
any one to pieces. With the door bolted and a rug hung up to cover
the chinks and the key-hole, they would treat themselves to a spiteful
gossip without leaving their gold wire for a moment.

The fall of Clump-clump in particular kept them purring like pet cats.
Completely ruined! Not a sou remaining. They smiled gleefully at the
small piece of bread she would bring back when she went shopping and
kept count of the days when she had nothing at all to eat. And the
clothes she wore now. Disgusting rags! That's what happened when one
tried to live high.

Gervaise, who had an idea of the way in which they spoke of her, would
take her shoes off, and place her ear against their door; but the rug
over the door prevented her from hearing much. She was heartily sick of
them; she continued to speak to them, to avoid remarks, though expecting
nothing but unpleasantness from such nasty persons, but no longer having
strength even to give them as much as they gave her, passed the insults
off as a lot of nonsense. And besides she only wanted her own pleasure,
to sit in a heap twirling her thumbs, and only moving when it was a
question of amusing herself, nothing more.

One Saturday Coupeau had promised to take her to the circus. It was well
worth while disturbing oneself to see ladies galloping along on horses
and jumping through paper hoops. Coupeau had just finished a fortnight's
work, he could well spare a couple of francs; and they had also arranged
to dine out, just the two of them, Nana having to work very late that
evening at her employer's because of some pressing order. But at seven
o'clock there was no Coupeau; at eight o'clock it was still the same.
Gervaise was furious. Her drunkard was certainly squandering his
earnings with his comrades at the dram-shops of the neighborhood. She
had washed a cap and had been slaving since the morning over the holes
of an old dress, wishing to look decent. At last, towards nine o'clock,
her stomach empty, her face purple with rage, she decided to go down and
look for Coupeau.

"Is it your husband you want?" called Madame Boche, on catching sight of
Gervaise looking very glum. "He's at Pere Colombe's. Boche has just been
having some cherry brandy with him."

Gervaise uttered her thanks and stalked stiffly along the pavement with
the determination of flying at Coupeau's eyes. A fine rain was falling
which made the walk more unpleasant still. But when she reached
l'Assommoir, the fear of receiving the drubbing herself if she badgered
her old man suddenly calmed her and made her prudent. The shop was
ablaze with the lighted gas, the flames of which were as brilliant as
suns, and the bottles and jars illuminated the walls with their colored
glass. She stood there an instant stretching her neck, her eyes close to
the window, looking between two bottle placed there for show, watching
Coupeau who was right at the back; he was sitting with some comrades at
a little zinc table, all looking vague and blue in the tobacco smoke;
and, as one could not hear them yelling, it created a funny effect to
see them gesticulating with their chins thrust forward and their eyes
starting out of their heads. Good heavens! Was it really possible that
men could leave their wives and their homes to shut themselves up thus
in a hole where they were choking?

The rain trickled down her neck; she drew herself up and went off to the
exterior Boulevard, wrapped in thought and not daring to enter. Ah! well
Coupeau would have welcomed her in a pleasant way, he who objected to be
spied upon! Besides, it really scarcely seemed to her the proper place
for a respectable woman. Twice she went back and stood before the shop
window, her eyes again riveted to the glass, annoyed at still beholding
those confounded drunkards out of the rain and yelling and drinking. The
light of l'Assommoir was reflected in the puddles on the pavement,
which simmered with little bubbles caused by the downpour. At length
she thought she was too foolish, and pushing open the door, she walked
straight up to the table where Coupeau was sitting. After all it was her
husband she came for, was it not? And she was authorized in doing so,
because he had promised to take her to the circus that evening. So much
the worse! She had no desire to melt like a cake of soap out on the
pavement.

"Hullo! It's you, old woman!" exclaimed the zinc-worker, half choking
with a chuckle. "Ah! that's a good joke. Isn't it a good joke now?"

All the company laughed. Gervaise remained standing, feeling rather
bewildered. Coupeau appeared to her to be in a pleasant humor, so she
ventured to say:

"You remember, we've somewhere to go. We must hurry. We shall still be
in time to see something."

"I can't get up, I'm glued, oh! without joking," resumed Coupeau, who
continued laughing. "Try, just to satisfy yourself; pull my arm with all
your strength; try it! harder than that, tug away, up with it! You see
it's that louse Pere Colombe who's screwed me to his seat."

Gervaise had humored him at this game, and when she let go of his arm,
the comrades thought the joke so good that they tumbled up against one
another, braying and rubbing their shoulders like donkeys being groomed.
The zinc-worker's mouth was so wide with laughter that you could see
right down his throat.

"You great noodle!" said he at length, "you can surely sit down a
minute. You're better here than splashing about outside. Well, yes; I
didn't come home as I promised, I had business to attend to. Though you
may pull a long face, it won't alter matters. Make room, you others."

"If madame would accept my knees she would find them softer than the
seat," gallantly said My-Boots.

Gervaise, not wishing to attract attention, took a chair and sat down
at a short distance from the table. She looked at what the men were
drinking, some rotgut brandy which shone like gold in the glasses; a
little of it had dropped upon the table and Salted-Mouth, otherwise
Drink-without-Thirst, dipped his finger in it whilst conversing and
wrote a woman's name - "Eulalie" - in big letters. She noticed
that Bibi-the-Smoker looked shockingly jaded and thinner than a
hundred-weight of nails. My-Boot's nose was in full bloom, a regular
purple Burgundy dahlia. They were all quite dirty, their beards stiff,
their smocks ragged and stained, their hands grimy with dirt. Yet they
were still quite polite.

Gervaise noticed a couple of men at the bar. They were so drunk that
they were spilling the drink down their chins when they thought they
were wetting their whistles. Fat Pere Colombe was calmly serving round
after round.

The atmosphere was very warm, the smoke from the pipes ascended in
the blinding glare of the gas, amidst which it rolled about like dust,
drowning the customers in a gradually thickening mist; and from this
cloud there issued a deafening and confused uproar, cracked voices,
clinking of glasses, oaths and blows sounding like detonations. So
Gervaise pulled a very wry face, for such a sight is not funny for a
woman, especially when she is not used to it; she was stifling, with a
smarting sensation in her eyes, and her head already feeling heavy
from the alcoholic fumes exhaled by the whole place. Then she suddenly
experienced the sensation of something more unpleasant still behind
her back. She turned round and beheld the still, the machine which
manufactured drunkards, working away beneath the glass roof of the
narrow courtyard with the profound trepidation of its hellish cookery.
Of an evening, the copper parts looked more mournful than ever, lit up
only on their rounded surface with one big red glint; and the shadow of
the apparatus on the wall at the back formed most abominable figures,
bodies with tails, monsters opening their jaws as though to swallow
everyone up.

"Listen, mother Talk-too-much, don't make any of your grimaces!" cried
Coupeau. "To blazes, you know, with all wet blankets! What'll you
drink?"

"Nothing, of course," replied the laundress. "I haven't dined yet."

"Well! that's all the more reason for having a glass; a drop of
something sustains one."

But, as she still retained her glum expression, My-Boots again did the
gallant.

"Madame probably likes sweet things," murmured he.

"I like men who don't get drunk," retorted she, getting angry. "Yes, I
like a fellow who brings home his earnings, and who keeps his word when
he makes a promise."

"Ah! so that's what upsets you?" said the zinc-worker, without ceasing
to chuckle. "Yes, you want your share. Then, big goose, why do you
refuse a drink? Take it, it's so much to the good."

She looked at him fixedly, in a grave manner, a wrinkle marking her
forehead with a black line. And she slowly replied:

"Why, you're right, it's a good idea. That way, we can drink up the coin
together."

Bibi-the-Smoker rose from his seat to fetch her a glass of anisette. She
drew her chair up to the table. Whilst she was sipping her anisette, a
recollection suddenly flashed across her mind, she remembered the plum
she had taken with Coupeau, near the door, in the old days, when he
was courting her. At that time, she used to leave the juice of fruits
preserved in brandy. And now, here was she going back to liqueurs. Oh!
she knew herself well, she had not two thimblefuls of will. One would
only have had to have given her a walloping across the back to have made
her regularly wallow in drink. The anisette even seemed to be very good,
perhaps rather too sweet and slightly sickening. She went on sipping as
she listened to Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, tell of
his affair with fat Eulalie, a fish peddler and very shrewd at locating
him. Even if his comrades tried to hide him, she could usually sniff
him out when he was late. Just the night before she had slapped his
face with a flounder to teach him not to neglect going to work.
Bibi-the-Smoker and My-Boots nearly split their sides laughing. They
slapped Gervaise on the shoulder and she began to laugh also, finding it
amusing in spite of herself. They then advised her to follow Eulalie's
example and bring an iron with her so as to press Coupeau's ears on the
counters of the wineshops.

"Ah, well, no thanks," cried Coupeau as he turned upside down the glass
his wife had emptied. "You pump it out pretty well. Just look, you
fellows, she doesn't take long over it."

"Will madame take another?" asked Salted-Mouth, otherwise
Drink-without-Thirst.

No, she had had enough. Yet she hesitated. The anisette had slightly
bothered her stomach. She should have taken straight brandy to settle
her digestion.

She cast side glances at the drunkard manufacturing machine behind her.



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 28 of 36)