No one spoke at first; all kept their noses in their glasses, enjoying their coffee.
"It's not bad, all the same," declared Clemence.
But she was seized with a fit of coughing, and almost choked. She leant her head against the wall to cough with more force.
"That's a bad cough you've got," said Virginie. "Wherever did you catch it?"
"One never knows!" replied Clemence, wiping her face with her sleeve. "It must have been the other night. There were two girls who were flaying each other outside the 'Grand-Balcony.' I wanted to see, so I stood there whilst the snow was falling. Ah, what a drubbing! It was enough to make one die with laughing. One had her nose almost pulled off; the blood streamed on the ground. When the other, a great long stick like me, saw the blood, she slipped away as quick as she could. And I coughed nearly all night. Besides that too, men are so stupid in bed, they don't let you have any covers over you half the time."
"Pretty conduct that," murmured Madame Putois. "You're killing yourself, my girl."
"And if it pleases me to kill myself! Life isn't so very amusing. Slaving all the blessed day long to earn fifty-five sous, cooking one's blood from morning to night in front of the stove; no, you know, I've had enough of it! All the same though, this cough won't do me the service of making me croak. It'll go off the same way it came."
A short silence ensued. The good-for-nothing Clemence, who led riots in low dancing establishments, and shrieked like a screech-owl at work, always saddened everyone with her thoughts of death. Gervaise knew her well, and so merely said:
"You're never very gay the morning after a night of high living."
The truth was that Gervaise did not like this talk about women fighting. Because of the flogging at the wash-house it annoyed her whenever anyone spoke before her and Virginie of kicks with wooden shoes and of slaps in the face. It so happened, too, that Virginie was looking at her and smiling.
"By the way," she said quietly, "yesterday I saw some hair-pulling. They almost tore each other to pieces."
"Who were they?" Madame Putois inquired.
"The midwife and her maid, you know, a little blonde. What a pest the girl is! She was yelling at her employer that she had got rid of a child for the fruit woman and that she was going to tell the police if she wasn't paid to keep quiet. So the midwife slapped her right in the face and then the little blonde jumped on her and started scratching her and pulling her hair, really—by the roots. The sausage-man had to grab her to put a stop to it."
The workwomen laughed. Then they all took a sip of coffee.
"Do you believe that she really got rid of a child?" Clemence asked.
"Oh, yes! The rumor was all round the neighborhood," Virginie answered. "I didn't see it myself, you understand, but it's part of the job. All midwives do it."
"Well!" exclaimed Madame Putois. "You have to be pretty stupid to put yourself in their hands. No thanks, you could be maimed for life. But there's a sure way to do it. Drink a glass of holy water every evening and make the sign of the cross three times over your stomach with your thumb. Then your troubles will be over."
Everyone thought mother Coupeau was asleep, but she shook her head in protest. She knew another way and it was infallible. You had to eat a hard-cooked egg every two hours, and put spinach leaves on your loins. Squint-eyed Augustine set up a hen-cackling when she heard this. They had forgotten about her. Gervaise lifted up the petticoat that was being ironed and found her rolling on the floor with laughter. She jerked her upright. What was she laughing about? Was it right for her to be eavesdropping when older people were talking, the little goose? Anyway it was time for her to deliver the laundry to a friend of Madame Lerat at Les Batignolles. So Gervaise hung a basket on her arm and pushed her toward the door. Augustine went off, sobbing and sniveling, dragging her feet in the snow.
Meanwhile mother Coupeau, Madame Putois and Clemence were discussing the effectiveness of hard-cooked eggs and spinach leaves. Then Virginie said softly:
"Mon Dieu! you have a fight, and then you make it up, if you have a generous heart." She leaned toward Gervaise with a smile and added, "Really, I don't hold any grudge against you for that business at the wash-house. You remember it, don't you?"
This was what Gervaise had been dreading. She guessed that the subject of Lantier and Adele would now come up.
Virginie had moved close to Gervaise so as not to be overheard by the others. Gervaise, lulled by the excessive heat, felt so limp that she couldn't even summon the willpower to change the subject. She foresaw what the tall brunette would say and her heart was stirred with an emotion which she didn't want to admit to herself.
"I hope I'm not hurting your feelings," Virginie continued. "Often I've had it on the tip of my tongue. But since we are now on the subject, word of honor, I don't have any grudge against you."
She stirred her remaining coffee and then took a small sip. Gervaise, with her heart in her throat, wondered if Virginie had really forgiven her as completely as she said, for she seemed to observe sparks in her dark eyes.
"You see," Virginie went on, "you had an excuse. They played a really rotten, dirty trick on you. To be fair about it, if it had been me, I'd have taken a knife to her."
She drank another small sip, then added rapidly without a pause:
"Anyway, it didn't bring them happiness, mon Dieu! Not a bit of it. They went to live over at La Glaciere, in a filthy street that was always muddy. I went two days later to have lunch with them. I can tell you, it was quite a trip by bus. Well, I found them already fighting. Really, as I came in they were boxing each other's ears. Fine pair of love birds! Adele isn't worth the rope to hang her. I say that even if she is my own sister. It would take too long to relate all the nasty tricks she played on me, and anyhow, it's between the two of us. As for Lantier—well, he's no good either. He'd beat the hide off you for anything, and with his fist closed too. They fought all the time. The police even came once."
Virginie went on about other fights. Oh, she knew of things that would make your hair stand up. Gervaise listened in silence, her face pale. It was nearly seven years since she had heard a word about Lantier. She hadn't realized what a strong curiosity she had as to what had become of the poor man, even though he had treated her badly. And she never would have believed that just the mention of his name could put such a glowing warmth in the pit of her stomach. She certainly had no reason to be jealous of Adele any more but she rejoiced to think of her body all bruised from the beatings. She could have listened to Virginie all night, but she didn't ask any questions, not wanting to appear much interested.
Virginie stopped to sip at her coffee. Gervaise, realizing that she was expected to say something, asked, with a pretence of indifference:
"Are they still living at La Glaciere?"
"No!" the other replied. "Didn't I tell you? They separated last week. One morning, Adele moved out and Lantier didn't chase after her."
"So they're separated!" Gervaise exclaimed.
"Who are you talking about?" Clemence asked, interrupting her conversation with mother Coupeau and Madame Putois.
"Nobody you know," said Virginie.
She was looking at Gervaise carefully and could see that she was upset. She moved still closer, maliciously finding pleasure in bringing up these old stories. Of a sudden she asked Gervaise what she would do if Lantier came round here. Men were really such strange creatures, he might decide to return to his first love. This caused Gervaise to sit up very straight and dignified. She was a married woman; she would send Lantier off immediately. There was no possibility of anything further between them, not even a handshake. She would not even want to look that man in the face.
"I know that Etienne is his son, and that's a relationship that remains," she said. "If Lantier wants to see his son, I'll send the boy to him because you can't stop a father from seeing his child. But as for myself, I don't want him to touch me even with the tip of his finger. That is all finished."
Desiring to break off this conversation, she seemed to awake with a start and called out to the women:
"You ladies! Do you think all these clothes are going to iron themselves? Get to work!"
The workwomen, slow from the heat and general laziness, didn't hurry themselves, but went right on talking, gossiping about other people they had known.
Gervaise shook herself and got to her feet. Couldn't earn money by sitting all day. She was the first to return to the ironing, but found that her curtains had been spotted by the coffee and she had to rub out the stains with a damp cloth. The other women were now stretching and getting ready to begin ironing.
Clemence had a terrible attack of coughing as soon as she moved. Finally she was able to return to the shirt she had been doing. Madame Putois began to work on the petticoat again.
"Well, good-bye," said Virginie. "I only came out for a quarter-pound of Swiss cheese. Poisson must think I've frozen to death on the way."
She had only just stepped outside when she turned back to say that Augustine was at the end of the street, sliding on the ice with some urchins. The squint-eyed imp rushed in all red-faced and out of breath with snow all in her hair. She didn't mind the scolding she received, merely saying that she hadn't been able to walk fast because of the ice and then some brats threw snow at her.
The afternoons were all the same these winter days. The laundry was the refuge for anyone in the neighborhood who was cold. There was an endless procession of gossiping women. Gervaise took pride in the comforting warmth of her shop and welcomed those who came in, "holding a salon," as the Lorilleuxs and the Boches remarked meanly.
Gervaise was always thoughtful and generous. Sometimes she even invited poor people in if she saw them shivering outside. A friendship sprang up with an elderly house-painter who was seventy. He lived in an attic room and was slowly dying of cold and hunger. His three sons had been killed in the war. He survived the best he could, but it had been two years since he had been able to hold a paint-brush in his hand. Whenever Gervaise saw Pere Bru walking outside, she would call him in and arrange a place for him close to the stove. Often she gave him some bread and cheese. Pere Bru's face was as wrinkled as a withered apple. He would sit there, with his stooping shoulders and his white beard, without saying a word, just listening to the coke sputtering in the stove. Maybe he was thinking of his fifty years of hard work on high ladders, his fifty years spent painting doors and whitewashing ceilings in every corner of Paris.
"Well, Pere Bru," Gervaise would say, "what are you thinking of now?"
"Nothing much. All sorts of things," he would answer quietly.
The workwomen tried to joke with him to cheer him up, saying he was worrying over his love affairs, but he scarcely listened to them before he fell back into his habitual attitude of meditative melancholy.
Virginie now frequently spoke to Gervaise of Lantier. She seemed to find amusement in filling her mind with ideas of her old lover just for the pleasure of embarrassing her by making suggestions. One day she related that she had met him; then, as the laundress took no notice, she said nothing further, and it was only on the morrow that she added he had spoken about her for a long time, and with a great show of affection. Gervaise was much upset by these reports whispered in her ear in a corner of the shop. The mention of Lantier's name always caused a worried sensation in the pit of her stomach. She certainly thought herself strong; she wished to lead the life of an industrious woman, because labor is the half of happiness. So she never considered Coupeau in this matter, having nothing to reproach herself with as regarded her husband, not even in her thoughts. But with a hesitating and suffering heart, she would think of the blacksmith. It seemed to her that the memory of Lantier—that slow possession which she was resuming—rendered her unfaithful to Goujet, to their unavowed love, sweet as friendship. She passed sad days whenever she felt herself guilty towards her good friend. She would have liked to have had no affection for anyone but him outside of her family. It was a feeling far above all carnal thoughts, for the signs of which upon her burning face Virginie was ever on the watch.
As soon as spring came Gervaise often went and sought refuge with Goujet. She could no longer sit musing on a chair without immediately thinking of her first lover; she pictured him leaving Adele, packing his clothes in the bottom of their old trunk, and returning to her in a cab. The days when she went out, she was seized with the most foolish fears in the street; she was ever thinking she heard Lantier's footsteps behind her. She did not dare turn round, but tremblingly fancied she felt his hands seizing her round the waist. He was, no doubt, spying upon her; he would appear before her some afternoon; and the bare idea threw her into a cold perspiration, because he would to a certainty kiss her on the ear, as he used to do in former days solely to tease her. It was this kiss which frightened her; it rendered her deaf beforehand; it filled her with a buzzing amidst which she could only distinguish the sound of her heart beating violently. So, as soon as these fears seized upon her, the forge was her only shelter; there, under Goujet's protection, she once more became easy and smiling, as his sonorous hammer drove away her disagreeable reflections.
What a happy time! The laundress took particular pains with the washing of her customer in the Rue des Portes-Blanches; she always took it home herself because that errand, every Friday, was a ready excuse for passing through the Rue Marcadet and looking in at the forge. The moment she turned the corner of the street she felt light and gay, as though in the midst of those plots of waste land surrounded by grey factories, she were out in the country; the roadway black with coal-dust, the plumage of steam over the roofs, amused her as much as a moss-covered path leading through masses of green foliage in a wood in the environs; and she loved the dull horizon, streaked by the tall factory-chimneys, the Montmartre heights, which hid the heavens from view, the chalky white houses pierced with the uniform openings of their windows. She would slacken her steps as she drew near, jumping over the pools of water, and finding a pleasure in traversing the deserted ins and outs of the yard full of old building materials. Right at the further end the forge shone with a brilliant light, even at mid-day. Her heart leapt with the dance of the hammers. When she entered, her face turned quite red, the little fair hairs at the nape of her neck flew about like those of a woman arriving at some lovers' meeting. Goujet was expecting her, his arms and chest bare, whilst he hammered harder on the anvil on those days so as to make himself heard at a distance. He divined her presence, and greeted her with a good silent laugh in his yellow beard. But she would not let him leave off his work; she begged him to take up his hammer again, because she loved him the more when he wielded it with his big arms swollen with muscles. She would go and give Etienne a gentle tap on the cheek, as he hung on to the bellows, and then remain for an hour watching the rivets.
The two did not exchange a dozen words. They could not have more completely satisfied their love if alone in a room with the door double-locked. The snickering of Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, did not bother them in the least, for they no longer even heard him. At the end of a quarter of an hour she would begin to feel slightly oppressed; the heat, the powerful smell, the ascending smoke, made her dizzy, whilst the dull thuds of the hammers shook her from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet. Then she desired nothing more; it was her pleasure. Had Goujet pressed her in his arms it would not have procured her so sweet an emotion. She drew close to him that she might feel the wind raised by his hammer beat upon her cheek, and become, as it were, a part of the blow he struck. When the sparks made her soft hands smart, she did not withdraw them; on the contrary, she enjoyed the rain of fire which stung her skin. He for certain, divined the happiness which she tasted there; he always kept the most difficult work for the Fridays, so as to pay his court to her with all his strength and all his skill; he no longer spared himself at the risk of splitting the anvils in two, as he panted and his loins vibrated with the joy he was procuring her. All one spring-time their love thus filled Goujet with the rumbling of a storm. It was an idyll amongst giant-like labor in the midst of the glare of the coal fire, and of the shaking of the shed, the cracking carcass of which was black with soot. All that beaten iron, kneaded like red wax, preserved the rough marks of their love. When on the Fridays the laundress parted from Golden-Mug, she slowly reascended the Rue des Poissonniers, contented and tired, her mind and her body alike tranquil.
Little by little, her fear of Lantier diminished; her good sense got the better of her. At that time she would still have led a happy life, had it not been for Coupeau, who was decidedly going to the bad. One day she just happened to be returning from the forge, when she fancied she recognized Coupeau inside Pere Colombe's l'Assommoir, in the act of treating himself to a round of vitriol in the company of My-Boots, Bibi-the-Smoker, and Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst. She passed quickly by, so as not to seem to be spying on them. But she glanced back; it was indeed Coupeau who was tossing his little glass of bad brandy down his throat with a gesture already familiar. He lied then; so he went in for brandy now! She returned home in despair; all her old dread of brandy took possession of her. She forgave the wine, because wine nourishes the workman; all kinds of spirit, on the contrary, were filth, poisons which destroyed in the workman the taste for bread. Ah! the government ought to prevent the manufacture of such horrid stuff!
On arriving at the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, she found the whole house upset. Her workwomen had left the shop, and were in the courtyard looking up above. She questioned Clemence.
"It's old Bijard who's giving his wife a hiding," replied the ironer. "He was in the doorway, as drunk as a trooper, watching for her return from the wash-house. He whacked her up the stairs, and now he's finishing her off up there in their room. Listen, can't you hear her shrieks?"
Gervaise hastened to the spot. She felt some friendship for her washer-woman, Madame Bijard, who was a very courageous woman. She had hoped to put a stop to what was going on. Upstairs, on the sixth floor the door of the room was wide open, some lodgers were shouting on the landing, whilst Madame Boche, standing in front of the door, was calling out:
"Will you leave off? I shall send for the police; do you hear?"
No one dared to venture inside the room, because it was known that Bijard was like a brute beast when he was drunk. As a matter of fact, he was scarcely ever sober. The rare days on which he worked, he placed a bottle of brandy beside his blacksmith's vise, gulping some of it down every half hour. He could not keep himself going any other way. He would have blazed away like a torch if anyone had placed a lighted match close to his mouth.
"But we mustn't let her be murdered!" said Gervaise, all in a tremble.
And she entered. The room, an attic, and very clean, was bare and cold, almost emptied by the drunken habits of the man, who took the very sheets from the bed to turn them into liquor. During the struggle the table had rolled away to the window, the two chairs, knocked over, had fallen with their legs in the air. In the middle of the room, on the tile floor, lay Madame Bijard, all bloody, her skirts, still soaked with the water of the wash-house, clinging to her thighs, her hair straggling in disorder. She was breathing heavily, with a rattle in her throat, as she muttered prolonged ohs! each time she received a blow from the heel of Bijard's boot. He had knocked her down with his fists, and now he stamped upon her.
"Ah, strumpet! Ah, strumpet! Ah strumpet!" grunted he in a choking voice, accompanying each blow with the word, taking a delight in repeating it, and striking all the harder the more he found his voice failing him.
Then when he could no longer speak, he madly continued to kick with a dull sound, rigid in his ragged blue blouse and overalls, his face turned purple beneath his dirty beard, and his bald forehead streaked with big red blotches. The neighbors on the landing related that he was beating her because she had refused him twenty sous that morning. Boche's voice was heard at the foot of the staircase. He was calling Madame Boche, saying:
"Come down; let them kill each other, it'll be so much scum the less."
Meanwhile, Pere Bru had followed Gervaise into the room. Between them they were trying to get him towards the door. But he turned round, speechless and foaming at the lips, and in his pale eyes the alcohol was blazing with a murderous glare. The laundress had her wrist injured; the old workman was knocked against the table. On the floor, Madame Bijard was breathing with greater difficulty, her mouth wide open, her eyes closed. Now Bijard kept missing her. He had madly returned to the attack, but blinded by rage, his blows fell on either side, and at times he almost fell when his kicks went into space. And during all this onslaught, Gervaise beheld in a corner of the room little Lalie, then four years old, watching her father murdering her mother. The child held in her arms, as though to protect her, her sister Henriette, only recently weaned. She was standing up, her head covered with a cotton cap, her face very pale and grave. Her large black eyes gazed with a fixedness full of thought and were without a tear.
When at length Bijard, running against a chair, stumbled onto the tiled floor, where they left him snoring, Pere Bru helped Gervaise to raise Madame Bijard. The latter was now sobbing bitterly; and Lalie, drawing near, watched her crying, being used to such sights and already resigned to them. As the laundress descended the stairs, in the silence of the now quieted house, she kept seeing before her that look of this child of four, as grave and courageous as that of a woman.
"Monsieur Coupeau is on the other side of the street," called out Clemence as soon as she caught sight of her. "He looks awfully drunk."
Coupeau was just then crossing the street. He almost smashed a pane of glass with his shoulder as he missed the door. He was in a state of complete drunkenness, with his teeth clinched and his nose inflamed. And Gervaise at once recognized the vitriol of l'Assommoir in the poisoned blood which paled his skin. She tried to joke and get him to bed, the same as on the days when the wine had made him merry; but he pushed her aside without opening his lips, and raised his fist in passing as he went to bed of his own accord. He made Gervaise think of the other—the drunkard who was snoring upstairs, tired out by the blows he had struck. A cold shiver passed over her. She thought of the men she knew—of her husband, of Goujet, of Lantier—her heart breaking, despairing of ever being happy.
Gervaise's saint's day fell on the 19th of June. On such occasions, the Coupeaus always made a grand display; they feasted till they were as round as balls, and their stomachs were filled for the rest of the week. There was a complete clear out of all the money they had. The moment there were a few sous in the house they went in gorging. They invented saints for those days which the almanac had not provided with any, just for the sake of giving themselves a pretext for gormandizing. Virginie highly commended Gervaise for stuffing herself with all sorts of savory dishes. When one has a husband who turns all he can lay hands on into drink, it's good to line one's stomach well, and not to let everything go off in liquids. Since the money would disappear anyway, surely it was better to pay it to the butcher. Gervaise used that excuse to justify overeating, saying it was Coupeau's fault if they could no longer save a sou. She had grown considerably fatter, and she limped more than before because her leg, now swollen with fat, seemed to be getting gradually shorter.
That year they talked about her saint's day a good month beforehand. They thought of dishes and smacked their lips in advance. All the shop had a confounded longing to junket. They wanted a merry-making of the right sort—something out of the ordinary and highly successful. One does not have so many opportunities for enjoyment. What most troubled the laundress was to decide whom to invite; she wished to have twelve persons at table, no more, no less. She, her husband, mother Coupeau, and Madame Lerat, already made four members of the family. She would also have the Goujets and the Poissons. Originally, she had decided not to invite her workwomen, Madame Putois and Clemence, so as not to make them too familiar; but as the projected feast was being constantly spoken of in their presence, and their mouths watered, she ended by telling them to come. Four and four, eight, and two are ten. Then, wishing particularly to have twelve, she became reconciled with the Lorilleuxs, who for some time past had been hovering around her; at least it was agreed that the Lorilleuxs should come to dinner, and that peace should be made with glasses in hand. You really shouldn't keep family quarrels going forever. When the Boches heard that a reconciliation was planned, they also sought to make up with Gervaise, and so they had to be invited to the dinner too. That would make fourteen, not counting the children. Never before had she given such a large dinner and the thought frightened and excited her at the same time.
The saint's day happened to fall on a Monday. It was a piece of luck. Gervaise counted on the Sunday afternoon to begin the cooking. On the Saturday, whilst the workwomen hurried with their work, there was a long discussion in the shop with the view of finally deciding upon what the feast should consist of. For three weeks past one thing alone had been chosen—a fat roast goose. There was a gluttonous look on every face whenever it was mentioned. The goose was even already bought. Mother Coupeau went and fetched it to let Clemence and Madame Putois feel its weight. And they uttered all kinds of exclamations; it looked such an enormous bird, with its rough skin all swelled out with yellow fat.
"Before that there will be the pot-au-feu," said Gervaise, "the soup and just a small piece of boiled beef, it's always good. Then we must have something in the way of a stew."
Tall Clemence suggested rabbit, but they were always having that, everyone was sick of it. Gervaise wanted something more distinguished. Madame Putois having spoken of stewed veal, they looked at one another with broad smiles. It was a real idea, nothing would make a better impression than a veal stew.
"And after that," resumed Gervaise, "we must have some other dish with a sauce."
Mother Coupeau proposed fish. But the others made a grimace, as they banged down their irons. None of them liked fish; it was not a bit satisfying; and besides that it was full of bones. Squint-eyed Augustine, having dared to observe that she liked skate, Clemence shut her mouth for her with a good sound clout. At length the mistress thought of stewed pig's back and potatoes, which restored the smiles to every countenance. Then Virginie entered like a puff of wind, with a strange look on her face.
"You've come just at the right time!" exclaimed Gervaise. "Mother Coupeau, do show her the bird."
And mother Coupeau went a second time and fetched the goose, which Virginie had to take in her hands. She uttered no end of exclamations. By Jove! It was heavy! But she soon laid it down on the work-table, between a petticoat and a bundle of shirts. Her thoughts were elsewhere. She dragged Gervaise into the back-room.
"I say, little one," murmured she rapidly, "I've come to warn you. You'll never guess who I just met at the corner of the street. Lantier, my dear! He's hovering about on the watch; so I hastened here at once. It frightened me on your account, you know."
The laundress turned quite pale. What could the wretched man want with her? Coming, too, like that, just in the midst of the preparations for the feast. She had never had any luck; she could not even be allowed to enjoy herself quietly. But Virginie replied that she was very foolish to put herself out about it like that. Why! If Lantier dared to follow her about, all she had to do was to call a policeman and have him locked up. In the month since her husband had been appointed a policeman, Virginie had assumed rather lordly manners and talked of arresting everybody. She began to raise her voice, saying that she wished some passer-by would pinch her bottom so that she could take the fresh fellow to the police station herself and turn him over to her husband. Gervaise signaled her to be quiet since the workwomen were listening and led the way back into the shop, reopening the discussion about the dinner.
"Now, don't we need a vegetable?"
"Why not peas with bacon?" said Virginie. "I like nothing better."
"Yes, peas with bacon." The others approved. Augustine was so enthusiastic that she jabbed the poker into the stove harder than ever.
By three o'clock on the morrow, Sunday, mother Coupeau had lighted their two stoves and also a third one of earthenware which they had borrowed from the Boches. At half-past three the pot-au-feu was boiling away in an enormous earthenware pot lent by the eating-house keeper next door, the family pot having been found too small. They had decided to cook the veal and the pig's back the night before, since both of those dishes are better when reheated. But the cream sauce for the veal would not be prepared until just before sitting down for the feast.
There was still plenty of work left for Monday: the soup, the peas with bacon, the roast goose. The inner room was lit by three fires. Butter was sizzling in the pans and emitting a sharp odor of burnt flour.
Mother Coupeau and Gervaise, with white aprons tied on, were bustling all around, cleaning parsley, dashing for salt and pepper, turning the meat. They had sent Coupeau away so as not to have him underfoot, but they still had plenty of people looking in throughout the afternoon. The luscious smells from the kitchen had spread through the entire building so that neighboring ladies came into the shop on various pretexts, very curious to see what was being cooked.
Virginie put in an appearance towards five o'clock. She had again seen Lantier; really, it was impossible to go down the street now without meeting him. Madame Boche also had just caught sight of him standing at the corner of the pavement with his head thrust forward in an uncommonly sly manner. Then Gervaise who had at that moment intended going for a sou's worth of burnt onions for the pot-au-feu, began to tremble from head to foot and did not dare leave the house; the more so, as the concierge and the dressmaker put her into a terrible fright by relating horrible stories of men waiting for women with knives and pistols hidden beneath their overcoats. Well, yes! one reads of such things every day in the newspapers. When one of those scoundrels gets his monkey up on discovering an old love leading a happy life he becomes capable of everything. Virginie obligingly offered to run and fetch the burnt onions. Women should always help one another, they could not let that little thing be murdered. When she returned she said that Lantier was no longer there; he had probably gone off on finding he was discovered. In spite of that thought, he was the subject of conversation around the saucepans until night-time. When Madame Boche advised her to inform Coupeau, Gervaise became really terrified, and implored her not to say a word about it. Oh, yes, wouldn't that be a nice situation! Her husband must have become suspicious already because for the last few days, at night, he would swear to himself and bang the wall with his fists. The mere thought that the two men might destroy each other because of her made her shudder. She knew that Coupeau was jealous enough to attack Lantier with his shears.
While the four of them had been deep in contemplating this drama, the saucepans on the banked coals of the stoves had been quietly simmering. When mother Coupeau lifted the lids, the veal and the pig's back were discreetly bubbling. The pot-au-feu was steadily steaming with snore-like sounds. Eventually each of them dipped a piece of bread into the soup to taste the bouillon.
At length Monday arrived. Now that Gervaise was going to have fourteen persons at table, she began to fear that she would not be able to find room for them all. She decided that they should dine in the shop; and the first thing in the morning she took measurements so as to settle which way she should place the table. After that they had to remove all the clothes and take the ironing-table to pieces; the top of this laid on to some shorter trestles was to be the dining-table. But just in the midst of all this moving a customer appeared and made a scene because she had been waiting for her washing ever since the Friday; they were humbugging her, she would have her things at once. Then Gervaise tried to excuse herself and lied boldly; it was not her fault, she was cleaning out her shop, the workmen would not be there till the morrow; and she pacified her customer and got rid of her by promising to busy herself with her things at the earliest possible moment. Then, as soon as the woman had left, she showed her temper. Really, if you listened to all your customers, you'd never have time to eat. You could work yourself to death like a dog on a leash! Well! No matter who came in to-day, even if they offered one hundred thousand francs, she wouldn't touch an iron on this Monday, because it was her turn to enjoy herself.
The entire morning was spent in completing the purchases. Three times Gervaise went out and returned laden like a mule. But just as she was going to order wine she noticed that she had not sufficient money left. She could easily have got it on credit; only she could not be without money in the house, on account of the thousand little expenses that one is liable to forget. And mother Coupeau and she had lamented together in the back-room as they reckoned that they required at least twenty francs. How could they obtain them, those four pieces of a hundred sous each? Mother Coupeau who had at one time done the charring for a little actress of the Theatre des Batignolles, was the first to suggest the pawn-shop. Gervaise laughed with relief. How stupid she was not to have thought of it! She quickly folded her black silk dress upon a towel which she then pinned together. Then she hid the bundle under mother Coupeau's apron, telling her to keep it very flat against her stomach, on account of the neighbors who had no need to know; and she went and watched at the door to see that the old woman was not followed. But the latter had only gone as far as the charcoal dealer's when she called her back.
She made her return to the shop, and taking her wedding-ring off her finger said:
"Here, put this with it. We shall get all the more."
When mother Coupeau brought her twenty-five francs, she danced for joy. She would order an extra six bottles of wine, sealed wine to drink with the roast. The Lorilleuxs would be crushed.
For a fortnight past it had been the Coupeaus' dream to crush the Lorilleuxs. Was it not true that those sly ones, the man and his wife, a truly pretty couple, shut themselves up whenever they had anything nice to eat as though they had stolen it? Yes, they covered up the window with a blanket to hide the light and make believe that they were already asleep in bed. This stopped anyone from coming up, and so the Lorilleuxs could stuff everything down, just the two of them. They were even careful the next day not to throw the bones into the garbage so that no one would know what they had eaten. Madame Lorilleux would walk to the end of the street to toss them into a sewer opening. One morning Gervaise surprised her emptying a basket of oyster shells there. Oh, those penny-pinchers were never open-handed, and all their mean contrivances came from their desire to appear to be poor. Well, we'd show them, we'd prove to them what we weren't mean.
Gervaise would have laid her table in the street, had she been able to, just for the sake of inviting each passer-by. Money was not invented that it should be allowed to grow moldy, was it? It is pretty when it shines all new in the sunshine. She resembled them so little now, that on the days when she had twenty sous she arranged things to let people think that she had forty.
Mother Coupeau and Gervaise talked of the Lorilleuxs whilst they laid the cloth about three o'clock. They had hung some big curtains at the windows; but as it was very warm the door was left open and the whole street passed in front of the little table. The two women did not place a decanter, or a bottle, or a salt-cellar, without trying to arrange them in such a way as to annoy the Lorilleuxs. They had arranged their seats so as to give them a full view of the superbly laid cloth, and they had reserved the best crockery for them, well knowing that the porcelain plates would create a great effect.
"No, no, mamma," cried Gervaise; "don't give them those napkins! I've two damask ones."
"Ah, good!" murmured the old woman; "that'll break their hearts, that's certain."
And they smiled to each other as they stood up on either side of that big white table on which the fourteen knives and forks, placed all round, caused them to swell with pride. It had the appearance of the altar of some chapel in the middle of the shop.
"That's because they're so stingy themselves!" resumed Gervaise. "You know they lied last month when the woman went about everywhere saying that she had lost a piece of gold chain as she was taking the work home. The idea! There's no fear of her ever losing anything! It was simply a way of making themselves out very poor and of not giving you your five francs."
"As yet I've only seen my five francs twice," said mother Coupeau.
"I'll bet next month they'll concoct some other story. That explains why they cover their window up when they have a rabbit to eat. Don't you see? One would have the right to say to them: 'As you can afford a rabbit you can certainly give five francs to your mother!' Oh! they're just rotten! What would have become of you if I hadn't taken you to live with us?"
Mother Coupeau slowly shook her head. That day she was all against the Lorilleuxs, because of the great feast the Coupeaus were giving. She loved cooking, the little gossipings round the saucepans, the place turned topsy-turvy by the revels of saints' days. Besides she generally got on pretty well with Gervaise. On other days when they plagued one another as happens in all families, the old woman grumbled saying she was wretchedly unfortunate in thus being at her daughter-in-law's mercy. In point of fact she probably had some affection for Madame Lorilleux who after all was her daughter.
"Ah!" continued Gervaise, "you wouldn't be so fat, would you, if you were living with them? And no coffee, no snuff, no little luxuries of any sort! Tell me, would they have given you two mattresses to your bed?"
"No, that's very certain," replied mother Coupeau. "When they arrive I shall place myself so as to have a good view of the door to see the faces they'll make."
Thinking of the faces they would make gave them pleasure ahead of time. However, they couldn't remain standing there admiring the table. The Coupeaus had lunched very late on just a bite or two, because the stoves were already in use, and because they did not want to dirty any dishes needed for the evening. By four o'clock the two women were working very hard. The huge goose was being cooked on a spit. Squint-eyed Augustine was sitting on a low bench solemnly basting the goose with a long-handled spoon. Gervaise was busy with the peas with bacon. Mother Coupeau, kept spinning around, a bit confused, waiting for the right time to begin reheating the pork and the veal.
Towards five o'clock the guests began to arrive. First of all came the two workwomen, Clemence and Madame Putois, both in their Sunday best, the former in blue, the latter in black; Clemence carried a geranium, Madame Putois a heliotrope, and Gervaise, whose hands were just then smothered with flour, had to kiss each of them on both cheeks with her arms behind her back. Then following close upon their heels entered Virginie dressed like a lady in a printed muslin costume with a sash and a bonnet though she had only a few steps to come. She brought a pot of red carnations. She took the laundress in her big arms and squeezed her tight. At length Boche appeared with a pot of pansies and Madame Boche with a pot of mignonette; then came Madame Lerat with a balm-mint, the pot of which had dirtied her violet merino dress. All these people kissed each other and gathered together in the back-room in the midst of the three stoves and the roasting apparatus, which gave out a stifling heat. The noise from the saucepans drowned the voices. A dress catching in the Dutch oven caused quite an emotion. The smell of roast goose was so strong that it made their mouths water. And Gervaise was very pleasant, thanking everyone for their flowers without however letting that interfere with her preparing the thickening for the stewed veal at the bottom of a soup plate. She had placed the pots in the shop at one end of the table without removing the white paper that was round them. A sweet scent of flowers mingled with the odor of cooking.
"Do you want any assistance?" asked Virginie. "Just fancy, you've been three days preparing all this feast and it will be gobbled up in no time."
"Well, you know," replied Gervaise, "it wouldn't prepare itself. No, don't dirty your hands. You see everything's ready. There's only the soup to warm."
Then they all made themselves comfortable. The ladies laid their shawls and their caps on the bed and pinned up their skirts so as not to soil them. Boche sent his wife back to the concierge's lodge until time to eat and had cornered Clemence in a corner trying to find out if she was ticklish. She was gasping for breath, as the mere thought of being tickled sent shivers through her. So as not to bother the cooks, the other ladies had gone into the shop and were standing against the wall facing the table. They were talking through the door though, and as they could not hear very well, they were continually invading the back-room and crowding around Gervaise, who would forget what she was doing to answer them.
There were a few stories which brought sly laughter. When Virginie mentioned that she hadn't eaten for two days in order to have more room for today's feast, tall Clemence said that she had cleaned herself out that morning with an enema like the English do. Then Boche suggested a way of digesting the food quickly by squeezing oneself after each course, another English custom. After all, when you were invited to dinner, wasn't it polite to eat as much as you could? Veal and pork and goose are placed out for the cats to eat. The hostess didn't need to worry a bit, they were going to clean their plates so thoroughly that she wouldn't have to wash them.
All of them kept coming to smell the air above the saucepans and the roaster. The ladies began to act like young girls, scurrying from room to room and pushing each other.
Just as they were all jumping about and shouting by way of amusement, Goujet appeared. He was so timid he scarcely dared enter, but stood still, holding a tall white rose-tree in his arms, a magnificent plant with a stem that reached to his face and entangled the flowers in his beard. Gervaise ran to him, her cheeks burning from the heat of the stoves. But he did not know how to get rid of his pot; and when she had taken it from his hands he stammered, not daring to kiss her. It was she who was obliged to stand on tip-toe and place her cheek against his lips; he was so agitated that even then he kissed her roughly on the eye almost blinding her. They both stood trembling.
"Oh! Monsieur Goujet, it's too lovely!" said she, placing the rose-tree beside the other flowers which it overtopped with the whole of its tuft of foliage.
"Not at all, not at all!" repeated he, unable to say anything else.
Then, after sighing deeply, he slightly recovered himself and stated that she was not to expect his mother; she was suffering from an attack of sciatica. Gervaise was greatly grieved; she talked of putting a piece of the goose on one side as she particularly wished Madame Goujet to have a taste of the bird. No one else was expected. Coupeau was no doubt strolling about in the neighborhood with Poisson whom he had called for directly after his lunch; they would be home directly, they had promised to be back punctually at six. Then as the soup was almost ready, Gervaise called to Madame Lerat, saying that she thought it was time to go and fetch the Lorilleuxs. Madame Lerat became at once very grave; it was she who had conducted all the negotiations and who had settled how everything should pass between the two families. She put her cap and shawl on again and went upstairs very stiffly in her skirts, looking very stately. Down below the laundress continued to stir her vermicelli soup without saying a word. The guests suddenly became serious and solemnly waited.
It was Madame Lerat who appeared first. She had gone round by the street so as to give more pomp to the reconciliation. She held the shop-door wide open whilst Madame Lorilleux, wearing a silk dress, stopped at the threshold. All the guests had risen from their seats; Gervaise went forward and kissing her sister-in-law as had been agreed, said:
"Come in. It's all over, isn't it? We'll both be nice to each other."
And Madame Lorilleux replied:
"I shall be only too happy if we're so always."
When she had entered Lorilleux also stopped at the threshold and he likewise waited to be embraced before penetrating into the shop. Neither the one nor the other had brought a bouquet. They had decided not to do so as they thought it would look too much like giving way to Clump-Clump if they carried flowers with them the first time they set foot in her home. Gervaise called to Augustine to bring two bottles of wine. Then, filling some glasses on a corner of the table, she called everyone to her. And each took a glass and drank to the good friendship of the family. There was a pause whilst the guests were drinking, the ladies raising their elbows and emptying their glasses to the last drop.
"Nothing is better before soup," declared Boche, smacking his lips.
Mother Coupeau had placed herself opposite the door to see the faces the Lorilleuxs would make. She pulled Gervaise by the skirt and dragged her into the back-room. And as they both leant over the soup they conversed rapidly in a low voice.
"Huh! What a sight!" said the old woman. "You couldn't see them; but I was watching. When she caught sight of the table her face twisted around like that, the corners of her mouth almost touched her eyes; and as for him, it nearly choked him, he coughed and coughed. Now just look at them over there; they've no saliva left in their mouths, they're chewing their lips."
"It's quite painful to see people as jealous as that," murmured Gervaise.
Really the Lorilleuxs had a funny look about them. No one of course likes to be crushed; in families especially when the one succeeds, the others do not like it; that is only natural. Only one keeps it in, one does not make an exhibition of oneself. Well! The Lorilleuxs could not keep it in. It was more than a match for them. They squinted—their mouths were all on one side. In short it was so apparent that the other guests looked at them, and asked them if they were unwell. Never would they be able to stomach this table with its fourteen place-settings, its white linen table cloth, its slices of bread cut in advance, all in the style of a first-class restaurant. Mme. Lorilleux went around the table, surreptitiously fingering the table cloth, tortured by the thought that it was a new one.
"Everything's ready!" cried Gervaise as she reappeared with a smile, her arms bare and her little fair curls blowing over her temples.
"If the boss would only come," resumed the laundress, "we might begin."
"Ah, well!" said Madame Lorilleux, "the soup will be cold by then. Coupeau always forgets. You shouldn't have let him go off."
It was already half-past six. Everything was burning now; the goose would be overdone. Then Gervaise, feeling quite dejected, talked of sending someone to all the wineshops in the neighborhood to find Coupeau. And as Goujet offered to go, she decided to accompany him. Virginie, anxious about her husband went also. The three of them, bareheaded, quite blocked up the pavement. The blacksmith who wore his frock-coat, had Gervaise on his left arm and Virginie on his right; he was doing the two-handled basket as he said; and it seemed to them such a funny thing to say that they stopped, unable to move their legs for laughing. They looked at themselves in the pork-butcher's glass and laughed more than ever. Beside Goujet, all in black, the two women looked like two speckled hens—the dressmaker in her muslin costume, sprinkled with pink flowers, the laundress in her white cambric dress with blue spots, her wrists bare, and wearing round her neck a little grey silk scarf tied in a bow. People turned round to see them pass, looking so fresh and lively, dressed in their Sunday best on a week day and jostling the crowd which hung about the Rue des Poissonniers, on that warm June evening. But it was not a question of amusing themselves. They went straight to the door of each wineshop, looked in and sought amongst the people standing before the counter. Had that animal Coupeau gone to the Arc de Triomphe to get his dram? They had already done the upper part of the street, looking in at all the likely places; at the "Little Civet," renowned for its preserved plums; at old mother Baquet's, who sold Orleans wine at eight sous; at the "Butterfly," the coachmen's house of call, gentlemen who were not easy to please. But no Coupeau. Then as they were going down towards the Boulevard, Gervaise uttered a faint cry on passing the eating-house at the corner kept by Francois.
"What's the matter?" asked Goujet.
The laundress no longer laughed. She was very pale, and laboring under so great an emotion that she had almost fallen. Virginie understood it all as she caught a sight of Lantier seated at one of Francois's tables quietly dining. The two women dragged the blacksmith along.
"My ankle twisted," said Gervaise as soon as she was able to speak.
At length they discovered Coupeau and Poisson at the bottom of the street inside Pere Colombe's l'Assommoir. They were standing up in the midst of a number of men; Coupeau, in a grey blouse, was shouting with furious gestures and banging his fists down on the counter. Poisson, not on duty that day and buttoned up in an old brown coat, was listening to him in a dull sort of way and without uttering a word, bristling his carroty moustaches and beard the while. Goujet left the women on the edge of the pavement, and went and laid his hand on the zinc-worker's shoulder. But when the latter caught sight of Gervaise and Virginie outside he grew angry. Why was he badgered with such females as those? Petticoats had taken to tracking him about now! Well! He declined to stir, they could go and eat their beastly dinner all by themselves. To quiet him Goujet was obliged to accept a drop of something; and even then Coupeau took a fiendish delight in dawdling a good five minutes at the counter. When he at length came out he said to his wife:
"I don't like this. It's my business where I go. Do you understand?"
She did not answer. She was all in a tremble. She must have said something about Lantier to Virginie, for the latter pushed her husband and Goujet ahead, telling them to walk in front. The two women got on each side of Coupeau to keep him occupied and prevent him seeing Lantier. He wasn't really drunk, being more intoxicated from shouting than from drinking. Since they seemed to want to stay on the left side, to tease them, he crossed over to the other side of the street. Worried, they ran after him and tried to block his view of the door of Francois's. But Coupeau must have known that Lantier was there. Gervaise almost went out of her senses on hearing him grunt:
"Yes, my duck, there's a young fellow of our acquaintance inside there! You mustn't take me for a ninny. Don't let me catch you gallivanting about again with your side glances!"
And he made use of some very coarse expressions. It was not him that she had come to look for with her bare elbows and her mealy mouth; it was her old beau. Then he was suddenly seized with a mad rage against Lantier. Ah! the brigand! Ah! the filthy hound! One or the other of them would have to be left on the pavement, emptied of his guts like a rabbit. Lantier, however, did not appear to notice what was going on and continued slowly eating some veal and sorrel. A crowd began to form. Virginie led Coupeau away and he calmed down at once as soon as he had turned the corner of the street. All the same they returned to the shop far less lively than when they left it.
The guests were standing round the table with very long faces. The zinc-worker shook hands with them, showing himself off before the ladies. Gervaise, feeling rather depressed, spoke in a low voice as she directed them to their places. But she suddenly noticed that, as Madame Goujet had not come, a seat would remain empty—the one next to Madame Lorilleux.
"We are thirteen!" said she, deeply affected, seeing in that a fresh omen of the misfortune with which she had felt herself threatened for some time past.
The ladies already seated rose up looking anxious and annoyed. Madame Putois offered to retire because according to her it was not a matter to laugh about; besides she would not touch a thing, the food would do her no good. As to Boche, he chuckled. He would sooner be thirteen than fourteen; the portions would be larger, that was all.
"Wait!" resumed Gervaise. "I can manage it."
And going out on to the pavement she called Pere Bru who was just then crossing the roadway. The old workman entered, stooping and stiff and his face without expression.
"Seat yourself there, my good fellow," said the laundress. "You won't mind eating with us, will you?"
He simply nodded his head. He was willing; he did not mind.
"As well him as another," continued she, lowering her voice. "He doesn't often eat his fill. He will at least enjoy himself once more. We shall feel no remorse in stuffing ourselves now."
This touched Goujet so deeply that his eyes filled with tears. The others were also moved by compassion and said that it would bring them all good luck. However, Madame Lorilleux seemed unhappy at having the old man next to her. She cast glances of disgust at his work-roughened hands and his faded, patched smock, and drew away from him.
Pere Bru sat with his head bowed, waiting. He was bothered by the napkin that was on the plate before him. Finally he lifted it off and placed it gently on the edge of the table, not thinking to spread it over his knees.
Now at last Gervaise served the vermicelli soup; the guests were taking up their spoons when Virginie remarked that Coupeau had disappeared. He had perhaps returned to Pere Colombe's. This time the company got angry. So much the worse! One would not run after him; he could stay in the street if he was not hungry; and as the spoons touched the bottom of the plates, Coupeau reappeared with two pots of flowers, one under each arm, a stock and a balsam. They all clapped their hands. He gallantly placed the pots, one on the right, the other on the left of Gervaise's glass; then bending over and kissing her, he said:
"I had forgotten you, my lamb. But in spite of that, we love each other all the same, especially on such a day as this."
"Monsieur Coupeau's very nice this evening," murmured Clemence in Boche's ear. "He's just got what he required, sufficient to make him amiable."
The good behavior of the master of the house restored the gaiety of the proceedings, which at one moment had been compromised. Gervaise, once more at her ease, was all smiles again. The guests finished their soup. Then the bottles circulated and they drank their first glass of wine, just a drop pure, to wash down the vermicelli. One could hear the children quarrelling in the next room. There were Etienne, Pauline, Nana and little Victor Fauconnier. It had been decided to lay a table for the four of them, and they had been told to be very good. That squint-eyed Augustine who had to look after the stoves was to eat off her knees.
"Mamma! Mamma!" suddenly screamed Nana, "Augustine is dipping her bread in the Dutch oven!"
The laundress hastened there and caught the squint-eyed one in the act of burning her throat in her attempts to swallow without loss of time a slice of bread soaked in boiling goose fat. She boxed her ears when the young monkey called out that it was not true. When, after the boiled beef, the stewed veal appeared, served in a salad-bowl, as they did not have a dish large enough, the party greeted it with a laugh.
"It's becoming serious," declared Poisson, who seldom spoke.
It was half-past seven. They had closed the shop door, so as not to be spied upon by the whole neighborhood; the little clockmaker opposite especially was opening his eyes to their full size and seemed to take the pieces from their mouths with such a gluttonous look that it almost prevented them from eating. The curtains hung before the windows admitted a great white uniform light which bathed the entire table with its symmetrical arrangement of knives and forks and its pots of flowers enveloped in tall collars of white paper; and this pale fading light, this slowly approaching dusk, gave to the party somewhat of an air of distinction. Virginie looked round the closed apartment hung with muslin and with a happy criticism declared it to be very cozy. Whenever a cart passed in the street the glasses jingled together on the table cloth and the ladies were obliged to shout out as loud as the men. But there was not much conversation; they all behaved very respectably and were very attentive to each other. Coupeau alone wore a blouse, because as he said one need not stand on ceremony with friends and besides which the blouse was the workman's garb of honor. The ladies, laced up in their bodices, wore their hair in plaits greasy with pomatum in which the daylight was reflected; whilst the gentlemen, sitting at a distance from the table, swelled out their chests and kept their elbows wide apart for fear of staining their frock coats.
Ah! thunder! What a hole they were making in the stewed veal! If they spoke little, they were chewing in earnest. The salad-bowl was becoming emptier and emptier with a spoon stuck in the midst of the thick sauce—a good yellow sauce which quivered like a jelly. They fished pieces of veal out of it and seemed as though they would never come to the end; the salad-bowl journeyed from hand to hand and faces bent over it as forks picked out the mushrooms. The long loaves standing against the wall behind the guests appeared to melt away. Between the mouthfuls one could hear the sound of glasses being replaced on the table. The sauce was a trifle too salty. It required four bottles of wine to drown that blessed stewed veal, which went down like cream, but which afterwards lit up a regular conflagration in one's stomach. And before one had time to take a breath, the pig's back, in the middle of a deep dish surrounded by big round potatoes, arrived in the midst of a cloud of smoke. There was one general cry. By Jove! It was just the thing! Everyone liked it. They would do it justice; and they followed the dish with a side glance as they wiped their knives on their bread so as to be in readiness. Then as soon as they were helped they nudged one another and spoke with their mouths full. It was just like butter! Something sweet and solid which one could feel run through one's guts right down into one's boots. The potatoes were like sugar. It was not a bit salty; only, just on account of the potatoes, it required a wetting every few minutes. Four more bottles were placed on the table. The plates were wiped so clean that they also served for the green peas and bacon. Oh! vegetables were of no consequence. They playfully gulped them down in spoonfuls. The best part of the dish was the small pieces of bacon just nicely grilled and smelling like horse's hoof. Two bottles were sufficient for them.
"Mamma! Mamma!" called out Nana suddenly, "Augustine's putting her fingers in my plate!"
"Don't bother me! give her a slap!" replied Gervaise, in the act of stuffing herself with green peas.
At the children's table in the back-room, Nana was playing the role of lady of the house, sitting next to Victor and putting her brother Etienne beside Pauline so they could play house, pretending they were two married couples. Nana had served her guests very politely at first, but now she had given way to her passion for grilled bacon, trying to keep every piece for herself. While Augustine was prowling around the children's table, she would grab the bits of bacon under the pretext of dividing them amongst the children. Nana was so furious that she bit Augustine on the wrist.
"Ah! you know," murmured Augustine, "I'll tell your mother that after the veal you asked Victor to kiss you."
But all became quiet again as Gervaise and mother Coupeau came in to get the goose. The guests at the big table were leaning back in their chairs taking a breather. The men had unbuttoned their waistcoats, the ladies were wiping their faces with their napkins. The repast was, so to say, interrupted; only one or two persons, unable to keep their jaws still, continued to swallow large mouthfuls of bread, without even knowing that they were doing so. The others were waiting and allowing their food to settle while waiting for the main course. Night was slowly coming on; a dirty ashy grey light was gathering behind the curtains. When Augustine brought two lamps and placed one at each end of the table, the general disorder became apparent in the bright glare—the greasy forks and plates, the table cloth stained with wine and covered with crumbs. A strong stifling odor pervaded the room. Certain warm fumes, however, attracted all the noses in the direction of the kitchen.
"Can I help you?" cried Virginie.
She left her chair and passed into the inner room. All the women followed one by one. They surrounded the Dutch oven, and watched with profound interest as Gervaise and mother Coupeau tried to pull the bird out. Then a clamor arose, in the midst of which one could distinguish the shrill voices and the joyful leaps of the children. And there was a triumphal entry. Gervaise carried the goose, her arms stiff, and her perspiring face expanded in one broad silent laugh; the women walked behind her, laughing in the same way; whilst Nana, right at the end, raised herself up to see, her eyes open to their full extent. When the enormous golden goose, streaming with gravy, was on the table, they did not attack it at once. It was a wonder, a respectful wonderment, which for a moment left everyone speechless. They drew one another's attention to it with winks and nods of the head. Golly! What a bird!
"That one didn't get fat by licking the walls, I'll bet!" said Boche.
Then they entered into details respecting the bird. Gervaise gave the facts. It was the best she could get at the poulterer's in the Faubourg Poissonniers; it weighed twelve and a half pounds on the scales at the charcoal-dealer's; they had burnt nearly half a bushel of charcoal in cooking it, and it had given three bowls full of drippings.
Virginie interrupted her to boast of having seen it before it was cooked. "You could have eaten it just as it was," she said, "its skin was so fine, like the skin of a blonde." All the men laughed at this, smacking their lips. Lorilleux and Madame Lorilleux sniffed disdainfully, almost choking with rage to see such a goose on Clump-Clump's table.
"Well! We can't eat it whole," the laundress observed. "Who'll cut it up? No, no, not me! It's too big; I'm afraid of it."
Coupeau offered his services. Mon Dieu! it was very simple. You caught hold of the limbs, and pulled them off; the pieces were good all the same. But the others protested; they forcibly took possession of the large kitchen knife which the zinc-worker already held in his hand, saying that whenever he carved he made a regular graveyard of the platter. Finally, Madame Lerat suggested in a friendly tone:
"Listen, it should be Monsieur Poisson; yes, Monsieur Poisson."
But, as the others did not appear to understand, she added in a more flattering manner still:
"Why, yes, of course, it should be Monsieur Poisson, who's accustomed to the use of arms."
And she passed the kitchen knife to the policeman. All round the table they laughed with pleasure and approval. Poisson bowed his head with military stiffness, and moved the goose before him. When he thrust the knife into the goose, which cracked, Lorilleux was seized with an outburst of patriotism.
"Ah! if it was a Cossack!" he cried.
"Have you ever fought with Cossacks, Monsieur Poisson?" asked Madame Boche.
"No, but I have with Bedouins," replied the policeman, who was cutting off a wing. "There are no more Cossacks."
A great silence ensued. Necks were stretched out as every eye followed the knife. Poisson was preparing a surprise. Suddenly he gave a last cut; the hind-quarter of the bird came off and stood up on end, rump in the air, making a bishop's mitre. Then admiration burst forth. None were so agreeable in company as retired soldiers.
The policeman allowed several minutes for the company to admire the bishop's mitre and then finished cutting the slices and arranging them on the platter. The carving of the goose was now complete.
When the ladies complained that they were getting rather warm, Coupeau opened the door to the street and the gaiety continued against the background of cabs rattling down the street and pedestrians bustling along the pavement. The goose was attacked furiously by the rested jaws. Boche remarked that just having to wait and watch the goose being carved had been enough to make the veal and pork slide down to his ankles.
Then ensued a famous tuck-in; that is to say, not one of the party recollected ever having before run the risk of such a stomach-ache. Gervaise, looking enormous, her elbows on the table, ate great pieces of breast, without uttering a word, for fear of losing a mouthful, and merely felt slightly ashamed and annoyed at exhibiting herself thus, as gluttonous as a cat before Goujet. Goujet, however, was too busy stuffing himself to notice that she was all red with eating. Besides, in spite of her greediness, she remained so nice and good! She did not speak, but she troubled herself every minute to look after Pere Bru, and place some dainty bit on his plate. It was even touching to see this glutton take a piece of wing almost from her mouth to give it to the old fellow, who did not appear to be very particular, and who swallowed everything with bowed head, almost besotted from having gobbled so much after he had forgotten the taste of bread. The Lorilleuxs expended their rage on the roast goose; they ate enough to last them three days; they would have stowed away the dish, the table, the very shop, if they could have ruined Clump-Clump by doing so. All the ladies had wanted a piece of the breast, traditionally the ladies' portion. Madame Lerat, Madame Boche, Madame Putois, were all picking bones; whilst mother Coupeau, who adored the neck, was tearing off the flesh with her two last teeth. Virginie liked the skin when it was nicely browned, and the other guests gallantly passed their skin to her; so much so, that Poisson looked at his wife severely, and bade her stop, because she had had enough as it was. Once already, she had been a fortnight in bed, with her stomach swollen out, through having eaten too much roast goose. But Coupeau got angry and helped Virginie to the upper part of a leg, saying that, by Jove's thunder! if she did not pick it, she wasn't a proper woman. Had roast goose ever done harm to anybody? On the contrary, it cured all complaints of the spleen. One could eat it without bread, like dessert. He could go on swallowing it all night without being the least bit inconvenienced; and, just to show off, he stuffed a whole drum-stick into his mouth. Meanwhile, Clemence had got to the end of the rump, and was sucking it with her lips, whilst she wriggled with laughter on her chair because Boche was whispering all sorts of smutty things to her. Ah, by Jove! Yes, there was a dinner! When one's at it, one's at it, you know; and if one only has the chance now and then, one would be precious stupid not to stuff oneself up to one's ears. Really, one could see their sides puff out by degrees. They were cracking in their skins, the blessed gormandizers! With their mouths open, their chins besmeared with grease, they had such bloated red faces that one would have said they were bursting with prosperity.
As for the wine, well, that was flowing as freely around the table as water flows in the Seine. It was like a brook overflowing after a rainstorm when the soil is parched. Coupeau raised the bottle high when pouring to see the red jet foam in the glass. Whenever he emptied a bottle, he would turn it upside down and shake it. One more dead solder! In a corner of the laundry the pile of dead soldiers grew larger and larger, a veritable cemetery of bottles onto which other debris from the table was tossed.
Coupeau became indignant when Madame Putois asked for water. He took all the water pitchers from the table. Do respectable citizens ever drink water? Did she want to grow frogs in her stomach?
Many glasses were emptied at one gulp. You could hear the liquid gurgling its way down the throats like rainwater in a drainpipe after a storm. One might say it was raining wine. Mon Dieu! the juice of the grape was a remarkable invention. Surely the workingman couldn't get along without his wine. Papa Noah must have planted his grapevine for the benefit of zinc-workers, tailors and blacksmiths. It brightened you up and refreshed you after a hard day's work.
Coupeau was in a high mood. He proclaimed that all the ladies present were very cute, and jingled the three sous in his pocket as if they had been five-franc pieces.
Even Goujet, who was ordinarily very sober, had taken plenty of wine. Boche's eyes were narrowing, those of Lorilleux were paling, and Poisson was developing expressions of stern severity on his soldierly face. All the men were as drunk as lords and the ladies had reached a certain point also, feeling so warm that they had to loosen their clothes. Only Clemence carried this a bit too far.
Suddenly Gervaise recollected the six sealed bottles of wine. She had forgotten to put them on the table with the goose; she fetched them, and all the glasses were filled. Then Poisson rose, and holding his glass in the air, said:
"I drink to the health of the missus."
All of them stood up, making a great noise with their chairs as they moved. Holding out their arms, they clinked glasses in the midst of an immense uproar.
"Here's to this day fifty years hence!" cried Virginie.
"No, no," replied Gervaise, deeply moved and smiling; "I shall be too old. Ah! a day comes when one's glad to go."
Through the door, which was wide open, the neighborhood was looking on and taking part in the festivities. Passers-by stopped in the broad ray of light which shone over the pavement, and laughed heartily at seeing all these people stuffing away so jovially.
The aroma from the roasted goose brought joy to the whole street. The clerks on the sidewalk opposite thought they could almost taste the bird. Others came out frequently to stand in front of their shops, sniffing the air and licking their lips. The little jeweler was unable to work, dizzy from having counted so many bottles. He seemed to have lost his head among his merry little cuckoo clocks.
Yes, the neighbors were devoured with envy, as Coupeau said. But why should there be any secret made about the matter? The party, now fairly launched, was no longer ashamed of being seen at table; on the contrary, it felt flattered and excited at seeing the crowd gathered there, gaping with gluttony; it would have liked to have knocked out the shop-front and dragged the table into the road-way, and there to have enjoyed the dessert under the very nose of the public, and amidst the commotion of the thoroughfare. Nothing disgusting was to be seen in them, was there? Then there was no need to shut themselves in like selfish people. Coupeau, noticing the little clockmaker looked very thirsty, held up a bottle; and as the other nodded his head, he carried him the bottle and a glass. A fraternity was established in the street. They drank to anyone who passed. They called in any chaps who looked the right sort. The feast spread, extending from one to another, to the degree that the entire neighborhood of the Goutte-d'Or sniffed the grub, and held its stomach, amidst a rumpus worthy of the devil and all his demons. For some minutes, Madame Vigouroux, the charcoal-dealer, had been passing to and fro before the door.
"Hi! Madame Vigouroux! Madame Vigouroux!" yelled the party.
She entered with a broad grin on her face, which was washed for once, and so fat that the body of her dress was bursting. The men liked pinching her, because they might pinch her all over without ever encountering a bone. Boche made room for her beside him and reached slyly under the table to grab her knee. But she, being accustomed to that sort of thing, quietly tossed off a glass of wine, and related that all the neighbors were at their windows, and that some of the people of the house were beginning to get angry.
"Oh, that's our business," said Madame Boche. "We're the concierges, aren't we? Well, we're answerable for good order. Let them come and complain to us, we'll receive them in a way they don't expect."
In the back-room there had just been a furious fight between Nana and Augustine, on account of the Dutch oven, which both wanted to scrape out. For a quarter of an hour, the Dutch oven had rebounded over the tile floor with the noise of an old saucepan. Nana was now nursing little Victor, who had a goose-bone in his throat. She pushed her fingers under his chin, and made him swallow big lumps of sugar by way of a remedy. That did not prevent her keeping an eye on the big table. At every minute she came and asked for wine, bread, or meat, for Etienne and Pauline, she said.
"Here! Burst!" her mother would say to her. "Perhaps you'll leave us in peace now!"
The children were scarcely able to swallow any longer, but they continued to eat all the same, banging their forks down on the table to the tune of a canticle, in order to excite themselves.
In the midst of the noise, however, a conversation was going on between Pere Bru and mother Coupeau. The old fellow, who was ghastly pale in spite of the wine and the food, was talking of his sons who had died in the Crimea. Ah! if the lads had only lived, he would have had bread to eat every day. But mother Coupeau, speaking thickly, leant towards him and said:
"Ah! one has many worries with children! For instance, I appear to be happy here, don't I? Well! I cry more often than you think. No, don't wish you still had your children."
Pere Bru shook his head.
"I can't get work anywhere," murmured he. "I'm too old. When I enter a workshop the young fellows joke, and ask me if I polished Henri IV.'s boots. To-day it's all over; they won't have me anywhere. Last year I could still earn thirty sous a day painting a bridge. I had to lie on my back with the river flowing under me. I've had a bad cough ever since then. Now, I'm finished."
He looked at his poor stiff hands and added:
"It's easy to understand, I'm no longer good for anything. They're right; were I in their place I should do the same. You see, the misfortune is that I'm not dead. Yes, it's my fault. One should lie down and croak when one's no longer able to work."
"Really," said Lorilleux, who was listening, "I don't understand why the Government doesn't come to the aid of the invalids of labor. I was reading that in a newspaper the other day."
But Poisson thought it his duty to defend the Government.
"Workmen are not soldiers," declared he. "The Invalides is for soldiers. You must not ask for what is impossible."
Dessert was now served. In the centre of the table was a Savoy cake in the form of a temple, with a dome fluted with melon slices; and this dome was surmounted by an artificial rose, close to which was a silver paper butterfly, fluttering at the end of a wire. Two drops of gum in the centre of the flower imitated dew. Then, to the left, a piece of cream cheese floated in a deep dish; whilst in another dish to the right, were piled up some large crushed strawberries, with the juice running from them. However, there was still some salad left, some large coss lettuce leaves soaked with oil.
"Come, Madame Boche," said Gervaise, coaxingly, "a little more salad. I know how fond you are of it."
"No, no, thank you! I've already had as much as I can manage," replied the concierge.
The laundress turning towards Virginie, the latter put her finger in her mouth, as though to touch the food she had taken.
"Really, I'm full," murmured she. "There's no room left. I couldn't swallow a mouthful."
"Oh! but if you tried a little," resumed Gervaise with a smile. "One can always find a tiny corner empty. Once doesn't need to be hungry to be able to eat salad. You're surely not going to let this be wasted?"
"You can eat it to-morrow," said Madame Lerat; "it's nicer when its wilted."
The ladies sighed as they looked regretfully at the salad-bowl. Clemence related that she had one day eaten three bunches of watercresses at her lunch. Madame Putois could do more than that, she would take a coss lettuce and munch it up with some salt just as it was without separating the leaves. They could all have lived on salad, would have treated themselves to tubfuls. And, this conversation aiding, the ladies cleaned out the salad-bowl.
"I could go on all fours in a meadow," observed the concierge with her mouth full.
Then they chuckled together as they eyed the dessert. Dessert did not count. It came rather late but that did not matter; they would nurse it all the same. When you're that stuffed, you can't let yourself be stopped by strawberries and cake. There was no hurry. They had the entire night if they wished. So they piled their plates with strawberries and cream cheese. Meanwhile the men lit their pipes. They were drinking the ordinary wine while they smoked since the special wine had been finished. Now they insisted that Gervaise cut the Savoy cake. Poisson got up and took the rose from the cake and presented it in his most gallant manner to the hostess amidst applause from the other guests. She pinned it over her left breast, near the heart. The silver butterfly fluttered with her every movement.
"Well, look," exclaimed Lorilleux, who had just made a discovery, "it's your work-table that we're eating off! Ah, well! I daresay it's never seen so much work before!"
This malicious joke had a great success. Witty allusions came from all sides. Clemence could not swallow a spoonful of strawberries without saying that it was another shirt ironed; Madame Lerat pretended that the cream cheese smelt of starch; whilst Madame Lorilleux said between her teeth that it was capital fun to gobble up the money so quickly on the very boards on which one had had so much trouble to earn it. There was quite a tempest of shouts and laughter.
But suddenly a loud voice called for silence. It was Boche who, standing up in an affected and vulgar way, was commencing to sing "The Volcano of Love, or the Seductive Trooper."
A thunder of applause greeted the first verse. Yes, yes, they would sing songs! Everyone in turn. It was more amusing than anything else. And they all put their elbows on the table or leant back in their chairs, nodding their heads at the best parts and sipping their wine when they came to the choruses. That rogue Boche had a special gift for comic songs. He would almost make the water pitchers laugh when he imitated the raw recruit with his fingers apart and his hat on the back of his head. Directly after "The Volcano of Love," he burst out into "The Baroness de Follebiche," one of his greatest successes. When he reached the third verse he turned towards Clemence and almost murmured it in a slow and voluptuous tone of voice:
"The baroness had people there, Her sisters four, oh! rare surprise; And three were dark, and one was fair; Between them, eight bewitching eyes."
Then the whole party, carried away, joined in the chorus. The men beat time with their heels, whilst the ladies did the same with their knives against their glasses. All of them singing at the top of their voices:
"By Jingo! who on earth will pay A drink to the pa—to the pa—pa—? By Jingo! who on earth will pay A drink to the pa—to the pa—tro—o—l?"
The panes of glass of the shop-front resounded, the singers' great volume of breath agitated the muslin curtains. Whilst all this was going on, Virginie had already twice disappeared and each time, on returning, had leant towards Gervaise's ear to whisper a piece of information. When she returned the third time, in the midst of the uproar, she said to her:
"My dear, he's still at Francois's; he's pretending to read the newspaper. He's certainly meditating some evil design."
She was speaking of Lantier. It was him that she had been watching. At each fresh report Gervaise became more and more grave.
"Is he drunk?" asked she of Virginie.
"No," replied the tall brunette. "He looks as though he had merely had what he required. It's that especially which makes me anxious. Why does he remain there if he's had all he wanted? Mon Dieu! I hope nothing is going to happen!"
The laundress, greatly upset, begged her to leave off. A profound silence suddenly succeeded the clamor. Madame Putois had just risen and was about to sing "The Boarding of the Pirate." The guests, silent and thoughtful, watched her; even Poisson had laid his pipe down on the edge of the table the better to listen to her. She stood up to the full height of her little figure, with a fierce expression about her, though her face looked quite pale beneath her black cap; she thrust out her left fist with a satisfied pride as she thundered in a voice bigger than herself:
"If the pirate audacious Should o'er the waves chase us, The buccaneer slaughter, Accord him no quarter. To the guns every man, And with rum fill each can! While these pests of the seas Dangle from the cross-trees."
That was something serious. By Jove! it gave one a fine idea of the real thing. Poisson, who had been on board ship nodded his head in approval of the description. One could see too that that song was in accordance with Madame Putois's own feeling. Coupeau then told how Madame Putois, one evening on Rue Poulet, had slapped the face of four men who sought to attack her virtue.
With the assistance of mother Coupeau, Gervaise was now serving the coffee, though some of the guests had not yet finished their Savoy cake. They would not let her sit down again, but shouted that it was her turn. With a pale face, and looking very ill at ease, she tried to excuse herself; she seemed so queer that someone inquired whether the goose had disagreed with her. She finally gave them "Oh! let me slumber!" in a sweet and feeble voice. When she reached the chorus with its wish for a sleep filled with beautiful dreams, her eyelids partly closed and her rapt gaze lost itself in the darkness of the street.
Poisson stood next and with an abrupt bow to the ladies, sang a drinking song: "The Wines of France." But his voice wasn't very musical and only the final verse, a patriotic one mentioning the tricolor flag, was a success. Then he raised his glass high, juggled it a moment, and poured the contents into his open mouth.
Then came a string of ballads; Madame Boche's barcarolle was all about Venice and the gondoliers; Madame Lorilleux sang of Seville and the Andalusians in her bolero; whilst Lorilleux went so far as to allude to the perfumes of Arabia, in reference to the loves of Fatima the dancer.
Golden horizons were opening up all around the heavily laden table. The men were smoking their pipes and the women unconsciously smiling with pleasure. All were dreaming they were far away.
Clemence began to sing softly "Let's Make a Nest" with a tremolo in her voice which pleased them greatly for it made them think of the open country, of songbirds, of dancing beneath an arbor, and of flowers. In short, it made them think of the Bois de Vincennes when they went there for a picnic.
But Virginie revived the joking with "My Little Drop of Brandy." She imitated a camp follower, with one hand on her hip, the elbow arched to indicate the little barrel; and with the other hand she poured out the brandy into space by turning her fist round. She did it so well that the party then begged mother Coupeau to sing "The Mouse." The old woman refused, vowing that she did not know that naughty song. Yet she started off with the remnants of her broken voice; and her wrinkled face with its lively little eyes underlined the allusions, the terrors of Mademoiselle Lise drawing her skirts around her at the sight of a mouse. All the table laughed; the women could not keep their countenances, and continued casting bright glances at their neighbors; it was not indecent after all, there were no coarse words in it. All during the song Boche was playing mouse up and down the legs of the lady coal-dealer. Things might have gotten a bit out of line if Goujet, in response to a glance from Gervaise, had not brought back the respectful silence with "The Farewell of Abdul-Kader," which he sang out loudly in his bass voice. The song rang out from his golden beard as if from a brass trumpet. All the hearts skipped a beat when he cried, "Ah, my noble comrade!" referring to the warrior's black mare. They burst into applause even before the end.
"Now, Pere Bru, it's your turn!" said mother Coupeau. "Sing your song. The old ones are the best any day!"
And everybody turned towards the old man, pressing him and encouraging him. He, in a state of torpor, with his immovable mask of tanned skin, looked at them without appearing to understand. They asked him if he knew the "Five Vowels." He held down his head; he could not recollect it; all the songs of the good old days were mixed up in his head. As they made up their minds to leave him alone, he seemed to remember, and began to stutter in a cavernous voice:
"Trou la la, trou la la, Trou la, trou la, trou la la!"
His face assumed an animated expression, this chorus seemed to awake some far-off gaieties within him, enjoyed by himself alone, as he listened with a childish delight to his voice which became more and more hollow.
"Say there, my dear," Virginie came and whispered in Gervaise's ear, "I've just been there again, you know. It worried me. Well! Lantier has disappeared from Francois's."
"You didn't meet him outside?" asked the laundress.
"No, I walked quickly, not as if I was looking for him."
But Virginie raised her eyes, interrupted herself and heaved a smothered sigh.
"Ah! Mon Dieu! He's there, on the pavement opposite; he's looking this way."
Gervaise, quite beside herself, ventured to glance in the direction indicated. Some persons had collected in the street to hear the party sing. And Lantier was indeed there in the front row, listening and coolly looking on. It was rare cheek, everything considered. Gervaise felt a chill ascend from her legs to her heart, and she no longer dared to move, whilst old Bru continued: