Gervaise was always so amiable, meek as a lamb, sweet as sugar. There wasn't any one she disliked except Madame Lorilleux. While she was enjoying a good meal and coffee, she could be indulgent and forgive everybody saying: "We have to forgive each other—don't we?—unless we want to live like savages." Hadn't all her dreams come true? She remembered her old dream: to have a job, enough bread to eat and a corner in which to sleep, to bring up her children, not to be beaten, and to die in her own bed. She had everything she wanted now and more than she had ever expected. She laughed, thinking of delaying dying in her own bed as long as possible.
It was to Coupeau especially that Gervaise behaved nicely. Never an angry word, never a complaint behind her husband's back. The zinc-worker had at length resumed work; and as the job he was engaged on was at the other side of Paris, she gave him every morning forty sous for his luncheon, his glass of wine and his tobacco. Only, two days out of every six, Coupeau would stop on the way, spend the forty sous in drink with a friend, and return home to lunch, with some cock-and-bull story. Once even he did not take the trouble to go far; he treated himself, My-Boots and three others to a regular feast—snails, roast meat, and some sealed bottles of wine—at the "Capuchin," on the Barriere de la Chapelle. Then, as his forty sous were not sufficient, he had sent the waiter to his wife with the bill and the information that he was in pawn. She laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Where was the harm if her old man amused himself a bit? You must give men a long rein if you want to live peaceably at home. From one word to another, one soon arrived at blows. Mon Dieu! It was easy to understand. Coupeau still suffered from his leg; besides, he was led astray. He was obliged to do as the others did, or else he would be thought a cheap skate. And it was really a matter of no consequence. If he came home a bit elevated, he went to bed, and two hours afterwards he was all right again.
It was now the warm time of the year. One June afternoon, a Saturday when there was a lot of work to get through, Gervaise herself had piled the coke into the stove, around which ten irons were heating, whilst a rumbling sound issued from the chimney. At that hour the sun was shining full on the shop front, and the pavement reflected the heat waves, causing all sorts of quaint shadows to dance over the ceiling, and that blaze of light which assumed a bluish tinge from the color of the paper on the shelves and against the window, was almost blinding in the intensity with which it shone over the ironing-table, like a golden dust shaken among the fine linen. The atmosphere was stifling. The shop door was thrown wide open, but not a breath of air entered; the clothes which were hung up on brass wires to dry, steamed and became as stiff as shavings in less than three quarters of an hour. For some little while past an oppressive silence had reigned in that furnace-like heat, interrupted only by the smothered sound of the banging down of the irons on the thick blanket covered with calico.
"Ah, well!" said Gervaise, "it's enough to melt one! We might have to take off our chemises."
She was sitting on the floor, in front of a basin, starching some things. Her sleeves were rolled up and her camisole was slipping down her shoulders. Little curls of golden hair stuck were stuck to her skin by perspiration. She carefully dipped caps, shirt-fronts, entire petticoats, and the trimmings of women's drawers into the milky water. Then she rolled the things up and placed them at the bottom of a square basket, after dipping her hand in a pail and shaking it over the portions of the shirts and drawers which she had not starched.
"This basketful's for you, Madame Putois," she said. "Look sharp, now! It dries at once, and will want doing all over again in an hour."
Madame Putois, a thin little woman of forty-five, was ironing. Though she was buttoned up in an old chestnut-colored dress, there was not a drop of perspiration to be seen. She had not even taken her cap off, a black cap trimmed with green ribbons turned partly yellow. And she stood perfectly upright in front of the ironing-table, which was too high for her, sticking out her elbows, and moving her iron with the jerky evolutions of a puppet. On a sudden she exclaimed:
"Ah, no! Mademoiselle Clemence, you mustn't take your camisole off. You know I don't like such indecencies. Whilst you're about it, you'd better show everything. There's already three men over the way stopping to look."
Tall Clemence called her an old beast between her teeth. She was suffocating; she might certainly make herself comfortable; everyone was not gifted with a skin as dry as touchwood. Besides no one could see anything; and she held up her arms, whilst her opulent bosom almost ripped her chemise, and her shoulders were bursting through the straps. At the rate she was going, Clemence was not likely to have any marrow left in her bones long before she was thirty years old. Mornings after big parties she was unable to feel the ground she trod upon, and fell asleep over her work, whilst her head and her stomach seemed as though stuffed full of rags. But she was kept on all the same, for no other workwoman could iron a shirt with her style. Shirts were her specialty.
"This is mine, isn't it?" she declared, tapping her bosom. "And it doesn't bite; it hurts nobody!"
"Clemence, put your wrapper on again," said Gervaise. "Madame Putois is right, it isn't decent. People will begin to take my house for what it isn't."
So tall Clemence dressed herself again, grumbling the while. "Mon Dieu! There's prudery for you."
And she vented her rage on the apprentice, that squint-eyed Augustine who was ironing some stockings and handkerchiefs beside her. She jostled her and pushed her with her elbow; but Augustine who was of a surly disposition, and slyly spiteful in the way of an animal and a drudge, spat on the back of the other's dress just out of revenge, without being seen. Gervaise, during this incident, had commenced a cap belonging to Madame Boche, which she intended to take great pains with. She had prepared some boiled starch to make it look new again. She was gently passing a little iron rounded at both ends over the inside of the crown of the cap, when a bony-looking woman entered the shop, her face covered with red blotches and her skirts sopping wet. It was a washerwoman who employed three assistants at the wash-house in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or.
"You've come too soon, Madame Bijard!" cried Gervaise. "I told you to call this evening. I'm too busy to attend to you now!"
But as the washerwoman began lamenting and fearing that she would not be able to put all the things to soak that day, she consented to give her the dirty clothes at once. They went to fetch the bundles in the left hand room where Etienne slept, and returned with enormous armfuls which they piled up on the floor at the back of the shop. The sorting lasted a good half hour. Gervaise made heaps all round her, throwing the shirts in one, the chemises in another, the handkerchiefs, the socks, the dish-cloths in others. Whenever she came across anything belonging to a new customer, she marked it with a cross in red cotton thread so as to know it again. And from all this dirty linen which they were throwing about there issued an offensive odor in the warm atmosphere.
"Oh! La, la. What a stench!" said Clemence, holding her nose.
"Of course there is! If it were clean they wouldn't send it to us," quietly explained Gervaise. "It smells as one would expect it to, that's all! We said fourteen chemises, didn't we, Madame Bijard? Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen—"
And she continued counting aloud. Used to this kind of thing she evinced no disgust. She thrust her bare pink arms deep into the piles of laundry: shirts yellow with grime, towels stiff from dirty dish water, socks threadbare and eaten away by sweat. The strong odor which slapped her in the face as she sorted the piles of clothes made her feel drowsy. She seemed to be intoxicating herself with this stench of humanity as she sat on the edge of a stool, bending far over, smiling vaguely, her eyes slightly misty. It was as if her laziness was started by a kind of smothering caused by the dirty clothes which poisoned the air in the shop. Just as she was shaking out a child's dirty diaper, Coupeau came in.
"By Jove!" he stuttered, "what a sun! It shines full on your head!"
The zinc-worker caught hold of the ironing-table to save himself from falling. It was the first time he had been so drunk. Until then he had sometimes come home slightly tipsy, but nothing more. This time, however, he had a black eye, just a friendly slap he had run up against in a playful moment. His curly hair, already streaked with grey, must have dusted a corner in some low wineshop, for a cobweb was hanging to one of his locks over the back of his neck. He was still as attractive as ever, though his features were rather drawn and aged, and his under jaw projected more; but he was always lively, as he would sometimes say, with a complexion to be envied by a duchess.
"I'll just explain it to you," he resumed, addressing Gervaise.
"It was Celery-Root, you know him, the bloke with a wooden leg. Well, as he was going back to his native place, he wanted to treat us. Oh! We were all right, if it hadn't been for that devil of a sun. In the street everybody looks shaky. Really, all the world's drunk!"
And as tall Clemence laughed at his thinking that the people in the street were drunk, he was himself seized with an intense fit of gaiety which almost strangled him.
"Look at them! The blessed tipplers! Aren't they funny?" he cried. "But it's not their fault. It's the sun that's causing it."
All the shop laughed, even Madame Putois, who did not like drunkards. That squint-eyed Augustine was cackling like a hen, suffocating with her mouth wide open. Gervaise, however, suspected Coupeau of not having come straight home, but of having passed an hour with the Lorilleuxs who were always filling his head with unpleasant ideas. When he swore he had not been near them she laughed also, full of indulgence and not even reproaching him with having wasted another day.
"Mon Dieu! What nonsense he does talk," she murmured. "How does he manage to say such stupid things?" Then in a maternal tone of voice she added, "Now go to bed, won't you? You see we're busy; you're in our way. That makes thirty-two handkerchiefs, Madame Bijard; and two more, thirty-four."
But Coupeau was not sleepy. He stood there wagging his body from side to side like the pendulum of a clock and chuckling in an obstinate and teasing manner. Gervaise, wanting to finish with Madame Bijard, called to Clemence to count the laundry while she made the list. Tall Clemence made a dirty remark about every item that she touched. She commented on the customers' misfortunes and their bedroom adventures. She had a wash-house joke for every rip or stain that passed through her hands. Augustine pretended that she didn't understand, but her ears were wide open. Madame Putois compressed her lips, thinking it a disgrace to say such things in front of Coupeau. It's not a man's business to have anything to do with dirty linen. It's just not done among decent people.
Gervaise, serious and her mind fully occupied with what she was about, did not seem to notice. As she wrote she gave a glance to each article as it passed before her, so as to recognize it; and she never made a mistake; she guessed the owner's name just by the look or the color. Those napkins belonged to the Goujets, that was evident; they had not been used to wipe out frying-pans. That pillow-case certainly came from the Boches on account of the pomatum with which Madame Boche always smeared her things. There was no need to put your nose close to the flannel vests of Monsieur Madinier; his skin was so oily that it clogged up his woolens.
She knew many peculiarities, the cleanliness of some, the ragged underclothes of neighborhood ladies who appeared on the streets in silk dresses; how many items each family soiled weekly; the way some people's garments were always torn at the same spot. Oh, she had many tales to tell. For instance, the chemises of Mademoiselle Remanjou provided material for endless comments: they wore out at the top first because the old maid had bony, sharp shoulders; and they were never really dirty, proving that you dry up by her age, like a stick of wood out of which it's hard to squeeze a drop of anything. It was thus that at every sorting of the dirty linen in the shop they undressed the whole neighborhood of the Goutte-d'Or.
"Oh, here's something luscious!" cried Clemence, opening another bundle.
Gervaise, suddenly seized with a great repugnance, drew back.
"Madame Gaudron's bundle?" said she. "I'll no longer wash for her, I'll find some excuse. No, I'm not more particular than another. I've handled some most disgusting linen in my time; but really, that lot I can't stomach. What can the woman do to get her things into such a state?"
And she requested Clemence to look sharp. But the girl continued her remarks, thrusting the clothes sullenly about her, with complaints on the soiled caps she waved like triumphal banners of filth. Meanwhile the heaps around Gervaise had grown higher. Still seated on the edge of the stool, she was now disappearing between the petticoats and chemises. In front of her were the sheets, the table cloths, a veritable mass of dirtiness.
She seemed even rosier and more languid than usual within this spreading sea of soiled laundry. She had regained her composure, forgetting Madame Gaudron's laundry, stirring the various piles of clothing to make sure there had been no mistake in sorting. Squint-eyed Augustine had just stuffed the stove so full of coke that its cast-iron sides were bright red. The sun was shining obliquely on the window; the shop was in a blaze. Then, Coupeau, whom the great heat intoxicated all the more, was seized with a sudden fit of tenderness. He advanced towards Gervaise with open arms and deeply moved.
"You're a good wife," he stammered. "I must kiss you."
But he caught his foot in the garments which barred the way and nearly fell.
"What a nuisance you are!" said Gervaise without getting angry. "Keep still, we're nearly done now."
No, he wanted to kiss her. He must do so because he loved her so much. Whilst he stuttered he tried to get round the heap of petticoats and stumbled against the pile of chemises; then as he obstinately persisted his feet caught together and he fell flat, his nose in the midst of the dish-cloths. Gervaise, beginning to lose her temper pushed him, saying that he was mixing all the things up. But Clemence and even Madame Putois maintained that she was wrong. It was very nice of him after all. He wanted to kiss her. She might very well let herself be kissed.
"You're lucky, you are, Madame Coupeau," said Madame Bijard, whose drunkard of a husband, a locksmith, was nearly beating her to death each evening when he came in. "If my old man was like that when he's had a drop, it would be a real pleasure!"
Gervaise had calmed down and was already regretting her hastiness. She helped Coupeau up on his legs again. Then she offered her cheek with a smile. But the zinc-worker, without caring a button for the other people being present, seized her bosom.
"It's not for the sake of saying so," he murmured; "but your dirty linen stinks tremendously! Still, I love you all the same, you know."
"Leave off, you're tickling me," cried she, laughing the louder. "What a great silly you are! How can you be so absurd?"
He had caught hold of her and would not let her go. She gradually abandoned herself to him, dizzy from the slight faintness caused by the heap of clothes and not minding Coupeau's foul-smelling breath. The long kiss they exchanged on each other's mouths in the midst of the filth of the laundress's trade was perhaps the first tumble in the slow downfall of their life together.
Madame Bijard had meanwhile been tying the laundry up into bundles and talking about her daughter, Eulalie, who at two was as smart as a grown woman. She could be left by herself; she never cried or played with matches. Finally Madame Bijard took the laundry away a bundle at a time, her face splotched with purple and her tall form bent under the weight.
"This heat is becoming unbearable, we're roasting," said Gervaise, wiping her face before returning to Madame Boche's cap.
They talked of boxing Augustine's ears when they saw that the stove was red-hot. The irons, also, were getting in the same condition. She must have the very devil in her body! One could not turn one's back a moment without her being up to some of her tricks. Now they would have to wait a quarter of an hour before they would be able to use their irons. Gervaise covered the fire with two shovelfuls of cinders. Then she thought to hang some sheets on the brass wires near the ceiling to serve as curtains to keep out the sunlight.
Things were now better in the shop. The temperature was still high, but you could imagine it was cooler. Footsteps could still be heard outside but you were free to make yourself comfortable. Clemence removed her camisole again. Coupeau still refused to go to bed, so they allowed him to stay, but he had to promise to be quiet in a corner, for they were very busy.
"Whatever has that vermin done with my little iron?" murmured Gervaise, speaking of Augustine.
They were for ever seeking the little iron, which they found in the most out-of-the-way places, where the apprentice, so they said, hid it out of spite. Gervaise could now finish Madame Boche's cap. First she roughly smoothed the lace, spreading it out with her hand, and then she straightened it up by light strokes of the iron. It had a very fancy border consisting of narrow puffs alternating with insertions of embroidery. She was working on it silently and conscientiously, ironing the puffs and insertions.
Silence prevailed for a time. Nothing was to be heard except the soft thud of irons on the ironing pad. On both sides of the huge rectangular table Gervaise, her two employees, and the apprentice were bending over, slaving at their tasks with rounded shoulders, their arms moving incessantly. Each had a flat brick blackened by hot irons near her. A soup plate filled with clean water was on the middle of the table with a moistening rag and a small brush soaking in it.
A bouquet of large white lilies bloomed in what had once been a brandied cherry jar. Its cluster of snowy flowers suggested a corner of a royal garden. Madame Putois had begun the basket that Gervaise had brought to her filled with towels, wrappers, cuffs and underdrawers. Augustine was dawdling with the stockings and washcloths, gazing into the air, seemingly fascinated by a large fly that was buzzing around. Clemence had done thirty-four men's shirts so far that day.
"Always wine, never spirits!" suddenly said the zinc-worker, who felt the necessity of making this declaration. "Spirits make me drunk, I'll have none of them."
Clemence took an iron from the stove with her leather holder in which a piece of sheet iron was inserted, and held it up to her cheek to see how hot it was. She rubbed it on her brick, wiped it on a piece of rag hanging from her waist-band and started on her thirty-fifth shirt, first of all ironing the shoulders and the sleeves.
"Bah! Monsieur Coupeau," said she after a minute or two, "a little glass of brandy isn't bad. It sets me going. Besides, the sooner you're merry, the jollier it is. Oh! I don't make any mistake; I know that I shan't make old bones."
"What a nuisance you are with your funeral ideas!" interrupted Madame Putois who did not like hearing people talk of anything sad.
Coupeau had arisen and was becoming angry thinking that he had been accused of drinking brandy. He swore on his own head and on the heads of his wife and child that there was not a drop of brandy in his veins. And he went up to Clemence and blew in her face so that she might smell his breath. Then he began to giggle because her bare shoulders were right under his nose. He thought maybe he could see more. Clemence, having folded over the back of the shirt and ironed it on both sides, was now working on the cuffs and collar. However, as he was shoving against her, he caused her to make a wrinkle, obliging her to reach for the brush soaking in the soup plate to smooth it out.
"Madame," said she, "do make him leave off bothering me."
"Leave her alone; it's stupid of you to go on like that," quietly observed Gervaise. "We're in a hurry, do you hear?"
They were in a hurry, well! What? It was not his fault. He was doing no harm. He was not touching, he was only looking. Was it no longer allowed to look at the beautiful things that God had made? All the same, she had precious fine arms, that artful Clemence! She might exhibit herself for two sous and nobody would have to regret his money. The girl allowed him to go on, laughing at these coarse compliments of a drunken man. And she soon commenced joking with him. He chuffed her about the shirts. So she was always doing shirts? Why yes, she practically lived in them. Mon Dieu! She knew them pretty well. Hundreds and hundreds of them had passed through her hands. Just about every man in the neighborhood was wearing her handiwork on his body. Her shoulders were shaking with laughter through all this, but she managed to continue ironing.
"That's the banter!" said she, laughing harder than ever.
That squint-eyed Augustine almost burst, the joke seemed to her so funny. The others bullied her. There was a brat for you who laughed at words she ought not to understand! Clemence handed her her iron; the apprentice finished up the irons on the stockings and the dish-cloths when they were not hot enough for the starched things. But she took hold of this one so clumsily that she made herself a cuff in the form of a long burn on the wrist. And she sobbed and accused Clemence of having burnt her on purpose. The latter who had gone to fetch a very hot iron for the shirt-front consoled her at once by threatening to iron her two ears if she did not leave off. Then she placed a piece of flannel under the front and slowly passed the iron over it giving the starch time to show up and dry. The shirt-front became as stiff and as shiny as cardboard.
"By golly!" swore Coupeau, who was treading behind her with the obstinacy of a drunkard.
He raised himself up with a shrill laugh that resembled a pulley in want of grease. Clemence, leaning heavily over the ironing-table, her wrists bent in, her elbows sticking out and wide apart was bending her neck in a last effort; and all her muscles swelled, her shoulders rose with the slow play of the muscles beating beneath the soft skin, her breasts heaved, wet with perspiration in the rosy shadow of the half open chemise. Then Coupeau thrust out his hands, trying to touch her bare flesh.
"Madame! Madame!" cried Clemence, "do make him leave off! I shall go away if it continues. I won't be intimated."
Gervaise glanced over just as her husband's hands began to explore inside the chemise.
"Really, Coupeau, you're too foolish," said she, with a vexed air, as though she were scolding a child who persisted in eating his jam without bread. "You must go to bed."
"Yes, go to bed, Monsieur Coupeau; it will be far better," exclaimed Madame Putois.
"Ah! Well," stuttered he, without ceasing to chuckle, "you're all precious particular! So one mustn't amuse oneself now? Women, I know how to handle them; I'll only kiss them, no more. One admires a lady, you know, and wants to show it. And, besides, when one displays one's goods, it's that one may make one's choice, isn't it? Why does the tall blonde show everything she's got? It's not decent."
And turning towards Clemence, he added: "You know, my lovely, you're wrong to be to very insolent. If it's because there are others here—"
But he was unable to continue. Gervaise very calmly seized hold of him with one hand, and placed the other on his mouth. He struggled, just by way of a joke, whilst she pushed him to the back of the shop, towards the bedroom. He got his mouth free and said that he was willing to go to bed, but that the tall blonde must come and warm his feet.
Then Gervaise could be heard taking off his shoes. She removed his clothes too, bullying him in a motherly way. He burst out laughing after she had removed his trousers and kicked about, pretending that she was tickling him. At last she tucked him in carefully like a child. Was he comfortable now? But he did not answer; he called to Clemence:
"I say, my lovely, I'm here, and waiting for you!"
When Gervaise went back into the shop, the squint-eyed Augustine was being properly chastised by Clemence because of a dirty iron that Madame Putois had used and which had caused her to soil a camisole. Clemence, in defending herself for not having cleaned her iron, blamed Augustine, swearing that it wasn't hers, in spite of the spot of burned starch still clinging to the bottom. The apprentice, outraged at the injustice, openly spat on the front of Clemence's dress, earning a slap for her boldness. Now, as Augustine went about cleaning the iron, she saved up her spit and each time she passed Clemence spat on her back and laughed to herself.
Gervaise continued with the lace of Madame Boche's cap. In the sudden calm which ensued, one could hear Coupeau's husky voice issuing from the depths of the bedroom. He was still jolly, and was laughing to himself as he uttered bits of phrases.
"How stupid she is, my wife! How stupid of her to put me to bed! Really, it's too absurd, in the middle of the day, when one isn't sleepy."
But, all on a sudden, he snored. Then Gervaise gave a sigh of relief, happy in knowing that he was at length quiet, and sleeping off his intoxication on two good mattresses. And she spoke out in the silence, in a slow and continuous voice, without taking her eyes off her work.
"You see, he hasn't his reason, one can't be angry. Were I to be harsh with him, it would be of no use. I prefer to agree with him and get him to bed; then, at least, it's over at once and I'm quiet. Besides, he isn't ill-natured, he loves me very much. You could see that just a moment ago when he was desperate to give me a kiss. That's quite nice of him. There are plenty of men, you know, who after drinking a bit don't come straight home but stay out chasing women. Oh, he may fool around with the women in the shop, but it doesn't lead to anything. Clemence, you mustn't feel insulted. You know how it is when a man's had too much to drink. He could do anything and not even remember it."
She spoke composedly, not at all angry, being quite used to Coupeau's sprees and not holding them against him. A silence settled down for a while when she stopped talking. There was a lot of work to get done. They figured they would have to keep at it until eleven, working as fast as they could. Now that they were undisturbed, all of them were pounding away. Bare arms were moving back and forth, showing glimpses of pink among the whiteness of the laundry.
More coke had been put into the stove and the sunlight slanted in between the sheets onto the stove. You could see the heat rising up through the rays of the sun. It became so stifling that Augustine ran out of spit and was forced to lick her lips. The room smelled of the heat and of the working women. The white lilies in the jar were beginning to fade, yet they still exuded a pure and strong perfume. Coupeau's heavy snores were heard like the regular ticking of a huge clock, setting the tempo for the heavy labor in the shop.
On the morrow of his carouses, the zinc-worker always had a headache, a splitting headache which kept him all day with his hair uncombed, his breath offensive, and his mouth all swollen and askew. He got up late on those days, not shaking the fleas off till about eight o'clock; and he would hang about the shop, unable to make up his mind to start off to his work. It was another day lost. In the morning he would complain that his legs bent like pieces of thread, and would call himself a great fool to guzzle to such an extent, as it broke one's constitution. Then, too, there were a lot of lazy bums who wouldn't let you go and you'd get to drinking more in spite of yourself. No, no, no more for him.
After lunch he would always begin to perk up and deny that he had been really drunk the night before. Maybe just a bit lit up. He was rock solid and able to drink anything he wanted without even blinking an eye.
When he had thoroughly badgered the workwomen, Gervaise would give him twenty sous to clear out. And off he would go to buy his tobacco at the "Little Civet," in the Rue des Poissonniers, where he generally took a plum in brandy whenever he met a friend. Then, he spent the rest of the twenty sous at old Francois's, at the corner of the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, where there was a famous wine, quite young, which tickled your gullet. This was an old-fashioned place with a low ceiling. There was a smoky room to one side where soup was served. He would stay there until evening drinking because there was an understanding that he didn't have to pay right away and they would never send the bill to his wife. Besides he was a jolly fellow, who would never do the least harm—a chap who loved a spree sure enough, and who colored his nose in his turn but in a nice manner, full of contempt for those pigs of men who have succumbed to alcohol, and whom one never sees sober! He always went home as gay and as gallant as a lark.
"Has your lover been?" he would sometimes ask Gervaise by way of teasing her. "One never sees him now; I must go and rout him out."
The lover was Goujet. He avoided, in fact, calling too often for fear of being in the way, and also of causing people to talk. Yet he frequently found a pretext, such as bringing the washing; and he would pass no end of time on the pavement in front of the shop. There was a corner right at the back in which he liked to sit, without moving for hours, and smoke his short pipe. Once every ten days, in the evening after his dinner, he would venture there and take up his favorite position. And he was no talker, his mouth almost seemed sewn up, as he sat with his eyes fixed on Gervaise, and only removed his pipe to laugh at everything she said. When they were working late on a Saturday he would stay on, and appeared to amuse himself more than if he had gone to a theatre.
Sometimes the women stayed in the shop ironing until three in the morning. A lamp hung from the ceiling and spread a brilliant light making the linen look like fresh snow. The apprentice would put up the shop shutters, but since these July nights were scorching hot, the door would be left open. The later the hour the more casual the women became with their clothes while trying to be comfortable. The lamplight flecked their rosy skin with gold specks, especially Gervaise who was so pleasantly rounded.
On these nights Goujet would be overcome by the heat from the stove and the odor of linen steaming under the hot irons. He would drift into a sort of giddiness, his thinking slowed and his eyes obsessed by these hurrying women as their naked arms moved back and forth, working far into the night to have the neighborhood's best clothes ready for Sunday.
Everything around the laundry was slumbering, settled into sleep for the night. Midnight rang, then one o'clock, then two o'clock. There were no vehicles or pedestrians. In the dark and deserted street, only their shop door let out any light. Once in a while, footsteps would be heard and a man would pass the shop. As he crossed the path of light he would stretch his neck to look in, startled by the sound of the thudding irons, and carry with him the quick glimpse of bare-shouldered laundresses immersed in a rosy mist.
Goujet, seeing that Gervaise did not know what to do with Etienne, and wishing to deliver him from Coupeau's kicks, had engaged him to go and blow the bellows at the factory where he worked. The profession of bolt-maker, if not one to be proud of on account of the dirt of the forge and of the monotony of constantly hammering on pieces of iron of a similar kind, was nevertheless a well paid one, at which ten and even twelve francs a day could be earned. The youngster, who was then twelve years old, would soon be able to go in for it, if the calling was to his liking. And Etienne had thus become another link between the laundress and the blacksmith. The latter would bring the child home and speak of his good conduct. Everyone laughingly said that Goujet was smitten with Gervaise. She knew it, and blushed like a young girl, the flush of modesty coloring her cheeks with the bright tints of an apple. The poor fellow, he was never any trouble! He never made a bold gesture or an indelicate remark. You didn't find many men like him. Gervaise didn't want to admit it, but she derived a great deal of pleasure from being adored like this. Whenever a problem arose she thought immediately of the blacksmith and was consoled. There was never any awkward tension when they were alone together. They just looked at each other and smiled happily with no need to talk. It was a very sensible kind of affection.
Towards the end of the summer, Nana quite upset the household. She was six years old and promised to be a thorough good-for-nothing. So as not to have her always under her feet her mother took her every morning to a little school in the Rue Polonceau kept by Mademoiselle Josse. She fastened her playfellows' dresses together behind, she filled the school-mistress's snuff-box with ashes, and invented other tricks much less decent which could not be mentioned. Twice Mademoiselle Josse expelled her and then took her back again so as not to lose the six francs a month. Directly lessons were over Nana avenged herself for having been kept in by making an infernal noise under the porch and in the courtyard where the ironers, whose ears could not stand the racket, sent her to play. There she would meet Pauline, the Boches' daughter, and Victor, the son of Gervaise's old employer—a big booby of ten who delighted in playing with very little girls. Madame Fauconnier who had not quarreled with the Coupeaus would herself send her son. In the house, too, there was an extraordinary swarm of brats, flights of children who rolled down the four staircases at all hours of the day and alighted on the pavement of the courtyard like troops of noisy pillaging sparrows. Madame Gaudron was responsible for nine of them, all with uncombed hair, runny noses, hand-me-down clothes, saggy stockings and ripped jackets. Another woman on the sixth floor had seven of them. This hoard that only got their faces washed when it rained were in all shapes and sizes, fat, thin, big and barely out of the cradle.
Nana reigned supreme over this host of urchins; she ordered about girls twice her own size, and only deigned to relinquish a little of her power in favor of Pauline and Victor, intimate confidants who enforced her commands. This precious chit was for ever wanting to play at being mamma, undressing the smallest ones to dress them again, insisting on examining the others all over, messing them about and exercising the capricious despotism of a grown-up person with a vicious disposition. Under her leadership they got up tricks for which they should have been well spanked. The troop paddled in the colored water from the dyer's and emerged from it with legs stained blue or red as high as the knees; then off it flew to the locksmith's where it purloined nails and filings and started off again to alight in the midst of the carpenter's shavings, enormous heaps of shavings, which delighted it immensely and in which it rolled head over heels exposing their behinds.
The courtyard was her kingdom. It echoed with the clatter of little shoes as they stampeded back and forth with piercing cries. On some days the courtyard was too small for them and the troop would dash down into the cellar, race up a staircase, run along a corridor, then dash up another staircase and follow another corridor for hours. They never got tired of their yelling and clambering.
"Aren't they abominable, those little toads?" cried Madame Boche. "Really, people can have but very little to do to have time get so many brats. And yet they complain of having no bread."
Boche said that children pushed up out of poverty like mushrooms out of manure. All day long his wife was screaming at them and chasing them with her broom. Finally she had to lock the door of the cellar when she learned from Pauline that Nana was playing doctor down there in the dark, viciously finding pleasure in applying remedies to the others by beating them with sticks.
Well, one afternoon there was a frightful scene. It was bound to have come sooner or later. Nana had thought of a very funny little game. She had stolen one of Madame Boche's wooden shoes from outside the concierge's room. She tied a string to it and began dragging it about like a cart. Victor on his side had had the idea to fill it with potato parings. Then a procession was formed. Nana came first dragging the wooden shoe. Pauline and Victor walked on her right and left. Then the entire crowd of urchins followed in order, the big ones first, the little ones next, jostling one another; a baby in long skirts about as tall as a boot with an old tattered bonnet cocked on one side of its head, brought up the rear. And the procession chanted something sad with plenty of ohs! and ahs! Nana had said that they were going to play at a funeral; the potato parings represented the body. When they had gone the round of the courtyard, they recommenced. They thought it immensely amusing.
"What can they be up to?" murmured Madame Boche, who emerged from her room to see, ever mistrustful and on the alert.
And when she understood: "But it's my shoe!" cried she furiously. "Ah, the rogues!"
She distributed some smacks, clouted Nana on both cheeks and administered a kick to Pauline, that great goose who allowed the others to steal her mother's shoe. It so happened that Gervaise was filling a bucket at the top. When she beheld Nana, her nose bleeding and choking with sobs, she almost sprang at the concierge's chignon. It was not right to hit a child as though it were an ox. One could have no heart, one must be the lowest of the low if one did so. Madame Boche naturally replied in a similar strain. When one had a beast of a girl like that one should keep her locked up. At length Boche himself appeared in the doorway to call his wife to come in and not to enter into so many explanations with a filthy thing like her. There was a regular quarrel.
As a matter of fact things had not gone on very pleasantly between the Boches and the Coupeaus for a month past. Gervaise, who was of a very generous nature, was continually bestowing wine, broth, oranges and slices of cake on the Boches. One night she had taken the remains of an endive and beetroot salad to the concierge's room, knowing that the latter would have done anything for such a treat. But on the morrow she became quite pale with rage on hearing Mademoiselle Remanjou relate how Madame Boche had thrown the salad away in the presence of several persons with an air of disgust and under the pretext that she, thank goodness, was not yet reduced to feeding on things which others had messed about. From that time Gervaise took no more presents to the Boches—nothing. Now the Boches seemed to think that Gervaise was stealing something which was rightfully theirs. Gervaise saw that she had made a mistake. If she hadn't catered to them so much in the beginning, they wouldn't have gotten into the habit of expecting it and might have remained on good terms with her.
Now the concierge began to spread slander about Gervaise. There was a great fuss with the landlord, Monsieur Marescot, at the October rental period, because Gervaise was a day late with the rent. Madame Boche accused her of eating up all her money in fancy dishes. Monsieur Marescot charged into the laundry demanding to be paid at once. He didn't even bother to remove his hat. The money was ready and was paid to him immediately. The Boches had now made up with the Lorilleuxs who now came and did their guzzling in the concierge's lodge. They assured each other that they never would have fallen out if it hadn't been for Clump-clump. She was enough to set mountains to fighting. Ah! the Boches knew her well now, they could understand how much the Lorilleuxs must suffer. And whenever she passed beneath the doorway they all affected to sneer at her.
One day, Gervaise went up to see the Lorilleuxs in spite of this. It was with respect to mother Coupeau who was then sixty-seven years old. Mother Coupeau's eyesight was almost completely gone. Her legs too were no longer what they used to be. She had been obliged to give up her last cleaning job and now threatened to die of hunger if assistance were not forthcoming. Gervaise thought it shameful that a woman of her age, having three children should be thus abandoned by heaven and earth. And as Coupeau refused to speak to the Lorilleuxs on the subject saying that she, Gervaise, could very well go and do so, the latter went up in a fit of indignation with which her heart was almost bursting.
When she reached their door she entered without knocking. Nothing had been changed since the night when the Lorilleuxs, at their first meeting had received her so ungraciously. The same strip of faded woolen stuff separated the room from the workshop, a lodging like a gun barrel, and which looked as though it had been built for an eel. Right at the back Lorilleux, leaning over his bench, was squeezing together one by one the links of a piece of chain, whilst Madame Lorilleux, standing in front of the vise was passing a gold wire through the draw-plate. In the broad daylight the little forge had a rosy reflection.
"Yes, it's I!" said Gervaise. "I daresay you're surprised to see me as we're at daggers drawn. But I've come neither for you nor myself you may be quite sure. It's for mother Coupeau that I've come. Yes, I have come to see if we're going to let her beg her bread from the charity of others."
"Ah, well, that's a fine way to burst in upon one!" murmured Madame Lorilleux. "One must have a rare cheek."
And she turned her back and resumed drawing her gold wire, affecting to ignore her sister-in-law's presence. But Lorilleux raised his pale face and cried:
"What's that you say?"
Then, as he had heard perfectly well, he continued:
"More back-bitings, eh? She's nice, mother Coupeau, to go and cry starvation everywhere! Yet only the day before yesterday she dined here. We do what we can. We haven't got all the gold of Peru. Only if she goes about gossiping with others she had better stay with them, for we don't like spies."
He took up the piece of chain and turned his back also, adding as though with regret:
"When everyone gives five francs a month, we'll give five francs."
Gervaise had calmed down and felt quite chilled by the wooden looking faces of the Lorilleux. She had never once set foot in their rooms without experiencing a certain uneasiness. With her eyes fixed on the floor, staring at the holes of the wooden grating through which the waste gold fell she now explained herself in a reasonable manner. Mother Coupeau had three children; if each one gave five francs it would only make fifteen francs, and really that was not enough, one could not live on it; they must at least triple the sum. But Lorilleux cried out. Where did she think he could steal fifteen francs a month? It was quite amusing, people thought he was rich simply because he had gold in his place. He began then to criticize mother Coupeau: she had to have her morning coffee, she took a sip of brandy now and then, she was as demanding as if she were rich. Mon Dieu! Sure, everyone liked the good things of life. But if you've never saved a sou, you had to do what other folks did and do without. Besides, mother Coupeau wasn't too old to work. She could see well enough when she was trying to pick a choice morsel from the platter. She was just an old spendthrift trying to get others to provide her with comforts. Even had he had the means, he would have considered it wrong to support any one in idleness.
Gervaise remained conciliatory, and peaceably argued against all this bad reasoning. She tried to soften the Lorilleuxs. But the husband ended by no longer answering her. The wife was now at the forge scouring a piece of chain in the little, long-handled brass saucepan full of lye-water. She still affectedly turned her back, as though a hundred leagues away. And Gervaise continued speaking, watching them pretending to be absorbed in their labor in the midst of the black dust of the workshop, their bodies distorted, their clothes patched and greasy, both become stupidly hardened like old tools in the pursuit of their narrow mechanical task. Then suddenly anger again got the better of her and she exclaimed:
"Very well, I'd rather it was so; keep your money! I'll give mother Coupeau a home, do you hear? I picked up a cat the other evening, so I can at least do the same for your mother. And she shall be in want of nothing; she shall have her coffee and her drop of brandy! Good heavens! what a vile family!"
At these words Madame Lorilleux turned round. She brandished the saucepan as though she was about to throw the lye-water in her sister-in-law's face. She stammered with rage:
"Be off, or I shall do you an injury! And don't count on the five francs because I won't give a radish! No, not a radish! Ah well, yes, five francs! Mother would be your servant and you would enjoy yourself with my five francs! If she goes to live with you, tell her this, she may croak, I won't even send her a glass of water. Now off you go! Clear out!"
"What a monster of a woman!" said Gervaise violently slamming the door.
On the morrow she brought mother Coupeau to live with her, putting her bed in the inner room where Nana slept. The moving did not take long, for all the furniture mother Coupeau had was her bed, an ancient walnut wardrobe which was put in the dirty-clothes room, a table, and two chairs. They sold the table and had the chairs recaned. From the very first the old lady took over the sweeping. She washed the dishes and made herself useful, happy to have settled her problem.
The Lorilleux were furious enough to explode, especially since Madame Lerat was now back on good terms with the Coupeaus. One day the two sisters, the flower-maker and the chainmaker came to blows about Gervaise because Madame Lerat dared to express approval of the way she was taking care of their mother. When she noticed how this upset the other, she went on to remark that Gervaise had magnificent eyes, eyes warm enough to set paper on fire. The two of them commenced slapping each other and swore they never would see each other again. Nowadays Madame Lerat often spent her evenings in the shop, laughing to herself at Clemence's spicy remarks.
Three years passed by. There were frequent quarrels and reconciliations. Gervaise did not care a straw for the Lorilleux, the Boches and all the others who were not of her way of thinking. If they did not like it, they could forget it. She earned what she wished, that was her principal concern. The people of the neighborhood had ended by greatly esteeming her, for one did not find many customers so kind as she was, paying punctually, never caviling or higgling. She bought her bread of Madame Coudeloup, in the Rue des Poissonniers; her meat of stout Charles, a butcher in the Rue Polonceau; her groceries at Lehongre's, in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, almost opposite her own shop. Francois, the wine merchant at the corner of the street, supplied her with wine in baskets of fifty bottles. Her neighbor Vigouroux, whose wife's hips must have been black and blue, the men pinched her so much, sold coke to her at the same price as the gas company. And, in all truth, her tradespeople served her faithfully, knowing that there was everything to gain by treating her well.
Besides, whenever she went out around the neighborhood, she was greeted everywhere. She felt quite at home. Sometimes she put off doing a laundry job just to enjoy being outdoors among her good friends. On days when she was too rushed to do her own cooking and had to go out to buy something already cooked, she would stop to gossip with her arms full of bowls. The neighbor she respected the most was still the watchmaker. Often she would cross the street to greet him in his tiny cupboard of a shop, taking pleasure in the gaiety of the little cuckoo clocks with their pendulums ticking away the hours in chorus.
One afternoon in the autumn Gervaise, who had been taking some washing home to a customer in the Rue des Portes-Blanches, found herself at the bottom of the Rue des Poissonniers just as the day was declining. It had rained in the morning, the weather was very mild and an odor rose from the greasy pavement; and the laundress, burdened with her big basket, was rather out of breath, slow of step, and inclined to take her ease as she ascended the street with the vague preoccupation of a longing increased by her weariness. She would have liked to have had something to eat. Then, on raising her eyes she beheld the name of the Rue Marcadet, and she suddenly had the idea of going to see Goujet at his forge. He had no end of times told her to look in any day she was curious to see how iron was wrought. Besides in the presence of other workmen she would ask for Etienne, and make believe that she had merely called for the youngster.
The factory was somewhere on this end of the Rue Marcadet, but she didn't know exactly where and street numbers were often lacking on those ramshackle buildings separated by vacant lots. She wouldn't have lived on this street for all the gold in the world. It was a wide street, but dirty, black with soot from factories, with holes in the pavement and deep ruts filled with stagnant water. On both sides were rows of sheds, workshops with beams and brickwork exposed so that they seemed unfinished, a messy collection of masonry. Beside them were dubious lodging houses and even more dubious taverns. All she could recall was that the bolt factory was next to a yard full of scrap iron and rags, a sort of open sewer spread over the ground, storing merchandise worth hundreds of thousands of francs, according to Goujet.
The street was filled with a noisy racket. Exhaust pipes on roofs puffed out violent jets of steam; an automatic sawmill added a rhythmic screeching; a button factory shook the ground with the rumbling of its machines. She was looking up toward the Montmartre height, hesitant, uncertain whether to continue, when a gust of wind blew down a mass of sooty smoke that covered the entire street. She closed her eyes and held her breath. At that moment she heard the sound of hammers in cadence. Without realizing it, she had arrived directly in front of the bolt factory which she now recognized by the vacant lot beside it full of piles of scrap iron and old rags.
She still hesitated, not knowing where to enter. A broken fence opened a passage which seemed to lead through the heaps of rubbish from some buildings recently pulled down. Two planks had been thrown across a large puddle of muddy water that barred the way. She ended by venturing along them, turned to the left and found herself lost in the depths of a strange forest of old carts, standing on end with their shafts in the air, and of hovels in ruins, the wood-work of which was still standing. Toward the back, stabbing through the half-light of sundown, a flame gleamed red. The clamor of the hammers had ceased. She was advancing carefully when a workman, his face blackened with coal-dust and wearing a goatee passed near her, casting a side-glance with his pale eyes.
"Sir," asked she, "it's here is it not that a boy named Etienne works? He's my son."
"Etienne, Etienne," repeated the workman in a hoarse voice as he twisted himself about. "Etienne; no I don't know him."
An alcoholic reek like that from old brandy casks issued from his mouth. Meeting a woman in this dark corner seemed to be giving the fellow ideas, and so Gervaise drew back saying:
"But yet it's here that Monsieur Goujet works, isn't it?"
"Ah! Goujet, yes!" said the workman; "I know Goujet! If you come for Goujet, go right to the end."
And turning round he called out at the top of his voice, which had a sound of cracked brass:
"I say Golden-Mug, here's a lady wants you!"
But a clanging of iron drowned the cry! Gervaise went to the end. She reached a door and stretching out her neck looked in. At first she could distinguish nothing. The forge had died down, but there was still a little glow which held back the advancing shadows from its corner. Great shadows seemed to float in the air. At times black shapes passed before the fire, shutting off this last bit of brightness, silhouettes of men so strangely magnified that their arms and legs were indistinct. Gervaise, not daring to venture in, called from the doorway in a faint voice:
"Monsieur Goujet! Monsieur Goujet!"
Suddenly all became lighted up. Beneath the puff of the bellows a jet of white flame had ascended and the whole interior of the shed could be seen, walled in by wooden planks, with openings roughly plastered over, and brick walls reinforcing the corners. Coal-ash had painted the whole expanse a sooty grey. Spider webs hung from the beams like rags hung up to dry, heavy with the accumulated dust of years. On shelves along the walls, or hanging from nails, or tossed into corners, she saw rusty iron, battered implements and huge tools. The white flame flared higher, like an explosion of dazzling sunlight revealing the trampled dirt underfoot, where the polished steel of four anvils fixed on blocks took on a reflection of silver sprinkled with gold.
Then Gervaise recognized Goujet in front of the forge by his beautiful yellow beard. Etienne was blowing the bellows. Two other workmen were there, but she only beheld Goujet and walked forward and stood before him.
"Why it's Madame Gervaise!" he exclaimed with a bright look on his face. "What a pleasant surprise."
But as his comrades appeared to be rather amused, he pushed Etienne towards his mother and resumed:
"You've come to see the youngster. He behaves himself well, he's beginning to get some strength in his wrists."
"Well!" she said, "it isn't easy to find your way here. I thought I was going to the end of the world."
After telling about her journey, she asked why no one in the shop knew Etienne's name. Goujet laughed and explained to her that everybody called him "Little Zouzou" because he had his hair cut short like that of a Zouave. While they were talking together Etienne stopped working the bellows and the flame of the forge dwindled to a rosy glow amid the gathering darkness. Touched by the presence of this smiling young woman, the blacksmith stood gazing at her.
Then, as neither continued speaking, he seemed to recollect and broke the silence:
"Excuse me, Madame Gervaise, I've something that has to be finished. You'll stay, won't you? You're not in anybody's way."
She remained. Etienne returned to the bellows. The forge was soon ablaze again with a cloud of sparks; the more so as the youngster, wanting to show his mother what he could do, was making the bellows blow a regular hurricane. Goujet, standing up watching a bar of iron heating, was waiting with the tongs in his hand. The bright glare illuminated him without a shadow—sleeves rolled back, shirt neck open, bare arms and chest. When the bar was at white heat he seized it with the tongs and cut it with a hammer on the anvil, in pieces of equal length, as though he had been gently breaking pieces of glass. Then he put the pieces back into the fire, from which he took them one by one to work them into shape. He was forging hexagonal rivets. He placed each piece in a tool-hole of the anvil, bent down the iron that was to form the head, flattened the six sides and threw the finished rivet still red-hot on to the black earth, where its bright light gradually died out; and this with a continuous hammering, wielding in his right hand a hammer weighing five pounds, completing a detail at every blow, turning and working the iron with such dexterity that he was able to talk to and look at those about him. The anvil had a silvery ring. Without a drop of perspiration, quite at his ease, he struck in a good-natured sort of a way, not appearing to exert himself more than on the evenings when he cut out pictures at home.
"Oh! these are little rivets of twenty millimetres," said he in reply to Gervaise's questions. "A fellow can do his three hundred a day. But it requires practice, for one's arm soon grows weary."
And when she asked him if his wrist did not feel stiff at the end of the day he laughed aloud. Did she think him a young lady? His wrist had had plenty of drudgery for fifteen years past; it was now as strong as the iron implements it had been so long in contact with. She was right though; a gentleman who had never forged a rivet or a bolt, and who would try to show off with his five pound hammer, would find himself precious stiff in the course of a couple of hours. It did not seem much, but a few years of it often did for some very strong fellows. During this conversation the other workmen were also hammering away all together. Their tall shadows danced about in the light, the red flashes of the iron that the fire traversed, the gloomy recesses, clouds of sparks darted out from beneath the hammers and shone like suns on a level with the anvils. And Gervaise, feeling happy and interested in the movement round the forge, did not think of leaving. She was going a long way round to get nearer to Etienne without having her hands burnt, when she saw the dirty and bearded workman, whom she had spoken to outside, enter.
"So you've found him, madame?" asked he in his drunken bantering way. "You know, Golden-Mug, it's I who told madame where to find you."
He was called Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, the brick of bricks, a dab hand at bolt forging, who wetted his iron every day with a pint and a half of brandy. He had gone out to have a drop, because he felt he wanted greasing to make him last till six o'clock. When he learnt that Little Zouzou's real name was Etienne, he thought it very funny; and he showed his black teeth as he laughed. Then he recognized Gervaise. Only the day before he had had a glass of wine with Coupeau. You could speak to Coupeau about Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst; he would at once say: "He's a jolly dog!" Ah! that joker Coupeau! He was one of the right sort; he stood treat oftener than his turn.
"I'm awfully glad to know you're his missus," added he.
"He deserves to have a pretty wife. Eh, Golden-Mug, madame is a fine woman, isn't she?"
He was becoming quite gallant, sidling up towards the laundress, who took hold of her basket and held it in front of her so as to keep him at a distance. Goujet, annoyed and seeing that his comrade was joking because of his friendship for Gervaise, called out to him:
"I say, lazybones, what about the forty millimetre bolts? Do you think you're equal to them now that you've got your gullet full, you confounded guzzler?"
The blacksmith was alluding to an order for big bolts which necessitated two beaters at the anvil.
"I'm ready to start at this moment, big baby!" replied Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst. "It sucks it's thumb and thinks itself a man. In spite of your size I'm equal to you!"
"Yes, that's it, at once. Look sharp and off we go!"
"Right you are, my boy!"
They taunted each other, stimulated by Gervaise's presence. Goujet placed the pieces of iron that had been cut beforehand in the fire, then he fixed a tool-hole of large bore on an anvil. His comrade had taken from against the wall two sledge-hammers weighing twenty pounds each, the two big sisters of the factory whom the workers called Fifine and Dedele. And he continued to brag, talking of a half-gross of rivets which he had forged for the Dunkirk lighthouse, regular jewels, things to be put in a museum, they were so daintily finished off. Hang it all, no! he did not fear competition; before meeting with another chap like him, you might search every factory in the capital. They were going to have a laugh; they would see what they would see.
"Madame will be judge," said he, turning towards the young woman.
"Enough chattering," cried Goujet. "Now then, Zouzou, show your muscle! It's not hot enough, my lad."
But Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, asked: "So we strike together?"
"Not a bit of it! each his own bolt, my friend!"
This statement operated as a damper, and Goujet's comrade, on hearing it, remained speechless, in spite of his boasting. Bolts of forty millimetres fashioned by one man had never before been seen; the more so as the bolts were to be round-headed, a work of great difficulty, a real masterpiece to achieve.
The three other workmen came over, leaving their jobs, to watch. A tall, lean one wagered a bottle of wine that Goujet would be beaten. Meanwhile the two blacksmiths had chosen their sledge hammers with eyes closed, because Fifine weighed a half pound more than Dedele. Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, had the good luck to put his hand on Dedele; Fifine fell to Golden-Mug.
While waiting for the iron to get hot enough, Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, again showing off, struck a pose before the anvil while casting side glances toward Gervaise. He planted himself solidly, tapping his feet impatiently like a man ready for a fight, throwing all his strength into practice swings with Dedele. Mon Dieu! He was good at this; he could have flattened the Vendome column like a pancake.
"Now then, off you go!" said Goujet, placing one of the pieces of iron, as thick as a girl's wrist, in the tool-hole.
Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, leant back, and swung Dedele round with both hands. Short and lean, with his goatee bristling, and with his wolf-like eyes glaring beneath his unkempt hair, he seemed to snap at each swing of the hammer, springing up from the ground as though carried away by the force he put into the blow. He was a fierce one, who fought with the iron, annoyed at finding it so hard, and he even gave a grunt whenever he thought he had planted a fierce stroke. Perhaps brandy did weaken other people's arms, but he needed brandy in his veins, instead of blood. The drop he had taken a little while before had made his carcass as warm as a boiler; he felt he had the power of a steam-engine within him. And the iron seemed to be afraid of him this time; he flattened it more easily than if it had been a quid of tobacco. And it was a sight to see how Dedele waltzed! She cut such capers, with her tootsies in the air, just like a little dancer at the Elysee Montmartre, who exhibits her fine underclothes; for it would never do to dawdle, iron is so deceitful, it cools at once, just to spite the hammer. With thirty blows, Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, had fashioned the head of his bolt. But he panted, his eyes were half out of his head, and got into a great rage as he felt his arms growing tired. Then, carried away by wrath, jumping about and yelling, he gave two more blows, just out of revenge for his trouble. When he took the bolt from the hole, it was deformed, its head being askew like a hunchback's.
"Come now! Isn't that quickly beaten into shape?" said he all the same, with his self-confidence, as he presented his work to Gervaise.
"I'm no judge, sir," replied the laundress, reservedly.
But she saw plainly enough the marks of Dedele's last two kicks on the bolt, and she was very pleased. She bit her lips so as not to laugh, for now Goujet had every chance of winning.
It was now Golden-Mug's turn. Before commencing, he gave the laundress a look full of confident tenderness. Then he did not hurry himself. He measured his distance, and swung the hammer from on high with all his might and at regular intervals. He had the classic style, accurate, evenly balanced, and supple. Fifine, in his hands, did not cut capers, like at a dance-hall, but made steady, certain progress; she rose and fell in cadence, like a lady of quality solemnly leading some ancient minuet.
There was no brandy in Golden-Mug's veins, only blood, throbbing powerfully even into Fifine and controlling the job. That stalwart fellow! What a magnificent man he was at work. The high flame of the forge shone full on his face. His whole face seemed golden indeed with his short hair curling over his forehead and his splendid yellow beard. His neck was as straight as a column and his immense chest was wide enough for a woman to sleep across it. His shoulders and sculptured arms seemed to have been copied from a giant's statue in some museum. You could see his muscles swelling, mountains of flesh rippling and hardening under the skin; his shoulders, his chest, his neck expanded; he seemed to shed light about him, becoming beautiful and all-powerful like a kindly god.
He had now swung Fifine twenty times, his eyes always fixed on the iron, drawing a deep breath with each blow, yet showing only two great drops of sweat trickling down from his temples. He counted: "Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three—" Calmly Fifine continued, like a noble lady dancing.
"What a show-off!" jeeringly murmured Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst.
Gervaise, standing opposite Goujet, looked at him with an affectionate smile. Mon Dieu! What fools men are! Here these two men were, pounding on their bolts to pay court to her. She understood it. They were battling with hammer blows, like two big red roosters vying for the favors of a little white hen. Sometimes the human heart has fantastic ways of expressing itself. This thundering of Dedele and Fifine upon the anvil was for her, this forge roaring and overflowing was for her. They were forging their love before her, battling over her.
To be honest, she rather enjoyed it. All women are happy to receive compliments. The mighty blows of Golden-Mug found echoes in her heart; they rang within her, a crystal-clear music in time with the throbbing of her pulse. She had the feeling that this hammering was driving something deep inside of her, something solid, something hard as the iron of the bolt.
She had no doubt Goujet would win. Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, was much too ugly in his dirty tunic, jumping around like a monkey that had escaped from a zoo. She waited, blushing red, happy that the heat could explain the blush.
Goujet was still counting.
"And twenty-eight!" cried he at length, laying the hammer on the ground. "It's finished; you can look."
The head of the bolt was clean, polished, and without a flaw, regular goldsmith's work, with the roundness of a marble cast in a mold. The other men looked at it and nodded their heads; there was no denying it was lovely enough to be worshipped. Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, tried indeed to chuff; but it was no use, and ended by returning to his anvil, with his nose put out of joint. Gervaise had squeezed up against Goujet, as though to get a better view. Etienne having let go the bellows, the forge was once more becoming enveloped in shadow, like a brilliant red sunset suddenly giving way to black night. And the blacksmith and the laundress experienced a sweet pleasure in feeling this gloom surround them in that shed black with soot and filings, and where an odor of old iron prevailed. They could not have thought themselves more alone in the Bois de Vincennes had they met there in the depths of some copse. He took her hand as though he had conquered her.
Outside, they scarcely exchanged a word. All he could find to say was that she might have taken Etienne away with her, had it not been that there was still another half-hour's work to get through. When she started away he called her back, wanting a few more minutes with her.
"Come along. You haven't seen all the place. It's quite interesting."
He led her to another shed where the owner was installing a new machine. She hesitated in the doorway, oppressed by an instinctive dread. The great hall was vibrating from the machines and black shadows filled the air. He reassured her with a smile, swearing that there was nothing to fear, only she should be careful not to let her skirts get caught in any of the gears. He went first and she followed into the deafening hubbub of whistling, amid clouds of steam peopled by human shadows moving busily.
The passages were very narrow and there were obstacles to step over, holes to avoid, passing carts to move back from. She couldn't distinguish anything clearly or hear what Goujet was saying.
Gervaise looked up and stopped to stare at the leather belts hanging from the roof in a gigantic spider web, each strip ceaselessly revolving. The steam engine that drove them was hidden behind a low brick wall so that the belts seemed to be moving by themselves. She stumbled and almost fell while looking up.
Goujet raised his voice with explanations. There were the tapping machines operated by women, which put threads on bolts and nuts. Their steel gears were shining with oil. She could follow the entire process. She nodded her head and smiled.
She was still a little tense, however, feeling uneasy at being so small among these rough metalworkers. She jumped back more than once, her blood suddenly chilled by the dull thud of a machine.
Goujet had stopped before one of the rivet machines. He stood there brooding, his head lowered, his gaze fixed. This machine forged forty millimetre rivets with the calm ease of a giant. Nothing could be simpler. The stoker took the iron shank from the furnace; the striker put it into the socket, where a continuous stream of water cooled it to prevent softening of the steel. The press descended and the bolt flew out onto the ground, its head as round as though cast in a mold. Every twelve hours this machine made hundreds of kilograms of bolts!
Goujet was not a mean person, but there were moments when he wanted to take Fifine and smash this machine to bits because he was angry to see that its arms were stronger than his own. He reasoned with himself, telling himself that human flesh cannot compete with steel. But he was still deeply hurt. The day would come when machinery would destroy the skilled worker. Their day's pay had already fallen from twelve francs to nine francs. There was talk of cutting it again. He stared at it, frowning, for three minutes without saying a word. His yellow beard seemed to bristle defiantly. Then, gradually an expression of resignation came over his face and he turned toward Gervaise who was clinging tightly to him and said with a sad smile:
"Well! That machine would certainly win a contest. But perhaps it will be for the good of mankind in the long run."
Gervaise didn't care a bit about the welfare of mankind. Smiling, she said to Goujet:
"I like yours better, because they show the hand of an artist."
Hearing this gave him great happiness because he had been afraid that she might be scornful of him after seeing the machines. Mon Dieu! He might be stronger than Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, but the machines were stronger yet. When Gervaise finally took her leave, Goujet was so happy that he almost crushed her with a hug.
The laundress went every Saturday to the Goujets to deliver their washing. They still lived in the little house in the Rue Neuve de la Goutte-d'Or. During the first year she had regularly repaid them twenty francs a month; so as not to jumble up the accounts, the washing-book was only made up at the end of each month, and then she added to the amount whatever sum was necessary to make the twenty francs, for the Goujets' washing rarely came to more than seven or eight francs during that time. She had therefore paid off nearly half the sum owing, when one quarter day, not knowing what to do, some of her customers not having kept their promises, she had been obliged to go to the Goujets and borrow from them sufficient for her rent. On two other occasions she had also applied to them for the money to pay her workwomen, so that the debt had increased again to four hundred and twenty-five francs. Now, she no longer gave a halfpenny; she worked off the amount solely by the washing. It was not that she worked less, or that her business was not so prosperous. But something was going wrong in her home; the money seemed to melt away, and she was glad when she was able to make both ends meet. Mon Dieu! What's the use of complaining as long as one gets by. She was putting on weight and this caused her to become a bit lazy. She no longer had the energy that she had in the past. Oh well, there was always something coming in.
Madame Goujet felt a motherly concern for Gervaise and sometimes reprimanded her. This wasn't due to the money owed but because she liked her and didn't want to see her get into difficulties. She never mentioned the debt. In short, she behaved with the utmost delicacy.
The morrow of Gervaise's visit to the forge happened to be the last Saturday of the month. When she reached the Goujets, where she made a point of going herself, her basket had so weighed on her arms that she was quite two minutes before she could get her breath. One would hardly believe how heavy clothes are, especially when there are sheets among them.
"Are you sure you've brought everything?" asked Madame Goujet.
She was very strict on that point. She insisted on having her washing brought home without a single article being kept back for the sake of order, as she said. She also required the laundress always to come on the day arranged and at the same hour; in that way there was no time wasted.
"Oh! yes, everything is here," replied Gervaise smiling. "You know I never leave anything behind."
"That's true," admitted Madame Goujet; "you've got into many bad habits but you're still free of that one."
And while the laundress emptied her basket, laying the linen on the bed, the old woman praised her; she never burnt the things nor tore them like so many others did, neither did she pull the buttons off with the iron; only she used too much blue and made the shirt-fronts too stiff with starch.
"Just look, it's like cardboard," continued she, making one crackle between her fingers. "My son does not complain, but it cuts his neck. To-morrow his neck will be all scratched when we return from Vincennes."
"No, don't say that!" exclaimed Gervaise, quite grieved. "To look nice, shirts must be rather stiff, otherwise it's as though one had a rag on one's body. You should just see what the gentlemen wear. I do all your things myself. The workwomen never touch them and I assure you I take great pains. I would, if necessary, do everything over a dozen times, because it's for you, you know."
She slightly blushed as she stammered out the last words. She was afraid of showing the great pleasure she took in ironing Goujet's shirts. She certainly had no wicked thoughts, but she was none the less a little bit ashamed.
"Oh! I'm not complaining of your work; I know it's perfection," said Madame Goujet. "For instance, you've done this cap splendidly, only you could bring out the embroidery like that. And the flutings are all so even. Oh! I recognize your hand at once. When you give even a dish-cloth to one of your workwomen I detect it at once. In future, use a little less starch, that's all! Goujet does not care to look like a stylish gentleman."
She had taken out her notebook and was crossing off the various items. Everything was in order. She noticed that Gervaise was charging six sous for each bonnet. She protested, but had to agree that it was in line with present prices. Men's shirts were five sous, women's underdrawers four sous, pillow-cases a sou and a half, and aprons one sou. No, the prices weren't high. Some laundresses charged a sou more for each item.
Gervaise was now calling out the soiled clothes, as she packed them in her basket, for Madame Goujet to list. Then she lingered on, embarrassed by a request which she wished to make.
"Madame Goujet," she said at length, "if it does not inconvenience you, I would like to take the money for the month's washing."
It so happened that that month was a very heavy one, the account they had made up together amounting to ten francs, seven sous. Madame Goujet looked at her a moment in a serious manner, then she replied:
"My child, it shall be as you wish. I will not refuse you the money as you are in need of it. Only it's scarcely the way to pay off your debt; I say that for your sake, you know. Really now, you should be careful."
Gervaise received the lecture with bowed head and stammering excuses. The ten francs were to make up the amount of a bill she had given her coke merchant. But on hearing the word "bill," Madame Goujet became severer still. She gave herself as an example; she had reduced her expenditure ever since Goujet's wages had been lowered from twelve to nine francs a day. When one was wanting in wisdom whilst young, one dies of hunger in one's old age. But she held back and didn't tell Gervaise that she gave her their laundry only in order to help her pay off the debt. Before that she had done all her own washing, and she would have to do it herself again if the laundry continued taking so much cash out of her pocket. Gervaise spoke her thanks and left quickly as soon as she had received the ten francs seven sous. Outside on the landing she was so relieved she wanted to dance. She was becoming used to the annoying, unpleasant difficulties caused by a shortage of money and preferred to remember not the embarrassment but the joy in escaping from them.
It was also on that Saturday that Gervaise met with a rather strange adventure as she descended the Goujets' staircase. She was obliged to stand up close against the stair-rail with her basket to make way for a tall bare-headed woman who was coming up, carrying in her hand a very fresh mackerel, with bloody gills, in a piece of paper. She recognized Virginie, the girl whose face she had slapped at the wash-house. They looked each other full in the face. Gervaise shut her eyes. She thought for a moment that she was going to be hit in the face with the fish. But no, Virginie even smiled slightly. Then, as her basket was blocking the staircase, the laundress wished to show how polite she, too, could be.
"I beg your pardon," she said.
"You are completely excused," replied the tall brunette.
And they remained conversing together on the stairs, reconciled at once without having ventured on a single allusion to the past. Virginie, then twenty-nine years old, had become a superb woman of strapping proportions, her face, however, looking rather long between her two plaits of jet black hair. She at once began to relate her history just to show off. She had a husband now; she had married in the spring an ex-journeyman cabinetmaker, who recently left the army, and who had applied to be admitted into the police, because a post of that kind is more to be depended upon and more respectable. She had been out to buy the mackerel for him.
"He adores mackerel," said she. "We must spoil them, those naughty men, mustn't we? But come up. You shall see our home. We are standing in a draught here."
After Gervaise had told of her own marriage and that she had formerly occupied the very apartment Virginie now had, Virginie urged her even more strongly to come up since it is always nice to visit a spot where one had been happy.
Virginie had lived for five years on the Left Bank at Gros-Caillou. That was where she had met her husband while he was still in the army. But she got tired of it, and wanted to come back to the Goutte-d'Or neighborhood where she knew everyone. She had only been living in the rooms opposite the Goujets for two weeks. Oh! everything was still a mess, but they were slowly getting it in order.
Then, still on the staircase, they finally told each other their names.
And from that time forth, they called each other on every possible occasion Madame Poisson and Madame Coupeau, solely for the pleasure of being madame, they who in former days had been acquainted when occupying rather questionable positions. However, Gervaise felt rather mistrustful at heart. Perhaps the tall brunette had made it up the better to avenge herself for the beating at the wash-house by concocting some plan worthy of a spiteful hypocritical creature. Gervaise determined to be upon her guard. For the time being, as Virginie behaved so nicely, she would be nice also.
In the room upstairs, Poisson, the husband, a man of thirty-five, with a cadaverous-looking countenance and carroty moustaches and beard, was seated working at a table near the window. He was making little boxes. His only tools were a knife, a tiny saw the size of a nail file and a pot of glue. He was using wood from old cigar boxes, thin boards of unfinished mahogany upon which he executed fretwork and embellishments of extraordinary delicacy. All year long he worked at making the same size boxes, only varying them occasionally by inlay work, new designs for the cover, or putting compartments inside. He did not sell his work, he distributed it in presents to persons of his acquaintance. It was for his own amusement, a way of occupying his time while waiting for his appointment to the police force. It was all that remained with him from his former occupation of cabinetmaking.
Poisson rose from his seat and politely bowed to Gervaise, when his wife introduced her as an old friend. But he was no talker; he at once returned to his little saw. From time to time he merely glanced in the direction of the mackerel placed on the corner of the chest of drawers. Gervaise was very pleased to see her old lodging once more. She told them whereabouts her own furniture stood, and pointed out the place on the floor where Nana had been born. How strange it was to meet like this again, after so many years! They never dreamed of running into each other like this and even living in the same rooms.
Virginie added some further details. Her husband had inherited a little money from an aunt and he would probably set her up in a shop before long. Meanwhile she was still sewing. At length, at the end of a full half hour, the laundress took her leave. Poisson scarcely seemed to notice her departure. While seeing her to the door, Virginie promised to return the visit. And she would have Gervaise do her laundry. While Virginie was keeping her in further conversation on the landing, Gervaise had the feeling that she wanted to say something about Lantier and her sister Adele, and this notion upset her a bit. But not a word was uttered respecting those unpleasant things; they parted, wishing each other good-bye in a very amiable manner.
"Good-bye, Madame Coupeau."
"Good-bye, Madame Poisson."
That was the starting point of a great friendship. A week later, Virginie never passed Gervaise's shop without going in; and she remained there gossiping for hours together, to such an extent indeed that Poisson, filled with anxiety, fearing she had been run over, would come and seek her with his expressionless and death-like countenance. Now that she was seeing the dressmaker every day Gervaise became aware of a strange obsession. Every time Virginie began to talk Gervaise had the feeling Lantier was going to be mentioned. So she had Lantier on her mind throughout all of Virginie's visits. This was silly because, in fact, she didn't care a bit about Lantier or Adele at this time. She was quite certain that she had no curiosity as to what had happened to either of them. But this obsession got hold of her in spite of herself. Anyway, she didn't hold it against Virginie, it wasn't her fault, surely. She enjoyed being with her and looked forward to her visits.
Meanwhile winter had come, the Coupeaus' fourth winter in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or. December and January were particularly cold. It froze hard as it well could. After New Year's day the snow remained three weeks without melting. It did not interfere with work, but the contrary, for winter is the best season for the ironers. It was very pleasant inside the shop! There was never any ice on the window-panes like there was at the grocer's and the hosier's opposite. The stove was always stuffed with coke and kept things as hot as a Turkish bath. With the laundry steaming overhead you could almost imagine it was summer. You were quite comfortable with the doors closed and so much warmth everywhere that you were tempted to doze off with your eyes open. Gervaise laughed and said it reminded her of summer in the country. The street traffic made no noise in the snow and you could hardly hear the pedestrians who passed by. Only children's voices were heard in the silence, especially the noisy band of urchins who had made a long slide in the gutter near the blacksmith's shop.
Gervaise would sometimes go over to the door, wipe the moisture from one of the panes with her hand, and look out to see what was happening to her neighborhood due to this extraordinary cold spell. Not one nose was being poked out of the adjacent shops. The entire neighborhood was muffled in snow. The only person she was able to exchange nods with was the coal-dealer next door, who still walked out bare-headed despite the severe freeze.
What was especially enjoyable in this awful weather was to have some nice hot coffee in the middle of the day. The workwomen had no cause for complaint. The mistress made it very strong and without a grain of chicory. It was quite different to Madame Fauconnier's coffee, which was like ditch-water. Only whenever mother Coupeau undertook to make it, it was always an interminable time before it was ready, because she would fall asleep over the kettle. On these occasions, when the workwomen had finished their lunch, they would do a little ironing whilst waiting for the coffee.
It so happened that on the morrow of Twelfth-day half-past twelve struck and still the coffee was not ready. It seemed to persist in declining to pass through the strainer. Mother Coupeau tapped against the pot with a tea-spoon; and one could hear the drops falling slowly, one by one, and without hurrying themselves any the more.
"Leave it alone," said tall Clemence; "you'll make it thick. To-day there'll be as much to eat as to drink."
Tall Clemence was working on a man's shirt, the plaits of which she separated with her finger-nail. She had caught a cold, her eyes were frightfully swollen and her chest was shaken with fits of coughing, which doubled her up beside the work-table. With all that she had not even a handkerchief round her neck and she was dressed in some cheap flimsy woolen stuff in which she shivered. Close by, Madame Putois, wrapped up in flannel muffled up to her ears, was ironing a petticoat which she turned round the skirt-board, the narrow end of which rested on the back of a chair; whilst a sheet laid on the floor prevented the petticoat from getting dirty as it trailed along the tiles. Gervaise alone occupied half the work-table with some embroidered muslin curtains, over which she passed her iron in a straight line with her arms stretched out to avoid making any creases. All on a sudden the coffee running through noisily caused her to raise her head. It was that squint-eyed Augustine who had just given it an outlet by thrusting a spoon through the strainer.
"Leave it alone!" cried Gervaise. "Whatever is the matter with you? It'll be like drinking mud now."
Mother Coupeau had placed five glasses on a corner of the work-table that was free. The women now left their work. The mistress always poured out the coffee herself after putting two lumps of sugar into each glass. It was the moment that they all looked forward to. On this occasion, as each one took her glass and squatted down on a little stool in front of the stove, the shop-door opened. Virginie entered, shivering all over.
"Ah, my children," said she, "it cuts you in two! I can no longer feel my ears. The cold is something awful!"
"Why, it's Madame Poisson!" exclaimed Gervaise. "Ah, well! You've come at the right time. You must have some coffee with us."
"On my word, I can't say no. One feels the frost in one's bones merely by crossing the street."
There was still some coffee left, luckily. Mother Coupeau went and fetched a sixth glass, and Gervaise let Virginie help herself to sugar out of politeness. The workwomen moved to give Virginie a small space close to the stove. Her nose was very red, she shivered a bit, pressing her hands which were stiff with cold around the glass to warm them. She had just come from the grocery story where you froze to death waiting for a quarter-pound of cheese and so she raved about the warmth of the shop. It felt so good on one's skin. After warming up, she stretched out her long legs and the six of them relaxed together, supping their coffee slowly, surround by all the work still to be done. Mother Coupeau and Virginie were the only ones on chairs, the others, on low benches, seemed to be sitting on the floor. Squint-eyed Augustine had pulled over a corner of the cloth below the skirt, stretching herself out on it.