Émile Zola.

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windows. There were shoemakers, coopers, a run-down grocery, and a
bankrupt cafe whose closed shutters were covered with posters. In the
opposite direction, toward Paris, four-story buildings blocked the
sky. Their ground floor shops were all occupied by laundries with
one exception - a green-painted store front typical of a small-town
hair-dresser. Its shop windows were full of variously colored flasks. It
lighted up this drab corner with the gay brightness of its copper bowls
which were always shining.

The most pleasant part of the street was in between, where the buildings
were fewer and lower, letting in more sunlight. The carriage sheds, the
plant which manufactured soda water, and the wash-house opposite made a
wide expanse of quietness. The muffled voices of the washerwomen and
the rhythmic puffing of the steam engine seemed to deepen the almost
religious silence. Open fields and narrow lanes vanishing between dark
walls gave it the air of a country village. Coupeau, always amused by
the infrequent pedestrians having to jump over the continuous streams of
soapy water, said it reminded him of a country town where his uncle had
taken him when he was five years old. Gervaise's greatest joy was a tree
growing in the courtyard to the left of their window, an acacia that
stretched out a single branch and yet, with its meager foliage, lent
charm to the entire street.

It was on the last day of April that Gervaise was confined. The pains
came on in the afternoon, towards four o'clock, as she was ironing a
pair of curtains at Madame Fauconnier's. She would not go home at
once, but remained there wriggling about on a chair, and continuing
her ironing every time the pain allowed her to do so; the curtains
were wanted quickly and she obstinately made a point of finishing them.
Besides, perhaps after all it was only a colic; it would never do to
be frightened by a bit of a stomach-ache. But as she was talking of
starting on some shirts, she became quite pale. She was obliged to leave
the work-shop, and cross the street doubled in two, holding on to the
walls. One of the workwomen offered to accompany her; she declined, but
begged her to go instead for the midwife, close by, in the Rue de la
Charbonniere. This was only a false alarm; there was no need to make a
fuss. She would be like that no doubt all through the night. It was not
going to prevent her getting Coupeau's dinner ready as soon as she
was indoors; then she might perhaps lie down on the bed a little, but
without undressing. On the staircase she was seized with such a violent
pain, that she was obliged to sit down on one of the stairs; and she
pressed her two fists against her mouth to prevent herself from crying
out, for she would have been ashamed to have been found there by any
man, had one come up. The pain passed away; she was able to open
her door, feeling relieved, and thinking that she had decidedly been
mistaken. That evening she was going to make a stew with some neck
chops. All went well while she peeled the potatoes. The chops were
cooking in a saucepan when the pains returned. She mixed the gravy as
she stamped about in front of the stove, almost blinded with her tears.
If she was going to give birth, that was no reason why Coupeau should
be kept without his dinner. At length the stew began to simmer on a
fire covered with cinders. She went into the other room, and thought she
would have time to lay the cloth at one end of the table. But she was
obliged to put down the bottle of wine very quickly; she no longer had
strength to reach the bed; she fell prostrate, and she had more pains
on a mat on the floor. When the midwife arrived, a quarter of an hour
later, she found mother and baby lying there on the floor.

The zinc-worker was still employed at the hospital. Gervaise would not
have him disturbed. When he came home at seven o'clock, he found her
in bed, well covered up, looking very pale on the pillow, and the child
crying, swathed in a shawl at its mother's feet.

"Ah, my poor wife!" said Coupeau, kissing Gervaise. "And I was joking
only an hour ago, whilst you were crying with pain! I say, you don't
make much fuss about it - the time to sneeze and it's all over."

She smiled faintly; then she murmured: "It's a girl."

"Right!" the zinc-worker replied, joking so as to enliven her, "I
ordered a girl! Well, now I've got what I wanted! You do everything I
wish!" And, taking the child up in his arms, he continued: "Let's have a
look at you, miss! You've got a very black little mug. It'll get whiter,
never fear. You must be good, never run about the streets, and grow up
sensible like your papa and mamma."

Gervaise looked at her daughter very seriously, with wide open eyes,
slowly overshadowed with sadness, for she would rather have had a boy.
Boys can talk care of themselves and don't have to run such risks on the
streets of Paris as girls do. The midwife took the infant from Coupeau.
She forbade Gervaise to do any talking; it was bad enough there was so
much noise around her.

Then the zinc-worker said that he must tell the news to mother Coupeau
and the Lorilleuxs, but he was dying with hunger, he must first of all
have his dinner. It was a great worry to the invalid to see him have to
wait on himself, run to the kitchen for the stew, eat it out of a soup
plate, and not be able to find the bread. In spite of being told not to
do so, she bewailed her condition, and fidgeted about in her bed. It was
stupid of her not to have managed to set the cloth, the pains had laid
her on her back like a blow from a bludgeon. Her poor old man would not
think it kind of her to be nursing herself up there whilst he was
dining so badly. At least were the potatoes cooked enough? She no longer
remembered whether she had put salt in them.

"Keep quiet!" cried the midwife.

"Ah! if only you could stop her from wearing herself out!" said Coupeau
with his mouth full. "If you were not here, I'd bet she'd get up to
cut my bread. Keep on your back, you big goose! You mustn't move about,
otherwise it'll be a fortnight before you'll be able to stand on your
legs. Your stew's very good. Madame will eat some with me, won't you,

The midwife declined; but she was willing to accept a glass of wine,
because it had upset her, said she to find the poor woman with the
baby on the mat. Coupeau at length went off to tell the news to his
relations. Half an hour later he returned with all of them, mother
Coupeau, the Lorilleuxs, and Madame Lerat, whom he had met at the

"I've brought you the whole gang!" cried Coupeau. "It can't be helped!
They wanted to see you. Don't open your mouth, it's forbidden. They'll
stop here and look at you without ceremony, you know. As for me, I'm
going to make them some coffee, and of the right sort!"

He disappeared into the kitchen. Mother Coupeau after kissing Gervaise,
became amazed at the child's size. The two other women also kissed the
invalid on her cheeks. And all three, standing before the bed, commented
with divers exclamations on the details of the confinement - a most
remarkable confinement, just like having a tooth pulled, nothing more.

Madame Lerat examined the baby all over, declared she was well formed,
even added that she could grow up into an attractive woman. Noticing
that the head had been squeezed into a point on top, she kneaded it
gently despite the infant's cries, trying to round it a bit. Madame
Lorilleux grabbed the baby from her; that could be enough to give the
poor little thing all sorts of vicious tendencies, meddling with it like
that while her skull was still soft. She then tried to figure out who
the baby resembled. This almost led to a quarrel. Lorilleux, peering
over the women's shoulders, insisted that the little girl didn't look
the least bit like Coupeau. Well, maybe a little around the nose,
nothing more. She was her mother all over again, with big eyes like
hers. Certainly there were no eyes like that in the Coupeau family.

Coupeau, however, had failed to reappear. One could hear him in the
kitchen struggling with the grate and the coffee-pot. Gervaise was
worrying herself frightfully; it was not the proper thing for a man to
make coffee; and she called and told him what to do, without listening
to the midwife's energetic "hush!"

"Here we are!" said Coupeau, entering with the coffee-pot in his hand.
"Didn't I just have a bother with it! It all went wrong on purpose! Now
we'll drink out of glasses, won't we? Because you know, the cups are
still at the shop."

They seated themselves around the table, and the zinc-worker insisted
on pouring out the coffee himself. It smelt very strong, it was none
of that weak stuff. When the midwife had sipped hers up, she went off;
everything was going on nicely, she was not required. If the young woman
did not pass a good night they were to send for her on the morrow. She
was scarcely down the staircase, when Madame Lorilleux called her a
glutton and a good-for-nothing. She put four lumps of sugar in her
coffee, and charged fifteen francs for leaving you with your baby all
by yourself. But Coupeau took her part; he would willingly fork out
the fifteen francs. After all those sort of women spent their youth in
studying, they were right to charge a good price.

It was then Lorilleux who got into a quarrel with Madame Lerat by
maintaining that, in order to have a son, the head of the bed should
be turned to the north. She shrugged her shoulders at such nonsense,
offering another formula which consisted in hiding under the mattress,
without letting your wife know, a handful of fresh nettles picked in
bright sunlight.

The table had been pushed over close to the bed. Until ten o'clock
Gervaise lay there, smiling although she was only half awake. She was
becoming more and more weary, her head turned sideways on the pillow.
She no longer had the energy to venture a remark or a gesture. It seemed
to her that she was dead, a very sweet death, from the depths of which
she was happy to observe the others still in the land of the living. The
thin cries of her baby daughter rose above the hum of heavy voices that
were discussing a recent murder on Rue du Bon Puits, at the other end of
La Chapelle.

Then, as the visitors were thinking of leaving, they spoke of the
christening. The Lorilleux had promised to be godfather and godmother;
they looked very glum over the matter. However, if they had not been
asked to stand they would have felt rather peculiar. Coupeau did not see
any need for christening the little one; it certainly would not procure
her an income of ten thousand francs, and besides she might catch a
cold from it. The less one had to do with priests the better. But mother
Coupeau called him a heathen. The Lorilleux, without going and eating
consecrated bread in church, plumed themselves on their religious

"It shall be next Sunday, if you like," said the chainmaker.

And Gervaise having consented by a nod, everyone kissed her and told her
to take good care of herself. They also wished the baby good-bye. Each
one went and leant over the little trembling body with smiles and loving
words as though she were able to understand. They called her Nana, the
pet name for Anna, which was her godmother's name.

"Good night, Nana. Come be a good girl, Nana."

When they had at length gone off, Coupeau drew his chair close up to
the bed and finished his pipe, holding Gervaise's hand in his. He smoked
slowly, deeply affected and uttering sentences between the puffs.

"Well, old woman, they've made your head ache, haven't they? You see I
couldn't prevent them coming. After all, it shows their friendship. But
we're better alone, aren't we? I wanted to be alone like this with you.
It has seemed such a long evening to me! Poor little thing, she's had
a lot to go through! Those shrimps, when they come out into the world,
have no idea of the pain they cause. It must really almost be like being
split in two. Where does it hurt the most, that I may kiss it and
make it well?"

He had carefully slid one of his big hands under her back, and now
he drew her toward him, bending over to kiss her stomach through the
covers, touched by a rough man's compassion for the suffering of a woman
in childbirth. He inquired if he was hurting her. Gervaise felt very
happy, and answered him that it didn't hurt any more at all. She was
only worried about getting up as soon as possible, because there was
no time to lie about now. He assured her that he'd be responsible for
earning the money for the new little one. He would be a real bum if he
abandoned her and the little rascal. The way he figured it, what really
counted was bringing her up properly. Wasn't that so?

Coupeau did not sleep much that night. He covered up the fire in
the stove. Every hour he had to get up to give the baby spoonfuls of
lukewarm sugar and water. That did not prevent his going off to his work
in the morning as usual. He even took advantage of his lunch-hour to
make a declaration of the birth at the mayor's. During this time Madame
Boche, who had been informed of the event, had hastened to go and
pass the day with Gervaise. But the latter, after ten hours of sleep,
bewailed her position, saying that she already felt pains all over her
through having been so long in bed. She would become quite ill if they
did not let her get up. In the evening, when Coupeau returned home, she
told him all her worries; no doubt she had confidence in Madame Boche,
only it put her beside herself to see a stranger installed in her room,
opening the drawers, and touching her things.

On the morrow the concierge, on returning from some errand, found her
up, dressed, sweeping and getting her husband's dinner ready; and it was
impossible to persuade her to go to bed again. They were trying to make
a fool of her perhaps! It was all very well for ladies to pretend to be
unable to move. When one was not rich one had no time for that sort of
thing. Three days after her confinement she was ironing petticoats at
Madame Fauconnier's, banging her irons and all in a perspiration from
the great heat of the stove.

On the Saturday evening, Madame Lorilleux brought her presents for her
godchild - a cup that cost thirty-five sous, and a christening dress,
plaited and trimmed with some cheap lace, which she had got for six
francs, because it was slightly soiled. On the morrow, Lorilleux, as
godfather, gave the mother six pounds of sugar. They certainly did
things properly! At the baptism supper which took place at the Coupeaus
that evening, they did not come empty-handed. Lorilleux carried a bottle
of fine wine under each arm and his wife brought a large custard pie
from a famous pastry shop on Chaussee Clignancourt. But the Lorilleuxs
made sure that the entire neighborhood knew they had spent twenty
francs. As soon as Gervaise learned of their gossiping, furious, she
stopped giving them credit for generosity.

It was at the christening feast that the Coupeaus ended by becoming
intimately acquainted with their neighbors on the opposite side of
the landing. The other lodging in the little house was occupied by two
persons, mother and son, the Goujets as they were called. Until then the
two families had merely nodded to each other on the stairs and in the
street, nothing more; the Coupeaus thought their neighbors seemed rather
bearish. Then the mother, having carried up a pail of water for Gervaise
on the morrow of her confinement, the latter had thought it the proper
thing to invite them to the feast, more especially as she considered
them very respectable people. And naturally, they there became well
acquainted with each other.

The Goujets came from the Departement du Nord. The mother mended lace;
the son, a blacksmith, worked at an iron bolt factory. They had lived
in their lodging for five years. Behind the quiet peacefulness of their
life, a long standing sorrow was hidden. Goujet the father, one day when
furiously drunk at Lille, had beaten a comrade to death with an iron bar
and had afterwards strangled himself in prison with his handkerchief.
The widow and child, who had come to Paris after their misfortune,
always felt the tragedy hanging over their heads, and atoned for it by
a strict honesty and an unvarying gentleness and courage. They had a
certain amount of pride in their attitude and regarded themselves as
better than other people.

Madame Goujet, dressed in black as usual, her forehead framed in a nun's
hood, had a pale, calm, matronly face, as if the whiteness of the lace
and the delicate work of her fingers had cast a glow of serenity over
her. Goujet was twenty-three years old, huge, magnificently built,
with deep blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and the strength of Hercules. His
comrades at the shop called him "Golden Mouth" because of his handsome
blonde beard.

Gervaise at once felt a great friendship for these people. When she
entered their home for the first time, she was amazed at the cleanliness
of the lodging. There was no denying it, one might blow about the
place without raising a grain of dust; and the tiled floor shone like a
mirror. Madame Goujet made her enter her son's room, just to see it.
It was pretty and white like the room of a young girl; an iron bedstead
with muslin curtains, a table, a washstand, and a narrow bookcase
hanging against the wall. Then there were pictures all over the place,
figures cut out, colored engravings nailed up with four tacks, and
portraits of all kinds of persons taken from the illustrated papers.

Madame Goujet said with a smile that her son was a big baby. He found
that reading in the evening put him to sleep, so he amused himself
looking at pictures. Gervaise spent an hour with her neighbor without
noticing the passing of time. Madame Goujet had gone to sit by the
window and work on her lace. Gervaise was fascinated by the hundreds of
pins that held the lace, and she felt happy to be there, breathing
in the good clean atmosphere of this home where such a delicate task
enforced a sort of meditative silence.

The Goujets were worth visiting. They worked long hours, and placed more
than a quarter of their fortnight's earnings in the savings-bank. In the
neighborhood everyone nodded to them, everyone talked of their savings.
Goujet never had a hole in his clothes, always went out in a clean short
blue blouse, without a stain. He was very polite, and even a trifle
timid, in spite of his broad shoulders. The washerwomen at the end of
the street laughed to see him hold down his head when he passed them. He
did not like their oaths, and thought it disgusting that women should
be constantly uttering foul words. One day, however, he came home tipsy.
Then Madame Goujet, for sole reproach, held his father's portrait before
him, a daub of a painting hidden away at the bottom of a drawer; and,
ever since that lesson, Goujet never drank more than was good for
him, without however, any hatred of wine, for wine is necessary to the
workman. On Sundays he walked out with his mother, who took hold of his
arm. He would generally conduct her to Vincennes; at other times they
would go to the theatre. His mother remained his passion. He still
spoke to her as though he were a little child. Square-headed, his skin
toughened by the wielding of the heavy hammer, he somewhat resembled the
larger animals: dull of intellect, though good-natured all the same.

In the early days of their acquaintance, Gervaise embarrassed him
immensely. Then in a few weeks he became accustomed to her. He watched
for her that he might carry up her parcels, treated her as a sister,
with an abrupt familiarity, and cut out pictures for her. One morning,
however, having opened her door without knocking, he beheld her half
undressed, washing her neck; and, for a week, he did not dare to look
her in the face, so much so that he ended by making her blush herself.

Young Cassis, with the casual wit of a born Parisian, called Golden
Mouth a dolt. It was all right not to get drunk all the time or chase
women, but still, a man must be a man, or else he might as well wear
skirts. Coupeau teased him in front of Gervaise, accusing him of making
up to all the women in the neighborhood. Goujet vigorously defended
himself against the charge.

But this didn't prevent the two workingmen from becoming best of
friends. They went off to work together in the mornings and sometimes
had a glass of beer together on the way home.

It eventually came about that Golden Mouth could render a service to
Young Cassis, one of those favors that is remembered forever.

It was the second of December. The zinc-worker decided, just for the fun
of it, to go into the city and watch the rioting. He didn't really care
about the Republic, or Napoleon or anything like that, but he liked the
smell of gunpowder and the sound of the rifles firing. He would have
been arrested as a rioter if the blacksmith hadn't turned up at the
barricade at just that moment and helped him escape. Goujet was very
serious as they walked back up the Rue du Faubourg Poissonniere. He was
interested in politics and believed in the Republic. But he had never
fired a gun because the common people were getting tired of fighting
battles for the middle classes who always seemed to get the benefit of

As they reached the top of the slope of the Rue du Faubourg
Poissonniere, Goujet turned to look back at Paris and the mobs. After
all, some day people would be sorry that they just stood by and did
nothing. Coupeau laughed at this, saying you would be pretty stupid to
risk your neck just to preserve the twenty-five francs a day for the
lazybones in the Legislative Assembly. That evening the Coupeaus invited
the Goujets to dinner. After desert Young Cassis and Golden Mouth kissed
each other on the cheek. Their lives were joined till death.

For three years the existence of the two families went on, on either
side of the landing, without an event. Gervaise was able to take care
of her daughter and still work most of the week. She was now a skilled
worker on fine laundry and earned up to three francs a day. She decided
to put Etienne, now nearly eight, into a small boarding-school on Rue
de Chartres for five francs a week. Despite the expenses for the two
children, they were able to save twenty or thirty francs each month.
Once they had six hundred francs saved, Gervaise often lay awake
thinking of her ambitious dream: she wanted to rent a small shop,
hire workers, and go into the laundry business herself. If this effort
worked, they would have a steady income from savings in twenty years.
They could retire and live in the country.

Yet she hesitated, saying she was looking for the right shop. She was
giving herself time to think it over. Their savings were safe in
the bank, and growing larger. So, in three years' time she had only
fulfilled one of her dreams - she had bought a clock. But even this
clock, made of rosewood with twined columns and a pendulum of gilded
brass, was being paid for in installments of twenty-two sous each Monday
for a year. She got upset if Coupeau tried to wind it; she liked to be
the only one to lift off the glass dome. It was under the glass dome,
behind the clock, that she hid her bank book. Sometimes, when she was
dreaming of her shop, she would stare fixedly at the clock, lost in

The Coupeaus went out nearly every Sunday with the Goujets. They
were pleasant little excursions, sometimes to have some fried fish
at Saint-Ouen, at others a rabbit at Vincennes, in the garden of some
eating-house keeper without any grand display. The men drank sufficient
to quench their thirst, and returned home as right as nine-pins, giving
their arms to the ladies. In the evening before going to bed, the two
families made up accounts and each paid half the expenses; and there was
never the least quarrel about a sou more or less.

The Lorilleuxs became jealous of the Goujets. It seemed strange to
them to see Young Cassis and Clump-clump going places all the time with
strangers instead of their own relations. But, that's the way it was;
some folks didn't care a bit about their family. Now that they had saved
a few sous, they thought they were really somebody. Madame Lorilleux
was much annoyed to see her brother getting away from her influence and
begin to continually run down Gervaise to everyone. On the other hand,
Madame Lerat took the young wife's side. Mother Coupeau tried to get
along with everybody. She only wanted to be welcomed by all three of her
children. Now that her eyesight was getting dimmer and dimmer she only

Online LibraryÉmile ZolaL'Assommoir → online text (page 9 of 36)