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L'Assommoir by Emile Zola

Part 6 out of 6

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"Oh, take me!" she cried. "I can bear it no longer. Take me, I implore

And she knelt before him, a lurid light blazing in her haggard eyes.

Father Bazonge, with garments stained by the dust of the cemetery,
seemed to her as glorious as the sun. But the old man, yet half
asleep, rubbed his eyes and could not understand her.

"What are you talking about?" he muttered.

"Take me," repeated Gervaise, more earnestly than before. "Do you
remember one night when I rapped on the partition? Afterward I said
I did not, but I was stupid then and afraid. But I am not afraid now.
Here, take my hands--they are not cold with terror. Take me and put
me to sleep, for I have but this one wish now."

Bazonge, feeling that it was not proper to argue with a lady, said:

"You are right. I have buried three women today, who would each have
given me a jolly little sum out of gratitude, if they could have put
their hands in their pockets. But you see, my dear woman, it is not
such an easy thing you are asking of me."

"Take me!" cried Gervaise. "Take me! I want to go away!"

"But there is a certain little operation first, you know----" And he
pretended to choke and rolled up his eyes.

Gervaise staggered to her feet. He, too, rejected her and would have
nothing to do with her. She crawled into her room and threw herself on
her straw. She was sorry she had eaten anything and delayed the work
of starvation.



The next day Gervaise received ten francs from her son Etienne, who
had steady work. He occasionally sent her a little money, knowing that
there was none too much of that commodity in his poor mother's pocket.

She cooked her dinner and ate it alone, for Coupeau did not appear,
nor did she hear a word of his whereabouts for nearly a week. Finally
a printed paper was given her which frightened her at first, but
she was soon relieved to find that it simply conveyed to her the
information that her husband was at Sainte-Anne's again.

Gervaise was in no way disturbed. Coupeau knew the way back well
enough; he would return in due season. She soon heard that he and
Mes-Bottes had spent the whole week in dissipation, and she even felt
a little angry that they had not seen fit to offer her a glass of wine
with all their feasting and carousing.

On Sunday, as Gervaise had a nice little repast ready for the evening,
she decided that an excursion would give her an appetite. The letter
from the asylum stared her in the face and worried her. The snow had
melted; the sky was gray and soft, and the air was fresh. She started
at noon, as the days were now short and Sainte-Anne's was a long
distance off, but as there were a great many people in the street,
she was amused.

When she reached the hospital she heard a strange story. It seems that
Coupeau--how, no one could say--had escaped from the hospital and had
been found under the bridge. He had thrown himself over the parapet,
declaring that armed men were driving him with the point of their

One of the nurses took Gervaise up the stairs. At the head she heard
terrific howls which froze the marrow in her bones.

"It is he!" said the nurse.

"He? Whom do you mean?"

"I mean your husband. He has gone on like that ever since day before
yesterday, and he dances all the time too. You will see!"

Ah, what a sight it was! The cell was cushioned from the floor to the
ceiling, and on the floor were mattresses on which Coupeau danced and
howled in his ragged blouse. The sight was terrific. He threw himself
wildly against the window and then to the other side of the cell,
shaking hands as if he wished to break them off and fling them
in defiance at the whole world. These wild motions are sometimes
imitated, but no one who has not seen the real and terrible sight
can imagine its horror.

"What is it? What is it?" gasped Gervaise.

A house surgeon, a fair and rosy youth, was sitting, calmly taking
notes. The case was a peculiar one and had excited a great deal of
attention among the physicians attached to the hospital.

"You can stay awhile," he said, "but keep very quiet. He will not
recognize you, however."

Coupeau, in fact, did not seem to notice his wife, who had not yet
seen his face. She went nearer. Was that really he? She never would
have known him with his bloodshot eyes and distorted features. His
skin was so hot that the air was heated around him and was as if it
were varnished--shining and damp with perspiration. He was dancing,
it is true, but as if on burning plowshares; not a motion seemed to
be voluntary.

Gervaise went to the young surgeon, who was beating a tune on the
back of his chair.

"Will he get well, sir?" she said.

The surgeon shook his head.

"What is he saying? Hark! He is talking now."

"Just be quiet, will you?" said the young man. "I wish to listen."

Coupeau was speaking fast and looking all about, as if he were
examining the underbrush in the Bois de Vincennes.

"Where is it now?" he exclaimed and then, straightening himself,
he looked off into the distance.

"It is a fair," he exclaimed, "and lanterns in the trees, and the
water is running everywhere: fountains, cascades and all sorts of

He drew a long breath, as if enjoying the delicious freshness of
the air.

By degrees, however, his features contracted again with pain, and
he ran quickly around the wall of his cell.

"More trickery," he howled. "I knew it!"

He started back with a hoarse cry; his teeth chattered with terror.

"No, I will not throw myself over! All that water would drown me!
No, I will not!"

"I am going," said Gervaise to the surgeon. "I cannot stay another

She was very pale. Coupeau kept up his infernal dance while she
tottered down the stairs, followed by his hoarse voice.

How good it was to breathe the fresh air outside!

That evening everyone in the huge house in which Coupeau had lived
talked of his strange disease. The concierge, crazy to hear the
details, condescended to invite Gervaise to take a glass of cordial,
forgetting that he had turned a cold shoulder upon her for many weeks.

Mme Lorilleux and Mme Poisson were both there also. Boche had heard
of a cabinetmaker who had danced the polka until he died. He had drunk

Gervaise finally, not being able to make them understand her
description, asked for the table to be moved and there, in the center
of the loge, imitated her husband, making frightful leaps and horrible

"Yes, that was what he did!"

And then everybody said it was not possible that man could keep up
such violent exercise for even three hours.

Gervaise told them to go and see if they did not believe her. But
Mme Lorilleux declared that nothing would induce her to set foot
within Sainte-Anne's, and Virginie, whose face had grown longer and
longer with each successive week that the shop got deeper into debt,
contented herself with murmuring that life was not always gay--in
fact, in her opinion, it was a pretty dismal thing. As the wine was
finished, Gervaise bade them all good night. When she was not speaking
she had sat with fixed, distended eyes. Coupeau was before them all
the time.

The next day she said to herself when she rose that she would never go
to the hospital again; she could do no good. But as midday arrived she
could stay away no longer and started forth, without a thought of the
length of the walk, so great were her mingled curiosity and anxiety.

She was not obliged to ask a question; she heard the frightful sounds
at the very foot of the stairs. The keeper, who was carrying a cup of
tisane across the corridor, stopped when he saw her.

"He keeps it up well!" he said.

She went in but stood at the door, as she saw there were people there.
The young surgeon had surrendered his chair to an elderly gentleman
wearing several decorations. He was the chief physician of the
hospital, and his eyes were like gimlets.

Gervaise tried to see Coupeau over the bald head of that gentleman.
Her husband was leaping and dancing with undiminished strength. The
perspiration poured more constantly from his brow now; that was all.
His feet had worn holes in the mattress with his steady tramp from
window to wall.

Gervaise asked herself why she had come back. She had been accused the
evening before of exaggerating the picture, but she had not made it
strong enough. The next time she imitated him she could do it better.
She listened to what the physicians were saying: the house surgeon
was giving the details of the night with many words which she did not
understand, but she gathered that Coupeau had gone on in the same way
all night. Finally he said this was the wife of the patient. Wherefore
the surgeon in chief turned and interrogated her with the air of a
police judge.

"Did this man's father drink?"

"A little, sir. Just as everybody does. He fell from a roof when he
had been drinking and was killed."

"Did his mother drink?"

"Yes sir--that is, a little now and then. He had a brother who died
in convulsions, but the others are very healthy."

The surgeon looked at her and said coldly:

"You drink too?"

Gervaise attempted to defend herself and deny the accusation.

"You drink," he repeated, "and see to what it leads. Someday you
will be here, and like this."

She leaned against the wall, utterly overcome. The physician turned
away. He knelt on the mattress and carefully watched Coupeau; he
wished to see if his feet trembled as much as his hands. His
extremities vibrated as if on wires. The disease was creeping on,
and the peculiar shivering seemed to be under the skin--it would
ease for a minute or two and then begin again. The belly and the
shoulders trembled like water just on the point of boiling.

Coupeau seemed to suffer more than the evening before. His complaints
were curious and contradictory. A million pins were pricking him.
There was a weight under the skin; a cold, wet animal was crawling
over him. Then there were other creatures on his shoulder.

"I am thirsty," he groaned; "so thirsty."

The house surgeon took a glass of lemonade from a tray and gave it to
him. He seized the glass in both hands, drank one swallow, spilling
the whole of it at the same time. He at once spat it out in disgust.

"It is brandy!" he exclaimed.

Then the surgeon, on a sign from his chief, gave him some water, and
Coupeau did the same thing.

"It is brandy!" he cried. "Brandy! Oh, my God!"

For twenty-four hours he had declared that everything he touched to
his lips was brandy, and with tears begged for something else, for it
burned his throat, he said. Beef tea was brought to him; he refused
it, saying it smelled of alcohol. He seemed to suffer intense and
constant agony from the poison which he vowed was in the air. He asked
why people were allowed to rub matches all the time under his nose,
to choke him with their vile fumes.

The physicians watched Coupeau with care and interest. The phantoms
which had hitherto haunted him by night now appeared before him at
midday. He saw spiders' webs hanging from the wall as large as the
sails of a man-of-war. Then these webs changed to nets, whose meshes
were constantly contracting only to enlarge again. These nets held
black balls, and they, too, swelled and shrank. Suddenly he cried out:

"The rats! Oh, the rats!"

The balls had been transformed to rats. The vile beasts found their
way through the meshes of the nets and swarmed over the mattress and
then disappeared as suddenly as they came.

The rats were followed by a monkey, who went in and came out from the
wall, each time so near his face that Coupeau started back in disgust.
All this vanished in the twinkling of an eye. He apparently thought
the walls were unsteady and about to fall, for he uttered shriek after
shriek of agony.

"Fire! Fire!" he screamed. "They can't stand long. They are shaking!
Fire! Fire! The whole heavens are bright with the light! Help! Help!"

His shrieks ended in a convulsed murmur. He foamed at the mouth. The
surgeon in chief turned to the assistant.

"You keep the temperature at forty degrees?" he asked.

"Yes sir."

A dead silence ensued. Then the surgeon shrugged his shoulders.

"Well, continue the same treatment--beef tea, milk, lemonade and
quinine as directed. Do not leave him, and send for me if there is
any change."

And he left the room, Gervaise following close at his heels, seeking
an opportunity of asking him if there was no hope. But he stalked down
the corridor with so much dignity that she dared not approach him.

She stood for a moment, undecided whether she should go back to
Coupeau or not, but hearing him begin again the lamentable cry for

"Water, not brandy!"

She hurried on, feeling that she could endure no more that day. In the
streets the galloping horses made her start with a strange fear that
all the inmates of Sainte-Anne's were at her heels. She remembered
what the physician had said, with what terrors he had threatened her,
and she wondered if she already had the disease.

When she reached the house the concierge and all the others were
waiting and called her into the loge.

Was Coupeau still alive? they asked.

Boche seemed quite disturbed at her answer, as he had made a bet
that he would not live twenty-four hours. Everyone was astonished.
Mme Lorilleux made a mental calculation:

"Sixty hours," she said. "His strength is extraordinary."

Then Boche begged Gervaise to show them once more what Coupeau did.

The demand became general, and it was pointed out to her that she
ought not to refuse, for there were two neighbors there who had not
seen her representation the night previous and who had come in
expressly to witness it.

They made a space in the center of the room, and a shiver of
expectation ran through the little crowd.

Gervaise was very reluctant. She was really afraid--afraid of making
herself ill. She finally made the attempt but drew back again hastily.

No, she could not; it was quite impossible. Everyone was disappointed,
and Virginie went away.

Then everyone began to talk of the Poissons. A warrant had been
served on them the night before. Poisson was to lose his place. As to
Lantier, he was hovering around a woman who thought of taking the shop
and meant to sell hot tripe. Lantier was in luck, as usual.

As they talked someone caught sight of Gervaise and pointed her out to
the others. She was at the very back of the loge, her feet and hands
trembling, imitating Coupeau, in fact. They spoke to her. She stared
wildly about, as if awaking from a dream, and then left the room.

The next day she left the house at noon, as she had done before. And
as she entered Sainte-Anne's she heard the same terrific sounds.

When she reached the cell she found Coupeau raving mad! He was
fighting in the middle of the cell with invisible enemies. He tried
to hide himself; he talked and he answered, as if there were twenty
persons. Gervaise watched him with distended eyes. He fancied himself
on a roof, laying down the sheets of zinc. He blew the furnace with
his mouth, and he went down on his knees and made a motion as if he
had soldering irons in his hand. He was troubled by his shoes: it
seemed as if he thought they were dangerous. On the next roofs stood
persons who insulted him by letting quantities of rats loose. He
stamped here and there in his desire to kill them and the spiders
too! He pulled away his clothing to catch the creatures who, he said,
intended to burrow under his skin. In another minute he believed
himself to be a locomotive and puffed and panted. He darted toward
the window and looked down into the street as if he were on a roof.

"Look!" he said. "There is a traveling circus. I see the lions and
the panthers making faces at me. And there is Clemence. Good God,
man, don't fire!"

And he gesticulated to the men who, he said, were pointing their guns
at him.

He talked incessantly, his voice growing louder and louder, higher
and higher.

"Ah, it is you, is it? But please keep your hair out of my mouth."

And he passed his hand over his face as if to take away the hair.

"Who is it?" said the keeper.

"My wife, of course."

He looked at the wall, turning his back to Gervaise, who felt very
strange, and looked at the wall to see if she were there! He talked

"You look very fine. Where did you get that dress? Come here and let
me arrange it for you a little. You devil! There he is again!"

And he leaped at the wall, but the soft cushions threw him back.

"Whom do you see?" asked the young doctor.

"Lantier! Lantier!"

Gervaise could not endure the eyes of the young man, for the scene
brought back to her so much of her former life.

Coupeau fancied, as he had been thrown back from the wall in front,
that he was now attacked in the rear, and he leaped over the mattress
with the agility of a cat. His respiration grew shorter and shorter,
his eyes starting from their sockets.

"He is killing her!" he shrieked. "Killing her! Just see the blood!"

He fell back against the wall with his hands wide open before him,
as if he were repelling the approach of some frightful object. He
uttered two long, low groans and then fell flat on the mattress.

"He is dead! He is dead!" moaned Gervaise.

The keeper lifted Coupeau. No, he was not dead; his bare feet quivered
with a regular motion. The surgeon in chief came in, bringing two
colleagues. The three men stood in grave silence, watching the man
for some time. They uncovered him, and Gervaise saw his shoulders
and back.

The tremulous motion had now taken complete possession of the body as
well as the limbs, and a strange ripple ran just under the skin.

"He is asleep," said the surgeon in chief, turning to his colleagues.

Coupeau's eyes were closed, and his face twitched convulsively.
Coupeau might sleep, but his feet did nothing of the kind.

Gervaise, seeing the doctors lay their hands on Coupeau's body,
wished to do the same. She approached softly and placed her hand
on his shoulder and left it there for a minute.

What was going on there? A river seemed hurrying on under that skin.
It was the liquor of the Assommoir, working like a mole through
muscle, nerves, bone and marrow.

The doctors went away, and Gervaise, at the end of another hour,
said to the young surgeon:

"He is dead, sir."

But the surgeon, looking at the feet, said: "No," for those poor feet
were still dancing.

Another hour, and yet another passed. Suddenly the feet were stiff
and motionless, and the young surgeon turned to Gervaise.

"He is dead," he said.

Death alone had stopped those feet.

When Gervaise went back she was met at the door by a crowd of people
who wished to ask her questions, she thought.

"He is dead," she said quietly as she moved on.

But no one heard her. They had their own tale to tell then. How
Poisson had nearly murdered Lantier. Poisson was a tiger, and he ought
to have seen what was going on long before. And Boche said the woman
had taken the shop and that Lantier was, as usual, in luck again, for
he adored tripe.

In the meantime Gervaise went directly to Mme Lerat and Mme Lorilleux
and said faintly:

"He is dead--after four days of horror."

Then the two sisters were in duty bound to pull out their
handkerchiefs. Their brother had lived a most dissolute life,
but then he was their brother.

Boche shrugged his shoulders and said in an audible voice:

"Pshaw! It is only one drunkard the less!"

After this day Gervaise was not always quite right in her mind, and
it was one of the attractions of the house to see her act Coupeau.

But her representations were often involuntary. She trembled at times
from head to foot and uttered little spasmodic cries. She had taken
the disease in a modified form at Sainte-Anne's from looking so long
at her husband. But she never became altogether like him in the few
remaining months of her existence.

She sank lower day by day. As soon as she got a little money from
any source whatever she drank it away at once. Her landlord decided
to turn her out of the room she occupied, and as Father Bru was
discovered dead one day in his den under the stairs, M. Marescot
allowed her to take possession of his quarters. It was there,
therefore, on the old straw bed, that she lay waiting for death to
come. Apparently even Mother Earth would have none of her. She tried
several times to throw herself out of the window, but death took her
by bits, as it were. In fact, no one knew exactly when she died or
exactly what she died of. They spoke of cold and hunger.

But the truth was she died of utter weariness of life, and Father
Bazonge came the day she was found dead in her den.

Under his arm he carried a coffin, and he was very tipsy and as gay
as a lark.

"It is foolish to be in a hurry, because one always gets what one
wants finally. I am ready to give you all your good pleasure when your
time comes. Some want to go, and some want to stay. And here is one
who wanted to go and was kept waiting."

And when he lifted Gervaise in his great, coarse hands he did it
tenderly. And as he laid her gently in her coffin he murmured between
two hiccups:

"It is I--my dear, it is I," said this rough consoler of women. "It is
I. Be happy now and sleep quietly, my dear!"


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