Part 1 out of 6
Produced by Cam Venezuela, Earle Beach, Eric Eldred,
and the Distributed Online Proofing Team
By Emile Zola
Gervaise had waited and watched for Lantier until two in the morning.
Then chilled and shivering, she turned from the window and threw
herself across the bed, where she fell into a feverish doze with her
cheeks wet with tears. For the last week when they came out of the
Veau a Deux Tetes, where they ate, he had sent her off to bed with the
children and had not appeared until late into the night and always
with a story that he had been looking for work.
This very night, while she was watching for his return, she fancied
she saw him enter the ballroom of the Grand-Balcon, whose ten windows
blazing with lights illuminated, as with a sheet of fire, the black
lines of the outer boulevards. She caught a glimpse of Adele, a pretty
brunette who dined at their restaurant and who was walking a few steps
behind him, with her hands swinging as if she had just dropped his
arm, rather than pass before the bright light of the globes over the
door in his company.
When Gervaise awoke about five o'clock, stiff and sore, she burst into
wild sobs, for Lantier had not come in. For the first time he had
slept out. She sat on the edge of the bed, half shrouded in the canopy
of faded chintz that hung from the arrow fastened to the ceiling by a
string. Slowly, with her eyes suffused with tears, she looked around
this miserable _chambre garnie_, whose furniture consisted of a
chestnut bureau of which one drawer was absent, three straw chairs
and a greasy table on which was a broken-handled pitcher.
Another bedstead--an iron one--had been brought in for the children.
This stood in front of the bureau and filled up two thirds of the
A trunk belonging to Gervaise and Lantier stood in the corner wide
open, showing its empty sides, while at the bottom a man's old hat lay
among soiled shirts and hose. Along the walls and on the backs of the
chairs hung a ragged shawl, a pair of muddy pantaloons and a dress or
two--all too bad for the old-clothes man to buy. In the middle of the
mantel between two mismated tin candlesticks was a bundle of pawn
tickets from the Mont-de-Piete. These tickets were of a delicate shade
The room was the best in the hotel--the first floor looking out on the
Meanwhile side by side on the same pillow the two children lay calmly
sleeping. Claude, who was eight years old, was breathing calmly and
regularly with his little hands outside of the coverings, while
Etienne, only four, smiled with one arm under his brother's neck.
When their mother's eyes fell on them she had a new paroxysm of sobs
and pressed her handkerchief to her mouth to stifle them. Then with
bare feet, not stopping to put on her slippers which had fallen off,
she ran to the window out of which she leaned as she had done half the
night and inspected the sidewalks as far as she could see.
The hotel was on the Boulevard de la Chapelle, at the left of the
Barriere Poissonniers. It was a two-story building, painted a deep red
up to the first floor, and had disjointed weather-stained blinds.
Above a lantern with glass sides was a sign between the two windows:
in large yellow letters, partially obliterated by the dampness.
Gervaise, who was prevented by the lantern from seeing as she desired,
leaned out still farther, with her handkerchief on her lips. She
looked to the right toward the Boulevard de Rochechoumart, where
groups of butchers stood with their bloody frocks before their
establishments, and the fresh breeze brought in whiffs, a strong
animal smell--the smell of slaughtered cattle.
She looked to the left, following the ribbonlike avenue, past the
Hospital de Lariboisiere, then building. Slowly, from one end to the
other of the horizon, did she follow the wall, from behind which in
the nightime she had heard strange groans and cries, as if some fell
murder were being perpetrated. She looked at it with horror, as if in
some dark corner--dark with dampness and filth--she should distinguish
Lantier--Lantier lying dead with his throat cut.
When she gazed beyond this gray and interminable wall she saw a great
light, a golden mist waving and shimmering with the dawn of a new
Parisian day. But it was to the Barriere Poissonniers that her eyes
persistently returned, watching dully the uninterrupted flow of men
and cattle, wagons and sheep, which came down from Montmartre and
from La Chapelle. There were scattered flocks dashed like waves on
the sidewalk by some sudden detention and an endless succession of
laborers going to their work with their tools over their shoulders
and their loaves of bread under their arms.
Suddenly Gervaise thought she distinguished Lantier amid this crowd,
and she leaned eagerly forward at the risk of falling from the window.
With a fresh pang of disappointment she pressed her handkerchief to
her lips to restrain her sobs.
A fresh, youthful voice caused her to turn around.
"Lantier has not come in then?"
"No, Monsieur Coupeau," she answered, trying to smile.
The speaker was a tinsmith who occupied a tiny room at the top of the
house. His bag of tools was over his shoulder; he had seen the key in
the door and entered with the familiarity of a friend.
"You know," he continued, "that I am working nowadays at the hospital.
What a May this is! The air positively stings one this morning."
As he spoke he looked closely at Gervaise; he saw her eyes were red
with tears and then, glancing at the bed, discovered that it had not
been disturbed. He shook his head and, going toward the couch where
the children lay with their rosy cherub faces, he said in a lower
"You think your husband ought to have been with you, madame. But don't
be troubled; he is busy with politics. He went on like a mad man the
other day when they were voting for Eugene Sue. Perhaps he passed the
night with his friends abusing that reprobate Bonaparte."
"No, no," she murmured with an effort. "You think nothing of that kind.
I know where Lantier is only too well. We have our sorrows like the
rest of the world!"
Coupeau gave a knowing wink and departed, having offered to bring her
some milk if she did not care to go out; she was a good woman, he told
her and might count on him any time when she was in trouble.
As soon as Gervaise was alone she returned to the window.
From the Barriere the lowing of the cattle and the bleating of the
sheep still came on the keen, fresh morning air. Among the crowd she
recognized the locksmiths by their blue frocks, the masons by their
white overalls, the painters by their coats, from under which hung
their blouses. This crowd was cheerless. All of neutral tints--grays
and blues predominating, with never a dash of color. Occasionally a
workman stopped and lighted his pipe, while his companions passed on.
There was no laughing, no talking, but they strode on steadily with
cadaverous faces toward that Paris which quickly swallowed them up.
At the two corners of La Rue des Poissonniers were two wineshops,
where the shutters had just been taken down. Here some of the workmen
lingered, crowding into the shop, spitting, coughing and drinking
glasses of brandy and water. Gervaise was watching the place on the
left of the street, where she thought she had seen Lantier go in, when
a stout woman, bareheaded and wearing a large apron, called to her
from the pavement,
"You are up early, Madame Lantier!"
Gervaise leaned out.
"Ah, is it you, Madame Boche! Yes, I am up early, for I have much to
"Is that so? Well, things don't get done by themselves, that's sure!"
And a conversation ensued between the window and the sidewalk. Mme
Boche was the concierge of the house wherein the restaurant Veau a
Deux Tetes occupied the _rez-de-chaussee_.
Many times Gervaise had waited for Lantier in the room of this woman
rather than face the men who were eating. The concierge said she had
just been round the corner to arouse a lazy fellow who had promised to
do some work and then went on to speak of one of her lodgers who had
come in the night before with some woman and had made such a noise
that every one was disturbed until after three o'clock.
As she gabbled, however, she examined Gervaise with considerable
curiosity and seemed, in fact, to have come out under the window for
that express purpose.
"Is Monsieur Lantier still asleep?" she asked suddenly.
"Yes, he is asleep," answered Gervaise with flushing cheeks.
Madame saw the tears come to her eyes and, satisfied with her
discovery, was turning away when she suddenly stopped and called out:
"You are going to the lavatory this morning, are you not? All right
then, I have some things to wash, and I will keep a place for you next
to me, and we can have a little talk!"
Then as if moved by sudden compassion, she added:
"Poor child, don't stay at that window any longer. You are purple with
cold and will surely make yourself sick!"
But Gervaise did not move. She remained in the same spot for two
mortal hours, until the clock struck eight. The shops were now
all open. The procession in blouses had long ceased, and only an
occasional one hurried along. At the wineshops, however, there was
the same crowd of men drinking, spitting and coughing. The workmen in
the street had given place to the workwomen. Milliners' apprentices,
florists, burnishers, who with thin shawls drawn closely around them
came in bands of three or four, talking eagerly, with gay laughs
and quick glances. Occasionally one solitary figure was seen, a
pale-faced, serious woman, who walked rapidly, neither looking to
the right nor to the left.
Then came the clerks, blowing on their fingers to warm them, eating a
roll as they walked; young men, lean and tall, with clothing they had
outgrown and with eyes heavy with sleep; old men, who moved along with
measured steps, occasionally pulling out their watches, but able, from
many years' practice, to time their movements almost to a second.
The boulevards at last were comparatively quiet. The inhabitants were
sunning themselves. Women with untidy hair and soiled petticoats were
nursing their babies in the open air, and an occasional dirty-faced
brat fell into the gutter or rolled over with shrieks of pain or joy.
Gervaise felt faint and ill; all hope was gone. It seemed to her that
all was over and that Lantier would come no more. She looked from the
dingy slaughterhouses, black with their dirt and loathsome odor, on to
the new and staring hospital and into the rooms consecrated to disease
and death. As yet the windows were not in, and there was nothing to
impede her view of the large, empty wards. The sun shone directly in
her face and blinded her.
She was sitting on a chair with her arms dropping drearily at her side
but not weeping, when Lantier quietly opened the door and walked in.
"You have come!" she cried, ready to throw herself on his neck.
"Yes, I have come," he answered, "and what of it? Don't begin any
of your nonsense now!" And he pushed her aside. Then with an angry
gesture he tossed his felt hat on the bureau.
He was a small, dark fellow, handsome and well made, with a delicate
mustache which he twisted in his fingers mechanically as he spoke.
He wore an old coat, buttoned tightly at the waist, and spoke with
a strongly marked Provencal accent.
Gervaise had dropped upon her chair again and uttered disjointed
phrases of lamentation.
"I have not closed my eyes--I thought you were killed! Where have you
been all night? I feel as if I were going mad! Tell me, Auguste, where
have you been?"
"Oh, I had business," he answered with an indifferent shrug of his
shoulders. "At eight o'clock I had an engagement with that friend,
you know, who is thinking of starting a manufactory of hats. I was
detained, and I preferred stopping there. But you know I don't like
to be watched and catechized. Just let me alone, will you?"
His wife began to sob. Their voices and Lantier's noisy movements as
he pushed the chairs about woke the children. They started up, half
naked with tumbled hair, and hearing their mother cry, they followed
her example, rending the air with their shrieks.
"Well, this is lovely music!" cried Lantier furiously. "I warn you,
if you don't all stop, that out of this door I go, and you won't see
me again in a hurry! Will you hold your tongue? Good-by then; I'll
go back where I came from."
He snatched up his hat, but Gervaise rushed toward him, crying:
And she soothed the children and stifled their cries with kisses and
laid them tenderly back in their bed, and they were soon happy and
merrily playing together. Meanwhile the father, not even taking off
his boots, threw himself on the bed with a weary air. His face was
white from exhaustion and a sleepless night; he did not close his
eyes but looked around the room.
"A nice-looking place, this!" he muttered.
Then examining Gervaise, he said half aloud and half to himself:
"So! You have given up washing yourself, it seems!"
Gervaise was only twenty-two. She was tall and slender with delicate
features, already worn by hardships and anxieties. With her hair
uncombed and shoes down at the heel, shivering in her white sack, on
which was much dust and many stains from the furniture and wall where
it had hung, she looked at least ten years older from the hours of
suspense and tears she had passed.
Lantier's word startled her from her resignation and timidity.
"Are you not ashamed?" she said with considerable animation. "You know
very well that I do all I can. It is not my fault that we came here.
I should like to see you with two children in a place where you can't
get a drop of hot water. We ought as soon as we reached Paris to have
settled ourselves at once in a home; that was what you promised."
"Pshaw," he muttered; "You had as much good as I had out of our
savings. You ate the fatted calf with me--and it is not worth while
to make a row about it now!"
She did not heed his word but continued:
"There is no need of giving up either. I saw Madame Fauconnier, the
laundress in La Rue Neuve. She will take me Monday. If you go in with
your friend we shall be afloat again in six months. We must find some
kind of a hole where we can live cheaply while we work. That is the
thing to do now. Work! Work!"
Lantier turned his face to the wall with a shrug of disgust which
enraged his wife, who resumed:
"Yes, I know very well that you don't like to work. You would like to
wear fine clothes and walk about the streets all day. You don't like
my looks since you took all my dresses to the pawnbrokers. No, no,
Auguste, I did not intend to speak to you about it, but I know very
well where you spent the night. I saw you go into the Grand-Balcon
with that streetwalker Adele. You have made a charming choice. She
wears fine clothes and is clean. Yes, and she has reason to be,
certainly; there is not a man in that restaurant who does not know
her far better than an honest girl should be known!"
Lantier leaped from the bed. His eyes were as black as night and his
face deadly pale.
"Yes," repeated his wife, "I mean what I say. Madame Boche will not
keep her or her sister in the house any longer, because there are
always a crowd of men hanging on the staircase."
Lantier lifted both fists, and then conquering a violent desire to
beat her, he seized her in his arms, shook her violently and threw her
on the bed where the children were. They at once began to cry again
while he stood for a moment, and then, with the air of a man who
finally takes a resolution in regard to which he has hesitated, he
"You do not know what you have done, Gervaise. You are wrong--as you
will soon discover."
For a moment the voices of the children filled the room. Their mother,
lying on their narrow couch, held them both in her arms and said over
and over again in a monotonous voice:
"If you were not here, my poor darlings! If you were not here! If you
were not here!"
Lantier was lying flat on his back with his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
He was not listening; his attention was concentrated on some fixed
idea. He remained in this way for an hour and more, not sleeping, in
spite of his evident and intense fatigue. When he turned and, leaning
on his elbow, looked about the room again, he found that Gervaise had
arranged the chamber and made the children's bed. They were washed
and dressed. He watched her as she swept the room and dusted the
The room was very dreary still, however, with its smoke-stained
ceiling and paper discolored by dampness and three chairs and
dilapidated bureau, whose greasy surface no dusting could clean.
Then while she washed herself and arranged her hair before the small
mirror, he seemed to examine her arms and shoulders, as if instituting
a comparison between herself and someone else. And he smiled a
disdainful little smile.
Gervaise was slightly, very slightly, lame, but her lameness was
perceptible, only on such days as she was very tired. This morning,
so weary was she from the watches of the night, that she could hardly
walk without support.
A profound silence reigned in the room; they did not speak to each
other. He seemed to be waiting for something. She, adopting an
unconcerned air, seemed to be in haste.
She made up a bundle of soiled linen that had been thrown into a
corner behind the trunk, and then he spoke:
"What are you doing? Are you going out?"
At first she did not reply. Then when he angrily repeated the question
"Certainly I am. I am going to wash all these things. The children
cannot live in dirt."
He threw two or three handkerchiefs toward her, and after another long
silence he said:
"Have you any money?"
She quickly rose to her feet and turned toward him; in her hand she
held some of the soiled clothes.
"Money! Where should I get money unless I had stolen it? You know very
well that day before yesterday you got three francs on my black skirt.
We have breakfasted twice on that, and money goes fast. No, I have no
money. I have four sous for the lavatory. I cannot make money like
other women we know."
He did not reply to this allusion but rose from the bed and passed in
review the ragged garments hung around the room. He ended by taking
down the pantaloons and the shawl and, opening the bureau, took out a
sack and two chemises. All these he made into a bundle, which he threw
"Take them," he said, "and make haste back from the pawnbroker's."
"Would you not like me to take the children?" she asked. "Heavens! If
pawnbrokers would only make loans on children, what a good thing it
She went to the Mont-de-Piete, and when she returned a half-hour later
she laid a silver five-franc piece on the mantelshelf and placed the
ticket with the others between the two candlesticks.
"This is what they gave me," she said coldly. "I wanted six francs,
but they would not give them. They always keep on the safe side there,
and yet there is always a crowd."
Lantier did not at once take up the money. He had sent her to the
Mont-de-Piete that he might not leave her without food or money, but
when he caught sight of part of a ham wrapped in paper on the table
with half a loaf of bread he slipped the silver piece into his vest
"I did not dare go to the milk woman," explained Gervaise, "because
we owe her for eight days. But I shall be back early. You can get some
bread and some chops and have them ready. Don't forget the wine too."
He made no reply. Peace seemed to be made, but when Gervaise went to
the trunk to take out some of Lantier's clothing he called out:
"No--let that alone."
"What do you mean?" she said, turning round in surprise. "You can't
wear these things again until they are washed! Why shall I not take
And she looked at him with some anxiety. He angrily tore the things
from her hands and threw them back into the trunk.
"Confound you!" he muttered. "Will you never learn to obey? When I say
a thing I mean it--"
"But why?" she repeated, turning very pale and seized with a terrible
suspicion. "You do not need these shirts; you are not going away. Why
should I not take them?"
He hesitated a moment, uneasy under the earnest gaze she fixed upon
him. "Why? Why? Because," he said, "I am sick of hearing you say that
you wash and mend for me. Attend to your own affairs, and I will
attend to mine."
She entreated him, defended herself from the charge of ever having
complained, but he shut the trunk with a loud bang and then sat down
upon it, repeating that he was master at least of his own clothing.
Then to escape from her eyes, he threw himself again on the bed,
saying he was sleepy and that she made his head ache, and finally
slept or pretended to do so.
Gervaise hesitated; she was tempted to give up her plan of going to
the lavatory and thought she would sit down to her sewing. But at last
she was reassured by Lantier's regular breathing; she took her soap
and her ball of bluing and, going to the children, who were playing
on the floor with some old corks, she said in a low voice:
"Be very good and keep quiet. Papa is sleeping."
When she left the room there was not a sound except the stifled
laughter of the little ones. It was then after ten, and the sun was
shining brightly in at the window.
Gervaise, on reaching the boulevard, turned to the left and followed
the Rue de la Goutte-d'Or. As she passed Mme Fauconnier's shop she
nodded to the woman. The lavatory, whither she went, was in the middle
of this street, just where it begins to ascend. Over a large low
building towered three enormous reservoirs for water, huge cylinders
of zinc strongly made, and in the rear was the drying room, an
apartment with a very high ceiling and surrounded by blinds through
which the air passed. On the right of the reservoirs a steam engine
let off regular puffs of white smoke. Gervaise, habituated apparently
to puddles, did not lift her skirts but threaded her way through the
part of _eau de Javelle_ which encumbered the doorway. She knew
the mistress of the establishment, a delicate woman who sat in a
cabinet with glass doors, surrounded by soap and bluing and packages
of bicarbonate of soda.
As Gervaise passed the desk she asked for her brush and beater, which
she had left to be taken care of after her last wash. Then having
taken her number, she went in. It was an immense shed, as it were,
with a low ceiling--the beams and rafters unconcealed--and lighted by
large windows, through which the daylight streamed. A light gray mist
or steam pervaded the room, which was filled with a smell of soapsuds
and _eau de Javelle_ combined. Along the central aisle were tubs
on either side, and two rows of women with their arms bare to the
shoulders and their skirts tucked up stood showing their colored
stockings and stout laced shoes.
They rubbed and pounded furiously, straightening themselves
occasionally to utter a sentence and then applying themselves again
to their task, with the steam and perspiration pouring down their red
faces. There was a constant rush of water from the faucets, a great
splashing as the clothes were rinsed and pounding and banging of the
beaters, while amid all this noise the steam engine in the corner kept
up its regular puffing.
Gervaise went slowly up the aisle, looking to the right and the left.
She carried her bundle under her arm and limped more than usual, as
she was pushed and jarred by the energy of the women about her.
"Here! This way, my dear," cried Mme Boche, and when the young woman
had joined her at the very end where she stood, the concierge, without
stopping her furious rubbing, began to talk in a steady fashion.
"Yes, this is your place. I have kept it for you. I have not much to
do. Boche is never hard on his linen, and you, too, do not seem to
have much. Your package is quite small. We shall finish by noon, and
then we can get something to eat. I used to give my clothes to a woman
in La Rue Pelat, but bless my heart, she washed and pounded them all
away, and I made up my mind to wash myself. It is clear gain, you see,
and costs only the soap."
Gervaise opened her bundle and sorted the clothes, laying aside all
the colored pieces, and when Mme Boche advised her to try a little
soda she shook her head.
"No, no!" she said. "I know all about it!"
"You know?" answered Boche curiously. "You have washed then in your
own place before you came here?"
Gervaise, with her sleeves rolled up, showing her pretty, fair arms,
was soaping a child's shirt. She rubbed it and turned it, soaped and
rubbed it again. Before she answered she took up her beater and began
to use it, accenting each phrase or rather punctuating them with her
"Yes, yes, washed--I should think I had! Ever since I was ten years
old. We went to the riverside, where I came from. It was much nicer
than here. I wish you could see it--a pretty corner under the trees
by the running water. Do you know Plassans? Near Marseilles?"
"You are a strong one, anyhow!" cried Mme Boche, astonished at the
rapidity and strength of the woman. "Your arms are slender, but they
are like iron."
The conversation continued until all the linen was well beaten and
yet whole! Gervaise then took each piece separately, rinsed it, then
rubbed it with soap and brushed it. That is to say, she held the cloth
firmly with one hand and with the other moved the short brush from
her, pushing along a dirty foam which fell off into the water below.
As she brushed they talked.
"No, we are not married," said Gervaise. "I do not intend to lie about
it. Lantier is not so nice that a woman need be very anxious to be
his wife. If it were not for the children! I was fourteen and he was
eighteen when the first one was born. The other child did not come for
four years. I was not happy at home. Papa Macquart, for the merest
trifle, would beat me. I might have married, I suppose."
She dried her hands, which were red under the white soapsuds.
"The water is very hard in Paris," she said.
Mme Boche had finished her work long before, but she continued to
dabble in the water merely as an excuse to hear this story, which for
two weeks had excited her curiosity. Her mouth was open, and her eyes
were shining with satisfaction at having guessed so well.
"Oh yes, just as I knew," she said to herself, "but the little woman
talks too much! I was sure, though, there had been a quarrel."
"He is not good to you then?"
"He was very good to me once," answered Gervaise, "but since we came
to Paris he has changed. His mother died last year and left him about
seventeen hundred francs. He wished to come to Paris, and as Father
Macquart was in the habit of hitting me in the face without any
warning, I said I would come, too, which we did, with the two
children. I meant to be a fine laundress, and he was to continue with
his trade as a hatter. We might have been very happy. But, you see,
Lantier is extravagant; he likes expensive things and thinks of his
amusement before anything else. He is not good for much, anyhow!
"We arrived at the Hotel Montmartre. We had dinners and carriages,
suppers and theaters, a watch for him, a silk dress for me--for he is
not selfish when he has money. You can easily imagine, therefore, at
the end of two months we were cleaned out. Then it was that we came
to Hotel Boncoeur and that this life began." She checked herself with
a strange choking in the throat. Tears gathered in her eyes. She
finished brushing her linen.
"I must get my scalding water," she murmured.
But Mme Boche, much annoyed at this sudden interruption to the
long-desired confidence, called the boy.
"Charles," she said, "it would be very good of you if you would bring
a pail of hot water to Madame Lantier, as she is in a great hurry."
The boy brought a bucketful, and Gervaise paid him a sou. It was a sou
for each bucket. She turned the hot water into her tub and soaked her
linen once more and rubbed it with her hands while the steam hovered
round her blonde head like a cloud.
"Here, take some of this," said the concierge as she emptied into the
water that Gervaise was using the remains of a package of bicarbonate
of soda. She offered her also some _eau de Javelle_, but the
young woman refused. It was only good, she said, for grease spots
and wine stains.
"I thought him somewhat dissipated," said Mme Boche, referring to
Lantier without naming him.
Gervaise, leaning over her tub and her arms up to the elbows in the
soapsuds, nodded in acquiescence.
"Yes," continued the concierge, "I have seen many little things."
But she started back as Gervaise turned round with a pale face and
"Oh, I know nothing," she continued. "He likes to laugh--that is
all--and those two girls who are with us, you know, Adele and
Virginie, like to laugh too, so they have their little jokes together,
but that is all there is of it, I am sure."
The young woman, with the perspiration standing on her brow and
her arms still dripping, looked her full in the face with earnest,
Then the concierge became excited and struck her breast, exclaiming:
"I tell you I know nothing whatever, nothing more than I tell you!"
Then she added in a gentle voice, "But he has honest eyes, my dear.
He will marry you, child; I promise that he will marry you!"
Gervaise dried her forehead with her damp hand and shook her head.
The two women were silent for a moment; around them, too, it was very
quiet. The clock struck eleven. Many of the women were seated swinging
their feet, drinking their wine and eating their sausages, sandwiched
between slices of bread. An occasional economical housewife hurried
in with a small bundle under her arm, and a few sounds of the pounder
were still heard at intervals; sentences were smothered in the full
mouths, or a laugh was uttered, ending in a gurgling sound as the wine
was swallowed, while the great machine puffed steadily on. Not one
of the women, however, heard it; it was like the very respiration of
the lavatory--the eager breath that drove up among the rafters the
floating vapor that filled the room.
The heat gradually became intolerable. The sun shone in on the left
through the high windows, imparting to the vapor opaline tints--the
palest rose and tender blue, fading into soft grays. When the women
began to grumble the boy Charles went from one window to the other,
drawing down the heavy linen shades. Then he crossed to the other
side, the shady side, and opened the blinds. There was a general
exclamation of joy--a formidable explosion of gaiety.
All this time Gervaise was going on with her task and had just
completed the washing of her colored pieces, which she threw over a
trestle to drip; soon small pools of blue water stood on the floor.
Then she began to rinse the garments in cold water which ran from a
spigot near by.
"You have nearly finished," said Mme Boche. "I am waiting to help you
"Oh, you are very good! It is not necessary though!" answered the
young woman as she swashed the garments through the clear water. "If
I had sheets I would not refuse your offer, however."
Nevertheless, she accepted the aid of the concierge. They took up a
brown woolen skirt, badly faded, from which poured out a yellow stream
as the two women wrung it together.
Suddenly Mme Boche cried out:
"Look! There comes big Virginie! She is actually coming here to wash
her rags tied up in a handkerchief."
Gervaise looked up quickly. Virginie was a woman about her own age,
larger and taller than herself, a brunette and pretty in spite of the
elongated oval of her face. She wore an old black dress with flounces
and a red ribbon at her throat. Her hair was carefully arranged and
massed in a blue chenille net.
She hesitated a moment in the center aisle and half shut her eyes,
as if looking for something or somebody, but when she distinguished
Gervaise she went toward her with a haughty, insolent air and
supercilious smile and finally established herself only a short
distance from her.
"That is a new notion!" muttered Mme Boche in a low voice. "She was
never known before to rub out even a pair of cuffs. She is a lazy
creature, I do assure you. She never sews the buttons on her boots.
She is just like her sister, that minx of an Adele, who stays away
from the shop two days out of three. What is she rubbing now? A skirt,
is it? It is dirty enough, I am sure!"
It was clear that Mme Boche wished to please Gervaise. The truth was
she often took coffee with Adele and Virginie when the two sisters
were in funds. Gervaise did not reply but worked faster than before.
She was now preparing her bluing water in a small tub standing on
three legs. She dipped in her pieces, shook them about in the colored
water, which was almost a lake in hue, and then, wringing them, she
shook them out and threw them lightly over the high wooden bars.
While she did this she kept her back well turned on big Virginie. But
she felt that the girl was looking at her, and she heard an occasional
derisive sniff. Virginie, in fact, seemed to have come there to
provoke her, and when Gervaise turned around the two women fixed their
eyes on each other.
"Let her be," murmured Mme Boche. "She is not the one, now I tell
At this moment, as Gervaise was shaking her last piece of linen, she
heard laughing and talking at the door of the lavatory.
"Two children are here asking for their mother!" cried Charles.
All the women looked around, and Gervaise recognized Claude and
Etienne. As soon as they saw her they ran toward her, splashing
through the puddle's, their untied shoes half off and Claude, the
eldest, dragging his little brother by the hand.
The women as they passed uttered kindly exclamations of pity, for
the children were evidently frightened. They clutched their mother's
skirts and buried their pretty blond heads.
"Did Papa send you?" asked Gervaise.
But as she stooped to tie Etienne's shoes she saw on Claude's finger
the key of her room with its copper tag and number.
"Did you bring the key?" she exclaimed in great surprise. "And why,
The child looked down on the key hanging on his finger, which he had
apparently forgotten. This seemed to remind him of something, and he
said in a clear, shrill voice:
"Papa is gone!"
"He went to buy your breakfast, did he not? And he told you to come
and look for me here, I suppose?"
Claude looked at his brother and hesitated. Then he exclaimed:
"Papa has gone, I say. He jumped from the bed, put his things in
his trunk, and then he carried his trunk downstairs and put it on
a carriage. We saw him--he has gone!"
Gervaise was kneeling, tying the boy's shoe. She rose slowly with a
very white face and with her hands pressed to either temple, as if she
were afraid of her head cracking open. She could say nothing but the
same words over and over again:
"Great God! Great God! Great God!"
Mme Boche, in her turn, interrogated the child eagerly, for she was
charmed at finding herself an actor, as it were, in this drama.
"Tell us all about it, my dear. He locked the door, did he? And then
he told you to bring the key here?" And then, lowering her voice, she
whispered in the child's ear:
"Was there a lady in the carriage?" she asked.
The child looked troubled for a moment but speedily began his story
again with a triumphant air.
"He jumped off the bed, put his things in the trunk, and he went
Then as Mme Boche made no attempt to detain him, he drew his brother
to the faucet, where the two amused themselves in making the water
Gervaise could not weep. She felt as if she were stifling. She covered
her face with her hands and turned toward the wall. A sharp, nervous
trembling shook her from head to foot. An occasional sobbing sigh or,
rather, gasp escaped from her lips, while she pressed her clenched
hands more tightly on her eyes, as if to increase the darkness of the
abyss in which she felt herself to have fallen.
"Come! Come, my child!" muttered Mme Boche.
"If you knew! If you only knew all!" answered Gervaise. "Only this
very morning he made me carry my shawl and my chemises to the
Mont-de-Piete, and that was the money he had for the carriage."
And the tears rushed to her eyes. The recollection of her visit to the
pawnbroker's, of her hasty return with the money in her hand, seemed
to let loose the sobs that strangled her and was the one drop too
much. Tears streamed from her eyes and poured down her face. She did
not think of wiping them away.
"Be reasonable, child! Be quiet," whispered Mme Boche. "They are all
looking at you. Is it possible you can care so much for any man? You
love him still, although such a little while ago you pretended you did
not care for him, and you cry as if your heart would break! Oh lord,
what fools we women are!"
Then in a maternal tone she added:
"And such a pretty little woman as you are too. But now I may as
well tell you the whole, I suppose? Well then, you remember when
I was talking to you from the sidewalk and you were at your window?
I knew then that it was Lantier who came in with Adele. I did not see
his face, but I knew his coat, and Boche watched and saw him come
downstairs this morning. But he was with Adele, you understand. There
is another person who comes to see Virginie twice a week."
She stopped for a moment to take breath and then went on in a lower
"Take care! She is laughing at you--the heartless little cat! I bet
all her washing is a sham. She has seen her sister and Lantier well
off and then came here to find out how you would take it."
Gervaise took her hands down from her face and looked around. When
she saw Virginie talking and laughing with two or three women a wild
tempest of rage shook her from head to foot. She stooped with her arms
extended, as if feeling for something, and moved along slowly for a
step or two, then snatched up a bucket of soapsuds and threw it at
"You devil! Be off with you!" cried Virginie, starting back. Only her
feet were wet.
All the women in the lavatory hurried to the scene of action. They
jumped up on the benches, some with a piece of bread in their hands,
others with a bit of soap, and a circle of spectators was soon formed.
"Yes, she is a devil!" repeated Virginie. "What has got into the
fool?" Gervaise stood motionless, her face convulsed and lips apart.
The other continued:
"She got tired of the country, it seems, but she left one leg behind
her, at all events."
The women laughed, and big Virginie, elated at her success, went on
in a louder and more triumphant tone:
"Come a little nearer, and I will soon settle you. You had better have
remained in the country. It is lucky for you that your dirty soapsuds
only went on my feet, for I would have taken you over my knees and
given you a good spanking if one drop had gone in my face. What is
the matter with her, anyway?" And big Virginie addressed her audience:
"Make her tell what I have done to her! Say! Fool, what harm have I
ever done to you?"
"You had best not talk so much," answered Gervaise almost inaudibly;
"you know very well where my husband was seen yesterday. Now be quiet
or harm will come to you. I will strangle you--quick as a wink."
"Her husband, she says! Her husband! The lady's husband! As if a
looking thing like that had a husband! Is it my fault if he has
deserted her? Does she think I have stolen him? Anyway, he was much
too good for her. But tell me, some of you, was his name on his
collar? Madame has lost her husband! She will pay a good reward,
I am sure, to anyone who will carry him back!"
The women all laughed. Gervaise, in a low, concentrated voice,
"You know very well--you know very well! Your sister--yes, I will
strangle your sister!"
"Oh yes, I understand," answered Virginie. "Strangle her if you
choose. What do I care? And what are you staring at me for? Can't
I wash my clothes in peace? Come, I am sick of this stuff. Let me
Big Virginie turned away, and after five or six angry blows with her
beater she began again:
"Yes, it is my sister, and the two adore each other. You should see
them bill and coo together. He has left you with these dirty-faced
imps, and you left three others behind you with three fathers! It was
your dear Lantier who told us all that. Ah, he had had quite enough
of you--he said so!"
"Miserable fool!" cried Gervaise, white with anger.
She turned and mechanically looked around on the floor; seeing
nothing, however, but the small tub of bluing water, she threw that
in Virginie's face.
"She has spoiled my dress!" cried Virginie, whose shoulder and one
hand were dyed a deep blue. "You just wait a moment!" she added as
she, in her turn, snatched up a tub and dashed its contents at
Gervaise. Then ensued a most formidable battle. The two women ran up
and down the room in eager haste, looking for full tubs, which they
quickly flung in the faces of each other, and each deluge was heralded
and accompanied by a shout.
"Is that enough? Will that cool you off?" cried Gervaise.
And from Virginie:
"Take that! It is good to have a bath once in your life!"
Finally the tubs and pails were all empty, and the two women began to
draw water from the faucets. They continued their mutual abuse while
the water was running, and presently it was Virginie who received
a bucketful in her face. The water ran down her back and over her
skirts. She was stunned and bewildered, when suddenly there came
another in her left ear, knocking her head nearly off her shoulders;
her comb fell and with it her abundant hair.
Gervaise was attacked about her legs. Her shoes were filled with
water, and she was drenched above her knees. Presently the two women
were deluged from head to foot; their garments stuck to them, and they
dripped like umbrellas which had been out in a heavy shower.
"What fun!" said one of the laundresses as she looked on at a safe
The whole lavatory were immensely amused, and the women applauded
as if at a theater. The floor was covered an inch deep with water,
through which the termagants splashed. Suddenly Virginie discovered
a bucket of scalding water standing a little apart; she caught it and
threw it upon Gervaise. There was an exclamation of horror from the
lookers-on. Gervaise escaped with only one foot slightly burned, but
exasperated by the pain, she threw a tub with all her strength at the
legs of her opponent. Virginie fell to the ground.
"She has broken her leg!" cried one of the spectators.
"She deserved it," answered another, "for the tall one tried to scald
"She was right, after all, if the blonde had taken away her man!"
Mme Boche rent the air with her exclamations, waving her arms
frantically high above her head. She had taken the precaution to place
herself behind a rampart of tubs, with Claude and Etienne clinging to
her skirts, weeping and sobbing in a paroxysm of terror and keeping up
a cry of "Mamma! Mamma!" When she saw Virginie prostrate on the ground
she rushed to Gervaise and tried to pull her away.
"Come with me!" she urged. "Do be sensible. You are growing so angry
that the Lord only knows what the end of all this will be!"
But Gervaise pushed her aside, and the old woman again took refuge
behind the tubs with the children. Virginie made a spring at the
throat of her adversary and actually tried to strangle her. Gervaise
shook her off and snatched at the long braid hanging from the girl's
head and pulled it as if she hoped to wrench it off, and the head
The battle began again, this time silent and wordless and literally
tooth and nail. Their extended hands with fingers stiffly crooked,
caught wildly at all in their way, scratching and tearing. The red
ribbon and the chenille net worn by the brunette were torn off; the
waist of her dress was ripped from throat to belt and showed the
white skin on the shoulder.
Gervaise had lost a sleeve, and her chemise was torn to her waist.
Strips of clothing lay in every direction. It was Gervaise who was
first wounded. Three long scratches from her mouth to her throat
bled profusely, and she fought with her eyes shut lest she should be
blinded. As yet Virginia showed no wound. Suddenly Gervaise seized
one of her earrings--pear-shaped, of yellow glass--she tore it out
and brought blood.
"They will kill each other! Separate them," cried several voices.
The women gathered around the combatants; the spectators were divided
into two parties--some exciting and encouraging Gervaise and Virginie
as if they had been dogs fighting, while others, more timid, trembled,
turned away their heads and said they were faint and sick. A general
battle threatened to take place, such was the excitement.
Mme Boche called to the boy in charge:
"Charles! Charles! Where on earth can he be?"
Finally she discovered him, calmly looking on with his arms folded. He
was a tall youth with a big neck. He was laughing and hugely enjoying
the scene. It would be a capital joke, he thought, if the women tore
each other's clothes to rags and if they should be compelled to finish
their fight in a state of nudity.
"Are you there then?" cried Mme Boche when she saw him. "Come and help
us separate them, or you can do it yourself."
"No, thank you," he answered quietly. "I don't propose to have my own
eyes scratched out! I am not here for that. Let them alone! It will do
them no harm to let a little of their hot blood out!"
Mme Boche declared she would summon the police, but to this the
mistress of the lavatory, the delicate-looking woman with weak eyes,
"No, no, I will not. It would injure my house!" she said over and over
Both women lay on the ground. Suddenly Virginie struggled up to her
knees. She had got possession of one of the beaters, which she
brandished. Her voice was hoarse and low as she muttered:
"This will be as good for you as for your dirty linen!"
Gervaise, in her turn, snatched another beater, which she held like a
club. Her voice also was hoarse and low.
"I will beat your skin," she muttered, "as I would my coarse towels."
They knelt in front of each other in utter silence for at least a
minute, with hair streaming, eyes glaring and distended nostrils. They
each drew a long breath.
Gervaise struck the first blow with her beater full on the shoulders
of her adversary and then threw herself over on the side to escape
Virginie's weapon, which touched her on the hip.
Thus started, they struck each other as laundresses strike their
linen, in measured cadence.
The women about them ceased to laugh; many went away, saying they were
faint. Those who remained watched the scene with a cruel light in
their eyes. Mme Boche had taken Claude and Etienne to the other end of
the room, whence came the dreary sound of their sobs which were heard
through the dull blows of the beaters.
Suddenly Gervaise uttered a shriek. Virginie had struck her just above
the elbow on her bare arm, and the flesh began to swell at once. She
rushed at Virginie; her face was so terrible that the spectators
thought she meant to kill her.
"Enough! Enough!" they cried.
With almost superhuman strength she seized Virginie by the waist, bent
her forward with her face to the brick floor and, notwithstanding her
struggles, lifted her skirts and showed the white and naked skin. Then
she brought her beater down as she had formerly done at Plassans under
the trees on the riverside, where her employer had washed the linen of
Each blow of the beater fell on the soft flesh with a dull thud,
leaving a scarlet mark.
"Oh! Oh!" murmured Charles with his eyes nearly starting from his
The women were laughing again by this time, but soon the cry began
again of "Enough! Enough!"
Gervaise did not even hear. She seemed entirely absorbed, as if she
were fulfilling an appointed task, and she talked with strange, wild
gaiety, recalling one of the rhymes of her childhood:
_"Pan! Pan! Margot au lavoir,
Pan! Pan! a coups de battoir;
Pan! Pan! va laver son coeur,
Pan! Pan! tout noir de douleur_
"Take that for yourself and that for your sister and this for Lantier.
And now I shall begin all over again. That is for Lantier--that for
your sister--and this for yourself!
_"Pan! Pan! Margot au lavoir!
Pan! Pan! a coups de battoir."_
They tore Virginie from her hands. The tall brunette, weeping and
sobbing, scarlet with shame, rushed out of the room, leaving Gervaise
mistress of the field, who calmly arranged her dress somewhat and,
as her arm was stiff, begged Mme Boche to lift her bundle of linen
on her shoulder.
While the old woman obeyed she dilated on her emotions during the
scene that had just taken place.
"You ought to go to a doctor and see if something is not broken.
I heard a queer sound," she said.
But Gervaise did not seem to hear her and paid no attention either to
the women who crowded around her with congratulations. She hastened
to the door where her children awaited her.
"Two hours!" said the mistress of the establishment, already installed
in her glass cabinet. "Two hours and two sous!"
Gervaise mechanically laid down the two sous, and then, limping
painfully under the weight of the wet linen which was slung over her
shoulder and dripped as she moved, with her injured arm and bleeding
cheek, she went away, dragging after her with her naked arm the
still-sobbing and tear-stained Etienne and Claude.
Behind her the lavatory resumed its wonted busy air, a little gayer
than usual from the excitement of the morning. The women had eaten
their bread and drunk their wine, and they splashed the water and used
their beaters with more energy than usual as they recalled the blows
dealt by Gervaise. They talked from alley to alley, leaning over their
tubs. Words and laughs were lost in the sound of running water. The
steam and mist were golden in the sun that came in through holes in
the curtain. The odor of soapsuds grew stronger and stronger.
When Gervaise entered the alley which led to the Hotel Boncoeur her
tears choked her. It was a long, dark, narrow alley, with a gutter
on one side close to the wall, and the loathsome smell brought to her
mind the recollection of having passed through there with Lantier
a fortnight previous.
And what had that fortnight been? A succession of quarrels and
dissensions, the remembrance of which would be forevermore a regret
Her room was empty, filled with the glowing sunlight from the open
window. This golden light rendered more apparent the blackened ceiling
and the walls with the shabby, dilapidated paper. There was not an
article beyond the furniture left in the room, except a woman's fichu
that seemed to have caught on a nail near the chimney. The children's
bed was pulled out into the center of the room; the bureau drawers
were wide open, displaying their emptiness. Lantier had washed and had
used the last of the pomade--two cents' worth on the back of a playing
card--the dirty water in which he had washed still stood in the basin.
He had forgotten nothing; the corner hitherto occupied by his trunk
now seemed to Gervaise a vast desert. Even the small mirror was gone.
With a presentiment of evil she turned hastily to the chimney. Yes,
she was right, Lantier had carried away the tickets. The pink papers
were no longer between the candlesticks!
She threw her bundle of linen into a chair and stood looking first at
one thing and then at another in a dull agony that no tears came to
She had but one sou in the world. She heard a merry laugh from her
boys who, already consoled, were at the window. She went toward them
and, laying a hand on each of their heads, looked out on that scene
on which her weary eyes had dwelt so long that same morning.
Yes, it was on that street that she and her children would soon be
thrown, and she turned her hopeless, despairing eyes toward the outer
boulevards--looking from right to left, lingering at the two
extremities, seized by a feeling of terror, as if her life
thenceforward was to be spent between a slaughterhouse and a hospital.
GERVAISE AND COUPEAU
Three weeks later, about half-past eleven one fine sunny morning,
Gervaise and Coupeau, the tinworker, were eating some brandied fruit
at the Assommoir.
Coupeau, who was smoking outside, had seen her as she crossed the
street with her linen and compelled her to enter. Her huge basket
was on the floor, back of the little table where they sat.
Father Colombe's Tavern, known as the Assommoir, was on the corners
of the Rue des Poissonniers and of the Boulevard de Rochechouart.
The sign bore the one single word in long, blue letters:
And this word stretched from one end to the other. On either side of
the door stood tall oleanders in small casks, their leaves covered
thick with dust. The enormous counter with its rows of glasses, its
fountain and its pewter measures was on the left of the door, and the
huge room was ornamented by gigantic casks painted bright yellow and
highly varnished, hooped with shining copper. On high shelves were
bottles of liquors and jars of fruits; all sorts of flasks standing in
order concealed the wall and repeated their pale green or deep crimson
tints in the great mirror behind the counter.
The great feature of the house, however, was the distilling apparatus
which stood at the back of the room behind an oak railing on which the
tipsy workmen leaned as they stupidly watched the still with its long
neck and serpentine tubes descending to subterranean regions--a very
At this early hour the Assommoir was nearly empty. A stout man in his
shirt sleeves--Father Colombe himself--was serving a little girl not
more than twelve years old with four cents' worth of liquor in a cup.
The sun streamed in at the door and lay on the floor, which was black
where the men had spat as they smoked. And from the counter, from the
casks, from all the room, rose an alcoholic emanation which seemed to
intoxicate the very particles of dust floating in the sunshine.
In the meantime Coupeau rolled a new cigarette. He was very neat and
clean, wearing a blouse and a little blue cloth cap and showing his
white teeth as he smiled.
The lower jaw was somewhat prominent and the nose slightly flat; he
had fine brown eyes and the face of a happy child and good-natured
animal. His hair was thick and curly. His complexion was delicate
still, for he was only twenty-six. Opposite him sat Gervaise in a
black gown, leaning slightly forward, finishing her fruit, which she
held by the stem.
They were near the street, at the first of the four tables arranged
in front of the counter. When Coupeau had lighted his cigar he placed
both elbows on the table and looked at the woman without speaking.
Her pretty face had that day something of the delicate transparency
of fine porcelain.
Then continuing something which they apparently had been previously
discussing, he said in a low voice:
"Then you say no, do you? Absolutely no?"
"Of course. No it must be, Monsieur Coupeau," answered Gervaise with
a smile. "Surely you do not intend to begin that again here! You
promised to be reasonable too. Had I known, I should certainly have
refused your treat."
He did not speak but gazed at her more intently than before with
tender boldness. He looked at her soft eyes and dewy lips, pale at the
corners but half parted, allowing one to see the rich crimson within.
She returned his look with a kind and affectionate smile. Finally she
"You should not think of such a thing. It is folly! I am an old woman.
I have a boy eight years old. What should we do together?"
"Much as other people do, I suppose!" answered Coupeau with a wink.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You know nothing about it, Monsieur Coupeau, but I have had some
experience. I have two mouths in the house, and they have excellent
appetites. How am I to bring up my children if I trifle away my time?
Then, too, my misfortune has taught me one great lesson, which is that
the less I have to do with men, the better!"
She then proceeded to explain all her reasons, calmly and without
anger. It was easy to see that her words were the result of grave
Coupeau listened quietly, saying only at intervals:
"You are hurting my feelings. Yes, hurting my feelings."
"Yes, I see that," she answered, "and I am really very sorry for you.
If I had any idea of leading a different life from that which I follow
today it might as well be with you as with another. You have the look
of a good-natured man. But what is the use? I have now been with
Madame Fauconnier for a fortnight. The children are going to school,
and I am very happy, for I have plenty to do. Don't you see,
therefore, that it is best for us to remain as we are?"
And she stooped to pick up her basket.
"You are keeping me here to talk," she said, "and they are waiting for
me at my employer's. You will find some other woman, Monsieur Coupeau,
far prettier than I, who will not have two children to bring up!"
He looked at the clock and made her sit down again.
"Wait!" he cried. "It is still thirty-five minutes of eleven. I have
twenty-five minutes still, and don't be afraid of my familiarity, for
the table is between us! Do you dislike me so very much that you can't
stay and talk with me for five minutes?"
She put down her basket, unwilling to seem disobliging, and they
talked for some time in a friendly sort of way. She had breakfasted
before she left home, and he had swallowed his soup in the greatest
haste and laid in wait for her as she came out. Gervaise, as she
listened to him, watched from the windows--between the bottles of
brandied fruit--the movement of the crowd in the street, which at
this hour--that of the Parisian breakfast--was unusually lively.
Workmen hurried into the baker's and, coming out with a loaf under
their arms, they went into the Veau a Deux Tetes, three doors higher
up, to breakfast at six sous. Next the baker's was a shop where fried
potatoes and mussels with parsley were sold. A constant succession of
shopgirls carried off paper parcels of fried potatoes and cups filled
with mussels, and others bought bunches of radishes. When Gervaise
leaned a little more toward the window she saw still another shop,
also crowded, from which issued a steady stream of children holding
in their hands, wrapped in paper, a breaded cutlet or a sausage,
A group formed around the door of the Assommoir.
"Say, Bibi-la-Grillade," asked a voice, "will you stand a drink all
Five workmen went in, and the same voice said:
"Father Colombe, be honest now. Give us honest glasses, and no
nutshells, if you please."
Presently three more workmen entered together, and finally a crowd
of blouses passed in between the dusty oleanders.
"You have no business to ask such questions," said Gervaise to
Coupeau; "of course I loved him. But after the manner in which he
They were speaking of Lantier. Gervaise had never seen him again;
she supposed him to be living with Virginie's sister, with a friend
who was about to start a manufactory for hats.
At first she thought of committing suicide, of drowning herself,
but she had grown more reasonable and had really begun to trust that
things were all for the best. With Lantier she felt sure she never
could have done justice to the children, so extravagant were his
He might come, of course, and see Claude and Etienne. She would not
show him the door; only so far as she herself was concerned, he had
best not lay his finger on her. And she uttered these words in a tone
of determination, like a woman whose plan of life is clearly defined,
while Coupeau, who was by no means inclined to give her up lightly,
teased and questioned her in regard to Lantier with none too much
delicacy, it is true, but his teeth were so white and his face so
merry that the woman could not take offense. "Did you beat him?"
he asked finally. "Oh, you are none too amiable. You beat people
sometimes, I have heard."
She laughed gaily.
Yes, it was true she had whipped that great Virginie. That day she
could have strangled someone with a glad heart. And she laughed again,
because Coupeau told her that Virginie, in her humiliation, had left
Gervaise's face, as she laughed, however, had a certain childish
sweetness. She extended her slender, dimpled hands, declaring she
would not hurt a fly. All she knew of blows was that she had received
a good many in her life. Then she began to talk of Plassans and of her
youth. She had never been indiscreet, nor was she fond of men. When
she had fallen in with Lantier she was only fourteen, and she regarded
him as her husband. Her only fault, she declared, was that she was too
amiable and allowed people to impose on her and that she got fond of
people too easily; were she to love another man, she should wish and
expect to live quietly and comfortably with him always, without any
And when Coupeau slyly asked her if she called her dear children
nonsense she gave him a little slap and said that she, of course,
was much like other women. But women were not like men, after all;
they had their homes to take care of and keep clean; she was like
her mother, who had been a slave to her brutal father for more than
"My very lameness--" she continued.
"Your lameness?" interrupted Coupeau gallantly. "Why, it is almost
nothing. No one would ever notice it!"
She shook her head. She knew very well that it was very evident, and
at forty it would be far worse, but she said softly, with a faint
smile, "You have a strange taste, to fall in love with a lame woman!"
He, with his elbows on the table, still coaxed and entreated, but she
continued to shake her head in the negative. She listened with her
eyes fixed on the street, seemingly fascinated by the surging crowd.
The shops were being swept; the last frying pan of potatoes was taken
from the stove; the pork merchant washed the plates his customers had
used and put his place in order. Groups of mechanics were hurrying out
from all the workshops, laughing and pushing each other like so many
schoolboys, making a great scuffling on the sidewalk with their
hobnailed shoes; while some, with their hands in their pockets,
smoked in a meditative fashion, looking up at the sun and winking
prodigiously. The sidewalks were crowded and the crowd constantly
added to by men who poured from the open door--men in blouses and
frocks, old jackets and coats, which showed all their defects in
the clear morning light.
The bells of the various manufactories were ringing loudly, but the
workmen did not hurry. They deliberately lighted their pipes and then
with rounded shoulders slouched along, dragging their feet after them.
Gervaise mechanically watched a group of three, one man much taller
than the other two, who seemed to be hesitating as to what they should
do next. Finally they came directly to the Assommoir.
"I know them," said Coupeau, "or rather I know the tall one. It is
Mes-Bottes, a comrade of mine."
The Assommoir was now crowded with boisterous men. Two glasses rang
with the energy with which they brought down their fists on the
counter. They stood in rows, with their hands crossed over their
stomachs or folded behind their backs, waiting their turn to be
served by Father Colombe.
"Hallo!" cried Mes-Bottes, giving Coupeau a rough slap on the
shoulders. "How fine you have got to be with your cigarettes and
your linen shirt bosom! Who is your friend that pays for all this?
I should like to make her acquaintance."
"Don't be so silly!" returned Coupeau angrily.
But the other gave a knowing wink.
"Ah, I understand. 'A word to the wise--'" And he turned round with
a fearful lurch to look at Gervaise, who shuddered and recoiled. The
tobacco smoke, the odor of humanity added to this air heavy with
alcohol, was oppressive, and she choked a little and coughed.
"Ah, what an awful thing it is to drink!" she said in a whisper to her
friend, to whom she then went on to say how years before she had drunk
anisette with her mother at Plassans and how it had made her so very
sick that ever since that day she had never been able to endure even
the smell of liquors.
"You see," she added as she held up her glass, "I have eaten, the
fruit, but I left the brandy, for it would make me ill."
Coupeau also failed to understand how a man could swallow glasses of
brandy and water, one after the other. Brandied fruit, now and again,
was not bad. As to absinthe and similar abominations, he never touched
them--not he, indeed. His comrades might laugh at him as much as they
pleased; he always remained on the other side of the door when they
came in to swallow perdition like that.
His father, who was a tinworker like himself, had fallen one day from
the roof of No. 25, in La Rue Coquenaud, and this recollection had
made him very prudent ever since. As for himself, when he passed
through that street and saw the place he would sooner drink the water
in the gutter than swallow a drop at the wineshop. He concluded with
"You see, in my trade a man needs a clear head and steady legs."
Gervaise had taken up her basket; she had not risen from her chair,
however, but held it on her knees with a dreary look in her eyes, as
if the words of the young mechanic had awakened in her mind strange
thoughts of a possible future.
She answered in a low, hesitating tone, without any apparent
"Heaven knows I am not ambitious. I do not ask for much in this world.
My idea would be to live a quiet life and always have enough to eat--a
clean place to live in--with a comfortable bed, a table and a chair or
two. Yes, I would like to bring my children up in that way and see
them good and industrious. I should not like to run the risk of being
beaten--no, that would not please me at all!"
She hesitated, as if to find something else to say, and then resumed:
"Yes, and at the end I should wish to die in my bed in my own home!"
She pushed back her chair and rose. Coupeau argued with her vehemently
and then gave an uneasy glance at the clock. They did not, however,
depart at once. She wished to look at the still and stood for some
minutes gazing with curiosity at the great copper machine. The
tinworker, who had followed her, explained to her how the thing
worked, pointing out with his finger the various parts of the machine,
and showed the enormous retort whence fell the clear stream of
alcohol. The still, with its intricate and endless coils of wire and
pipes, had a dreary aspect. Not a breath escaped from it, and hardly
a sound was heard. It was like some night task performed in daylight
by a melancholy, silent workman.
In the meantime Mes-Bottes, accompanied by his two comrades, had
lounged to the oak railing and leaned there until there was a corner
of the counter free. He laughed a tipsy laugh as he stood with his
eyes fixed on the machine.
"By thunder!" he muttered. "That is a jolly little thing!"
He went on to say that it held enough to keep their throats fresh for
a week. As for himself, he would like to hold the end of that pipe
between his teeth, and he would like to feel that liquor run down his
throat in a steady stream until it reached his heels.
The still did its work slowly but surely. There was not a glimmer on
its surface--no firelight reflected in its clean-colored sides. The
liquor dropped steadily and suggested a persevering stream which would
gradually invade the room, spread over the streets and boulevard and
finally deluge and inundate Paris itself.
Gervaise shuddered and drew back. She tried to smile, but her lips
quivered as she murmured:
"It frightens me--that machine! It makes me feel cold to see that
Then returning to the idea which had struck her as the acme of human
happiness, she said:
"Say, do you not think that would be very nice? To work and have
plenty to eat, to have a little home all to oneself, to bring up
children and then die in one's bed?"
"And not be beaten," added Coupeau gaily. "But I will promise never
to beat you, Madame Gervaise, if you will agree to what I ask. I will
promise also never to drink, because I love you too much! Come now,
He lowered his voice and spoke with his lips close to her throat,
while she, holding her basket in front of her, was making a path
through the crowd of men.
But she did not say no or shake her head as she had done. She glanced
up at him with a half-tender smile and seemed to rejoice in the
assurance he gave that he did not drink.
It was clear that she would have said yes if she had not sworn never
to have anything more to do with men.
Finally they reached the door and went out of the place, leaving it
crowded to overflowing. The fumes of alcohol and the tipsy voices of
the men carousing went out into the street with them.
Mes-Bottes was heard accusing Father Colombe of cheating by not
filling his glasses more than half full, and he proposed to his
comrades to go in future to another place, where they could do
much better and get more for their money.
"Ah," said Gervaise, drawing a long breath when they stood on the
sidewalk, "here one can breathe again. Good-by, Monsieur Coupeau,
and many thanks for your politeness. I must hasten now!"
She moved on, but he took her hand and held it fast.
"Go a little way with me. It will not be much farther for you.
I must stop at my sister's before I go back to the shop."
She yielded to his entreaties, and they walked slowly on together.
He told her about his family. His mother, a tailoress, was the
housekeeper. Twice she had been obliged to give up her work on account
of trouble with her eyes. She was sixty-two on the third of the last
month. He was the youngest child. One of his sisters, Mme Lerat,
a widow, thirty-six years old, was a flower maker and lived at
Batignolles, in La Rue Des Moines. The other, who was thirty, had
married a chainmaker--a man by the name of Lorilleux. It was to their
rooms that he was now going. They lived in that great house on the
left. He ate his dinner every night with them; it was an economy for
them all. But he wanted to tell them now not to expect him that night,
as he was invited to dine with a friend.
Gervaise interrupted him suddenly:
"Did I hear your friend call you Cadet-Cassis?"
"Yes. That is a name they have given me, because when they drag me
into a wineshop it is cassis I always take. I had as lief be called
Cadet-Cassis as Mes-Bottes, any time."
"I do not think Cadet-Cassis so very bad," answered Gervaise, and she
asked him about his work. How long should he be employed on the new
"Oh," he answered, "there was never any lack of work." He had always
more than he could do. He should remain in that shop at least a year,
for he had yards and yards of gutters to make.
"Do you know," he said, "when I am up there I can see the Hotel
Boncoeur. Yesterday you were at the window, and I waved my hand,
but you did not see me."
They by this time had turned into La Rue de la Goutte-d'Or. He stopped
and looked up.
"There is the house," he said, "and I was born only a few doors
farther off. It is an enormous place."
Gervaise looked up and down the facade. It was indeed enormous. The
house was of five stories, with fifteen windows on each floor. The
blinds were black and with many of the slats broken, which gave an
indescribable air of ruin and desolation to the place. Four shops
occupied the _rez-de-chaussee_. On the right of the door was a
large room, occupied as a cookshop. On the left was a charcoal vender,
a thread-and-needle shop and an establishment for the manufacture of
The house appeared all the higher for the reason that on either side
were two low buildings, squeezed close to it, and stood square, like
a block of granite roughly hewn, against the blue sky. Totally without
ornament, the house grimly suggested a prison.
Gervaise looked at the entrance, an immense doorway which rose to the
height of the second story and made a deep passage, at the end of
which was a large courtyard. In the center of this doorway, which was
paved like the street, ran a gutter full of pale rose-colored water.
"Come up," said Coupeau; "they won't eat you."
Gervaise preferred to wait for him in the street, but she consented
to go as far as the room of the concierge, which was within the porch,
on the left.
When she had reached this place she again looked up.
Within there were six floors, instead of five, and four regular
facades surrounded the vast square of the courtyard. The walls were
gray, covered with patches of leprous yellow, stained by the dripping
from the slate-covered roof. The wall had not even a molding to break
its dull uniformity--only the gutters ran across it. The windows had
neither shutters nor blinds but showed the panes of glass which were
greenish and full of bubbles. Some were open, and from them hung
checked mattresses and sheets to air. Lines were stretched in front
of others, on which the family wash was hung to dry--men's shirts,
women's chemises and children's breeches! There was a look as if the
dwellers under that roof found their quarters too small and were
oozing out at every crack and aperture.
For the convenience of each facade there was a narrow, high doorway,
from which a damp passage led to the rear, where were four staircases
with iron railings. These each had one of the first four letters of
the alphabet painted at the side.
The _rez-de-chaussee_ was divided into enormous workshops and lit
by windows black with dust. The forge of a locksmith blazed in one;
from another came the sound of a carpenter's plane, while near the
doorway a pink stream from a dyeing establishment poured into the
gutter. Pools of stagnant water stood in the courtyard, all littered
with shavings and fragments of charcoal. A few pale tufts of grass
struggled up between the flat stones, and the whole courtyard was
lit but dimly.
In the shade near the water faucet three small hens were pecking
with the vain hope of finding a worm, and Gervaise looked about her,
amazed at the enormous place which seemed like a little world and as
interested in the house as if it were a living creature.
"Are you looking for anyone?" asked the concierge, coming to her door
But the young woman explained that she was waiting for a friend and
then turned back toward the street. As Coupeau still delayed, she
returned to the courtyard, finding in it a strange fascination.
The house did not strike her as especially ugly. At some of the
windows were plants--a wallflower blooming in a pot--a caged canary,
who uttered an occasional warble, and several shaving mirrors caught
the light and shone like stars.
A cabinetmaker sang, accompanied by the regular whistling sounds
of his plane, while from the locksmith's quarters came a clatter
of hammers struck in cadence.
At almost all the open windows the laughing, dirty faces of merry
children were seen, and women sat with their calm faces in profile,
bending over their work. It was the quiet time--after the morning
labors were over and the men were gone to their work and the house
was comparatively quiet, disturbed only by the sounds of the various
trades. The same refrain repeated hour after hour has a soothing
effect, Gervaise thought.
To be sure, the courtyard was a little damp. Were she to live there,
she should certainly prefer a room on the sunny side.
She went in several steps and breathed that heavy odor of the homes of
the poor--an odor of old dust, of rancid dirt and grease--but as the
acridity of the smells from the dyehouse predominated, she decided it
to be far better than the Hotel Boncoeur.
She selected a window--a window in the corner on the left, where there
was a small box planted with scarlet beans, whose slender tendrils
were beginning to wind round a little arbor of strings.
"I have made you wait too long, I am afraid," said Coupeau, whom she
suddenly heard at her side. "They make a great fuss when I do not dine
there, and she did not like it today, especially as my sister had
bought veal. You are looking at this house," he continued. "Think of
it--it is always lit from top to bottom. There are a hundred lodgers
in it. If I had any furniture I would have had a room in it long ago.
It would be very nice here, wouldn't it?"
"Yes," murmured Gervaise, "very nice indeed. At Plassans there were
not so many people in one whole street. Look up at that window on the
fifth floor--the window, I mean, where those beans are growing. See
how pretty that is!"
He, with his usual recklessness, declared he would hire that room
for her, and they would live there together.
She turned away with a laugh and begged him not to talk any more
nonsense. The house might stand or fall--they would never have a room
in it together.
But Coupeau, all the same, was not reproved when he held her hand
longer than was necessary in bidding her farewell when they reached
Mme Fauconnier's laundry.
For another month the kindly intercourse between Gervaise and Coupeau
continued on much the same footing. He thought her wonderfully
courageous, declared she was killing herself with hard work all day
and sitting up half the night to sew for the children. She was not
like the women he had known; she took life too seriously, by far!
She laughed and defended herself modestly. Unfortunately, she said,
she had not always been discreet. She alluded to her first confinement
when she was not more than fourteen and to the bottles of anisette she
had emptied with her mother, but she had learned much from experience,
she said. He was mistaken, however, in thinking she was persevering
and strong. She was, on the contrary, very weak and too easily
influenced, as she had discovered to her cost. Her dream had always
been to live in a respectable way among respectable people, because
bad company knocks the life out of a woman. She trembled when she
thought of the future and said she was like a sou thrown up in the
air, falling, heads up or down, according to chance, on the muddy
pavement. All she had seen, the bad example spread before her childish
eyes, had given her valuable lessons. But Coupeau laughed at these
gloomy notions and brought back her courage by attempting to put his
arm around her waist. She slapped his hands, and he cried out that
"for a weak woman, she managed to hurt a fellow considerably!"
As for himself, he was always as merry as a grig, and no fool, either.
He parted his hair carefully on one side, wore pretty cravats and
patent-leather shoes on Sunday and was as saucy as only a fine
Parisian workman can be.
They were of mutual use to each other at the Hotel Boncoeur. Coupeau
went for her milk, did many little errands for her and carried home
her linen to her customers and often took the children out to walk.
Gervaise, to return these courtesies, went up to the tiny room where
he slept and in his absence looked over his clothes, sewed on buttons
and mended his garments. They grew to be very good and cordial
friends. He was to her a constant source of amusement. She listened
to the songs he sang and to their slang and nonsense, which as yet
had for her much of the charm of novelty. But he began to grow uneasy,
and his smiles were less frequent. He asked her whenever they met the
same question, "When shall it be?"
She answered invariably with a jest but passed her days in a fire
of indelicate allusions, however, which did not bring a flush to
her cheek. So long as he was not rough and brutal, she objected to
nothing, but one day she was very angry when he, in trying to steal
a kiss, tore out a lock of her hair.
About the last of June Coupeau became absolutely morose, and Gervaise
was so much disturbed by certain glances he gave her that she fairly
barricaded her door at night. Finally one Tuesday evening, when he had
sulked from the previous Sunday, he came to her door at eleven in the
evening. At first she refused to open it, but his voice was so gentle,
so sad even, that she pulled away the barrier she had pushed against
the door for her better protection. When he came in she was startled
and thought him ill; he was so deadly pale and his eyes were so
bright. No, he was not ill, he said, but things could not go on
like this; he could not sleep.
"Listen, Madame Gervaise," he exclaimed with tears in his eyes and a
strange choking sensation in his throat. "We must be married at once.
That is all there is to be said about it."
Gervaise was astonished and very grave.
"Oh, Monsieur Coupeau, I never dreamed of this, as you know very well,
and you must not take such a step lightly."
But he continued to insist; he was certainly fully determined. He had
come down to her then, without waiting until morning, merely because
he needed a good sleep. As soon as she said yes he would leave her.
But he would not go until he heard that word.
"I cannot say yes in such a hurry," remonstrated Gervaise. "I do not
choose to run the risk of your telling me at some future day that
I led you into this. You are making a great mistake, I assure you.
Suppose you should not see me for a week--you would forget me
entirely. Men sometimes marry for a fancy and in twenty-four hours
would gladly take it all back. Sit down here and let us talk a
They sat in that dingy room lit only by one candle, which they forgot
to snuff, and discussed the expediency of their marriage until after
midnight, speaking very low, lest they should disturb the children,
who were asleep with weir heads on the same pillow.
And Gervaise pointed them out to Coupeau. That was an odd sort of
dowry to carry a man, surely! How could she venture to go to him with
such encumbrances? Then, too, she was troubled about another thing.
People would laugh at him. Her story was known; her lover had been
seen, and there would be no end of talk if she should marry now.
To all these good and excellent reasons Coupeau answered with a shrug
of his shoulders. What did he care for talk and gossip? He never
meddled with the affairs of others; why should they meddle with his?
Yes, she had children, to be sure, and he would look out for them with
her. He had never seen a woman in his life who was so good and so
courageous and patient. Besides, that had nothing to do with it! Had
she been ugly and lazy, with a dozen dirty children, he would have
wanted her and only her.
"Yes," he continued, tapping her on the knee, "you are the woman I
want, and none other. You have nothing to say against that, I
Gervaise melted by degrees. Her resolution forsook her, and a weakness
of her heart and her senses overwhelmed her in the face of this brutal
passion. She ventured only a timid objection or two. Her hands lay
loosely folded on her knees, while her face was very gentle and sweet.
Through the open window came the soft air of a fair June night; the
candle flickered in the wind; from the street came the sobs of a
child, the child of a drunken man who was lying just in front of the
door in the street. From a long distance the breeze brought the notes
of a violin playing at a restaurant for some late marriage festival--a
delicate strain it was, too, clear and sweet as musical glasses.
Coupeau, seeing that the young woman had exhausted all her arguments,
snatched her hands and drew her toward him. She was in one of those
moods which she so much distrusted, when she could refuse no one
anything. But the young man did not understand this, and he contented
himself with simply holding her hands closely in his.
"You say yes, do you not?" he asked.
"How you tease," she replied. "You wish it--well then, yes. Heaven
grant that the day will not come when you will be sorry for it."
He started up, lifting her from her feet, and kissed her loudly. He
glanced at the children.
"Hush!" he said. "We must not wake the boys. Good night."
And he went out of the room. Gervaise, trembling from head to foot,
sat for a full hour on the side of her bed without undressing. She was
profoundly touched and thought Coupeau very honest and very kind. The
tipsy man in the street uttered a groan like that of a wild beast, and
the notes of the violin had ceased.
The next evening Coupeau urged Gervaise to go with him to call on his
sister. But the young woman shrank with ardent fear from this visit to
the Lorilleuxs'. She saw perfectly well that her lover stood in dread
of these people.
He was in no way dependent on this sister, who was not the eldest
either. Mother Coupeau would gladly give her consent, for she had
never been known to contradict her son. In the family, however, the
Lorilleuxs were supposed to earn ten francs per day, and this gave
them great weight. Coupeau would never venture to marry unless they
agreed to accept his wife.
"I have told them about you," he said. "Gervaise--good heavens, what
a baby you are! Come there tonight with me; you will find my sister
a little stiff, and Lorilleux is none too amiable. The truth is they
are much vexed, because, you see, if I marry I shall no longer dine
with them--and that is their great economy. But that makes no odds;
they won't put you out of doors. Do what I ask, for it is absolutely
These words frightened Gervaise nearly out of her wits. One Saturday
evening, however, she consented. Coupeau came for her at half-past
eight. She was all ready, wearing a black dress, a shawl with printed
palm leaves in yellow and a white cap with fluted ruffles. She had
saved seven francs for the shawl and two francs fifty centimes for
the cap; the dress was an old one, cleaned and made over.
"They expect you," said Coupeau as they walked along the street, "and
they have become accustomed to the idea of seeing me married. They are
really quite amiable tonight. Then, too, if you have never seen a gold
chain made you will be much amused in watching it. They have an order
"And have they gold in these rooms?" asked Gervaise.
"I should say so! It is on the walls, on the floors--everywhere!"
By this time they had reached the door and had entered the courtyard.
The Lorilleuxs lived on the sixth floor--staircase B. Coupeau told her
with a laugh to keep tight hold of the iron railing and not let it go.
She looked up, half shutting her eyes, and gasped as she saw the
height to which the staircase wound. The last gas burner, higher up,
looked like a star trembling in a black sky, while two others on
alternate floors cast long, slanting rays down the interminable
"Aha!" cried the young man as they stopped a moment on the second
landing. "I smell onion soup; somebody has evidently been eating onion
soup about here, and it smells good too."
It is true. Staircase B, dirty and greasy, both steps and railing with
plastering knocked off and showing the laths beneath, was permeated
with the smell of cooking. From each landing ran narrow corridors,
and on either side were half-open doors painted yellow and black, with
finger marks about the lock and handles, and through the open window
came the damp, disgusting smell of sinks and sewers mingling with the
odor of onions.
Up to the sixth floor came the noises from the
_rez-de-chaussee_--the rattling of dishes being washed, the
scraping of saucepans, and all that sort of thing. On one floor
Gervaise saw through an open door on which were the words DESIGNER AND
DRAUGHTSMAN in large letters two men seated at a table covered with a
varnished cloth; they were disputing violently amid thick clouds of
smoke from their pipes. The second and third floors were the quietest.
Here through the open doors came the sound of a cradle rocking, the
wail of a baby, a woman's voice, the rattle of a spoon against a cup.
On one door she read a placard, MME GAUDRON, CARDER; on the next, M.
MADINIER, MANUFACTURER OF BOXES.
On the fourth there was a great quarrel going on--blows and
oaths--which did not prevent the neighbors opposite from playing cards
with their door wide open for the benefit of the air. When Gervaise
reached the fifth floor she was out of breath. Such innumerable stairs
were a novelty to her. These winding railings made her dizzy. One
family had taken possession of the landing; the father was washing
plates in a small earthen pan near the sink, while the mother was
scrubbing the baby before putting it to sleep. Coupeau laughingly bade
Gervaise keep up her courage, and at last they reached the top, and
she looked around to see whence came the clear, shrill voice which
she had heard above all other sounds ever since her foot touched the
first stair. It was a little old woman who sang as she worked, and her
work was dressing dolls at three cents apiece. Gervaise clung to the
railing, all out of breath, and looked down into the depths below--the
gas burner now looked like a star at the bottom of a deep well. The
smells, the turbulent life of this great house, seemed to rush over
her in one tremendous gust. She gasped and turned pale.
"We have not got there yet," said Coupeau; "we have much farther
to go." And he turned to the left and then to the right again. The
corridor stretched out before them, faintly lit by an occasional gas
burner; a succession of doors, like those of a prison or a convent,
continued to appear, nearly all wide open, showing the sordid
interiors. Finally they reached a corridor that was entirely dark.
"Here we are," said the tinworker. "Isn't it a journey? Look out
for three steps. Hold onto the wall."
And Gervaise moved cautiously for ten paces or more. She counted the
three steps, and then Coupeau pushed open a door without knocking.
A bright light streamed forth. They went in.
It was a long, narrow apartment, almost like a prolongation of the
corridor; a woolen curtain, faded and spotted, drawn on one side,
divided the room in two.
One compartment, the first, contained a bed pushed under the corner
of the mansard roof; a stove, still warm from the cooking of the
dinner; two chairs, a table and a wardrobe. To place this last piece
of furniture where it stood, between the bed and the door, had
necessitated sawing away a portion of the ceiling.
The second compartment was the workshop. At the back, a tiny forge
with bellows; on the right, a vice screwed against the wall under
an _etagere_, where were iron tools piled up; on the left, in front
of the window, was a small table covered with pincers, magnifying
glasses, tiny scales and shears--all dirty and greasy.
"We have come!" cried Coupeau, going as far as the woolen curtain.
But he was not answered immediately.
Gervaise, much agitated by the idea that she was entering a place
filled with gold, stood behind her friend and did not know whether
to speak or retreat.
The bright light which came from a lamp and also from a brazier of
charcoal in the forge added to her trouble. She saw Mme Lorilleux,
a small, dark woman, agile and strong, drawing with all the vigor
of her arms--assisted by a pair of pincers--a thread of black metal,
which she passed through the holes of a drawplate held by the vice.
Before the desk or table in front of the window sat Lorilleux, as
short as his wife, but with broader shoulders. He was managing a tiny
pair of pincers and doing some work so delicate that it was almost
imperceptible. It was he who first looked up and lifted his head with
its scanty yellow hair. His face was the color of old wax, was long
and had an expression of physical suffering.
"Ah, it is you, is it? Well! Well! But we are in a hurry, you
understand. We have an order to fill. Don't come into the workroom.
Remain in the chamber." And he returned to his work; his face was
reflected in a ball filled with water, through which the lamp sent
on his work a circle of the brightest possible light.
"Find chairs for yourselves," cried Mme Lorilleux. "This is the lady,
I suppose. Very well! Very well!"
She rolled up her wire and carried it to the forge, and then she
fanned the coals a little to quicken the heat.
Coupeau found two chairs and made Gervaise seat herself near the
curtain. The room was so narrow that he could not sit beside her, so
he placed his chair a little behind and leaned over her to give her
the information he deemed desirable.
Gervaise, astonished by the strange reception given her by these
people and uncomfortable under their sidelong glances, had a buzzing
in her ears which prevented her from hearing what was said.
She thought the woman very old looking for her thirty years and also
extremely untidy, with her hair tumbling over her shoulders and her
The husband, not more than a year older, seemed to Gervaise really
an old man with thin, compressed lips and bowed figure. He was in his
shirt sleeves, and his naked feet were thrust into slippers down at
She was infinitely astonished at the smallness of the atelier, at the
blackened walls and at the terrible heat.