Émile Zola.

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to visit his estates. At the end of a few weeks he left the asylum,
repaired and set together again, and then he began to pull himself to
bits once more, till he was down on his back and needed another mending.
In three years he went seven times to Sainte-Anne in this fashion. The
neighborhood said that his cell was kept ready for him. But the worst of
the matter was that this obstinate tippler demolished himself more and
more each time so that from relapse to relapse one could foresee the
final tumble, the last cracking of this shaky cask, all the hoops of
which were breaking away, one after the other.

At the same time, he forgot to improve in appearance; a perfect ghost
to look at! The poison was having terrible effects. By dint of imbibing
alcohol, his body shrunk up like the embryos displayed in glass jars in
chemical laboratories. When he approached a window you could see through
his ribs, so skinny had he become. Those who knew his age, only forty
years just gone, shuddered when he passed by, bent and unsteady,
looking as old as the streets themselves. And the trembling of his hands
increased, the right one danced to such an extent, that sometimes he had
to take his glass between both fists to carry it to his lips. Oh! that
cursed trembling! It was the only thing that worried his addled brains.
You could hear him growling ferocious insults against those hands of

This last summer, during which Nana usually came home to spend her
nights, after she had finished knocking about, was especially bad for
Coupeau. His voice changed entirely as if liquor had set a new music in
his throat. He became deaf in one ear. Then in a few days his sight grew
dim, and he had to clutch hold of the stair railings to prevent himself
from falling. As for his health, he had abominable headaches and
dizziness. All on a sudden he was seized with acute pains in his arms
and legs; he turned pale; was obliged to sit down, and remained on a
chair witless for hours; indeed, after one such attack, his arm remained
paralyzed for the whole day. He took to his bed several times; he
rolled himself up and hid himself under the sheet, breathing hard
and continuously like a suffering animal. Then the strange scenes of
Sainte-Anne began again. Suspicious and nervous, worried with a burning
fever, he rolled about in a mad rage, tearing his blouse and biting the
furniture with his convulsed jaws; or else he sank into a great state of
emotion, complaining like a child, sobbing and lamenting because nobody
loved him. One night when Gervaise and Nana returned home together they
were surprised not to find him in his bed. He had laid the bolster in
his place. And when they discovered him, hiding between the bed and the
wall, his teeth were chattering, and he related that some men had come
to murder him. The two women were obliged to put him to bed again and
quiet him like a child.

Coupeau knew only one remedy, to toss down a pint of spirits; a whack in
his stomach, which set him on his feet again. This was how he doctored
his gripes of a morning. His memory had left him long ago, his brain was
empty; and he no sooner found himself on his feet than he poked fun
at illness. He had never been ill. Yes, he had got to the point when
a fellow kicks the bucket declaring that he's quite well. And his wits
were going a-wool-gathering in other respects too. When Nana came home
after gadding about for six weeks or so he seemed to fancy she had
returned from doing some errand in the neighborhood. Often when she was
hanging on an acquaintance's arm she met him and laughed at him without
his recognizing her. In short, he no longer counted for anything; she
might have sat down on him if she had been at a loss for a chair.

When the first frosts came Nana took herself off once more under the
pretence of going to the fruiterer's to see if there were any baked
pears. She scented winter and didn't care to let her teeth chatter in
front of the fireless stove. The Coupeaus had called her no good because
they had waited for the pears. No doubt she would come back again. The
other winter she had stayed away three weeks to fetch her father two
sous' worth of tobacco. But the months went by and the girl did not show
herself. This time she must have indulged in a hard gallop. When June
arrived she did not even turn up with the sunshine. Evidently it was all
over, she had found a new meal ticket somewhere or other. One day when
the Coupeaus were totally broke they sold Nana's iron bedstead for six
francs, which they drank together at Saint-Ouen. The bedstead had been
in their way.

One morning in July Virginie called to Gervaise, who was passing by, and
asked her to lend a hand in washing up, for Lantier had entertained a
couple of friends on the day before. And while Gervaise was cleaning up
the plates and dishes, greasy with the traces of the spread, the hatter,
who was still digesting in the shop, suddenly called out:

"Say, I saw Nana the other day."

Virginie, who was seated at the counter looking very careworn in front
of the jars and drawers which were already three parts emptied, jerked
her head furiously. She restrained herself so as not to say too much,
but really it was angering her. Lantier was seeing Nana often. Oh! she
was by no means sure of him; he was a man to do much worse than that,
when a fancy for a woman came into his head. Madame Lerat, very intimate
just then with Virginie, who confided in her, had that moment entered
the shop, and hearing Lantier's remark, she pouted ridiculously, and

"What do you mean, you saw her?"

"Oh, in the street here," answered the hatter, who felt highly
flattered, and began to laugh and twirl his moustaches. "She was in
a carriage and I was floundering on the pavement. Really it was so, I
swear it! There's no use denying it, the young fellows of position who
are on friendly terms with her are terribly lucky!"

His eyes had brightened and he turned towards Gervaise who was standing
in the rear of the shop wiping a dish.

"Yes, she was in a carriage, and wore such a stylish dress! I didn't
recognise her, she looked so much like a lady of the upper set, with her
white teeth and her face as fresh as a flower. It was she who waved her
glove to me. She has caught a count, I believe. Oh! she's launched for
good. She can afford to do without any of us; she's head over heels in
happiness, the little beggar! What a love of a little kitten! No, you've
no idea what a little kitten she is!"

Gervaise was still wiping the same plate, although it had long since
been clean and shiny. Virginie was reflecting, anxious about a couple of
bills which fell due on the morrow and which she didn't know how to pay;
whilst Lantier, stout and fat, perspiring the sugar he fed off, ventured
his enthusiasm for well-dressed little hussies. The shop, which was
already three parts eaten up, smelt of ruin. Yes, there were only a few
more burnt almonds to nibble, a little more barley-sugar to suck, to
clean the Poissons' business out. Suddenly, on the pavement over the
way, he perceived the policeman, who was on duty, pass by all buttoned
up with his sword dangling by his side. And this made him all the gayer.
He compelled Virginie to look at her husband.

"Dear me," he muttered, "Badingue looks fine this morning! Just look,
see how stiff he walks. He must have stuck a glass eye in his back to
surprise people."

When Gervaise went back upstairs, she found Coupeau seated on the bed,
in the torpid state induced by one of his attacks. He was looking at the
window-panes with his dim expressionless eyes. She sat herself down on
a chair, tired out, her hands hanging beside her dirty skirt; and for a
quarter of an hour she remained in front of him without saying a word.

"I've had some news," she muttered at last. "Your daughter's been seen.
Yes, your daughter's precious stylish and hasn't any more need of you.
She's awfully happy, she is! Ah! _Mon Dieu!_ I'd give a great deal to be
in her place."

Coupeau was still staring at the window-pane. But suddenly he raised his
ravaged face, and stammered with an idiotic laugh:

"Well, my little lamb, I'm not stopping you. You're not yet so bad
looking when you wash yourself. As folks say, however old a pot may be,
it ends by finding its lid. And, after all, I wouldn't care if it only
buttered our bread."


It must have been the Saturday after quarter day, something like the
12th or 13th of January - Gervaise didn't quite know. She was losing
her wits, for it was centuries since she had had anything warm in her
stomach. Ah! what an infernal week! A complete clear out. Two loaves of
four pounds each on Tuesday, which had lasted till Thursday; then a dry
crust found the night before, and finally not a crumb for thirty-six
hours, a real dance before the cupboard! What did she know, by the way,
what she felt on her back, was the frightful cold, a black cold, the sky
as grimy as a frying-pan, thick with snow which obstinately refused to
fall. When winter and hunger are both together in your guts, you may
tighten your belt as much as you like, it hardly feeds you.

Perhaps Coupeau would bring back some money in the evening. He said that
he was working. Anything is possible, isn't it? And Gervaise, although
she had been caught many and many a time, had ended by relying on this
coin. After all sorts of incidents, she herself couldn't find as much as
a duster to wash in the whole neighborhood; and even an old lady, whose
rooms she did, had just given her the sack, charging her with swilling
her liqueurs. No one would engage her, she was washed up everywhere;
and this secretly suited her, for she had fallen to that state of
indifference when one prefers to croak rather than move one's fingers.
At all events, if Coupeau brought his pay home they would have something
warm to eat. And meanwhile, as it wasn't yet noon, she remained
stretched on the mattress, for one doesn't feel so cold or so hungry
when one is lying down.

The bed was nothing but a pile of straw in a corner. Bed and bedding had
gone, piece by piece, to the second-hand dealers of the neighborhood.
First she had ripped open the mattress to sell handfuls of wool at ten
sous a pound. When the mattress was empty she got thirty sous for the
sack so as to be able to have coffee. Everything else had followed.
Well, wasn't the straw good enough for them?

Gervaise bent herself like a gun-trigger on the heap of straw, with her
clothes on and her feet drawn up under her rag of a skirt, so as to
keep them warm. And huddled up, with her eyes wide open, she turned
some scarcely amusing ideas over in her mind that morning. Ah! no, they
couldn't continue living without food. She no longer felt her hunger,
only she had a leaden weight on her chest and her brain seemed empty.
Certainly there was nothing gay to look at in the four corners of the
hovel. A perfect kennel now, where greyhounds, who wear wrappers in the
streets, would not even have lived in effigy. Her pale eyes stared at
the bare walls. Everything had long since gone to "uncle's." All that
remained were the chest of drawers, the table and a chair. Even the
marble top of the chest of drawers and the drawers themselves, had
evaporated in the same direction as the bedstead. A fire could not have
cleaned them out more completely; the little knick-knacks had melted,
beginning with the ticker, a twelve franc watch, down to the family
photos, the frames of which had been bought by a woman keeping a
second-hand store; a very obliging woman, by the way, to whom Gervaise
carried a saucepan, an iron, a comb and who gave her five, three or two
sous in exchange, according to the article; enough, at all events to go
upstairs again with a bit of bread. But now there only remained a broken
pair of candle snuffers, which the woman refused to give her even a sou

Oh! if she could only have sold the rubbish and refuse, the dust and the
dirt, how speedily she would have opened shop, for the room was filthy
to behold! She only saw cobwebs in the corners and although cobwebs
are good for cuts, there are, so far, no merchants who buy them. Then
turning her head, abandoning the idea of doing a bit of trade, Gervaise
gathered herself together more closely on her straw, preferring to stare
through the window at the snow-laden sky, at the dreary daylight, which
froze the marrow in her bones.

What a lot of worry! Though, after all, what was the use of putting
herself in such a state and puzzling her brains? If she had only been
able to have a snooze. But her hole of a home wouldn't go out of her
mind. Monsieur Marescot, the landlord had come in person the day before
to tell them that he would turn them out into the street if the two
quarters' rent now overdue were not paid during the ensuing week. Well,
so he might, they certainly couldn't be worse off on the pavement! Fancy
this ape, in his overcoat and his woolen gloves, coming upstairs to talk
to them about rent, as if they had had a treasure hidden somewhere!

Just the same with that brute of a Coupeau, who couldn't come home now
without beating her; she wished him in the same place as the landlord.
She sent them all there, wishing to rid herself of everyone, and of life
too. She was becoming a real storehouse for blows. Coupeau had a cudgel,
which he called his ass's fan, and he fanned his old woman. You should
just have seen him giving her abominable thrashings, which made her
perspire all over. She was no better herself, for she bit and scratched
him. Then they stamped about in the empty room and gave each other such
drubbings as were likely to ease them of all taste for bread for good.
But Gervaise ended by not caring a fig for these thwacks, not more than
she did for anything else. Coupeau might celebrate Saint Monday for
weeks altogether, go off on the spree for months at a time, come home
mad with liquor, and seek to sharpen her as he said, she had grown
accustomed to it, she thought him tiresome, but nothing more. It was on
these occasions that she wished him somewhere else. Yes, somewhere, her
beast of a man and the Lorilleuxs, the Boches, and the Poissons too; in
fact, the whole neighborhood, which she had such contempt for. She sent
all Paris there with a gesture of supreme carelessness, and was pleased
to be able to revenge herself in this style.

One could get used to almost anything, but still, it is hard to
break the habit of eating. That was the one thing that really annoyed
Gervaise, the hunger that kept gnawing at her insides. Oh, those
pleasant little snacks she used to have. Now she had fallen low enough
to gobble anything she could find.

On special occasions, she would get waste scraps of meat from the
butcher for four sous a pound. Blacked and dried out meat that couldn't
find a purchaser. She would mix this with potatoes for a stew. On other
occasions, when she had some wine, she treated herself to a sop, a true
parrot's pottage. Two sous' worth of Italian cheese, bushels of white
potatoes, quarts of dry beans, cooked in their own juice, these also
were dainties she was not often able to indulge in now. She came down
to leavings from low eating dens, where for a sou she had a pile of
fish-bones, mixed with the parings of moldy roast meat. She fell even
lower - she begged a charitable eating-house keeper to give her his
customers' dry crusts, and she made herself a bread soup, letting the
crusts simmer as long as possible on a neighbor's fire. On the days when
she was really hungry, she searched about with the dogs, to see what
might be lying outside the tradespeople's doors before the dustmen went
by; and thus at times she came across rich men's food, rotten melons,
stinking mackerel and chops, which she carefully inspected for fear of

Yes, she had come to this. The idea may be a repugnant one to
delicate-minded folks, but if they hadn't chewed anything for three days
running, we should hardly see them quarreling with their stomachs; they
would go down on all fours and eat filth like other people. Ah! the
death of the poor, the empty entrails, howling hunger, the animal
appetite that leads one with chattering teeth to fill one's stomach with
beastly refuse in this great Paris, so bright and golden! And to think
that Gervaise used to fill her belly with fat goose! Now the thought
of it brought tears to her eyes. One day, when Coupeau bagged two bread
tickets from her to go and sell them and get some liquor, she nearly
killed him with the blow of a shovel, so hungered and so enraged was she
by this theft of a bit of bread.

However, after a long contemplation of the pale sky, she had fallen into
a painful doze. She dreamt that the snow-laden sky was falling on her,
so cruelly did the cold pinch. Suddenly she sprang to her feet, awakened
with a start by a shudder of anguish. _Mon Dieu!_ was she going to die?
Shivering and haggard she perceived that it was still daylight. Wouldn't
the night ever come? How long the time seems when the stomach is empty!
Hers was waking up in its turn and beginning to torture her. Sinking
down on the chair, with her head bent and her hands between her legs to
warm them, she began to think what they would have for dinner as soon
as Coupeau brought the money home: a loaf, a quart of wine and two
platefuls of tripe in the Lyonnaise fashion. Three o'clock struck by
father Bazouge's clock. Yes, it was only three o'clock. Then she began
to cry. She would never have strength enough to wait until seven. Her
body swayed backwards and forwards, she oscillated like a child nursing
some sharp pain, bending herself double and crushing her stomach so as
not to feel it. Ah! an accouchement is less painful than hunger! And
unable to ease herself, seized with rage, she rose and stamped about,
hoping to send her hunger to sleep by walking it to and fro like an
infant. For half an hour or so, she knocked against the four corners of
the empty room. Then, suddenly, she paused with a fixed stare. So much
the worse! They might say what they liked; she would lick their feet if
needs be, but she would go and ask the Lorilleuxs to lend her ten sous.

At winter time, up these stairs of the house, the paupers' stairs, there
was a constant borrowing of ten sous and twenty sous, petty services
which these hungry beggars rendered each other. Only they would rather
have died than have applied to the Lorilleuxs, for they knew they were
too tight-fisted. Thus Gervaise displayed remarkable courage in going
to knock at their door. She felt so frightened in the passage that she
experienced the sudden relief of people who ring a dentist's bell.

"Come in!" cried the chainmaker in a sour voice.

How warm and nice it was inside. The forge was blazing, its white flame
lighting up the narrow workroom, whilst Madame Lorilleux set a coil of
gold wire to heat. Lorilleux, in front of his worktable, was perspiring
with the warmth as he soldered the links of a chain together. And it
smelt nice. Some cabbage soup was simmering on the stove, exhaling a
steam which turned Gervaise's heart topsy-turvy, and almost made her

"Ah! it's you," growled Madame Lorilleux, without even asking her to sit
down. "What do you want?"

Gervaise did not answer for a moment. She had recently been on fairly
good terms with the Lorilleuxs, but she saw Boche sitting by the stove.
He seemed very much at home, telling funny stories.

"What do you want?" repeated Lorilleux.

"You haven't seen Coupeau?" Gervaise finally stammered at last. "I
thought he was here."

The chainmakers and the concierge sneered. No, for certain, they hadn't
seen Coupeau. They didn't stand treat often enough to interest Coupeau.
Gervaise made an effort and resumed, stuttering:

"It's because he promised to come home. Yes, he's to bring me some
money. And as I have absolute need of something - "

Silence followed. Madame Lorilleux was roughly fanning the fire of the
stove; Lorilleux had lowered his nose over the bit of chain between his
fingers, while Boche continued laughing, puffing out his face till it
looked like the full moon.

"If I only had ten sous," muttered Gervaise, in a low voice.

The silence persisted.

"Couldn't you lend me ten sous? Oh! I would return them to you this

Madame Lorilleux turned round and stared at her. Here was a wheedler
trying to get round them. To-day she asked them for ten sous, to-morrow
it would be for twenty, and there would be no reason to stop. No,
indeed; it would be a warm day in winter if they lent her anything.

"But, my dear," cried Madame Lorilleux. "You know very well that we
haven't any money! Look! There's the lining of my pocket. You can search
us. If we could, it would be with a willing heart, of course."

"The heart's always there," growled Lorilleux. "Only when one can't, one

Gervaise looked very humble and nodded her head approvingly. However,
she did not take herself off. She squinted at the gold, at the gold tied
together hanging on the walls, at the gold wire the wife was drawing out
with all the strength of her little arms, at the gold links lying in a
heap under the husband's knotty fingers. And she thought that the least
bit of this ugly black metal would suffice to buy her a good dinner. The
workroom was as dirty as ever, full of old iron, coal dust and sticky
oil stains, half wiped away; but now, as Gervaise saw it, it seemed
resplendent with treasure, like a money changer's shop. And so she
ventured to repeat softly: "I would return them to you, return them
without fail. Ten sous wouldn't inconvenience you."

Her heart was swelling with the effort she made not to own that she had
had nothing to eat since the day before. Then she felt her legs give
way. She was frightened that she might burst into tears, and she still

"It would be kind of you! You don't know. Yes, I'm reduced to that, good
Lord - reduced to that!"

Thereupon the Lorilleuxs pursed their lips and exchanged covert glances.
So Clump-clump was begging now! Well, the fall was complete. But they
did not care for that kind of thing by any means. If they had known,
they would have barricaded the door, for people should always be on
their guard against beggars - folks who make their way into apartments
under a pretext and carry precious objects away with them; and
especially so in this place, as there was something worth while
stealing. One might lay one's fingers no matter where, and carry off
thirty or forty francs by merely closing the hands. They had felt
suspicious several times already on noticing how strange Gervaise looked
when she stuck herself in front of the gold. This time, however, they
meant to watch her. And as she approached nearer, with her feet on the
board, the chainmaker roughly called out, without giving any further
answer to her question: "Look out, pest - take care; you'll be carrying
some scraps of gold away on the soles of your shoes. One would think you
had greased them on purpose to make the gold stick to them."

Gervaise slowly drew back. For a moment she leant against a rack, and
seeing that Madame Lorilleux was looking at her hands, she opened them
and showed them, saying softly, without the least anger, like a fallen
women who accepts anything:

"I have taken nothing; you can look."

And then she went off, because the strong smell of the cabbage soup and
the warmth of the workroom made her feel too ill.

Ah! the Lorilleuxs did not detain her. Good riddance; just see if they
opened the door to her again. They had seen enough of her face. They
didn't want other people's misery in their rooms, especially when that
misery was so well deserved. They reveled in their selfish delight at
being seated so cozily in a warm room, with a dainty soup cooking. Boche
also stretched himself, puffing with his cheeks still more and more,
so much, indeed, that his laugh really became indecent. They were all
nicely revenged on Clump-clump, for her former manners, her blue shop,
her spreads, and all the rest. It had all worked out just as it should,
proving where a love of showing-off would get you.

"So that is the style now? Begging for ten sous," cried Madame Lorilleux
as soon as Gervaise had gone. "Wait a bit; I'll lend her ten sous, and
no mistake, to go and get drunk with."

Gervaise shuffled along the passage in her slippers, bending her back
and feeling heavy. On reaching her door she did not open it - her room
frightened her. It would be better to walk about, she would learn
patience. As she passed by she stretched out her neck, peering into Pere

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 32 of 36)