Copyright
Émile Zola.

L'Assommoir online

. (page 4 of 36)
Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 4 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


He turned his back after leering terribly as he looked at Gervaise. The
latter drew back, feeling rather frightened. The smoke from the pipes,
the strong odor of all those men, ascended in the air, already foul with
the fumes of alcohol; and she felt a choking sensation in her throat,
and coughed slightly.

"Oh, what a horrible thing it is to drink!" said she in a low voice.

And she related that formerly at Plassans she used to drink anisette
with her mother. But on one occasion it nearly killed her, and that
disgusted her with it; now, she could never touch any liqueurs.

"You see," added she, pointing to her glass, "I've eaten my plum; only I
must leave the juice, because it would make me ill."

For himself, Coupeau couldn't understand how anyone could drink glass
after glass of cheap brandy. A brandied plum occasionally could not
hurt, but as for cheap brandy, absinthe and the other strong stuff, no,
not for him, no matter how much his comrades teased him about it.
He stayed out on the sidewalk when his friends went into low
establishments. Coupeau's father had smashed his head open one day when
he fell from the eaves of No. 25 on Rue Coquenard. He was drunk. This
memory keeps Coupeau's entire family from the drink. Every time Coupeau
passed that spot, he thought he would rather lick up water from the
gutter than accept a free drink in a bar. He would always say: "In our
trade, you have to have steady legs."

Gervaise had taken up her basket again. She did not rise from her seat
however, but held the basket on her knees, with a vacant look in her
eyes and lost in thought, as though the young workman's words had
awakened within her far-off thoughts of existence. And she said again,
slowly, and without any apparent change of manner:

"_Mon Dieu_! I'm not ambitious; I don't ask for much. My desire is to
work in peace, always to have bread to eat and a decent place to sleep
in, you know; with a bed, a table, and two chairs, nothing more. If I
can, I'd like to raise my children to be good citizens. Also, I'd like
not to be beaten up, if I ever again live with a man. It's not my idea
of amusement." She pondered, thinking if there was anything else she
wanted, but there wasn't anything of importance. Then, after a moment
she went on, "Yes, when one reaches the end, one might wish to die in
one's bed. For myself, having trudged through life, I should like to die
in my bed, in my own home."

And she rose from her seat. Coupeau, who cordially approved her wishes,
was already standing up, anxious about the time. But they did not leave
yet. Gervaise was curious enough to go to the far end of the room for
a look at the big still behind the oak railing. It was chugging away in
the little glassed-in courtyard. Coupeau explained its workings to
her, pointing at the different parts of the machinery, showing her the
trickling of the small stream of limpid alcohol. Not a single gay puff
of steam was coming forth from the endless coils. The breathing could
barely be heard. It sounded muffled as if from underground. It was like
a sombre worker, performing dark deeds in the bright daylight, strong
but silent.

My-Boots, accompanied by his two comrades, came to lean on the railing
until they could get a place at the bar. He laughed, looking at the
machine. _Tonnerre de Dieu_, that's clever. There's enough stuff in its
big belly to last for weeks. He wouldn't mind if they just fixed the
end of the tube in his mouth, so he could feel the fiery spirits flowing
down to his heels like a river. It would be better than the tiny sips
doled out by Pere Colombe! His two comrades laughed with him, saying
that My-Boots was quite a guy after all.

The huge still continued to trickle forth its alcoholic sweat.
Eventually it would invade the bar, flow out along the outer Boulevards,
and inundate the immense expanse of Paris.

Gervaise stepped back, shivering. She tried to smile as she said:

"It's foolish, but that still and the liquor gives me the creeps."

Then, returning to the idea she nursed of a perfect happiness, she
resumed: "Now, ain't I right? It's much the nicest isn't it - to have
plenty of work, bread to eat, a home of one's own, and to be able to
bring up one's children and to die in one's bed?"

"And never to be beaten," added Coupeau gaily. "But I would never beat
you, if you would only try me, Madame Gervaise. You've no cause for
fear. I don't drink and then I love you too much. Come, shall it be
marriage? I'll get you divorced and make you my wife."

He was speaking low, whispering at the back of her neck while she made
her way through the crowd of men with her basket held before her. She
kept shaking her head "no." Yet she turned around to smile at him,
apparently happy to know that he never drank. Yes, certainly, she would
say "yes" to him, except she had already sworn to herself never to start
up with another man. Eventually they reached the door and went out.

When they left, l'Assommoir was packed to the door, spilling its hubbub
of rough voices and its heavy smell of vitriol into the street. My-Boots
could be heard railing at Pere Colombe, calling him a scoundrel and
accusing him of only half filling his glass. He didn't have to come in
here. He'd never come back. He suggested to his comrades a place near
the Barriere Saint-Denis where you drank good stuff straight.

"Ah," sighed Gervaise when they reached the sidewalk. "You can breathe
out here. Good-bye, Monsieur Coupeau, and thank you. I must hurry now."

He seized her hand as she started along the boulevard, insisting, "Take
a walk with me along Rue de la Goutte-d'Or. It's not much farther for
you. I've got to see my sister before going back to work. We'll keep
each other company."

In the end, Gervaise agreed and they walked beside each other along the
Rue des Poissonniers, although she did not take his arm. He told
her about his family. His mother, an old vest-maker, now had to do
housekeeping because her eyesight was poor. Her birthday was the third
of last month and she was sixty-two. He was the youngest. One of his
sisters, a widow of thirty-six, worked in a flower shop and lived in
the Batignolles section, on Rue des Moines. The other sister was thirty
years old now. She had married a deadpan chainmaker named Lorilleux.
That's where he was going now. They lived in a big tenement on the left
side. He ate with them in the evenings; it saved a bit for all of them.
But he had been invited out this evening and he was going to tell her
not to expect him.

Gervaise, who was listening to him, suddenly interrupted him to ask,
with a smile: "So you're called 'Young Cassis,' Monsieur Coupeau?"

"Oh!" replied he, "it's a nickname my mates have given me because I
generally drink 'cassis' when they force me to accompany them to the
wineshop. It's no worse to be called Young Cassis than My-Boots, is it?"

"Of course not. Young Cassis isn't an ugly name," observed the young
woman.

And she questioned him about his work. He was still working there,
behind the octroi wall at the new hospital. Oh! there was no want of
work, he would not be finished there for a year at least. There were
yards and yards of gutters!

"You know," said he, "I can see the Hotel Boncoeur when I'm up there.
Yesterday you were at the window, and I waved my arms, but you didn't
notice me."

They had already gone about a hundred paces along the Rue de la
Goutte-d'Or, when he stood still and raising his eyes, said:

"That's the house. I was born farther on, at No. 22. But this house is,
all the same, a fine block of masonry! It's as big as a barrack inside!"

Gervaise looked up, examining the facade. On the street side, the
tenement had five stories, each with fifteen windows, whose black
shutters with their broken slats gave an air of desolation to the wide
expanse of wall. Four shops occupied the ground floor. To the right
of the entrance, a large, greasy hash house, and to the left, a coal
dealer, a notions seller, and an umbrella merchant. The building
appeared even larger than it was because it had on each side a small,
low building which seemed to lean against it for support. This immense,
squared-off building was outlined against the sky. Its unplastered side
walls were as bare as prison walls, except for rows of roughly jutting
stones which suggested jaws full of decayed teeth yawning vacantly.

Gervaise was gazing at the entrance with interest. The high, arched
doorway rose to the second floor and opened onto a deep porch, at
the end of which could be seen the pale daylight of a courtyard. This
entranceway was paved like the street, and down the center flowed a
streamlet of pink-stained water.

"Come in," said Coupeau, "no one will eat you."

Gervaise wanted to wait for him in the street. However, she could not
resist going through the porch as far as the concierge's room on the
right. And there, on the threshold, she raised her eyes. Inside, the
building was six stories high, with four identical plain walls enclosing
the broad central court. The drab walls were corroded by yellowish spots
and streaked by drippings from the roof gutters. The walls went straight
up to the eaves with no molding or ornament except the angles on the
drain pipes at each floor. Here the sink drains added their stains. The
glass window panes resembled murky water. Mattresses of checkered
blue ticking were hanging out of several windows to air. Clothes lines
stretched from other windows with family washing hanging to dry. On a
third floor line was a baby's diaper, still implanted with filth. This
crowded tenement was bursting at the seams, spilling out poverty and
misery through every crevice.

Each of the four walls had, at ground level, a narrow entrance,
plastered without a trace of woodwork. This opened into a vestibule
containing a dirt-encrusted staircase which spiraled upward. They were
each labeled with one of the first four letters of the alphabet painted
on the wall.

Several large work-shops with weather-blackened skylights were scattered
about the court. Near the concierge's room was the dyeing establishment
responsible for the pink streamlet. Puddles of water infested the
courtyard, along with wood shavings and coal cinders. Grass and weeds
grew between the paving stones. The unforgiving sunlight seemed to cut
the court into two parts. On the shady side was a dripping water tap
with three small hens scratching for worms with their filth-smeared
claws.

Gervaise slowly gazed about, lowering her glance from the sixth floor
to the paving stones, then raising it again, surprised at the vastness,
feeling as it were in the midst of a living organ, in the very heart of
a city, and interested in the house, as though it were a giant before
her.

"Is madame seeking for any one?" called out the inquisitive concierge,
emerging from her room.

The young woman explained that she was waiting for a friend. She
returned to the street; then as Coupeau did not come, she went back to
the courtyard seized with the desire to take another look. She did not
think the house ugly. Amongst the rags hanging from the windows she
discovered various cheerful touches - a wall-flower blooming in a pot, a
cage of chirruping canaries, shaving-glasses shining like stars in
the depth of the shadow. A carpenter was singing in his work-shop,
accompanied by the whining of his plane. The blacksmith's hammers were
ringing rhythmically.

In contrast to the apparent wretched poverty, at nearly every open
window appeared the begrimed faces of laughing children. Women with
peaceful faces could be seen bent over their sewing. The rooms were
empty of men who had gone back to work after lunch. The whole tenement
was tranquil except for the sounds from the work-shops below which
served as a sort of lullaby that went on, unceasingly, always the same.

The only thing she did not like was the courtyard's dampness. She would
want rooms at the rear, on the sunny side. Gervaise took a few more
steps into the courtyard, inhaling the characteristic odor of the slums,
comprised of dust and rotten garbage. But the sharp odor of the waste
water from the dye shop was strong, and Gervaise thought it smelled
better here than at the Hotel Boncoeur. She chose a window for herself,
the one at the far left with a small window box planted with scarlet
runners.

"I'm afraid I've kept you waiting rather a long time," said Coupeau,
whom she suddenly heard close beside her. "They always make an awful
fuss whenever I don't dine with them, and it was worse than ever to-day
as my sister had bought some veal."

And as Gervaise had slightly started with surprise, he continued
glancing around in his turn:

"You were looking at the house. It's always all let from the top to
the bottom. There are three hundred lodgers, I think. If I had any
furniture, I would have secured a small room. One would be comfortable
here, don't you think so?"

"Yes, one would be comfortable," murmured Gervaise. "In our street at
Plassans there weren't near so many people. Look, that's pretty - that
window up on the fifth floor, with the scarlet runners."

The zinc-worker's obstinate desire made him ask her once more whether
she would or she wouldn't. They could rent a place here as soon as they
found a bed. She hurried out the arched entranceway, asking him not
to start that subject again. There was as much chance of this building
collapsing as there was of her sleeping under the same blanket with him.
Still, when Coupeau left her in front of Madame Fauconnier's shop, he
was allowed to hold her hand for a moment.

For a month the young woman and the zinc-worker were the best of
friends. He admired her courage, when he beheld her half killing herself
with work, keeping her children tidy and clean, and yet finding time at
night to do a little sewing. Often other women were hopelessly messy,
forever nibbling or gadding about, but she wasn't like them at all. She
was much too serious. Then she would laugh, and modestly defend herself.
It was her misfortune that she had not always been good, having been
with a man when only fourteen. Then too, she had often helped her
mother empty a bottle of anisette. But she had learned a few things
from experience. He was wrong to think of her as strong-willed; her will
power was very weak. She had always let herself be pushed into things
because she didn't want to hurt someone's feelings. Her one hope now was
to live among decent people, for living among bad people was like being
hit over the head. It cracks your skull. Whenever she thought of the
future, she shivered. Everything she had seen in life so far, especially
when a child, had given her lessons to remember.

Coupeau, however, chaffed her about her gloomy thoughts, and brought
back all her courage by trying to pinch her hips. She pushed him away
from her, and slapped his hands, whilst he called out laughingly that,
for a weak woman, she was not a very easy capture. He, who always joked
about everything did not trouble himself regarding the future. One day
followed another, that was all. There would always be somewhere to sleep
and a bite to eat. The neighborhood seemed decent enough to him, except
for a gang of drunkards that ought to be cleaned out of the gutters.

Coupeau was not a bad sort of fellow. He sometimes had really sensible
things to say. He was something of a dandy with his Parisian working
man's gift for banter, a regular gift of gab, and besides, he was
attractive.

They had ended by rendering each other all sorts of services at the
Hotel Boncoeur. Coupeau fetched her milk, ran her errands, carried her
bundles of clothes; often of an evening, as he got home first from work,
he took the children for a walk on the exterior Boulevard. Gervaise, in
return for his polite attentions, would go up into the narrow room at
the top of the house where he slept, and see to his clothes, sewing
buttons on his blue linen trousers, and mending his linen jackets. A
great familiarity existed between them. She was never bored when he
was around. The gay songs he sang amused her, and so did his continuous
banter of jokes and jibes characteristic of the Paris streets, this
being still new to her.

On Coupeau's side, this continual familiarity inflamed him more and
more until it began to seriously bother him. He began to feel tense and
uneasy. He continued with his foolish talk, never failing to ask her,
"When will it be?" She understood what he meant and teased him. He would
then come to visit her carrying his bedroom slippers, as if he were
moving in. She joked about it and continued calmly without blushing at
the allusions with which he was always surrounding her. She stood for
anything from him as long as he didn't get rough. She only got angry
once when he pulled a strand of her hair while trying to force a kiss
from her.

Towards the end of June, Coupeau lost his liveliness. He became most
peculiar. Gervaise, feeling uneasy at some of his glances, barricaded
herself in at night. Then, after having sulked ever since the Sunday, he
suddenly came on the Tuesday night about eleven o'clock and knocked at
her room. She would not open to him; but his voice was so gentle and so
trembling that she ended by removing the chest of drawers she had pushed
against the door. When he entered, she thought he was ill; he looked so
pale, his eyes were so red, and the veins on his face were all swollen.
And he stood there, stuttering and shaking his head. No, no, he was not
ill. He had been crying for two hours upstairs in his room; he wept like
a child, biting his pillow so as not to be heard by the neighbors. For
three nights past he had been unable to sleep. It could not go on like
that.

"Listen, Madame Gervaise," said he, with a swelling in his throat and on
the point of bursting out crying again; "we must end this, mustn't we?
We'll go and get married. It's what I want. I've quite made up my mind."

Gervaise showed great surprise. She was very grave.

"Oh! Monsieur Coupeau," murmured she, "whatever are you thinking of?
You know I've never asked you for that. I didn't care about it - that was
all. Oh, no, no! it's serious now; think of what you're saying, I beg of
you."

But he continued to shake his head with an air of unalterable
resolution. He had already thought it all over. He had come down because
he wanted to have a good night. She wasn't going to send him back to
weep again he supposed! As soon as she said "yes," he would no longer
bother her, and she could go quietly to bed. He only wanted to hear her
say "yes." They could talk it over on the morrow.

"But I certainly can't say 'yes' just like that," resumed Gervaise. "I
don't want you to be able to accuse me later on of having incited you to
do a foolish thing. You shouldn't be so insistent, Monsieur Coupeau. You
can't really be sure that you're in love with me. If you didn't see
me for a week, it might fade away. Sometimes men get married and then
there's day after day, stretching out into an entire lifetime, and they
get pretty well bored by it all. Sit down there; I'm willing to talk it
over at once."

Then until one in the morning, in the dark room and by the faint light
of a smoky tallow candle which they forgot to snuff, they talked
of their marriage, lowering their voices so as not to wake the two
children, Claude and Etienne, who were sleeping, both heads on the same
pillow. Gervaise kept pointing out the children to Coupeau, what a funny
kind of dowry they were. She really shouldn't burden him with them.
Besides, what would the neighbors say? She'd feel ashamed for him
because everyone knew about the story of her life and her lover. They
wouldn't think it decent if they saw them getting married barely two
months later.

Coupeau replied by shrugging his shoulders. He didn't care about the
neighbors! He never bothered about their affairs. So, there was Lantier
before him, well, so what? What's so bad about that? She hadn't been
constantly bringing men upstairs, as some women did, even rich ladies!
The children would grow up, they'd raise them right. Never had he known
before such a woman, such sound character, so good-hearted. Anyway,
she could have been anything, a streetwalker, ugly, lazy and
good-for-nothing, with a whole gang of dirty kids, and so what? He
wanted her.

"Yes, I want you," he repeated, bringing his hand down on his knee with
a continuos hammering. "You understand, I want you. There's nothing to
be said to that, is there?"

Little by little, Gervaise gave way. Her emotions began to take control
when faced with his encompassing desire. Still, with her hands in her
lap and her face suffused with a soft sweetness, she hesitantly offered
objections. From outside, through the half-open window, a lovely June
night breathed in puffs of sultry air, disturbing the candle with its
long wick gleaming red like a glowing coal. In the deep silence of the
sleeping neighborhood the only sound was the infantile weeping of a
drunkard lying in the middle of the street. Far away, in the back room
of some restaurant, a violin was playing a dance tune for some late
party.

Coupeau was silent. Then, knowing she had no more arguments, he smiled,
took hold of her hands and pulled her toward him. She was in one of
those moments of weakness she so greatly mistrusted, persuaded at last,
too emotionally stirred to refuse anything or to hurt anyone's feelings.
Coupeau didn't realize that she was giving way. He held her wrists so
tightly as to almost crush them. Together they breathed a long sigh that
to both of them meant a partial satisfaction of their desire.

"You'll say 'yes,' won't you," asked he.

"How you worry me!" she murmured. "You wish it? Well then, 'yes.' Ah!
we're perhaps doing a very foolish thing."

He jumped up, and, seizing her round the waist, kissed her roughly on
the face, at random. Then, as this caress caused a noise, he became
anxious, and went softly and looked at Claude and Etienne.

"Hush, we must be careful," said he in a whisper, "and not wake the
children. Good-bye till to-morrow."

And he went back to his room. Gervaise, all in a tremble, remained
seated on the edge of her bed, without thinking of undressing herself
for nearly an hour. She was touched; she felt that Coupeau was very
honorable; for at one moment she had really thought it was all over, and
that he would forget her. The drunkard below, under the window, was now
hoarsely uttering the plaintive cry of some lost animal. The violin in
the distance had left off its saucy tune and was now silent.

During the following days Coupeau sought to get Gervaise to call some
evening on his sister in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or; but the young woman,
who was very timid, showed a great dread of this visit to the Lorilleux.
She knew that Coupeau had a lingering fear of that household, even
though he certainly wasn't dependent on his sister, who wasn't even the
oldest of the family. Mamma Coupeau would certainly give her consent at
once, as she never refused her only son anything. The thing was that the
Lorilleuxs were supposed to be earning ten francs a day or more and that
gave them a certain authority. Coupeau would never dare to get married
unless his wife was acceptable to them.

"I have spoken to them of you, they know our plans," explained he to
Gervaise. "Come now! What a child you are! Let's call on them this
evening. I've warned you, haven't I? You'll find my sister rather stiff.
Lorilleux, too, isn't always very amiable. In reality they are greatly
annoyed, because if I marry, I shall no longer take my meals with them,
and it'll be an economy the less. But that doesn't matter, they won't
turn you out. Do this for me, it's absolutely necessary."

These words only frightened Gervaise the more. One Saturday evening,
however, she gave in. Coupeau came for her at half-past eight. She had
dressed herself in a black dress, a crape shawl with yellow palms, and a
white cap trimmed with a little cheap lace. During the six weeks she had
been working, she had saved the seven francs for the shawl, and the two
and a half francs for the cap; the dress was an old one cleaned and made
up afresh.

"They're expecting you," said Coupeau to her, as they went round by the
Rue des Poissonniers. "Oh! they're beginning to get used to the idea
of my being married. They seem nice indeed, to-night. And you know if
you've never seen gold chains made, it'll amuse you to watch them. They
just happen to have a pressing order for Monday."

"They've got gold in their room?" asked Gervaise.

"I should think so; there's some on the walls, on the floor, in fact



Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 4 of 36)