Copyright
Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

. (page 33 of 36)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 33 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Bru's kennel under the stairs. There, for instance, was another one who
must have a fine appetite, for he had breakfasted and dined by heart
during the last three days. However, he wasn't at home, there was only
his hole, and Gervaise felt somewhat jealous, thinking that perhaps he
had been invited somewhere. Then, as she reached the Bijards' she heard
Lalie moaning, and, as the key was in the lock as usual, she opened the
door and went in.

"What is the matter?" she asked.

The room was very clean. One could see that Lalie had carefully swept
it, and arranged everything during the morning. Misery might blow into
the room as much as it liked, carry off the chattels and spread all
the dirt and refuse about. Lalie, however, came behind and tidied
everything, imparting, at least, some appearance of comfort within. She
might not be rich, but you realized that there was a housewife in the
place. That afternoon her two little ones, Henriette and Jules, had
found some old pictures which they were cutting out in a corner. But
Gervaise was greatly surprised to see Lalie herself in bed, looking very
pale, with the sheet drawn up to her chin. In bed, indeed, then she must
be seriously ill!

"What is the matter with you?" inquired Gervaise, feeling anxious.

Lalie no longer groaned. She slowly raised her white eyelids, and tried
to compel her lips to smile, although they were convulsed by a shudder.

"There's nothing the matter with me," she whispered very softly. "Really
nothing at all."

Then, closing her eyes again, she added with an effort:

"I made myself too tired during the last few days, and so I'm doing the
idle; I'm nursing myself, as you see."

But her childish face, streaked with livid stains, assumed such an
expression of anguish that Gervaise, forgetting her own agony, joined
her hands and fell on her knees near the bed. For the last month she
had seen the girl clinging to the walls for support when she went about,
bent double indeed, by a cough which seemed to presage a coffin. Now the
poor child could not even cough. She had a hiccough and drops of blood
oozed from the corners of her mouth.

"It's not my fault if I hardly feel strong," she murmured, as if
relieved. "I've tired myself to-day, trying to put things to rights.
It's pretty tidy, isn't it? And I wanted to clean the windows as well,
but my legs failed me. How stupid! However, when one has finished one
can go to bed."

She paused, then said, "Pray, see if my little ones are not cutting
themselves with the scissors."

And then she relapsed into silence, trembling and listening to a heavy
footfall which was approaching up the stairs. Suddenly father Bijard
brutally opened the door. As usual he was far gone, and his eyes shone
with the furious madness imparted by the vitriol he had swallowed. When
he perceived Lalie in bed, he tapped on his thighs with a sneer, and
took the whip from where it hung.

"Ah! by blazes, that's too much," he growled, "we'll soon have a laugh.
So the cows lie down on their straw at noon now! Are you poking fun at
me, you lazy beggar? Come, quick now, up you get!"

And he cracked the whip over the bed. But the child beggingly replied:

"Pray, papa, don't - don't strike me. I swear to you you will regret it.
Don't strike!"

"Will you jump up?" he roared still louder, "or else I'll tickle your
ribs! Jump up, you little hound!"

Then she softly said, "I can't - do you understand? I'm going to die."

Gervaise had sprung upon Bijard and torn the whip away from him. He
stood bewildered in front of the bed. What was the dirty brat talking
about? Do girls die so young without even having been ill? Some excuse
to get sugar out of him no doubt. Ah! he'd make inquiries, and if she
lied, let her look out!

"You will see, it's the truth," she continued. "As long as I could I
avoided worrying you; but be kind now, and bid me good-bye, papa."

Bijard wriggled his nose as if he fancied she was deceiving him. And
yet it was true she had a singular look, the serious mien of a grown
up person. The breath of death which passed through the room in some
measure sobered him. He gazed around like a man awakened from a long
sleep, saw the room so tidy, the two children clean, playing and
laughing. And then he sank on to a chair stammering, "Our little mother,
our little mother."

Those were the only words he could find to say, and yet they were very
tender ones to Lalie, who had never been much spoiled. She consoled
her father. What especially worried her was to go off like this without
having completely brought up the little ones. He would take care of
them, would he not? With her dying breath she told him how they ought
to be cared for and kept clean. But stultified, with the fumes of drink
seizing hold of him again, he wagged his head, watching her with an
uncertain stare as she was dying. All kind of things were touched in
him, but he could find no more to say and he was too utterly burnt with
liquor to shed a tear.

"Listen," resumed Lalie, after a pause. "We owe four francs and seven
sous to the baker; you must pay that. Madame Gaudron borrowed an iron of
ours, which you must get from her. I wasn't able to make any soup this
evening, but there's some bread left and you can warm up the potatoes."

Till her last rattle, the poor kitten still remained the little mother.
Surely she could never be replaced! She was dying because she had had,
at her age, a true mother's reason, because her breast was too small and
weak for so much maternity. And if her ferocious beast of a father lost
his treasure, it was his own fault. After kicking the mother to death,
hadn't he murdered the daughter as well? The two good angels would lie
in the pauper's grave and all that could be in store for him was to kick
the bucket like a dog in the gutter.

Gervaise restrained herself not to burst out sobbing. She extended her
hands, desirous of easing the child, and as the shred of a sheet was
falling, she wished to tack it up and arrange the bed. Then the dying
girl's poor little body was seen. Ah! _Mon Dieu!_ what misery! What
woe! Stones would have wept. Lalie was bare, with only the remnants of
a camisole on her shoulders by way of chemise; yes, bare, with the
grievous, bleeding nudity of a martyr. She had no flesh left; her bones
seemed to protrude through the skin. From her ribs to her thighs there
extended a number of violet stripes - the marks of the whip forcibly
imprinted on her. A livid bruise, moreover, encircled her left arm, as
if the tender limb, scarcely larger than a lucifer, had been crushed
in a vise. There was also an imperfectly closed wound on her right
leg, left there by some ugly blow and which opened again and again of
a morning, when she went about doing her errands. From head to foot,
indeed, she was but one bruise! Oh! this murdering of childhood; those
heavy hands crushing this lovely girl; how abominable that such weakness
should have such a weighty cross to bear! Again did Gervaise crouch
down, no longer thinking of tucking in the sheet, but overwhelmed by
the pitiful sight of this martyrdom; and her trembling lips seemed to be
seeking for words of prayer.

"Madame Coupeau," murmured the child, "I beg you - "

With her little arms she tried to draw up the sheet again, ashamed as it
were for her father. Bijard, as stultified as ever, with his eyes on the
corpse which was his own work, still wagged his head, but more slowly,
like a worried animal might do.

When she had covered Lalie up again, Gervaise felt she could not remain
there any longer. The dying girl was growing weaker and ceased speaking;
all that was left to her was her gaze - the dark look she had had as a
resigned and thoughtful child and which she now fixed on her two little
ones who were still cutting out their pictures. The room was growing
gloomy and Bijard was working off his liquor while the poor girl was
in her death agonies. No, no, life was too abominable! How frightful
it was! How frightful! And Gervaise took herself off, and went down the
stairs, not knowing what she was doing, her head wandering and so full
of disgust that she would willingly have thrown herself under the wheels
of an omnibus to have finished with her own existence.

As she hastened on, growling against cursed fate, she suddenly found
herself in front of the place where Coupeau pretended that he worked.
Her legs had taken her there, and now her stomach began singing its song
again, the complaint of hunger in ninety verses - a complaint she knew by
heart. However, if she caught Coupeau as he left, she would be able to
pounce upon the coin at once and buy some grub. A short hour's waiting
at the utmost; she could surely stay that out, though she had sucked her
thumbs since the day before.

She was at the corner of Rue de la Charbonniere and Rue de Chartres.
A chill wind was blowing and the sky was an ugly leaden grey. The
impending snow hung over the city but not a flake had fallen as yet. She
tried stamping her feet to keep warm, but soon stopped as there was no
use working up an appetite.

There was nothing amusing about. The few passers-by strode rapidly
along, wrapped up in comforters; naturally enough one does not care
to tarry when the cold is nipping at your heels. However, Gervaise
perceived four or five women who were mounting guard like herself
outside the door of the zinc-works; unfortunate creatures of
course - wives watching for the pay to prevent it going to the dram-shop.
There was a tall creature as bulky as a gendarme leaning against the
wall, ready to spring on her husband as soon as he showed himself. A
dark little woman with a delicate humble air was walking about on the
other side of the way. Another one, a fat creature, had brought her two
brats with her and was dragging them along, one on either hand, and both
of them shivering and sobbing. And all these women, Gervaise like the
others, passed and repassed, exchanging glances, but without speaking to
one another. A pleasant meeting and no mistake. They didn't need to make
friends to learn what number they lived at. They could all hang out the
same sideboard, "Misery & Co." It seemed to make one feel even colder
to see them walk about in silence, passing each other in this terrible
January weather.

However, nobody as yet left the zinc-works. But presently one workman
appeared, then two, and then three, but these were no doubt decent
fellows who took their pay home regularly, for they jerked their heads
significantly as they saw the shadows wandering up and down. The tall
creature stuck closer than ever to the side of the door, and suddenly
fell upon a pale little man who was prudently poking his head out. Oh!
it was soon settled! She searched him and collared his coin. Caught,
no more money, not even enough to pay for a dram! Then the little man,
looking very vexed and cast down, followed his gendarme, weeping like a
child. The workmen were still coming out; and as the fat mother with the
two brats approached the door, a tall fellow, with a cunning look, who
noticed her, went hastily inside again to warn her husband; and when
the latter arrived he had stuffed a couple of cart wheels away, two
beautiful new five franc pieces, one in each of his shoes. He took one
of the brats on his arm, and went off telling a variety of lies to
his old woman who was complaining. There were other workmen also,
mournful-looking fellows, who carried in their clinched fists the pay
for the three or five days' work they had done during a fortnight,
who reproached themselves with their own laziness, and took drunkards'
oaths. But the saddest thing of all was the grief of the dark little
woman, with the humble, delicate look; her husband, a handsome fellow,
took himself off under her very nose, and so brutally indeed that he
almost knocked her down, and she went home alone, stumbling past the
shops and weeping all the tears in her body.

At last the defile finished. Gervaise, who stood erect in the middle of
the street, was still watching the door. The look-out seemed a bad one.
A couple of workmen who were late appeared on the threshold, but there
were still no signs of Coupeau. And when she asked the workmen if
Coupeau wasn't coming, they answered her, being up to snuff, that he had
gone off by the back-door with Lantimeche. Gervaise understood what
this meant. Another of Coupeau's lies; she could whistle for him if she
liked. Then shuffling along in her worn-out shoes, she went slowly down
the Rue de la Charbonniere. Her dinner was going off in front of her,
and she shuddered as she saw it running away in the yellow twilight.
This time it was all over. Not a copper, not a hope, nothing but night
and hunger. Ah! a fine night to kick the bucket, this dirty night which
was falling over her shoulders!

She was walking heavily up the Rue des Poissonniers when she suddenly
heard Coupeau's voice. Yes, he was there in the Little Civet, letting
My-Boots treat him. That comical chap, My-Boots, had been cunning enough
at the end of last summer to espouse in authentic fashion a lady who,
although rather advanced in years, had still preserved considerable
traces of beauty. She was a lady-of-the-evening of the Rue des Martyrs,
none of your common street hussies. And you should have seen this
fortunate mortal, living like a man of means, with his hands in his
pockets, well clad and well fed. He could hardly be recognised, so fat
had he grown. His comrades said that his wife had as much work as she
liked among the gentlemen of her acquaintance. A wife like that and a
country-house is all one can wish for to embellish one's life. And so
Coupeau squinted admiringly at My-Boots. Why, the lucky dog even had a
gold ring on his little finger!

Gervaise touched Coupeau on the shoulder just as he was coming out of
the little Civet.

"Say, I'm waiting; I'm hungry! I've got an empty stomach which is all I
ever get from you."

But he silenced her in a capital style, "You're hungry, eh? Well, eat
your fist, and keep the other for to-morrow."

He considered it highly improper to do the dramatic in other people's
presence. What, he hadn't worked, and yet the bakers kneaded bread all
the same. Did she take him for a fool, to come and try to frighten him
with her stories?

"Do you want me to turn thief?" she muttered, in a dull voice.

My-Boots stroked his chin in conciliatory fashion. "No, that's
forbidden," said he. "But when a woman knows how to handle herself - "

And Coupeau interrupted him to call out "Bravo!" Yes, a woman always
ought to know how to handle herself, but his wife had always been a
helpless thing. It would be her fault if they died on the straw. Then he
relapsed into his admiration for My-Boots. How awfully fine he looked! A
regular landlord; with clean linen and swell shoes! They were no common
stuff! His wife, at all events, knew how to keep the pot boiling!

The two men walked towards the outer Boulevard, and Gervaise followed
them. After a pause, she resumed, talking behind Coupeau's back:
"I'm hungry; you know, I relied on you. You must find me something to
nibble."

He did not answer, and she repeated, in a tone of despairing agony: "Is
that all I get from you?"

"_Mon Dieu!_ I've no coin," he roared, turning round in a fury. "Just
leave me alone, eh? Or else I'll hit you."

He was already raising his fist. She drew back, and seemed to make up
her mind. "All right, I'll leave you. I guess I can find a man."

The zinc-worker laughed at this. He pretended to make a joke of the
matter, and strengthened her purpose without seeming to do so. That was
a fine idea of hers, and no mistake! In the evening, by gaslight,
she might still hook a man. He recommended her to try the Capuchin
restaurant where one could dine very pleasantly in a small private room.
And, as she went off along the Boulevard, looking pale and furious he
called out to her: "Listen, bring me back some dessert. I like cakes!
And if your gentleman is well dressed, ask him for an old overcoat. I
could use one."

With these words ringing in her ears, Gervaise walked softly away. But
when she found herself alone in the midst of the crowd, she slackened
her pace. She was quite resolute. Between thieving and the other, well
she preferred the other; for at all events she wouldn't harm any one.
No doubt it wasn't proper. But what was proper and what was improper was
sorely muddled together in her brain. When you are dying of hunger, you
don't philosophize, you eat whatever bread turns up. She had gone along
as far as the Chaussee-Clignancourt. It seemed as if the night would
never come. However, she followed the Boulevards like a lady who is
taking a stroll before dinner. The neighborhood in which she felt so
ashamed, so greatly was it being embellished, was now full of fresh air.

Lost in the crowd on the broad footway, walking past the little plane
trees, Gervaise felt alone and abandoned. The vistas of the avenues
seemed to empty her stomach all the more. And to think that among this
flood of people there were many in easy circumstances, and yet not a
Christian who could guess her position, and slip a ten sous piece into
her hand! Yes, it was too great and too beautiful; her head swam and
her legs tottered under this broad expanse of grey sky stretched over
so vast a space. The twilight had the dirty-yellowish tinge of Parisian
evenings, a tint that gives you a longing to die at once, so ugly
does street life seem. The horizon was growing indistinct, assuming a
mud-colored tinge as it were. Gervaise, who was already weary, met all
the workpeople returning home. At this hour of the day the ladies in
bonnets and the well-dressed gentlemen living in the new houses mingled
with the people, with the files of men and women still pale from
inhaling the tainted atmosphere of workshops and workrooms. From the
Boulevard Magenta and the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonniere, came bands of
people, rendered breathless by their uphill walk. As the omnivans and
the cabs rolled by less noiselessly among the vans and trucks returning
home empty at a gallop, an ever-increasing swarm of blouses and
blue vests covered the pavement. Commissionaires returned with their
crotchets on their backs. Two workmen took long strides side by side,
talking to each other in loud voices, with any amount of gesticulation,
but without looking at one another; others who were alone in overcoats
and caps walked along the curbstones with lowered noses; others again
came in parties of five or six, following each other, with pale eyes and
their hands in their pockets and not exchanging a word. Some still had
their pipes, which had gone out between their teeth. Four masons poked
their white faces out of the windows of a cab which they had hired
between them, and on the roof of which their mortar-troughs rocked to
and fro. House-painters were swinging their pots; a zinc-worker was
returning laden with a long ladder, with which he almost poked people's
eyes out; whilst a belated plumber, with his box on his back, played
the tune of "The Good King Dagobert" on his little trumpet. Ah! the sad
music, a fitting accompaniment to the tread of the flock, the tread of
the weary beasts of burden.

Suddenly on raising her eyes she noticed the old Hotel Boncoeur in front
of her. After being an all-night cafe, which the police had closed
down, the little house was now abandoned; the shutters were covered with
posters, the lantern was broken, and the whole building was rotting and
crumbling away from top to bottom, with its smudgy claret-colored paint,
quite moldy. The stationer's and the tobacconist's were still there. In
the rear, over some low buildings, you could see the leprous facades of
several five-storied houses rearing their tumble-down outlines against
the sky. The "Grand Balcony" dancing hall no longer existed; some
sugar-cutting works, which hissed continually, had been installed in the
hall with the ten flaming windows. And yet it was here, in this dirty
den - the Hotel Boncoeur - that the whole cursed life had commenced.
Gervaise remained looking at the window of the first floor, from which
hung a broken shutter, and recalled to mind her youth with Lantier,
their first rows and the ignoble way in which he had abandoned her.
Never mind, she was young then, and it all seemed gay to her, seen from
a distance. Only twenty years. _Mon Dieu!_ and yet she had fallen to
street-walking. Then the sight of the lodging house oppressed her and
she walked up the Boulevard in the direction of Montmartre.

The night was gathering, but children were still playing on the heaps of
sand between the benches. The march past continued, the workgirls went
by, trotting along and hurrying to make up for the time they had lost in
looking in at the shop windows; one tall girl, who had stopped, left her
hand in that of a big fellow, who accompanied her to within three doors
of her home; others as they parted from each other, made appointments
for the night at the "Great Hall of Folly" or the "Black Ball." In
the midst of the groups, piece-workmen went by, carrying their clothes
folded under their arms. A chimney sweep, harnessed with leather braces,
was drawing a cart along, and nearly got himself crushed by an omnibus.
Among the crowd which was now growing scantier, there were several
women running with bare heads; after lighting the fire, they had come
downstairs again and were hastily making their purchases for dinner;
they jostled the people they met, darted into the bakers' and the pork
butchers', and went off again with all despatch, their provisions in
their hands. There were little girls of eight years old, who had been
sent out on errands, and who went along past the shops, pressing long
loaves of four pounds' weight, as tall as they were themselves, against
their chests, as if these loaves had been beautiful yellow dolls; at
times these little ones forgot themselves for five minutes or so, in
front of some pictures in a shop window, and rested their cheeks against
the bread. Then the flow subsided, the groups became fewer and farther
between, the working classes had gone home; and as the gas blazed now
that the day's toil was over, idleness and amusement seemed to wake up.

Ah! yes; Gervaise had finished her day! She was wearier even than all
this mob of toilers who had jostled her as they went by. She might lie
down there and croak, for work would have nothing more to do with her,
and she had toiled enough during her life to say: "Whose turn now? I've
had enough." At present everyone was eating. It was really the end, the
sun had blown out its candle, the night would be a long one. _Mon Dieu!_
To stretch one's self at one's ease and never get up again; to think one
had put one's tools by for good and that one could ruminate like a cow
forever! That's what is good, after tiring one's self out for twenty
years! And Gervaise, as hunger twisted her stomach, thought in spite of
herself of the fete days, the spreads and the revelry of her life. Of
one occasion especially, an awfully cold day, a mid-Lent Thursday. She
had enjoyed herself wonderfully well. She was very pretty, fair-haired
and fresh looking at that time. Her wash-house in the Rue Neuve had
chosen her as queen in spite of her leg. And then they had had an outing
on the boulevards in carts decked with greenery, in the midst of stylish
people who ogled her. Real gentlemen put up their glasses as if she had
been a true queen. In the evening there was a wonderful spread, and then
they had danced till daylight. Queen; yes Queen! With a crown and a
sash for twenty-four hours - twice round the clock! And now oppressed by
hunger, she looked on the ground, as if she were seeking for the gutter
in which she had let her fallen majesty tumble.

She raised her eyes again. She was in front of the slaughter-houses
which were being pulled down; through the gaps in the facade one could
see the dark, stinking courtyards, still damp with blood. And when
she had gone down the Boulevard again, she also saw the Lariboisiere
Hospital, with its long grey wall, above which she could distinguish the
mournful, fan-like wings, pierced with windows at even distances. A door
in the wall filled the neighborhood with dread; it was the door of the
dead in solid oak, and without a crack, as stern and as silent as a
tombstone. Then to escape her thoughts, she hurried further down till
she reached the railway bridge. The high parapets of riveted sheet-iron
hid the line from view; she could only distinguish a corner of the
station standing out against the luminous horizon of Paris, with a vast



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 33 of 36)