Nana was growing fast–fair, fresh and dimpled–her skin velvety, like a peach, and eyes so bright that men often asked her if they might not light their pipes at them. Her mass of blonde hair–the color of ripe wheat–looked around her temples as if it were powdered with gold. She had a quaint little trick of sticking out the tip of her tongue between her white teeth, and this habit, for some reason, exasperated her mother.
She was very fond of finery and very coquettish. In this house, where bread was not always to be got, it was difficult for her to indulge her caprices in the matter of costume, but she did wonders. She brought home odds and ends of ribbons from the shop where she worked and made them up into bows and knots with which she ornamented her dirty dresses. She was not overparticular in washing her feet, but she wore her boots so tight that she suffered martyrdom in honor of St Crispin, and if anyone asked her what the matter was when the pain flushed her face suddenly, she always and promptly laid it to the score of the colic.
Summer was the season of her triumphs. In a calico dress that cost five or six francs she was as fresh and sweet as a spring morning and made the dull street radiant with her youth and her beauty. She went by the name of “The Little Chicken.” One gown, in particular, suited her to perfection. It was white with rose-colored dots, without trimming of any kind. The skirt was short and showed her feet. The sleeves were very wide and displayed her arms to the elbows. She turned the neck away and fastened it with pins–in a corner in the corridor, dreading her father’s jests–to exhibit her pretty rounded throat. A rose-colored ribbon, knotted in the rippling masses of her hair, completed her toilet. She was a charming combination of child and woman.
Sundays at this period of her life were her days for coquetting with the public. She looked forward to them all the week through with a longing for liberty and fresh air.
Early in the morning she began her preparations and stood for hours in her chemise before the bit of broken mirror nailed by the window, and as everyone could see her, her mother would be very much vexed and ask how long she intended to show herself in that way.
But she, quite undisturbed, went on fastening down the little curls on her forehead with a little sugar and water and then sewed the buttons on her boots or took a stitch or two in her frock, barefooted all this time and with her chemise slipping off her rounded shoulders.
Her father declared he would exhibit her as the “Wild Girl,” at two sous a head.
She was very lovely in this scanty costume, the color flushing her cheeks in her indignation at her father’s sometimes coarse remarks. She did not dare answer him, however, but bit off her thread in silent rage. After breakfast she went down to the courtyard. The house was wrapped in Sunday quiet; the workshops on the lower floor were closed. Through some of the open windows the tables were seen laid for dinners, the families being on the fortifications “getting an appetite.”
Five or six girls–Nana, Pauline and others–lingered in the courtyard for a time and then took flight altogether into the streets and thence to the outer boulevards. They walked in a line, filling up the whole sidewalk, with ribbons fluttering in their uncovered hair.
They managed to see everybody and everything through their downcast lids. The streets were their native heath, as it were, for they had grown up in them.
Nana walked in the center and gave her arm to Pauline, and as they were the oldest and tallest of the band, they gave the law to the others and decided where they should go for the day and what they should do.
Nana and Pauline were deep ones. They did nothing without premeditation. If they ran it was to show their slender ankles, and when they stopped and panted for breath it was sure to be at the side of some youths–young workmen of their acquaintance–who smoked in their faces as they talked. Nana had her favorite, whom she always saw at a great distance–Victor Fauconnier–and Pauline adored a young cabinetmaker, who gave her apples.
Toward sunset the great pleasure of the day began. A band of mountebanks would spread a well-worn carpet, and a circle was formed to look on. Nana and Pauline were always in the thickest of the crowd, their pretty fresh dresses crushed between dirty blouses, but insensible to the mingled odors of dust and alcohol, tobacco and dirt. They heard vile language; it did not disturb them; it was their own tongue–they heard little else. They listened to it with a smile, their delicate cheeks unflushed.
The only thing that disturbed them was the appearance of their fathers, particularly if these fathers seemed to have been drinking. They kept a good lookout for this disaster.
“Look!” cried Pauline. “Your father is coming, Nana.”
Then the girl would crouch on her knees and bid the others stand close around her, and when he had passed on after an inquiring look she would jump up and they would all utter peals of laughter.
But one day Nana was kicked home by her father, and Boche dragged Pauline away by her ear.
The girls would ordinarily return to the courtyard in the twilight and establish themselves there with the air of not having been away, and each invented a story with which to greet their questioning parents. Nana now received forty sous per day at the place where she had been apprenticed. The Coupeaus would not allow her to change, because she was there under the supervision of her aunt, Mme Lerat, who had been employed for many years in the same establishment.
The girl went off at an early hour in her little black dress, which was too short and too tight for her, and Mme Lerat was bidden, whenever she was after her time, to inform Gervaise, who allowed her just twenty minutes, which was quite long enough. But she was often seven or eight minutes late, and she spent her whole day coaxing her aunt not to tell her mother. Mme Lerat, who was fond of the girl and understood the follies of youth, did not tell, but at the same time she read Nana many a long sermon on her follies and talked of her own responsibility and of the dangers a young girl ran in Paris.
“You must tell me everything,” she said. “I am too indulgent to you, and if evil should come of it I should throw myself into the Seine. Understand me, my little kitten; if a man should speak to you you must promise to tell me every word he says. Will you swear to do this?”
Nana laughed an equivocal little laugh. Oh yes, she would promise. But men never spoke to her; she walked too fast for that. What could they say to her? And she explained her irregularity in coming–her five or ten minutes delay–with an innocent little air. She had stopped at a window to look at pictures or she had stopped to talk to Pauline. Her aunt might follow her if she did not believe her.
“Oh, I will watch her. You need not be afraid!” said the widow to her brother. “I will answer for her, as I would for myself!”
The place where the aunt and niece worked side by side was a large room with a long table down the center. Shelves against the wall were piled with boxes and bundles–all covered with a thick coating of dust. The gas had blackened the ceiling. The two windows were so large that the women, seated at the table, could see all that was going on in the street below.
Mme Lerat was the first to make her appearance in the morning, but in another fifteen minutes all the others were there. One morning in July Nana came in last, which, however, was the usual case.
“I shall be glad when I have a carriage!” she said as she ran to the window without even taking off her hat–a shabby little straw.
“What are you looking at?” asked her aunt suspiciously. “Did your father come with you?”
“No indeed,” answered Nana carelessly; “nor am I looking at anything. It is awfully warm, and of all things in the world, I hate to be in a hurry.”
The morning was indeed frightfully hot. The workwomen had closed the blinds, leaving a crack, however, through which they could inspect the street, and they took their seats on each side of the table–Mme Lerat at the farther end. There were eight girls, four on either side, each with her little pot of glue, her pincers and other tools; heaps of wires of different lengths and sizes lay on the table, spools of cotton and of different-colored papers, petals and leaves cut out of silk, velvet and satin. In the center, in a goblet, one of the girls had placed a two-sou bouquet,–which was slowly withering in the heat.
“Did you know,” said Leonie as she picked up a rose leaf with her pincers, “how wretched poor Caroline is with that fellow who used to call for her regularly every night?”
Before anyone could answer Leonie added:
“Hush! Here comes Madame.”
And in sailed Mme Titreville, a tall, thin woman, who usually remained below in the shop. Her employees stood in dread terror of her, as she was never known to smile. She went from one to another, finding fault with all; she ordered one woman to pull a marguerite to pieces and make it over and then went out as stiffly and silently as she had come in.
“Houp! Houp!” said Nana under her breath, and a giggle ran round the table.
“Really, young ladies,” said Mme Lerat, “you will compel me to severe measures.”
But no one was listening, and no one feared her. She was very tolerant. They could say what they pleased, provided they put it in decent language.
Nana was certainly in a good school! Her instincts, to be sure, were vicious, but these instincts were fostered and developed in this place, as is too often the case when a crowd of girls are herded together. It was the story of a basket of apples, the good ones spoiled by those that were already rotten. If two girls were whispering in a corner, ten to one they were telling some story that could not be told aloud.
Nana was not yet thoroughly perverted, but the curiosity which had been her distinguishing characteristic as a child had not deserted her, and she scarcely took her eyes from a girl by the name of Lisa, about whom strange stories were told.
“How warm it is!” she exclaimed, suddenly rising and pushing open the blinds. Leonie saw a man standing on the sidewalk opposite.
“Who is that old fellow?” she said. “He has been there a full quarter of an hour.”
“Some fool who has nothing better to do, I suppose,” said Mme Lerat. "Nana, will you come back to your work? I have told you that you should not go to that window.”
Nana took up her violets, and they all began to watch this man. He was well dressed, about fifty, pale and grave. For a full hour he watched the windows.
“Look!” said Leonie. “He has an eyeglass. Oh, he is very chic. He is waiting for Augustine.” But Augustine sharply answered that she did not like the old man.
“You make a great mistake then,” said Mme Lerat with her equivocal smile.
Nana listened to the conversation which followed–reveling in indecency–as much at home in it as a fish is in water. All the time her fingers were busy at work. She wound her violet stems and fastened in the leaves with a slender strip of green paper. A drop of gum–and then behold a bunch of delicate fresh verdure which would fascinate any lady. Her fingers were especially deft by nature. No instruction could have imparted this quality.
The gentleman had gone away, and the workshop settled down into quiet once more. When the bell rang for twelve Nana started up and said she would go out and execute any commissions. Leonie sent for two sous’ worth of shrimp, Augustine for some fried potatoes, Sophie for a sausage and Lisa for a bunch of radishes. As she was going out, her aunt said quietly:
“I will go with you. I want something.”
Lo, in the lane running up by the shop was the mysterious stranger. Nana turned very red, and her aunt drew her arm within her own and hurried her along.
So then he had come for her! Was not this pretty behavior for a girl of her age? And Mme Lerat asked question after question, but Nana knew nothing of him, she declared, though he had followed her for five days.
Mme Lerat looked at the man out of the corners of her eyes. “You must tell me everything,” she said.
While they talked they went from shop to shop, and their arms grew full of small packages, but they hurried back, still talking of the gentleman.
“It may be a good thing,” said Mme Lerat, “if his intentions are only honorable.”
The workwomen ate their breakfast on their knees; they were in no hurry, either, to return to their work, when suddenly Leonie uttered a low hiss, and like magic each girl was busy. Mme Titreville entered the room and again made her rounds.
Mme Lerat did not allow her niece after this day to set foot on the street without her. Nana at first was inclined to rebel, but, on the whole, it rather flattered her vanity to be guarded like a treasure. They had discovered that the man who followed her with such persistency was a manufacturer of buttons, and one night the aunt went directly up to him and told him that he was behaving in a most improper manner. He bowed and, turning on his heel, departed–not angrily, by any means–and the next day he did as usual.
One day, however, he deliberately walked between the aunt and the niece and said something to Nana in a low voice. This frightened Mme Lerat, who went at once to her brother and told him the whole story, whereupon he flew into a violent rage, shook the girl until her teeth chattered and talked to her as if she were the vilest of the vile.
“Let her be!” said Gervaise with all a woman’s sense. “Let her be! Don’t you see that you are putting all sorts of things into her head?”
And it was quite true; he had put ideas into her head and had taught her some things she did not know before, which was very astonishing. One morning he saw her with something in a paper. It was _poudre de riz_, which, with a most perverted taste, she was plastering upon her delicate skin. He rubbed the whole of the powder into her hair until she looked like a miller’s daughter. Another time she came in with red ribbons to retrim her old hat; he asked her furiously where she got them.
Whenever he saw her with a bit of finery her father flew at her with insulting suspicion and angry violence. She defended herself and her small possessions with equal violence. One day he snatched from her a little cornelian heart and ground it to dust under his heel.
She stood looking on, white and stern; for two years she had longed for this heart. She said to herself that she would not bear such treatment long. Coupeau occasionally realized that he had made a mistake, but the mischief was done.
He went every morning with Nana to the shop door and waited outside for five minutes to be sure that she had gone in. But one morning, having stopped to talk with a friend on the corner for some time, he saw her come out again and vanish like a flash around the corner. She had gone up two flights higher than the room where she worked and had sat down on the stairs until she thought him well out of the way.
When he went to Mme Lerat she told him that she washed her hands of the whole business; she had done all she could, and now he must take care of his daughter himself. She advised him to marry the girl at once or she would do worse.
All the people in the neighborhood knew Nana’s admirer by sight. He had been in the courtyard several times, and once he had been seen on the stairs.
The Lorilleuxs threatened to move away if this sort of thing went on, and Mme Boche expressed great pity for this poor gentleman whom this scamp of a girl was leading by the nose.
At first Nana thought the whole thing a great joke, but at the end of a month she began to be afraid of him. Often when she stopped before the jeweler’s he would suddenly appear at her side and ask her what she wanted.
She did not care so much for jewelry or ornaments as she did for many other things. Sometimes as the mud was spattered over her from the wheels of a carriage she grew faint and sick with envious longings to be better dressed, to go to the theater, to have a pretty room all to herself. She longed to see another side of life, to know something of its pleasures. The stranger invariably appeared at these moments, but she always turned and fled, so great was her horror of him.
But when winter came existence became well-nigh intolerable. Each evening Nana was beaten, and when her father was tired of this amusement her mother scolded. They rarely had anything to eat and were always cold. If the girl bought some trifling article of dress it was taken from her.
No! This life could not last. She no longer cared for her father. He had thoroughly disgusted her, and now her mother drank too. Gervaise went to the Assommoir nightly–for her husband, she said–and remained there. When Nana saw her mother sometimes as she passed the window, seated among a crowd of men, she turned livid with rage, because youth has little patience with the vice of intemperance. It was a dreary life for her–a comfortless home and a drunken father and mother. A saint on earth could not have remained there; that she knew very well, and she said she would make her escape some fine day, and then perhaps her parents would be sorry and would admit that they had pushed her out of the nest.
One Saturday Nana, coming in, found her mother and father in a deplorable condition–Coupeau lying across the bed and Gervaise sitting in a chair, swaying to and fro. She had forgotten the dinner, and one untrimmed candle lighted the dismal scene.
“Is that you, girl?” stammered Gervaise. “Well, your father will settle with you!”
Nana did not reply. She looked around the cheerless room, at the cold stove, at her parents. She did not step across the threshold. She turned and went away.
And she did not come back! The next day when her father and mother were sober, they each reproached the other for Nana’s flight.
This was really a terrible blow to Gervaise, who had no longer the smallest motive for self-control, and she abandoned herself at once to a wild orgy that lasted three days. Coupeau gave his daughter up and smoked his pipe quietly. Occasionally, however, when eating his dinner, he would snatch up a knife and wave it wildly in the air, crying out that he was dishonored and then, laying it down as suddenly, resumed eating his soup.
In this great house, whence each month a girl or two took flight, this incident astonished no one. The Lorilleuxs were rather triumphant at the success of their prophecy. Lantier defended Nana.
“Of course,” he said, “she has done wrong, but bless my heart, what would you have? A girl as pretty as that could not live all her days in such poverty!”
“You know nothing about it!” cried Mme Lorilleux one evening when they were all assembled in the room of the concierge. “Wooden Legs sold her daughter out and out. I know it! I have positive proof of what I say. The time that the old gentleman was seen on the stairs he was going to pay the money. Nana and he were seen together at the Ambigu the other night! I tell you, I know it!”
They finished their coffee. This tale might or might not be true; it was not improbable, at all events. And after this it was circulated and generally believed in the _Quartier_ that Gervaise had sold her daughter.
The clearstarcher, meanwhile, was going from bad to worse. She had been dismissed from Mme Fauconnier’s and in the last few weeks had worked for eight laundresses, one after the other–dismissed from all for her untidiness.
As she seemed to have lost all skill in ironing, she went out by the day to wash and by degrees was entrusted with only the roughest work. This hard labor did not tend to beautify her either. She continued to grow stouter and stouter in spite of her scanty food and hard labor.
Her womanly pride and vanity had all departed. Lantier never seemed to see her when they met by chance, and she hardly noticed that the liaison which had stretched along for so many years had ended in a mutual disenchantment.
Lantier had done wisely, so far as he was concerned, in counseling Virginie to open the kind of shop she had. He adored sweets and could have lived on pralines and gumdrops, sugarplums and chocolate.
Sugared almonds were his especial delight. For a year his principal food was bonbons. He opened all the jars, boxes and drawers when he was left alone in the shop; and often, with five or six persons standing around, he would take off the cover of a jar on the counter and put in his hand and crunch down an almond. The cover was not put on again, and the jar was soon empty. It was a habit of his, they all said; besides, he was subject to a tickling in his throat!
He talked a great deal to Poisson of an invention of his which was worth a fortune–an umbrella and hat in one; that is to say, a hat which, at the first drops of a shower, would expand into an umbrella.
Lantier suggested to Virginie that she should have Gervaise come in once each week to wash the floors, shop and the rooms. This she did and received thirty sous each time. Gervaise appeared on Saturday mornings with her bucket and brush, without seeming to suffer a single pang at doing this menial work in the house where she had lived as mistress.
One Saturday Gervaise had hard work. It had rained for three days, and all the mud of the streets seemed to have been brought into the shop. Virginie stood behind the counter with collar and cuffs trimmed with lace. Near her on a low chair lounged Lantier, and he was, as usual, eating candy.
“Really, Madame Coupeau,” cried Virginie, “can’t you do better than that? You have left all the dirt in the corners. Don’t you see? Oblige me by doing that over again.”
Gervaise obeyed. She went back to the corner and scrubbed it again. She was on her hands and knees, with her sleeves rolled up over her arms. Her old skirt clung close to her stout form, and the sweat poured down her face.
“The more elbow grease she uses, the more she shines,” said Lantier sententiously with his mouth full.
Virginie, leaning back in her chair with the air of a princess, followed the progress of the work with half-closed eyes.
“A little more to the right. Remember, those spots must all be taken out. Last Saturday, you know, I was not pleased.”
And then Lantier and Virginie fell into a conversation, while Gervaise crawled along the floor in the dirt at their feet.
Mme Poisson enjoyed this, for her cat’s eyes sparkled with malicious joy, and she glanced at Lantier with a smile. At last she was avenged for that mortification at the lavatory, which had for years weighed heavy on her soul.
“By the way,” said Lantier, addressing himself to Gervaise, “I saw Nana last night.”
Gervaise started to her feet with her brush in her hand.
“Yes, I was coming down La Rue des Martyrs. In front of me was a young girl on the arm of an old gentleman. As I passed I glanced at her face and assure you that it was Nana. She was well dressed and looked happy.”
“Ah!” said Gervaise in a low, dull voice.
Lantier, who had finished one jar, now began another.
“What a girl that is!” he continued. “Imagine that she made me a sign to follow with the most perfect self-possession. She got rid of her old gentleman in a cafe and beckoned me to the door. She asked me to tell her about everybody.”
“Ah!” repeated Gervaise.
She stood waiting. Surely this was not all. Her daughter must have sent her some especial message. Lantier ate his sugarplums.
“I would not have looked at her,” said Virginie. “I sincerely trust, if I should meet her, that she would not speak to me for, really, it would mortify me beyond expression. I am sorry for you, Madame Gervaise, but the truth is that Poisson arrests every day a dozen just such girls.”
Gervaise said nothing; her eyes were fixed on vacancy. She shook her head slowly, as if in reply to her own thoughts.
“Pray make haste,” exclaimed Virginie fretfully. “I do not care to have this scrubbing going on until midnight.”
Gervaise returned to her work. With her two hands clasped around the handle of the brush she pushed the water before her toward the door. After this she had only to rinse the floor after sweeping the dirty water into the gutter.
When all was accomplished she stood before the counter waiting for her money. When Virginie tossed it toward her she did not take it up instantly.
“Then she said nothing else?” Gervaise asked.
“She?” Lantier exclaimed. “Who is she? Ah yes, I remember. Nana! No, she said nothing more.”
And Gervaise went away with her thirty sous in her hand, her skirts dripping and her shoes leaving the mark of their broad soles on the sidewalk.
In the _Quartier_ all the women who drank like her took her part and declared she had been driven to intemperance by her daughter’s misconduct. She, too, began to believe this herself and assumed at times a tragic air and wished she were dead. Unquestionably she had suffered from Nana’s departure. A mother does not like to feel that her daughter will leave her for the first person who asks her to do so.
But she was too thoroughly demoralized to care long, and soon she had but one idea: that Nana belonged to her. Had she not a right to her own property?
She roamed the streets day after day, night after night, hoping to see the girl. That year half the _Quartier_ was being demolished. All one side of the Rue des Poissonniers lay flat on the ground. Lantier and Poisson disputed day after day on these demolitions. The one declared that the emperor wanted to build palaces and drive the lower classes out of Paris, while Poisson, white with rage, said the emperor would pull down the whole of Paris merely to give work to the people.
Gervaise did not like the improvements, either, or the changes in the dingy _Quartier_, to which she was accustomed. It was, in fact, a little hard for her to see all these embellishments just when she was going downhill so fast over the piles of brick and mortar, while she was wandering about in search of Nana.
She heard of her daughter several times. There are always plenty of people to tell you things you do not care to hear. She was told that Nana had left her elderly friend for the sake of some young fellow.
She heard, too, that Nana had been seen at a ball in the Grand Salon, Rue de la Chapelle, and Coupeau and she began to frequent all these places, one after another, whenever they had the money to spend.
But at the end of a month they had forgotten Nana and went for their own pleasure. They sat for hours with their elbows on a table, which shook with the movements of the dancers, amused by the sight.
One November night they entered the Grand Salon, as much to get warm as anything else. Outside it was hailing, and the rooms were naturally crowded. They could not find a table, and they stood waiting until they could establish themselves. Coupeau was directly in the mouth of the passage, and a young man in a frock coat was thrown against him. The youth uttered an exclamation of disgust as he began to dust off his coat with his handkerchief. The blouse worn by Coupeau was assuredly none of the cleanest.
“Look here, my good fellow,” cried Coupeau angrily, “those airs are very unnecessary. I would have you to know that the blouse of a workingman can do your coat no harm if it has touched it!”
The young man turned around and looked at Coupeau from head to foot.
“Learn,” continued the angry workman, “that the blouse is the only wear for a man!”
Gervaise endeavored to calm her husband, who, however, tapped his ragged breast and repeated loudly:
“The only wear for a man, I tell you!”
The youth slipped away and was lost in the crowd.
Coupeau tried to find him, but it was quite impossible; the crowd was too great. The orchestra was playing a quadrille, and the dancers were bringing up the dust from the floor in great clouds, which obscured the gas.
“Look!” said Gervaise suddenly.
“What is it?”
“Look at that velvet bonnet!”
Quite at the left there was a velvet bonnet, black with plumes, only too suggestive of a hearse. They watched these nodding plumes breathlessly.
“Do you not know that hair?” murmured Gervaise hoarsely. “I am sure it is she!”
In one second Coupeau was in the center of the crowd. Yes, it was Nana, and in what a costume! She wore a ragged silk dress, stained and torn. She had no shawl over her shoulders to conceal the fact that half the buttonholes on her dress were burst out. In spite of all her shabbiness the girl was pretty and fresh. Nana, of course, danced on unsuspiciously. Her airs and graces were beyond belief. She curtsied to the very ground and then in a twinkling threw her foot over her partner’s head. A circle was formed, and she was applauded vociferously.
At this moment Coupeau fell on his daughter.
“Don’t try and keep me back,” he said, “for have her I will!”
Nana turned and saw her father and mother.
Coupeau discovered that his daughter’s partner was the young man for whom he had been looking. Gervaise pushed him aside and walked up to Nana and gave her two cuffs on her ears. One sent the plumed hat on the side; the other left five red marks on that pale cheek. The orchestra played on. Nana neither wept nor moved.
The dancers began to grow very angry. They ordered the Coupeau party to leave the room.
“Go,” said Gervaise, “and do not attempt to leave us, for so sure as you do you will be given in charge of a policeman.”
The young man had prudently disappeared.
Nana’s old life now began again, for after the girl had slept for twelve hours on a stretch, she was very gentle and sweet for a week. She wore a plain gown and a simple hat and declared she would like to work at home. She rose early and took a seat at her table by five o’clock the first morning and tried to roll her violet stems, but her fingers had lost their cunning in the six months in which they had been idle.
Then the gluepot dried up; the petals and the paper were dusty and spotted; the mistress of the establishment came for her tools and materials and made more than one scene. Nana relapsed into utter indolence, quarreling with her mother from morning until night. Of course an end must come to this, so one fine evening the girl disappeared.
The Lorilleuxs, who had been greatly amused by the repentance and return of their niece, now nearly died laughing. If she returned again they would advise the Coupeaus to put her in a cage like a canary.
The Coupeaus pretended to be rather pleased, but in their hearts they raged, particularly as they soon learned that Nana was frequently seen in the _Quartier_. Gervaise declared this was done by the girl to annoy them.
Nana adorned all the balls in the vicinity, and the Coupeaus knew that they could lay their hands on her at any time they chose, but they did not choose and they avoided meeting her.
But one night, just as they were going to bed, they heard a rap on the door. It was Nana, who came to ask as coolly as possible if she could sleep there. What a state she was in! All rags and dirt. She devoured a crust of dried bread and fell asleep with a part of it in her hand. This continued for some time, the girl coming and going like a will-o’-the-wisp. Weeks and months would elapse without a sign from her, and then she would reappear without a word to say where she had been, sometimes in rags and sometimes well dressed. Finally her parents began to take these proceedings as a matter of course. She might come in, they said, or stay out, just as she pleased, provided she kept the door shut. Only one thing exasperated Gervaise now, and that was when her daughter appeared with a bonnet and feathers and a train. This she would not endure. When Nana came to her it must be as a simple workingwoman! None of this dearly bought finery should be exhibited there, for these trained dresses had created a great excitement in the house.
One day Gervaise reproached her daughter violently for the life she led and finally, in her rage, took her by the shoulder and shook her.
“Let me be!” cried the girl. “You are the last person to talk to me in that way. You did as you pleased. Why can’t I do the same?”
“What do you mean?” stammered the mother.
“I have never said anything about it because it was none of my business, but do you think I did not know where you were when my father lay snoring? Let me alone. It was you who set me the example.”
Gervaise turned away pale and trembling, while Nana composed herself to sleep again.
Coupeau’s life was a very regular one–that is to say, he did not drink for six months and then yielded to temptation, which brought him up with a round turn and sent him to Sainte-Anne’s. When he came out he did the same thing, so that in three years he was seven times at Sainte-Anne’s, and each time he came out the fellow looked more broken and less able to stand another orgy.
The poison had penetrated his entire system. He had grown very thin; his cheeks were hollow and his eyes inflamed. Those who knew his age shuddered as they saw him pass, bent and decrepit as a man of eighty. The trembling of his hands had so increased that some days he was obliged to use them both in raising his glass to his lips. This annoyed him intensely and seemed to be the only symptom of his failing health which disturbed him. He sometimes swore violently at these unruly members and at others sat for hours looking at these fluttering hands as if trying to discover by what strange mechanism they were moved. And one night Gervaise found him sitting in this way with great tears pouring down his withered cheeks.
The last summer of his life was especially trying to Coupeau. His voice was entirely changed; he was deaf in one ear, and some days he could not see and was obliged to feel his way up and downstairs as if he were blind. He suffered from maddening headaches, and sudden pains would dart through his limbs, causing him to snatch at a chair for support. Sometimes after one of these attacks his arm would be paralyzed for twenty-four hours.
He would lie in bed with even his head wrapped up, silent and moody, like some suffering animal. Then came incipient madness and fever–tearing everything to pieces that came in his way–or he would weep and moan, declaring that no one loved him, that he was a burden to his wife. One evening when his wife and daughter came in he was not in his bed; in his place lay the bolster carefully tucked in. They found him at last crouched on the floor under the bed, with his teeth chattering with cold and fear. He told them he had been attacked by assassins.
The two women coaxed him back to bed as if he had been a baby.
Coupeau knew but one remedy for all this, and that was a good stout morning dram. His memory had long since fled; his brain had softened. When Nana appeared after an absence of six weeks he thought she had been on an errand around the corner. She met him in the street, too, very often now, without fear, for he passed without recognizing her. One night in the autumn Nana went out, saying she wanted some baked pears from the fruiterer’s. She felt the cold weather coming on, and she did not care to sit before a cold stove. The winter before she went out for two sous’ worth of tobacco and came back in a month’s time; they thought she would do the same now, but they were mistaken. Winter came and went, as did the spring, and even when June arrived they had seen and heard nothing of her.
She was evidently comfortable somewhere, and the Coupeaus, feeling certain that she would never return, had sold her bed; it was very much in their way, and they could drink up the six francs it brought.
One morning Virginie called to Gervaise as the latter passed the shop and begged her to come in and help a little, as Lantier had had two friends to supper the night before, and Gervaise washed the dishes while Lantier sat in the shop smoking. Presently he said:
“Oh, Gervaise, I saw Nana the other night.”
Virginie, who was behind the counter, opening and shutting drawer after drawer, with a face that lengthened as she found each empty, shook her fist at him indignantly.
She had begun to think he saw Nana very often. She did not speak, but Mme Lerat, who had just come in, said with a significant look:
“And where did you see her?”
“Oh, in a carriage,” answered Lantier with a laugh. “And I was on the sidewalk.” He turned toward Gervaise and went on:
“Yes, she was in a carriage, dressed beautifully. I did not recognize her at first, but she kissed her hand to me. Her friend this time must be a vicomte at the least. She looked as happy as a queen.”
Gervaise wiped the plate in her hands, rubbing it long and carefully, though it had long since been dry. Virginie, with wrinkled brows, wondered how she could pay two notes which fell due the next day, while Lantier, fat and hearty from the sweets he had devoured, asked himself if these drawers and jars would be filled up again or if the ruin he anticipated was so near at hand that he would be compelled to pull up stakes at once. There was not another praline for him to crunch, not even a gumdrop.
When Gervaise went back to her room she found Coupeau sitting on the side of the bed, weeping and moaning. She took a chair near by and looked at him without speaking.
“I have news for you,” she said at last. “Your daughter has been seen. She is happy and comfortable. Would that I were in her place!”
Coupeau was looking down on the floor intently. He raised his head and said with an idiotic laugh:
“Do as you please, my dear; don’t let me be any hindrance to you. When you are dressed up you are not so bad looking after all.”