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Émile Zola.

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roof black with coal-dust. Through the clear space she could hear the
engines whistling and the cars being shunted, in token of colossal
hidden activity. Then a train passed by, leaving Paris, with puffing
breath and a growing rumble. And all she perceived of this train was
a white plume, a sudden gust of steam which rose above the parapet
and then evaporated. But the bridge had shaken, and she herself seemed
impressed by this departure at full speed. She turned round as if to
follow the invisible engine, the noise of which was dying away.

She caught a glimpse of open country through a gap between tall
buildings. Oh, if only she could have taken a train and gone away, far
away from this poverty and suffering. She might have started an entirely
new life! Then she turned to look at the posters on the bridge sidings.
One was on pretty blue paper and offered a fifty-franc reward for a lost
dog. Someone must have really loved that dog!

Gervaise slowly resumed her walk. In the smoky fog which was falling,
the gas lamps were being lighted up; and the long avenues, which had
grown bleak and indistinct, suddenly showed themselves plainly again,
sparkling to their full length and piercing through the night, even to
the vague darkness of the horizon. A great gust swept by; the widened
spaces were lighted up with girdles of little flames, shining under the
far-stretching moonless sky. It was the hour when, from one end of the
Boulevard to the other, the dram-shops and the dancing-halls flamed
gayly as the first glasses were merrily drunk and the first dance began.
It was the great fortnightly pay-day, and the pavement was crowded with
jostling revelers on the spree. There was a breath of merrymaking in
the air - deuced fine revelry, but not objectionable so far. Fellows were
filling themselves in the eating-houses; through the lighted windows you
could see people feeding, with their mouths full and laughing without
taking the trouble to swallow first. Drunkards were already installed
in the wineshops, squabbling and gesticulating. And there was a cursed
noise on all sides, voices shouting amid the constant clatter of feet on
the pavement.

"Say, are you coming to sip?" "Make haste, old man; I'll pay for a glass
of bottled wine." "Here's Pauline! Shan't we just laugh!" The doors
swung to and fro, letting a smell of wine and a sound of cornet playing
escape into the open air. There was a gathering in front of Pere
Colombe's l'Assommoir, which was lighted up like a cathedral for high
mass. _Mon Dieu!_ you would have said a real ceremony was going on,
for several capital fellows, with rounded paunches and swollen cheeks,
looking for all the world like professional choristers, were singing
inside. They were celebrating Saint-Pay, of course - a very amiable
saint, who no doubt keeps the cash box in Paradise. Only, on seeing how
gaily the evening began, the retired petty tradesmen who had taken their
wives out for a stroll wagged their heads, and repeated that there
would be any number of drunken men in Paris that night. And the night
stretched very dark, dead-like and icy, above this revelry, perforated
only with lines of gas lamps extending to the four corners of heaven.

Gervaise stood in front of l'Assommoir, thinking that if she had had a
couple of sous she could have gone inside and drunk a dram. No doubt a
dram would have quieted her hunger. Ah! what a number of drams she had
drunk in her time! Liquor seemed good stuff to her after all. And
from outside she watched the drunk-making machine, realizing that her
misfortune was due to it, and yet dreaming of finishing herself off with
brandy on the day she had some coin. But a shudder passed through
her hair as she saw it was now almost dark. Well, the night time was
approaching. She must have some pluck and sell herself coaxingly if
she didn't wish to kick the bucket in the midst of the general revelry.
Looking at other people gorging themselves didn't precisely fill her own
stomach. She slackened her pace again and looked around her. There was
a darker shade under the trees. Few people passed along, only folks in
a hurry, who swiftly crossed the Boulevards. And on the broad, dark,
deserted footway, where the sound of the revelry died away, women were
standing and waiting. They remained for long intervals motionless,
patient and as stiff-looking as the scrubby little plane trees; then
they slowly began to move, dragging their slippers over the frozen soil,
taking ten steps or so and then waiting again, rooted as it were to the
ground. There was one of them with a huge body and insect-like arms and
legs, wearing a black silk rag, with a yellow scarf over her head; there
was another one, tall and bony, who was bareheaded and wore a servant's
apron; and others, too - old ones plastered up and young ones so dirty
that a ragpicker would not have picked them up. However, Gervaise tried
to learn what to do by imitating them; girlish-like emotion tightened
her throat; she was hardly aware whether she felt ashamed or not; she
seemed to be living in a horrible dream. For a quarter of an hour she
remained standing erect. Men hurried by without even turning their
heads. Then she moved about in her turn, and venturing to accost a man
who was whistling with his hands in his pockets, she murmured, in a
strangled voice:

"Sir, listen a moment - "

The man gave her a side glance and then went off, whistling all the
louder.

Gervaise grew bolder, and, with her stomach empty, she became absorbed
in this chase, fiercely rushing after her dinner, which was still
running away. She walked about for a long while, without thinking of the
flight of time or of the direction she took. Around her the dark, mute
women went to and fro under the trees like wild beasts in a cage. They
stepped out of the shade like apparitions, and passed under the light
of a gas lamp with their pale masks fully apparent; then they grew
vague again as they went off into the darkness, with a white strip of
petticoat swinging to and fro. Men let themselves be stopped at times,
talked jokingly, and then started off again laughing. Others would
quietly follow a woman to her room, discreetly, ten paces behind.
There was a deal of muttering, quarreling in an undertone and furious
bargaining, which suddenly subsided into profound silence. And as far as
Gervaise went she saw these women standing like sentinels in the night.
They seemed to be placed along the whole length of the Boulevard. As
soon as she met one she saw another twenty paces further on, and the
file stretched out unceasingly. Entire Paris was guarded. She grew
enraged on finding herself disdained, and changing her place, she now
perambulated between the Chaussee de Clignancourt and the Grand Rue of
La Chapelle. All were beggars.

"Sir, just listen."

But the men passed by. She started from the slaughter-houses, which
stank of blood. She glanced on her way at the old Hotel Boncoeur,
now closed. She passed in front of the Lariboisiere Hospital, and
mechanically counted the number of windows that were illuminated with
a pale quiet glimmer, like that of night-lights at the bedside of some
agonizing sufferers. She crossed the railway bridge as the trains rushed
by with a noisy rumble, rending the air in twain with their shrill
whistling! Ah! how sad everything seemed at night-time! Then she turned
on her heels again and filled her eyes with the sight of the same
houses, doing this ten and twenty times without pausing, without resting
for a minute on a bench. No; no one wanted her. Her shame seemed to be
increased by this contempt. She went down towards the hospital again,
and then returned towards the slaughter-houses. It was her last
promenade - from the blood-stained courtyards, where animals were
slaughtered, down to the pale hospital wards, where death stiffened
the patients stretched between the sheets. It was between these two
establishments that she had passed her life.

"Sir, just listen."

But suddenly she perceived her shadow on the ground. When she approached
a gas-lamp it gradually became less vague, till it stood out at last in
full force - an enormous shadow it was, positively grotesque, so portly
had she become. Her stomach, breast and hips, all equally flabby jostled
together as it were. She walked with such a limp that the shadow bobbed
almost topsy-turvy at every step she took; it looked like a real Punch!
Then as she left the street lamp behind her, the Punch grew taller,
becoming in fact gigantic, filling the whole Boulevard, bobbing to and
fro in such style that it seemed fated to smash its nose against the
trees or the houses. _Mon Dieu!_ how frightful she was! She had never
realised her disfigurement so thoroughly. And she could not help looking
at her shadow; indeed, she waited for the gas-lamps, still watching the
Punch as it bobbed about. Ah! she had a pretty companion beside her!
What a figure! It ought to attract the men at once! And at the thought
of her unsightliness, she lowered her voice, and only just dared to
stammer behind the passers-by:

"Sir, just listen."

It was now getting quite late. Matters were growing bad in the
neighborhood. The eating-houses had closed and voices, gruff with
drink, could be heard disputing in the wineshops. Revelry was turning to
quarreling and fisticuffs. A big ragged chap roared out, "I'll knock
yer to bits; just count yer bones." A large woman had quarreled with a
fellow outside a dancing place, and was calling him "dirty blackguard"
and "lousy bum," whilst he on his side just muttered under his breath.
Drink seemed to have imparted a fierce desire to indulge in blows, and
the passers-by, who were now less numerous, had pale contracted faces.
There was a battle at last; one drunken fellow came down on his back
with all four limbs raised in the air, whilst his comrade, thinking
he had done for him, ran off with his heavy shoes clattering over the
pavement. Groups of men sang dirty songs and then there would be long
silences broken only by hiccoughs or the thud of a drunk falling down.

Gervaise still hobbled about, going up and down, with the idea of
walking forever. At times, she felt drowsy and almost went to sleep,
rocked, as it were, by her lame leg; then she looked round her with a
start, and noticed she had walked a hundred yards unconsciously. Her
feet were swelling in her ragged shoes. The last clear thought that
occupied her mind was that her hussy of a daughter was perhaps eating
oysters at that very moment. Then everything became cloudy; and, albeit,
she remained with open eyes, it required too great an effort for her
to think. The only sensation that remained to her, in her utter
annihilation, was that it was frightfully cold, so sharply, mortally
cold, she had never known the like before. Why, even dead people could
not feel so cold in their graves. With an effort she raised her head,
and something seemed to lash her face. It was the snow, which had at
last decided to fall from the smoky sky - fine thick snow, which the
breeze swept round and round. For three days it had been expected and
what a splendid moment it chose to appear.

Woken up by the first gusts, Gervaise began to walk faster. Eager to get
home, men were running along, with their shoulders already white. And as
she suddenly saw one who, on the contrary, was coming slowly towards her
under the trees, she approached him and again said: "Sir, just listen - "

The man has stopped. But he did not seem to have heard her. He held out
his hand, and muttered in a low voice: "Charity, if you please!"

They looked at one another. Ah! _Mon Dieu!_ They were reduced to
this - Pere Bru begging, Madame Coupeau walking the streets! They
remained stupefied in front of each other. They could join hands as
equals now. The old workman had prowled about the whole evening, not
daring to stop anyone, and the first person he accosted was as hungry as
himself. Lord, was it not pitiful! To have toiled for fifty years and be
obliged to beg! To have been one of the most prosperous laundresses
in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or and to end beside the gutter! They still
looked at one another. Then, without saying a word, they went off in
different directions under the lashing snow.

It was a perfect tempest. On these heights, in the midst of this open
space, the fine snow revolved round and round as if the wind came from
the four corners of heaven. You could not see ten paces off, everything
was confused in the midst of this flying dust. The surroundings had
disappeared, the Boulevard seemed to be dead, as if the storm had
stretched the silence of its white sheet over the hiccoughs of the last
drunkards. Gervaise still went on, blinded, lost. She felt her way by
touching the trees. As she advanced the gas-lamps shone out amidst the
whiteness like torches. Then, suddenly, whenever she crossed an open
space, these lights failed her; she was enveloped in the whirling snow,
unable to distinguish anything to guide her. Below stretched the
ground, vaguely white; grey walls surrounded her, and when she paused,
hesitating and turning her head, she divined that behind this icy veil
extended the immense avenue with interminable vistas of gas-lamps - the
black and deserted Infinite of Paris asleep.

She was standing where the outer Boulevard meets the Boulevards Magenta
and Ornano, thinking of lying down on the ground, when suddenly she
heard a footfall. She began to run, but the snow blinded her, and the
footsteps went off without her being able to tell whether it was to
the right or to the left. At last, however, she perceived a man's broad
shoulders, a dark form which was disappearing amid the snow. Oh! she
wouldn't let this man get away. And she ran on all the faster, reached
him, and caught him by the blouse: "Sir, sir, just listen."

The man turned round. It was Goujet.

So now she had accosted Golden-Beard. But what had she done on earth
to be tortured like this by Providence? It was the crowning blow - to
stumble against Goujet, and be seen by her blacksmith friend, pale
and begging, like a common street walker. And it happened just under a
gas-lamp; she could see her deformed shadow swaying on the snow like a
real caricature. You would have said she was drunk. _Mon Dieu!_ not to
have a crust of bread, or a drop of wine in her body, and to be taken
for a drunken women! It was her own fault, why did she booze? Goujet no
doubt thought she had been drinking, and that she was up to some nasty
pranks.

He looked at her while the snow scattered daisies over his beautiful
yellow beard. Then as she lowered her head and stepped back he detained
her.

"Come," said he.

And he walked on first. She followed him. They both crossed the silent
district, gliding noiselessly along the walls. Poor Madame Goujet had
died of rheumatism in the month of October. Goujet still resided in the
little house in the Rue Neuve, living gloomily alone. On this occasion
he was belated because he had sat up nursing a wounded comrade. When he
had opened the door and lighted a lamp, he turned towards Gervaise, who
had remained humbly on the threshold. Then, in a low voice, as if he
were afraid his mother could still hear him, he exclaimed, "Come in."

The first room, Madame Goujet's, was piously preserved in the state she
had left it. On a chair near the window lay the tambour by the side of
the large arm-chair, which seemed to be waiting for the old lace-worker.
The bed was made, and she could have stretched herself beneath the
sheets if she had left the cemetery to come and spend the evening with
her child. There was something solemn, a perfume of honesty and goodness
about the room.

"Come in," repeated the blacksmith in a louder tone.

She went in, half frightened, like a disreputable woman gliding into
a respectable place. He was quite pale, and trembled at the thought of
ushering a woman like this into his dead mother's home. They crossed the
room on tip-toe, as if they were ashamed to be heard. Then when he had
pushed Gervaise into his own room he closed the door. Here he was at
home. It was the narrow closet she was acquainted with; a schoolgirl's
room, with the little iron bedstead hung with white curtains. On the
walls the engravings cut out of illustrated newspapers had gathered and
spread, and they now reached to the ceiling. The room looked so pure
that Gervaise did not dare to advance, but retreated as far as she could
from the lamp. Then without a word, in a transport as it were, he tried
to seize hold of her and press her in his arms. But she felt faint and
murmured: "Oh! _Mon Dieu!_ Oh, _mon Dieu!_"

The fire in the stove, having been covered with coke-dust, was still
alight, and the remains of a stew which Goujet had put to warm, thinking
he should return to dinner, was smoking in front of the cinders.
Gervaise, who felt her numbness leave her in the warmth of this room,
would have gone down on all fours to eat out of the saucepan. Her hunger
was stronger than her will; her stomach seemed rent in two; and she
stooped down with a sigh. Goujet had realized the truth. He placed the
stew on the table, cut some bread, and poured her out a glass of wine.

"Thank you! Thank you!" said she. "Oh, how kind you are! Thank you!"

She stammered; she could hardly articulate. When she caught hold of her
fork she began to tremble so acutely that she let it fall again. The
hunger that possessed her made her wag her head as if senile. She
carried the food to her mouth with her fingers. As she stuffed the first
potato into her mouth, she burst out sobbing. Big tears coursed down her
cheeks and fell onto her bread. She still ate, gluttonously devouring
this bread thus moistened by her tears, and breathing very hard all the
while. Goujet compelled her to drink to prevent her from stifling, and
her glass chinked, as it were, against her teeth.

"Will you have some more bread?" he asked in an undertone.

She cried, she said "no," she said "yes," she didn't know. Ah! how nice
and yet how painful it is to eat when one is starving.

And standing in front of her, Goujet looked at her all the while; under
the bright light cast by the lamp-shade he could see her well. How aged
and altered she seemed! The heat was melting the snow on her hair and
clothes, and she was dripping. Her poor wagging head was quite grey;
there were any number of grey locks which the wind had disarranged.
Her neck sank into her shoulders and she had become so fat and ugly you
might have cried on noticing the change. He recollected their love, when
she was quite rosy, working with her irons, and showing the child-like
crease which set such a charming necklace round her throat. In those
times he had watched her for hours, glad just to look at her. Later on
she had come to the forge, and there they had enjoyed themselves whilst
he beat the iron, and she stood by watching his hammer dance. How often
at night, with his head buried in his pillow, had he dreamed of holding
her in his arms.

Gervaise rose; she had finished. She remained for a moment with her head
lowered, and ill at ease. Then, thinking she detected a gleam in his
eyes, she raised her hand to her jacket and began to unfasten the first
button. But Goujet had fallen on his knees, and taking hold of her
hands, he exclaimed softly:

"I love you, Madame Gervaise; oh! I love you still, and in spite of
everything, I swear it to you!"

"Don't say that, Monsieur Goujet!" she cried, maddened to see him like
this at her feet. "No, don't say that; you grieve me too much."

And as he repeated that he could never love twice in his life, she
became yet more despairing.

"No, no, I am too ashamed. For the love of God get up. It is my place to
be on the ground."

He rose, he trembled all over and stammered: "Will you allow me to kiss
you?"

Overcome with surprise and emotion she could not speak, but she assented
with a nod of the head. After all she was his; he could do what he chose
with her. But he merely kissed her.

"That suffices between us, Madame Gervaise," he muttered. "It sums up
all our friendship, does it not?"

He had kissed her on the forehead, on a lock of her grey hair. He had
not kissed anyone since his mother's death. His sweetheart Gervaise
alone remained to him in life. And then, when he had kissed her with
so much respect, he fell back across his bed with sobs rising in his
throat. And Gervaise could not remain there any longer. It was too
sad and too abominable to meet again under such circumstances when one
loved. "I love you, Monsieur Goujet," she exclaimed. "I love you dearly,
also. Oh! it isn't possible you still love me. Good-bye, good-bye; it
would smother us both; it would be more than we could stand."

And she darted through Madame Goujet's room and found herself outside
on the pavement again. When she recovered her senses she had rung at the
door in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or and Boche was pulling the string. The
house was quite dark, and in the black night the yawning, dilapidated
porch looked like an open mouth. To think that she had been ambitious
of having a corner in this barracks! Had her ears been stopped up then,
that she had not heard the cursed music of despair which sounded behind
the walls? Since she had set foot in the place she had begun to go
down hill. Yes, it must bring bad luck to shut oneself up in these big
workmen's houses; the cholera of misery was contagious there. That night
everyone seemed to have kicked the bucket. She only heard the Boches
snoring on the right-hand side, while Lantier and Virginie on the left
were purring like a couple of cats who were not asleep, but have their
eyes closed and feel warm. In the courtyard she fancied she was in
a perfect cemetery; the snow paved the ground with white; the high
frontages, livid grey in tint, rose up unlighted like ruined walls, and
not a sigh could be heard. It seemed as if a whole village, stiffened
with cold and hunger, were buried here. She had to step over a black
gutter - water from the dye-works - which smoked and streaked the
whiteness of the snow with its muddy course. It was the color of her
thoughts. The beautiful light blue and light pink waters had long since
flowed away.

Then, whilst ascending the six flights of stairs in the dark, she could
not prevent herself from laughing; an ugly laugh which hurt her. She
recalled her ideal of former days: to work quietly, always have bread
to eat and a tidy house to sleep in, to bring up her children, not to
be beaten and to die in her bed. No, really, it was comical how all
that was becoming realized! She no longer worked, she no longer ate, she
slept on filth, her husband frequented all sorts of wineshops, and her
husband drubbed her at all hours of the day; all that was left for
her to do was to die on the pavement, and it would not take long if on
getting into her room, she could only pluck up courage to fling herself
out of the window. Was it not enough to make one think that she had
hoped to earn thirty thousand francs a year, and no end of respect? Ah!
really, in this life it is no use being modest; one only gets sat upon.
Not even pap and a nest, that is the common lot.

What increased her ugly laugh was the recollection of her grand hope of
retiring into the country after twenty years passed in ironing. Well!
she was on her way to the country. She was going to have her green
corner in the Pere-Lachaise cemetery.

When she entered the passage she was like a mad-woman. Her poor head
was whirling round. At heart her great grief was at having bid the
blacksmith an eternal farewell. All was ended between them; they would
never see each other more. Then, besides that, all her other thoughts of
misfortune pressed upon her, and almost caused her head to split. As she
passed she poked her nose in at the Bijards' and beheld Lalie dead, with
a look of contentment on her face at having at last been laid out
and slumbering forever. Ah, well! children were luckier than grown-up
people. And, as a glimmer of light passed under old Bazouge's door, she
walked boldly in, seized with a mania for going off on the same journey
as the little one.

That old joker, Bazouge, had come home that night in an extraordinary
state of gaiety. He had had such a booze that he was snoring on the
ground in spite of the temperature, and that no doubt did not prevent
him from dreaming something pleasant, for he seemed to be laughing from
his stomach as he slept. The candle, which he had not put out, lighted
up his old garments, his black cloak, which he had drawn over his knees
as though it had been a blanket.



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 34 of 36)