Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

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"Yes; as I was going down the Rue des Martyrs, I caught sight of a
girl who was on the arm of an old fellow in front of me, and I said to
myself: I know that shape. I stepped faster and sure enough found myself
face to face with Nana. There's no need to pity her, she looked very
happy, with her pretty woolen dress on her back, a gold cross and an
awfully pert expression."

"Ah!" repeated Gervaise in a husky voice.

Lantier, who had finished the pastilles, took some barley-sugar out of
another jar.

"She's sneaky," he resumed. "She made a sign to me to follow her,
with wonderful composure. Then she left her old fellow somewhere in a
cafe - oh a wonderful chap, the old bloke, quite used up! - and she came
and joined me under the doorway. A pretty little serpent, pretty, and
doing the grand, and fawning on you like a little dog. Yes, she kissed
me, and wanted to have news of everyone - I was very pleased to meet

"Ah!" said Gervaise for the third time. She drew herself together,
and still waited. Hadn't her daughter had a word for her then? In the
silence Poisson's saw could be heard again. Lantier, who felt gay, was
sucking his barley-sugar, and smacking his lips.

"Well, if _I_ saw her, I should go over to the other side of the
street," interposed Virginie, who had just pinched the hatter again most
ferociously. "It isn't because you are there, Madame Coupeau, but your
daughter is rotten to the core. Why, every day Poisson arrests girls who
are better than she is."

Gervaise said nothing, nor did she move; her eyes staring into space.
She ended by jerking her head to and fro, as if in answer to her
thoughts, whilst the hatter, with a gluttonous mien, muttered:

"Ah, a man wouldn't mind getting a bit of indigestion from that sort of
rottenness. It's as tender as chicken."

But the grocer gave him such a terrible look that he had to pause and
quiet her with some delicate attention. He watched the policeman, and
perceiving that he had his nose lowered over his little box again, he
profited of the opportunity to shove some barley-sugar into Virginie's
mouth. Thereupon she laughed at him good-naturedly and turned all her
anger against Gervaise.

"Just make haste, eh? The work doesn't do itself while you remain stuck
there like a street post. Come, look alive, I don't want to flounder
about in the water till night time."

And she added hatefully in a lower tone: "It isn't my fault if her
daughter's gone and left her."

No doubt Gervaise did not hear. She had begun to scrub the floor again,
with her back bent and dragging herself along with a frog-like motion.
She still had to sweep the dirty water out into the gutter, and then do
the final rinsing.

After a pause, Lantier, who felt bored, raised his voice again: "Do
you know, Badingue," he cried, "I met your boss yesterday in the Rue de
Rivoli. He looked awfully down in the mouth. He hasn't six months' life
left in his body. Ah! after all, with the life he leads - "

He was talking about the Emperor. The policeman did not raise his eyes,
but curtly answered: "If you were the Government you wouldn't be so

"Oh, my dear fellow, if I were the Government," rejoined the hatter,
suddenly affecting an air of gravity, "things would go on rather better,
I give you my word for it. Thus, their foreign policy - why, for some
time past it has been enough to make a fellow sweat. If I - I who speak
to you - only knew a journalist to inspire him with my ideas."

He was growing animated, and as he had finished crunching his
barley-sugar, he opened a drawer from which he took a number of jujubes,
which he swallowed while gesticulating.

"It's quite simple. Before anything else, I should give Poland her
independence again, and I should establish a great Scandinavian state to
keep the Giant of the North at bay. Then I should make a republic out
of all the little German states. As for England, she's scarcely to be
feared; if she budged ever so little I should send a hundred thousand
men to India. Add to that I should send the Sultan back to Mecca and the
Pope to Jerusalem, belaboring their backs with the butt end of a rifle.
Eh? Europe would soon be clean. Come, Badingue, just look here."

He paused to take five or six jujubes in his hand. "Why, it wouldn't
take longer than to swallow these."

And he threw one jujube after another into his open mouth.

"The Emperor has another plan," said the policeman, after reflecting for
a couple of minutes.

"Oh, forget it," rejoined the hatter. "We know what his plan is. All
Europe is laughing at us. Every day the Tuileries footmen find your boss
under the table between a couple of high society floozies."

Poisson rose to his feet. He came forward and placed his hand on
his heart, saying: "You hurt me, Auguste. Discuss, but don't involve

Thereupon Virginie intervened, bidding them stop their row. She didn't
care a fig for Europe. How could two men, who shared everything else,
always be disputing about politics? For a minute they mumbled some
indistinct words. Then the policeman, in view of showing that he
harbored no spite, produced the cover of his little box, which he had
just finished; it bore the inscription in marquetry: "To Auguste, a
token of friendship." Lantier, feeling exceedingly flattered, lounged
back and spread himself out so that he almost sat upon Virginie. And the
husband viewed the scene with his face the color of an old wall and his
bleared eyes fairly expressionless; but all the same, at moments the red
hairs of his moustaches stood up on end of their own accord in a very
singular fashion, which would have alarmed any man who was less sure of
his business than the hatter.

This beast of a Lantier had the quiet cheek which pleases ladies. As
Poisson turned his back he was seized with the idea of printing a kiss
on Madame Poisson's left eye. As a rule he was stealthily prudent, but
when he had been disputing about politics he risked everything, so as to
show the wife his superiority. These gloating caresses, cheekily stolen
behind the policeman's back, revenged him on the Empire which had turned
France into a house of quarrels. Only on this occasion he had forgotten
Gervaise's presence. She had just finished rinsing and wiping the shop,
and she stood near the counter waiting for her thirty sous. However, the
kiss on Virginie's eye left her perfectly calm, as being quite natural,
and as part of a business she had no right to mix herself up in.
Virginie seemed rather vexed. She threw the thirty sous on to the
counter in front of Gervaise. The latter did not budge but stood there
waiting, still palpitating with the effort she had made in scrubbing,
and looking as soaked and as ugly as a dog fished out of the sewer.

"Then she didn't tell you anything?" she asked the hatter at last.

"Who?" he cried. "Ah, yes; you mean Nana. No, nothing else. What a
tempting mouth she has, the little hussy! Real strawberry jam!"

Gervaise went off with her thirty sous in her hand. The holes in her
shoes spat water forth like pumps; they were real musical shoes, and
played a tune as they left moist traces of their broad soles along the

In the neighborhood the feminine tipplers of her own class now related
that she drank to console herself for her daughter's misconduct. She
herself, when she gulped down her dram of spirits on the counter,
assumed a dramatic air, and tossed the liquor into her mouth, wishing
it would "do" for her. And on the days when she came home boozed she
stammered that it was all through grief. But honest folks shrugged
their shoulders. They knew what that meant: ascribing the effects of the
peppery fire of l'Assommoir to grief, indeed! At all events, she ought
to have called it bottled grief. No doubt at the beginning she couldn't
digest Nana's flight. All the honest feelings remaining in her revolted
at the thought, and besides, as a rule a mother doesn't like to have
to think that her daughter, at that very moment, perhaps, is being
familiarly addressed by the first chance comer. But Gervaise was already
too stultified with a sick head and a crushed heart, to think of the
shame for long. With her it came and went. She remained sometimes for
a week together without thinking of her daughter, and then suddenly a
tender or an angry feeling seized hold of her, sometimes when she had
her stomach empty, at others when it was full, a furious longing to
catch Nana in some corner, where she would perhaps have kissed her or
perhaps have beaten her, according to the fancy of the moment.

Whenever these thoughts came over her, Gervaise looked on all sides in
the streets with the eyes of a detective. Ah! if she had only seen her
little sinner, how quickly she would have brought her home again! The
neighborhood was being turned topsy-turvy that year. The Boulevard
Magenta and the Boulevard Ornano were being pierced; they were doing
away with the old Barriere Poissonniere and cutting right through the
outer Boulevard. The district could not be recognized. The whole of one
side of the Rue des Poissonniers had been pulled down. From the Rue de
la Goutte-d'Or a large clearing could now be seen, a dash of sunlight
and open air; and in place of the gloomy buildings which had hidden the
view in this direction there rose up on the Boulevard Ornano a perfect
monument, a six-storied house, carved all over like a church, with clear
windows, which, with their embroidered curtains, seemed symbolical
of wealth. This white house, standing just in front of the street,
illuminated it with a jet of light, as it were, and every day it caused
discussions between Lantier and Poisson.

Gervaise had several times had tidings of Nana. There are always ready
tongues anxious to pay you a sorry compliment. Yes, she had been told
that the hussy had left her old gentleman, just like the inexperienced
girl she was. She had gotten along famously with him, petted, adored,
and free, too, if she had only known how to manage the situation. But
youth is foolish, and she had no doubt gone off with some young rake, no
one knew exactly where. What seemed certain was that one afternoon she
had left her old fellow on the Place de la Bastille, just for half a
minute, and he was still waiting for her to return. Other persons swore
they had seen her since, dancing on her heels at the "Grand Hall of
Folly," in the Rue de la Chapelle. Then it was that Gervaise took it
into her head to frequent all the dancing places of the neighborhood.
She did not pass in front of a public ball-room without going in.
Coupeau accompanied her. At first they merely made the round of the
room, looking at the drabs who were jumping about. But one evening, as
they had some coin, they sat down and ordered a large bowl of hot wine
in view of regaling themselves and waiting to see if Nana would turn up.
At the end of a month or so they had practically forgotten her, but
they frequented the halls for their own pleasure, liking to look at the
dancers. They would remain for hours without exchanging a word, resting
their elbows on the table, stultified amidst the quaking of the floor,
and yet no doubt amusing themselves as they stared with pale eyes at the
Barriere women in the stifling atmosphere and ruddy glow of the hall.

It happened one November evening that they went into the "Grand Hall of
Folly" to warm themselves. Out of doors a sharp wind cut you across the
face. But the hall was crammed. There was a thundering big swarm inside;
people at all the tables, people in the middle, people up above,
quite an amount of flesh. Yes, those who cared for tripes could enjoy
themselves. When they had made the round twice without finding a vacant
table, they decided to remain standing and wait till somebody went off.
Coupeau was teetering on his legs, in a dirty blouse, with an old
cloth cap which had lost its peak flattened down on his head. And as
he blocked the way, he saw a scraggy young fellow who was wiping his
coat-sleeve after elbowing him.

"Say!" cried Coupeau in a fury, as he took his pipe out of his black
mouth. "Can't you apologize? And you play the disgusted one? Just
because a fellow wears a blouse!"

The young man turned round and looked at the zinc-worker from head to

"I'll just teach you, you scraggy young scamp," continued Coupeau, "that
the blouse is the finest garment out; yes! the garment of work. I'll
wipe you if you like with my fists. Did one ever hear of such a thing - a
ne'er-do-well insulting a workman!"

Gervaise tried to calm him, but in vain. He drew himself up in his rags,
in full view, and struck his blouse, roaring: "There's a man's chest
under that!"

Thereupon the young man dived into the midst of the crowd, muttering:
"What a dirty blackguard!"

Coupeau wanted to follow and catch him. He wasn't going to let himself
be insulted by a fellow with a coat on. Probably it wasn't even paid
for! Some second-hand toggery to impress a girl with, without having to
fork out a centime. If he caught the chap again, he'd bring him down on
his knees and make him bow to the blouse. But the crush was too great;
there was no means of walking. He and Gervaise turned slowly round the
dancers; there were three rows of sightseers packed close together,
whose faces lighted up whenever any of the dancers showed off. As
Coupeau and Gervaise were both short, they raised themselves up on
tiptoe, trying to see something besides the chignons and hats that
were bobbing about. The cracked brass instruments of the orchestra were
furiously thundering a quadrille, a perfect tempest which made the hall
shake; while the dancers, striking the floor with their feet, raised
a cloud of dust which dimmed the brightness of the gas. The heat was

"Look there," said Gervaise suddenly.

"Look at what?"

"Why, at that velvet hat over there."

They raised themselves up on tiptoe. On the left hand there was an old
black velvet hat trimmed with ragged feathers bobbing about - regular
hearse's plumes. It was dancing a devil of a dance, this hat - bouncing
and whirling round, diving down and then springing up again. Coupeau and
Gervaise lost sight of it as the people round about moved their heads,
but then suddenly they saw it again, swaying farther off with such droll
effrontery that folks laughed merely at the sight of this dancing hat,
without knowing what was underneath it.

"Well?" asked Coupeau.

"Don't you recognize that head of hair?" muttered Gervaise in a stifled
voice. "May my head be cut off if it isn't her."

With one shove the zinc-worker made his way through the crowd. _Mon
Dieu!_ yes, it was Nana! And in a nice pickle too! She had nothing on
her back but an old silk dress, all stained and sticky from having wiped
the tables of boozing dens, and with its flounces so torn that they fell
in tatters round about. Not even a bit of a shawl over her shoulders.
And to think that the hussy had had such an attentive, loving gentleman,
and had yet fallen to this condition, merely for the sake of following
some rascal who had beaten her, no doubt! Nevertheless she had remained
fresh and insolent, with her hair as frizzy as a poodle's, and her mouth
bright pink under that rascally hat of hers.

"Just wait a bit, I'll make her dance!" resumed Coupeau.

Naturally enough, Nana was not on her guard. You should have seen how
she wriggled about! She twisted to the right and to the left, bending
double as if she were going to break herself in two, and kicking her
feet as high as her partner's face. A circle had formed about her and
this excited her even more. She raised her skirts to her knees and
really let herself go in a wild dance, whirling and turning, dropping to
the floor in splits, and then jigging and bouncing.

Coupeau was trying to force his way through the dancers and was
disrupting the quadrille.

"I tell you, it's my daughter!" he cried; "let me pass."

Nana was now dancing backwards, sweeping the floor with her flounces,
rounding her figure and wriggling it, so as to look all the more
tempting. She suddenly received a masterly blow just on the right cheek.
She raised herself up and turned quite pale on recognizing her father
and mother. Bad luck and no mistake.

"Turn him out!" howled the dancers.

But Coupeau, who had just recognized his daughter's cavalier as the
scraggy young man in the coat, did not care a fig for what the people

"Yes, it's us," he roared. "Eh? You didn't expect it. So we catch you
here, and with a whipper-snapper, too, who insulted me a little while

Gervaise, whose teeth were tight set, pushed him aside, exclaiming,
"Shut up. There's no need of so much explanation."

And, stepping forward, she dealt Nana a couple of hearty cuffs. The
first knocked the feathered hat on one side, and the second left a red
mark on the girl's white cheek. Nana was too stupefied either to cry
or resist. The orchestra continued playing, the crowd grew angry and
repeated savagely, "Turn them out! Turn them out!"

"Come, make haste!" resumed Gervaise. "Just walk in front, and don't try
to run off. You shall sleep in prison if you do."

The scraggy young man had prudently disappeared. Nana walked ahead, very
stiff and still stupefied by her bad luck. Whenever she showed the lest
unwillingness, a cuff from behind brought her back to the direction of
the door. And thus they went out, all three of them, amid the jeers
and banter of the spectators, whilst the orchestra finished playing
the finale with such thunder that the trombones seemed to be spitting

The old life began again. After sleeping for twelve hours in her closet,
Nana behaved very well for a week or so. She had patched herself a
modest little dress, and wore a cap with the strings tied under her
chignon. Seized indeed with remarkable fervor, she declared she would
work at home, where one could earn what one liked without hearing any
nasty work-room talk; and she procured some work and installed herself
at a table, getting up at five o'clock in the morning on the first few
days to roll her sprigs of violets. But when she had delivered a few
gross, she stretched her arms and yawned over her work, with her hands
cramped, for she had lost her knack of stem-rolling, and suffocated,
shut up like this at home after allowing herself so much open air
freedom during the last six months. Then the glue dried, the petals
and the green paper got stained with grease, and the flower-dealer came
three times in person to make a row and claim his spoiled materials.

Nana idled along, constantly getting a hiding from her father, and
wrangling with her mother morning and night - quarrels in which the two
women flung horrible words at each other's head. It couldn't last; the
twelfth day she took herself off, with no more luggage than her modest
dress on her back and her cap perched over one ear. The Lorilleuxs, who
had pursed their lips on hearing of her return and repentance, nearly
died of laughter now. Second performance, eclipse number two, all aboard
for the train for Saint-Lazare, the prison-hospital for streetwalkers!
No, it was really too comical. Nana took herself off in such an amusing
style. Well, if the Coupeaus wanted to keep her in the future, they must
shut her up in a cage.

In the presence of other people the Coupeaus pretended they were
very glad to be rid of the girl, though in reality they were enraged.
However, rage can't last forever, and soon they heard without even
blinking that Nana was seen in the neighborhood. Gervaise, who accused
her of doing it to enrage them, set herself above the scandal; she might
meet her daughter on the street, she said; she wouldn't even dirty her
hand to cuff her; yes, it was all over; she might have seen her lying in
the gutter, dying on the pavement, and she would have passed by without
even admitting that such a hussy was her own child.

Nana meanwhile was enlivening the dancing halls of the neighborhood. She
was known from the "Ball of Queen Blanche" to the "Great Hall of Folly."
When she entered the "Elysee-Montmartre," folks climbed onto the tables
to see her do the "sniffling crawfish" during the pastourelle. As
she had twice been turned out of the "Chateau Rouge" hall, she walked
outside the door waiting for someone she knew to escort her inside. The
"Black Ball" on the outer Boulevard and the "Grand Turk" in the Rue des
Poissonniers, were respectable places where she only went when she
had some fine dress on. Of all the jumping places of the neighborhood,
however, those she most preferred were the "Hermitage Ball" in a damp
courtyard and "Robert's Ball" in the Impasse du Cadran, two dirty little
halls, lighted up with a half dozen oil lamps, and kept very informally,
everyone pleased and everyone free, so much so that the men and their
girls kissed each other at their ease, in the dances, without being
disturbed. Nana had ups and downs, perfect transformations, now tricked
out like a stylish woman and now all dirt. Ah! she had a fine life.

On several occasions the Coupeaus fancied they saw her in some shady
dive. They turned their backs and decamped in another direction so as
not to be obliged to recognize her. They didn't care to be laughed at
by a whole dancing hall again for the sake of bringing such a dolt home.
One night as they were going to bed, however, someone knocked at the
door. It was Nana who matter-of-factly came to ask for a bed; and in
what a state. _Mon Dieu!_ her head was bare, her dress in tatters, and
her boots full of holes - such a toilet as might have led the police to
run her in, and take her off to the Depot. Naturally enough she received
a hiding, and then she gluttonously fell on a crust of stale bread and
went to sleep, worn out, with the last mouthful between her teeth.

Then this sort of life continued. As soon as she was somewhat recovered
she would go off and not a sight or sound of her. Weeks or months would
pass and she would suddenly appear with no explanation. The Coupeaus got
used to these comings and goings. Well, as long as she didn't leave the
door open. What could you expect?

There was only one thing that really bothered Gervaise. This was to see
her daughter come home in a dress with a train and a hat covered with
feathers. No, she couldn't stomach this display. Nana might indulge in
riotous living if she chose, but when she came home to her mother's she
ought to dress like a workgirl. The dresses with trains caused quite
a sensation in the house; the Lorilleuxs sneered; Lantier, whose mouth
sneered, turned the girl round to sniff at her delicious aroma; the
Boches had forbidden Pauline to associate with this baggage in her
frippery. And Gervaise was also angered by Nana's exhausted slumber,
when after one of her adventures, she slept till noon, with her chignon
undone and still full of hair pins, looking so white and breathing so
feebly that she seemed to be dead. Her mother shook her five or six
times in the course of the morning, threatening to throw a jugful of
water over her. The sight of this handsome lazy girl, half naked
and besotted with wine, exasperated her, as she saw her lying there.
Sometimes Nana opened an eye, closed it again, and then stretched
herself out all the more.

One day after reproaching her with the life she led and asking her
if she had taken on an entire battalion of soldiers, Gervaise put her
threat into execution to the extent of shaking her dripping hand over
Nana's body. Quite infuriated, the girl pulled herself up in the sheet,
and cried out:

"That's enough, mamma. It would be better not to talk of men. You did as
you liked, and now I do the same!"

"What! What!" stammered the mother.

"Yes, I never spoke to you about it, for it didn't concern me; but you
didn't used to be very fussy. I often saw you when we lived at the
shop sneaking off as soon as papa started snoring. So just shut up; you
shouldn't have set me the example."

Gervaise remained pale, with trembling hands, turning round without
knowing what she was about, whilst Nana, flattened on her breast,
embraced her pillow with both arms and subsided into the torpor of her
leaden slumber.

Coupeau growled, no longer sane enough to think of launching out a
whack. He was altogether losing his mind. And really there was no need
to call him an unprincipled father, for liquor had deprived him of all
consciousness of good and evil.

Now it was a settled thing. He wasn't sober once in six months; then he
was laid up and had to go into the Sainte-Anne hospital; a pleasure trip
for him. The Lorilleuxs said that the Duke of Bowel-Twister had gone

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 31 of 36)