Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

. (page 29 of 36)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 29 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

That confounded pot, as round as the stomach of a tinker's fat wife,
with its nose that was so long and twisted, sent a shiver down her back,
a fear mingled with a desire. Yes, one might have thought it the metal
pluck of some big wicked woman, of some witch who was discharging drop
by drop the fire of her entrails. A fine source of poison, an operation
which should have been hidden away in a cellar, it was so brazen and
abominable! But all the same she would have liked to have poked her nose
inside it, to have sniffed the odor, have tasted the filth, though the
skin might have peeled off her burnt tongue like the rind off an orange.

"What's that you're drinking?" asked she slyly of the men, her eyes
lighted up by the beautiful golden color of their glasses.

"That, old woman," answered Coupeau, "is Pere Colombe's camphor. Don't
be silly now and we'll give you a taste."

And when they had brought her a glass of the vitriol, the rotgut, and
her jaws had contracted at the first mouthful, the zinc-worker resumed,
slapping his thighs:

"Ha! It tickles your gullet! Drink it off at one go. Each glassful
cheats the doctor of six francs."

At the second glass Gervaise no longer felt the hunger which had been
tormenting her. Now she had made it up with Coupeau, she no longer felt
angry with him for not having kept his word. They would go to the circus
some other day; it was not so funny to see jugglers galloping about on
houses. There was no rain inside Pere Colombe's and if the money went
in brandy, one at least had it in one's body; one drank it bright and
shining like beautiful liquid gold. Ah! she was ready to send the whole
world to blazes! Life was not so pleasant after all, besides it seemed
some consolation to her to have her share in squandering the cash.
As she was comfortable, why should she not remain? One might have a
discharge of artillery; she did not care to budge once she had settled
in a heap. She nursed herself in a pleasant warmth, her bodice sticking
to her back, overcome by a feeling of comfort which benumbed her limbs.
She laughed all to herself, her elbows on the table, a vacant look in
her eyes, highly amused by two customers, a fat heavy fellow and a tiny
shrimp, seated at a neighboring table, and kissing each other lovingly.
Yes, she laughed at the things to see in l'Assommoir, at Pere Colombe's
full moon face, a regular bladder of lard, at the customers smoking
their short clay pipes, yelling and spitting, and at the big flames of
gas which lighted up the looking-glasses and the bottles of liqueurs.
The smell no longer bothered her, on the contrary it tickled her nose,
and she thought it very pleasant. Her eyes slightly closed, whilst she
breathed very slowly, without the least feeling of suffocation, tasting
the enjoyment of the gentle slumber which was overcoming her. Then,
after her third glass, she let her chin fall on her hands; she now only
saw Coupeau and his comrades, and she remained nose to nose with them,
quite close, her cheeks warmed by their breath, looking at their dirty
beards as though she had been counting the hairs. My-Boots drooled,
his pipe between his teeth, with the dumb and grave air of a dozing ox.
Bibi-the-Smoker was telling a story - the manner in which he emptied a
bottle at a draught, giving it such a kiss that one instantly saw its
bottom. Meanwhile Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, had gone
and fetched the wheel of fortune from the counter, and was playing with
Coupeau for drinks.

"Two hundred! You're lucky; you get high numbers every time!"

The needle of the wheel grated, and the figure of Fortune, a big red
woman placed under glass, turned round and round until it looked like a
mere spot in the centre, similar to a wine stain.

"Three hundred and fifty! You must have been inside it, you confounded
lascar! Ah! I shan't play any more!"

Gervaise amused herself with the wheel of fortune. She was feeling
awfully thirsty, and calling My-Boots "my child." Behind her the machine
for manufacturing drunkards continued working, with its murmur of an
underground stream; and she despaired of ever stopping it, of exhausting
it, filled with a sullen anger against it, feeling a longing to spring
upon the big still as upon some animal, to kick it with her heels and
stave in its belly. Then everything began to seem all mixed up. The
machine seemed to be moving itself and she thought she was being grabbed
by its copper claws, and that the underground stream was now flowing
over her body.

Then the room danced round, the gas-jets seemed to shoot like stars.
Gervaise was drunk. She heard a furious wrangle between Salted-Mouth,
otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, and that rascal Pere Colombe. There was
a thief of a landlord who wanted one to pay for what one had not
had! Yet one was not at a gangster's hang-out. Suddenly there was a
scuffling, yells were heard and tables were upset. It was Pere Colombe
who was turning the party out without the least hesitation, and in the
twinkling of an eye. On the other side of the door they blackguarded him
and called him a scoundrel. It still rained and blew icy cold. Gervaise
lost Coupeau, found him and then lost him again. She wished to go home;
she felt the shops to find her way. This sudden darkness surprised her
immensely. At the corner of the Rue des Poissonniers, she sat down in
the gutter thinking she was at the wash-house. The water which flowed
along caused her head to swim, and made her very ill. At length she
arrived, she passed stiffly before the concierge's room where she
perfectly recognized the Lorilleuxs and the Poissons seated at the table
having dinner, and who made grimaces of disgust on beholding her in that
sorry state.

She never remembered how she had got up all those flights of stairs.
Just as she was turning into the passage at the top, little Lalie, who
heard her footsteps, hastened to meet her, opening her arms caressingly,
and saying, with a smile:

"Madame Gervaise, papa has not returned. Just come and see my little
children sleeping. Oh! they look so pretty!"

But on beholding the laundress' besotted face, she tremblingly drew
back. She was acquainted with that brandy-laden breath, those pale eyes,
that convulsed mouth. Then Gervaise stumbled past without uttering a
word, whilst the child, standing on the threshold of her room, followed
her with her dark eyes, grave and speechless.


Nana was growing up and becoming wayward. At fifteen years old she had
expanded like a calf, white-skinned and very fat; so plump, indeed, you
might have called her a pincushion. Yes, such she was - fifteen years
old, full of figure and no stays. A saucy magpie face, dipped in milk, a
skin as soft as a peach skin, a funny nose, pink lips and eyes sparkling
like tapers, which men would have liked to light their pipes at. Her
pile of fair hair, the color of fresh oats, seemed to have scattered
gold dust over her temples, freckle-like as it were, giving her brow a
sunny crown. Ah! a pretty doll, as the Lorilleuxs say, a dirty nose that
needed wiping, with fat shoulders, which were as fully rounded and as
powerful as those of a full-grown woman. Nana no longer needed to stuff
wads of paper into her bodice, her breasts were grown. She wished they
were larger though, and dreamed of having breasts like a wet-nurse.

What made her particularly tempting was a nasty habit she had of
protruding the tip of her tongue between her white teeth. No doubt on
seeing herself in the looking-glasses she had thought she was pretty
like this; and so, all day long, she poked her tongue out of her mouth,
in view of improving her appearance.

"Hide your lying tongue!" cried her mother.

Coupeau would often get involved, pounding his fist, swearing and

"Make haste and draw that red rag inside again!"

Nana showed herself very coquettish. She did not always wash her feet,
but she bought such tight boots that she suffered martyrdom in St.
Crispin's prison; and if folks questioned her when she turned purple
with pain, she answered that she had the stomach ache, so as to avoid
confessing her coquetry. When bread was lacking at home it was difficult
for her to trick herself out. But she accomplished miracles, brought
ribbons back from the workshop and concocted toilettes - dirty dresses
set off with bows and puffs. The summer was the season of her greatest
triumphs. With a cambric dress which had cost her six francs she filled
the whole neighborhood of the Goutte-d'Or with her fair beauty. Yes, she
was known from the outer Boulevards to the Fortifications, and from the
Chaussee de Clignancourt to the Grand Rue of La Chapelle. Folks called
her "chickie," for she was really as tender and as fresh-looking as a

There was one dress which suited her perfectly, a white one with pink
dots. It was very simple and without a frill. The skirt was rather short
and revealed her ankles. The sleeves were deeply slashed and loose,
showing her arms to the elbow. She pinned the neck back into a wide V as
soon as she reached a dark corner of the staircase to avoid getting her
ears boxed by her father for exposing the snowy whiteness of her throat
and the golden shadow between her breasts. She also tied a pink ribbon
round her blond hair.

Sundays she spent the entire day out with the crowds and loved it when
the men eyed her hungrily as they passed. She waited all week long for
these glances. She would get up early to dress herself and spend hours
before the fragment of mirror that was hung over the bureau. Her mother
would scold her because the entire building could see her through the
window in her chemise as she mended her dress.

Ah! she looked cute like that said father Coupeau, sneering and jeering
at her, a real Magdalene in despair! She might have turned "savage
woman" at a fair, and have shown herself for a penny. Hide your meat, he
used to say, and let me eat my bread! In fact, she was adorable, white
and dainty under her overhanging golden fleece, losing temper to the
point that her skin turned pink, not daring to answer her father, but
cutting her thread with her teeth with a hasty, furious jerk, which
shook her plump but youthful form.

Then immediately after breakfast she tripped down the stairs into the
courtyard. The entire tenement seemed to be resting sleepily in the
peacefulness of a Sunday afternoon. The workshops on the ground floor
were closed. Gaping windows revealed tables in some apartments that were
already set for dinner, awaiting families out working up an appetite by
strolling along the fortifications.

Then, in the midst of the empty, echoing courtyard, Nana, Pauline and
other big girls engaged in games of battledore and shuttlecock. They
had grown up together and were now becoming queens of their building.
Whenever a man crossed the court, flutelike laugher would arise, and
then starched skirts would rustle like the passing of a gust of wind.

The games were only an excuse for them to make their escape. Suddenly
stillness fell upon the tenement. The girls had glided out into the
street and made for the outer Boulevards. Then, linked arm-in-arm across
the full breadth of the pavement, they went off, the whole six of them,
clad in light colors, with ribbons tied around their bare heads. With
bright eyes darting stealthy glances through their partially closed
eyelids, they took note of everything, and constantly threw back their
necks to laugh, displaying the fleshy part of their chins. They would
swing their hips, or group together tightly, or flaunt along with
awkward grace, all for the purpose of calling attention to the fact that
their forms were filling out.

Nana was in the centre with her pink dress all aglow in the sunlight.
She gave her arm to Pauline, whose costume, yellow flowers on a white
ground, glared in similar fashion, dotted as it were with little flames.
As they were the tallest of the band, the most woman-like and most
unblushing, they led the troop and drew themselves up with breasts well
forward whenever they detected glances or heard complimentary remarks.
The others extended right and left, puffing themselves out in order to
attract attention. Nana and Pauline resorted to the complicated devices
of experienced coquettes. If they ran till they were out of breath, it
was in view of showing their white stockings and making the ribbons
of their chignons wave in the breeze. When they stopped, pretending
complete breathlessness, you would certainly spot someone they knew
quite near, one of the young fellows of the neighborhood. This would
make them dawdle along languidly, whispering and laughing among
themselves, but keeping a sharp watch through their downcast eyelids.

They went on these strolls of a Sunday mainly for the sake of these
chance meetings. Tall lads, wearing their Sunday best, would stop them,
joking and trying to catch them round their waists. Pauline was
forever running into one of Madame Gaudron's sons, a seventeen-year-old
carpenter, who would treat her to fried potatoes. Nana could spot Victor
Fauconnier, the laundress's son and they would exchange kisses in dark
corners. It never went farther than that, but they told each other some
tall tales.

Then when the sun set, the great delight of these young hussies was to
stop and look at the mountebanks. Conjurors and strong men turned up and
spread threadbare carpets on the soil of the avenue. Loungers collected
and a circle formed whilst the mountebank in the centre tried his
muscles under his faded tights. Nana and Pauline would stand for hours
in the thickest part of the crowd. Their pretty, fresh frocks would get
crushed between great-coats and dirty work smocks. In this atmosphere of
wine and sweat they would laugh gaily, finding amusement in everything,
blooming naturally like roses growing out of a dunghill. The only thing
that vexed them was to meet their fathers, especially when the hatter
had been drinking. So they watched and warned one another.

"Look, Nana," Pauline would suddenly cry out, "here comes father

"Well, he's drunk too. Oh, dear," said Nana, greatly bothered. "I'm
going to beat it, you know. I don't want him to give me a wallop. Hullo!
How he stumbles! Good Lord, if he could only break his neck!"

At other times, when Coupeau came straight up to her without giving her
time to run off, she crouched down, made herself small and muttered:
"Just you hide me, you others. He's looking for me, and he promised he'd
knock my head off if he caught me hanging about."

Then when the drunkard had passed them she drew herself up again, and
all the others followed her with bursts of laughter. He'll find her - he
will - he won't! It was a true game of hide and seek. One day, however,
Boche had come after Pauline and caught her by both ears, and Coupeau
had driven Nana home with kicks.

Nana was now a flower-maker and earned forty sous a day at Titreville's
place in the Rue du Caire, where she had served as apprentice. The
Coupeaus had kept her there so that she might remain under the eye of
Madame Lerat, who had been forewoman in the workroom for ten years. Of
a morning, when her mother looked at the cuckoo clock, off she went by
herself, looking very pretty with her shoulders tightly confined in her
old black dress, which was both too narrow and too short; and Madame
Lerat had to note the hour of her arrival and tell it to Gervaise. She
was allowed twenty minutes to go from the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or to the
Rue du Caire, and it was enough, for these young hussies have the legs
of racehorses. Sometimes she arrived exactly on time but so breathless
and flushed that she must have covered most of the distance at a run
after dawdling along the way. More often she was a few minutes late.
Then she would fawn on her aunt all day, hoping to soften her and keep
her from telling. Madame Lerat understood what it was to be young and
would lie to the Coupeaus, but she also lectured Nana, stressing the
dangers a young girl runs on the streets of Paris. _Mon Dieu!_ she
herself was followed often enough!

"Oh! I watch, you needn't fear," said the widow to the Coupeaus. "I
will answer to you for her as I would for myself. And rather than let a
blackguard squeeze her, why I'd step between them."

The workroom at Titreville's was a large apartment on the first floor,
with a broad work-table standing on trestles in the centre. Round the
four walls, the plaster of which was visible in parts where the dirty
yellowish-grey paper was torn away, there were several stands covered
with old cardboard boxes, parcels and discarded patterns under a thick
coating of dust. The gas had left what appeared to be like a daub of
soot on the ceiling. The two windows opened so wide that without leaving
the work-table the girls could see the people walking past on the
pavement over the way.

Madame Lerat arrived the first, in view of setting an example. Then for
a quarter of an hour the door swayed to and fro, and all the workgirls
scrambled in, perspiring with tumbled hair. One July morning Nana
arrived the last, as very often happened. "Ah, me!" she said, "it won't
be a pity when I have a carriage of my own." And without even taking
off her hat, one which she was weary of patching up, she approached the
window and leant out, looking to the right and the left to see what was
going on in the street.

"What are you looking at?" asked Madame Lerat, suspiciously. "Did your
father come with you?"

"No, you may be sure of that," answered Nana coolly. "I'm looking at
nothing - I'm seeing how hot it is. It's enough to make anyone, having to
run like that."

It was a stifling hot morning. The workgirls had drawn down the Venetian
blinds, between which they could spy out into the street; and they had
at last begun working on either side of the table, at the upper end of
which sat Madame Lerat. They were eight in number, each with her pot
of glue, pincers, tools and curling stand in front of her. On the
work-table lay a mass of wire, reels, cotton wool, green and brown
paper, leaves and petals cut out of silk, satin or velvet. In the
centre, in the neck of a large decanter, one flower-girl had thrust a
little penny nosegay which had been fading on her breast since the day

"Oh, I have some news," said a pretty brunette named Leonie as she
leaned over her cushion to crimp some rose petals. "Poor Caroline is
very unhappy about that fellow who used to wait for her every evening."

"Ah!" said Nana, who was cutting thin strips of green paper. "A man who
cheats on her every day!"

Madame Lerat had to display severity over the muffled laughter. Then
Leonie whispered suddenly:

"Quiet. The boss!"

It was indeed Madame Titreville who entered. The tall thin woman usually
stayed down in the shop. The girls were quite in awe of her because
she never joked with them. All the heads were now bent over the work in
diligent silence. Madame Titreville slowly circled the work-table. She
told one girl her work was sloppy and made her do the flower over. Then
she stalked out as stiffly as she had come in.

The complaining and low laughter began again.

"Really, young ladies!" said Madame Lerat, trying to look more severe
than ever. "You will force me to take measures."

The workgirls paid no attention to her. They were not afraid of her. She
was too easy-going because she enjoyed being surrounded by these young
girls whose zest for life sparkled in their eyes. She enjoyed taking
them aside to hear their confidences about their lovers. She even told
their fortunes with cards whenever a corner of the work-table was free.
She was only offended by coarse expressions. As long as you avoided
those you could say what you pleased.

To tell the truth, Nana perfected her education in nice style in the
workroom! No doubt she was already inclined to go wrong. But this was
the finishing stroke - associating with a lot of girls who were already
worn out with misery and vice. They all hobnobbed and rotted together,
just the story of the baskets of apples when there are rotten ones among
them. They maintained a certain propriety in public, but the smut flowed
freely when they got to whispering together in a corner.

For inexperienced girls like Nana, there was an undesirable atmosphere
around the workshop, an air of cheap dance halls and unorthodox evenings
brought in by some of the girls. The laziness of mornings after a gay
night, the shadows under the eyes, the lounging, the hoarse voices, all
spread an odor of dark perversion over the work-table which contrasted
sharply with the brilliant fragility of the artificial flowers. Nana
eagerly drank it all in and was dizzy with joy when she found herself
beside a girl who had been around. She always wanted to sit next to big
Lisa, who was said to be pregnant, and she kept glancing curiously at
her neighbor as though expecting her to swell up suddenly.

"It's hot enough to make one stifle," Nana said, approaching a window
as if to draw the blind farther down; but she leant forward and again
looked out both to the right and left.

At the same moment Leonie, who was watching a man stationed at the foot
of the pavement over the way, exclaimed, "What's that old fellow about?
He's been spying here for the last quarter of an hour."

"Some tom cat," said Madame Lerat. "Nana, just come and sit down! I told
you not to stand at the window."

Nana took up the stems of some violets she was rolling, and the
whole workroom turned its attention to the man in question. He was a
well-dressed individual wearing a frock coat and he looked about fifty
years old. He had a pale face, very serous and dignified in expression,
framed round with a well trimmed grey beard. He remained for an hour in
front of a herbalist's shop with his eyes fixed on the Venetian blinds
of the workroom. The flower-girls indulged in little bursts of laughter
which died away amid the noise of the street, and while leaning forward,
to all appearance busy with their work, they glanced askance so as not
to lose sight of the gentleman.

"Ah!" remarked Leonie, "he wears glasses. He's a swell. He's waiting for
Augustine, no doubt."

But Augustine, a tall, ugly, fair-haired girl, sourly answered that she
did not like old men; whereupon Madame Lerat, jerking her head, answered
with a smile full of underhand meaning:

"That is a great mistake on your part, my dear; the old ones are more

At this moment Leonie's neighbor, a plump little body, whispered
something in her ear and Leonie suddenly threw herself back on her
chair, seized with a fit of noisy laughter, wriggling, looking at the
gentleman and then laughing all the louder. "That's it. Oh! that's it,"
she stammered. "How dirty that Sophie is!"

"What did she say? What did she say?" asked the whole workroom, aglow
with curiosity.

Leonie wiped the tears from her eyes without answering. When she became
somewhat calmer, she began curling her flowers again and declared, "It
can't be repeated."

The others insisted, but she shook her head, seized again with a gust
of gaiety. Thereupon Augustine, her left-hand neighbor, besought her to
whisper it to her; and finally Leonie consented to do so with her lips
close to Augustine's ear. Augustine threw herself back and wriggled with
convulsive laughter in her turn. Then she repeated the phrase to a
girl next to her, and from ear to ear it traveled round the room amid
exclamations and stifled laughter. When they were all of them acquainted
with Sophie's disgusting remark they looked at one another and burst out
laughing together although a little flushed and confused. Madame Lerat
alone was not in the secret and she felt extremely vexed.

"That's very impolite behavior on your part, young ladies," said she.
"It is not right to whisper when other people are present. Something
indecent no doubt! Ah! that's becoming!"

She did not dare go so far as to ask them to pass Sophie's remark on to
her although she burned to hear it. So she kept her eyes on her work,
amusing herself by listening to the conversation. Now no one could
make even an innocent remark without the others twisting it around and
connecting it with the gentleman on the sidewalk. Madame Lerat herself
once sent them into convulsions of laughter when she said, "Mademoiselle
Lisa, my fire's gone out. Pass me yours."

"Oh! Madame Lerat's fire's out!" laughed the whole shop.

They refused to listen to any explanation, but maintained they were
going to call in the gentleman outside to rekindle Madame Lerat's fire.

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 29 of 36)