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Émile Zola.

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Never was such a butchery seen before."

But she had to draw back and seek refuge again between the two tubs,
with the children. Virginie had just flown at Gervaise's throat. She
squeezed her round the neck, trying to strangle her. The latter freed
herself with a violent jerk, and in her turn hung on to the other's
hair, as though she was trying to pull her head off. The battle was
silently resumed, without a cry, without an insult. They did not seize
each other round the body, they attacked each other's faces with open
hands and clawing fingers, pinching, scratching whatever they caught
hold of. The tall, dark girl's red ribbon and blue silk hair net were
torn off. The body of her dress, giving way at the neck, displayed
a large portion of her shoulder; whilst the blonde, half stripped, a
sleeve gone from her loose white jacket without her knowing how, had
a rent in her underlinen, which exposed to view the naked line of her
waist. Shreds of stuff flew in all directions. It was from Gervaise that
the first blood was drawn, three long scratches from the mouth to the
chin; and she sought to protect her eyes, shutting them at every grab
the other made, for fear of having them torn out. No blood showed on
Virginie as yet. Gervaise aimed at her ears, maddened at not being able
to reach them. At length she succeeded in seizing hold of one of the
earrings - an imitation pear in yellow glass - which she pulled out and
slit the ear, and the blood flowed.

"They're killing each other! Separate them, the vixens!" exclaimed
several voices.

The other women had drawn nearer. They formed themselves into two camps.
Some were cheering the combatants on as the others were trembling and
turning their heads away saying that it was making them sick. A large
fight nearly broke out between the two camps as the women called each
other names and brandished their fists threateningly. Three loud slaps
rang out.

Madame Boche, meanwhile, was trying to discover the wash-house boy.

"Charles! Charles! Wherever has he got to?"

And she found him in the front rank, looking on with his arms folded.
He was a big fellow, with an enormous neck. He was laughing and enjoying
the sight of the skin which the two women displayed. The little blonde
was as fat as a quail. It would be fun if her chemise burst open.

"Why," murmured he, blinking his eye, "she's got a strawberry birthmark
under her arm."

"What! You're there!" cried Madame Boche, as she caught sight of him.
"Just come and help us separate them. You can easily separate them, you
can!"

"Oh, no! thank you, not if I know it," said he coolly. "To get my eye
scratched like I did the other day, I suppose! I'm not here for that
sort of thing; I have enough to do without that. Don't be afraid, a
little bleeding does 'em good; it'll soften 'em."

The concierge then talked of fetching the police; but the mistress of
the wash-house, the delicate young woman with the red, inflamed eyes,
would not allow her to do this. She kept saying:

"No, no, I won't; it'll compromise my establishment."

The struggle on the ground continued. All on a sudden, Virginie raised
herself up on her knees. She had just gotten hold of a beetle and held
it on high. She had a rattle in her throat and in an altered voice, she
exclaimed,

"Here's something that'll settle you! Get your dirty linen ready!"

Gervaise quickly thrust out her hand, and also seized a beetle, and held
it up like a club; and she too spoke in a choking voice,

"Ah! you want to wash. Let me get hold of your skin that I may beat it
into dish-cloths!"

For a moment they remained there, on their knees, menacing each other.
Their hair all over their faces, their breasts heaving, muddy, swelling
with rage, they watched one another, as they waited and took breath.
Gervaise gave the first blow. Her beetle glided off Virginie's shoulder,
and she at once threw herself on one side to avoid the latter's beetle,
which grazed her hip. Then, warming to their work they struck at each
other like washerwomen beating clothes, roughly, and in time. Whenever
there was a hit, the sound was deadened, so that one might have thought
it a blow in a tub full of water. The other women around them no longer
laughed. Several had gone off saying that it quite upset them; those who
remained stretched out their necks, their eyes lighted up with a gleam
of cruelty, admiring the pluck displayed. Madame Boche had led Claude
and Etienne away, and one could hear at the other end of the building
the sound of their sobs, mingled with the sonorous shocks of the two
beetles. But Gervaise suddenly yelled. Virginie had caught her a whack
with all her might on her bare arm, just above the elbow. A large red
mark appeared, the flesh at once began to swell. Then she threw herself
upon Virginie, and everyone thought she was going to beat her to death.

"Enough! Enough!" was cried on all sides.

Her face bore such a terrible expression, that no one dared approach
her. Her strength seemed to have increased tenfold. She seized Virginie
round the waist, bent her down and pressed her face against the
flagstones. Raising her beetle she commenced beating as she used to beat
at Plassans, on the banks of the Viorne, when her mistress washed the
clothes of the garrison. The wood seemed to yield to the flesh with a
damp sound. At each whack a red weal marked the white skin.

"Oh, oh!" exclaimed the boy Charles, opening his eyes to their full
extent and gloating over the sight.

Laughter again burst forth from the lookers-on, but soon the cry,
"Enough! Enough!" recommenced. Gervaise heard not, neither did she tire.
She examined her work, bent over it, anxious not to leave a dry
place. She wanted to see the whole of that skin beaten, covered with
contusions. And she talked, seized with a ferocious gaiety, recalling a
washerwoman's song,

"Bang! Bang! Margot at her tub.
Bang! Bang! Beating rub-a-dub.
Bang! Bang! Tries to wash her heart.
Bang! Bang! Black with grief to part."

And then she resumed,

"That's for you, that's for your sister.
That's for Lantier.
When you next see them,
You can give them that.
Attention! I'm going to begin again.
That's for Lantier, that's for your sister.
That's for you.
Bang! Bang! Margot at her tub.
Bang! Bang! Beating rub-a-dub - "

The others were obliged to drag Virginie away from her. The tall, dark
girl, her face bathed in tears and purple with shame, picked up her
things and hastened away. She was vanquished. Gervaise slipped on the
sleeve of her jacket again, and fastened up her petticoats. Her arm
pained her a good deal, and she asked Madame Boche to place her bundle
of clothes on her shoulder. The concierge referred to the battle, spoke
of her emotions, and talked of examining the young woman's person, just
to see.

"You may, perhaps, have something broken. I heard a tremendous blow."

But Gervaise wanted to go home. She made no reply to the pitying remarks
and noisy ovation of the other women who surrounded her, erect in their
aprons. When she was laden she gained the door, where the children
awaited her.

"Two hours, that makes two sous," said the mistress of the wash-house,
already back at her post in the glazed closet.

Why two sous? She no longer understood that she was asked to pay for her
place there. Then she gave the two sous; and limping very much beneath
the weight of the wet clothes on her shoulder, the water dripping from
off her, her elbow black and blue, her cheek covered with blood, she
went off, dragging Claude and Etienne with her bare arms, whilst they
trotted along on either side of her, still trembling, and their faces
besmeared with their tears.

Once she was gone, the wash-house resumed its roaring tumult. The
washerwomen had eaten their bread and drunk their wine. Their faces were
lit up and their spirits enlivened by the fight between Gervaise and
Virginie.

The long lines of tubs were astir again with the fury of thrashing
arms, of craggy profiles, of marionettes with bent backs and slumping
shoulders that twisted and jerked violently as though on hinges.
Conversations went on from one end to the other in loud voices. Laughter
and coarse remarks crackled through the ceaseless gurgling of the water.
Faucets were sputtering, buckets spilling, rivulets flowing underneath
the rows of washboards. Throughout the huge shed rising wisps of steam
reflected a reddish tint, pierced here and there by disks of sunlight,
golden globes that had leaked through holes in the awnings. The air was
stiflingly warm and odorous with soap.

Suddenly the hall was filled with a white mist. The huge copper lid of
the lye-water kettle was rising mechanically along a notched shaft, and
from the gaping copper hollow within its wall of bricks came whirling
clouds of vapor. Meanwhile, at one side the drying machines were hard
at work; within their cast-iron cylinders bundles of laundry were being
wrung dry by the centrifugal force of the steam engine, which was still
puffing, steaming, jolting the wash-house with the ceaseless labor of
its iron limbs.

When Gervaise turned into the entry of the Hotel Boncoeur, her tears
again mastered her. It was a dark, narrow passage, with a gutter for the
dirty water running alongside the wall; and the stench which she again
encountered there caused her to think of the fortnight she had passed
in the place with Lantier - a fortnight of misery and quarrels, the
recollection of which was now a bitter regret. It seemed to bring her
abandonment home to her.

Upstairs the room was bare, in spite of the sunshine which entered
through the open window. That blaze of light, that kind of dancing
golden dust, exposed the lamentable condition of the blackened ceiling,
and of the walls half denuded of paper, all the more. The only thing
left hanging in the room was a woman's small neckerchief, twisted like
a piece of string. The children's bedstead, drawn into the middle of
the apartment, displayed the chest of drawers, the open drawers of which
exposed their emptiness. Lantier had washed himself and had used up the
last of the pomatum - two sous' worth of pomatum in a playing card;
the greasy water from his hands filled the basin. And he had forgotten
nothing. The corner which until then had been filled by the trunk seemed
to Gervaise an immense empty space. Even the little mirror which hung on
the window-fastening was gone. When she made this discovery, she had a
presentiment. She looked on the mantel-piece. Lantier had taken away the
pawn tickets; the pink bundle was no longer there, between the two odd
zinc candlesticks.

She hung her laundry over the back of a chair and just stood there,
gazing around at the furniture. She was so dulled and bewildered that
she could no longer cry. She had only one sou left. Then, hearing Claude
and Etienne laughing merrily by the window, their troubles already
forgotten, she went to them and put her arms about them, losing herself
for a moment in contemplation of that long gray avenue where, that very
morning, she had watched the awakening of the working population, of the
immense work-shop of Paris.

At this hour immense heat was rising from the pavement and from all the
furnaces in the factories, setting alight a reflecting oven over the
city and beyond the octroi wall. Out upon this very pavement, into this
furnace blast, she had been tossed, alone with her little ones. As she
glanced up and down the boulevard, she was seized with a dull dread that
her life would be fixed there forever, between a slaughter-house and a
hospital.



CHAPTER II.

Three weeks later, towards half-past eleven, one beautiful sunshiny day,
Gervaise and Coupeau, the zinc-worker, were each partaking of a plum
preserved in brandy, at "l'Assommoir" kept by Pere Colombe. Coupeau, who
had been smoking a cigarette on the pavement, had prevailed on her to
go inside as she returned from taking home a customer's washing; and her
big square laundress's basket was on the floor beside her, behind the
little zinc covered table.

Pere Colombe's l'Assommoir was at the corner of Rue des Poissonniers
and Boulevard de Rochechouart. The sign, in tall blue letters stretching
from one end to the other said: Distillery. Two dusty oleanders
planted in half casks stood beside the doorway. A long bar with its
tin measuring cups was on the left as you entered. The large room was
decorated with casks painted a gay yellow, bright with varnish, and
gleaming with copper taps and hoops.

On the shelves above the bar were liquor bottles, jars of fruit
preserved in brandy, and flasks of all shapes. They completely covered
the wall and were reflected in the mirror behind the bar as colorful
spots of apple green, pale gold, and soft brown. The main feature of
the establishment, however, was the distilling apparatus. It was at the
rear, behind an oak railing in a glassed-in area. The customers could
watch its functioning, long-necked still-pots, copper worms disappearing
underground, a devil's kitchen alluring to drink-sodden work men in
search of pleasant dreams.

L'Assommoir was nearly empty at the lunch hour. Pere Colombe, a heavy
man of forty, was serving a ten year old girl who had asked him to
place four sous' worth of brandy into her cup. A shaft of sunlight came
through the entrance to warm the floor which was always damp from the
smokers' spitting. From everything, the casks, the bar, the entire room,
a liquorish odor arose, an alcoholic aroma which seemed to thicken and
befuddle the dust motes dancing in the sunlight.

Coupeau was making another cigarette. He was very neat, in a short blue
linen blouse and cap, and was laughing and showing his white teeth.
With a projecting under jaw and a slightly snub nose, he had handsome
chestnut eyes, and the face of a jolly dog and a thorough good fellow.
His coarse curly hair stood erect. His skin still preserved the softness
of his twenty-six years. Opposite to him, Gervaise, in a thin black
woolen dress, and bareheaded, was finishing her plum which she held
by the stalk between the tips of her fingers. They were close to the
street, at the first of the four tables placed alongside the barrels
facing the bar.

When the zinc-worker had lit his cigarette, he placed his elbows on
the table, thrust his face forward, and for an instant looked without
speaking at the young woman, whose pretty fair face had that day
the milky transparency of china. Then, alluding to a matter known to
themselves alone, and already discussed between them, he simply asked in
a low voice:

"So it's to be 'no'? you say 'no'?"

"Oh! most decidedly 'no' Monsieur Coupeau," quietly replied Gervaise
with a smile. "I hope you're not going to talk to me about that here.
You know you promised me you would be reasonable. Had I known, I
wouldn't have let you treat me."

Coupeau kept silence, looking at her intently with a boldness. She sat
still, at ease and friendly. At the end of a brief silence she added:

"You can't really mean it. I'm an old woman; I've a big boy eight years
old. Whatever could we two do together?"

"Why!" murmured Coupeau, blinking his eyes, "what the others do, of
course, get married!"

She made a gesture of feeling annoyed. "Oh! do you think it's always
pleasant? One can very well see you've never seen much of living. No,
Monsieur Coupeau, I must think of serious things. Burdening oneself
never leads to anything, you know! I've two mouths at home which are
never tired of swallowing, I can tell you! How do you suppose I can
bring up my little ones, if I only sit here talking indolently? And
listen, besides that, my misfortune has been a famous lesson to me. You
know I don't care a bit about men now. They won't catch me again for a
long while."

She spoke with such cool objectivity that it was clear she had resolved
this in her mind, turning it about thoroughly.

Coupeau was deeply moved and kept repeating: "I feel so sorry for you.
It causes me a great deal of pain."

"Yes, I know that," resumed she, "and I am sorry, Monsieur Coupeau. But
you mustn't take it to heart. If I had any idea of enjoying myself, _mon
Dieu!_, I would certainly rather be with you than anyone else. You're
a good boy and gentle. Only, where's the use, as I've no inclination to
wed? I've been for the last fortnight, now, at Madame Fauconnier's.
The children go to school. I've work, I'm contented. So the best is to
remain as we are, isn't it?"

And she stooped down to take her basket.

"You're making me talk; they must be expecting me at the shop. You'll
easily find someone else prettier than I, Monsieur Coupeau, and who
won't have two boys to drag about with her."

He looked at the clock inserted in the frame-work of the mirror, and
made her sit down again, exclaiming:

"Don't be in such a hurry! It's only eleven thirty-five. I've still
twenty-five minutes. You don't have to be afraid that I shall do
anything foolish; there's the table between us. So you detest me so much
that you won't stay and have a little chat with me."

She put her basket down again, so as not to disoblige him; and they
conversed like good friends. She had eaten her lunch before going out
with the laundry. He had gulped down his soup and beef hurriedly to be
able to wait for her. All the while she chatted amiably, Gervaise
kept looking out the window at the activity on the street. It was now
unusually crowded with the lunch time rush.

Everywhere were hurried steps, swinging arms, and pushing elbows. Some
late comers, hungry and angry at being kept extra long at the job,
rushed across the street into the bakery. They emerged with a loaf of
bread and went three doors farther to the Two-Headed Calf to gobble down
a six-sou meat dish.

Next door to the bakery was a grocer who sold fried potatoes and mussels
cooked with parsley. A procession of girls went in to get hot potatoes
wrapped in paper and cups of steaming mussels. Other pretty girls bought
bunches of radishes. By leaning a bit, Gervaise could see into the
sausage shop from which children issued, holding a fried chop, a sausage
or a piece of hot blood pudding wrapped in greasy paper. The street was
always slick with black mud, even in clear weather. A few laborers had
already finished their lunch and were strolling aimlessly about, their
open hands slapping their thighs, heavy from eating, slow and peaceful
amid the hurrying crowd. A group formed in front of the door of
l'Assommoir.

"Say, Bibi-the-Smoker," demanded a hoarse voice, "aren't you going to
buy us a round of _vitriol_?"

Five laborers came in and stood by the bar.

"Ah! Here's that thief, Pere Colombe!" the voice continued. "We want the
real old stuff, you know. And full sized glasses, too."

Pere Colombe served them as three more laborers entered. More blue
smocks gathered on the street corner and some pushed their way into the
establishment.

"You're foolish! You only think of the present," Gervaise was saying to
Coupeau. "Sure, I loved him, but after the disgusting way in which he
left me - "

They were talking of Lantier. Gervaise had not seen him again; she
thought he was living with Virginie's sister at La Glaciere, in the
house of that friend who was going to start a hat factory. She had no
thought of running after him. She had been so distressed at first that
she had thought of drowning herself in the river. But now that she had
thought about it, everything seemed to be for the best. Lantier went
through money so fast, that she probably never could have raised her
children properly. Oh, she'd let him see his children, all right, if he
bothered to come round. But as far as she was concerned, she didn't want
him to touch her, not even with his finger tips.

She told all this to Coupeau just as if her plan of life was well
settled. Meanwhile, Coupeau never forgot his desire to possess her. He
made a jest of everything she said, turning it into ribaldry and asking
some very direct questions about Lantier. But he proceeded so gaily and
which such a smile that she never thought of being offended.

"So, you're the one who beat him," said he at length. "Oh! you're not
kind. You just go around whipping people."

She interrupted him with a hearty laugh. It was true, though, she had
whipped Virginie's tall carcass. She would have delighted in strangling
someone on that day. She laughed louder than ever when Coupeau told her
that Virginie, ashamed at having shown so much cowardice, had left the
neighborhood. Her face, however, preserved an expression of childish
gentleness as she put out her plump hands, insisting she wouldn't even
harm a fly.

She began to tell Coupeau about her childhood at Plassans. She had never
cared overmuch for men; they had always bored her. She was fourteen when
she got involved with Lantier. She had thought it was nice because he
said he was her husband and she had enjoyed playing a housewife. She
was too soft-hearted and too weak. She always got passionately fond of
people who caused her trouble later. When she loved a man, she wasn't
thinking of having fun in the present; she was dreaming about being
happy and living together forever.

And as Coupeau, with a chuckle, spoke of her two children, saying they
hadn't come from under a bolster, she slapped his fingers; she added
that she was, no doubt made on the model of other women; women thought
of their home, slaved to keep the place clean and tidy, and went to bed
too tired at night not to go to sleep at once. Besides, she resembled
her mother, a stout laboring woman who died at her work and who had
served as beast of burden to old Macquart for more than twenty years.
Her mother's shoulders had been heavy enough to smash through doors, but
that didn't prevent her from being soft-hearted and madly attracted to
people. And if she limped a little, she no doubt owed that to the poor
woman, whom old Macquart used to belabor with blows. Her mother had told
her about the times when Macquart came home drunk and brutally bruised
her. She had probably been born with her lame leg as a result of one of
those times.

"Oh! it's scarcely anything, it's hardly perceptible," said Coupeau
gallantly.

She shook her head; she knew well enough that it could be seen; at
forty she would look broken in two. Then she added gently, with a slight
laugh: "It's a funny fancy of yours to fall in love with a cripple."

With his elbows still on the table, he thrust his face closer to hers
and began complimenting her in rather dubious language as though to
intoxicate her with his words. But she kept shaking her head "no," and
didn't allow herself to be tempted although she was flattered by the
tone of his voice. While listening, she kept looking out the window,
seeming to be fascinated by the interesting crowd of people passing.

The shops were now almost empty. The grocer removed his last panful
of fried potatoes from the stove. The sausage man arranged the dishes
scattered on his counter. Great bearded workmen were as playful as
young boys, clumping along in their hobnailed boots. Other workmen were
smoking, staring up into the sky and blinking their eyes. Factory bells
began to ring in the distance, but the workers, in no hurry, relit their
pipes. Later, after being tempted by one wineshop after another, they
finally decided to return to their jobs, but were still dragging their
feet.

Gervaise amused herself by watching three workmen, a tall fellow and
two short ones who turned to look back every few yards; they ended by
descending the street, and came straight to Pere Colombe's l'Assommoir.

"Ah, well," murmured she, "there're three fellows who don't seem
inclined for work!"

"Why!" said Coupeau, "I know the tall one, it's My-Boots, a comrade of
mine."

Pere Colombe's l'Assommoir was now full. You had to shout to be heard.
Fists often pounded on the bar, causing the glasses to clink. Everyone
was standing, hands crossed over belly or held behind back. The drinking
groups crowded close to one another. Some groups, by the casks, had to
wait a quarter of an hour before being able to order their drinks of
Pere Colombe.

"Hallo! It's that aristocrat, Young Cassis!" cried My-Boots, bringing
his hand down roughly on Coupeau's shoulder. "A fine gentleman, who
smokes paper, and wears shirts! So we want to do the grand with our
sweetheart; we stand her little treats!"

"Shut up! Don't bother me!" replied Coupeau, greatly annoyed.

But the other added, with a chuckle, "Right you are! We know what's
what, my boy. Muffs are muffs, that's all!"



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 3 of 36)