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Émile Zola.

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However, the gentleman over the way had gone off. The room grew calmer
and the work was carried on in the sultry heat. When twelve o'clock
struck - meal-time - they all shook themselves. Nana, who had hastened
to the window again, volunteered to do the errands if they liked. And
Leonie ordered two sous worth of shrimps, Augustine a screw of fried
potatoes, Lisa a bunch of radishes, Sophie a sausage. Then as Nana was
doing down the stairs, Madame Lerat, who found her partiality for the
window that morning rather curious, overtook her with her long legs.

"Wait a bit," said she. "I'll go with you. I want to buy something too."

But in the passage below she perceived the gentleman, stuck there like
a candle and exchanging glances with Nana. The girl flushed very red,
whereupon her aunt at once caught her by the arm and made her trot over
the pavement, whilst the individual followed behind. Ah! so the tom cat
had come for Nana. Well, that _was_ nice! At fifteen years and a half to
have men trailing after her! Then Madame Lerat hastily began to question
her. _Mon Dieu!_ Nana didn't know; he had only been following her
for five days, but she could not poke her nose out of doors without
stumbling on men. She believed he was in business; yes, a manufacturer
of bone buttons. Madame Lerat was greatly impressed. She turned round
and glanced at the gentleman out of the corner of her eye.

"One can see he's got a deep purse," she muttered. "Listen to me,
kitten; you must tell me everything. You have nothing more to fear now."

Whilst speaking they hastened from shop to shop - to the pork butcher's,
the fruiterer's, the cook-shop; and the errands in greasy paper were
piled up in their hands. Still they remained amiable, flouncing along
and casting bright glances behind them with gusts of gay laughter.
Madame Lerat herself was acting the young girl, on account of the button
manufacturer who was still following them.

"He is very distinguished looking," she declared as they returned into
the passage. "If he only has honorable views - "

Then, as they were going up the stairs she suddenly seemed to remember
something. "By the way, tell me what the girls were whispering to each
other - you know, what Sophie said?"

Nana did not make any ceremony. Only she caught Madame Lerat by the
hand, and caused her to descend a couple of steps, for, really, it
wouldn't do to say it aloud, not even on the stairs. When she whispered
it to her, it was so obscene that Madame Lerat could only shake her
head, opening her eyes wide, and pursing her lips. Well, at least her
curiosity wasn't troubling her any longer.

From that day forth Madame Lerat regaled herself with her niece's first
love adventure. She no longer left her, but accompanied her morning and
evening, bringing her responsibility well to the fore. This somewhat
annoyed Nana, but all the same she expanded with pride at seeing herself
guarded like a treasure; and the talk she and her aunt indulged in in
the street with the button manufacturer behind them flattered her, and
rather quickened her desire for new flirtations. Oh! her aunt
understood the feelings of the heart; she even compassionated the button
manufacturer, this elderly gentleman, who looked so respectable, for,
after all, sentimental feelings are more deeply rooted among people of a
certain age. Still she watched. And, yes, he would have to pass over her
body before stealing her niece.

One evening she approached the gentleman, and told him, as straight as
a bullet, that his conduct was most improper. He bowed to her politely
without answering, like an old satyr who was accustomed to hear parents
tell him to go about his business. She really could not be cross with
him, he was too well mannered.

Then came lectures on love, allusions to dirty blackguards of men, and
all sorts of stories about hussies who had repented of flirtations,
which left Nana in a state of pouting, with eyes gleaming brightly in
her pale face.

One day, however, in the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonniere the button
manufacturer ventured to poke his nose between the aunt and the niece to
whisper some things which ought not to have been said. Thereupon Madame
Lerat was so frightened that she declared she no longer felt able to
handle the matter and she told the whole business to her brother. Then
came another row. There were some pretty rumpuses in the Coupeaus' room.
To begin with, the zinc-worker gave Nana a hiding. What was that he
learnt? The hussy was flirting with old men. All right. Only let her
be caught philandering out of doors again, she'd be done for; he, her
father, would cut off her head in a jiffy. Had the like ever been seen
before! A dirty nose who thought of beggaring her family! Thereupon he
shook her, declaring in God's name that she'd have to walk straight,
for he'd watch her himself in future. He now looked her over every night
when she came in, even going so far as to sniff at her and make her turn
round before him.

One evening she got another hiding because he discovered a mark on her
neck that he maintained was the mark of a kiss. Nana insisted it was
a bruise that Leonie had given her when they were having a bit of a
rough-house. Yet at other times her father would tease her, saying she
was certainly a choice morsel for men. Nana began to display the sullen
submissiveness of a trapped animal. She was raging inside.

"Why don't you leave her alone?" repeated Gervaise, who was more
reasonable. "You will end by making her wish to do it by talking to her
about it so much."

Ah! yes, indeed, she did wish to do it. She itched all over, longing to
break loose and gad all the time, as father Coupeau said. He insisted so
much on the subject that even an honest girl would have fired up. Even
when he was abusing her, he taught her a few things she did not know as
yet, which, to say the least was astonishing. Then, little by little she
acquired some singular habits. One morning he noticed her rummaging in
a paper bag and rubbing something on her face. It was rice powder, which
she plastered on her delicate satin-like skin with perverse taste. He
caught up the paper bag and rubbed it over her face violently enough to
graze her skin and called her a miller's daughter. On another occasion
she brought some ribbon home, to do up her old black hat which she was
so ashamed of. He asked her in a furious voice where she had got those
ribbons from. Had she earned them by lying on her back or had she bagged
them somewhere? A hussy or a thief, and perhaps both by now?

More than once he found her with some pretty little doodad. She had
found a little interlaced heart in the street on Rue d'Aboukir. Her
father crushed the heart under his foot, driving her to the verge of
throwing herself at him to ruin something of his. For two years she had
been longing for one of those hearts, and now he had smashed it! This
was too much, she was reaching the end of the line with him.

Coupeau was often in the wrong in the manner in which he tried to rule
Nana. His injustice exasperated her. She at last left off attending the
workshop and when the zinc-worker gave her a hiding, she declared she
would not return to Titreville's again, for she was always placed next
to Augustine, who must have swallowed her feet to have such a foul
breath. Then Coupeau took her himself to the Rue du Caire and requested
the mistress of the establishment to place her always next to Augustine,
by way of punishment. Every morning for a fortnight he took the trouble
to come down from the Barriere Poissonniere to escort Nana to the door
of the flower shop. And he remained for five minutes on the footway, to
make sure that she had gone in. But one morning while he was drinking a
glass with a friend in a wineshop in the Rue Saint-Denis, he perceived
the hussy darting down the street. For a fortnight she had been
deceiving him; instead of going into the workroom, she climbed a story
higher, and sat down on the stairs, waiting till he had gone off. When
Coupeau began casting the blame on Madame Lerat, the latter flatly
replied that she would not accept it. She had told her niece all she
ought to tell her, to keep her on her guard against men, and it was not
her fault if the girl still had a liking for the nasty beasts. Now, she
washed her hands of the whole business; she swore she would not mix
up in it, for she knew what she knew about scandalmongers in her own
family, yes, certain persons who had the nerve to accuse her of going
astray with Nana and finding an indecent pleasure in watching her take
her first misstep. Then Coupeau found out from the proprietress that
Nana was being corrupted by that little floozie Leonie, who had given up
flower-making to go on the street. Nana was being tempted by the jingle
of cash and the lure of adventure on the streets.

In the tenement in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, Nana's old fellow was
talked about as a gentleman everyone was acquainted with. Oh! he
remained very polite, even a little timid, but awfully obstinate
and patient, following her ten paces behind like an obedient poodle.
Sometimes, indeed, he ventured into the courtyard. One evening,
Madame Gaudron met him on the second floor landing, and he glided down
alongside the balusters with his nose lowered and looking as if on fire,
but frightened. The Lorilleuxs threatened to move out if that wayward
niece of theirs brought men trailing in after her. It was disgusting.
The staircase was full of them. The Boches said that they felt sympathy
for the old gentleman because he had fallen for a tramp. He was really
a respectable businessman, they had seen his button factory on the
Boulevard de la Villette. He would be an excellent catch for a decent
girl.

For the first month Nana was greatly amused with her old flirt. You
should have seen him always dogging her - a perfect great nuisance, who
followed far behind, in the crowd, without seeming to do so. And his
legs! Regular lucifers. No more moss on his pate, only four straight
hairs falling on his neck, so that she was always tempted to ask him
where his hairdresser lived. Ah! what an old gaffer, he was comical and
no mistake, nothing to get excited over.

Then, on finding him always behind her, she no longer thought him so
funny. She became afraid of him and would have called out if he had
approached her. Often, when she stopped in front of a jeweler's shop,
she heard him stammering something behind her. And what he said was
true; she would have liked to have had a cross with a velvet neck-band,
or a pair of coral earrings, so small you would have thought they were
drops of blood.

More and more, as she plodded through the mire of the streets, getting
splashed by passing vehicles and being dazzled by the magnificence of
the window displays, she felt longings that tortured her like hunger
pangs, yearnings for better clothes, for eating in restaurants, for
going to the theatre, for a room of her own with nice furniture. Right
at those moments, it never failed that her old gentleman would come up
to whisper something in her ear. Oh, if only she wasn't afraid of him,
how readily she would have taken up with him.

When the winter arrived, life became impossible at home. Nana had her
hiding every night. When her father was tired of beating her, her mother
smacked her to teach her how to behave. And there were free-for-alls; as
soon as one of them began to beat her, the other took her part, so that
all three of them ended by rolling on the floor in the midst of the
broken crockery. And with all this, there were short rations and they
shivered with cold. Whenever the girl bought anything pretty, a bow or
a pair of buttons, her parents confiscated the purchase and drank
what they could get for it. She had nothing of her own, excepting her
allowance of blows, before coiling herself up between the rags of
a sheet, where she shivered under her little black skirt, which she
stretched out by way of a blanket. No, that cursed life could not
continue; she was not going to leave her skin in it. Her father had long
since ceased to count for her; when a father gets drunk like hers did,
he isn't a father, but a dirty beast one longs to be rid of. And now,
too, her mother was doing down the hill in her esteem. She drank as
well. She liked to go and fetch her husband at Pere Colombe's, so as to
be treated; and she willingly sat down, with none of the air of disgust
that she had assumed on the first occasion, draining glasses indeed at
one gulp, dragging her elbows over the table for hours and leaving the
place with her eyes starting out of her head.

When Nana passed in front of l'Assommoir and saw her mother inside, with
her nose in her glass, fuddled in the midst of the disputing men,
she was seized with anger; for youth which has other dainty thoughts
uppermost does not understand drink. On these evenings it was a pretty
sight. Father drunk, mother drunk, a hell of a home that stunk with
liquor, and where there was no bread. To tell the truth, a saint would
not have stayed in the place. So much the worse if she flew the coop one
of these days; her parents would have to say their _mea culpa_, and own
that they had driven her out themselves.

One Saturday when Nana came home she found her father and her mother
in a lamentable condition. Coupeau, who had fallen across the bed was
snoring. Gervaise, crouching on a chair was swaying her head, with her
eyes vaguely and threateningly staring into vacancy. She had forgotten
to warm the dinner, the remains of a stew. A tallow dip which she
neglected to snuff revealed the shameful misery of their hovel.

"It's you, shrimp?" stammered Gervaise. "Ah, well, your father will take
care of you."

Nana did not answer, but remained pale, looking at the cold stove, the
table on which no plates were laid, the lugubrious hovel which this pair
of drunkards invested with the pale horror of their callousness. She
did not take off her hat but walked round the room; then with her teeth
tightly set, she opened the door and went out.

"You are doing down again?" asked her mother, who was unable even to
turn her head.

"Yes; I've forgotten something. I shall come up again. Good evening."

And she did not return. On the morrow when the Coupeaus were sobered
they fought together, reproaching each other with being the cause
of Nana's flight. Ah! she was far away if she were running still! As
children are told of sparrows, her parents might set a pinch of salt on
her tail, and then perhaps they would catch her. It was a great blow,
and crushed Gervaise, for despite the impairment of her faculties, she
realized perfectly well that her daughter's misconduct lowered her
still more; she was alone now, with no child to think about, able to
let herself sink as low as she could fall. She drank steadily for three
days. Coupeau prowled along the exterior Boulevards without seeing Nana
and then came home to smoke his pipe peacefully. He was always back in
time for his soup.

In this tenement, where girls flew off every month like canaries whose
cages are left open, no one was astonished to hear of the Coupeaus'
mishap. But the Lorilleuxs were triumphant. Ah! they had predicted that
the girl would reward her parents in this fashion. It was deserved; all
artificial flower-girls went that way. The Boches and the Poissons also
sneered with an extraordinary display and outlay of grief. Lantier alone
covertly defended Nana. _Mon Dieu!_ said he, with his puritanical air,
no doubt a girl who so left her home did offend her parents; but, with
a gleam in the corner of his eyes, he added that, dash it! the girl was,
after all, too pretty to lead such a life of misery at her age.

"Do you know," cried Madame Lorilleux, one day in the Boches' room,
where the party were taking coffee; "well, as sure as daylight,
Clump-clump sold her daughter. Yes she sold her, and I have proof of it!
That old fellow, who was always on the stairs morning and night, went up
to pay something on account. It stares one in the face. They were seen
together at the Ambigu Theatre - the young wench and her old tom cat.
Upon my word of honor, they're living together, it's quite plain."

They discussed the scandal thoroughly while finishing their coffee.
Yes, it was quite possible. Soon most of the neighborhood accepted the
conclusion that Gervaise had actually sold her daughter.

Gervaise now shuffled along in her slippers, without caring a rap for
anyone. You might have called her a thief in the street, she wouldn't
have turned round. For a month past she hadn't looked at Madame
Fauconnier's; the latter had had to turn her out of the place to avoid
disputes. In a few weeks' time she had successively entered the service
of eight washerwomen; she only lasted two or three days in each place
before she got the sack, so badly did she iron the things entrusted to
her, careless and dirty, her mind failing to such a point that she quite
forgot her own craft. At last realizing her own incapacity she abandoned
ironing; and went out washing by the day at the wash-house in the
Rue Neuve, where she still jogged on, floundering about in the water,
fighting with filth, reduced to the roughest but simplest work, a bit
lower on the down-hill slopes. The wash-house scarcely beautified her.
A real mud-splashed dog when she came out of it, soaked and showing her
blue skin. At the same time she grew stouter and stouter, despite
her frequent dances before the empty sideboard, and her leg became so
crooked that she could no longer walk beside anyone without the risk of
knocking him over, so great indeed was her limp.

Naturally enough when a woman falls to this point all her pride leaves
her. Gervaise had divested herself of all her old self-respect, coquetry
and need of sentiment, propriety and politeness. You might have kicked
her, no matter where, she did not feel kicks for she had become too fat
and flabby. Lantier had altogether neglected her; he no longer escorted
her or even bothered to give her a pinch now and again. She did not seem
to notice this finish of a long liaison slowly spun out, and ending
in mutual insolence. It was a chore the less for her. Even Lantier's
intimacy with Virginie left her quite calm, so great was her
indifference now for all that she had been so upset about in the past.
She would even have held a candle for them now.

Everyone was aware that Virginie and Lantier were carrying on. It was
much too convenient, especially with Poisson on duty every other night.
Lantier had thought of himself when he advised Virginie to deal in
dainties. He was too much of a Provincial not to adore sugared things;
and in fact he would have lived off sugar candy, lozenges, pastilles,
sugar plums and chocolate. Sugared almonds especially left a little
froth on his lips so keenly did they tickle his palate. For a year he
had been living only on sweetmeats. He opened the drawers and stuffed
himself whenever Virginie asked him to mind the shop. Often, when he was
talking in the presence of five or six other people, he would take the
lid off a jar on the counter, dip his hand into it and begin to nibble
at something sweet; the glass jar remained open and its contents
diminished. People ceased paying attention to it, it was a mania of
his so he had declared. Besides, he had devised a perpetual cold, an
irritation of the throat, which he always talked of calming.

He still did not work, for he had more and more important schemes than
ever in view. He was contriving a superb invention - the umbrella hat, a
hat which transformed itself into an umbrella on your head as soon as
a shower commenced to fall; and he promised Poisson half shares in the
profit of it, and even borrowed twenty franc pieces of him to defray the
cost of experiments. Meanwhile the shop melted away on his tongue. All
the stock-in-trade followed suit down to the chocolate cigars and pipes
in pink caramel. Whenever he was stuffed with sweetmeats and seized with
a fit of tenderness, he paid himself with a last lick on the groceress
in a corner, who found him all sugar with lips which tasted like burnt
almonds. Such a delightful man to kiss! He was positively becoming all
honey. The Boches said he merely had to dip a finger into his coffee to
sweeten it.

Softened by this perpetual dessert, Lantier showed himself paternal
towards Gervaise. He gave her advice and scolded her because she no
longer liked to work. Indeed! A woman of her age ought to know how to
turn herself round. And he accused her of having always been a glutton.
Nevertheless, as one ought to hold out a helping hand, even to folks
who don't deserve it, he tried to find her a little work. Thus he had
prevailed upon Virginie to let Gervaise come once a week to scrub the
shop and the rooms. That was the sort of thing she understood and
on each occasion she earned her thirty sous. Gervaise arrived on the
Saturday morning with a pail and a scrubbing brush, without seeming
to suffer in the least at having to perform a dirty, humble duty, a
charwoman's work in the dwelling-place where she had reigned as the
beautiful fair-haired mistress. It was a last humiliation, the end of
her pride.

One Saturday she had a hard job of it. It had rained for three days and
the customers seemed to have brought all the mud of the neighborhood
into the shop on the soles of their boots. Virginie was at the counter
doing the grand, with her hair well combed, and wearing a little white
collar and a pair of lace cuffs. Beside her, on the narrow seat covered
with red oil-cloth, Lantier did the dandy, looking for the world as if
he were at home, as if he were the real master of the place, and from
time to time he carelessly dipped his hand into a jar of peppermint
drops, just to nibble something sweet according to his habit.

"Look here, Madame Coupeau!" cried Virginie, who was watching the
scrubbing with compressed lips, "you have left some dirt over there in
the corner. Scrub that rather better please."

Gervaise obeyed. She returned to the corner and began to scrub again.
She bent double on her knees in the midst of the dirty water, with
her shoulders protruding, her arms stiff and purple with cold. Her old
skirt, fairly soaked, stuck to her figure. And there on the floor she
looked a dirty, ill-combed drab, the rents in her jacket showing her
puffy form, her fat, flabby flesh which heaved, swayed and floundered
about as she went about her work; and all the while she perspired to
such a point that from her moist face big drops of sweat fell on to the
floor.

"The more elbow grease one uses, the more it shines," said Lantier,
sententiously, with his mouth full of peppermint drops.

Virginie, who sat back with the demeanor of a princess, her eyes partly
open, was still watching the scrubbing, and indulging in remarks. "A
little more on the right there. Take care of the wainscot. You know I
was not very well pleased last Saturday. There were some stains left."

And both together, the hatter and the groceress assumed a more important
air, as if they had been on a throne whilst Gervaise dragged herself
through the black mud at their feet. Virginie must have enjoyed herself,
for a yellowish flame darted from her cat's eyes, and she looked at
Lantier with an insidious smile. At last she was revenged for that
hiding she had received at the wash-house, and which she had never
forgotten.

Whenever Gervaise ceased scrubbing, a sound of sawing could be heard
from the back room. Through the open doorway, Poisson's profile stood
out against the pale light of the courtyard. He was off duty that day
and was profiting by his leisure time to indulge in his mania for making
little boxes. He was seated at a table and was cutting out arabesques in
a cigar box with extraordinary care.

"Say, Badingue!" cried Lantier, who had given him this surname again,
out of friendship. "I shall want that box of yours as a present for a
young lady."

Virginie gave him a pinch and he reached under the counter to run his
fingers like a creeping mouse up her leg.

"Quite so," said the policeman. "I was working for you, Auguste, in view
of presenting you with a token of friendship."

"Ah, if that's the case, I'll keep your little memento!" rejoined
Lantier with a laugh. "I'll hang it round my neck with a ribbon."

Then suddenly, as if this thought brought another one to his memory, "By
the way," he cried, "I met Nana last night."

This news caused Gervaise such emotion that she sunk down in the dirty
water which covered the floor of the shop.

"Ah!" she muttered speechlessly.



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 30 of 36)