In the midst of her own poverty Gervaise suffered even more because other families around her were also starving to death. Their corner of the tenement housed the most wretched. There was not a family that ate every day.
Gervaise felt the most pity for Pere Bru in his cubbyhole under the staircase where he hibernated. Sometimes he stayed on his bed of straw without moving for days. Even hunger no longer drove him out since there was no use taking a walk when no one would invite him to dinner. Whenever he didn't show his face for several days, the neighbors would push open his door to see if his troubles were over. No, he was still alive, just barely. Even Death seemed to have neglected him. Whenever Gervaise had any bread she gave him the crusts. Even when she hated all men because of her husband, she still felt sincerely sorry for Pere Bru, the poor old man. They were letting him starve to death because he could no longer hold tools in his hand.
The laundress also suffered a great deal from the close neighborhood of Bazouge, the undertaker's helper. A simple partition, and a very thin one, separated the two rooms. He could not put his fingers down his throat without her hearing it. As soon as he came home of an evening she listened, in spite of herself, to everything he did. His black leather hat laid with a dull thud on the chest of drawers, like a shovelful of earth; the black cloak hung up and rustling against the walls like the wings of some night bird; all the black toggery flung into the middle of the room and filling it with the trappings of mourning. She heard him stamping about, felt anxious at the least movement, and was quite startled if he knocked against the furniture or rattled any of his crockery. This confounded drunkard was her preoccupation, filling her with a secret fear mingled with a desire to know. He, jolly, his belly full every day, his head all upside down, coughed, spat, sang "Mother Godichon," made use of many dirty expressions and fought with the four walls before finding his bedstead. And she remained quite pale, wondering what he could be doing in there. She imagined the most atrocious things. She got into her head that he must have brought a corpse home, and was stowing it away under his bedstead. Well! the newspapers had related something of the kind—an undertaker's helper who collected the coffins of little children at his home, so as to save himself trouble and to make only one journey to the cemetery.
For certain, directly Bazouge arrived, a smell of death seemed to permeate the partition. One might have thought oneself lodging against the Pere Lachaise cemetery, in the midst of the kingdom of moles. He was frightful, the animal, continually laughing all by himself, as though his profession enlivened him. Even when he had finished his rumpus and had laid himself on his back, he snored in a manner so extraordinary that it caused the laundress to hold her breath. For hours she listened attentively, with an idea that funerals were passing through her neighbor's room.
The worst was that, in spite of her terrors, something incited Gervaise to put her ear to the wall, the better to find out what was taking place. Bazouge had the same effect on her as handsome men have on good women: they would like to touch them. Well! if fear had not kept her back, Gervaise would have liked to have handled death, to see what it was like. She became so peculiar at times, holding her breath, listening attentively, expecting to unravel the secret through one of Bazouge's movements, that Coupeau would ask her with a chuckle if she had a fancy for that gravedigger next door. She got angry and talked of moving, the close proximity of this neighbor was so distasteful to her; and yet, in spite of herself, as soon as the old chap arrived, smelling like a cemetery, she became wrapped again in her reflections, with the excited and timorous air of a wife thinking of passing a knife through the marriage contract. Had he not twice offered to pack her up and carry her off with him to some place where the enjoyment of sleep is so great, that in a moment one forgets all one's wretchedness? Perhaps it was really very pleasant. Little by little the temptation to taste it became stronger. She would have liked to have tried it for a fortnight or a month. Oh! to sleep a month, especially in winter, the month when the rent became due, when the troubles of life were killing her! But it was not possible—one must sleep forever, if one commences to sleep for an hour; and the thought of this froze her, her desire for death departed before the eternal and stern friendship which the earth demanded.
However, one evening in January she knocked with both her fists against the partition. She had passed a frightful week, hustled by everyone, without a sou, and utterly discouraged. That evening she was not at all well, she shivered with fever, and seemed to see flames dancing about her. Then, instead of throwing herself out of the window, as she had at one moment thought of doing, she set to knocking and calling:
"Old Bazouge! Old Bazouge!"
The undertaker's helper was taking off his shoes and singing, "There were three lovely girls." He had probably had a good day, for he seemed even more maudlin than usual.
"Old Bazouge! Old Bazouge!" repeated Gervaise, raising her voice.
Did he not hear her then? She was ready to give herself at once; he might come and take her on his neck, and carry her off to the place where he carried his other women, the poor and the rich, whom he consoled. It pained her to hear his song, "There were three lovely girls," because she discerned in it the disdain of a man with too many sweethearts.
"What is it? what is it?" stuttered Bazouge; "who's unwell? We're coming, little woman!"
But the sound of this husky voice awoke Gervaise as though from a nightmare. And a feeling of horror ascended from her knees to her shoulders at the thought of seeing herself lugged along in the old fellow's arms, all stiff and her face as white as a china plate.
"Well! is there no one there now?" resumed Bazouge in silence. "Wait a bit, we're always ready to oblige the ladies."
"It's nothing, nothing," said the laundress at length in a choking voice. "I don't require anything, thanks."
She remained anxious, listening to old Bazouge grumbling himself to sleep, afraid to stir for fear he would think he heard her knocking again.
In her corner of misery, in the midst of her cares and the cares of others, Gervaise had, however, a beautiful example of courage in the home of her neighbors, the Bijards. Little Lalie, only eight years old and no larger than a sparrow, took care of the household as competently as a grown person. The job was not an easy one because she had two little tots, her brother Jules and her sister Henriette, aged three and five, to watch all day long while sweeping and cleaning.
Ever since Bijard had killed his wife with a kick in the stomach, Lalie had become the little mother of them all. Without saying a word, and of her own accord, she filled the place of one who had gone, to the extent that her brute of a father, no doubt to complete the resemblance, now belabored the daughter as he had formerly belabored the mother. Whenever he came home drunk, he required a woman to massacre. He did not even notice that Lalie was quite little; he would not have beaten some old trollop harder. Little Lalie, so thin it made you cry, took it all without a word of complaint in her beautiful, patient eyes. Never would she revolt. She bent her neck to protect her face and stifled her sobs so as not to alarm the neighbors. When her father got tired of kicking her, she would rest a bit until she got her strength back and then resume her work. It was part of her job, being beaten daily.
Gervaise entertained a great friendship for her little neighbor. She treated her as an equal, as a grown-up woman of experience. It must be said that Lalie had a pale and serious look, with the expression of an old girl. One might have thought her thirty on hearing her speak. She knew very well how to buy things, mend the clothes, attend to the home, and she spoke of the children as though she had already gone through two or thee nurseries in her time. It made people smile to hear her talk thus at eight years old; and then a lump would rise in their throats, and they would hurry away so as not to burst out crying. Gervaise drew the child towards her as much as she could, gave her all she could spare of food and old clothing. One day as she tried one of Nana's old dresses on her, she almost choked with anger on seeing her back covered with bruises, the skin off her elbow, which was still bleeding, and all her innocent flesh martyred and sticking to her bones. Well! Old Bazouge could get a box ready; she would not last long at that rate! But the child had begged the laundress not to say a word. She would not have her father bothered on her account. She took his part, affirming that he would not have been so wicked if it had not been for the drink. He was mad, he did not know what he did. Oh! she forgave him, because one ought to forgive madmen everything.
From that time Gervaise watched and prepared to interfere directly she heard Bijard coming up the stairs. But on most of the occasions she only caught some whack for her trouble. When she entered their room in the day-time, she often found Lalie tied to the foot of the iron bedstead; it was an idea of the locksmith's, before going out, to tie her legs and her body with some stout rope, without anyone being able to find out why—a mere whim of a brain diseased by drink, just for the sake, no doubt, of maintaining his tyranny over the child when he was no longer there. Lalie, as stiff as a stake, with pins and needles in her legs, remained whole days at the post. She once even passed a night there, Bijard having forgotten to come home. Whenever Gervaise, carried away by her indignation, talked of unfastening her, she implored her not to disturb the rope, because her father became furious if he did not find the knots tied the same way he had left them. Really, it wasn't so bad, it gave her a rest. She smiled as she said this though her legs were swollen and bruised. What upset her the most was that she couldn't do her work while tied to the bed. She could watch the children though, and even did some knitting, so as not to entirely waste the time.
The locksmith had thought of another little game too. He heated sous in the frying pan, then placed them on a corner of the mantle-piece; and he called Lalie, and told her to fetch a couple of pounds of bread. The child took up the sous unsuspectingly, uttered a cry and threw them on the ground, shaking her burnt hand. Then he flew into a fury. Who had saddled him with such a piece of carrion? She lost the money now! And he threatened to beat her to a jelly if she did not pick the sous up at once. When the child hesitated she received the first warning, a clout of such force that it made her see thirty-six candles. Speechless and with two big tears in the corners of her eyes, she would pick up the sous and go off, tossing them in the palm of her hand to cool them.
No, one could never imagine the ferocious ideas which may sprout from the depths of a drunkard's brain. One afternoon, for instance, Lalie having made everything tidy was playing with the children. The window was open, there was a draught, and the wind blowing along the passage gently shook the door.
"It's Monsieur Hardy," the child was saying. "Come in, Monsieur Hardy. Pray have the kindness to walk in."
And she curtsied before the door, she bowed to the wind. Henriette and Jules, behind her, also bowed, delighted with the game and splitting their sides with laughing, as though being tickled. She was quite rosy at seeing them so heartily amused and even found some pleasure in it on her own account, which generally only happened to her on the thirty-sixth day of each month.
"Good day, Monsieur Hardy. How do you do, Monsieur Hardy?"
But a rough hand pushed open the door, and Bijard entered. Then the scene changed. Henriette and Jules fell down flat against the wall; whilst Lalie, terrified, remained standing in the very middle of the curtsey. The locksmith held in his hand a big waggoner's whip, quite new, with a long white wooden handle, and a leather thong, terminating with a bit of whip-cord. He placed the whip in the corner against the bed and did not give the usual kick to the child who was already preparing herself by presenting her back. A chuckle exposed his blackened teeth and he was very lively, very drunk, his red face lighted up by some idea that amused him immensely.
"What's that?" said he. "You're playing the deuce, eh, you confounded young hussy! I could hear you dancing about from downstairs. Now then, come here! Nearer and full face. I don't want to sniff you from behind. Am I touching you that you tremble like a mass of giblets? Take my shoes off."
Lalie turned quite pale again and, amazed at not receiving her usual drubbing, took his shoes off. He had seated himself on the edge of the bed. He lay down with his clothes on and remained with his eyes open, watching the child move about the room. She busied herself with one thing and another, gradually becoming bewildered beneath his glance, her limbs overcome by such a fright that she ended by breaking a cup. Then, without getting off the bed, he took hold of the whip and showed it to her.
"See, little chickie, look at this. It's a present for you. Yes, it's another fifty sous you've cost me. With this plaything I shall no longer be obliged to run after you, and it'll be no use you getting into the corners. Will you have a try? Ah! you broke a cup! Now then, gee up! Dance away, make your curtsies to Monsieur Hardy!"
He did not even raise himself but lay sprawling on his back, his head buried in his pillow, making the big whip crack about the room with the noise of a postillion starting his horses. Then, lowering his arm he lashed Lalie in the middle of the body, encircling her with the whip and unwinding it again as though she were a top. She fell and tried to escape on her hands and knees; but lashing her again he jerked her to her feet.
"Gee up, gee up!" yelled he. "It's the donkey race! Eh, it'll be fine of a cold morning in winter. I can lie snug without getting cold or hurting my chilblains and catch the calves from a distance. In that corner there, a hit, you hussy! And in that other corner, a hit again! And in that one, another hit. Ah! if you crawl under the bed I'll whack you with the handle. Gee up, you jade! Gee up! Gee up!"
A slight foam came to his lips, his yellow eyes were starting from their black orbits. Lalie, maddened, howling, jumped to the four corners of the room, curled herself up on the floor and clung to the walls; but the lash at the end of the big whip caught her everywhere, cracking against her ears with the noise of fireworks, streaking her flesh with burning weals. A regular dance of the animal being taught its tricks. This poor kitten waltzed. It was a sight! Her heels in the air like little girls playing at skipping, and crying "Father!" She was all out of breath, rebounding like an india-rubber ball, letting herself be beaten, unable to see or any longer to seek a refuge. And her wolf of a father triumphed, calling her a virago, asking her if she had had enough and whether she understood sufficiently that she was in future to give up all hope of escaping from him.
But Gervaise suddenly entered the room, attracted by the child's howls. On beholding such a scene she was seized with a furious indignation.
"Ah! you brute of a man!" cried she. "Leave her alone, you brigand! I'll put the police on to you."
Bijard growled like an animal being disturbed, and stuttered:
"Mind your own business a bit, Limper. Perhaps you'd like me to put gloves on when I stir her up. It's merely to warm her, as you can plainly see—simply to show her that I've a long arm."
And he gave a final lash with the whip which caught Lalie across the face. The upper lip was cut, the blood flowed. Gervaise had seized a chair, and was about to fall on to the locksmith; but the child held her hands towards her imploringly, saying that it was nothing and that it was all over. She wiped away the blood with the corner of her apron and quieted the babies, who were sobbing bitterly, as though they had received all the blows.
Whenever Gervaise thought of Lalie, she felt she had no right to complain for herself. She wished she had as much patient courage as the little girl who was only eight years old and had to endure more than the rest of the women on their staircase put together. She had seen Lalie living on stale bread for months and growing thinner and weaker. Whenever she smuggled some remnants of meat to Lalie, it almost broke her heart to see the child weeping silently and nibbling it down only by little bits because her throat was so shrunken. Gervaise looked on Lalie as a model of suffering and forgiveness and tried to learn from her how to suffer in silence.
In the Coupeau household the vitriol of l'Assommoir was also commencing its ravages. Gervaise could see the day coming when her husband would get a whip like Bijard's to make her dance.
Yes, Coupeau was spinning an evil thread. The time was past when a drink would make him feel good. His unhealthy soft fat of earlier years had melted away and he was beginning to wither and turn a leaden grey. He seemed to have a greenish tint like a corpse putrefying in a pond. He no longer had a taste for food, not even the most beautifully prepared stew. His stomach would turn and his decayed teeth refuse to touch it. A pint a day was his daily ration, the only nourishment he could digest. When he awoke in the mornings he sat coughing and spitting up bile for at least a quarter of an hour. It never failed, you might as well have the basin ready. He was never steady on his pins till after his first glass of consolation, a real remedy, the fire of which cauterized his bowels; but during the day his strength returned. At first he would feel a tickling sensation, a sort of pins-and-needles in his hands and feet; and he would joke, relating that someone was having a lark with him, that he was sure his wife put horse-hair between the sheets. Then his legs would become heavy, the tickling sensation would end by turning into the most abominable cramps, which gripped his flesh as though in a vise. That though did not amuse him so much. He no longer laughed; he stopped suddenly on the pavement in a bewildered way with a ringing in his ears and his eyes blinded with sparks. Everything appeared to him to be yellow; the houses danced and he reeled about for three seconds with the fear of suddenly finding himself sprawling on the ground. At other times, while the sun was shining full on his back, he would shiver as though iced water had been poured down his shoulders. What bothered him the most was a slight trembling of both his hands; the right hand especially must have been guilty of some crime, it suffered from so many nightmares. Mon Dieu! was he then no longer a man? He was becoming an old woman! He furiously strained his muscles, he seized hold of his glass and bet that he would hold it perfectly steady as with a hand of marble; but in spite of his efforts the glass danced about, jumped to the right, jumped to the left with a hurried and regular trembling movement. Then in a fury he emptied it into his gullet, yelling that he would require dozens like it, and afterwards he undertook to carry a cask without so much as moving a finger. Gervaise, on the other hand, told him to give up drink if he wished to cease trembling, and he laughed at her, emptying quarts until he experienced the sensation again, flying into a rage and accusing the passing omnibuses of shaking up his liquor.
In the month of March Coupeau returned home one evening soaked through. He had come with My-Boots from Montrouge, where they had stuffed themselves full of eel soup, and he had received the full force of the shower all the way from the Barriere des Fourneaux to the Barriere Poissonniere, a good distance. During the night he was seized with a confounded fit of coughing. He was very flushed, suffering from a violent fever and panting like a broken bellows. When the Boches' doctor saw him in the morning and listened against his back he shook his head, and drew Gervaise aside to advise her to have her husband taken to the hospital. Coupeau was suffering from pneumonia.
Gervaise did not worry herself, you may be sure. At one time she would have been chopped into pieces before trusting her old man to the saw-bones. After the accident in the Rue de la Nation she had spent their savings in nursing him. But those beautiful sentiments don't last when men take to wallowing in the mire. No, no; she did not intend to make a fuss like that again. They might take him and never bring him back; she would thank them heartily. Yet, when the litter arrived and Coupeau was put into it like an article of furniture, she became all pale and bit her lips; and if she grumbled and still said it was a good job, her heart was no longer in her words. Had she but ten francs in her drawer she would not have let him go.
She accompanied him to the Lariboisiere Hospital, saw the nurses put him to bed at the end of a long hall, where the patients in a row, looking like corpses, raised themselves up and followed with their eyes the comrade who had just been brought in. It was a veritable death chamber. There was a suffocating, feverish odor and a chorus of coughing. The long hall gave the impression of a small cemetery with its double row of white beds looking like an aisle of marble tombs. When Coupeau remained motionless on his pillow, Gervaise left, having nothing to say, nor anything in her pocket that could comfort him.
Outside, she turned to look up at the monumental structure of the hospital and recalled the days when Coupeau was working there, putting on the zinc roof, perched up high and singing in the sun. He wasn't drinking in those days. She used to watch for him from her window in the Hotel Boncoeur and they would both wave their handkerchiefs in greeting. Now, instead of being on the roof like a cheerful sparrow, he was down below. He had built his own place in the hospital where he had come to die. Mon Dieu! It all seemed so far way now, that time of young love.
On the day after the morrow, when Gervaise called to obtain news of him, she found the bed empty. A Sister of Charity told her that they had been obliged to remove her husband to the Asylum of Sainte-Anne, because the day before he had suddenly gone wild. Oh! a total leave-taking of his senses; attempts to crack his skull against the wall; howls which prevented the other patients from sleeping. It all came from drink, it seemed. Gervaise went home very upset. Well, her husband had gone crazy. What would it be like if he came home? Nana insisted that they should leave him in the hospital because he might end by killing both of them.
Gervaise was not able to go to Sainte-Anne until Sunday. It was a tremendous journey. Fortunately, the omnibus from the Boulevard Rochechouart to La Glaciere passed close to the asylum. She went down the Rue de la Sante, buying two oranges on her way, so as not to arrive empty-handed. It was another monumental building, with grey courtyards, interminable corridors and a smell of rank medicaments, which did not exactly inspire liveliness. But when they had admitted her into a cell she was quite surprised to see Coupeau almost jolly. He was just then seated on the throne, a spotlessly clean wooden case, and they both laughed at her finding him in this position. Well, one knows what an invalid is. He squatted there like a pope with his cheek of earlier days. Oh! he was better, as he could do this.
"And the pneumonia?" inquired the laundress.
"Done for!" replied he. "They cured it in no time. I still cough a little, but that's all that is left of it."
Then at the moment of leaving the throne to get back into his bed, he joked once more. "It's lucky you have a strong nose and are not bothered."
They laughed louder than ever. At heart they felt joyful. It was by way of showing their contentment without a host of phrases that they thus joked together. One must have had to do with patients to know the pleasure one feels at seeing all their functions at work again.
When he was back in bed she gave him the two oranges and this filled him with emotion. He was becoming quite nice again ever since he had had nothing but tisane to drink. She ended by venturing to speak to him about his violent attack, surprised at hearing him reason like in the good old times.
"Ah, yes," said he, joking at his own expense; "I talked a precious lot of nonsense! Just fancy, I saw rats and ran about on all fours to put a grain of salt under their tails. And you, you called to me, men were trying to kill you. In short, all sorts of stupid things, ghosts in broad daylight. Oh! I remember it well, my noodle's still solid. Now it's over, I dream a bit when I'm asleep. I have nightmares, but everyone has nightmares."
Gervaise remained with him until the evening. When the house surgeon came, at the six o'clock inspection, he made him spread his hands; they hardly trembled at all, scarcely a quiver at the tips of the fingers. However, as night approached, Coupeau was little by little seized with uneasiness. He twice sat up in bed looking on the ground and in the dark corners of the room. Suddenly he thrust out an arm and appeared to crush some vermin against the wall.
"What is it?" asked Gervaise, frightened.
"The rats! The rats!" murmured he.
Then, after a pause, gliding into sleep, he tossed about, uttering disconnected phrases.
"Mon Dieu! they're tearing my skin!—Oh! the filthy beasts!—Keep steady! Hold your skirts right round you! beware of the dirty bloke behind you!—Mon Dieu! she's down and the scoundrels laugh!—Scoundrels! Blackguards! Brigands!"
He dealt blows into space, caught hold of his blanket and rolled it into a bundle against his chest, as though to protect the latter from the violence of the bearded men whom he beheld. Then, an attendant having hastened to the spot, Gervaise withdrew, quite frozen by the scene.
But when she returned a few days later, she found Coupeau completely cured. Even the nightmares had left him; he could sleep his ten hours right off as peacefully as a child and without stirring a limb. So his wife was allowed to take him away. The house surgeon gave him the usual good advice on leaving and advised him to follow it. If he recommenced drinking, he would again collapse and would end by dying. Yes, it solely depended upon himself. He had seen how jolly and healthy one could become when one did not get drunk. Well, he must continue at home the sensible life he had led at Sainte-Anne, fancy himself under lock and key and that dram-shops no longer existed.
"The gentleman's right," said Gervaise in the omnibus which was taking them back to the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or.
"Of course he's right," replied Coupeau.
Then, after thinking a minute, he resumed:
"Oh! you know, a little glass now and again can't kill a man; it helps the digestion."
And that very evening he swallowed a glass of bad spirit, just to keep his stomach in order. For eight days he was pretty reasonable. He was a great coward at heart; he had no desire to end his days in the Bicetre mad-house. But his passion got the better of him; the first little glass led him, in spite of himself, to a second, to a third and to a fourth, and at the end of a fortnight, he had got back to his old ration, a pint of vitriol a day. Gervaise, exasperated, could have beaten him. To think that she had been stupid enough to dream once more of leading a worthy life, just because she had seen him at the asylum in full possession of his good sense! Another joyful hour had flown, the last one no doubt! Oh! now, as nothing could reclaim him, not even the fear of his near death, she swore she would no longer put herself out; the home might be all at sixes and sevens, she did not care any longer; and she talked also of leaving him.
Then hell upon earth recommenced, a life sinking deeper into the mire, without a glimmer of hope for something better to follow. Nana, whenever her father clouted her, furiously asked why the brute was not at the hospital. She was awaiting the time when she would be earning money, she would say, to treat him to brandy and make him croak quicker. Gervaise, on her side, flew into a passion one day that Coupeau was regretting their marriage. Ah! she had brought him her saucy children; ah! she had got herself picked up from the pavement, wheedling him with rosy dreams! Mon Dieu! he had a rare cheek! So many words, so many lies. She hadn't wished to have anything to do with him, that was the truth. He had dragged himself at her feet to make her give way, whilst she was advising him to think well what he was about. And if it was all to come over again, he would hear how she would just say "no!" She would sooner have an arm cut off. Yes, she'd had a lover before him; but a woman who has had a lover, and who is a worker, is worth more than a sluggard of a man who sullies his honor and that of his family in all the dram-shops. That day, for the first time, the Coupeaus went in for a general brawl, and they whacked each other so hard that an old umbrella and the broom were broken.
Gervaise kept her word. She sank lower and lower; she missed going to her work oftener, spent whole days in gossiping, and became as soft as a rag whenever she had a task to perform. If a thing fell from her hands, it might remain on the floor; it was certainly not she who would have stooped to pick it up. She took her ease about everything, and never handled a broom except when the accumulation of filth almost brought her to the ground. The Lorilleuxs now made a point of holding something to their noses whenever they passed her room; the stench was poisonous, said they. Those hypocrites slyly lived at the end of the passage, out of the way of all these miseries which filled the corner of the house with whimpering, locking themselves in so as not to have to lend twenty sou pieces. Oh! kind-hearted folks, neighbors awfully obliging! Yes, you may be sure! One had only to knock and ask for a light or a pinch of salt or a jug of water, one was certain of getting the door banged in one's face. With all that they had vipers' tongues. They protested everywhere that they never occupied themselves with other people. This was true whenever it was a question of assisting a neighbor; but they did so from morning to night, directly they had a chance of pulling any one to pieces. With the door bolted and a rug hung up to cover the chinks and the key-hole, they would treat themselves to a spiteful gossip without leaving their gold wire for a moment.
The fall of Clump-clump in particular kept them purring like pet cats. Completely ruined! Not a sou remaining. They smiled gleefully at the small piece of bread she would bring back when she went shopping and kept count of the days when she had nothing at all to eat. And the clothes she wore now. Disgusting rags! That's what happened when one tried to live high.
Gervaise, who had an idea of the way in which they spoke of her, would take her shoes off, and place her ear against their door; but the rug over the door prevented her from hearing much. She was heartily sick of them; she continued to speak to them, to avoid remarks, though expecting nothing but unpleasantness from such nasty persons, but no longer having strength even to give them as much as they gave her, passed the insults off as a lot of nonsense. And besides she only wanted her own pleasure, to sit in a heap twirling her thumbs, and only moving when it was a question of amusing herself, nothing more.
One Saturday Coupeau had promised to take her to the circus. It was well worth while disturbing oneself to see ladies galloping along on horses and jumping through paper hoops. Coupeau had just finished a fortnight's work, he could well spare a couple of francs; and they had also arranged to dine out, just the two of them, Nana having to work very late that evening at her employer's because of some pressing order. But at seven o'clock there was no Coupeau; at eight o'clock it was still the same. Gervaise was furious. Her drunkard was certainly squandering his earnings with his comrades at the dram-shops of the neighborhood. She had washed a cap and had been slaving since the morning over the holes of an old dress, wishing to look decent. At last, towards nine o'clock, her stomach empty, her face purple with rage, she decided to go down and look for Coupeau.
"Is it your husband you want?" called Madame Boche, on catching sight of Gervaise looking very glum. "He's at Pere Colombe's. Boche has just been having some cherry brandy with him."
Gervaise uttered her thanks and stalked stiffly along the pavement with the determination of flying at Coupeau's eyes. A fine rain was falling which made the walk more unpleasant still. But when she reached l'Assommoir, the fear of receiving the drubbing herself if she badgered her old man suddenly calmed her and made her prudent. The shop was ablaze with the lighted gas, the flames of which were as brilliant as suns, and the bottles and jars illuminated the walls with their colored glass. She stood there an instant stretching her neck, her eyes close to the window, looking between two bottle placed there for show, watching Coupeau who was right at the back; he was sitting with some comrades at a little zinc table, all looking vague and blue in the tobacco smoke; and, as one could not hear them yelling, it created a funny effect to see them gesticulating with their chins thrust forward and their eyes starting out of their heads. Good heavens! Was it really possible that men could leave their wives and their homes to shut themselves up thus in a hole where they were choking?
The rain trickled down her neck; she drew herself up and went off to the exterior Boulevard, wrapped in thought and not daring to enter. Ah! well Coupeau would have welcomed her in a pleasant way, he who objected to be spied upon! Besides, it really scarcely seemed to her the proper place for a respectable woman. Twice she went back and stood before the shop window, her eyes again riveted to the glass, annoyed at still beholding those confounded drunkards out of the rain and yelling and drinking. The light of l'Assommoir was reflected in the puddles on the pavement, which simmered with little bubbles caused by the downpour. At length she thought she was too foolish, and pushing open the door, she walked straight up to the table where Coupeau was sitting. After all it was her husband she came for, was it not? And she was authorized in doing so, because he had promised to take her to the circus that evening. So much the worse! She had no desire to melt like a cake of soap out on the pavement.
"Hullo! It's you, old woman!" exclaimed the zinc-worker, half choking with a chuckle. "Ah! that's a good joke. Isn't it a good joke now?"
All the company laughed. Gervaise remained standing, feeling rather bewildered. Coupeau appeared to her to be in a pleasant humor, so she ventured to say:
"You remember, we've somewhere to go. We must hurry. We shall still be in time to see something."
"I can't get up, I'm glued, oh! without joking," resumed Coupeau, who continued laughing. "Try, just to satisfy yourself; pull my arm with all your strength; try it! harder than that, tug away, up with it! You see it's that louse Pere Colombe who's screwed me to his seat."
Gervaise had humored him at this game, and when she let go of his arm, the comrades thought the joke so good that they tumbled up against one another, braying and rubbing their shoulders like donkeys being groomed. The zinc-worker's mouth was so wide with laughter that you could see right down his throat.
"You great noodle!" said he at length, "you can surely sit down a minute. You're better here than splashing about outside. Well, yes; I didn't come home as I promised, I had business to attend to. Though you may pull a long face, it won't alter matters. Make room, you others."
"If madame would accept my knees she would find them softer than the seat," gallantly said My-Boots.
Gervaise, not wishing to attract attention, took a chair and sat down at a short distance from the table. She looked at what the men were drinking, some rotgut brandy which shone like gold in the glasses; a little of it had dropped upon the table and Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, dipped his finger in it whilst conversing and wrote a woman's name—"Eulalie"—in big letters. She noticed that Bibi-the-Smoker looked shockingly jaded and thinner than a hundred-weight of nails. My-Boot's nose was in full bloom, a regular purple Burgundy dahlia. They were all quite dirty, their beards stiff, their smocks ragged and stained, their hands grimy with dirt. Yet they were still quite polite.
Gervaise noticed a couple of men at the bar. They were so drunk that they were spilling the drink down their chins when they thought they were wetting their whistles. Fat Pere Colombe was calmly serving round after round.
The atmosphere was very warm, the smoke from the pipes ascended in the blinding glare of the gas, amidst which it rolled about like dust, drowning the customers in a gradually thickening mist; and from this cloud there issued a deafening and confused uproar, cracked voices, clinking of glasses, oaths and blows sounding like detonations. So Gervaise pulled a very wry face, for such a sight is not funny for a woman, especially when she is not used to it; she was stifling, with a smarting sensation in her eyes, and her head already feeling heavy from the alcoholic fumes exhaled by the whole place. Then she suddenly experienced the sensation of something more unpleasant still behind her back. She turned round and beheld the still, the machine which manufactured drunkards, working away beneath the glass roof of the narrow courtyard with the profound trepidation of its hellish cookery. Of an evening, the copper parts looked more mournful than ever, lit up only on their rounded surface with one big red glint; and the shadow of the apparatus on the wall at the back formed most abominable figures, bodies with tails, monsters opening their jaws as though to swallow everyone up.
"Listen, mother Talk-too-much, don't make any of your grimaces!" cried Coupeau. "To blazes, you know, with all wet blankets! What'll you drink?"
"Nothing, of course," replied the laundress. "I haven't dined yet."
"Well! that's all the more reason for having a glass; a drop of something sustains one."
But, as she still retained her glum expression, My-Boots again did the gallant.
"Madame probably likes sweet things," murmured he.
"I like men who don't get drunk," retorted she, getting angry. "Yes, I like a fellow who brings home his earnings, and who keeps his word when he makes a promise."
"Ah! so that's what upsets you?" said the zinc-worker, without ceasing to chuckle. "Yes, you want your share. Then, big goose, why do you refuse a drink? Take it, it's so much to the good."
She looked at him fixedly, in a grave manner, a wrinkle marking her forehead with a black line. And she slowly replied:
"Why, you're right, it's a good idea. That way, we can drink up the coin together."
Bibi-the-Smoker rose from his seat to fetch her a glass of anisette. She drew her chair up to the table. Whilst she was sipping her anisette, a recollection suddenly flashed across her mind, she remembered the plum she had taken with Coupeau, near the door, in the old days, when he was courting her. At that time, she used to leave the juice of fruits preserved in brandy. And now, here was she going back to liqueurs. Oh! she knew herself well, she had not two thimblefuls of will. One would only have had to have given her a walloping across the back to have made her regularly wallow in drink. The anisette even seemed to be very good, perhaps rather too sweet and slightly sickening. She went on sipping as she listened to Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, tell of his affair with fat Eulalie, a fish peddler and very shrewd at locating him. Even if his comrades tried to hide him, she could usually sniff him out when he was late. Just the night before she had slapped his face with a flounder to teach him not to neglect going to work. Bibi-the-Smoker and My-Boots nearly split their sides laughing. They slapped Gervaise on the shoulder and she began to laugh also, finding it amusing in spite of herself. They then advised her to follow Eulalie's example and bring an iron with her so as to press Coupeau's ears on the counters of the wineshops.
"Ah, well, no thanks," cried Coupeau as he turned upside down the glass his wife had emptied. "You pump it out pretty well. Just look, you fellows, she doesn't take long over it."
"Will madame take another?" asked Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst.
No, she had had enough. Yet she hesitated. The anisette had slightly bothered her stomach. She should have taken straight brandy to settle her digestion.
She cast side glances at the drunkard manufacturing machine behind her. That confounded pot, as round as the stomach of a tinker's fat wife, with its nose that was so long and twisted, sent a shiver down her back, a fear mingled with a desire. Yes, one might have thought it the metal pluck of some big wicked woman, of some witch who was discharging drop by drop the fire of her entrails. A fine source of poison, an operation which should have been hidden away in a cellar, it was so brazen and abominable! But all the same she would have liked to have poked her nose inside it, to have sniffed the odor, have tasted the filth, though the skin might have peeled off her burnt tongue like the rind off an orange.
"What's that you're drinking?" asked she slyly of the men, her eyes lighted up by the beautiful golden color of their glasses.
"That, old woman," answered Coupeau, "is Pere Colombe's camphor. Don't be silly now and we'll give you a taste."
And when they had brought her a glass of the vitriol, the rotgut, and her jaws had contracted at the first mouthful, the zinc-worker resumed, slapping his thighs:
"Ha! It tickles your gullet! Drink it off at one go. Each glassful cheats the doctor of six francs."
At the second glass Gervaise no longer felt the hunger which had been tormenting her. Now she had made it up with Coupeau, she no longer felt angry with him for not having kept his word. They would go to the circus some other day; it was not so funny to see jugglers galloping about on houses. There was no rain inside Pere Colombe's and if the money went in brandy, one at least had it in one's body; one drank it bright and shining like beautiful liquid gold. Ah! she was ready to send the whole world to blazes! Life was not so pleasant after all, besides it seemed some consolation to her to have her share in squandering the cash. As she was comfortable, why should she not remain? One might have a discharge of artillery; she did not care to budge once she had settled in a heap. She nursed herself in a pleasant warmth, her bodice sticking to her back, overcome by a feeling of comfort which benumbed her limbs. She laughed all to herself, her elbows on the table, a vacant look in her eyes, highly amused by two customers, a fat heavy fellow and a tiny shrimp, seated at a neighboring table, and kissing each other lovingly. Yes, she laughed at the things to see in l'Assommoir, at Pere Colombe's full moon face, a regular bladder of lard, at the customers smoking their short clay pipes, yelling and spitting, and at the big flames of gas which lighted up the looking-glasses and the bottles of liqueurs. The smell no longer bothered her, on the contrary it tickled her nose, and she thought it very pleasant. Her eyes slightly closed, whilst she breathed very slowly, without the least feeling of suffocation, tasting the enjoyment of the gentle slumber which was overcoming her. Then, after her third glass, she let her chin fall on her hands; she now only saw Coupeau and his comrades, and she remained nose to nose with them, quite close, her cheeks warmed by their breath, looking at their dirty beards as though she had been counting the hairs. My-Boots drooled, his pipe between his teeth, with the dumb and grave air of a dozing ox. Bibi-the-Smoker was telling a story—the manner in which he emptied a bottle at a draught, giving it such a kiss that one instantly saw its bottom. Meanwhile Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, had gone and fetched the wheel of fortune from the counter, and was playing with Coupeau for drinks.
"Two hundred! You're lucky; you get high numbers every time!"
The needle of the wheel grated, and the figure of Fortune, a big red woman placed under glass, turned round and round until it looked like a mere spot in the centre, similar to a wine stain.
"Three hundred and fifty! You must have been inside it, you confounded lascar! Ah! I shan't play any more!"
Gervaise amused herself with the wheel of fortune. She was feeling awfully thirsty, and calling My-Boots "my child." Behind her the machine for manufacturing drunkards continued working, with its murmur of an underground stream; and she despaired of ever stopping it, of exhausting it, filled with a sullen anger against it, feeling a longing to spring upon the big still as upon some animal, to kick it with her heels and stave in its belly. Then everything began to seem all mixed up. The machine seemed to be moving itself and she thought she was being grabbed by its copper claws, and that the underground stream was now flowing over her body.
Then the room danced round, the gas-jets seemed to shoot like stars. Gervaise was drunk. She heard a furious wrangle between Salted-Mouth, otherwise Drink-without-Thirst, and that rascal Pere Colombe. There was a thief of a landlord who wanted one to pay for what one had not had! Yet one was not at a gangster's hang-out. Suddenly there was a scuffling, yells were heard and tables were upset. It was Pere Colombe who was turning the party out without the least hesitation, and in the twinkling of an eye. On the other side of the door they blackguarded him and called him a scoundrel. It still rained and blew icy cold. Gervaise lost Coupeau, found him and then lost him again. She wished to go home; she felt the shops to find her way. This sudden darkness surprised her immensely. At the corner of the Rue des Poissonniers, she sat down in the gutter thinking she was at the wash-house. The water which flowed along caused her head to swim, and made her very ill. At length she arrived, she passed stiffly before the concierge's room where she perfectly recognized the Lorilleuxs and the Poissons seated at the table having dinner, and who made grimaces of disgust on beholding her in that sorry state.
She never remembered how she had got up all those flights of stairs. Just as she was turning into the passage at the top, little Lalie, who heard her footsteps, hastened to meet her, opening her arms caressingly, and saying, with a smile:
"Madame Gervaise, papa has not returned. Just come and see my little children sleeping. Oh! they look so pretty!"
But on beholding the laundress' besotted face, she tremblingly drew back. She was acquainted with that brandy-laden breath, those pale eyes, that convulsed mouth. Then Gervaise stumbled past without uttering a word, whilst the child, standing on the threshold of her room, followed her with her dark eyes, grave and speechless.
Nana was growing up and becoming wayward. At fifteen years old she had expanded like a calf, white-skinned and very fat; so plump, indeed, you might have called her a pincushion. Yes, such she was—fifteen years old, full of figure and no stays. A saucy magpie face, dipped in milk, a skin as soft as a peach skin, a funny nose, pink lips and eyes sparkling like tapers, which men would have liked to light their pipes at. Her pile of fair hair, the color of fresh oats, seemed to have scattered gold dust over her temples, freckle-like as it were, giving her brow a sunny crown. Ah! a pretty doll, as the Lorilleuxs say, a dirty nose that needed wiping, with fat shoulders, which were as fully rounded and as powerful as those of a full-grown woman. Nana no longer needed to stuff wads of paper into her bodice, her breasts were grown. She wished they were larger though, and dreamed of having breasts like a wet-nurse.
What made her particularly tempting was a nasty habit she had of protruding the tip of her tongue between her white teeth. No doubt on seeing herself in the looking-glasses she had thought she was pretty like this; and so, all day long, she poked her tongue out of her mouth, in view of improving her appearance.
"Hide your lying tongue!" cried her mother.
Coupeau would often get involved, pounding his fist, swearing and shouting:
"Make haste and draw that red rag inside again!"
Nana showed herself very coquettish. She did not always wash her feet, but she bought such tight boots that she suffered martyrdom in St. Crispin's prison; and if folks questioned her when she turned purple with pain, she answered that she had the stomach ache, so as to avoid confessing her coquetry. When bread was lacking at home it was difficult for her to trick herself out. But she accomplished miracles, brought ribbons back from the workshop and concocted toilettes—dirty dresses set off with bows and puffs. The summer was the season of her greatest triumphs. With a cambric dress which had cost her six francs she filled the whole neighborhood of the Goutte-d'Or with her fair beauty. Yes, she was known from the outer Boulevards to the Fortifications, and from the Chaussee de Clignancourt to the Grand Rue of La Chapelle. Folks called her "chickie," for she was really as tender and as fresh-looking as a chicken.
There was one dress which suited her perfectly, a white one with pink dots. It was very simple and without a frill. The skirt was rather short and revealed her ankles. The sleeves were deeply slashed and loose, showing her arms to the elbow. She pinned the neck back into a wide V as soon as she reached a dark corner of the staircase to avoid getting her ears boxed by her father for exposing the snowy whiteness of her throat and the golden shadow between her breasts. She also tied a pink ribbon round her blond hair.
Sundays she spent the entire day out with the crowds and loved it when the men eyed her hungrily as they passed. She waited all week long for these glances. She would get up early to dress herself and spend hours before the fragment of mirror that was hung over the bureau. Her mother would scold her because the entire building could see her through the window in her chemise as she mended her dress.
Ah! she looked cute like that said father Coupeau, sneering and jeering at her, a real Magdalene in despair! She might have turned "savage woman" at a fair, and have shown herself for a penny. Hide your meat, he used to say, and let me eat my bread! In fact, she was adorable, white and dainty under her overhanging golden fleece, losing temper to the point that her skin turned pink, not daring to answer her father, but cutting her thread with her teeth with a hasty, furious jerk, which shook her plump but youthful form.
Then immediately after breakfast she tripped down the stairs into the courtyard. The entire tenement seemed to be resting sleepily in the peacefulness of a Sunday afternoon. The workshops on the ground floor were closed. Gaping windows revealed tables in some apartments that were already set for dinner, awaiting families out working up an appetite by strolling along the fortifications.
Then, in the midst of the empty, echoing courtyard, Nana, Pauline and other big girls engaged in games of battledore and shuttlecock. They had grown up together and were now becoming queens of their building. Whenever a man crossed the court, flutelike laugher would arise, and then starched skirts would rustle like the passing of a gust of wind.
The games were only an excuse for them to make their escape. Suddenly stillness fell upon the tenement. The girls had glided out into the street and made for the outer Boulevards. Then, linked arm-in-arm across the full breadth of the pavement, they went off, the whole six of them, clad in light colors, with ribbons tied around their bare heads. With bright eyes darting stealthy glances through their partially closed eyelids, they took note of everything, and constantly threw back their necks to laugh, displaying the fleshy part of their chins. They would swing their hips, or group together tightly, or flaunt along with awkward grace, all for the purpose of calling attention to the fact that their forms were filling out.
Nana was in the centre with her pink dress all aglow in the sunlight. She gave her arm to Pauline, whose costume, yellow flowers on a white ground, glared in similar fashion, dotted as it were with little flames. As they were the tallest of the band, the most woman-like and most unblushing, they led the troop and drew themselves up with breasts well forward whenever they detected glances or heard complimentary remarks. The others extended right and left, puffing themselves out in order to attract attention. Nana and Pauline resorted to the complicated devices of experienced coquettes. If they ran till they were out of breath, it was in view of showing their white stockings and making the ribbons of their chignons wave in the breeze. When they stopped, pretending complete breathlessness, you would certainly spot someone they knew quite near, one of the young fellows of the neighborhood. This would make them dawdle along languidly, whispering and laughing among themselves, but keeping a sharp watch through their downcast eyelids.
They went on these strolls of a Sunday mainly for the sake of these chance meetings. Tall lads, wearing their Sunday best, would stop them, joking and trying to catch them round their waists. Pauline was forever running into one of Madame Gaudron's sons, a seventeen-year-old carpenter, who would treat her to fried potatoes. Nana could spot Victor Fauconnier, the laundress's son and they would exchange kisses in dark corners. It never went farther than that, but they told each other some tall tales.
Then when the sun set, the great delight of these young hussies was to stop and look at the mountebanks. Conjurors and strong men turned up and spread threadbare carpets on the soil of the avenue. Loungers collected and a circle formed whilst the mountebank in the centre tried his muscles under his faded tights. Nana and Pauline would stand for hours in the thickest part of the crowd. Their pretty, fresh frocks would get crushed between great-coats and dirty work smocks. In this atmosphere of wine and sweat they would laugh gaily, finding amusement in everything, blooming naturally like roses growing out of a dunghill. The only thing that vexed them was to meet their fathers, especially when the hatter had been drinking. So they watched and warned one another.
"Look, Nana," Pauline would suddenly cry out, "here comes father Coupeau!"
"Well, he's drunk too. Oh, dear," said Nana, greatly bothered. "I'm going to beat it, you know. I don't want him to give me a wallop. Hullo! How he stumbles! Good Lord, if he could only break his neck!"
At other times, when Coupeau came straight up to her without giving her time to run off, she crouched down, made herself small and muttered: "Just you hide me, you others. He's looking for me, and he promised he'd knock my head off if he caught me hanging about."
Then when the drunkard had passed them she drew herself up again, and all the others followed her with bursts of laughter. He'll find her—he will—he won't! It was a true game of hide and seek. One day, however, Boche had come after Pauline and caught her by both ears, and Coupeau had driven Nana home with kicks.
Nana was now a flower-maker and earned forty sous a day at Titreville's place in the Rue du Caire, where she had served as apprentice. The Coupeaus had kept her there so that she might remain under the eye of Madame Lerat, who had been forewoman in the workroom for ten years. Of a morning, when her mother looked at the cuckoo clock, off she went by herself, looking very pretty with her shoulders tightly confined in her old black dress, which was both too narrow and too short; and Madame Lerat had to note the hour of her arrival and tell it to Gervaise. She was allowed twenty minutes to go from the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or to the Rue du Caire, and it was enough, for these young hussies have the legs of racehorses. Sometimes she arrived exactly on time but so breathless and flushed that she must have covered most of the distance at a run after dawdling along the way. More often she was a few minutes late. Then she would fawn on her aunt all day, hoping to soften her and keep her from telling. Madame Lerat understood what it was to be young and would lie to the Coupeaus, but she also lectured Nana, stressing the dangers a young girl runs on the streets of Paris. Mon Dieu! she herself was followed often enough!
"Oh! I watch, you needn't fear," said the widow to the Coupeaus. "I will answer to you for her as I would for myself. And rather than let a blackguard squeeze her, why I'd step between them."
The workroom at Titreville's was a large apartment on the first floor, with a broad work-table standing on trestles in the centre. Round the four walls, the plaster of which was visible in parts where the dirty yellowish-grey paper was torn away, there were several stands covered with old cardboard boxes, parcels and discarded patterns under a thick coating of dust. The gas had left what appeared to be like a daub of soot on the ceiling. The two windows opened so wide that without leaving the work-table the girls could see the people walking past on the pavement over the way.
Madame Lerat arrived the first, in view of setting an example. Then for a quarter of an hour the door swayed to and fro, and all the workgirls scrambled in, perspiring with tumbled hair. One July morning Nana arrived the last, as very often happened. "Ah, me!" she said, "it won't be a pity when I have a carriage of my own." And without even taking off her hat, one which she was weary of patching up, she approached the window and leant out, looking to the right and the left to see what was going on in the street.
"What are you looking at?" asked Madame Lerat, suspiciously. "Did your father come with you?"
"No, you may be sure of that," answered Nana coolly. "I'm looking at nothing—I'm seeing how hot it is. It's enough to make anyone, having to run like that."
It was a stifling hot morning. The workgirls had drawn down the Venetian blinds, between which they could spy out into the street; and they had at last begun working on either side of the table, at the upper end of which sat Madame Lerat. They were eight in number, each with her pot of glue, pincers, tools and curling stand in front of her. On the work-table lay a mass of wire, reels, cotton wool, green and brown paper, leaves and petals cut out of silk, satin or velvet. In the centre, in the neck of a large decanter, one flower-girl had thrust a little penny nosegay which had been fading on her breast since the day before.
"Oh, I have some news," said a pretty brunette named Leonie as she leaned over her cushion to crimp some rose petals. "Poor Caroline is very unhappy about that fellow who used to wait for her every evening."
"Ah!" said Nana, who was cutting thin strips of green paper. "A man who cheats on her every day!"
Madame Lerat had to display severity over the muffled laughter. Then Leonie whispered suddenly:
"Quiet. The boss!"
It was indeed Madame Titreville who entered. The tall thin woman usually stayed down in the shop. The girls were quite in awe of her because she never joked with them. All the heads were now bent over the work in diligent silence. Madame Titreville slowly circled the work-table. She told one girl her work was sloppy and made her do the flower over. Then she stalked out as stiffly as she had come in.
The complaining and low laughter began again.
"Really, young ladies!" said Madame Lerat, trying to look more severe than ever. "You will force me to take measures."
The workgirls paid no attention to her. They were not afraid of her. She was too easy-going because she enjoyed being surrounded by these young girls whose zest for life sparkled in their eyes. She enjoyed taking them aside to hear their confidences about their lovers. She even told their fortunes with cards whenever a corner of the work-table was free. She was only offended by coarse expressions. As long as you avoided those you could say what you pleased.
To tell the truth, Nana perfected her education in nice style in the workroom! No doubt she was already inclined to go wrong. But this was the finishing stroke—associating with a lot of girls who were already worn out with misery and vice. They all hobnobbed and rotted together, just the story of the baskets of apples when there are rotten ones among them. They maintained a certain propriety in public, but the smut flowed freely when they got to whispering together in a corner.
For inexperienced girls like Nana, there was an undesirable atmosphere around the workshop, an air of cheap dance halls and unorthodox evenings brought in by some of the girls. The laziness of mornings after a gay night, the shadows under the eyes, the lounging, the hoarse voices, all spread an odor of dark perversion over the work-table which contrasted sharply with the brilliant fragility of the artificial flowers. Nana eagerly drank it all in and was dizzy with joy when she found herself beside a girl who had been around. She always wanted to sit next to big Lisa, who was said to be pregnant, and she kept glancing curiously at her neighbor as though expecting her to swell up suddenly.
"It's hot enough to make one stifle," Nana said, approaching a window as if to draw the blind farther down; but she leant forward and again looked out both to the right and left.
At the same moment Leonie, who was watching a man stationed at the foot of the pavement over the way, exclaimed, "What's that old fellow about? He's been spying here for the last quarter of an hour."
"Some tom cat," said Madame Lerat. "Nana, just come and sit down! I told you not to stand at the window."
Nana took up the stems of some violets she was rolling, and the whole workroom turned its attention to the man in question. He was a well-dressed individual wearing a frock coat and he looked about fifty years old. He had a pale face, very serous and dignified in expression, framed round with a well trimmed grey beard. He remained for an hour in front of a herbalist's shop with his eyes fixed on the Venetian blinds of the workroom. The flower-girls indulged in little bursts of laughter which died away amid the noise of the street, and while leaning forward, to all appearance busy with their work, they glanced askance so as not to lose sight of the gentleman.
"Ah!" remarked Leonie, "he wears glasses. He's a swell. He's waiting for Augustine, no doubt."
But Augustine, a tall, ugly, fair-haired girl, sourly answered that she did not like old men; whereupon Madame Lerat, jerking her head, answered with a smile full of underhand meaning:
"That is a great mistake on your part, my dear; the old ones are more affectionate."
At this moment Leonie's neighbor, a plump little body, whispered something in her ear and Leonie suddenly threw herself back on her chair, seized with a fit of noisy laughter, wriggling, looking at the gentleman and then laughing all the louder. "That's it. Oh! that's it," she stammered. "How dirty that Sophie is!"
"What did she say? What did she say?" asked the whole workroom, aglow with curiosity.
Leonie wiped the tears from her eyes without answering. When she became somewhat calmer, she began curling her flowers again and declared, "It can't be repeated."
The others insisted, but she shook her head, seized again with a gust of gaiety. Thereupon Augustine, her left-hand neighbor, besought her to whisper it to her; and finally Leonie consented to do so with her lips close to Augustine's ear. Augustine threw herself back and wriggled with convulsive laughter in her turn. Then she repeated the phrase to a girl next to her, and from ear to ear it traveled round the room amid exclamations and stifled laughter. When they were all of them acquainted with Sophie's disgusting remark they looked at one another and burst out laughing together although a little flushed and confused. Madame Lerat alone was not in the secret and she felt extremely vexed.
"That's very impolite behavior on your part, young ladies," said she. "It is not right to whisper when other people are present. Something indecent no doubt! Ah! that's becoming!"
She did not dare go so far as to ask them to pass Sophie's remark on to her although she burned to hear it. So she kept her eyes on her work, amusing herself by listening to the conversation. Now no one could make even an innocent remark without the others twisting it around and connecting it with the gentleman on the sidewalk. Madame Lerat herself once sent them into convulsions of laughter when she said, "Mademoiselle Lisa, my fire's gone out. Pass me yours."
"Oh! Madame Lerat's fire's out!" laughed the whole shop.
They refused to listen to any explanation, but maintained they were going to call in the gentleman outside to rekindle Madame Lerat's fire.
However, the gentleman over the way had gone off. The room grew calmer and the work was carried on in the sultry heat. When twelve o'clock struck—meal-time—they all shook themselves. Nana, who had hastened to the window again, volunteered to do the errands if they liked. And Leonie ordered two sous worth of shrimps, Augustine a screw of fried potatoes, Lisa a bunch of radishes, Sophie a sausage. Then as Nana was doing down the stairs, Madame Lerat, who found her partiality for the window that morning rather curious, overtook her with her long legs.
"Wait a bit," said she. "I'll go with you. I want to buy something too."
But in the passage below she perceived the gentleman, stuck there like a candle and exchanging glances with Nana. The girl flushed very red, whereupon her aunt at once caught her by the arm and made her trot over the pavement, whilst the individual followed behind. Ah! so the tom cat had come for Nana. Well, that was nice! At fifteen years and a half to have men trailing after her! Then Madame Lerat hastily began to question her. Mon Dieu! Nana didn't know; he had only been following her for five days, but she could not poke her nose out of doors without stumbling on men. She believed he was in business; yes, a manufacturer of bone buttons. Madame Lerat was greatly impressed. She turned round and glanced at the gentleman out of the corner of her eye.
"One can see he's got a deep purse," she muttered. "Listen to me, kitten; you must tell me everything. You have nothing more to fear now."
Whilst speaking they hastened from shop to shop—to the pork butcher's, the fruiterer's, the cook-shop; and the errands in greasy paper were piled up in their hands. Still they remained amiable, flouncing along and casting bright glances behind them with gusts of gay laughter. Madame Lerat herself was acting the young girl, on account of the button manufacturer who was still following them.
"He is very distinguished looking," she declared as they returned into the passage. "If he only has honorable views—"
Then, as they were going up the stairs she suddenly seemed to remember something. "By the way, tell me what the girls were whispering to each other—you know, what Sophie said?"
Nana did not make any ceremony. Only she caught Madame Lerat by the hand, and caused her to descend a couple of steps, for, really, it wouldn't do to say it aloud, not even on the stairs. When she whispered it to her, it was so obscene that Madame Lerat could only shake her head, opening her eyes wide, and pursing her lips. Well, at least her curiosity wasn't troubling her any longer.
From that day forth Madame Lerat regaled herself with her niece's first love adventure. She no longer left her, but accompanied her morning and evening, bringing her responsibility well to the fore. This somewhat annoyed Nana, but all the same she expanded with pride at seeing herself guarded like a treasure; and the talk she and her aunt indulged in in the street with the button manufacturer behind them flattered her, and rather quickened her desire for new flirtations. Oh! her aunt understood the feelings of the heart; she even compassionated the button manufacturer, this elderly gentleman, who looked so respectable, for, after all, sentimental feelings are more deeply rooted among people of a certain age. Still she watched. And, yes, he would have to pass over her body before stealing her niece.
One evening she approached the gentleman, and told him, as straight as a bullet, that his conduct was most improper. He bowed to her politely without answering, like an old satyr who was accustomed to hear parents tell him to go about his business. She really could not be cross with him, he was too well mannered.
Then came lectures on love, allusions to dirty blackguards of men, and all sorts of stories about hussies who had repented of flirtations, which left Nana in a state of pouting, with eyes gleaming brightly in her pale face.
One day, however, in the Rue du Faubourg-Poissonniere the button manufacturer ventured to poke his nose between the aunt and the niece to whisper some things which ought not to have been said. Thereupon Madame Lerat was so frightened that she declared she no longer felt able to handle the matter and she told the whole business to her brother. Then came another row. There were some pretty rumpuses in the Coupeaus' room. To begin with, the zinc-worker gave Nana a hiding. What was that he learnt? The hussy was flirting with old men. All right. Only let her be caught philandering out of doors again, she'd be done for; he, her father, would cut off her head in a jiffy. Had the like ever been seen before! A dirty nose who thought of beggaring her family! Thereupon he shook her, declaring in God's name that she'd have to walk straight, for he'd watch her himself in future. He now looked her over every night when she came in, even going so far as to sniff at her and make her turn round before him.
One evening she got another hiding because he discovered a mark on her neck that he maintained was the mark of a kiss. Nana insisted it was a bruise that Leonie had given her when they were having a bit of a rough-house. Yet at other times her father would tease her, saying she was certainly a choice morsel for men. Nana began to display the sullen submissiveness of a trapped animal. She was raging inside.
"Why don't you leave her alone?" repeated Gervaise, who was more reasonable. "You will end by making her wish to do it by talking to her about it so much."
Ah! yes, indeed, she did wish to do it. She itched all over, longing to break loose and gad all the time, as father Coupeau said. He insisted so much on the subject that even an honest girl would have fired up. Even when he was abusing her, he taught her a few things she did not know as yet, which, to say the least was astonishing. Then, little by little she acquired some singular habits. One morning he noticed her rummaging in a paper bag and rubbing something on her face. It was rice powder, which she plastered on her delicate satin-like skin with perverse taste. He caught up the paper bag and rubbed it over her face violently enough to graze her skin and called her a miller's daughter. On another occasion she brought some ribbon home, to do up her old black hat which she was so ashamed of. He asked her in a furious voice where she had got those ribbons from. Had she earned them by lying on her back or had she bagged them somewhere? A hussy or a thief, and perhaps both by now?
More than once he found her with some pretty little doodad. She had found a little interlaced heart in the street on Rue d'Aboukir. Her father crushed the heart under his foot, driving her to the verge of throwing herself at him to ruin something of his. For two years she had been longing for one of those hearts, and now he had smashed it! This was too much, she was reaching the end of the line with him.
Coupeau was often in the wrong in the manner in which he tried to rule Nana. His injustice exasperated her. She at last left off attending the workshop and when the zinc-worker gave her a hiding, she declared she would not return to Titreville's again, for she was always placed next to Augustine, who must have swallowed her feet to have such a foul breath. Then Coupeau took her himself to the Rue du Caire and requested the mistress of the establishment to place her always next to Augustine, by way of punishment. Every morning for a fortnight he took the trouble to come down from the Barriere Poissonniere to escort Nana to the door of the flower shop. And he remained for five minutes on the footway, to make sure that she had gone in. But one morning while he was drinking a glass with a friend in a wineshop in the Rue Saint-Denis, he perceived the hussy darting down the street. For a fortnight she had been deceiving him; instead of going into the workroom, she climbed a story higher, and sat down on the stairs, waiting till he had gone off. When Coupeau began casting the blame on Madame Lerat, the latter flatly replied that she would not accept it. She had told her niece all she ought to tell her, to keep her on her guard against men, and it was not her fault if the girl still had a liking for the nasty beasts. Now, she washed her hands of the whole business; she swore she would not mix up in it, for she knew what she knew about scandalmongers in her own family, yes, certain persons who had the nerve to accuse her of going astray with Nana and finding an indecent pleasure in watching her take her first misstep. Then Coupeau found out from the proprietress that Nana was being corrupted by that little floozie Leonie, who had given up flower-making to go on the street. Nana was being tempted by the jingle of cash and the lure of adventure on the streets.
In the tenement in the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or, Nana's old fellow was talked about as a gentleman everyone was acquainted with. Oh! he remained very polite, even a little timid, but awfully obstinate and patient, following her ten paces behind like an obedient poodle. Sometimes, indeed, he ventured into the courtyard. One evening, Madame Gaudron met him on the second floor landing, and he glided down alongside the balusters with his nose lowered and looking as if on fire, but frightened. The Lorilleuxs threatened to move out if that wayward niece of theirs brought men trailing in after her. It was disgusting. The staircase was full of them. The Boches said that they felt sympathy for the old gentleman because he had fallen for a tramp. He was really a respectable businessman, they had seen his button factory on the Boulevard de la Villette. He would be an excellent catch for a decent girl.
For the first month Nana was greatly amused with her old flirt. You should have seen him always dogging her—a perfect great nuisance, who followed far behind, in the crowd, without seeming to do so. And his legs! Regular lucifers. No more moss on his pate, only four straight hairs falling on his neck, so that she was always tempted to ask him where his hairdresser lived. Ah! what an old gaffer, he was comical and no mistake, nothing to get excited over.
Then, on finding him always behind her, she no longer thought him so funny. She became afraid of him and would have called out if he had approached her. Often, when she stopped in front of a jeweler's shop, she heard him stammering something behind her. And what he said was true; she would have liked to have had a cross with a velvet neck-band, or a pair of coral earrings, so small you would have thought they were drops of blood.
More and more, as she plodded through the mire of the streets, getting splashed by passing vehicles and being dazzled by the magnificence of the window displays, she felt longings that tortured her like hunger pangs, yearnings for better clothes, for eating in restaurants, for going to the theatre, for a room of her own with nice furniture. Right at those moments, it never failed that her old gentleman would come up to whisper something in her ear. Oh, if only she wasn't afraid of him, how readily she would have taken up with him.
When the winter arrived, life became impossible at home. Nana had her hiding every night. When her father was tired of beating her, her mother smacked her to teach her how to behave. And there were free-for-alls; as soon as one of them began to beat her, the other took her part, so that all three of them ended by rolling on the floor in the midst of the broken crockery. And with all this, there were short rations and they shivered with cold. Whenever the girl bought anything pretty, a bow or a pair of buttons, her parents confiscated the purchase and drank what they could get for it. She had nothing of her own, excepting her allowance of blows, before coiling herself up between the rags of a sheet, where she shivered under her little black skirt, which she stretched out by way of a blanket. No, that cursed life could not continue; she was not going to leave her skin in it. Her father had long since ceased to count for her; when a father gets drunk like hers did, he isn't a father, but a dirty beast one longs to be rid of. And now, too, her mother was doing down the hill in her esteem. She drank as well. She liked to go and fetch her husband at Pere Colombe's, so as to be treated; and she willingly sat down, with none of the air of disgust that she had assumed on the first occasion, draining glasses indeed at one gulp, dragging her elbows over the table for hours and leaving the place with her eyes starting out of her head.
When Nana passed in front of l'Assommoir and saw her mother inside, with her nose in her glass, fuddled in the midst of the disputing men, she was seized with anger; for youth which has other dainty thoughts uppermost does not understand drink. On these evenings it was a pretty sight. Father drunk, mother drunk, a hell of a home that stunk with liquor, and where there was no bread. To tell the truth, a saint would not have stayed in the place. So much the worse if she flew the coop one of these days; her parents would have to say their mea culpa, and own that they had driven her out themselves.
One Saturday when Nana came home she found her father and her mother in a lamentable condition. Coupeau, who had fallen across the bed was snoring. Gervaise, crouching on a chair was swaying her head, with her eyes vaguely and threateningly staring into vacancy. She had forgotten to warm the dinner, the remains of a stew. A tallow dip which she neglected to snuff revealed the shameful misery of their hovel.
"It's you, shrimp?" stammered Gervaise. "Ah, well, your father will take care of you."
Nana did not answer, but remained pale, looking at the cold stove, the table on which no plates were laid, the lugubrious hovel which this pair of drunkards invested with the pale horror of their callousness. She did not take off her hat but walked round the room; then with her teeth tightly set, she opened the door and went out.
"You are doing down again?" asked her mother, who was unable even to turn her head.
"Yes; I've forgotten something. I shall come up again. Good evening."
And she did not return. On the morrow when the Coupeaus were sobered they fought together, reproaching each other with being the cause of Nana's flight. Ah! she was far away if she were running still! As children are told of sparrows, her parents might set a pinch of salt on her tail, and then perhaps they would catch her. It was a great blow, and crushed Gervaise, for despite the impairment of her faculties, she realized perfectly well that her daughter's misconduct lowered her still more; she was alone now, with no child to think about, able to let herself sink as low as she could fall. She drank steadily for three days. Coupeau prowled along the exterior Boulevards without seeing Nana and then came home to smoke his pipe peacefully. He was always back in time for his soup.
In this tenement, where girls flew off every month like canaries whose cages are left open, no one was astonished to hear of the Coupeaus' mishap. But the Lorilleuxs were triumphant. Ah! they had predicted that the girl would reward her parents in this fashion. It was deserved; all artificial flower-girls went that way. The Boches and the Poissons also sneered with an extraordinary display and outlay of grief. Lantier alone covertly defended Nana. Mon Dieu! said he, with his puritanical air, no doubt a girl who so left her home did offend her parents; but, with a gleam in the corner of his eyes, he added that, dash it! the girl was, after all, too pretty to lead such a life of misery at her age.
"Do you know," cried Madame Lorilleux, one day in the Boches' room, where the party were taking coffee; "well, as sure as daylight, Clump-clump sold her daughter. Yes she sold her, and I have proof of it! That old fellow, who was always on the stairs morning and night, went up to pay something on account. It stares one in the face. They were seen together at the Ambigu Theatre—the young wench and her old tom cat. Upon my word of honor, they're living together, it's quite plain."
They discussed the scandal thoroughly while finishing their coffee. Yes, it was quite possible. Soon most of the neighborhood accepted the conclusion that Gervaise had actually sold her daughter.
Gervaise now shuffled along in her slippers, without caring a rap for anyone. You might have called her a thief in the street, she wouldn't have turned round. For a month past she hadn't looked at Madame Fauconnier's; the latter had had to turn her out of the place to avoid disputes. In a few weeks' time she had successively entered the service of eight washerwomen; she only lasted two or three days in each place before she got the sack, so badly did she iron the things entrusted to her, careless and dirty, her mind failing to such a point that she quite forgot her own craft. At last realizing her own incapacity she abandoned ironing; and went out washing by the day at the wash-house in the Rue Neuve, where she still jogged on, floundering about in the water, fighting with filth, reduced to the roughest but simplest work, a bit lower on the down-hill slopes. The wash-house scarcely beautified her. A real mud-splashed dog when she came out of it, soaked and showing her blue skin. At the same time she grew stouter and stouter, despite her frequent dances before the empty sideboard, and her leg became so crooked that she could no longer walk beside anyone without the risk of knocking him over, so great indeed was her limp.
Naturally enough when a woman falls to this point all her pride leaves her. Gervaise had divested herself of all her old self-respect, coquetry and need of sentiment, propriety and politeness. You might have kicked her, no matter where, she did not feel kicks for she had become too fat and flabby. Lantier had altogether neglected her; he no longer escorted her or even bothered to give her a pinch now and again. She did not seem to notice this finish of a long liaison slowly spun out, and ending in mutual insolence. It was a chore the less for her. Even Lantier's intimacy with Virginie left her quite calm, so great was her indifference now for all that she had been so upset about in the past. She would even have held a candle for them now.
Everyone was aware that Virginie and Lantier were carrying on. It was much too convenient, especially with Poisson on duty every other night. Lantier had thought of himself when he advised Virginie to deal in dainties. He was too much of a Provincial not to adore sugared things; and in fact he would have lived off sugar candy, lozenges, pastilles, sugar plums and chocolate. Sugared almonds especially left a little froth on his lips so keenly did they tickle his palate. For a year he had been living only on sweetmeats. He opened the drawers and stuffed himself whenever Virginie asked him to mind the shop. Often, when he was talking in the presence of five or six other people, he would take the lid off a jar on the counter, dip his hand into it and begin to nibble at something sweet; the glass jar remained open and its contents diminished. People ceased paying attention to it, it was a mania of his so he had declared. Besides, he had devised a perpetual cold, an irritation of the throat, which he always talked of calming.
He still did not work, for he had more and more important schemes than ever in view. He was contriving a superb invention—the umbrella hat, a hat which transformed itself into an umbrella on your head as soon as a shower commenced to fall; and he promised Poisson half shares in the profit of it, and even borrowed twenty franc pieces of him to defray the cost of experiments. Meanwhile the shop melted away on his tongue. All the stock-in-trade followed suit down to the chocolate cigars and pipes in pink caramel. Whenever he was stuffed with sweetmeats and seized with a fit of tenderness, he paid himself with a last lick on the groceress in a corner, who found him all sugar with lips which tasted like burnt almonds. Such a delightful man to kiss! He was positively becoming all honey. The Boches said he merely had to dip a finger into his coffee to sweeten it.
Softened by this perpetual dessert, Lantier showed himself paternal towards Gervaise. He gave her advice and scolded her because she no longer liked to work. Indeed! A woman of her age ought to know how to turn herself round. And he accused her of having always been a glutton. Nevertheless, as one ought to hold out a helping hand, even to folks who don't deserve it, he tried to find her a little work. Thus he had prevailed upon Virginie to let Gervaise come once a week to scrub the shop and the rooms. That was the sort of thing she understood and on each occasion she earned her thirty sous. Gervaise arrived on the Saturday morning with a pail and a scrubbing brush, without seeming to suffer in the least at having to perform a dirty, humble duty, a charwoman's work in the dwelling-place where she had reigned as the beautiful fair-haired mistress. It was a last humiliation, the end of her pride.
One Saturday she had a hard job of it. It had rained for three days and the customers seemed to have brought all the mud of the neighborhood into the shop on the soles of their boots. Virginie was at the counter doing the grand, with her hair well combed, and wearing a little white collar and a pair of lace cuffs. Beside her, on the narrow seat covered with red oil-cloth, Lantier did the dandy, looking for the world as if he were at home, as if he were the real master of the place, and from time to time he carelessly dipped his hand into a jar of peppermint drops, just to nibble something sweet according to his habit.
"Look here, Madame Coupeau!" cried Virginie, who was watching the scrubbing with compressed lips, "you have left some dirt over there in the corner. Scrub that rather better please."
Gervaise obeyed. She returned to the corner and began to scrub again. She bent double on her knees in the midst of the dirty water, with her shoulders protruding, her arms stiff and purple with cold. Her old skirt, fairly soaked, stuck to her figure. And there on the floor she looked a dirty, ill-combed drab, the rents in her jacket showing her puffy form, her fat, flabby flesh which heaved, swayed and floundered about as she went about her work; and all the while she perspired to such a point that from her moist face big drops of sweat fell on to the floor.
"The more elbow grease one uses, the more it shines," said Lantier, sententiously, with his mouth full of peppermint drops.
Virginie, who sat back with the demeanor of a princess, her eyes partly open, was still watching the scrubbing, and indulging in remarks. "A little more on the right there. Take care of the wainscot. You know I was not very well pleased last Saturday. There were some stains left."
And both together, the hatter and the groceress assumed a more important air, as if they had been on a throne whilst Gervaise dragged herself through the black mud at their feet. Virginie must have enjoyed herself, for a yellowish flame darted from her cat's eyes, and she looked at Lantier with an insidious smile. At last she was revenged for that hiding she had received at the wash-house, and which she had never forgotten.
Whenever Gervaise ceased scrubbing, a sound of sawing could be heard from the back room. Through the open doorway, Poisson's profile stood out against the pale light of the courtyard. He was off duty that day and was profiting by his leisure time to indulge in his mania for making little boxes. He was seated at a table and was cutting out arabesques in a cigar box with extraordinary care.
"Say, Badingue!" cried Lantier, who had given him this surname again, out of friendship. "I shall want that box of yours as a present for a young lady."
Virginie gave him a pinch and he reached under the counter to run his fingers like a creeping mouse up her leg.
"Quite so," said the policeman. "I was working for you, Auguste, in view of presenting you with a token of friendship."
"Ah, if that's the case, I'll keep your little memento!" rejoined Lantier with a laugh. "I'll hang it round my neck with a ribbon."
Then suddenly, as if this thought brought another one to his memory, "By the way," he cried, "I met Nana last night."
This news caused Gervaise such emotion that she sunk down in the dirty water which covered the floor of the shop.
"Ah!" she muttered speechlessly.
"Yes; as I was going down the Rue des Martyrs, I caught sight of a girl who was on the arm of an old fellow in front of me, and I said to myself: I know that shape. I stepped faster and sure enough found myself face to face with Nana. There's no need to pity her, she looked very happy, with her pretty woolen dress on her back, a gold cross and an awfully pert expression."
"Ah!" repeated Gervaise in a husky voice.
Lantier, who had finished the pastilles, took some barley-sugar out of another jar.
"She's sneaky," he resumed. "She made a sign to me to follow her, with wonderful composure. Then she left her old fellow somewhere in a cafe—oh a wonderful chap, the old bloke, quite used up!—and she came and joined me under the doorway. A pretty little serpent, pretty, and doing the grand, and fawning on you like a little dog. Yes, she kissed me, and wanted to have news of everyone—I was very pleased to meet her."
"Ah!" said Gervaise for the third time. She drew herself together, and still waited. Hadn't her daughter had a word for her then? In the silence Poisson's saw could be heard again. Lantier, who felt gay, was sucking his barley-sugar, and smacking his lips.
"Well, if I saw her, I should go over to the other side of the street," interposed Virginie, who had just pinched the hatter again most ferociously. "It isn't because you are there, Madame Coupeau, but your daughter is rotten to the core. Why, every day Poisson arrests girls who are better than she is."
Gervaise said nothing, nor did she move; her eyes staring into space. She ended by jerking her head to and fro, as if in answer to her thoughts, whilst the hatter, with a gluttonous mien, muttered:
"Ah, a man wouldn't mind getting a bit of indigestion from that sort of rottenness. It's as tender as chicken."
But the grocer gave him such a terrible look that he had to pause and quiet her with some delicate attention. He watched the policeman, and perceiving that he had his nose lowered over his little box again, he profited of the opportunity to shove some barley-sugar into Virginie's mouth. Thereupon she laughed at him good-naturedly and turned all her anger against Gervaise.
"Just make haste, eh? The work doesn't do itself while you remain stuck there like a street post. Come, look alive, I don't want to flounder about in the water till night time."
And she added hatefully in a lower tone: "It isn't my fault if her daughter's gone and left her."
No doubt Gervaise did not hear. She had begun to scrub the floor again, with her back bent and dragging herself along with a frog-like motion. She still had to sweep the dirty water out into the gutter, and then do the final rinsing.
After a pause, Lantier, who felt bored, raised his voice again: "Do you know, Badingue," he cried, "I met your boss yesterday in the Rue de Rivoli. He looked awfully down in the mouth. He hasn't six months' life left in his body. Ah! after all, with the life he leads—"
He was talking about the Emperor. The policeman did not raise his eyes, but curtly answered: "If you were the Government you wouldn't be so fat."
"Oh, my dear fellow, if I were the Government," rejoined the hatter, suddenly affecting an air of gravity, "things would go on rather better, I give you my word for it. Thus, their foreign policy—why, for some time past it has been enough to make a fellow sweat. If I—I who speak to you—only knew a journalist to inspire him with my ideas."
He was growing animated, and as he had finished crunching his barley-sugar, he opened a drawer from which he took a number of jujubes, which he swallowed while gesticulating.
"It's quite simple. Before anything else, I should give Poland her independence again, and I should establish a great Scandinavian state to keep the Giant of the North at bay. Then I should make a republic out of all the little German states. As for England, she's scarcely to be feared; if she budged ever so little I should send a hundred thousand men to India. Add to that I should send the Sultan back to Mecca and the Pope to Jerusalem, belaboring their backs with the butt end of a rifle. Eh? Europe would soon be clean. Come, Badingue, just look here."
He paused to take five or six jujubes in his hand. "Why, it wouldn't take longer than to swallow these."
And he threw one jujube after another into his open mouth.
"The Emperor has another plan," said the policeman, after reflecting for a couple of minutes.
"Oh, forget it," rejoined the hatter. "We know what his plan is. All Europe is laughing at us. Every day the Tuileries footmen find your boss under the table between a couple of high society floozies."
Poisson rose to his feet. He came forward and placed his hand on his heart, saying: "You hurt me, Auguste. Discuss, but don't involve personalities."
Thereupon Virginie intervened, bidding them stop their row. She didn't care a fig for Europe. How could two men, who shared everything else, always be disputing about politics? For a minute they mumbled some indistinct words. Then the policeman, in view of showing that he harbored no spite, produced the cover of his little box, which he had just finished; it bore the inscription in marquetry: "To Auguste, a token of friendship." Lantier, feeling exceedingly flattered, lounged back and spread himself out so that he almost sat upon Virginie. And the husband viewed the scene with his face the color of an old wall and his bleared eyes fairly expressionless; but all the same, at moments the red hairs of his moustaches stood up on end of their own accord in a very singular fashion, which would have alarmed any man who was less sure of his business than the hatter.
This beast of a Lantier had the quiet cheek which pleases ladies. As Poisson turned his back he was seized with the idea of printing a kiss on Madame Poisson's left eye. As a rule he was stealthily prudent, but when he had been disputing about politics he risked everything, so as to show the wife his superiority. These gloating caresses, cheekily stolen behind the policeman's back, revenged him on the Empire which had turned France into a house of quarrels. Only on this occasion he had forgotten Gervaise's presence. She had just finished rinsing and wiping the shop, and she stood near the counter waiting for her thirty sous. However, the kiss on Virginie's eye left her perfectly calm, as being quite natural, and as part of a business she had no right to mix herself up in. Virginie seemed rather vexed. She threw the thirty sous on to the counter in front of Gervaise. The latter did not budge but stood there waiting, still palpitating with the effort she had made in scrubbing, and looking as soaked and as ugly as a dog fished out of the sewer.